O P I N I O N
An English translation of Ambassador Linas Linkevičius’s recent article on Delfi.lt, followed by Geoff Vasil’s reply on DefendingHistory.com.
When Will We Comprehend the Whole Truth about the Holocaust?
by Linas Linkevičius
10 April 2012
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was characterized by diversity of religious belief and religious tolerance. Neither is it any accident that Lithuania was called the Northern Jerusalem for centuries. Cultural tolerance was the pride and strength of our country. Why is it that we have to speak of this in the past tense? Who edited our genetic code?
What sort of shock therapy had to be applied to the nation so that it suddenly became indifferent? Indifferent is probably the gentlest way to put it. And this despite obvious attempts by the government to restore historical justice, to preserve the Jewish cultural legacy, to compensate the loss of religious community property and to restore fragments of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius. We haven’t completely understood and comprehended what actually happened in Lithuania at that time. We haven’t judged the true role played by some representatives of our people in the Holocaust.
I can already hear it: “How much more can we keep apologizing to the Jews?” I think we need to keep on apologizing until we ourselves understand why we are apologizing. Until we understand what really happened in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation. Many historians, sadly, will testify that Lithuanians—Nazi collaborators—were extremely keen executors of punishment operations. Were they the majority? Of course not. Lithuanians rescued Jewish families from repressions, but the bitter truth is many more perished than were rescued…
It is believed that before World War II began there were 57,000 Jews living in Vilnius. During 1941 alone, when the Large and Small Ghettos were formed in Vilnius, about 30,000 Jews were destroyed. During the war almost the entire Vilnius and entire Lithuanian Jewish community was comprehensively and methodically destroyed. Paneriai [Ponár] became one of best-known mass murder sites in Eastern Europe where lie tens of thousands of people of different ethnicities, including, of course, Lithuanians as well.
The Holocaust wasn’t Lithuania’s invention. The German nation bears, and most probably will eternally bear, the greatest moral responsibility for this, the greatest shame of humanity. Let’s admit that they truly do understand the burden of conscience, and know well that millions paid out in compensation to the families of the victims will never make up for what happened. That understanding is sincere and profound, and therefore takes time.
For a long time after the horrors of World War II, Germans didn’t dare show pride in their country or demonstrate ethnic pride publicly. I have many good German friends, and more than one of them have said that it took over sixty years for patriotism to work up the courage to come back out in public. During the World Football Championship in Germany in 2006, something that hadn’t been seen in a long time was on display: a sea of German flags and throngs of young people proud to be German. This wasn’t, however, the same thing as before, taking pride and joy in being a race of supermen. It was a celebration of a proud people, and the world understood this.
We, too, have our own painful history, our destiny. Victims of the Soviet gulag and deportations are entitled to no less respect and commemoration. But this shouldn’t drown out the need to know the whole truth about the Holocaust. Perhaps this needs to be discussed more often in the schools, in kindergartens, and in families.
Recently I watched Day and Night, a play by the Kaunas Chamber Theater. It is a two-part drama adapted from the work by Daiva Čepauskaitė [DefendingHistory's review is here]. Stanislovas Rubinovas was the director of the play and is the art director of the theater. As a child, he lived through the pre-war and war period and the Bolshevik and Nazi persecutions and lost his father, who was shot in Paneriai after white armbanders took him from his home in July, 1941. Rubinovas’s life conspicuously includes and is interwoven with the fates of many people and even nations. As a Jew born in Vilnius under Polish rule, he went to school where instruction was in his native Polish language. He suffered in the war and therefore hated Lithuanians, but, in the end, he wrote in his reminiscences: “I probably never would have imagined then that in the future my wife would be a Lithuanian, that my children and grandchildren would also be Lithuanians, that Lithuania would become my second homeland and I would love it as it is proper to love one’s homeland, and I would work for her benefit all my life.”
The director’s biography also inspired the author’s [Daiva Čepauskaitė] work, who acknowledges that the topic of the Holocaust provided her the opportunity to “forumlate for myself certain principles and a viewpoint.” She says she isn’t indifferent to what has happened, is happening and will happen in Lithuania. And the rest of us, are we indifferent?
The program for the play quotes slogans from June, 1941, “Away with the Jews” and “Lithuanians, let’s liberate the Homeland from Jewish enslavement,” with internet comments from today provided along side: “Just think how horrible the word JEW is” and “Too bad they didn’t exterminate all the Jews.” We are talking about a minority. The majority knows how to discuss, pose arguments, how not to offend. But the minority drowns everything else out. Just like the fact that many Lithuanians rescued Jews during the war, but they rescued many fewer than were murdered…
Perhaps some think these anonymous people and these divisive, hate-inspiring comments are nothing more than a manifestation of freedom of speech, an internet life-style or something else. I remember a saying: If during mass riots they throw rocks at you, don’t take it personally, the people are simply angry at everyone and everything, not necessarily at you… All the same, to me this seems more like cowards shooting at someone’s back as they hide behind the corners of buildings. No webpage censorship or bans will work. The time of bans has passed, and hallelujah for that. Censorship needs to come from inside of each individual. And when someone tries even anonymously to demean or hurt another ethnicity, a different religion or a different skin color, we will take it personally. Because we will not be indifferent.
And we will make good on the apology for the Holocaust sins of others, not ours, through our intolerance of contemporary white armbanders and slogans such as “Lithuania for Lithuanians.” Such slogans were chanted this year in Kaunas, on February 16, and Vilnius, on March 11. Perhaps then there will be fewer willing to carry to public events all sorts of signs and symbols similar to the Nazi swastika, even if the courts for some reason have recognized these as a “part of the cultural heritage.” [Linkevičius is not completely accurate here: the court in Klaipeda found the swastika itself to be part of the Lithuanian cultural heritage, not signs and symbols designed to appear like the swastika—Trans]
Our true inheritance, however, is from the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. I believe we will return to our roots. We will no longer be the Jerusalem of the North, and probably won’t become the Athens of the North [reference to work of Oskar Milosz –trans], but I also hope we won’t turn into the Bukhara of the West. We will be Lithuania, where people of all ethnicities and faiths are respected equally.
