BBC’s New Documentary Helps Viewers Come to Grips with the Start of the Holocaust’s Genocidal Phase


by Roland Binet (De Panne, Belgium)

We are accustomed to the frequent excellence of BBC broadcasts, documentaries, and investigative reports. On January 23, 2023, with its documentary How the Holocaust Began featuring historian James Bulgin, BBC 2 struck a welcoming chord, demonstrating powerfully and convincingly that the Holocaust ― in the sense of the genocide per se, unleashed upon Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 ― started in the Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia.

Through the works of Michaël Prazan (Einsatzgruppen as a book and TV documentary in French), Efraim Zuroff’s untiring crusade against the states in Eastern Europe that still cover up their complicity in the murder of millions of Jews during World War II (see his renowned book Operation Last Chance and the site of the same name at the Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem), through the vigorous and constant series of articles on in the web journal Defending History (see also the documentary Rewriting History by Danny Ben Moshe), we, the attentive and honest readers know what the reality of the Holocaust had been in the Baltic States when Jews were hunted as animals, slaughtered as animals by the German forces, and in many cases before they even arrived, also by the local populations “activists.”. We are cognoscenti but it is reassuring to see that the BBC broadcasts an image of far-reaching collaboration by the local populations in the Baltic States with the focus primarily on Lithuania.

According to aerial photos, Bulgin, working with an expert came to ascertain that one of the earliest massacres transpired in Lithuania, shortly after the launch of Barbarossa, houses were set on fire and all their inhabitants killed by the German army in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Later in the documentary, more examples of wanton killings of Jews and this time by local Lithuanians were mentioned. In one such place, 700 Jews (80% of the local population) had been killed by the local Lithuanians who within 24 hours occupied the totality of the now vacant Jewish homes (according to a comment by Rūta Vanagaitė, the Baltics’ only laureate of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s prestigious Person of Valor award). Bulgin states that such wanton killings by locals occurred in some two hundred localities in Lithuania and seventy in Latvia.

screenshot from the film

As for Latvia, the film has a long sequence about the Liepāja massacre, with the well-known footage of a group of male Jews climbing down from a truck, running to a sandy environment and, then, in the pit where they have to face their killers, being shot at point blank range and falling backwards. Afterwards, some men cover their bodies with sand.

One of the most interesting features of the documentary was that it displayed teams of volunteer American surveyors doing geological searches of known places of mass graves, such as in Liepāja and also different other places in forests in Lithuania, in order to determine exactly where the mass graves containing remains of bodies might be (where one sees the names Mjol and Reeper, but nothing is reported about their background or previous works).

Another interesting sequence contains Rūta Vanagaitė’s interview near the end of the documentary (she also appears earlier translating into English the words of an aged witness of a massacre of Jews by Lithuanians). She spoke first about what she had experienced when she had published works detailing her researches confirming the scope of collaboration by local Lithuanians: she had been hounded by acquaintances, the press, the authorities, even by strangers who harassed her on the street, and, finally, she had been forced to flee the country for several years, before returning. When some of her acquaintances heard that she would come back to Lithuania with a team from the BBC, she was asked why.

Although Bulgin makes it clear that tens, maybe hundreds of thousand Lithuanians had been involved in the genocide of the Jews in many different ways – active, passive, silently, acquiescing, ordering, etc. –, one flaw of the documentary was that he did not pursue that sufficiently to the currently vital point of critiquing the state sponsored cult of heroes of some of the best known Lithuanian collaborators still widespread in the country (see Defending History’s section).

A possible flaw here is that, in fact, the Holocaust in its accepted wider sense did not first start in Lithuania and Latvia, only the mass shootings by bullets and indeed, the genocide of entire communities including men, women, and children. Back in autumn 1939 the Wehrmacht, the SS and some Einsatzgruppen units started to kill in Poland, Poles in large numbers and chiefly the intellectuals but also the Jews fated for murder in any case. It was of course less well organized, best defined more as mass murder rather than full-blown genocide unleashed in 1941 in the USSR’s territories that were rapidly overrun in 1941. Still, the core business of the Nazis first showed its totally inhuman and beastly face first in Poland, by killing then later by forcefully putting the Jews in inhabitable ghettos, well before June 22, 1941.

Most of the actual inhabitants of Latvia and Lithuania have not known the war, have not participated in any crimes against humanity or genocide. Yet, they support and adhere to theses of cover up and vote for the very politicians who defend this immoral stand akin to the three monkeys (“We did not see, we did not hear, we did not say”). This is frankly sickening because these countries are part of the European Union and we in the EU are supposed to share the same values. Yes, then you have countries such as Belgium or the Netherlands where so many fought against Germany and that suffered sometimes heavily as was the case in Holland and, on the other hand, countries such as Lithuania and Latvia that overwhelmingly welcomed the German liberators with flowers and lent a hand of “voluntary enthusiastic initiation” in murdering their own citizens, neighbors of Jewish background, inaugurating the genocide.

But now that Putin has unleashed an inhuman and barbaric war against Ukraine, it seems as if the attitude of active and passive collaboration with Germany during World War II is being vindicated a posteriori by some: they always knew who the one real enemy was (and, by the way, of course, the “Bolshevik Jews” were equally or more than equally deemed to constitute The Enemy). But, reality is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case, the powers that be unconscionably continue to glorify Holocaust perpetrators on the streets of Vilnius and Kaunas, among many others. It is high time for a new generation of unafraid fresh-thing humanists to stand up and change this once and for all. What better time than now, when Vilnius (historically Vilna, Polish Wilno, Yiddish Vílne) proudly celebrates its 700th birthday.

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