O P I N I O N
by Milan Chersonski
On September 28th 2010, the Parliament of Lithuania announced that 2011 would be the Year of Commemoration of Battles for Freedom and Great Losses. This mysterious name of some sort of anniversary appeared exactly a week after the same year, 2011, was declared the Year of Commemorating the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews. The Jewish Community of Lithuania reacted without delay to the ‘dual track’, apartheidized commemorations.
Now which “battles for freedom” are they talking about in the resolution? What sort of great losses? The resolution does not say specifically. Yes, Lithuanians valiantly rebelled for freedom in 1794, and in 1831, as well as in 1863, and then there were serious demonstrations on behalf of freedom in 1904-1905, and then there were the battles from 1918 to 1920 for the independence and borders of the newly founded state.
But it is impossible to understand exactly which events and which dates they now had in mind from the text of Lithuanian parliamentary resolution no. XI-1038 of September 28th 2010. And this is probably no accident, as shown by the subsequent actions of the Lithuanian government and leading organizations here.
The fact of the matter is that the parliament’s resolution was intended to mark the still-controversial uprising against Soviet rule in Lithuania which began on June 22nd 1941, at the very moment of the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, and the proclamation of the Provisional Government of Lithuania on June 23rd 1941.
The uprising was accompanied by the initiation of the annihilation of the Jewish population, an event unprecedented in the history of Lithuania for its murderous scale, the bloody shadow of which has and will forever fall on this date. It is a date that for the rest of the world lives on in infamy.
It was hard to believe that the Lithuanian parliament adopted this decision. But it did.
Eyewitness account of the June 22nd premiere, including full translation of former President Adamkus’s speech
Speaker of parliament congratulates filmmakers in the parliament’s ‘photo of the day’ for 22 June, the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion
The Government then developed a program for this year of commemoration, including some major events held in June 2011:
* June 14th, in the Parliament: a solemn meeting commemorating the 70th anniversary of the beginning of mass deportations of Lithuanian citizens.
* June 21st, in the Grand Conference Hall of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences: an academic conference dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the June Uprising of 1941.
Each of these events deserves separate scrutiny, but that will only be possible when and if the transcripts and materials from these events are published. In the meantime, we have to content ourselves with meager references to them in the periodical press and on the internet.
Against the background of such illustrious academic and political events, the premiere night of a new two-hour documentary film called “The Uprising of the Enslaved” seemed to be a more modest event. The date of the premiere, June 22, was not chosen at random: on the same day 70 years ago Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania, which for more than a year had been part of the USSR. The film was financed jointly by the Lithuanian Parliament and the Genocide Research Center.
There is a sad irony in the fact that the first night of the documentary film about the June uprising of 1941 took place at a movie theater bearing the lovely children’s name “Fairy Tale” (Pasaka).
Same Old Story?
The filmmakers, using well-known footage from Soviet, German and Lithuanian newsreels from the late ’30s and early ’40s of the last century, show how the happy and peaceful life in Kaunas, the provisional capital of Lithuania, and the whole of Lithuania slipped into the whirlpool of world events on the eve of World War II.
The announcer says: “1939. Hitler and Stalin are dividing Europe. According to their secret agreement, the independent state of Lithuania passes to the Soviet Union. The Nazis invade Poland and the Bolsheviks hand Vilnius back to Lithuania. At that time, nobody suspected what the price of the gift would be.”
An on-screen map. Germany and the USSR divide Europe up into spheres of influence. Ominous signatures by Hitler and Stalin on both sides of the division line clearly designate the German and Soviet spheres of influence, leaving no room for Lithuania on the map. So far this tragedy of the Lithuanian people is just a plan on a map. Still independent, Lithuania found itself at the intersection of interests of the two most powerful military states of Europe. And then the Soviet and German officers ceremoniously cut down the barrier pole on the erstwhile Polish border, and proceed to greet and congratulate one another.
The off-screen narrator reads the audience a history lesson about the ultimatum the Soviet Union presented to the Government of Lithuania, and all the rest of what are well-known events: the flight of President Antanas Smetona from Lithuania; the Soviet transfer to Lithuania of the ancient capital Vilnius; the entry of Soviet troops into independent Lithuania. An ominous scene shot from behind appears on screen: dark silhouettes of columns of people wearing helmets. On their shoulders are rifles with fixed bayonets: Soviet troops have entered Vilnius and are marching down Adam Mickiewicz Prospect (the current Gedimino Prospect) near the cathedral.
