VILNIUS—As ever, debates on the Holocaust in Lithuania take on their own drama, a drama never far from the ongoing alleged revisionism by Baltic governments, not least about the outbreak of local violence, plunder and murder of defenseless Jewish citizens by local “patriots” still glorified as “anti-Soviet heroes” for their unleashing of the Holocaust locally in the first days following the launch of Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. In the Baltics as in (western) Ukraine, thousands of Jews were victimized and killed before the first German soldiers set foot on, or set up their administration in the territories. Far from fleeing some local “rebellion” as mendaciously claimed by state museums and commissions, the Soviet army was fleeing Hitler’s invasion — the largest invasion in human history.
The unanimous evidence of testimonies is unambiguous, most recently available online in English in the new edition of Leib Koniuchowsky’s collection (141 testimonies), following a series of authoritative work, over decades, by historians including Yizhak Arad, David Bankier, Martin Gilbert, Masha Greenbaum, Ernst Kllee et al, Konrad Kwiet, Dov Levin, Joseph Levinson, Dina Porat, Rubenstein and Altman, and Karen Sutton. A vast collection of documentations appeared in volume IV of the Hebrew language Yahadut Lita (Tel Aviv 1984). A series of Yiddish interviews from the last few decades is being uploaded at present.
Suspense Mounts in Vilnius: Will Vanagaite and Dieckmann tell the same historic truth about the week of 23 June 1941 as Vanagaite and Zuroff? At issue: brutalization, humiliation, plunder and murder of thousands of Jews before arrival of the first German forces and/or before setting up of their local administration.
Just three months ago, the English edition of Ruta Vanagaite’s and Efraim Zuroff’s Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust was published by the major international house, Rowman and Littlefield. Whatever debate it will engender, there is no doubt as to the straight and unvarnished coverage of the outbreak of the Lithuanian Holocaust in numerous locations prior to German administration. The original Lithuanian edition of 2016 was at least one factor in the banning of all of Ms. Vanagaite’s books in Lithuania in 2017, a literary and free speech scandal that reached the New Yorker and American Pen. Lithuania’s ambassador to the US even told a Washington audience about her alleged “Russian connections.” Defending History covered much of the local side of those heady days, including Vanagaite’s and Zuroff’s public announcement of a personal relationship complete with photo gallery (see also DH’s Vanagaite section). Founding head of state Vytautas Landbsgergis wrote a “poem” distorting Vanagaite’s surname (to that of a Jewish figure from wartime and the postwar USSR hated by nationalists here) urging her to commit suicide in the forest. She has since abandoned residence in Lithuania, with the few number of visits accompanied by ample security. Meanwhile, the Vanagaite-Zuroff book has enjoyed success in Lithuanian, Russian, Polish, Hebrew and English editions. Ms. Vanagaite was, on Dr. Zuroff’s nomination, the 2016 laureate of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s coveted Woman of Valor award.
In the midst of all this, Ms. Vanagaite has also been writing a second Holocaust book featuring interviews with the famous German academic, Prof. Christoph Dieckmann, who has been a star member of the Lithuanian government’s “Red-Brown Commission” for decades (the popular moniker for its unwieldy and some would say Orwellian official name, “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania”). His academic work on the Lithuanian Holocaust, including a major two volume opus in German, has drawn praise, with the exception of his treatment of the “early days” where for years he has long been giving interviews claiming that there was no Lithuanian violence against Jews during the Holocaust absent direct German coordination, one of the major points on which the Lithuanian government has invested much to “fix the history.” These efforts reach a kind of extreme of glorification of the killers as “heroic rebels” in major city center museums, often as part of the wider revisionism known as Double Genocide, also rampant in regional museums.
