by Dovid Katz
For years now, Defending History has, on the first of January each year, named the newborn year in honor of Lithuanian Holocaust-era Rescuers, or Righteous of the Nations as they are also known (tsadíkey úmes ho-óylem in Yiddish). In 2020 — Antanas Zubrys and Dr. Matilda Zubrienė; in 2019 — Jonas Paulavičius; in 2018 — Malvina Šokelytė Valeikienė. That is a tradition we hope to resume next year. But 2021, the eightieth anniversary of 1941, calls for something more focused, not least when some governmental bodies have chosen, shockingly, to use the anniversary to glorify the perpetrators rather than commemorate the victims and honor those who helped a neighbor to escape the rapidly closing death vise in the last week of June 1941.
By and large, the 916 Rescuers recognized by Yad Vashem (and a somewhat larger number if those recognized by Lithuanian institutions and assorted survivor families are added) are people who risked their own and their families’ lives to hide (and feed, sustain, care for and guard) a Jew or Jews for an extended period, risking it all for weeks, months or years, until the fall of the Nazi regime at the hands of the USSR — then in alliance with the United States, Great Britain and the other Allies — in July of 1944 (there were no American or British forces in Eastern Europe…). As an old adage, variously attributed, goes: One fascist with an automatic weapon could murder hundreds of trapped innocent civilians in some moments, but to save one person took years of heart-wrenching, inspirationally courageous effort by entire families and networks of incredibly good people. In the Baltics, the courage had to be greater than most other places, because they were regarded as traitors to their own nationalist leaders, not only to the occupying Nazi forces. And frankly, because things are different when much or most of the actual killing is done by willing locals idolized by the nationalists of the day.
But there is a special kind of de-facto “saver” — let us use the term to avoid trespass on the classic sense of “(Holocaust) rescuer” or “righteous” — who usually did not make it onto Yad Vashem’s or any other institutional list. They are: The Savers of The First Week. During that (roughly) one week period, from the 22nd or 23rd of June 1941 to different days later in the week or at its end, in localities where the invading Germans had not yet arrived, or had begun to arrive but did not yet set up their administration (in other words, different days and times in different locations), thousands of innocent Lithuanian Jews were brutally murdered, and many thousands more plundered, humiliated, maimed and injured; young women were raped before being murdered and elderly rabbis were tortured and beheaded.
The sense of security built over six hundred years of the grand ethos of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania crumbled in a matter of hours into a horror of dehumanization and butchery that continued through to the completion of the genocide with no respite or reversion in between to some semblance of normality. These crimes were committed by various pro-Hitler militias often egged on (and including) elites of society of the highest callings in politics, business, academia and sometimes even religion. Many of these marauding Jew-hunters donned a white armband and deigned themselves members of the “LAF” (Lithuanian Activist Front), the Hitlerist organization assembled in Berlin some months earlier by Kazys Škirpa. For a small but representative sample of memories of The First Week,,see some of our Yiddish interviews with Lithuanian Holocaust survivors (many more wait to be processed and posted as resources allow). In fact the survivor literature is replete with many hundreds of shocking and sickening accounts. A major selection is assembled in the recently-published English translation of the irreplaceable Leyb Koniuchovsky collection. The late Professor Dov Levin documented forty locations where murder set in before any German arrival. There is some needed fresh thinking on the status of The First Week in Holocaust historiography in Jelena Subotic’s recent book, Yellow Star, Red Star. Holocaust Remembrance after Communism (Cornell University Press, 2019).
One of Vilnius’s most beloved Jewish personalities today is Prof. Josif Parasonis, leading professor of building sciences, former deputy chair of the Jewish Community and an active voice of wisdom in modern Jewish life. His family has lived in Lithuania for some six centuries. What does he know about his father, Itskhok Parason (Izakas Parasonis)? Well, from family knowledge, that he, Itskhok, had been born on 30 January 1905 in Keydán (now Kedainiai) to Yoshe-Leybe Parason and Keyle-Mere Khaper. That Yoshe-Leybe and Keyle-Mere were married in 1891 in Vadzegole (Vandžiogala). That they moved to Kovno (Kaunas), where Josif was himself born.
