O P I N I O N
by Efraim Zuroff
The following text is the authorized English transcription of the text of Dr. Efraim Zuroff’s prefilmed video address that formed part of the program at a conference on Holocaust issues, organized by Rūta Vanagaitė, held at Vilnius City Hall on 17 April 2015. The video is here. Conference program. Conference’s final press release. Dr. Zuroff is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, the director of its East European Affairs Department and of the website Operation Last Chance.
Basic Challenges of Holocaust Education
ood afternoon to everybody. I’m very happy to be given the opportunity to address this conference, even if it has to be by film. Unfortunately I could not be present personally, but because of the importance of the topic and the rare opportunity that this is to discuss these issues in a very serious way, I am addressing you through this film.
The topic that was chosen is a very interesting one because there are very important, significant differences between the manner in which Western Europe and Eastern Europe relate to the events of the Holocaust, and this of course is a product of history. As we all know, and it underlines I think the major difficulties that countries like Lithuania and other countries in post-Communist Europe face when they come to dealing with these issues, because unfortunately for this part of the world when the war ended it did not mean a return to democracy, it did not mean liberal regimes, it meant more than 40 years of Communist oppression and subjugation. So it was only in 1990, 1991 that for the first time, the countries of post-Communist Eastern Europe were in a position to deal, or try to deal with the events of the Holocaust.
In this respect I have to point a very important difference between Eastern Europe and the rest of Europe. In every country that was occupied or allied with Nazi Germany the Nazis made a very determined effort to try and enlist local help. There were three reasons for this effort: one was ideological, the other two were practical. The ideological reason was that the Nazis wanted to show that everyone supported the measures that were being taken to persecute and ultimately murder the Jewish population. In other words, it wasn’t only the Nazis, the Germans, the Austrians who were behind this program, it had the support of very many people and people in every country. The practical reasons were the following. One was a shortage of manpower. The Germans were very thinly stretched from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from France all the way deep into the Soviet Union, and every local person who was recruited meant that a German or Austrian could be sent somewhere else. And then there was the other problem, which was the problem of logistics. They were about to carry out a mass murder operation and in many of these countries they didn’t know the local language, they didn’t know the topography, the geography, they obviously needed local helpers.
Now, the difference between collaboration in Eastern Europe and collaboration in the rest of the continent was the following: in France, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Italy, Norway and these countries, the local Nazi collaborators were not involved in the actual systematic murder of the Jews living in those countries. In other words, these collaborators helped the Nazis prepare the way, take the initial steps, identify who was a Jew, rob the Jews of their property, deny them a livelihood, round them up, arrest them and put them on trains, or in the case of Norway on boats, to be sent elsewhere to be murdered. This is basically accessory to murder, and I’m not making this differentiation to in any way condone what these people did, but in Eastern Europe, in many of the countries of that area, the situation was very different. In those countries, countries like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Croatia, to name the primary areas, the Nazis integrated the local collaborators into the killing mechanism, into the killing operation. So in other words, collaboration with the Nazis meant active participation in mass murder.
Now, once the war ended, these countries, this area, did not have the luxury of starting to try and deal with these terrible events. The simple reason was the Communist occupation, some of them became part of the Soviet Union, like Lithuania and the Baltic countries, Ukraine and Belarus. And others were not part of the Soviet Union but they were under Communist domination. And it was the Communists who decided what would be written in the textbooks, what monuments will be made, what captions on the monuments will be made, and of course all of this had to fit Communist propaganda.
Now to just give you one example, as you all know, not far from here is the killing site of Ponar, Paneriai. For many years there was the sole monument there, which had the following inscription: “To the victims of fascism.” Now, what does a caption like that hide? It hides the identity of the victims, and it hides the identity of the perpetrators. And this was done purposefully, because the Soviet Union was never willing to acknowledge that the Jews, who were the primary enemies of the Third Reich, primary ideological enemies of the Third Reich, and that one of the primary ideological goals of the Third Reich was to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth. As far as they were concerned this was the battle of the Titans, Communism against Nazism, and that’s the way they wanted everyone to be educated, that’s what they wanted everyone to know. As far as the identity of the perpetrators is concerned, as far as… There was always this myth of the brotherhood of Soviet peoples and it would be a little bit uncomfortable for the Communist authorities to explain that it was Communist, or Soviet Lithuanians murdering Soviet Jews living in Lithuania, or in Latvia, or in Estonia or in Ukraine, etc.
So it was only really when these countries that became independent, for the first time ever that they were free to teach the truth, write the truth and do what had to be done, try to do what had to be done to deal with these issues… Now, freedom, when it came, basically presented these countries with six practical tasks concerning the events of the Holocaust. One was acknowledgement of guilt. To acknowledge that local nationals had played a role in the mass murder of the Jews. Two was to commemorate the victims. Three was to prosecute those people who had not been prosecuted yet and were still alive, and there were plenty of them. Fourth was documentation, to write the history of this period, because all the history books had to be thrown out because they were Communist propaganda. Fifth was education, the same as was true for the textbooks, and sixth was restitution.
So, all of these tasks present certain difficulties, but I think it should be clear to all of us that some are far more difficult than others. Here we see that there have been very significant problems in achieving the goals that it was hoped that these countries would achieve starting with independence. It can be said, and it’s true, that it took France until 1995 for Chirac to admit that France was guilty for Vichy, and it took Austria until the 80s or 90s, early 90s, to admit that they were perpetrators, not only victims. But the fact of the matter is that these problems are cardinal, they’re critical, and the failure to deal with them to address them is one that will cast a shadow, continue to cast a shadow on the new democracies in the East if they’re not solved.
