by Roza Bieliauskienė
The twentieth century was drenched in upheavals, blood and tears. New states were founded, others were destroyed and above all, it cost so many people a huge price: to suffer broken lives and fates or to be senselessly killed. If not for the world wars, how much more would humankind have reached in science, art, literature, technology, economy and more.
Over seventy years have passed since the end of the Holocaust, and, as in the legend of Till Eulenspiegel the ashes of our people‘s annihilation during the Holocaust is still in our hearts. We do not forget them, every year we come to Ponár (Paneriai), to the fortresses of Kaunas. In my case, also to the Pivonijos forest where in the period from July to September of 1941 so many of my relatives, all simple peaceful civilians, perished, they of the Reitenbort and Kahan families. We also visit other places of mass killings.
At the same time, we will never forget the incredibly and inspirationally noble people around us, Lithuanians who risked everything to save a neighbor from the policies in power at the time which called for the murder of every living Jewish person. We also cannot forget those who in most cases, without being compelled, joined, collaborated, helped, partnered with the Nazis in enabling the massacres all over the country, not in the defense of their country against some occupier, but against the most helpless of their own citizenry: the Jewish minority that had been part and parcel of this land for over six hundred years. In other words, these killers were not “sacrificing” for “independence”, they were joining in the genocide of a minority population whose people they had grown up with and lived in peace for so long.
Of course everyone’s biography is complicated, and the best people have done bad things, and the worst people good things. The question before us is not about condemning anyone. It is about the message sent to our children and our grandchildren when our own democratic state pays for glorifying plaques or street names that honor the perpetrators. It is as if to say that this “little misdeed”, participating in Hitler’s Holocaust, is such a tiny detail so as not to interfere with someone being a hero of our nation. What then can be the value of all those murdered people, including my relatives from the Reitenbort and Kahan families who all perished for the sin of having been born Jewish?
Let me be very clear: Blaming the perpetrators does not mean I blame Lithuania. Lithuania neither started nor finished the Holocaust, Lithuania had no independence during the Holocaust, and it was this national tragedy that paved the way for so much evil to come upon us. During the years of Lithuania’s interwar independence, from 1918 to 1940, it had one of the best records in Eastern Europe of non-violence and tolerance, though, of course, every country has its problems and issues.
And this brings me to Captain Jonas Noreika. What kind of Lithuania did he dream of? For what kind of Lithuania was he willing to make great sacrifices? Was it for all the citizens of prewar Lithuania in all their beautiful mosaic of diversity? Or was it a racist ethnocentric devotion that excluded the Jewish people who had lived here and helped build this country over those six hundred years. The answer to that one can be found, as it happens, in his own book of 1933, eight years before the Nazi invasion, Raise your Head, Lithuanian! where he called for an economic boycott against Jews.
What kind of independence is independence based on genocide of your own citizens? And, by July 1941, less than a month after the invasion, the Nazi posters up and down the land proclaimed that from that point onward, the country would not be Lithuania, it would be one part of Germany’s “Ostland”.
The Nazis’ racial laws of 1935 in Germany, were in the spirit of his own writings. The main goal of Captain Noreika was Lithuania’s independence. He took part in the LAF uprising from 23 June 1941. Those like him a bit later participated in components of the Holocaust (organizing the isolation/imprisonment of all Jews, organizing their transfer to a ghetto, organizing the legalized the appropriation of all their belongings, and so forth) are no national heroes. They do not bring pride to Lithuania. By contrast, the incredible Lithuanians of 1941 who just did the right thing and saved a neighbor, there are hardly any street names in memory of them, and it was good to see the first named here in Vilnius several years ago.
Between the last week of June of 1941 and the end of 1941, over seventy percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population had already been murdered. After the initial week, it was all under German supervision and direction, but this “achievement” would not by any means have been possible without the enthusiastic collaboration of parts of the local population. It is hard to find a more suitable example than Jonas Noreika. Under his “leadership,” more than 2,500 people from Žagarė (Zháger) and Siauliai (Shavl) were ghettoized in Žagarė, plundered, humiliated and in a very short space of time summarily murdered. Men, women and children, not soldiers or rebels or “communists”.
That does not mean that writers, artists, and psychologists cannot study the complexities of such personalities. The broken fate of a talented man can be of interest to future generations, as can the light and dark pages of his biography. But this has nothing to do with government plaques honoring Nazi collaborators as heroes.
It is very painful to say this, but the public awards and praises and plaques and street names to Nazi collaborators bring no honor to Lithuania. There are museums and educational programs and research institutions where details of his life can be studied. That is all very different from the state deciding to honor, in the public space as a matter of national policy, men who helped in the genocide of my people and family. I use the plural, men, because, alas, Noreika is not the only Holocaust collaborator honored this way across our land.
I speak as a proud Lithuanian citizen, born and bred here, and determined to live out my life here. Like any true patriot, I want the people my country honors to be heroes for all the citizens of Lithuania. And for the world.