Things came to a head back in 2016 when the Red-Brown Commission arranged for Prof. Dieckmann to be their point man for talking to Newsweek magazine about the Zuroff-Vanagaite book. The Newsweek article (for one reason or another not mentioning Dr. Dieckmann’s decades-long affiliation with the Lithuanian government’s red-brown commission), reported it this way:
“A piece about Zuroff? Well, he plays the media well, doesn’t he?” Christoph Dieckmann, an award-winning scholar and researcher at Germany’s Fritz Bauer Institute for History and the Impact of the Holocaust, says in an email when asked to comment on Zuroff’s legacy. “The problem with Zuroff is that Zuroff is always about Zuroff,” he adds in a later phone interview, claiming he is “a one-man institute, ridiculously bad on research,” who oversimplifies the issues and “turns history into a James Bond movie.”
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, an eminent scholar and activist, is the long time director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel Office and its director of section for East European affairs (see the Operation Last Chance website). He is a prominent author and lecturer who for decades has challenged East European glorification of major Holocaust collaborators in conjunction with his prime life’s work of Nazi hunting.
The plot thickens. Vanagaite’s crowd-funding campaign (as PDF) based in Australia relied on her book with Dr. Zuroff (including an image of that book) for credibility for raising funds for the book with Dr. Dieckmann. That crowd funding effort netted (as of today) $20,525, of which ten thousand euros are for the “honorarium of Dr. Dieckmann” and more listed for “travel and hotel” and printing costs. For some outsiders, it was difficult to fathom why two such successful authors, Vanagaite, a best selling author, and Dieckmann, long a professional academic and star member of the Lithuanian government’s commission, would need to crowd fundraise for a book’s publication. Then, earlier this year, another sensation emerged. The controversial Good Will Foundation, using funds derived from the value of Jewish religious property of the annihilated Jewish communities of Lithuania, awarded an additional ten thousand euros to Ms. Vanagaite for production of the present book in its new budget (as PDF). See Defending History’s take at earlier stages of the saga. The major local critic of the foundation’s choices in past years years has been Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, resident rabbi in Vilnius for over a quarter century.
Today, the Good Will Foundation published its press release (as PDF) inviting the public (with preregistration only) to the June 25th Vilnius event launching the Vanagaite-Dieckmann book, announced more as a Dieckmann book, and with no mention of the Vanagaite-Zuroff book that helped launch the current public discourse on the Holocaust in Lithuania. Will that book also be available on the day? Will it be on the speakers’ table? Or even mentioned? Will Dr. Zuroff be invited to the discussion?
Question: Will the state-funded “red-brown commission” list the 25 June Vilnius book launch dealing with its own topic on the events page of its own website when the book’s author has been a member of the commission for decades? Are they afraid of something in the book?
Much more important than fleeting gossip cycles is the question of whether the new Vanagaite-Dieckmann book will follow the Vanagaite-Zuroff book in boldly and unceremoniously abandoning Lithuanian government acrobatics to “fix” the murderous rampages of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) in the last week of June 1941 prior to German administration, or will it, on that point, echo the red-brown commission executive director’s multiyear campaign? Hopefully, the new book also breaks with the red-brown commission’s views on the attempts to prosecute veterans of the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis in the forest (more on the commission, of which Dr. Dieckmann has been a member for decades, here and here).
Question: Did the Australian crowd-funding campaign organizers and the board members of the Good Will Foundation all know of the others’ contributions to the project?
The answers should be apparent, either way, when the new book appears on 25 June. The Defending History community profoundly hopes that the state commission’s spin has been once and for all abandoned, and that the new book reflects the empirical evidence that abounds concerning the initial period of massacres in Lithuania, to the same degree as the prime author’s meticulous research on its later periods over his long and distinguished career. Hopefully the authors will have found space to comment on the state commission’s long held adherence to the Prague Declaration, which indeed it helped engineer.
If such is the case, the Defending History community’s message to Vanagaite-Dieckmann is the same as that accorded Vanagaite-Zuroff:
The Defending History team recommends that its readers read both the Vanagaite-Zuroff volume and the Vanagaite-Dieckmann book… More on books in the current debate. DH’s Books section. For more book-length introductions to the history of the Lithuanian Holocaust in English, DH recommends, among others, the books by David Bankier, Leib Koniuchovsky, Joseph Levinson and Karen Sutton. See also our reading list with links to various papers and articles.