Now, as I see it, one of these problems of course is education and, you could say, the narrative of the Holocaust. In other words, what’s the narrative of the Holocaust in the Baltic countries? Here the thorniest problem, the most difficult, and sensitive, problem is the whole issue of local collaboration. So, for example, in Lithuania there’s a debate over the question of when the violence against the Jews started. Our researchers know—and I personally have done the research—that in more than forty different [Lithuanian] locals there was physical violence against Jews even before the first Nazis showed up, but the government has historians who go to the Seimas [Lithuanian Parliament] and say that this is not true, this is just some opinion of an Israeli historian who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But this has been documented, this is clear, and the problem is that this is a difficult thing to admit. That’s one problem.
The other problem is, and I’ll never forget this as long as I live, when I was invited to the dedication of the memorial at Ponar, in June, 1991, and the then-Lithuanian prime minister Gediminas Vagnorius got up and made a speech in which he said that this terrible tragedy lasted three months, which was quite difficult to comprehend because it took three years, and then he basically tried to say that there were a few Lithuanians who were involved in the murders, but these of course are hooligans, and every country has its hooligans. But anyone who reads the historical record, anyone who knows the history of the murders, especially in the provincial towns in which a hundred thousand Jews lived and almost all of them were murdered, knows that the phenomenon of collaboration with the Nazis in Lithuania encompassed all strata of Lithuanian society, from the priests, intelligentsia, the doctors, the lawyers, the veterinarians, the pharmacists, to the hooligans. And this of course is a difficult thing to digest. In other words, if it’s only the hooligans, every country has its hooligans, every society has its criminals, and it’s not surprising that it would be criminals who would do such horrific things, but if it’s your teachers, your principals, your lawyers, your clergy? That is something that is very difficult, but that’s the truth, that’s what happened.
Another issue is the reasons, why did this happen? I’ll never forget… For me, what stands out as a symbol is the murders in the Lietūkis garage in late June, 1941, in which fifty-two Jewish men were grabbed by some twenty Lithuanian vigilantes and they were murdered by two methods in front of a large crowd of men, women and children. They were either beaten to death by crowbars, or they had fire-hoses shoved down their mouths and the water was turned on and their stomachs were exploded. Now, as the people were being murdered, the crowd was applauding each murder, and when all fifty-two had been murdered, someone took out an accordion and started playing, it turns out it was the Lithuanian national anthem. Everyone started singing.
I often use this example, this incident, in my teaching, in my lectures about the issues of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and how we confront the Holocaust, how we teach about the Holocaust, and the question that I ask the teachers who come to Yad Vashem and that I’m speaking to is, what on earth is the connection between the Lithuanian national anthem and the murder of fifty-two Jews? And the answer is that the people who were committing this murder obviously thought that this murder was the patriotic thing to do. In other words, that they were helping their country by murdering these Jews. If we’re looking for some reasons to try and understand how these terrible crimes were committed, this is one of the things that you have to deal with. In other words, there’s no question that there was a nationalist element to the commission of these murders. So in other words it’s good to be a patriot, and it’s very understandable that people would love their country, but there is such a thing as too much patriotism, too much patriotism that motivates people to kill people who are not of their ethnicity, in this case, the Jews.
Now these problems are not unique to Lithuania. These problems are endemic throughout the Baltics, in the Ukraine, in Croatia, in Belarus. They’re all there. The problem is that instead of dealing with these problems directly, instead of facing them head-on, which I do not for a minute think is easy, and I feel, I have tremendous empathy for the teachers who have to teach these subjects, because I know how difficult it is, but my personal feeling is that it has to be done and it has to be faced honestly.
Now, the truth is that Lithuania had an incredible opportunity to take a tremendous step forward in this respect when fifteen Lithuanians who had served either in the Saugumas [Security Police] of the Vilnius district or the 12th Battalion, that is Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalion, were stripped of their citizenship in the United States and were kicked out of the United States and came back here to Lithuania. Now, in the United States they were stripped of their citizenship for lying on their immigration and naturalization applications. In other words, in the United States they couldn’t be prosecuted for their crimes because the crimes had been committed outside the United States and not by American citizens. The US could not prosecute the Lithuanian Nazi war criminals for their crimes because they did not have jurisdiction to try crimes committed overseas if the victims were not Americans.
As a result they found themselves back home, here in Lithuania, where they could have been prosecuted for the crimes themselves, and indeed, there were three cases that were brought to court, but unfortunately instead of using that process, those trials, as a means of educating the public, starting the healing process, and helping people to understand the depth of the crime, the scope of the crime, and the real importance of the crime, every effort was made to see that these people would never be punished, and in fact Aleksandras Lileikis, Kazys Gimžauskas and Algimantas Dailidė did not sit one day in jail. And that’s a very bad message, because if there’s no punishment, maybe there were no crimes, maybe the Jews are making it up. So this was a very, very unfortunate failure, a failure that I think future generations of Lithuanians will very deeply regret, but it only means that the process will take longer. So my hope is that the truth will finally be taught here and will be put into the textbooks, into the ceremonies, and the process of healing and reconciliation will begin, all of which will make the world a much better place.