O P I N I O N
by Efraim Zuroff
Authorized English translation of Dr. Zuroff’s speech at the annual commemoration event held by the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, received from the Israel Office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Hebrew original is here.
Attorney Yosef Melamed asked me to update you regarding the recent events which have taken place since the last memorial event a year ago, concerning the attempts by the Lithuanian government to distort the history of the Holocaust and to minimize or deny the participation of many Lithuanians in the murder of Jews, not only in Lithuania but also beyond its borders.
Before I present my report, I would like to remind you of something I mentioned last year about Lithuanian crimes. I told you about the Kunichowsky collection and its great importance in documenting the crimes of Lithuanian collaborators outside of the large cities. Approximately 100,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered in these places, close to half the number of Lithuanian Jewish victims in the Holocaust. From an examination of the 171 testimonies that Leib Kunichowsky collected, which listed the names of 1,284 Lithuanian war criminals, we learn about the four most conspicuous characteristics of the participation of Lithuanians in the murder of Lithuanian Jews:
1 – The central role of Lithuanians in carrying out murder
In almost all provincial towns, the majority of the murderers were Lithuanians, and there were places where they carried out massacres without the presence of any Germans, or when the Germans present were there only to photograph the slaughter.
2 – The terrible cruelty of the Lithuanians
In several places, Jewish women and even girls age 13 and 14 were raped before they were murdered. Similarly, there were many cases of public humiliation of rabbis and Jewish community leaders before they were killed, as well as exceptional cruelty toward Jewish babies, some of whom were murdered by banging their heads on rocks or trees or by throwing them alive into mass graves.
3 – The “patriotic” motivation for the murders
Lithuanian nationalism served as a background and an incentive for the participation of many Lithuanians in the murder of Jews. The most famous instance of this was the mass murder in the Lietukis Garage in Kovno at the end of June 1941, where the killers and a large crowd of spectators who witnessed and applauded the murders sang the Lithuanian national anthem after more than fifty Jewish men had been killed in cold blood.
4 – The participation of all levels of Lithuanian society in the murders
To the extent that Lithuania admits that Lithuanians participated in the murder of Jews, they usually try to blame these crimes solely on the marginal elements of Lithuanian society, on “hooligans.” But the bitter truth is, that many Lithuanians, from all levels of society, from the cultural, religious, and intellectual elite to the criminal elements, were among those who killed Jews.
In light of these characteristics, it is not difficult to understand why the Lithuanian government is investing so much effort in attempts to rewrite the history of the Holocaust in their country by hiding or distorting the participation of Lithuanians in murdering Jews. I would like to report on three events which are typical of the Lithuanian campaign on this sensitive subject.
The first event, which I personally witnessed, took place in Kovno on February 16 (Lithuanian Independence Day). On that day hundreds of Lithuanian nationalists and neo-Nazis marched in the city’s main streets wearing the Lithuanian swastika (a regular swastika with the addition of several short lines), carrying flags with nationalist slogans and pictures of Juozas Ambrazevičius, the head of the provisional Lithuanian government that was established in Kovno, which enthusiastically supported the Third Reich and the persecution of the Jews. The scene was simply shocking, especially since we, the demonstrators against the march, numbered only a small handful of barely more than a dozen people, half of whom were Jews from abroad (including our friend Prof. Dovid Katz and several Israeli medical students) and six Lithuanians. The hatred we encountered was just horrible.
The second event was a conference of Litvaks, which took place in Vilna to mark 70 years since the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. The conference included many cultural events related to the topic, as well as visits to memorial sites. On the surface, this was a positive initiative, but a closer look at the content showed it to be an event whose purpose was to strengthen the cooperation between the government and the Jewish community, in order to support the distorted, totally false version of history of the Holocaust in Lithuania.
A clear example appears in the official website of the community, where they describe the events of the Holocaust in Lithuania in these words:
“Before World War II, Jews accounted for about a third of Vilnius population, the Lithuanian capital was an important Jewish cultural centre. Around 90 per cent of the Jewish population of around 208,000 were killed by German Nazis in Lithuania during the Holocaust. More than 800 Lithuanians have been awarded as Righteous among Nations for rescuing Jews from the Holocaust.”
Is that indeed the case? Do these sentences accurately summarize what happened in Lithuania? Were the 96.4% of the Jews living under the Nazi occupation who were killed during the Holocaust, all murdered by German Nazis? This is definitely a distortion of the historical reality. Until recently, Dr. Shimon Alperovich served as chairman of the community and he bravely rebutted all Lithuanian attempts to rewrite the history of the Holocaust. But unfortunately his successor, attorney Faina Kukliansky, actually cooperates fully with those who are primarily responsible for rewriting the historical truth, such as Jewish MP Emanuel Zingeris and his Lithuanian partners, who deliberately distort the history of the fate of Lithuanian Jewry in order to serve Lithuanian interests.
I came across an additional example last week when the Center for the Study of Genocide and Resistance in Lithuania, a government body that plays a central role in rewriting the history of the Holocaust, publicized the results of its study on the subject of Lithuanian participation in the murder of Jews. The study was in response to a list of murderers that Yosef Melamed posted on the Association’s website in 2009. Yosef Melamed’s list included the names of 4,233 Lithuanians accused of murdering Jews, while the Center for the Study of Genocide claimed that after a thorough examination of each of the names, they could confirm that only 1,070 of those that appear on Melamed’s list were actually involved in the murder of Jews, 534 of them directly – that is, actually shot Jews to death – and 536 indirectly – that is, guarded Jews, took them to be killed, or in some way supported the commission of the crime. In addition, the Center uncovered another 985 Lithuanians who do not appear in the original list, but who also participated in murder.
It is important to note that the total number of murderers presented in the Center’s report is just the tip of the iceberg. In the Wiesenthal Center’s archives in Jerusalem we have collected the names of many thousands of Lithuanians who participated in the murder of Jews, and it is clear that the Center’s purpose is to drastically lower the number of murderers (while also artificially inflating the number of righteous Lithuanians), in order to serve Lithuanian interests. Of particular significance is the conclusion of Dr. Alfredas Rukšėnas, who headed the study, and who assessed the activities of the Lithuanians murderers in the following manner:
“All those who shot the Jews, not only the ‘partisans’, belonged to organized Lithuanian units which were under Nazi command. On the one hand, they were forced to participate in genocide due to their military service, and on the other hand they acted out of a fear of disobeying orders, hatred, and the desire to benefit economically from extenuating circumstances. In any case, the primary motivation was their military obligation, namely the orders they received.”
Rukšėnas’ outrageous conclusion is especially important for two reasons. First, it completely ignores the hundreds of Lithuanians who spontaneously attacked and murdered Jews without being organized in any military or police framework. Secondly, it basically exempts the murderers from all responsibility for their crimes and purposely ignores the principles established by international law at the Nuremberg trials and afterwards in hundreds of other cases of Nazi criminals – personal criminal responsibility, and the rejection of the claim of innocence due to “superior orders.” In today’s Lithuania, however, any and all tactics to absolve Lithuanians for their participation in the mass murder of Jews are acceptable.
In conclusion, I would like to ask you to support the efforts of the Association, the Wiesenthal Center, Prof. Katz, and the brave members of the Lithuanian Jewish community, including Milan Chersonski, Prof. Pinchos Fridberg, and Rachel Kostanian, in the struggle against Lithuanian Holocaust distortion, a truly just cause, which is a fitting tribute to the memory of the Lithuanian Jews murdered in the Shoah.