Lithuanians and Jews during the Nazi Occupation

by Ona Šimaitė
translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

At the time of the Second World War, Lithuanian-Jewish relations took on a sharply tragic form that could not have been imagined in earlier times. As a Lithuanian woman, it is bitter for me to assert that during the years of the worst torture of the Jews by the Germans, not all of the people in my country showed an elementary, humane sympathy to their Jewish neighbors of many generations and the worst of the Lithuanians–to my great pain!– even had their hand in the extermination.

The Lithuanian Special Squad (Ypatingasis Bûrys) together with the Nazis murdered Jews in a series of places. Such scoundrels as Babialis, Piragius and others will remain accursed not only by Jews, but also by Lithuanians.

Lithuanian police divisions not only carried out Hitler’s orders to kill Jews, but in many localities they themselves asked to do the mitzvah [commandment, usually translated as “good deed”) of murdering Jews or they randomly initiated various persecutions. I had more than one occasion to watch how Lithuanian policemen fined Jews for trifles and how hard-hearted and malicious they were during the deportations of Jews in the ghetto. Even leading the Jews to death, deeply degenerate Lithuanian policemen did not have the elementary tact not to show–during the last tragic hours of thousands of lives–their animal-like fury.

Naturally, there were also exceptions. I, myself, know three Lithuanian policemen who strongly sympathized with the Jews and also helped them. One, for example, helped Berman and other Jews receive Aryan documents. Later, this policeman was caught by the Nazis and severely punished. One Lithuanian soldier, who was in the guard of the Vilna Ghetto, so strongly befriended the Jews that he learned and sang Yiddish folk songs. However, these and others were only illustrative exceptions.

Both among the Lithuanian police and among the masses, there were those who used the misfortune of the Jews in order to become rich from them. However, then there were also those Lithuanian foes of greater and lesser caliber, who were bloody enemies of the Jews, who had an idea ostensibly as their source. To this category belonged, for example, Mironas Mozkevicius, the author of an earlier published beautiful book, Pilkieji Didvyrial (Grey Heroes). He wrote a pamphlet against Jews under the title Politruk Srul Shwindlmakher, whose title alone says enough about its contents. [Politruk is a police commissar or officer appointed by the Russian government; Srul is a diminutive of Yisroel/Israel, a Jewish given name; shwindlmakher is a swindler. Translator’s note]

Of this sort was also the talented woman journalist N. On her own initiative, she searched for Nowaczinski’s book Potaiemne Mostsarstvo (Secret Power) and, using it, put together an article full of malice against the Jews. In conclusion, she dressed it up with a citation from the well known anti-Semitic Bishop A. Valantsius. It is a most interesting fact that this “idiotic” anti-Semite, who wanted to make the Jews loathsome in the eyes of their Lithuanian neighbors with the assistance of the Pole Nowaczinski, “forgot” to add the part of Nowaczinski’s book in which he blames the Jews for helping the Lithuanians in the struggle for Vilna, calling the Jews “traitors of the Polish people.”

And there is also the young writer and journalist K., who in his article in the periodical Naujoji Romuva [New Sanctuary], rejoiced that Jews were expelled from communal, political cultural and economic life in Lithuania.

Of all the Lithuanian strata, the Lithuanian clergy best resisted the temptations of that bitter era. A large number of them were not only aware of the inhumane suffering and torture of the Jews in Lithuania, but also actively tried to help.

The first of the Catholic clergy in Lithuania who suffered for interceding for the tormented Jews was Krupavicius, the priest of the leaders of the Catholic-Democratic party. Krupavicius had protested to the German regime in Kovno against the burning of Jewish books and the forcing of Jews to dance around the bonfires (this was the first time and it was a trifle as opposed to what happened later). He wrote in his protest that Lithuanians are not accustomed to such spectacles and that this was soiling all of Lithuania. For this, Krupavitcius was deported to Tilsit for physical labor.

On the first day of the German occupation, the new regime demanded that the various organized administrative bodies greet the Germans and condemn the Bolsheviks and Jews. A declaration was also published by the bishops headed by Archbishop Skviretzkas, in accord with this demand. The highest Lithuanian clergy sharply attached the Bolsheviks–but the Jews were not mentioned with any words. On that terrible day, to be silent about Jews at that occasion showed great daring.

Many Lithuanian priests helped to hide Jews in the churches. The Jewish wives of many of my Lithuanian friends, for example, were saved in this way.

