O P I N I O N
by Milan Chersonski
On 21 September 2010, that year’s annual commemorative event was held in the forest of Ponár (Paneriai) at the monument to the seventy thousand Jews who were murdered there and whose remains were then burned at the site. Shortly before the ceremony’s conclusion it was announced that the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) had decided to declare the year 2011 the “Year of Commemorating Lithuanian Residents who Became Victims of Holocaust.” The parliament’s move came as a complete surprise to the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC). The country’s Jewish community had appealed neither to the president of Lithuania nor to the parliament with any such request.
In the midst of a deep and lingering economic crisis, a distressful rate of unemployment, mass migration of youth from Lithuania, price rises for goods and services, and the deteriorating quality for life for a considerable part of the population, the LJC had not requested any new state-sponsored anniversary events.
The LJC’s own calendar has a number of days of mourning: there are mass graves of Jewish victims of genocide all over the country. The Nazis and their local collaborators atrociously annihilated some 95% of the pre-war Jewish population. These are more than 220 sites of mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews.
The three main days of mourning for the Lithuanian Holocaust observed every year by the LJC are:
(1) January 27th, the International Memorial Day of Holocaust Victims (according to the United Nations). The commemorative event is held in the community’s assembly hall named after Jascha Heifetz with representatives from city and national organizations, and from foreign embassies. Schoolchildren and teachers are also invited.
(2) In mid-April, the precise date being determined by the Jewish calendar, the March of the Living is held. Groups of Israelis come to Lithuania for the event.
(3) On 23 September 23 at Ponár, where local collaborators murdered more than seventy thousand Jews, a traditional meeting commemorating the victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania is held.
The title of the parliament’s resolution “On declaring 2011 the Year of Commemorating Lithuanian Residents who Became Victims of the Holocaust” (resolution no. XI-1017) raises questions: What residents of Lithuania do they mean? Why isn’t it said openly and unambiguously in the title that the victims of Holocaust are the Lithuanian Jews? Would the word “Jews” in this title be an embarrassment to our lawmakers?
And how are we to understand the expression “who became victims”? A person can become a victim often by his own or someone else’s mistake, an incident, a traffic accident, a natural disaster, and so on.
But more than 200,000 “Lithuanian residents” were murdered not because they were Lithuanian residents, but because they were Jews.
They were intentionally robbed and killed en masse for that reason by the Nazis and local collaborators. The Jews did not “become victims,” they were sought out and murdered. In other words they were turned into victims, they were victimized and the unnamed perpetrators, or “Nazis and their local collaborators,” were not acting as some blind force of nature, but volitionally, under their own control, using their human faculties of reason, decision making, resolve and planning.
In Lithuania the Nazis didn’t need gas chambers for mass murder and they didn’t need ovens for burning hundreds of thousands of corpses. They found here enough enthusiastically obliging people who diligently killed their victims and dug their copses into the ground by hand. A woeful record was set here: about 95% of the pre-war Jewish population of the country was murdered, the highest of any country in Europe. Only those lucky enough to flee Lithuania to the east and those hidden by locals, who hid mostly children, survived.
Despite the absence of the word “Jews” in the title of resolution XI-1017, it does occur twice in the actual text: (1) “The losses of Lithuanian Jews during the Nazi occupation years constitute a great tragic part of our common history” and (2) “The genocide of Jews which was carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators during the German occupation of Lithuania.” People rarely read the actual texts of resolutions, though. And if they encounter the word “Jew” in an internet article, a hailstorm of calumnies, defamation, and profanities is unleashed in the many comments following the article.
Also in September 2010, exactly one week after publishing resolution XI-1017, the parliament adopted a new resolution, resolution XI-1038, according to which the same year, 2011, was proclaimed to be the Year of Memory for Defense of Freedom and Great Losses. The similarity of the two names was such that some people thought it was either a new name for the resolution adopted one week earlier, or that it was a replacement resolution that superseded or abolished the former one.