But what of the death of Prof. Parasonis’s father? Why do Josif and his family have no cemetery to go to, not even a mass grave to go to? Well, that’s because Itskhok Parason, known as Izakas Parasonis on his Lithuanian citizenship papers, was one of the thousands of innocent Jewish civilians butchered during The First Week by the LAF affiliated “uprising.” Some say he perished in the Kaunas Garage Massacre itself. Others think it was a day or two earlier, in Kaunas, or en route to Kaunas, where he set out on foot from Drúskenik (Druskininkai ) to the southeast, where he found himself the day war broke out.
Professor Parasonis himself survived, because his mother, Zláte Elyashevitsh Parason (Zlatė Elijaševičiutė-Parasonienė) took her two children (Josif, three-and-a-half months old, and his older brother Meyshe, in Lithuanian Moisiejus, three years old) and headed for Kaunas Train Station to rapidly flee eastward (to Russia, away from the Hitlerist invasion from the west). Actually, they went to the station together with Zláte’s brother and sister. They all bought their tickets. But there was time before departure, and her brother, Elye and sister Kreyne-Reyze, decided to make a quick trip home, not far away, to pick up some things for the journey. But they were intercepted by LAFers and violently prevented from making it back to the train, and were a few months later incarcerated in the Kovno Ghetto. The role of the “heroic” LAF “uprising” in the Holocaust before the Germans came and took over? To (a) murder, injure, humiliate and plunder Jewish civilians and (b) to prevent the escape of Jewish civilians from the imminent Nazi chokehold.
Prof. Parasonis’s story reflects the survival narrative of the vast majority of Lithuania’s Jews of the postwar generation (and incidentally, unlike the demography in Latvia and Estonia, the vast majority of today’s tiny community of under three thousand Lithuanian Jews hail from Lithuania per se). They are descended from the escapees, the “flight survivors” of The First Week, before the noose closed tight, preventing any escapes only a few days later. Incidentally, from the start of that week, the LAF militias shot at the backs of escaping Jews, and took up positions on the roads all around to prevent the escape of Jewish citizens, turning them back home to the death trap, even when escape would free up their property for the taking. For not a few, the murder wish was stronger than the plunder wish, something understudied in the field. The public attempt of the executive director of the state-sponsored (here’s a name right out of Orwell:) “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania” to imply that the LAF only killed Communists and traitors to Lithuanian independence is as egregious an ethical misuse of an EU state’s funds as his many other far-right faked history pronouncements over the years (supposedly legitimized by embedding Holocaust education in the same commission’s remit). It is important to bear in mind the scope of international critiques of this state-sponsored commission dedicated inter alia to Double Genocide revisionism, starting with its name.
So whom are we going to solemnly remember on the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Lithuanian Holocaust? The thousands of Itskhok Parasons, or the LAF killers who butchered them, often with unspeakable barbarity? Sadly, sickeningly, a state-sponsored “Genocide Center” (a Soviet-style far-right falsification-of-history agency tracked for a dozen years by DH), and its puppet “Genocide Museum” (now renamed the “Museum of Fights for Freedom”) have historically falsified a narrative proclaiming the LAF to be grand brave rebels who drove out the Soviet army with their “rebellion.” This is of course patent nonsense conceived in a far-right pro-Nazi spirit of history revisionism. The Soviet army was fleeing Operation Barbarossa (Hitler’s surprise-attack invasion of the soviet Union), still the largest invasion in human history. They were not fleeing the LAF Nazi-loving local killers who began the butchery of Lithuanian Jewry before the first German arrival, and who were so adept at their work that they and their cohorts were thereafter rapidly mobilized by the Germans into various new battalions and other groupings for the “orderly” murder of virtually all Lithuanian Jewry. Good morning — to be a rebel you have to rebel against someone who is in power, and before Soviet rule crumbled, this LAF did not shoot even at local mice. Begging the question: Why would anyone in a state-sponsored position, in a country with a magnificent thousand year history, come up with a 21st century national narrative extolling a barbaric 1941 Hitlerist militia?
