n February 26, 2016, Arūnas Degutis posted his thoughts on Lithuanian-Litvak relations at the Minciu Sodas discussion forum, one of the longest running public Internet forums in Lithuanian, which I founded in 1999. Degutis writes that Lithuanians as a nation should empathize with Jewish victims of the Holocaust, especially those murdered by Lithuanians, and indeed should make a moral apology. Degutis was one of the signers of the declaration of Lithuania’s independence on March 11, 1990. In 1984, he was thrown out of work for his ties with anti-Soviet dissidents. In the summer of 1988, he became a key organizer of the Lithuanian Reform Movement “Sąjūdis,” especially as an editor of “Sąjūdžio žinios.”
THOUGHTS ON THE EVE OF LITHUANIA’S MARCH 11TH INDEPENDENCE DAY
I remember first meeting him in October, 1988 at the home of sculptor Vladas Vildžiūnas, where Lithuanian Liberation League chairman Antanas Terleckas, who was on the run from the Soviets, came to see a video that Degutis had brought of Sąjūdis leaders chastising the Lithuanian Communist Party for the violent dispersal by police with night sticks of the League’s meeting on September 28, 1988. From 2004 to 2009, he represented Lithuania in the European Parliament.
I share my translation into English of an excerpt from his informal but public reply to my articles on returning the Snipiškės cemetery to Vilnius’s Jewish community and on making public documents in which Lithuania’s leaders (Škirpa, Lozoraitis, Klimas) support ethnic cleansing of Jews from Lithuania.
“I concur with showing empathy for murdered Jews (especially those murdered by Lithuanian hands). And perhaps even an apology for we are part of a nation whose criminally unconscious individuals contributed to mass murder. I must say, I was among those who were outraged by [then Lithuanian president] A. Brazauskas’s gesture [his apology in Israel in 1995] because I thought that that was related not with individual but with collective responsibility. However, when we speak not in the legal but in the moral sense, everything falls in place if you’re not cosmopolitan.
“Therefore I am in favor of an apology.”
Nobody is asking for such an apology. In my own article, I wished for Lithuanians to show empathy. As we celebrate our freedom this March 11, I am glad that Arunas Degutis’s remarks do show such empathy. Many Lithuanian public figures have been silent in regards to Rūta Vanagaitė’s recent book on the Holocaust in Lithuania, which has generated tens of thousands of comments online, mostly negative, but some, like Degutis’s, refreshingly positive.
Arūnas Degutis’s comments reflect a change in his own perspective, as he himself admits, and are perhaps a sign of a more general shift in public attitude. In Lithuania, a great chasm has existed between those who look back on 1944-1990 with abhorrence as Soviet-occupied Lithuania (“sovietų okupuota Lietuva”) and those who look back on it with nostalgia as Soviet Lithuania (“Tarybų Lietuva”).
This divide has complicated the Lithuanian people’s coming to terms with its role in the Holocaust. In 1995, Lithuania’s President Algirdas Brazauskas visited Israel and made a dramatic apology at the Knesset. Unfortunately, Brazauskas was the former head of Lithuania’s Communist Party, and thus his apology was for this reason rejected by perhaps a majority of Lithuanians, but especially, Lithuanian nationalists, including Degutis. I do hope that more and more “patriots” will speak up so that empathy for Lithuania’s Jews is part of what it means to be Lithuanian.
SEE ALSO: Andrius Kulikauskas section; Defending History’s 2010 obituary for Algirdas Brazauskas