This second resolution, XI-1038 says: “The parliament of the Republic of Lithuania, taking into account that in 2011 we will be remembering especially sad anniversaries of 1941 and 1991, stressing the losses of Lithuanian residents in 1941 and in 1991, taking into consideration the particular importance of those years’ events in the history of the Lithuanian state, assessing the support of the world community in defense and confirmation of reestablished independence of Lithuania, resolves: to declare the year 2011 the Year of Memory for Defense of Freedom and Great Losses.”
The resolution doesn’t say why lawmakers see “the particular importance of those years.” Which events of 1991, at fifty years’ distance from 1941, impart the moral right to connect these two dates? What does the resolution mean regarding “the support of the world community in defense and confirmation of reestablished independence of Lithuania” when it is not addressing the year of 1991 alone, but also 1941?
Those who lived in Lithuania in the 1990-1991 period will remember forever the congratulations and greetings to the people and government of Lithuania sent by ordinary people, organizations and governments of many European countries, the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, honoring a country which proudly restored her freedom and independence. And every new report about that priceless support, including the half-million strong demonstration in Moscow in defense of Lithuania’s independence, brought tears of joy. The world celebrated the victory of freedom and democracy, the triumph of justice.
But what on earth does the support received by the Lithuanian people struggling for freedom in the years 1988 to 1991 have to do with the bloody terror of the Holocaust begun by Lithuanian partisans in 1941?
These partisans are called “white armbanders” (baltaraiščiai) because of the color of their armbands, by which the participants in the “uprising” distinguished “their guys” from other residents of Lithuania. The Lithuanian people gave them a more apt nickname: žydšaudžiai (literally “Jew-shooters”).
Whose head in the whole wide world could have hit upon the monstrous idea to congratulate the thousands of “white armbanders” who became Nazi accomplices in “the final solution of the Jewish question,” in other words in the genocide of some 95% of Lithuanian Jewry between 1941 and 1944?
By forcing into a single package the events of 1941 and 1991, which have neither external nor internal connections, the lawmakers have either confused something with something entirely different, or — and this is rather more likely — they have consciously used the bright and pure date of the restoration of independence in 1991 as a DEFENSIVE CONSTRUCTION by which they are attempt to expunge from history the nightmare of the monstrous crimes committed by local Nazi collaborators in 1941 and then in 1942-1944. Crimes committed by the Nazis and their accomplices from 1941 to 1944 don’t fall under any statute of limitation. Even so, Lithuanian justice hasn’t punished a single one of them since the establishment of renewed independence.
Why then did the Lithuanian parliament adopt resolution XI-1017, if it doesn’t even contain a specific indication concerning which particular date of the Jewish tragedy members of parliament felt has a particular anniversary in 2011? If we assume it’s the day for commemorating genocide victims among the Jews of Lithuania, then the official date for that is 23 September when the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943. In 2011 it was 68 years since that annihilation of the last Vilna Ghetto inhabitants. This date has become one of mourning for Lithuanian Jews in perpetuity, but no round-year anniversary is evident for 2011. So that wasn’t it.
They could have commemorated the 70th anniversary of the “Great Action” in the Kovno Ghetto in late October 1941, but this tragic event wasn’t included at all into the official calendar of memorial dates. Either the authorities forgot about it, or they considered it excessive to enter one more commemorative “Jewish” date for the state calendar of memorial dates. Or maybe some people in power want to suppress the historic fact that the bloodies single day slaughter in the history of the Baltics was the “Great Action” at the Ninth Fort in October of 1941, when close to ten thousand Jewish civilians of Kaunas were butchered by Lithuanian “partisans” working with pleasure for the Nazis.
This date is memorialized in Kaunas unofficially. Each year on the last Sunday in October Jews of Lithuania come to Kaunas, and from time to time they are joined by delegations from Germany, France and other countries whose Jewish citizens were transported to Kaunas and murdered in the city’s forts. A commemorative ceremony is held, at the end of which people usually walk slowly and silently in a long procession along the perimeter path of the huge burial site, as large as a football pitch, and lay flowers and wreaths at the edge of the field.
