What It Is to Defend Your Own History

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by Kristina Apanavičiūtė Sulikienė


Kristina Apanavičiūtė Sulikienė

One can hear various stories about history here in Lithuania. The main narrative is about Bad Communists and Good Nazis. Yes, it is true. Especially very recently, after the civil (or whatever kind of) war broke out in Ukraine, the Nazis and those who justify and glorify them, both in Ukraine and Lithuania, have found new strength. Under the banner of “Ukraine Fights For All Of Us,” some have decided to bring back such “heroes” as the killer Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejas.

For my part, I would like to defend our Tauras district (in the Kaunas region) from the legacy of this genre of “hero.” For his history was not only one of guerilla warfare against Soviet forces but about what he was doing in 1941 when the wholesale slaughter of our Jewish population was underway.  This has a lot to do with Lithuania, who we are as proud Lithuanians whose history, like every other people on this earth, has its high and its low moments.

We may be proud about many aspects of the interwar Lithuanian republic (1918 – 1940). But we must face the fact that while civil and administrative law looked very Western European on paper, it was not quite the same on the ground because of the degree of segregation, manipulation, and financial crimes by many in government. Big factories did not have to follow the Labor laws, and any who would speak out with a second opinion might well find themselves persecuted by the secret service of the time, the Žvalgyba. Let us leave the communists of those times to their eternal rest. But on one thing at least they were right: they fought for the eight-hour working day!

Talking about those communists, a hefty percentage of their tiny number were indeed Jews. If you read documents of that time, you can see that officers of secret services write openly “Let’s get rid of those Jews.” We are told that President Smetona fought the communists. But that is only a half-truth. He fought against anyone who could remove him from his throne of being the effective unelected king of Lithuania. So when we talk about persecution of Jews in Lithuania, the story does not start ex nihilo in 1941. It starts in some degree with our “Lithuania between the wars” and its particular Lithuanian character.

But that is not the whole story. There was very much of the opposite too: Jews in Lithuania were very respected for many generations, and in many families it was an honor in a shtetl to live in the Jewish area. Nor most it be forgotten that for all its faults, independent interwar Lithuania had what was arguably the lowest rate of anti-Jewish violence of any country in Eastern Europe.

My grandfather Zigmas Apanavičius had a brother Jurgis Apanavičius who had a shop in Aukštoji Panemunė near Kaunas. His grandson Algis Skrinska told me that he had often heard in the family that his grandfather had been harassed = by some Lithuanians on account of “his relations with the Jews are too good.”

A “shtetl” is not any old town. By definition it is a town, where (in its center, at least) most of the inhabitants were Jews, and other nationalities were minorities. But nowadays, in schools, newspapers, and even in our history books there is a pervasive narrative, one that is historically wrong: that Jews were very poor and unsuccessful and therefore joined communist and socialist movements, and that is why a very good and democratic Lithuanian government had to fight against them.

And it is told, mostly by the so-called “Patriotic Youth” and their collaborationist historians that our army officials, collaborating with the Nazis from 1941, did not “really” kill Jews because they were just “killing communists.” They do not mention the “other statistic” that it was way under one percent of Lithuania’s Jews that had anything to do with communism or any revolutionary movement during the years of the interwar republic. It also ignores that a majority of the communists were actually ethnic Lithuanians. Farmers of Suvalkija started joining because they saw in the movement a way to fight for their rights. Sometimes, wealthy farmers joined, sick and tired of corrupt leadership at various levels of government, and at frequent suppression of free expression by abuse of the laws.

That is why Suvalkija’s farmers organized a protest near Balbieriškis. On Smetona’s orders, some of them were shot. At one point President Kazys Girnius overruled Smetona, ordering him to stop or ease repressions against those who happened to be on the left portion of the political spectrum.

Left wing politics at that time were very popular among many all over Europe, just as today. But in Lithuania now, anyone who was “left wing” before the war is painted in purely black colors, while those who killed their Jewish neighbors in 1941 are praised, called heroes, and have monuments set up to perpetuate their “heroism.” Moreover, when the so called “Forest Brother” war raged in the Lithuanian forests after World War II, many, just plain criminals, started killing not communists, or even “Russians” (in other words: Russian speakers; the Jews had nearly all been killed by then) but some of the same farmers in Suvalkija.

When our “national hero” Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejas “completed his stint” at the Majdanek concentration camp, he became a war bandit, or forest brother, or guerilla (all depending on the beholder’s point of view) in the forests of the Kaunas region. Elements from Western intelligence services helped “appoint him”…

He gave an order for anyone who works for the Soviet regime to be subject to murder. Jurgis Apanavičius, my grandfather’s brother, who was very pro-Jewish, had to leave the country, because his son Vytas Apanavičius, a Lithuanian army soldier, was in 1941 incorporated into Nazi police structures where he held the post of accountant. His brother Zigmas Apanavičius, my grandfather, who worked in the Red Cross hospital after the II World War, was singled out to be shot in the year 1946 by the same Nazi collaborators with whom his brother’s son collaborated.

I did not know this story about the one Nazi employee in our family. Perhaps no family in Lithuania can be really clean after the unbelievably vast level of collaboration with the Nazis. I can only take solace in the fact that worked as an accountant, and I hope that is all he did.