Vaitskus, the priest, a writer and poet, not only held out his friendship to Abba Balosher, the well known Jewish librarian from Kovno, but also converted the young daughters of Bagriansky and other young Jewish girls. The priest Vaitskus converted them to the Catholic religion only to save their lives and to place them in Lithuanian orphanages.

Lipniunas, the priest (Vilna), in several of his sermons, defended the tormented Jews. The Gestapo learned of this–and he paid with his head.

Two old priests in the Uniate church on Savitsher Street helped Jews from the brigade that worked in the adjacent large military workshops. One day, the Gestapo came and sealed the church and took away both priests. They never returned.

Not all Lithuanians who did not help any Jews behaved in this way because of hatred toward Jews. If I had to define the attitude of Lithuanians toward Jews in the bitter years of occupation of 1941-1945, I would do it in this manner: The Lithuanians, as people in general, were in the majority more cowards than villains. The Hitlerists so intimidated the population to not help Jews with anything that just at the word “Jew,” a Christian would fall into a panic of fear. This group of Lithuanians, which is actually the majority of the people, did not directly do harm to any Jews. There were even those among them who quietly wiped a tear over the plight of the Jews. However, there were also those who were totally indifferent to Jewish suffering. These people did not do anything good or anything bad.

A certain number of Lithuanians helped Jews in a passive manner. These did not have and did not want to have dealings with Jews, but they would allow themselves to be convinced to help Jews in an indirect way: they would give money, food and the like for Jews to a trusted Lithuanian person who would turn to them about this. But they would always request that no one, God forbid, know of their donations or gifts.

The number of those Lithuanian who helped Jews in an active way is not large, but this small number did help and saved many Jews. The Lithuanians in this category maintained a personal or written contact with various Jews. They hid with them Jews who had escaped–or helped them hide with others. They provided Jews with illegal documents and the like. One rarely hears about such Lithuanians who gave active help; they are very hurt by everything that is happening in Lithuania and they will leave this country at the first opportunity.

In order to have an understanding of how most of the Lithuanian intelligentsia survived during the ruthless slaughter of the Jews, I will present several citations here from the diary of Mrs. Kutergiene, although I am not in complete agreement with her language:

“All Lithuanians, with a few exceptions, were united in their feeling of hatred to Jews, mainly the intelligentsia who lost their position with the Russian regime. Nationalistically disposed, they could not take part in the life around them, in this way leaving their places for the Jewish intelligencia. In addition, the Lithuanian intelligentsia suffered greatly from the nationalization of the houses and capital. Now, they took their revenge for their fear and humiliation. An acquaintance of mine, a doctor, who while she condemned the massacre of the Jews by the armed Lithuanian bands, still sought to account for and explain the violent acts.” (p. 12).

On page 17 of the same diary we read:

“The ignorant Lithuanian rabble, with the complete indifference of the intelligentsia (and it could be covert support), showed such a wild bestiality that in comparison, the Russian pogroms look like humanitarian deeds.”

And on page 19:

“I do not believe with my own eyes and ears; I tremble with fear for the blind strength of hatred of one people, who are summoned and scattered in order to satisfy the lowest instincts.

“It is fully written in newspapers about the deported (by the Soviets) Lithuanian victims, but not one word about this, that it could be that no fewer Jews (by percentages) were deported and that it could be that Jews suffered more materially and not one word about the extermination of Jews.”

And still one last citation:

“I received the medical journal Lithuanian Medicine (instead of the “Soviet one”); there a list is found of the doctors deported by the Bolsheviks, but there is no memory of the Jewish doctors. In an ‘honorable’ society, one does not speak about Jews. I have read an article about ‘racial purity’ in the same journal, in which it is said that the strong must not mix with weakest of the weak–a new variation for pariahs.”

It was not very easy for me to transcribe the lines taken from the diary, because I lived through similar things.

I was too close to the Jews at the time of their cruel misfortune to be able to keep myself from expressing my admiration for the unbroken courage and for the moral strength (rootedness and a sense of tradition] of these people under a threat of death in the ghettos. It can be said that I almost lived in the ghetto and I can confirm that all of the other people would have collapsed, physically and morally, from what each Jew as an individual and all Jews in general had to bear. The Jews in the ghettos were great heroes, perhaps not realizing this themselves.

