Opinion | Collaborators Glorified | Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejas | Politics of Memory | Lithuania | History
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejas (1915–1948) is remembered by the Republic of Lithuania for his anti-Soviet guerilla activities after the war but without regard for the three separate periods of his activity in service to Nazi activities to exterminate the Jewish people. He did indeed join the anti-Soviet partisan resistance movement in the spring of 1945. And, before his death, he did become the head of its Tauras County unit. Those who heroize this period of his activities emphasize his efforts in establishing military discipline and order in the county. His critics, in turn, are more likely to make reference to his order to the Žalgiris Detachment, subordinate to the Tauras County, to annihilate Russian (Soviet) civilian settlers (“colonists”) in Opšrūtai, who had been transferred to Lithuania according to the Soviet-Nazi repatriation agreement (often with little or no input from these folks themselves). Thirty-one persons perished in Opšrūtai, including fourteen children. In the partisans’ descriptions of the battle, it is easy to notice that their task was to eradicate all colonists, including children. Those who justify the atrocity against civilians, including children, say that it was necessary to thwart the russification of Lithuania.
Lithuania’s policy of historical memory was quite straightforward on this issue: it built a monument to the partisans of the Žalgiris Detachment in Opšrūtai. Ethnic cleansing of Jews, if done by “our own nationalist heroes” in Lithuania, is still seen, it seems, as acceptable.
For his guerilla activities, Baltūsis-Žvejas was moreover honored by the partisans themselves in 1950; his deeds were commemorated with “Crosses of Freedom Fights (with swords) of all degrees.” As the partisan movement was dwindling, its leaders tried to encourage their subordinates by handing out posthumous awards. Baltūsis’s activities are highly regarded by the current Republic of Lithuania, as well: “On December 14, 1997, Baltūsis-Žvejas was given (posthumously) the status of Volunteer Soldier and, on October 31, 2002, awarded the rank of colonel by decree of President of the Republic of Lithuania.” The names of the awards are taken without alterations from the website of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania (GRRCL or “Genocide Center” for short). It is interesting that Baltūsis was not awarded with any posthumous order. Still, there are streets named after him in Kaunas and Marijampolė. The streets may not be major thoroughfares in either city. But they nonetheless manage to fix citizens’ consciousness.
It is plausible that commemoration of Baltūsis is not that extensive because of his ties with the Holocaust, which would bring even more chaos into the official policy of historical memory. Three distinct episodes of such activity on his part are known. One of them is related to the eradication of the Pilviškės Jewish community in 1941. Baltūsis was the head of the town’s police at the time. A further series of episodes comprising the second period in his Holocaust collaboration are related to his service in the Lithuanian Police Battalion No. 252 in 1942–1943. The third are his activities while serving as a guard at the Majdanek concentration camp which are in fact more infamous. Baltūsis took part in the pursuit of prisoners of war and Jews in autumn of 1942, too, and got an award for that, too.
Let us look at the three episodes of Holocaust participation by Mr. Baltūsis-Žvejas.
(1) Massacre of Pilviškės Jews
Already in contemporary independent Lithuania, inhabitants of Pilviškės, to their great credit, resisted the government’s efforts to erect a cross to commemorate Baltūsis. People remembered that he was the head of the town’s police force during the time of persecution, humiliation and murder of close to all of the town’s erstwhile Jewish population. The 1999 publication Lithuania: Crime & Punishment included Antanas Baltūsis in its list of murderers of Jews in Vilkaviškis County, with “Pilviškis” written next to his name.
The Genocide Center then felt uncomfortable about their own silence and their journal Genocidas ir rezistencija (“Genocide and Resistance”) published an article “The Holocaust in the Vilkaviškis County: the Pilviškiai Jewish Community and Its Fate in 1941” by Stanislovas Buchaveckas in its issue 2 for 2011. The article provides some information about the Holocaust in Pilviškės. However, the author shows many personal prejudices that distort the history of the Holocaust via the usual ruses. For example, the author’s “explanation” at to why the persecuted Jews would think that they were persecuted by Lithuanians, and not by Germans. Apparently, we are informed, “The German officers, who would order the persecution […] would remain in the shadows.” The Jews would experience bullying mostly when communicating to “local men.” The author does not provide any document to substantiate this claim. According to Buchaveckas, bullying experienced by Chaimas Černiavskis was politically motivated, but he cannot provide information on any cases where Lithuanian (non-Jewish) Soviet activists would be bullied this way in Pilviškės. Because there were none.
The author also mentions brutal rape of “komsomolets” girls, but, in that instance, he does not dare to call it “politically motivated.” It is also unclear how to “politically motivate” the cutting of beards of the respected Jews of the community (i.e. the religiously oriented who had beards). The article dedicates a whole page to Baltūsis’s activities in Pilviškės. We learn that Baltūsis was a member of the anti-Soviet underground, “most probably” took part in the uprising, “could have been” appointed the head of the self-defense battalion, which would carry out the functions of the police at the time.
