O P I N I O N
by Milan Chersonski
Milan Chersonski (Chersonskij), longtime editor (1999-2011) of Jerusalem of Lithuania, quadrilingual (English-Lithuanian-Russian-Yiddish) newspaper of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, was previously (1979-1999) director of the Yiddish Folk Theater of Lithuania, which in Soviet times was the USSR’s only Yiddish amateur theater company. The views he expresses in DefendingHistory.com are as always his own. Authorized translation from the Russian original by DefendingHistory.com.
The twentieth of January 2012 made it precisely seventy years from the day when a conference of ministries and agencies of Hitler’s Germany was held at the Marlier Villa by Lake Wannsee. It went down in history as the Wannsee Conference. Nazi officials in a business-like manner in ice blood, discussed the problems of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the euphemism for genocide of the Jews in Europe.
Fulfillment of the Wannsee Conference decisions, which became directives, continued until the last days of the Nazi state. Not even the approach of the Red Army in the east or the successful landing of the anti-Hitler coalition in the west resulted in German leaders abandoning the project to annihilate the Jewish people. In the face of a string of crushing defeats, acute shortages of transport, ammunition, fuel and even food, the Nazis went on sending Jews to their death with a maniacal consistency.
But it would be a very serious mistake to think that the Wannsee Conference directives per se played the main role in the Final Solution of the Jewish Question here in Lithuania. In this part of the world the Nazis and their many accomplices had been quick to rob and massacre the majority of the Jewish population by December 1941. Before the Wannsee Conference.
According to data provided by Dov Levin, one of the leading historians of Lithuanian Jewry, by the end of December 1941 more than 180,000 Lithuanian Jews had been killed (approximately 72% of the Jewish population here at the time). In the introduction to Levin’s Book, Fighting Back: Lithuanian Jewry’s Armed Resistance to the Nazis, 1941-45 (1985), another leading historian, Yehuda Bauer, estimates that before Nazi Germany’s invasion of Lithuania, starting on 22 June 1941, there had been about a quarter million Jews. Scarcely half a year had passed and there were only four ghettos left in which some 40,000 surviving Jews were incarcerated behind barbed wire in their own native cities ― in Vilnius (Vilna), around 17,000 people; Kaunas (Kovno), around 16,000; Šiauliai (Shavl), around 4,700 people; and Švenčionys (Svintsyán), about 2,000.
All in all, during World War II, around 95% of the pre-war Jewish population of Lithuania was massacred. On the percentage scale, the fulfillment in Lithuania of the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish Question left nearly all the countries of Hitler-occupied Europe far behind.
How did it happen that Lithuania was so “successful” in this respect?
In their joint study, The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews during Summer and Fall of 1941, historians Saulius Sužiedėlis and Christoph Dieckmann formulate it this way: “The persecution and killing of the Jews began within hours of the Nazy invasion of Lithuania. By the end of June, within a week of the outbreak of the war, Jews already constituted a conspiciuously large number, if not the majority, of civilians killed during the initial phase of the German-Soviet conflict. Furthermore , with the exception of real and alleged Communists and Soviet collaborators, no other group endured such egregious public humiliation” (p. 99).
The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Lithuania was prepared so meticulously thanks to the headquarters of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), which had been set up in Berlin on 17 December 1940. Propaganda materials and instructions on how to prepare an “uprising” were arriving from Berlin LAF headquarters to local centers in Kaunas and Vilnius. Considerable attention in preparing the “uprising” was focused on inflaming antisemitic moods among the Lithuanian population. The founder of the Berlin LAF headquarters was a colonel, a former Lithuanian ambassador to Germany Kazys Škirpa, who had long-standing excellent ties with the same Nazi special services that had been preparing the Wannsee Conference.
In an interview published on 13 June 2011, titled “The Answer of the People to the Soviets ― Uprising,” Augustinas Idzelis, a Lithuanian born lawyer who now lives in the USA, and is familiar with World War II documents kept in US archives, confirmed that K. Škirpa “had connections with Peter Kleist, who served Ribbentrop and was at the head of the bureau of occupied Eastern territories. Naturally, K. Škirpa gave him various documents. He passed to the Germans his grand projects concerning the uprising, the invasion and the role of Lithuanians.”
