Some Call Lithuania First Eastern European Country to Admit Holocaust Complicity
The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper printed an editorial on August 29 positively portraying Lithuanian attempts to speak openly and honestly about the Holocaust. Lithuanian ambassador to Germany Deividas Matulionis pointed to the many friendly and constructive comments left under the article in German.
Warsaw-based Frankfurter Allgemeine correspondent Gerhard Gnauck’s feature article of August 29 is provided in rough translation below.
Commemoration in Lithuania
Our Own People
Lithuania commemorates the mass murder of the Jews, and even the president wants to be there. This is a big step in a land silent for so long about the pogroms.
Lithuania faces her past: remembering Holocaust victims in Vilnius in May. Some 70,000 Jews were murdered at Paneriai.
For forty years Lithuanian writer Marius Ivaškevičius in his own words “had been living for 40 years in complete ignorance, on the margins of a gigantic tragedy without even sensing it existed.” Ivaškevičius was born in 1973 in Molėtai, a small and seemingly idyllic town about an hour’s drive north of the capital Vilnius. A paradise of dachas surrounded by lakes. But then something must have gotten into him, he was stung by a wasp. Or at least his fellow residents thought so.
Last week the time had come for Ivaškevičius to declare: “I’m not Jewish,” and that was the title above the text he posted on the popular Baltic Internet portal delfi.lt. It wasn’t a wasp, it was a tick which had bitten him at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, the author wrote ironically. Since his visit there he had been “infected.” He concerned himself with the history of his hometown, Molėtai, where two-thirds of the residents were murdered 75 years ago, on August 29, 1941. Lithuanians wielded the weapons.
Dozens of Descendants Announce Intention to Come
At a time when the superficial phrases “Je suis Charlie” and “Je suis Paris” are heard everywhere comes this rough expression of solidarity with a power all its own: “I’m not Jewish, I’m Lithuanian, and I know that we can do this, we can show our power and unity. To admit our mistakes and even crimes is a symbol of strength, not weakness.” So Ivaškevičius will be there this Monday afternoon when, after some short speeches, a commemorative procession begins from the synagogue in Molėtai to the city limits, where once upon a time the victims were interred. Dozens of descendants of Jews from Molėtai scattered around the world have said they will attend. And Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė also wants to come.
This event is a milestone for Lithuania. Especially since it comes at a period of debate surrounding the book by the journalist Rūta Vanagaitė, “Our Own.” The book deals with “ordinary people, tens of thousands of Lithuanians,” the author says, who took part in murdering Jews under German occupation. The author even found a perpetrator in her own family. Her grandfather was accused of making a list of Jews when the Nazis came.
Many did much more than just draw up lists of names. The Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas, compiled with the active involvement of the Gedenkdienst, Austria’s Holocaust commemoration service and available on the internet, describes a German officer summoning Lithuanian police and anti-Soviet rebels in Molėtai to tell them “today they would shoot the Jews.” Then about twenty men went to the synagogue, ordered first the Jewish men to march to the outskirts of town, ordered them to undress at the previously excavated pit, and an officer gave the order to fire. The women and children were next.
Two Small Minorities Oppressed in the Tsar’s Realm
“My book is called “Our Own” because both peoples were ours, both those who committed murder and those who were murdered,” Vanagaitė said. “They were all Lithuanian citizens.” Most Lithuanians will not admit that Lithuanians (rather than some sort of “bandits”) were the perpetrators, nor that Jews also belonged to the collective “we.” Vanagaitė’s book became a bestseller. The author received numerous media inquiries including from Russia, where it is today very politically opportune to “elaborate” anti-Semitism in neighboring nations. The author rebutted her Russian colleagues: “This book is an internal matter for Lithuanians,” she responded, serving to crack open our own door.
Forty years ago now Tomas Venclova, a Lithuanian-American poet, wrote an essay calling for examination of the Lithuania role in the murder of the Jews. Reading it today, one understands more fully the source of the alienation between Lithuanians and Jews. Venclova wrote that “religion, language, writing systems and customs” had created “all too hermitically-sealed border.” Why should these two small minorities in 19th century Tsarist Russia, each oppressed in their own way, now regard themselves as related?
After all, Jews lived in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for 600 years, at certain periods even enjoying exceptional protection. There was even a ban on accusing Jews of ritual murder. In the last decades of the Tsar’s empire there were pogroms in some locations, but not here. The tragedy came with the Hitler-Stalin pact, with the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, which some Jews welcomed, under German rule leading to the expression of “hatred and vengeance” of unprecedented ferocity, according to Venclova. This is what distinguishes open society from its enemies: the ability to recognize the facts, and regret them, as West Germans have been doing since 1945. To keep silent about bitter truths as somehow “inconvenient” or to deny them is ultimately the hallmark of totalitarian regimes.
Full editorial in German available here.