OPINION | GLORIFICATION OF COLLABORATORS | POLITICS OF MEMORY
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
This is a story of seven Jewish women rescued in Telšiai (Yiddish: Telz). They are: Lija Šapiro (Leye Shapiro), Eta Piker, Nija Miselevič (Niye Miselevich), Maša Richman (Masha Richman), Anna Levi, Zlata Chatimlianskaja (Chatimliansky), and Leja Šif (Leye Shif).
But it is first and foremost a story of “the aftermath”: What happened to the Lithuanian rescuers when the war ended?
On December 11, 1944, these rescued Jewish women wrote a document on how it was that the family of Sofija and Antanas Laurinaitis had rescued them. Anto Eimutis also helped the rescuers. Secondly, according to the Yad Vashem website, publicity of the rescue had grave consequences to the family (document MAB F.159, folder 58, page 3). The family’s neighbors had a negative attitude to the rescue and Sofija Laurinaitienė had to emigrate from Lithuania to Poland together with her children. Sofija was Polish, but Antanas Laurinaitis, who later came back from Germany, where the Nazis had deported him for forced labor, was not allowed by the Soviets to rejoin her and remained, alone and lonely, in Telšiai.
Lithuanian readers may have encountered this story in Ir be ginklo kariai (Soldiers Without Weapons) (ed. S. Binkienė, Vilnius, 1967). The name of the story is “Gėlės” (“Flowers”). To put it briefly: at first, Sofija Laurinaitienė accepted Lėja Šif to her home in the summer of 1941. That fall, she brought back Lija Šapiro from the Telšiai ghetto.
As the Telšiai ghetto was being liquidated in December 1941, Nija Miselevič came to Laurinaitienė. Later, they were joined by Eta Piker (Gering). To get money for food, the women made flowers from wood shavings, sold by Sofija’s brother Anton Eimutis who, as an insurance agent, could travel. Furthermore, he managed to make connections with the Šiauliai ghetto, from which he brought back Zlata Chatimlianskaja and Anna Levi to the hideout in Telšiai; another woman, Maša Richman, was brought to the Laurinaitis family by German soldier Kurt Trepner. The women’s situation became even worse after the Nazis deported Antanas Laurinaitis to Germany for forced labor.
However, they managed to successfully wait it out until the Soviet army came to Telšiai.
The rescued Jews considered Laurinaitienė a heroine and composed and signed the document on her heroic deeds. However, the people around them did not like it. There were many antisemites in Telšiai. In the summer of 1941, the funeral of Telšiai prison inmates who had been murdered by the Soviets in Rainiai, turned into an anti-Jewish riot, during which Jews were beaten up.
Tens, if not hundreds of people appropriated the wealth of murdered Jews. At the Telšiai hospital alone, a long list of twenty-three people applying for certain Jewish property was compiled (Document LCVA R1075, folder 2, book 18, pages 544–545), and it was not the only document of its sort. The people who profited from the death of Jews suddenly felt unsafe. Laurinaitienė was in danger, too, since she was Polish.
After the war, the Soviets tried to relocate the Vilnius region Poles to Poland. The circumstances of emigrating to Poland were favorable. To save herself from the suddenly arisen threats, Sofija Laurinaitienė hurriedly picked up her children and emigrated. In Poland, she stayed in Wroclaw using the Polonized name S. Lawrynowicz. Her brother Antoni Eimont emigrated, too. At the time, her husband had not yet been back from Germany. When Antanas Laurinaitis came back to Telšiai, the Soviets did not allow him to rejoin his family in Poland. One can find their story on the Yad Vashem website.
Zofija Lawrynowicz (Laurinavičienė) and her husband Antanas Laurinavičius were recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations on October 19, 2010. Antoni Ejmont was recognized as the Righteous Among the Nations on November 23, 2010, File No.: M.31.2/11795/1.
Some may say that the threat that destroyed the Laurinaitis family was not real. Lithuanian forests at the time were full of armed Lithuanian nationalist guerrillas (“the Forest Brothers”). Their attitude towards Jew rescuers is well illustrated by the famous fact: due to the guerrillas’ actions, Telšiai Bishop Borisevičius was forced to go to Alsėdžiai and negotiate with the guerrillas so that they would stop killing Lithuanians who had rescued Jews.
The aforementioned book Ir be ginklo kariai contains several stories of rescuers of Jews from the Holocaust who perished at the hands of the Forest Brothers in the years after the war.
Mykolas Šimelis. His story is on the Yad Vashem website. There, it is noted that he was murdered by Lithuanian nationalists on July 10, 1945. Ir be ginklo kariai lists the murderers’ names. According to the book, the murderers’ leader was Jonas Neicelis-Šarūnas. The “heroic biography” made for him online is readily available.
The Republic of Lithuania esteemed Neicelis’ activities highly. In 1999, his status as Volunteer Soldier was recognized, and the rank of captain was awarded to him by decree of the Ministry of National Defense.
In 2007, Mykolas Šimelis, murdered by Neicelis-Šarūnas, was awarded the Life Saving Cross for rescuing fourteen Jewish escapees of the Kaunas (Kovno) Ghetto.
Teofilis Žarnauskas and Vladas Levulis cooperated on rescuing the Fridkovskys family. The description of the deeds of the Righteous Among the Nations can be found online.
They were murdered on December 15, 1945. The Levulis’ family house was set on fire and Vladas Levulis was shot dead. On June 13, 1946, Teofilis Žarnauskas was murdered. The murderers’ names are not known. The Soviet version was that it was the guerilla fighters (Forest Brothers) who had done it. We don’t know of any other version.
The date of Teofilis Žarnauskas’s murder coincides with that of a major massacre carried out by the Forest Brothers. On that day, the Merkys Brigade alone, led by Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas, “sentenced” and murdered seventy people. I have written about this previously. Žarnauskas’ name is not among the victims, but the Merkys Brigade was not the only one. Nowadays, therefore, when more and more guerilla documents are being made public, it is quite possible that the names of these rescuers’ murderers may surface, too.
There have been more rescuers of Jews murdered in unclear circumstances, e.g., Jonas Paulavičius, who rescued more than a dozen people, was killed in 1952. Yad Vashem writes that it was done by his antisemitic neighbors. Paulavičius was Defending History’s 2019 Person of the Year.
It is very clear, then, that Sofija Laurinaitienė was in a very real danger. It is wrong for Lithuania to proclaim the people who persecuted Jew rescuers as heroes, as in the case of Jonas Neicelis, and to show no recognition of the rescuers’ heroic deeds, as in the case of Sofija and Antanas Laurinaitis. Of course, even if this or the next president of the Republic of Lithuania decided to award them the Life Saving Cross, it would not right the wrong done to their families—it would only show that the priorities are shifting. Which, for one, was done in the case of Mykolas Šimelis.
Antisemitic views, popular among anti-Soviet “Forest Brothers” guerrilla fighters in Lithuania, present yet another unsolved issue. Quite a few Holocaust perpetrators were hiding among the guerrillas. Virulent antisemitic statements and cartoons can be found in their publications. As seen from the information provided above, after the war, some guerrilla fighters were murdering people who had rescued Jews. Nowadays, when the Republic of Lithuania claims that the Forest Brothers guerrilla fighters were the only legitimate Government of Lithuania at the time, it would also be timely to condemn their antisemitic statements and murders of Lithuanians who risked everything to do the right thing and save a neighbor during the Holocaust. In the absence of such condemnation, the impression one may get is that the Lithuanian government is somehow justifying these actions.