Vilnius Genocide Center Releases a New Graywash on the Vilna Ghetto




B O O K S    /    O P I N I O N

by Dovid Katz

The unfortunate and wasteful campaign of Holocaust obfuscation waged by certain East European state institutions continues apace. The level of investment continues to strike outsiders as puzzling, given current economic and cultural issues and the younger population’s clear focus on the future and a better life for all in the new and multicultural European Union. Here in Lithuania, the first victims of the government’s (rather Soviet-style) “genocide industry” are the hard-working people of the country who deserve more judicious disbursement of their nation’s resources. The state-sponsored Genocide Center has just released three simultaneous editions (English, Lithuanian and Russian) of a new book on the Vilna Ghetto by historian Arūnas Bubnys, its own “director of the Genocide and Resistance Research Department.”

 Dr. Bubnys is also a member of the state-sponsored “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania” (known for short as the “red-brown commission”). He was one of a minority of members of the Commission who refused to sign the (in the opinion of some, inadequate) letter of 14 October 2013 to Dr. Yitzhak Arad.

Nobody would dispute Dr. Bubnys’s qualifications as a historian or the veracity of the facts in the book. The problem, generally stated, is that historians’ work suffers when they are paid by the government to advance a government line on history, instead of working freely in the free market of ideas. Bubnys, one of the most respected scholars at the not-always-respected Genocide Center, a bastion of antisemitism and far right politics, in the opinion of some sullied his own credentials last June, when he gave an interview trying to sanitize the murderous record of the Lithuanian Activist Front, referring to the known history of its barbarity as a kind of theory of “Israeli” (read: Jewish) scholars and generally towing the “We just don’t know” line. His work is sometimes featured in the far-right Patriotai.lt, and he has been active in the current re-erection of a Nazi-era monument to some pro-Nazi militants killed in a northern Lithuanian town in 1941.

In the new book, Vilnius Ghetto 1941–1943, concisely constructed (64 pages), handsomely produced on glossy paper, attractively priced (ten Lithuanian litas = €2.90), and enhanced by quality reproductions, many basic facts of the fate of Vilna’s Jewry are accurately restated. What is disturbing is mostly in the realm of what is left out and in what direction the presentation is skewed.

The author is so determined to downplay local collaboration and participation in the Holocaust that he is quite willing to forego mentioning the inspirational courage of those Lithuanians who risked everything to save a Jewish neighbor. In other words, the real Lithuanian heroes of Holocaust era Europe. Not a word about them. As if including them in the narrative would necessitate explaining that it took so much courage precisely because they were seen by many as betraying Lithuanian nationalism.

To this day there is no central Vilnius street name honoring a rescuer, though honors for Holocaust collaborators abound. Moreover, it might open a can of light on the fact that in Vilna, most Lithuanian rescuers were sympathetic to the post-Barbarossa wartime Soviet Union, the only power putting up meaningful resistance to the Nazis at that time and place. That wouldn’t do in a jurisdiction that passed a red-brown law in 2010 effectively criminalizing the opinion that only the Nazis committed genocide in Lithuania. The law as it stands potentially criminalizes the statement that the forces that liberated Auschwitz cannot be identical, either morally or legally, to the forces that committed its atrocities.

Obfuscation is carried out by disassociation and confusionism. We learn that in July 1941, for example, “arrests” were carried out by “German Gestapo officials, special squad members and Lithuanian policemen” (p. 10). When it comes to murder, the voice shifts to something more amorphous, and for an aura of authority Kazimierz Sakowicz, the esteemed Polish Christian journalist who kept a diary of the murders at Ponár (Paneriai) is invoked:

“Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Polish journalist, who lived near the place of execution (the so-called ‘base’), was a witness to many massacres and secretly recorded the horrific events in his diary. The first entry in his diary was made on 11 July 1941. According to Sakowicz, about 200 Jews were shot that afternoon. The shooting lasted several hours. Killings took place on other days too. Sakowicz maintains that over a period of 17 days in July, about 5,000 people were killed.” (p. 11)

But what else did Sakowicz write about those days?