It is inconceivable that Nazi special services did not control the preparation of the Lithuanian uprising. Who financed the LAF activities? For some reason Lithuanian historians tend to maintain a strange silence on this and related questions. Among these is the degree to which Nazi scouts prepared dedicated activists to take part in the “uprising” in their immediately available “uniform” comprising the white cloth band wrapped around the arm and making these “white armbanders” the vanguard of the activities that were in the planning stages.
On the eve of the 1941 invasion, propagandistic materials with antisemitic content were distributed in Lithuania. One of these leaflets was entitled “Let’s free Lithuania from the Jewish yoke forever.”
An excerpt from another leaflet predating the invasion: “The greatest and the most obliging collaborator […] of the enemy was the Jew. A Jew doesn’t belong to any national community. He has neither motherland nor state. He is always and everywhere only a Jew. The Russian Jew has been and remains the most active mover of Communism. Numerous Jews came running to Lithuania together with the occupying Bolshevik army as commissars, KGB servicemen, political leaders and the like. So has the Lithuanian Jew been and so does he remain the most faithful servant of Russian Bolshevism, a performer of the occupants’ will, as loyal as a dog, until the very last moment the most loathsome suffocator and parasite that Lithuanian people have ever felt on their neck” (Liudas Truska & Vygantas Vareikis, The Preconditions for the Holocaust: Antisemitism in Lithuania, Vilnius, 2004, pp. 267-269).
The “rebels” or “white armbanders” so named for the white band they wrapped around the upper arm to distinguish themselves, responded actively to the call for annihilating all Jews mercilessly. There are plentiful testimonies about white armbanders, without any participation of the Nazis and even in their absence murdering their neighbors who were Jewish in a wide variety of Lithuanian locations. That was mentioned by Brigadenfuhrer Stahlecker in his report to Berlin: “The population by themselves, without any directions from the German side used the most brutal measures against Bolsheviks and Jews.”
It is also worth mentioning that in Lithuania Jews were killed in a different way than in Central and Western Europe: mass murder and other “work” right up to the division of the property belonging to the victims were handled by local fascist collaborators either on their own or under Nazi supervisors’ guard. Murders did not take place in death camps far from outsiders’ eyes, but before local people’s very eyes. Local people were sometimes especially brought to the place of mass killings as spectators.
Lithuanian people not only witnessed the bloody orgy of massacre, but also watched the division of the Jewish property that followed and saw who received what for participating in the murders. Even today one can hear passed-down stories about those events in Lithuanian towns and villages. Those mass killings of unprotected, unarmed Jews during the war became a moral and psychological trauma not only for the perpetrators of the crimes, but also for their close and distant relatives. It divided the population into six groups: (1) immediate performers of (and accessories to) the murders; (2) murderers’ family members; (3) those sympathizing with the murderers; (4) the indifferent; (5) those sympathizing with the victims; (6) the rescuers of the hunted Jews.
In today’s Lithuania the fourth and fifth generations of people who didn’t see the war are embarking on their lifespans. Nevertheless, they learn about it from their relatives’ verbal accounts.
Misunderstanding of the history is becoming deeper and deeper. Unfortunately, in Lithuania nobody studies either the psychological consequences of World War II or the ways of overcoming these consequences. Though those who want to equate the Holocaust with Stalin’s repressions and vice versa build their policies on the back of the psychological traumas of the population.
Marking the seventieth anniversary of the Wannsee Conference, and taking into account among other issues the revival of Nazism in some countries (and the dangerous tendency of its continued dissemination), seventy European parliamentarians signed the Seventy Years Declaration, which was released on the anniversary day of 20 January 2012.
The Declaration was signed by seventy parliamentarians from nineteen European European countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden. Among them are 47 members of the European Parliament. The rest are all members of EU national parliaments (with one recent retiree from Germany).
