Keeping an Implicit Promise

by Geoff Vasil

It was interesting to watch the publicity machine surround Ruta Vanagaite’s new popular account of the Lithuanian Holocaust swing into gear to sell her new book. The publisher Alma Littera seemed to adopt an “artificial scarcity” marketing plan with an initial print run of only 2,000 copies, a plan which appears at this point to have been very successful. The next print-run is slated for 6,000, a humble figure given all the press and discussion of the book.

Initial confusion about the book–Jerusalem Post reported it as Efraim Zuroff’s new work–and some surprising comments by Vanagaite herself regarding Zuroff on national television softening his demonized image among the Lithuanian public gave way to a more general call for the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania to stop dragging their feet and finally publish a “list of names” of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators.

Having followed that issue for years, I never expected them to release their list. The stumbling block they have now placed before themselves, the latest justification for not coming clean on their own research, is a strange one. Lithuania is probably the only country in the world which has enshrined the idea of “don’t speak ill of the dead” in law. Slander and libel laws apply to the reputation of dead people in Lithuania, and the claim is that living relatives might now take the Genocide Center and the state to court for wrongly alleging their dead relative murdered Jews.

That’s the extent of the public’s understanding of the issue at the current time. The framework of the debate is set as one of burden of proof needed to reveal the perpetrators versus the specific need of the Jewish community and the greater need of Lithuanian society at large to tell the truth so that reconciliation is finally possible.

Actually the story is more complicated than that. The “list of 1,000 perpetrators” the Genocide Center is reluctant to release stems from an earlier scandal of sorts. Josef Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, published a larger list of 4,000 names, if memory serves, of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators from all over Lithuania, organized roughly by location and usually alphabetized by surname. That list was collected from witnesses, survivors and other sources.

While it existed only on paper, it didn’t cause Lithuania much bother. When it was posted to the webpage of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, suddenly Lithuania’s national honor was at stake and Lithuanians began to scream bloody murder. They were being attacked unfairly by Jews in Israel. There were demands, even official ones, to take the post down. Israel responded, again, if memory serves, by saying they had no jurisdiction to limit free speech on an internet page whose server was outside Israel, even if they wanted to.

Eventually Melamed’s organization decided to concede that their list wasn’t proven, and they took it down voluntarily. At the same time, in what looked like all the world as a quid pro quo, the Lithuanian government asked Genocide Center to confirm or deny the names on the list. Thus was born their years-long project of checking the names, conducted in great secrecy. The most they would comment was they had reduced the number to around 1,500, which has now turned into the proverbial 1,000 perpetrators. The government has since changed, Genocide Center seems to have forgotten their original mandate regarding the list and no one really cares whether it is released or not. The paper publication of the list exists, there are numerous copies circulating in Lithuania now, and anyone who wanted to could post it anonymously on wikileaks or a simple file-sharing site, facebook, via torrent or any number of ways. Most likely a cache exists of the original web posting, and it should be recoverable using the WayBack Machine as well.

That wasn’t the point, though, the point was that Lithuania apparently gave Melamed’s association and concerned parties the implied promise Lithuania herself would conduct a real investigation and publish the results for all the world to see.

Earlier governments have pulled similar stunts to no real conclusion. In the late 90s and early 00s there was even a special prosecutor named to investigate “war crimes and crimes against humanity,” which meant Holocaust crimes. Back then there were even a few known perps still alive, and some of them were even stripped of US citizenship for lying about their collaboration with the Nazis and shipped back to Lithuania. No convictions or real information came out of that special prosecutor. Efraim Zuroff as head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center was very active then in providing lists of names to the Lithuanian government and president to pass on to that prosecutor. Now Vanagaite says on national television he recognizes he was demanding impossible things of poor, small Lithuania.

The injunction of the Bible and of Holocaust education to remember also applies to institutional memory. If there is no continuity, if promises–even implicit ones–are not kept, the state and eventually the national identity as well slips into incoherence. There is no WayBack machine for the life of the state, we can’t go back to 1997 (or 1941) and do things right. But we can do the right thing now.