Scenes seen many times before appear on the screen, one replacing another in rapid succession: the “nationwide” election in Lithuania, the Lithuanian delegation in folk costumes at the Supreme Soviet requesting the admission of Lithuania to the USSR, the “happy” faces of the people of Lithuania who were included into the “close-knit family of Soviet peoples”, “under the sun of Stalin’s constitution”… All this archival Soviet propaganda garbage has long been known and requires neither criticism nor refutation at this point. Thus far the film looks like “the same old story” as in lessons at school.
Who Directed the Rebellion?
The documentary film, sponsored by the country’s parliament and the Genocide Research Center, develops a story line about preparations for the uprising against Soviet rule in Lithuania. The cinematic techniques of feature films are used to recreate the purported events of the period.
Here is one of the episodes: a middle-aged actor, apparently playing the role of Kazys Škirpa, retired colonel and former ambassador of Lithuania to Germany, sits in deep thought at his desk in his study, writes something, and then thoughtfully paces about the room. Škirpa established and led the headquarters of the Lithuanian underground organization called the Lithuanians Activist Front (LAF), founded on November 17th 1940 with local headquarters in Kaunas and Vilnius. [The historical Škirpa headed the actual LAF headquarters in Berlin.]
A Nazi officer enters the room, takes off his military cap and puts it on the table so viewers can see the Nazi eagle with a swastika on its head and a skull and crossbones on the band. And, although the filmmakers do not mention Škirpa’s links with the Nazis, a savvy viewer might well understand that either Nazi intelligence personnel in Berlin are interested in K. Škirpa, or just that he is flirting with the Nazis.
It is known that LAF headquarters in Vilnius and Kaunas were directly involved in preparation for the uprising, which, according to Škirpa’s plan, was to overthrow the Soviet regime and create a provisional government that would precede the Nazi occupation of Kaunas. Škirpa himself was supposed to become the prime minister of that government.
Did the Nazis know anything of these plans by Škirpa (1895-1979), who settled in the United States after the war and published his book in 1973 in Washington called “Rebellion to Restore the Sovereignty of Lithuania” (Sukilimas Lietuvos suverenumui atstatyti)?
American lawyer Augustinas Idzelis, who had access to the documents pertaining to the events of the “June Uprising” and those that followed, appears in the film. It is odd that in this film Idzelis didn’t say anything about the events he recounted to the journalist Vidmantas Valiušaitis (see the newspaper Lietuvos žinios, June 13, 2011).
According to Idzelis, “Kazys Škirpa, former Lithuanian ambassador to Germany, head of the Lithuanian Activist Front […] had connections with Peter Kleist. Naturally, Škirpa gave him various documents. He passed to the Germans his grandiose plans for insurrection, invasion, and the role of Lithuanians.”
Kleist was Joachim von Ribbentrop’s bureau chief for the European occupied territories, so we can say confidently that German intelligence services were well aware of Škirpa’s plans. It is impossible not to conclude that Škirpa wanted top Nazi command to know of his plans to head the Lithuanian government and to get their support for that.
Idzelis says that the Abwehr, military intelligence and the SS fought for influence over the LAF. Initially the Abwehr was in charge of intelligence functions, then they were taken over by the SS intelligence service, which, unlike the Abwehr, was categorically opposed to the restoration of any kind of Lithuanian independence.
Idzelis asserts that Soviet intelligence received information about preparations for the Lithuanian uprising from their Nazi colleagues and managed to arrest the leadership of the Vilnius LAF. Eight members of the general staff including their leader, Major Mindaugas Bulvičius were shot in the prison at Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod). Another seven were sentenced to long terms.
Who was the Lithuanian Activist Front Protecting?
In “Uprising of the Enslaved” there is no mention whatever that LAF action depended on the German army, although in reality the LAF was completely dependent on the progress of the Nazi occupation of Lithuania.
If the LAF had been an organization independent of the Nazis, then it would have been logical to begin the uprising not on June 23rd, but from June 14th to 18th, when, as reported in the film, Soviet state security bodies all over Lithuania arrested and sent the representatives of the so-called “socially alien classes” to Siberia.