But in 2011 the date 23 June did indeed yield the round number 70. It was seventy years from 23 June 1941, when the white armbanders began their pogroms, humiliations of neighbors, burglaries, mass murders and unspeakable mutilations. In short, the day when they initiated the Holocaust of Lithuanian Jewry, which in a matter of days was turned into a much more orderly German enterprise once the Nazis took control.
The official calendar did not and does not include 23 June, the first day of mass murder of Lithuanian Jews.
Why is the one date for which there was the round number of a seventieth anniversary in 2011 missing from the commemorative program? It is the date that actually marks the onset of the Lithuanian Holocaust.
With this question in mind, we can only hazard different guesses about the reasons for this “year for the Jews” being called the “Year to Commemorate Lithuanian Residents Who Became Holocaust Victims.” Who needed it, and why?
According to resolution XI-1017, the parliament entrusted to the government the development of plans for the “Jewish” program. The “Lithuanian” program, by contrast, was to be developed by the Commission for the Study of the History of Lithuania’s National Revival together with other state institutions. Why the lack of symmetry?
Why would the government be responsible for one program, and this commission, an organization much lower in the political hierarchy than the government, for the other?
Events for the “Lithuanian” program were modest and even austere. It contained only eleven items, and they are all connected with domestic Lithuanian life. The word “partisans” is mentioned only once in the wording: “to issue a CD called Maps of Partisans’ Activities.” But in this case they meant post-war Lithuanian partisans, who called themselves “The Forest Brothers” and acted on the territory of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1944 to 1953. No other “partisans” are even mentioned in the program of events.
From the first hours of 23 June 1941 the white armbanders’ uprising was accompanied by a bloody antisemitic orgy, crowned in short order by murders in the Lietukis Garage and the slaughter in Slobodka. But for more than fifteen years the state’s official calendar of commemorative dates has featured this entry: “No. 31. 23 June — the Day of the June Uprising.”
During the year 2011 in fact two mobile exhibitions were organized: (1) for comprehensive schools called “The year 2011 — the year of historical memory, devoted to 1991 and 1941, the years of struggle for freedom and losses, as well as the twentieth anniversary of the international confirmation of the restoration of Lithuanian statehood” and (2) on the topic of the life of Lithuanians in exile, called: “Beyond the Urals where the earth ends.” A third, stationary exhibition called “13 January  in the National Television and Radio building.” A commemorative concert was organized by Lithuanian State Television and Radio in the square in front of the national parliament.
A memorial at the Naujoji Vilnia railway station was tidied up. Memorial plaques were manufactured and placed at railway stations whence Lithuanian citizens were deported in 1941 and on the building of Lithuanian State Radio and Television to commemorate the events of 13 January 1991.
A civic and patriotic educational project called “Mission: Siberia” was produced. A CD called “Maps of Partisan Activities” was released, and a photo anthology called “Memory Revived in Monuments.” There were events by the cultural-educational Brothers in the Provinces project. A documentary devoted to the struggle for freedom and losses of 1991 and 1941, as well as the 20th anniversary of the confirmation of the restoration of Lithuanian statehood was made. A welfare payment to family members of the victims of the 1991 tragedy in Medininkai was organized.
The sensational addition to the “Lithuanian” program, however, became a declaration by a group of eighteen public organizations, which called for “decent celebration of the 70th anniversary of the 1941 June Uprising.” In was published on the internet on 19 March 2011. The “uprising” of the white-armbander “partisans” is glorified there, which, as is well-known, was in fact the beginning of the near-total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry.