In today’s Lithuania the revival of nazism as a modernized neo-Nazi ideology and the strengthening of its position is underway. It becomes ever more widespread and acquires greater influence on the younger generation. Due to the efforts of some members of the Seimas from the ruling Homeland Union (Conservatives) – Christian Democrats faction, the municipalities of Kaunas and Vilnius permit the Lithuanian Nationalist Youth Union to hold a demostration on February 16th, Lithuania’s Independence Day, in Kaunas, and to march in Vilnius along the capital’s main boulevard on March 11th, the day celebrating restoration of independence.
During their traditional march on March 11th 2011, one of the slogans was “Today on the street, tomorrow in parliament.” There is no doubt that they have grounds to believe this slogan. They have both ideologists and experienced leaders. It’s quite possible that in the near future their representatives will appear in the Seimas. To stop this kind of development of events down the road should be of the most important tasks of today.
In this situation six members of the Lithuanian Seimas, Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis, Birutė Vėsaitė, Marija Pavilionienė, Algirdas Sysas, Justinas Karosas, Julius Sabatauskas, and two Lithuanian members of the European Parliament, Vilija Blinkevičiūtė and Justas Paleckis signed the Seventy Years Declaration on the anniversary of Wannsee. Their signatures became not only an important and timely event, but also an act of civic courage, which arouses respect for those who protect the honor of this country, and of democracy and justice for all its people.
Several representatives of the party Homeland Union (Conservative) – Christian Democrats faction don’t hide their irritation about the act of the eight Lithuanian parliamentarians. We can’t but mention that they didn’t dare to criticize the actions of the other countries’ 62 parliamentarians who signed the declaration. Moreover: they don’t ever venture to criticize openly the text of the Declaration, which was approved by the signing parliamentarians from 19 countries. They only criticize their opponents from Lithuania who signed the Declaration.
On January 20th this year, as soon as the declaration was released, Lithuanian media reported that Lithuania’s minister of foreign affairs Audronius Ažubalis called the signing of the declaration “pathetic.” Let us bear in mind that Ažubalis is the very member of Homeland Union (Conservatives) – Christian Democrats whose statements inciting hatred of Jews resulted in an appeal from Lithuania’s Jewish Community to the president of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė in late 2010.
The foreign minister is indignant about the fact that the Seventy Years Declaration contradicts “the resolution of the European Parliament on the conscience of Europe and totalitarianism, which calls for announcing August 23rd as the memorial day for all the victims of European totalitarian and authoritative regimes, as well as the resolution of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly about the unification of divided Europe, in which both Nazi’s and Stalin’s regimes are condemned.”
The report continued to quote the foreign minister: “Actually, this kind of Social Democrat rhetoric repeats the Kremlin’s ideologists’ guidelines: Stalin is ‘good’, while Hitler is ‘bad’” which he followed up with the now infamous words: “One can tell the difference between Hitler and Stalin only by their moustache. Hitler’s was shorter.” These words of wisdom were faithfully conveyed to the media by the foreign minister’s own press attaché Margarita Butkienė.
The “scientific argumentation” of the minister’s statement about the equality of Soviet and Nazi genocides is likely to have been exhausted by his “well-aimed and thoughtful” assertion about the two dictators’ moustache length. Finally, to bring a scientific basis to his desire to unite as a single entity Nazism and Stalinism at all costs, the minister goes on to say: “All those who profess totalitarian ideologies ― Communist or Nazi ― are united by their intolerance to democracy. The legal status of the crimes committed by them is absolutely the same ― these are war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” After such a resolute statement of the “democrat” A. Ažubalis all that is left to do is to go and find “All those” (who may happen to have another opinion…).