The LAF made no attempt to stop those arrests. The LAF did not attempt to rescue a single person from the deportations. The LAF did not plan or carry out any military operations against NKVD troops who were guarding the railway stations and railway tracks where trains were lined up to send prisoners to Siberia. The LAF did nothing to prevent Soviet punitive organs from deporting thousands from Lithuania, including ethnic Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and Jews. Why didn’t they interfere? There is no answer provided in the film to this compelling question. The question is not even posed.
There is another strange feature of the LAF uprising. At all times and in all countries the fight for the people’s freedom begins with a storming of the local Bastille, to release the political prisoners who risked their lives for the freedom of their people.
In Lithuania, however, events took a different turn: prisoners in Kaunas, including many famous Lithuanian personalities, were taken away by Soviet punitive organs from the Kaunas prison on the morning on June 23rd and later shot in Cherven, Belarus. Just a handful of prisoners, perhaps simply forgotten by the NKVD, later broke down the doors of their prison cells and released themselves.
White armbanded rebels, if there really were any in Telšiai, also failed to release political prisoners. They were taken away by NKVD officers on June 24th and killed in Rainiai. There was no attempt either to save the prisoners in Pravieniškės; they were shot on June 26th.
It turns out that the members of the LAF did not consider political prisoners to be exponents of their views and aspirations and didn’t perceive them as supporters and associates worth saving from death. Their primary mission, as LAF members saw it, was to proclaim the Provisional Government of Lithuania and the extrajudicial killing of Jews and Communists. Antisemitic leaflets sent from Berlin LAF headquarters headed by Škirpa called upon them to do this. But the film about the LAF fails to mention any of the things that the LAF were actually engaged in.
It is widely known that at the time of the uprising the participants were supposed to recognize each other by a white armband on their sleeves with three letters, TDA, the abbreviation of “Tautinio darbo apsauga,” meaning National Labor Security. This gave rise to the well-known Lithuanian name for insurgents in the uprising, “Baltaraiščiai,” or white armbanders.
It is possible that among the white armbanders, especially among high school and university students, there were some idealists who sincerely intended to fight for the restoration of Lithuanian independence. On the other hand, it is well known that under the influence of rabid Nazi and LAF antisemitic propaganda there were quite a few among them who identified Soviet rule and Communists with the Jewish people. Who can make a clear distinction between participants in the uprising who were led astray, and gangs of white armbanders who just robbed and killed Jews in effect launching the Lithuanian Holocaust? It should also be added that before the invasion of Lithuania, Nazi commanders prepared instigators among the local population who called together their gangs to attack Jews, to rob and murder with special cruelty the most vulnerable segment of the Lithuanian population—Jewish men (especially elderly rabbis), women and children.
At times paradoxical phenomena transpired. During his visit to Lithuania in the early 1990s, then chairman of the Israeli Knesset Dov Shilansky told an official meeting that when he was one the prisoners at Šiauliai ghetto he was guarded on the way to work by an armed classmate of his from the Lithuanian high school he attended.
What were they Fighting for? (Version 1)
Historians Christoph Dieckmann and Saulius Sužiedėlis in their work “The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews in the Summer and Autumn of 1941” (Lietuvos žydu persekiojimas ir masinös žudynės 1941 metu vasarą ir rudeni: šaltiniai ir analizė) write: “The persecution and murder of Jews in Lithuania began in the early hours of the Nazi occupation. Until the end of June (in other words, a week after the war started), Jews made up a significant, if not the biggest part of the civilians killed during the first phase of the conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union. In addition, no group of people, except for real or imaginary Soviet collaborators, had undergone such a terrible public humiliation.”
During the first two days of the occupation, when the Nazis had not yet entered Kaunas, the mass murder of Jews there was well underway. The Nazis took over a week to occupy the entire territory of Lithuania, and the murders of entire families of Jews from gray old men to babies had already taken place before the occupation, not only in Kaunas and Vilnius, but also across the rest of still unoccupied Lithuania. The physical destruction and plunder of the Jews ceased (temporarily) after the Nazi occupation of the entire territory. The Nazis applied discipline and order to the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry.
