Interview by Ieva Elenbergienė
Professor emeritus of history at Millersville University Saulius Sužiedėlis explains the Nazis didn’t need gas chambers in Lithuania. While 40 percent of Holocaust victims were murdered in gas chambers, this wasn’t the case in Lithuania, where the Nazis discovered sufficient man-power for mass murder. Although there were informal attempts to stop the violence in Lithuania, Dr. Sužiedėlis says there was no universal condemnation, nor public statements against by authorities. Church officials were also silent. Sužiedėlis says we must stop denying ugly things and look our past squarely in the face.
At the end of November Saulius Sužiedėlis was invited by the Lithuanian Jewish Community to speak at the conference #AtmintisAtsakomybėAteitis held in Vilnius.
When people are talking publicly and the topic turns to Lithuanian collaboration in the Holocaust, there is often a defensive reaction expressed as an attack on Jews: “But they did this and this and that to us!”
It’s not just characteristic of us, the human reaction of trying to place guilt on others. For instance, in the USA for a long time the destruction of the Indians was completely ignored, there was talk of the wars of the Wild West, but new studies show these so-called Indian wars were in many cases nothing more than the massacre of peaceful local residents. Of course some people didn’t like this, and accusations came up, for example, “But what did they do to the cowboys?” and so on. I personally, though, have no concern about what Jews have done. I’m concerned with what Lithuanians have done. Of course there were Jews, just as there were Lithuanians and Russians, who were involved in deportations. What does that have in common with, let’s say, Jewish children murdered in Telšiai? I don’t feel personal shame–I wasn’t even born yet–but I do feel a kind of collective shame, that people of my ethnicity were able to act this way in this Catholic, religion-practicing country.
This is a dishonorable page in our history and ignoring it is not a solution. That only goes to show our inferiority complex and does not improve the image of our country.
If the documents, the sources used by historians, show a portion of society contributed in the destruction of their fellow citizens, all we can do is admit it, yes, that happened. Of course the context is important, too, that this happened under occupation and the main stimulus to murder was external, but the residents played a very heavy role. This needs to be admitted without making excuses. As does the fact the Holocaust was the most brutal and bloody page in Lithuanian history. There are no such other similar events with which to equate it in terms of scope, brutality and universality. So it might be difficult to admit this, but we must try to forge ahead in that direction. I don’t know any other way.
Perhaps we still don’t have enough facts, enough documents and sources, for us to believe it ourselves and admit it?
The fact a significant number of Lithuanians participated is no disputable, but a very large number of manipulations have arisen, what does participation or collaboration mean, which social strata participated most, and so on. These are fruitless discussions because they ignore the administrative structure. Genocide is an organized phenomenon, it doesn’t just happen by itself as, for example, riots or pogroms might, and which can be incited by social outcasts. Someone has to carry out genocide, and to do that a government and an administration are needed. When the German military was brought into Lithuania, they took over local government, and then plans for the complete annihilation of the Jews were implemented very rapidly, consistently and in an organized manner. Between the invasion of the Wehrmacht at the end of June, 1941, until August of that year 85 to 90 percent of Jews were still alive. During that period they mostly shot just men, rarely women and children. And then, over a very short period, from the beginning of August till the Great Aktion at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas on October 29, about 70 percent of Jews died. Seen through the eyes of the Nazis and the collaborators, they worked together very successfully in terms of scope, in carrying out a very concentrated mass murder operation. Survivors were sent to the large ghettos of Vilnius, Kaunas and Šiauliai and were essentially condemned, waiting on death row, their mass murder planned as a gradual process, using them up first as labor. Of course there would have been no Holocaust without the Germans, but the fact is quite clear that in carrying out the genocide the Lithuanian administrative structure of the time was used. Especially local government, the municipalities, police stations, local LAF committees. Bureaucrats were needed to take censuses of Jews, to determine who was and who wasn’t Jewish, to isolate them in temporary camps, to set food rations and so on. All these tasks required elementary clerical work. And many Lithuanians did that work.