Geoff Vasil comments:
Linkevičius is correct, and deserves much credit for this comment piece, and it is no sign of disrespect that issues are raised meriting challenge. In the current climate of discourse even this formulation can be seen at times to try to recommend recognizing the truth but disseminating to the public less than the whole truth because one is engaged in some kind of balancing act: Lithuanians need to be brought around to the truth slowly, the truth which the government knows but is afraid to say openly. In essence this is maintaining the status quo of post-1990 Lithuania.
There is no compromise that can be made with truth. Either spill the beans, or shut up.
Instead Linkevičius might be seen to be dealing with certain issues in a style designed to engage the attention of Western movers and shakers, or at least of certain journalistic cliques domestically.
Here’s what he didn’t say: In June, 1941, Lithuanian gangs began rounding up all Jews in Vilnius, kidnapping them from their homes and murdering them in the streets, before there was any Big or Small Ghetto. Massacre sites include the yard of the large church on Traku street next to the former American Center, the largely empty block turned park at the corner of Pylimo and Naugarduko streets, and the current building of the Vilnius International Center whose only historic plaque notes that Theodor Herzl spent a very short amount of time there.
These are sites well-known to all Vilnius residents, but almost no one knows the bloody history of these sites, literally bloody, the blood formed small rivers in the gutters.
When Linkevicius says the public is indifferent despite the best efforts of the government, he mentions several different things: “… to restore historical justice, to preserve the Jewish cultural legacy, to compensate the loss of religious community property and to restore fragments of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius.” On preservation of the Jewish cultural heritage: the state funds the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum as part of the Ministry of Culture and presumably aids the Lithuanian Jewish Community to a certain extent financially (?). A number of plaques have appeared and disappeared over the years to commemorate different “Jewish” sites, in Vilnius especially, but also at some of the very numerous mass murder sites around Lithuania. I don’t know of many other efforts beyond some minor funding for perhaps keeping up cemeteries, or perhaps subsidizing one or two of the few remaining working synagogues, although these last two are just my speculation, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find no support by the state, or some support.
Other than that, what we’re talking about is fake efforts to establish Litvak webpages and to invite non-Lithuanian Jews to discuss things they nothing about with Lithuanian diplomatic staff in Washington, D. C.
On compensation: both sides—the Lithuanian state and the Lithuanian Jewish Community—have stated publicly that the compensation is largely symbolic—read: “to satisfy Washington something is happening”—and doesn’t come anywhere near real market value. Plus it is for communal religious property, not to compensate Lithuanian Jews in Lithuania or abroad, only organizations. The compensation plan will provide financing of Jewish heritage projects, but this is still in the future tense, as far as I know.
On “to restore fragments of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius”: The Emanuelis Zingeris project to place new construction on a vacant lot on Mesiniu street and to call it Jewish was carried out at great expense. Who benefited? There is a pleasant enough information center in one small part of the “Jewish quarter area” where theoretically one can buy books published by the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum. When I’ve been there the lady behind the counter tried to sell me amber necklaces. When I looked at one with a vaguely Jewish theme, she tried to interest me in a tourist souvenir with the inscription KAUNAS on it, and nothing visibly Jewish. This is one small side of the Jewish Information Center, the other side is full of ceramics works or paintings and seems to be someone’s art gallery. The rest of the large construction area Zingeris set up is either empty, or houses an odd collection of shops: a specialty cigar shop, a bar called Transylvania featuring a large portrait of Vlad the Impaler and a “patriotic youth” clientele from what I’ve heard, and an art supplies shop. This is the only “restored fragment of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius” that I know about.
Contrary to what Linkevičius thinks, the government hasn’t been involved with the actual living Jewish community really at all to preserve the Litvak heritage. Instead, the Lithuanian government and others working on their behalf have built up an almost entirely non-Jewish cadre of experts, specialists and staff doing “research” on Jewish and Holocaust topics as a new kind of elite industry that brings high profile and high profit encounters with Western visitors and institutions. It is hard to find a Jewish staff member at the Vilnius Jewish Public Library, the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the Center for the Study of East European Jews, the Jewish Culture and Information Center and other “Jewish addresses” in town.
If Linkevičius is sincere about “returning to the roots” of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy and its celebrated traditions of tolerance, he needs to come clean on this and at least admit the existence of this “Judenforschung ohne Juden,” in direct contradiction of the dictum of the nobility of the Grand Duchy: “Nothing about me, without me.”
I’m not sure kindergartners really need to exposed to the Holocaust, as Linkevičius suggests, but it would be helpful if Lithuania’s much-vaunted “Holocaust education programs” didn’t consist of primary and secondary school textbooks dripping with sympathy for the German people tricked into being Nazis, denying the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust in Lithuania and claiming “the Germans did it all,” and presenting students with Double Genocide brainwashing in every other sentence.
Beyond that, it is time for someone high in Lithuanian society, perhaps Mr. Linkevičius himself, to follow up on his own correct observations by publicly calling for an end to honoring the LAF and other Holocaust perpetrators in museums, books, street signs and events; an end to support for the Prague Declaration and Double Genocide; a real crackdown on antisemitism and racism; dismantling of the Red-Brown Commission and a swift and sincere apology to the Holocaust survivors who continue to be defamed by the shameful efforts of prosecutors to create “symmetry” by pursuing the victims instead of the perpetrators.
That would all be a good start.