Finally, we come to this passage: “From what we know about those events, we can assume that, when the guards ordered that the Jews would be driven to do forced labor, Baltūsis refused such a role and was arrested by the Nazis.” The author, who is a historian, has no documents — zero — to substantiate his claim, but nevertheless paints a near-heroic picture of Baltūsis based only on assumptions drawn from the thinnest of air. Another interesting passage follows: “In the criminal cases of other persons, there is no data that Baltūsis persecuted Pilviškės’ Jews on ethnic basis.” Here, the author concludes: “The basis of the accusations against Baltūsis for his alleged participation in the Holocaust are, most probably, his actions (also involving human victims) against the Soviet activists and officers at the early stages of the German-Soviet war.” According to the historian, the testimonies in the case files, which state that Baltūsis was the head of the police, are unreliable. Of course, it is his right to say so. But why should we think that his own conclusions are any more reliable? Especially when it can be seen in the very article that the persecution of Jews had, for this nationalist historian, no clear political or racial aspect. The cited activities carried out by Lithuanians — violent cutting off of beards, forcing to crawl or do aerobics, etc.), robbing of Jewish families, and rape of Jewish girls and young women — could hardly have been carried by choosing the victims only on a “political basis.”
Another point is important here. Conflicts between Lithuanians and Germans about the “Jewish problem” are depicted in a completely different light in texts written by Jews, including the one about the change in the Jews’ position when working in the “Tigras” factory. “The German Commandant Kramer showed his benevolence on another issue important to the Jews. The pro-Nazi local activists were forbidden to enter Jewish homes without the Commandant’s permission.” Hence, we know about one real conflict. Perhaps Baltūsis’ arrest was related to it in some way? Especially given the fact that he was released so soon… And all those assumptions about his refusal to persecute Jews are a simple attempt to deny Baltūsis’ responsibility in the matters. It is important to note that both before his arrest and after it, as we will see when investigating his further activities, Baltūsis did persecute Jews. And he did so willingly.
Buchaveckas’s article would later be used in Lithuania by antisemitic authors of shoddy tabloid paper articles to deny the “Zionist accusations.” Their narrative holds that Baltūsis is “being slandered” due to his heroic activities after the war. Essentially, they are trying to say: “The heroic myth of Baltūsis is important to us, therefore he cannot be guilty of anything in the Holocaust.”
(2) Police Battalion 252
Other activities of Baltūsis, related to the Holocaust, have to do with his service in Police Battalion No. 252. Dr. Arūnas Bubnys wrote about this group, set up to carry out Nazi activities, in 2000, in the second issue of Genocidas ir rezistencija. A far more extensive treatment was contributed by Andriejus Stoliarovas. His paper, “The 252nd (Kaunas) Battalion of the Lithuanian Auxiliary Police (Security). An Unknown Fragment of the Batallion’s History” was published in issue 9 of Kauno istorijos metraštis (Kaunas History Annals), and can at present be found online.
Stoliarovas dates the establishment of the 252nd Batallion to May 25, 1942. The batallion was formed strictly on the basis of voluntary enlistment. “The Lithuanian Battalion carried out tasks for the Germans: guarded objects of military, strategic, and economic importance, Soviet prisoners of war, Jews, and work teams, patrolled the city streets and carried out searches, persecution, convoy, and transportation of prisoners of war, Jews, and partisans in hiding. Before their deployment to Poland, the battalion’s divisions would carry out special operations in Lithuania, where they took part in the repressions carried out by Germans, including the Holocaust.”
The article provides very concrete descriptions of Baltūsis’s actions: “[F]rom May 20 to June 20, 1942, Lt. (j.g.) [jaunesnysis leitenantas] Antanas Baltūsis, together with 36 soldiers, was away in the Alytus region, where he carried out special tasks against partisans and Jews.” “The communications officer of the Lithuanian Security Unit awarded official acknowledgements for the courageous and intelligent implementation of tasks to these soldiers of the batallion: Lt. (j.g.) Baltūsis, Lt. (j.g.) Grinius, NCO [puskarininkis] Saldukas, NCO Sutkus, JNCO [jaunesnysis puskarininkis] Ūselis, JNCO Žarkūnas, JNCO Kleiza, JNCO Vyšniauskas, and 41 privates. By the same decree, official acknowledgements were awarded to 8 soldiers who captured escaped Soviet prisoners of war.”
So, in summer of 1942, Baltūsis took active part in the battalion’s persecution of Jews and was awarded for his actions. Stoliarovas also refers to specific documents that attest to this. The authors of the heroic story of Baltūsis, on the contrary, simply omit these episodes from their narrative. Perhaps they think that silence will erase their significance. However, these documented facts are much more convincing than Buchaveckas’s unfounded assumptions that Baltūsis supposedly “refused” to persecute Jews in 1941.
On October 28, 1942, the battalion swore an oath to the Germans and was deployed to Majdanek. Here is how Stoliarovas reconstructs the battalion’s activities in Majdanek: The approximate schedule of the units of the Lithuanian Batallion in Majdanek looked like this: on the first day, they would serve as the outer guard of the concentration camp; on the second day, they would carry the convoy tasks and guard the prisoner work teams; on the third day, they would guard the crematoria and prisoner work teams; on the fourth day, they would guard the gas chambers; on the fifth day, they would see to the arrival of new prisoners in the railway station (prisoners would be brought to the Lublin train station, from which they went to the mini-camp 0.5 km from the station, and then to the Majdanek concentration camp). On the sixth day, they would guard the main entrance to the camp and maintain order during the food (potatoes) distribution to the prisoners.
