by Dovid Katz
Today was Day 1 of the Lithuanian parliament’s two-day ‘International Conference: The Beginning of the Soviet-German War in the Baltic States in 1941 — 29-30 June 2011, Vilnius’. It is being held as part of a series of events to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Nazi War against the Soviet Union, unleashed on 22 June 1941.
Conference administration came off without a hitch. Participants of all backgrounds benefited from a good-humored security check at the entrance to the parliament building, comfortable seating in the chamber, generous refreshments during the break and a meticulous timekeeping that enabled the proceedings to end before the published time on the program.
But on content, and for the history of Lithuania, the event was yet another opportunity to confront straightforwardly the tragedy of massive local outbreak of violence, pillage and murder of Jewish citizens by ‘patriotic anti-Soviet rebels’ precisely seventy years ago. From the 22nd of June 1941 onward, local ‘patriots’, and particularly those identifying with the Lithuanian Activist Front (L.A.F.) and other nationalist groups, began a campaign of murder in many locations before the first German soldier arrived. Once German forces took control, at different dates in different localities, all in late June, local nationalists provided thousands of voluntary killers who carried out much of the killing of their fellow Lithuanian citizens who were Jews.
But alas, today turned out to be yet another in a long series of missed opportunities. Many of the speakers are distinguished scholars and dedicated public servants, but the construction of the conference — the topics of each, the question of which topic is assigned to whom, and above all, what is left out — made this yet another exercise in the discourse of contortion to avoid talking about what really happened in and to Lithuania during the last week of June 1941. The policy of ‘flooding the arena’ with every other conceivable aspect under the sun was well in play.
Moreover, it appears that the organizers avoided inviting Lithuanian citizens who have courageously risen to teach their people difficult truths, such as Dr Valentinas Brandišauskas, MEP Professor Leonidas Donskis, Professor Liudas Truska, Professor Tomas Venclova, and a number of others (see Bold Citizens page).
The stage was set by parliamentary chairwoman Irena Degutienė, who had one week earlier honored the makers of the new documentary film that glorifies the L.A.F. in a scene that the parliamentary website’s editors chose to highlight as Photo of the Day for 22 June 2011. At this morning’s opening greetings, chairwoman Degutienė complained that Stalin’s crimes are still depicted as smaller than Hitler’s in much of the world, and that Soviet criminals got away with it, while Nazi criminals were convicted. (She neglected to mention that in spite of the surfeit of Lithuanian Nazi war criminal suspects provided by US deportations, and by information from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, that not a single one was ever punished, howsoever mildly.)
She was followed by MEP Vytautas Landsbergis. The co-founder of the modern Lithuanian state explained that the Soviets had accumulated a vast arsenal of weaponry by 1941, leaving open the interpretation that Operation Barbarossa was a ‘preventive attack’. He compared a decimation of the elite of Lithuania in 1940 with the decimation of the elite of the Jewish population in 1941. Sandwiched deep inside the many observations and quotations (mostly from authors with Jewish sounding surnames), came the observation, made by several speakers today, that after Lithuania’s failures of passivity (Memel/Klaipeda, the 1940 Soviet takeover, etc.), the Uprising of June 1941 constituted the one exception, it featured bold and rapid action, that in some sense paved the way for Lithuania’s restored independence at the start of the last decade of the twentieth century. It would not have occurred to an uninitiated listener that the ‘Uprising’ unleashed barbarity and murder on Jewish neighbors throughout the country, while in fact the Soviet army was of course fleeing the German invasion and the Luftwaffe campaign. One observer said it was sad to see a man of such talent having failed to move forward toward the goal of a Western-grade national maturity, one that he surely shares for his people.
Birutė Teresė Burauskaitė, director of the Genocide Research Center was the only speaker today to use the power point facilities. She put up a chart showing the deaths of ‘Lithuanians’ (meaning: ethnic Lithuanians rather than Lithuanian citizens) in different locations, mostly in double digits at some locations in Lithuania. This included battle casualties, executions of prisoners and an array of other circumstances, but not a single instance of a single person being killed because he or she was Lithuanian. The chart had to be completed by inclusion of Soviet crimes that week in Belarus. At one point, however, she casually mentioned five thousand Jewish deaths the first week (not mentioning at the hands of whom). At another she included the Holocaust in a list of woes to befall Lithuania, citing the loss of 80% of the Jewish population (the actual figure is around 95%, the highest or one of the highest in all of Holocaust-era Europe, not least because of the massive voluntary carrying out of actual killings).
