Will We Tell Students the Whole Truth, or Only What’s Useful to Us?

by Mečys Laurinkus, www.lrytas.lt

Toppling (taking down temporarily for restoration) the “idols” on the Green Bridge [in Vilnius] under natural field conditions with no special measures taken, I overheard the complaint: the topplers themselves name streets and hang memorial plaques to the “heroes” who took part in the shooting of Jews. The public is interested in history, reads, listens to discussions and judges the actions of the government. You cannot forbid this.

Virginijus Savukynas in his television show “Istorijos detektyvai” [History’s Detective Stories] returned to this often emotionally explosive topic. Kazys Škirpa, in whose honor a street is named in Vilnius, a noteworthy founder of the Lithuanian state and the organizer of the June, 1941, uprising against the Russians, while under house arrest in Berlin issued a statement about Jews which was totally contrary to his biography and likely his own views, one which was comparable to the spirit of the Gestapo. I will restate my thoughts again a bit later. Jonas Noreika, aka Generolas Vėtra, who had fought against the Nazis and the Bolsheviks and was shot by the latter, appointed head of the Šiauliai district administration by the Provisional Government of Lithuania in 1941, blessed with his signature the establishment of a ghetto for Jews in Žagarė, Lithuania.

General Vėtra (actually just a captain) has been honored with a commemorative plaque. Not somewhere marginal. On the building of the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. In an even more visible location there still stands the statue to Petras Cvirka, who brought back the sun of Stalin not at all because of any political manoeuvering to help Lithuania in the grindstones of time, but out of conviction that “Mother Russia” would take us in and protect us. Of course she did take us in, but only to a very cold place, where poets such as Kazys Jakubėnas, upon whom Cvirka informed to Soviet security, were sent.

Whether it is justifiable from the point of view of morality to publicly honor the aforementioned figures is the topic which was discussed on the aforementioned television show. Participating were political observer and generally well-known in Lithuanian cultural circles Arkadijus Vinokuras and member of parliament Laurynas Kasčiūnas.

A serious group, but then, the topic is also extraordinary. Of course head-scratching on what to call the street, where to hang the commemorative plaque and what to do with “that” Petras Cvirka in the freest media outside Scandinavia, that is, the Lithuanian media, is not happening now for the first time. Do we have clear criteria regarding whom we wish to honor and whom we now can no longer tolerate?

During the program I heard what I think is the most important question: what do we and will we tell students about these people, the entire truth, or just what makes us feel proud?

Arkadijus Vinokuras posed this problem clearly. He believes either morality applies to everyone equally, or it doesn’t exist and we are left with “kowtowing to the political elite,” to fashion, to the leading ideology. Therefore there should not be a street with this sort of name, a memorial plaque honoring the controversial figure, and certainly not statues.

Conservative MP Laurynas Kasčiūnas expressed a more reserved position. He said Cvirka betrayed his homeland, whereas the statements and decisions by Škirpa and Noreika, which would have been made without them anyway, were mistakes which don’t bring honor.

With less and less argument over the statue to Cvirka, it probably won’t remain in its old place much longer. Cvirka’s behavior towards his fellow writer should be “the final straw” for the proponents of “leave it as it is.” The discussions on Škirpa and General Vėtra, however, will be long. Not just long, but clogged and politicized.

Teachers might have a long period ahead of not missing a good opportunity to stay silent. To the questioning of the more insistent children, they can reply: they were complicated times. And they were, both complicated and simple.

The situation was the most complicated in Lithuania’s history, but the individual’s choice in the face of evil was a simple one, as it ever was: yes or no.

It seems there were among the politicians those who believed cooperation with the Germans would stave off the planned extermination of the Lithuanian people. It didn’t stave it off. Furthermore, it pulled them into the Holocaust. Škirpa was pro-German, but ome must admit, as MP Kasčiūnas said, not pro-Nazi.

In his memoirs former commander of the Lithuanian military Stasys Raštikis mentioned that even German officials from the military high command told him: “Škirpa has always made one mistake: he believes and trusts too much and expects too much from the Germans.”

Perhaps there were other circumstances unknown to us responsible for Škirpa’s texts about the Jews. But those who raised the idea of naming the street after him knew about the famous Lithuania figure’s pro-German orientation and knew about his statements, but nonetheless decided to honor him, even if that causes discussions which are not beneficial to or needed by Lithuania. Or are there too few other, less controversial heroes who are worthy of commemoration, as Vinokuras asked?

For that reason we should seriously be concerned with details of General Vėtra’s biography before it’s too late. The signature on a document to establish the ghetto could have been a Gestapo trick to involve as many patriotic Lithuanians as possible in their bloody affair. But if it finally turned out General Vėtra had personally participated in shooting Jews, the policy for commemorating heroes in Lithuania would suffer a serious blow.

I write this, and I’m laughing softly to myself. Writing “if it finally turned out” as if I were hoping that some team of historians would appear and do that, and the municipality would take the plaque down. Unfortunately, no such group will appear and it will not be taken down. Why not?

Because a group of noteworthy people already approached the government to take down the commemorative plaque in 2015, and until now the only party to respond has been the host of History’s Detective Stories, who neither hangs nor takes down, and does not pass legal judgment.

But those who could make a correct decision and stop bothering the public with ambiguities will fear being called “vatnikai” [Sovietophiles] and “useful idiots.” And Russia could surely infect this topic.

Full editorial in Lithuanian here.