Director and screenwriter of the film “Uprising of the Enslaved” Algis Kuzmickas said in a speech before the premiere of the film at the “Fairy Tale” cinema in Vilnius that “The film will reveal the causes of the June uprising and the tragedy of those days.”
But in the film only one reason for the uprising is ever mentioned: the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Actually, modern writers of Lithuanian history — as opposed to serious historians — argue the June uprising was directed not just against the Soviets but also against the impending Nazi occupation. But this is just wishful thinking. There was no fight against the impending Nazi occupation, period.
At LAF Berlin headquarters they had hoped that in return for participation in the overthrow of Soviet rule, the Nazis would agree to at least partial independence for Lithuania, similar to what they had offered Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and so on.
Neither is it accidental in the film that the Declaration of the Provisional Government of Lithuania was read out with salient gaps. The filmmakers did not want today’s viewers to know the real contents of the declaration. All of the servile praise of the Nazis and their leader Adolf Hitler was removed from the sound track.
The true nature of the Provisional Government of Lithuania (IDP) was quite clearly presented in the “Address of the Provisional Government of Independent Lithuania to the People” published in the newspaper Į Laisvę (To Freedom), No. 2, of June 25, 1941: “With special gratitude we appreciate the inexorable march of the German army to the East.”
The Provisional Government “approves of the march of the valiant army to the East, conceived by the leader of the German people, Adolf Hitler, and inspired by National Socialism ” and celebrates the “global mission of Hitler and its significance” and warns the Lithuanian people that the mission “should be understood very well and appreciated with sincere support”. The audience will have learned none of this from the movie “Uprising of the Enslaved”.
The groveling nature of the Provisional Government is illustrated more openly in its leaders’ telegram to Hitler personally, signed by the PG ministers:
“After the liberating military hurricane which swept over Lithuania, the representatives of the Lithuanian free people are sending to you, Dear Fuhrer of the German people, our deepest and sincere gratitude for the liberation from the murderous and devastating Jewish and Bolshevik occupation and the salvation of the Lithuanian people from abuse, destruction, insane mass murder and torture; we express hope that your genius will give Lithuanians the opportunity to participate in the triumphant march under your leadership with the aim to destroy Judaism, Bolshevism and plutocracy, to protect the freedom of the human person, to protect Western European culture and to establish the New Order in Europe.”
The PG’s view on the most monstrous pogroms of the first week of the war says everything. During the cabinet meeting on June 27, 1941, minister V. Zemkalnis Landsbergis spoke of the brutal torture of Jews at the Lietukis garage in Kaunas. The PG adopted a recommendation:
“… in spite of all the actions to be taken against the Jews because of their Communist activities and sabotage of German forces, partisans and individual residents should avoid public executions.”
This was the real purpose of the Provisional Government. So much for the so-called “struggle” of the white armbanders “against the impending Nazi occupation”…
What were they Fighting for? (Version 2)
The purpose and character of the rebellion is not clarified even by the former insurgents and witnesses who appear in the film. Aleksandras Bendinskas, Algirdas Kudzis and other members of the insurrection, as if by prior agreement, do not utter one word about the course that the uprising followed, their role in it or even any outstanding or just memorable episodes from their actual combat. All of them prefer to talk about the political situation in Lithuania and the Soviet troops in Lithuania in 1940, the transformation of the independent state into the Lithuanian Soviet Republic. Former Lithuanian diplomat Vytautas Antanas Dambrava does not add any new or elucidating aspects to the image of the uprising. All unanimous, even using the same words, and repeating the known. As if they had all been in one place and seen the same thing.
However, the direct supervisor of the uprising K. Škirpa, though not too liberally, reveals the truth about the uprising in his book mentioned above. S. Sužiedėlis found that K. Škirpa in citing documents missed out “entire sentences which called for taking anti-Jewish actions in case of war”. “He did not even use ellipsis to indicate the parts of the text were omitted”, the horrified historian says. “After all, it’s easier to understand when the author decides for whatever reason not to publish compromising documents, but [he] ‘cleans up’ the document and then submits it to the public as important and original material — let the readers decide for themselves what it is.” The historian failed to say that this method of presenting documents is wrong and is in fact tantamount to lying, counterfeiting, forging.