Researchers divide the process of genocide into stages. Did Lithuanians collaborate in all those stages?
The most important thing, in shifting to the process, is to name things as they are. German theorists were scratching their heads for about a year trying to determine how many grandparents had to have been Jews for a person to be called Jewish. After that, if based on collective guilt all Jews are guilty and pose a danger to the Aryan race, they must be marked, separated and concentrated in one place. Lithuanians carried out all three of these first stages: they identified Jews, separated them and concentrated them. And the Nazis themselves didn’t cross the final line, mass murder, right away, either. They had planned to deport Jews to Madagascar, but this proved difficult to carry out because of the British navy. With the outbreak of war it was possible to choose the most radical measures. The murder plan had to be logical and approached in stages. In the beginning they shot the victims. Later they saw this was affecting the psyches of the murderers because they had too much contact with the victims. That’s how they came up with the idea of using gas, and murder was “industrialized.” This was a remarkably inhumane method, by the way, but they weren’t thinking about the victims, but rather the murderers, whose psychological burden was reduced. Forty percent of Holocaust victims died in the gas chambers, but this wasn’t the case in Lithuania, because the Nazis discovered sufficient man-power for carrying out the mass murder here. Not just as guards or for persecution in the administrative sense or similar, but directly, as murderers. This made the Nazis’ goals and the implementation of genocide easier to achieve.
Is it really possible for an average individual to oppose organized violence? Many people became passive observers in the face of such force.
After the genocide was organized people truly did only observe, there was no possibility for resistance. Only separate individuals were able to save a small number of victims. So you could say that basically the fate of the Jewish people under the conditions of the German occupation was not in the hands of Lithuanian residents, but that the survival of separate individuals were completely dependent on local residents, those who hid Jews. Will a given person save someone, or not? Isolated villagers and city dwellers made decisions of life and death. And we can be proud this wasn’t just a handful of people, but that they were in the thousands. In the context of other countries this is a large number. And we can take well-founded pride in this. Pride for some and shame for others can go hand in hand.
There is currently talk that our textbooks have enough facts about the Holocaust but there is a lack of reflection, of identifying with the victims, an attitude of empathy… If we had that, maybe we could better understand the motives, why some rescued while others could look on passively at the tragedy happening nearby, or even take part in it.
Lack of empathy isn’t just a problem of our times. In the anti-Nazi Lithuanian press from 1942 to 1944, for example, there was much emotional talk of the closure of Lithuanian gymnasia, the words “horror,” “German crusaders” and “barbarians” and so on were used, but those same sources have barely two sentences about the mass murder of the children of the Šiauliai ghetto, on such and such day children were shot. Period. The naked fact without any remorse. This is what it came to. During the Holocaust many separate people felt empathy, but there was a vivid lack of public expressions of it. There were instances of shock and surprise. I remember once my father spoke about what he saw somewhere near Ukmergė, how the police led a group of people into the forest. That picture stayed with him his whole life. He used to day, how could they herd the Jews into the forest, they aren’t livestock, they’re people. How could it happen that they are beating townspeople in the middle of the day here, what can I do? There were informal attempts to stop the violence, but there was no general condemnation, no public statement by authorities. There was no position of condemnation by the Church hierarchs, either, people who had the nation’s huge trust, no public statement that this isn’t allowed, that it’s inhumane.
One remarkable exception was the apostolic letter by Justinas Staugaitis, the bishop of Telšiai, of July 10, 1941, in which he wrote: “Preserve me, Lord, from violence” and preached it was forbidden to persecute “others,” meaning people of other ethnicities. Such public statements were sorely needed then, but the opposite happened. Rabid anti-Semitic propaganda actively spread through the newspapers. This was balanced against attempted by the Provisional Government to distance themselves formally from the violence. As anti-Semitic attitudes spread openly, people who had a tendency towards violence or stealing other people’s property basically had a free hand, it was like pouring gasoline on the fire.
Why was the soil for hating Jews so well prepared and ready when the Germans invaded Lithuania?