“Only the Shaulists do the shooting and guarding.” (Kazimierz Sakowicz, Ponary Diary, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yale University Press, 2005, p. 12)

Analogous differences in timbre between Bubnys’s summaries of Sakowicz, and Sakowicz’s text itself, are evident throughout the account of the Vilna Ghetto’s history. Sakowicz’s testimony of the (Lithuanian nationalist) shooters’ spirit of voluntary action, commitment, sadism and lust for their victims’ belongings, down to intimate apparel, is likewise omitted from the retelling of the tale.

There is no mention of the “spontaneous” outbreak of degradation, abuse and violence against Jewish neighbors by Lithuanian nationalist forces in the week of 22 June before the arrival, or before the setting up of an administration, by the German invaders. In Vilnius it was at a much lower level than in Kaunas or generally within the borders of pre-Oct. 1939 Lithuania, but the issue should not be shirked.

But when it comes to misdeeds of the ghetto’s Jewish police, the author’s humanity and empathy for the victims rises ex nihilo. There is sudden confidence in the reliability of survivors’ memoirs.

“A large number of ghetto residents were unhappy with the activities of the ghetto police. As Shur wrote, the regime in other ghettos was not as strict as the regime in the Vilnius Ghetto. The ghetto gate guard led by Lev would savagely beat every Jew, if they found they carried any hidden food.” (pp. 36-37).

Bubnys fails to report, that unlike the Jewish police who committed evil deeds under threat of death or thinking they were going to save their own lives and the lives of others by their actions, the enthusiastic volunteer shooters of Lithuanian Jewry

“before the shooting tortured men and women horribly.” (Sakowicz, p. 28)

While the work of Jewish scholars and memoirists is undercredited in the main narrative, the author has no hesitation in crediting Dov Levin when it comes to discussion of the zeal of Jewish partisans who fought in the Soviet anti-Nazi war effort (p. 59). Perhaps in the fullness of time, the author will come to respect Professor Levin’s writings on the rest of the era’s history, including the more than forty locations in Lithuania where murder broke out at the hands of local nationalist “anti-Soviet heroes” before the Germans arrived.

On the subject of spiritual resistance and intensive cultural activity in the Vilna Ghetto, the author seems to follow the excellent formulations of Rachel Kostanian in her Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto (Vilnius 2002). While there is no direct accreditation, the foreword to the new work duly credits “the works of researchers of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum.”

But such issues fade by comparison with the author’s abdication of moral responsibility and resort to fine-tuned apologetics for collaborators. For example, he laments that the “Vilnius City and Region Citizens’ Committee” (chairman: Stasys Žakevičius; city mayor: Antanas Krutulys) did not have proper authority.

“The German military authority did not, however, consider the Committee as its equal partner and did not allow it to act as a Lithuanian government institution” (p. 4)

though we are assured that

“Associated Professor Stasys Žakevičius was elected the chairman of the Committee” (ibid).

Perhaps Dr. Bubnys will tell us, in a future edition, whether either city leader, Professor Žakevičius (also known as Žymantas, 1908-1973) or Mr. Krutulys (1887-1979), ever expressed regret for their actions, which included jointly signing the order (on 11 July 1941) for every property owner and administrator in Vilna to supply complete lists of Aryans and Jews in their buildings. Within four days.


 

RELATED: BOOKS IN ENGLISH ON THE VILNA GHETTO

Yitzhak Arad, Ghetto in Flames

Mendel Balberyszski, Stronger than Iron: The Destruction of Vilna Jewry 1941-1945: An Eyewitness Account

Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944, translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav

Rachel Margolis, A Partisan from Vilna

Leyzer Ran, Jerusalem of Lithuania (relevant sections)

Isaac Rudashevski, The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto, June 1941 – April 1943

Kazimierz Sakowicz, Ponary Diary, 1941-1943: A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder

N. N. Shneidman, Jerusalem of Lithuania

N. N. Shneidman, The Three Tragic Heroes of the Vilnius Ghetto: Witenberg, Sheinbaum, Gens

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