OPINION | GLORIFICATION OF COLLABORATORS | POLITICS OF MEMORY
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
The resolution of the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) to declare 2021 the “Year of Juozas Lukša” has resulted in heated discussions. They are attentively chronicled by Defending History.
Those who remember the Holocaust and its lessons for history and for life discuss the name Juozas Lukša in conjunction with the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) of June and July 1941, including the versions that link him to a barbaric massacre of Jews at the Lietukis Garage in central Kaunas where some seventy innocent Jewish people, caught in the streets, were brutally killed before cheering crowds.
Juozas Lukša looks very similar to one of the murderers in one of the photos (and he was identified by some from a photo of himself after the war). It links him to one of the versions noting that the Garage Massacre was committed largely by prisoners who had been released from a Kaunas jail (we know that Lukša was released from a Kaunas jail). Opponents to those versions claim that Juozas Lukša is innocent and level accusations of slander against those who implicate him. This discussion is not new and there have not really been any new proofs offered on either side since the flare-up of the argument over the last month.
A number of Jewish Holocaust Survivors who published books in the 1990s and 2000s cited eyewitness reports of Lukša’s actual participation. We can read about that in works by Joseph Melamed, and by Alex Faitelson. Related information, actually about participation in a second crime the same week (the beheading of Rabbi Zalmen Osovsky) was even mentioned in an early day resolution by the British parliament. Today’s summaries of the case against Lukša refer to these same sources.
Moving on from the naming of a year by our parliament to honor an alleged participant in the massacre to the massacre itself, it is important to state that it has never been honestly investigated. The various versions on all sides would not stand the test of trial room law. There is still too little evidence of Juozas Lukša’s intentions and participation in murdering Jewish citizens in the Lietukis Garage massacre of June 1941. The Lithuanian Provisional Government (PG) considered this event on 27 June 1941, by the provisional government’s minister of public utilities, Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis. It is important to repeat the minister’s decision:
“Decision: against all the measures, which are taken against Jewish communists, Lithuanian activists and civilians are advised to cease public tortures of Jews and pogroms. It has been seen, that those actions were taken by people who neither have any relation to Lithuanian activists nor to the Lithuanian Provisional Government.”
So, the provisional government held after the massacres of the days up to 27 June, that these actions should not be “public” and should not be related to their cited institutions. It was for that reason, that the Lithuanian Provisional Government made a decision instead, on 30 June 1941, to establish a concentration camp for Jews. The following actions revealed that in this camp, this time not publicly, Kaunas military police murdered thousands of Jewish people. Those people, who claim that Juozas Lukša is not guilty of murder in the specific Lietukis Garage Massacre in central Kaunas might perhaps better concentrate their utilization of time and energy on real investigation of this crime. It is worth paying attention on their arguments too. This issue is discussed in an argumentative article written by Professor Kestutis Girnius. According to him, the Holocaust complicity accusations against Juozas Lukša is just part of the ongoing “history wars” and he utterly rejects the notion that Juozas Lukša was involved in the LAF’s doings of that week. As for the Lietukis Garage per se Girnius claims: “There is only one way to prove that Lukša was not there, that would be to prove that he was somewhere else, it means looking for an alibi to establish innocence.’
But it is worth noting that searching for some unrealistic alibi after nearly eighty years actually represents a reluctance to come to terms with the truth. This position tries to justify and excuse the Lithuanian Provisional Government’s stance when they were collaborating with Hitler’s Germany. And it is not new. Antanas Lukša, Juozas’s brother, writing almost seventy years after the event (in 2008/2009) actually “created” just such an alibi, reporting that he met Juozas accidently in the street and took Juozas to their parents’ place — just before the Lietukis Garage Massacre.
Speaking of alibis, a similar one was made for the proven murderer Juozas Krikštaponis (Krištaponis). According to his sister Krikštaponis spent the entire period of Nazi occupation at their parents’ farm. But in this case we do have sufficient documents and testimonies for the cruel and heinous crimes committed against Jewish citizens. As for Juozas Lukša there is a lack of such information and lack of evidence, which should now lead to a new and honest real investigation to reveal the truth. But instead of that, Prof. Girnius suggests looking for “an alibi” that is very strange (to say the least).