K. Škirpa’s desire in 1973 to conceal his antisemitic actions in Berlin in 1940 and 1941 and their implications in Lithuania is quite understandable: he did not want to take responsibility for his own actions committed 32 years earlier. But neither did A. Lileikis, K. Gimzauskas or A. Dailidė, or thousands upon thousands of so-called “patriots” who took part on their own volition or under the direction of Nazi commanders in the murder of Jews that began on the first day of the war in Lithuania and continued uniterruptedly throughout the Second World War. None of the perpetrators wants to take responsibility.
For Whom was this Film Made?
In recent years in the “revival” of the feature-film style of documentary movies and docudramas, filmmakers borrow from feature film techniques for “recreation” of events as they could or might have appeared if they had been filmed when they occurred. These sorts of techniques make historical materials more emotional and entertaining for the non-professional general audience.
The creators of “Uprising of the Enslaved” used the same methods, but used them in such a manipulated way that one feels awkward and embarrassed watching the “revival” of these tragic historical episodes. The film virtually fails to present the actual events of the “uprising” and the proclamation of the Provisional Government. Having rejected these, the director had to invent certain illustrative scenes with fictional characters.
At one point for example there is an NKVD soldier. For some unknown reason he raises a gun and aims at a girl in Lithuanian folk costume who is peacefully digging with a spade. The NKVD soldier grabs her roughly by the arm, leading and pushing her to a small group of similarly outfitted children and adults on a hill. Real people act in this episode, but they could just as well be replaced by dolls without any loss to the film.
In another scene, a young man is carrying a Lithuanian national flag somewhere. An NKVD officer catches up with him, pulls the flag out of his hands and throws it on some kind of fence, shooting at the young man with his gun.
A whole scene is devoted to occupying a warehouse. A group of people with guns, probably rebels, comes out of the forest. The first gives a sign to the rest of them to stop, and sneaks up to something in front of a path to locked gates guarded by a Soviet soldier. The word
is written on the brown gate in half-meter tall curved Cyrillic letters. This is probably so the rebels don’t get lost and attack the warehouse, which is full of weapons… The leader kills the soldier without aiming and makes a sign with his hand to the other rebels. Together they break the lock on the gate to the warehouse, pull the murdered guard inside for no apparent reason and take the weapons stored in the warehouse: some Russian rifles from the 1891-1930 period and a machine-gun like maxim.
There are a few more “live action” scenes which are just as “exciting” as the ones described above.
But the final scene surpasses all the others.
The Lithuanian national tricolor, flying in the wind, accompanied by emotional music, gradually rises from beyond a forest hill; afterwards five Lithuanian partisans bearing the flag appear at the forest’s edge.
Directors of many American westerns and Soviet adventure films could challenge the copyright on this ending, but they won’t bother. All these techniques have been known since the silent film era and have long been regarded as ahistoric propaganda, similar to Soviet and Nazi ideological clichés.
The solemn words of the announcer, sounding like a solemn oath, sum up the two-hour movie: “The struggle for freedom is not only the right of the people, but also their duty. Especially people who have lost their independence. Two aggressor states—the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany—are responsible for the events in Lithuania of 1939-1941, as well as for many more decades after World War II. They destroyed the state of Lithuania, taking away the people’s independence. No one has the right to say how Lithuanians should have fought, after being left to their own devices against two enemies.”
A surprisingly comfortable position: blame everyone else for your misfortunes, and retain for yourself the right to stand aloof in the position of judge and to bear no responsibility to anyone for anything including the “ignorable detail” of your own forces having started the mass murder of citizens and neighbors who happened to be Jewish, thereby initiating the Lithuanian Holocaust, which ended up having the highest rate of murder in all of Holocaust-era Europe.
Unfortunately, this attitude is receiving widespread approval and support. In Lithuanian government structures and among some strata of society this stance is called “true patriotism” in whose spirit the younger generation should to be educated.
Even worse, the chairwoman of Lithuanian parliament Irena Degutienė said she hopes this film will teach foreigners who know little of our country the history of Lithuania.
This English translation of the original DefendingHistory.com publication in Russian was prepared by Ludmila Makedonskaya (Grodno) and Geoff Vasil (Vilnius) and approved by the author.