Stoliarovas bases his reconstruction on the soldiers’ testimonies in criminal cases. There is information that the battalion’s soldiers would guard the gas chambers during the executions, too. How could that be called anything else but participating in the Holocaust? And here one must also pay attention to the fact that most witnesses would try anything to downplay their own part in the process… What was Baltūsis’ role in these crimes? Sure, we do not have much detail on that. However, he was not a private in the battalion. He was a unit leader, who would appoint soldiers to various tasks. Criminal tasks. By the way, Baltūsis was even promoted by the Nazis for his fine service: on March 19, 1943, he attained the rank of Police Lieutenant.
Hence, we have three entire and distinct periods within the Holocaust of Baltūsis taking part: in the summer of 1941; in the summer and autumn of 1942; and in 1943. Baltūsis did all of that voluntarily. Which means that it was not much like him to “refuse” to persecute Jews as some nationalist revisionist historians, unfortunately supported by the state, would like us to believe. On the contrary, he was awarded by Nazi authorities for such services both in 1942 and 1943. His activities are documented in the memoirs of Jewish survivors of Pilviškės, in Nazi documents, and in testimonies of the Holocaust perpetrators and other witnesses in post-War cases.
This is all hard to deny. Perhaps that is why the Genocide Center’s academics, in their May 17, 2011, document No. 20R-15, do not even try to contest Baltūsis’ having taken part in the Holocaust by working at Majdanek. Such attempts can only be found among statements of the former head of the center, Teresė Birutė Burauskaitė, that, allegedly, the battalion’s soldiers would only serve as outer guard of the Majdanek. Well, that is true, neither the battalion’s soldiers nor the Nazi SS would guard the gas chambers from the inside! It was only the victims that would spend time inside the chambers. Statements of Burauskaitė have absolutely nothing to do with history. They are a product of political will to deny and distort the history of the Holocaust. They are related neither to ignorance nor to the commitments that the Republic of Lithuania made when joining the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This is but a lowly falsification of history for “internal use” hoping that the international community would not notice it and the current generation, taught to believe the Center’s abject falsehoods and willful distortions for the last thirty years, would not show interest.
I have already written about Baltūsis for Defending History twice: “The History of Three ‘Lithuanian Freedom Army’ (LFA) Colonels Who Served the Nazis” (28 April 2012), and “When I Received a Response from Vilnius’s Genocide Center” (25 Aug. 2012). Kristina Apanavičiūtė Sulikienė also refers to Baltūsis in her essay “What It Is to Defend Your Own History” (23 Aug. 2015).
So why am I again trying to direct readers’ attention to this “hero of my country”? There are several reasons.
This is a figure important for the pantheon of heroes that is currently being established by the state history policy of historical memory. Due to his efforts to unite the partisans, Baltūsis-Žvejas may even be the third most significant person in this hierarchy, right after Jonas Žemaitis (who took part in creating the genocidal Vilnius police battalions in July 1941) and Algirdas Ramanauskas (whose footprints can be seen in the persecution of Druskininkai Jews in summer of 1941). Perhaps only Juozas Šibaila, who directed the sad fate of Balninkai Jews and had been a partisan for much longer than Baltūsis, could be another candidate to this top three. It is not a coincidence that I mention the dark stains of the Holocaust in all these biographies. I have already written in Defending History about all of them.
Baltūsis, however, exhibits an exceptional trait. The Holocaust is not some accidental detail or one-off episode in his biography. He spent three years in honest pursuit of its goals. At first he persecuted Jews because “they were all Communists,” then perhaps because he could take their property. Or perhaps only because they were Jews… The real reason remains unclear, as no court on this earth judged him and asked him about his motives. Later, when the Nazis made the rules of the persecution of Jews stricter and individuals were not allowed to do it on their own anymore, Baltūsis joined the 252nd police battalion and was eager to persecute Jews in Lithuania in 1942, and then, at the faraway Majdanek concentration camp in 1943. And despite the fact that this collaborator willingly and systemically persecuted and murdered Jews, or the fact that after the war he gave an order to murder families with little children in Opšrūtai, Lithuania is trying to make a hero out of him. It can only be explained by his significance to those who are trying to establish a murderer-hero pantheon in Lithuania. However, his might just be the bloodiest stain in the whole grim picture.
In Lithuania, as elsewhere, people gather to commemorate the Holocaust at the massacre sites and say: “We remember.”
Perhaps the time has come upon us to install plaques of shame for “heroes” like Baltūsis, on the streets named after them and to write on them, too: “We remember.”
We remember that Baltūsis persecuted Jews in 1941, 1942, and 1943. Why does the Republic of Lithuania want to forget it and make Baltūsis into a hero? It is hard to understand why modern Lithuania, a nation with so many great true heroes over so many centuries, should find it necessary to heroize a perpetrator of massacres of its Jewish citizens during the Holocaust.