A decade ago, in 2011, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Lithuanian Holocaust in June 1941 was marked. The then head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Dr. Shimon Alperovich, led the healthy, resolute and necessary critique of state efforts to glorify the LAF and their criminal cohorts; under his leadership the Jewish Community protested the honoring of the perpetrators. The dauntless editor of the community’s quadrilingual newspaper, Milan Chersonski, spoke out forcefully. The late Professor Leonidas Donskis issued his evaluation with unbridled courage and characteristic brilliance. Defending History is proud to have played its role in the intellectual and moral resistance (see e.g. here, here, and here; and eyewitness coverage of the Seimas’s grand June 2011 conference — here and here; Defending History even had to “save” Yad Vashem from legitimizing these events via participation).
Back then, things reached the theatre of the absurd: The Seimas’s Lithuanian language website honored the “rebels” while its English section declared the same year, 2011, to be dedicated to the victims. A classic embodiment of what the late Professor N. N. Shnaidman, a Vilna Ghetto escapee and partisan hero resident in Canada, had described as the “dual policy” of “satisfying the far-right nationalists and also the foreign Jews.”
For the eightieth anniversary of these events, coming up this June, the Lithuanian parliament decided last June to name 2021 for Juozas Lukša (Luksha), an alleged perpetrator of barbarities that week, both at the Kaunas Garage Massacre and as participant in beheading of Rabbi Zalmen Osovsky (what is certain and not “alleged” is his proud, voluntary participation in the Kaunas LAF). Back in 2011 it became a cause celebre when Lithuanian prosecutors sent Interpol (!) agents to disturb the late Lithuanian Holocaust survivor Joe Melamed, beloved and intrepid head of the Association of Lithuanian Jews, then the major survivor’s group, for “slandering heroes” in his 1999 book, Crime and Punishment. One result was a historic Sept. 2011 Early Day Motion in the British Parliament summarizing the barbarity of the selfsame fellow to whom the Lithuanian Parliament has just dedicated our brave and much prayed-for new year of 2021. This comes after the naming of 2018 for another “hero” (Adolfas Ramanauskas, for whom a monument was, after much debate, resolutely rejected by the town council of New Britain, Connecticut). Oh, yes, in between, the “Year of the Gaon of Vilna” was sandwiched, producing a shambolic commemorative coin featuring an Uncle Tom menorah recast as a flowerpot to hold up a national symbol beloved of today’s far right and neo-Nazis, and several academic events limited to scholars on the state’s PR and junket circuit.
Last June, when the Seimas announced its decision to declare 2021 the Year of Luksha, Defending History was the first to protest, followed on this occasion, somewhat unusually, by Ms. Faina Kukliansky, the current official head of the official Jewish Community and Rabbi Andrew Baker, foreign affairs chief of the American Jewish Committee (they protested jointly as long-time cochairs of the Good Will Foundation and even issued a press release via a PR presswire company).
Then came a major essay, in London’s Jewish Chronicle, by Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, titled “Lithuania Picks the Wrong Man to Honor. The country has decided to honour a man who was implicated in the brutal murder of Jews.” Dr. Weinbaum, of the World Jewish Congress, is editor of the prestigious Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.
More recently, Yakov Faitelson spoke out in Defending History on the integrity of his father Alex Faitelson’s account of this particular “hero” for whom an EU/NATO country is naming 2021. Alex Faitelson, a leader of the legendary escape of a group of Jewish prisoners from Kaunas’s Ninth Fort, published his account in his classic book, The Truth and Nothing But The Truth.
See Defending History’s chronology of the debate, which aims to comprehensively cite all published opinions, as well as a survey from a Lithuanian perspective by ethicist Evaldas Balčiūnas. International coverage has included JTA (by Cnaan Liphshiz), followed by the European Jewish Congress, the Jerusalem Post, and the Times of Israel.
But in the thick of all that, let us remember with dignity and a sense of purpose not only the victims of The First Week, thousands of peaceful and defenseless citizens who were butchered by the LAF and its comrades who for one reason or another may or may not have donned a white armband signalling Hitlerist allegiance, fascism and genocidal hatred of the country’s Jewish population.