When I would visit the Jews in the ghetto (from Vilna), I often said to my Jewish acquaintances and friends that in their place I would hate all of the Aryans without exception. They assured me with the answer that they separated their enemies from their friends.

In those bitter years for Jews (and for all virtuous people) I would often think that everything that the Jewish people suffered through and bled through would open up everyone’s eyes after the war and that the hatred toward Jews would need to be studied in archives and museums. However, I am painfully disappointed. Many, many non-Jews have already forgotten the hellish means with which the Hitlerists annihilated millions of Jews, how Jewish children and women and old people were murdered. And those who have forgotten the Jews, who were very cruelly annihilated, later, with lesser courage, gave rise to accounts about the remnant of saved Jews. Again, yiddishkeit [Jewishness] is equated with Bolshevism. One seeks “to show” that the Jews suffered because of the initial teaching of Hitler about Jewish Bolshevism.

Again casting such accusations against Jews, the very elemental truth is forgotten that the Bolshevik Party does not know of any nationalities and that people from many nations belong to the Bolshevik Party. Jews are accused of Bolshevism, when it is suitable but what is “forgotten” is how many talented anti-Bolsheviks the Jews have given the world: R. Abramovich, Aldanov, M. Vishniak and others. Why is it not written that all Jews are anti-Communists? The representatives of other nations accuse Jews of Bolshevism, and which of these nations has no Communists. Alas, there is no such nation in the world. Whether it is a larger or smaller percent of Communists does not play a role here.

It particularly hurts that Lithuanian publicists also had a part in renewing these anti-Jewish accusations after the war. Even such a progressive newspaper as the Chicago Naujienos [News] fell short at different times by not allowing articles to be published about Jews. In the series of articles by Y. Shalna in Naujienos, which tells about various Lithuanians who risked their lives to help Jews, the author cannot restrain himself from concluding that “the Lithuanian masses did not have good relations with the Jews because the Jews worked with the Bolsheviks.” That is, he, Shalna, blames the Lithuanian masses for anti-Semitism caused, according to him, only by the Jews themselves. This is a terrible accusation against both people.

Bolsheviks played a larger role than Jewish Bolsheviks. Jews themselves were exiled equally with Lithuanians and Poles–without distinction.

The blame about the ingratitude of the Jews seems ambivalent. Why do they demand specific gratitude from the Jewish people, who suffered so inhumanely and who did not have the option of taking care of their own surviving martyred invalids? Even the Jewish people excelled, as I understand, by demonstrating a feeling of deep thankfulness to those who showed kindness and those who helped their children during the times of misfortune, which will not be forgotten for a century.

Knowing very well the heavy blame on the part of the Lithuanians in the extermination in Lithuania, I am, however, categorically against the idea that we can blame the Lithuanian people. I do not accept the conventional wisdom: “Lithuanians,” “Germans,” Poles,” “Jews” and so on. Thus speak others, who will at first condemn. It is forgotten that there are villains among every people, but also good people. The conclusion is the possibility of wholesale blame. The number one enemy of the Jewish people were not the Germans, but only the Hitlerists; and the number two enemy of the Jewish people were not Lithuanians or Poles or other peoples, but those who helped the Hitlerists in this or that way. The Lithuanian Fascists, activists, partisans, policemen and many others are to blame. But I categorically reject the collective blame of the Lithuanian people.

The masses of members of the Union of Lithuanian Jews in Germany constantly encountered the Lithuanian police and other Lithuanians who caused them great suffering in the ghettos. A pain is buried in the hearts of the refugees that the Lithuanians did not have a heart–and, therefore, we can understand the emotional causes that have evoked their statements in which the Lithuanian people are blamed for their part in the extermination of the Jews in Lithuania. However, we must not forget that no people are collectively responsible for the deeds of all of their children and many Lithuanians risked their lives in order to help Jews and to save them.

In the Shalna articles mentioned, as well as in the statements of ELTA (Lithuanian Telegraph Agency) and in the Lithuanian poll, only the positive facts are recorded, but the pages of history with the negative side are torn out. [After the war, a poll about all of the Lithuanians who helped Jews during the Nazi occupation in Lithuania was carried out among those Lithuanians who had escaped from Lithuania. Author’s note]

However, we should have to travel on the path of Dr. M. Dvorzhetzky and Sh. Kacherginky and A. Sutzkever, who have not forgotten to cite both the good and the bad deeds of the Lithuanians in their books.

Full text here.