There are some more doubts about Prof. Girnius’s arguments: “In 1944 J. Lukša was resisting, but he became an active [postwar “Forest Brothers”] partisan. That means that he was sure that the Soviet NKVD would not arrest him and he lived legally [in the Lithuanian SSR] in 1944. Had he been an LAF member or even just participated in the Lietukis Garage Massacre, he would immediately have become a partisan.” We should mention that he was released from a Soviet prison in 1941 and had a strange faith that he would not be arrested. There were many naive people in those times, but it does not prove they are not guilty of alleged crimes. What is more, it is very strange to exculpate Juozas Lukša on the basis of “Soviet silence”. We do not know all the complex games of the Soviet security services at the time. There is one cardinal truth that we do know: that the Holocaust was not any genuine priority for the Soviets.
Prof. Girnius ends his article with “sacred indignation” that Juozas Lukša is blamed without what he regards as serious evidence (he does not mention the work, available online, of Joseph Melamed or Alex Faitelson or the British Parliament resolution cited above).
If it is forbidden to cite in Lithuanian media the sources that one does have, it would be very difficult to investigate any crime. First, there is the similarity to a photo made by Gunzilius. Second, Alex Faitelson, in his book The Truth and Nothing But the Truth (Jerusalem 2006) wrote about Juozas Lukša participation in murdering Jewish pogrom in the Lietukis Garage (see pp. 33-34). Thard, the coinciding of versions that the Garage was committed largely by prisoners released from a Soviet prison. Fourth, the search for false alibis. Fifth, is the strange overall reluctance to investigate seriously and honestly the Lietukis Garage Massacre.
We should moreover state that it is a stain on the reputation on anyone to have participated in those “nationalist” actions in Kaunas in the days following the Nazi launch of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June, and the panicked Soviet flight eastward. What is more, the Lietukis Garage Massacre was not some isolated incident. Those murderers, and many more, carried out the pogroms and massacres in in Slabódke (the Vilijampolė district of Kaunas) So, glorifying those people who were involved with the criminal accomplishments of those days is neither ethical nor humane.
I strongly believe that the June 1941 Lietukis Garage Massacre have never been properly investigated. There are still two versions about the very date — was it 25 June or 27 June 1941? All the versions, memoirs, and versions we have need to become part of the new investigation to reveal the truth. The statement of the Lithuanian Provisional Government on 27 June, following the Garage and other massacres, needs to be evaluated in the spirit of seeking the truth.
To sum up, Juozas Lukša of 1941 Holocaust era Lithuania now has a contra-biography for the years after the war. If we want to glorify Juozas Lukša, we should treat him according to his merits. Let’s find them. He was partisan as many thousands of young men and he wasn’t the exception (though it certainly was the exception that he was flown back into Lithuania after escaping to the West during the war). He edited a newspaper as different groups did. We have one great piece of writing, his autobiography Fighters for Freedom: Lithuanian Partisans (Chicago 1950). This book was met as an authentic story about the dedication of the Forest Brother guerrillas against the Soviets. If we wanted to glorify him for this book, we could very well do that and dedicate 2021 for an outstanding piece of writing. Then we would have less doubts and arguments against the desire of some to hide bloody episodes of our own history.
The problem is that the Lithuanian parliament, by deciding to glorify this man in 2021, shows overt disrespect to the victims of the Holocaust. Next year is not only the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. It is also the eightieth anniversary of his many comrades’ alleged crimes in 1941 against the Jewish citizens of Lithuania, including injury, humiliation, plunder and mass murder.
Indeed, in 2021 we will be marking the eightieth anniversary of the June 1941 Lietukis Garage Massacre in Kaunas, Lithuania. It would be a magnificent occasion to commemorate the victims in the last week of June 2021. And that, moreover, is inconsistent with glorification of a personality who is accused of participation in the atrocity. It is high time to remember the words Never Again. To stop pretending that the Holocaust was just part of the war and nothing special.