O P I N I O N
Authorized translation from Lithuanian by Geoff Vasil
This week the Lithuanian government resolved not to grant so-called hero’s pensions to surviving rescuers of Jews.
The decision is an odd one and raises doubts concerning the values to which this government claims to adhere. Although truth be told, this isn’t the first instance of unseemly conduct showing disrespect to hundreds of thousands of people murdered just because they were Jewish and towards those Lithuanians who attempted to save those scheduled for execution.
This behavior is actually in line with the bestowal of state awards on perpetrators of the mass murder of the Jews, to figures such as J. Krištaponis and A. Baltūsis. It is also in line with the naming of streets and schools after people such as K. Škirpa and J. Noreika, and the government-funded reburial of the head of the 1941 government which initiated the persecution of Jews, not merely by promulgating its infamous “Statutes on the Position of the Jews,” but by paying the salaries of thousands of the executioners who shot Jews at Kaunas’s Seventh Fort.
Currently Lithuanian historians paid by the state are trying very hard to prove the mass murder of Jews was exclusively a German affair and that the so-called Lithuanian insurgents of 1941 were drawn into those horrors against their will.
A plethora of facts, however, contradict this belief propagated by the political elite of the Republic of Lithuania. That belief is definitely contradicted by the behavior of the insurgents after the war, when the Nazis no longer had any influence in Lithuania.
Here are a few facts from among the many:
In Christof Dieckmann and Saulius Sužiedėlis’s work Lietuvos žydų persekiojimas ir masinės žudynės 1941m. Vasarą ir rudenį [The Persecution and Mass Murder of the Jews of Lithuania in Fall and Winter, 1941] (Vilnius, 2006), they write about one Antanas Leonavičius, who crawled out of a mass grave after a mass execution of Jews on July 3, 1941. The survivor began testifying against the murderers after the war and was
“murdered by Lithuanian partisans” (p. 66).
It should be noted here that under current laws the post-war partisans are recognized as the legitimate government of Lithuania.
Some might call this an isolated incident. Except that there are testimonies from eyewitnesses of the time that this was a noted phenomenon. A. Bubnys in his article, “Lietuvos kunigai žydų gelbėtojai” [Lithuanian Priests who Rescued Jews], for example, writes:
“At the end of the German occupation, in summer of 1944, bishop V. Borisevičius on his own initiative met with the partisans of the Lithuanian Freedom Army and asked them not to persecute people who had rescued Jews nor the surviving Jews anymore. Some LFA members considered these people pro-Soviet and planned to get rid of them.”
Those rescuers of Jews who died after the war should also be remembered. Mykolas Šimelis, for example, of Tarpumiškiai village (in the Kaišiadorys district), who saved fourteen Jews during the war from being murdered, and who was murdered after the war next to his home. His murderers left an inscription:
“This is what happens to those who help Jews.”
It would not surprise me in the least to learn that the current government has awarded medals to his murderers.
Also worth recalling are Jonas Paulavičius and his family, who rescued ten people, most of them Jewish, and was shot after the war. These are only a few examples of the unpleasant facts about the post-war resisters.
Unfortunately, the Social Democratic government of prime minister A. Butkevičius has through this latest decision lost yet another opportunity to wipe some of the unseemliness from the face of the country named Lithuania, and has failed to show the appropriate respect to those who during the terrifying time of mass executions found the courage to maintain their human dignity and rescued Jews, although this decision threatened them and their families with death.
Today, after seventy years have passed since that time of horror, less than two hundred of these brave people remain among the living. To allege there is not enough money to honor them is a disingenuous and hypocritical feint. Money is being thrown right and left to honor the murderers.
This is nothing more than a pathetic inability to distinguish good from evil.
“After a week of outside diplomatic pressure, and various self-justifications, the prime minister uttered something about the government not really understanding what they were considering, and the government finally decided to go ahead and recognize Righteous Gentiles as freedom fighters.
“And again we heard those same insincere ramblings about how expensive this will be for the state. This whole accounting attitude is especially unsavory. One could be forgiven for believing the current government perceives a ‘loss’ in every Jew saved. And if so, then how do they differ from the perpetrators, those who murdered Jews, those who traded in their humanity for the prospect of profiting from it all?
“Whatever the case, at least this is a step taken in the direction of respect and human dignity, and one can at least hope it will ease the path to more such steps in the future.”