Lithuania had in fact had a chance to “find” and punish at least somebody of those who really professed totalitarian Nazi ideology, those who killed Jews during the war. In 1992 the restored Seimas adopted a law “On the responsibility for genocide of Lithuanian residents.” By this act Lithuania declared to the whole world its joining the international convention “On putting an end to genocide crimes and punishment for it” and “On non-usage of a statute of limitations for war crimes and crimes against humanity.” The Laws of the International Tribunal at Nuremberg were recognized. Attention was drawn to the fact that these international normative legal acts make it necessary to adopt national laws, which will mean responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The acts were adopted. But the result is the following: Those in the US who had been accused, on the basis of massive evidence, of collaboration with the Nazis during the war were deported from the USA to Lithuania. They were deprived of American citizenship for deception of US immigration authorities. Of the more than fifteen deported on varying substantive grounds, all were relieved of criminal responsibility, except three ― A. Lileikis, K.G. Gimzauskas and A. Dailidė. The trial of the first two was spun out for years until both died. The third, A. Dailidė was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, but the sentence was dropped because of “weak health.” He ran out of the courtroom safe, energetic as ever, dressed in the latest fashion, and was given a hero’s welcome with banners by his Šiauliai and Vilnius accomplices and accompanied to the railway station where he went to join his wife in Berlin.
The same political forces tried to obtain political rehabilitation not only for those who had been convicted of Nazi war crimes by Stalin’s regime, but also for those who had served the sentence of the Soviet court, those who had killed not only Jewish citizens, but also Lithuanians. They were not only rehabilitated, but were also paid the same financial allowances as those who had been really repressed unlawfully by the Stalin regime, in other words: equalized. When that trick was disclosed, thanks to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Holocaust historian Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the rehabilitation of the former criminals had to be revoked.
In 2000 there was an attempt to legitimize the puppet Nazi “Provisional Government” of 1941. The law on legitimization was adopted with no mention of the responsibility of the Provisional Government’s complicity in the establishment of ghettos for Jews and in the process of the genocide. An international scandal was brewing, and two members of the Seimas, notable representatives of the party, had to run to then-president Valdas Adamkus and ask him not to sign the legislation adopted by Seimas, and then to talk the Seimas into considering the act adopted only as a first reading and postpone its further discussion until better times. These “better times” haven’t yet come, but who knows…
To those personalities in Lithuania who are trying to equate The Final Solution of the Jewish Question confirmed at Wannsee with Stalin’s repressions in the USSR and eastern and central European countries, it should be worth noting some differences.
No one denies the vast cruelty and sadism of Stalin and his regime, but Stalin was far from the rationally organized and efficient work of a state machine of total eradication of a race on principle, as was designed and enacted on Hitler’s order.
Those Lithuanian citizens (of all nationalities, including Russians and Jews of course), who were sent to Siberia and died there in hard living conditions, are buried in graves with names, which are nowadays visited and taken care of by Lithuanian youth. Those who survived the exile happily returned to their motherland or on their own wish remained to settle in Russia.
There are no names on the graves of the more than two hundred thousand tortured, torn-to-pieces and murdered Jews at the sites of their mass slaughter. There are not even remains at Ponár (Paneriai) or the Ninth Fort near Kaunas. The Nazis and their local collaborators burnt their copses and scattered the ashes.
No, gentlemen, Stalinism is different from Hitlerism.
It might be worth reminding the minister of foreign affairs and his friends that the Nazis considered Lithuanians people of lower race and after their victory were going to create the territory called Ostland (Eastland) in the combined space of four countries Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus. This was slated to be an area inhabited by those Reich soldiers and officers who performed the best during the the armed struggle against Bolshevism.
In the protocols of turning Baltic countries into a German province called Ostland it was pointed that “racially undesirable parts of the population must be sent to western Siberia. The examination of the racial constitution of the population must be held not as racial selection, but disguised as a hygienic check or something like this, not to provoke disturbance among the population.”
When today the politicians of the right wing try to present Russia as the source of all of Lithuania’s problems, we must not forget that it was Russia that stopped Hitler from turning Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Belarus into Ostland, liberated those prisoners of Auschwitz who remained alive, and people of Eastern and Central Europe from Hitlerism. Russia is far from being a democratic society, but the victory of the USSR in World War II saved the Lithuanian people not only from being Germanized and from extinction, but also from losing what every Lithuanian put into the word and concept motherland.
Therefore, when the above-mentioned eight Lithuanian parliamentarians in partnership with 62 of other EU countries sign a declaration, in which Wannsee is commemorated in light of today’s European realities, they are not “repeating the directions of the Kremlin’s ideologists,” as Ažubalis supposes, but are just doing what honest people should do according to their civic conscience.
To ensure that Nazism will have no future in Europe.