Critical of what they called the ineffective organization of official events, radical right-wing public organizations announced their own plans for celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the 1941 “June Uprising,” consisting of six general items, each with subcategories. One can read about the plans for celebrating the seventieth anniversary of the 1941 June “Uprising” at:
It could well be that these plans are a continuation of officially announced plans. They make up for the lack of events to immortalize the white armbanders in the initial parliamentary project. Moreover, one gets the impression the events proposed by these public organizations were not financed by “public donations.” If it were otherwise, then how can we explain, for instance, that the organizers of the academic conference dedicated to the seventieth anniversary of the 1941 June “Uprising” were the Academy of Sciences and the Genocide Center, both financed by the state, along with the “Union of Lithuanian rebels of June 22-28, 1941”?
The event schedule for the “Jewish” program, unlike the “Lithuanian” program, includes 24 items. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Office of the President of Lithuania, the Office of the Parliament, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, the secretariat of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, the Vilnius Mayor’s office and the Jewish Community of Lithuania were all appointed as nominally responsible for carrying out the program.
According to the program developed by the government, all traditional annual events of commemorating Holocaust victims, which in any case are held annually by the LJC, were to be held again. The Jauna Muzika choir performed at the Lėlė theater (the former Vilna ghetto theater) on 23 September. Rescuers of Jews were honored at the President’s palace. A new event was a theatrical commemoration of Vilna Ghetto victims at the Square of Ghetto Victims with an internet broadcast and coverage by Lithuanian and foreign TV channels. A project for restoring the Square of Ghetto Victims was supposed to be drafted and implemented. Whether the project was drawn up or not remains a mystery, but there are no changes to be seen on Ghetto Square. The item in the plan “to suggest that neighborhood management councils should discuss the opportunity to name common places after the names of Righteous People of the world and outstanding personalities (Abraham Sutzkever, Matisyohu Strashun, Ona Šimaitė, Sofia Binkekė, etc.),” had a declarative character. This opportunity did not interest the neighborhood councils.
One very significant event was the unveiling of a memorial plaque to the Righteous Gentile Anton Schmid at Antakalnis Cemetery in Vilnius. It is very important that the name of yet another foreigner, this one a Nazi army soldier, joined the immortal ranks of the foreigners Sugihara and Zwartendijk, who saved Lithuanian Jews. It would be fair in the future to honor the name of the German major Plagge as well. Further, it would be right to find an opportunity to honor with memorial plaques the names of Lithuania’s own Righteous Among the Nations.
We could also call interesting and useful the recommendation for school children to view the exhibition at the Vilnius Jewish museum called “A Saved Jewish Child Speaks about the Shoah” and to organize excursions to the Ponár memorial, to the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, and to meet Holocaust survivors. But have many schools followed this recommendation? Unfortunately, these events have not been highlighted or even discussed in the media.
The events plan includes this point: “To organize enlightening seminars for academic youth and educationalists on antisemitism and the Holocaust, which will be held in Lithuania and the USA.” Who is to organize these seminars, run them, choose the topics and invite the participants? Who will receive financial means to implement this point in the plan and what amount will they receive? For which constituency of listeners in the USA are these seminars intended and why should Lithuania organize them there?
The plan proposes creating an exhibition devoted to the Holocaust at the Museum of Genocide Victims and at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. A separate and up-to-date exhibit about the death camp at the Ninth Fort should have been created long ago, but it hasn’t. At the Genocide Museum in Vilnius an exhibit has been added in the form of a one-man cell in the basement. It is a poor exhibition which corresponds neither with the announced topic nor the scale of the Jewish tragedy in Lithuania, and it is impossible to create an adequate Holocaust exhibit in a jail cell of just twelve square meters. The exhibit formally exists, but it is impossible to glean from it real information about the genocide of Lithuanian Jews and the scale of their annihilation during World War II.
One of the items in the plan proposes drawing up lists of names of Holocaust victims, in cooperation with Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, academic institutes and other archives. The idea is wonderful: Holocaust victims had names. They must be recalled. Unfortunately, these are still only good intentions. Only time will show whether they will bear fruit.
Movement in the right direction was apparent in the reconstruction of the prisoners’ pit at the Ponár memorial and restoration of the place of a mass slaughter of Poles and Jews on Titnago Street in Vilnius. Seventy years after their murder, a sad ceremony to commemorate the dead and inter their remains was held there.