German scholar Dr. Joachim Tauber, speaking about the enthusiastic reception the German invaders received from the Lithuanian population, noted reports that don’t mention or stress antisemitism, and used this to play down this motivation in the enthusiastic welcome many of the Germans encountered in Lithuania. His paper was titled: ‘“…Lithuania’s residents were very friendly towards us” — Reports on the Wehrmacht march from the German army newspapers’.
The floor returned to the local Genocide Research Center with the appearance on the podium of the the center’s researcher Alfredas Rukšėnas whose title was: ‘The June Uprising of 1941 in Lithuania’. He enumerated the various ‘theories’ of the ‘Uprising’, including (a) act of liberation, (b) reaction to Soviet oppression and (c) fight against the Jews. He went to lengths to argue that the ‘Uprising’ was not entirely (or really) inspired by the Nazis. He then came to his central point: ‘The Jewish historian Dov Levin claims that Lithuanians started killing Jews before the Nazis arrived but fails to provide any evidence’. Of course such killings have been documented by many historians in many locations, not least Kaunas, and Professor Levin’s lifetime output of meticulous Holocaust scholarship provides a vast array of sources and conclusive evidence. But for this audience, the remark seemed not to draw even a mild gasp. As if to cover himself, the speaker did add the qualifier that our incomplete knowledge cannot exclude all possibilities and potentialities. The paper concluded with ponderings on whether the ‘Uprising was successful or unsuccessful’.
The most sophisticated apologetics of the day came from Columbia, South Carolina professor emeritus (of philosophy) Kęstutis Skrupskelis, whose paper was read in absentia. It argued that close study of the documents of the Provisional Goverment actually show that for the later summer of 1941 they must be conceived as transition from military to civilian authority which was testing the degree of its autonomy under the Nazis and some lines can be interpreted as ‘better for the Jews’ than the Nazis’ version of the same laws and restrictions. But his main argument was that the protocols of the Provisional Government were not kept by Soviet archivists in the same place as other documents, that there are doubts about where they were kept. The implication was that the oft-heard nationalist refrain that Hitlerist documents from the pro-Hitler forces were actually KGB forgeries might be true after all, but it was not said outright. Unlike other papers of the day, the words ‘hypothesis’, ‘theory’ and ‘possibility’ gave this presentation a higher aura of Western academic ambiance. The paper was titled: ‘How did Lithuania’s Provisional Government see the political opportunities for Lithuanians?’
The papers by Latvian, Estonian, and Belarusian scholars were much more nuanced, but Ukraine’s Dr. Yevgeniy Dikiy launched headlong into an accusation that (fascist leader) Stepan Bandera was wrongly defamed by the Soviet Union.
The final paper was read by the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Forum, Julia Goldenberg. It was about Righteous Gentiles and their accreditation. She harshly criticized Yad Vashem for recognizing only a fraction of what she believed to be the true number of rescuers in Lithuania and Ukraine. It seems she was brought in to replace the Yad Vashem scholar who had withdrawn in unclear circumstances, after Yad Vashem’s involvement in the event became controversial.
Perhaps the one unexpected event of the day was the dearth of questions and comments from the audience. When the final-session chairman invited these, there was scarcely a peep. One retired professor came to the podium to deliver a short patriotic speech. Finally, a written comment was delivered to the dais, containing a response to the assertion made at the conference, by more than one speaker, that the Soviet Union had after the war deported people to Siberia for having hidden Jews. The comment read out said: ‘I think these people you refer to must have been deported for some other reason, perhaps anti-Soviet activity’.
The tiny handful of Jewish attendees included acclaimed author Markas Zingeris, director of the country’s state Jewish museum, who is also ‘Genocide Advisor’ to the prime minister.
He had no questions or comments.