Let us not forget the amazing Lithuanian helpers of helpless Jewish citizens of That Week, most of whom did not (and at that moment, could not even) conceive of a need to “hide someone for months or years” in a way that would facilitate their recognition in the same vein as the later long-term Rescuers who by and large hail from the much longer period of the “fully organized Holocaust” (generally completed in the provinces by the end of 1941, and for the four major city-ghettos by late 1943, but the few surviving Jews in hiding had to be hidden by their Righteous guardians through to the fall of the Nazi regime in July 1944).
As noted earlier, the vast majority of survivors of the Lithuanian Holocaust are the “flight survivors” who fled to Soviet Russia the first week. Time after time, our interviews over the decades often point to a single Lithuanian, often of unknown name, who did something to persuade him or her to give up everything worked for over a lifetime, and just get the hell out of there.
These Lithuanian Savers were in their own way also incredible for their tenacity and instinct to do what is right. Remember, they were the folks who saved someone from the LAF, the true heroes of the First Week of Operation Barbarossa in Lithuania, whom Europe, the Jewish world, and Holocaust institutions internationally, should be honoring in 2021, in the spirit of honoring those left out of the reckoning. And what better time, than on the eightieth anniversary of the events?
In interview after interview, and indeed in various memoirs, we come across the Lithuanian Good Samaritan who was able to rescue a Jew by removing him or her from the marauding LAF murder-the-Jews mobs with a word of warning imparting the true gravity of what seemed unbelievable in the presumed safety of one’s home in light of the collective memory cognizance of some six hundred years of shared history. Or taking the Jewish citizen to the safest possible spot in town: the train station. A first handful of examples as the year gets underway.
The late master architect Dr. Meir Gubersky (Mejeras Gubezskis, 1909-2005) of Vilnius, a native of Kaunas, always recalled that he survived the war because a fellow young apprentice architect in Kaunas literally “pushed us onto the train. He told us we have to get out of here. When I dithered with second thoughts near the station, he had to apply some force with me. He saved my life.” Now that’s a hero of The First Week.
When the white armbanders came, already on 23 June (the day remembered by the remnants of Lithuanian Jewry as the outbreak of the Holocaust in their land) to murder the Jewish residents in the courtyard of Ugniagesių St. 13 in Kaunas, Meyshke Preys (Misha Preisas, 1930-2019) was saved by Albinas, the brother of one of the shooters (the brothers were sons of the courtyard’s custodian). This brother of the LAFer saved Misha’s entire family on the day by sitting himself down on their front porch so the murderers would skip their dwelling, sure that it’s a Lithuanian family that lives there. Verily in the spirit of the Biblical doorpost mark that, tradition has it, signalled to the Angel of Death to Pass Over that dwelling.
Avrom Zheleznikov, born in Vilna in 1924, who settled after the war in Melbourne, Australia, recalled the man who saved his life in Vilnius during the first week. After he had hidden under a staircase during the search of his building by a Lithuanian army unit housed right opposite (that came to shoot all the Jewish males between 16 and 60 that day), a Lithuanian acquaintance took him and some others to a farm out in the country. (Incidentally, that building now has a touristy plaque about Theodor Herzl once spending a couple of hours there, nothing about it being the site of the first Holocaust atrocity in Vilnius.)
A major new research project is needed to start compiling a list with names, dates and places, of the First Week Savers and the First Week Victims, and of course, the perpetrators too. But it is the victims and the savers who merit being honored, memorialized, eternalized, by European memory. Not the perpetrators whom the Seimas has now honored, not for the first time. But the Seimas, reconstituted after the recent elections, and after an inspiring early decision on the fate of the Old Vilna Jewish cemetery, can look at the record of the last half year’s debate, and do the right thing, and rescind the decision, and honor instead the nation’s bona fide heroes of 1941. It is not too late to do what is right not only by the Holocaust’s victims and survivors, and its specialists, but also by all who genuinely love not far-right narratives that do so much unfair damage to Lithuania, but those who genuinely love Lithuania and its people today.