The creation of the Atlas of the Holocaust in Lithuania is of great significance. It was prepared by Milda Jakulytė-Vasil. It is a substantial and painstaking work worthy of praise. The geographic locations of the burial places are pinpointed, and it is no longer difficult for tourists in automobiles to find them with GPS devices. The murderers, victims and the number of murdered are cited. Nonetheless it is impossible to understand why so little space is devoted to Joseph Levinson, the scholar who at the beginning of the 1990s processed the documents connected with the places of mass murder of Jews. He restored more than twenty burial places of Holocaust victims. He replaced the deceitful Soviet signs with accurate new ones, photographed them and went on to publish the pioneering Book of Sorrows about the mass murder sites of Lithuanian Holocaust victims. Yevsey Yatzovsky took part in this work. They created a map of Lithuania, on which the burial places of the remains of Holocaust victims are marked. This map of mass graves was the forerunner of the one that is now inserted in the printed edition of the new Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas.
Unlike the “Lithuanian” program, the “Jewish” program contains many foreign-oriented events — conferences, meetings, seminars, forums, discussions of different projects, etc. Many of these events were covered by critical eyewitness reports in DefendingHistory.com.
One such event is point 4 of the “Jewish” program: “To renew the activities of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania” (for short: the Commission) which was founded by decree of the president of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus on 7 September 1998.
The Jewish Community of Lithuania was one of the first to express a negative attitude toward this blatant attempt to reject the uniqueness of Nazi crimes and to equate them with crimes of the Stalin regime. On many occasions the chairperson of the LJC has insisted publicly that the Holocaust cannot be equated to Stalin’s repressions, although both regimes were criminal. On 6 November 1998, Joseph A. Melamed, chairperson of the Association of Lithuanian Jews representing Lithuanian Jews around the world, appealed to president Adamkus in a letter in which he requested a review of the mandate of the united Commission and its replacement by two separate commissions, failing which cancellation of the project was recommended. The president was unmoved.
This conflict has festered for years. During this period, from 2002 to 2006, the “Jewish” part of the Commission published three volumes of their collective academic research on Nazi crimes in Lithuania. It appears that work by some independent scholars and researchers in the “Jewish” part of the Commission began to disturb certain powerful forces in Lithuania.
By some strange coincidence, it was at just this time, in 2006, that Lithuania’s Prosecutor General’s Office tried to accuse the former partisan who fought on the side of the anti-Hitler coalition, retired general in the Israeli Defence Forces and outstanding historian Dr. Yitzhak Arad of committing war crimes without statutes of limitation. Of course Arad indignantly resigned from the Commission immediately. Sir Martin Gilbert (London), Professor Gershon Greenberg (Washington) and Professor Konrad Kwiet (Sydney, Australia) all resigned from the Commission or its committee of experts in solidarity with Dr. Arad. This conflict is described in detail at:
For about four years now the Commission hasn’t carried out any scientific research on the Nazi regime in Lithuania. For recent developments, see:
In the search for academics who would like and be able to replace the scholars who resigned from the Commission, the program for the 2011 “Jewish” commemorative year was used. International academic conferences were held in Vilnius and London and different international seminars and other events were hosted in Lithuania, the USA and Israel. Representatives of the LJC were not invited to any of these events. So far nothing has been heard on whether the monies spent and efforts exerted have yielded the desired result. Today only one section of the Commission is working — the one engaged in researching Stalinist crimes in Lithuania and methods for teaching about the Holocaust at Lithuanian comprehensive schools.
Looking back upon the results of the special events for the commemorative year 2011, we would like to ask those who shape current policy of Lithuania: Isn’t it long past due now to understand that the Lithuanian and Jewish people living in Lithuania need to be guided in understanding the events of World War II by a common history of all the peoples living in Lithuania, rather than for separate versions of history to be promulgated on a political basis for different audiences?
Who needs this divide-and-conquer policy?
Authorized translation from the Russian by Ludmilla Makedonskaya