But the name Baltūsis-Žvejas relates to something more in my family. Another brother of my grandfather, Juozas Opanavičius, belonged to the nationalist organization Žvalgyba. In our family he was known as the “mokytojas” which means “teacher.” Sure, Aunt Birutė always told us that he had been deported to Siberia by the KGB, but never that he had been accused of belonging to Žvalgyba (the Lithuanian state’s intelligence services). I found this fact in the KGB files in Vilnius. That he was an officer of secret services (“1919-1921 belonged to fascist party “Tautininkai” and also to the conspiratorial organization “Geležinis Vilkas”, was a head of the Rifleman’s Union in Kėdainiai, taught youth to fight, and was hunting for “red revolutionaries,” reporting them to the police, in order to arrest them” (these quotes are from KGB archives).

He died in 1942 and his family was destroyed every bit as much as he was himself. His wife was sent to the Arctic. Their son Algis, a teenager, died in the frost, another son Marijonas remained in Panemunė with the “Nazi” Vytas Apanavičius and his family. Later they met in Germany. But on the night of 14 June 1941 he was in Panemunė, and in this way he saved himself from being included into the vast deportation of Lithuanian citizens to Siberia that the Soviets carried out on this day.

He had been taken from Panemunė for work in Germany and later, after the war, he fled to Australia. He said that he is afraid to live in United States, and that the Soviet Union was a frightening place and much too close for comfort. In Australia nobody would touch him. Imagine: a young boy so afraid of those who destroyed his family.

I do not blame anybody. I only wanted to know, why Juozas Oponavičius died in Reshioty in 1942? Why? And I found some answers: that our Žvalgyba acted mostly the same way, as they act now — persecuting people who fight for labor rights and for democratic values.

Most Lithuanian always blame the Soviets for being very cruel: but read the books of human rights activists during Lithuania’s interwar Smetona regime. They were persecuted so methodically that they did not have a personal life. They were getting eight years in prison, for organizing peaceful demonstrations, though free speech and peaceable assembly are universal human rights.

So my question for myself is: Where do I belong?

The agents of A. Baltūsis-Žvejas, a major Nazi collaborator, did not manage to shoot my grandfather in 1946. That is why I am here. And I want to write the truth about my family, and about two sides of a story: those who were proud to be friends with Jewish neighbors, and those who supported the discrimination against Jews, minorities and indeed, leftists too, during interwar independent Lithuania.

Am I pro-Soviet? No!

I love my country. At the same time, I think that many values have been imported and planted here, both communist and those of a special “barbarian” kind of capitalism.

But I love my country in a maximal sense: I love the Jews, the Tartars — everyone, who worked here, who contributed here. All who were part of this beautiful land, and have given for all of us — regardless of our nationalities.

But if I have to also say what makes me ashamed, it would be a murderer of Jews like Antanas Baltūsis -Žvejas.

And even if I have one Nazi collaborator, be it “just” a Žvalgyba member or accountant, in my family tree, I think, that we have no historical right to call a street by the name of mass killers.

It is no secret, what Majdanek was like. It was a most horrific death camp.

Nazism was in part prolonged in Lithuania. Analyzing Baltūsis-Žvejas, it becomes obvious that not all actions were part of a guerilla war. It was a continuation of parts of Nazism. To kill particular groups of people. To kill certain kinds of Lithuanians at that time, having previously killed Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Lithuanians in Majdanek. Now it was his time for Lithuanians against Lithuanians.

What is happening at our governmental level? Some of our political leaders have their own Nazis in their families. We can start with our president. Her grandfather was accused of collaborating with the Nazis. But she never misses an opportunity to boast that her grandfather was “deported” thinking nobody will ever bother to look into precisely why this happened in this or any other specific case. Of course it is possible that her grandfather did absolutely nothing wrong and was wrongfully accused and convicted. But when one was accused of helping the Nazis after the war, the history teaches us that in so many cases it was so utterly true that each case merits careful scrutiny and investigation.

If Visvaldas Matjošaitis, the newly elected mayor of Kaunas, lacks political and moral strength to fight Nazism by the very easy remedy of rapidly removing street names for Nazi collaborators, then the message is clear for hundreds of smaller locations. One town even has a teaching center named for Baltūsis–Žvejas!

I have now personally reported Baltūsis-Žvejas Street, which is in Vaišvydava, to the Kaunas cultural heritage department, and they have replied to thank me for my communication. But I “feel” a thank you not in the heritage department chief director’s polite note, but, in my heart, by Jewish people alive and not-alive alike. It is an honor to contribute to the project of defending history.

I am not afraid to say, that in my own opinion, the period after 1945 was nothing but a residual continuation of parts of Nazism because of the pro-Nazi sympathies (and war criminal 1941 pasts) of so many involved. And Baltūsis–Žvejas with his orders to kill Suvalkija farmers and their descendants made this region one covered in blood of Lithuanian farmers and outlaws in addition to the vastly higher number of Jews killed just because they were Jews.

We must begin by being truthful, and in the first instance — with ourselves.

The author is an attorney and multicultural researcher at work on a PHD in ethnology at Vytautas Magnus University, in the Department of Cultural Research and Ethnology

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