The greatest shock to the nation just before the war were the deportation during the first Soviet occupation. As the atmosphere of revenge heated up, the perception grew of connection between Jews and Bolsheviks in the public mind and resistance to the Soviet government and antipathy towards Jews often went hand in hand. What’s interesting, though, is that Jews were portrayed as both Communists and capitalists simultaneously. Both systems employed anti-Semitic propaganda. Unfortunately, it must be said, this public genocidal narrative was highly believable and justified the violent actions which had begun: “We were only defending ourselves against them.”
Today we can study this as an example how, living under the influence of genocidal thinking and without authorities able to stop violent actions, society collapses. Violent rhetoric spewed forth openly in the press. In the July 4, 1941, edition of Naujoji Lietuva, for example, the editorial spoke of parasites and called for the harshest of harsh measures to fight Jewry, with a direct call for murdering all Jews. That this public narrative was influential is seen in entries intellectuals made in their personal diaries, for example, Rapolas Mackonis considered in his diary the historical necessity of getting rid of the Jews: “For centuries upon centuries the Jews as lice, as ticks, have insinuated themselves in the body of Lithuania, sucking the fluids from it, as leeches do when they bite. We have lived with these insects for so long now that it seems as if there is no other way, and so we appear to other peoples as lice-infested. But the time has come for a disinfection…”
All these “disinfections” in the world begin with words, belittlement, dehumanization, the placing of collective guilt. Words are powerful, they are used to justify the acts of violence they can give rise to. Are words just as dangerous today?
That’s why we study the most terrible events in the world, genocides, in order to learn how not to let them happen. For instance, how much hate the Roma experience today in Lithuania. Society still lacks the realization we are a footstep away from a dangerous border. When a small part of society is not economically useful, it becomes superfluous, and then it becomes easy to cross the line into violence… It’s easy to criticize and blame Roma, but why not extend a helping hand and help them out of the ditch? After all, we are the majority and there aren’t many of them. Is it perhaps time for the Church to say something about them? Would many opinions change if the principle of loving one’s neighbor were proclaimed publicly? Anti-Semitism and Romophobia are a prerequisite but not a sufficient factor to cause violence against these peoples. Regardless of the antipathies swirling around society, the position expressed publicly by politicians and public figures is extremely important.
One of your examples of “domestic” anti-Semitism has really stuck in my mind, the phrase heard by many and usually uttered quietly: “He’s a good person, even if he is a Jew.” When you think about it, this really says a lot.
I borrowed that saying from Americans who say: “I don’t have anything against blacks. I even know some good ones…” This widespread type of discrimination is not intentionally evil and is basically harmless until the situation changes and the latent becomes active. You have to realize racist stereotypes say more about the worldview of their authors than they do about their targets. It’s a pointless endeavor to look for scientific evidence justifying stereotypes because hate arises in the head of the anti-Semite or racist himself. We don’t need to study the victims, but rather ask what it is that has had an influence on people making them see only a collective group of people instead of the individuals in that group. I will speak frankly, I know people who when they see president Barack Obama all they see is “a black.” That’s all, nothing else is of interest to them, not that he’s a good attorney, educated, an exemplary family man. It is more horrific when bright people think this way. They are able to come up with logical justifications for their views and even for violence. They make use of examples from history and religion and are able to bring pseudo-scientific anthropological arguments to the table. This sort of thinking by intellectuals is more dangerous than the common person’s unfounded opinion “about everything” and even the common person’s hatred.
Expressions of xenophobia have grown world-wide. Personally I’ve noticed how people in America view foreign speakers. Before, they used to get interested and ask, “Where are you from?” followed by “Welcome to America!” Now they respond quite differently. Recently tens of thousands of people marched the streets in Warsaw shouting for a white Poland and a white Europe, pure blood and so on. If we want to prevent similar things from happening, we can’t just react to events after the fact, we have to get ahead of them. Yes, the opposition to immigrants is partially based on the fear our people will disappear, because they will emigrate and start mixed families… But this kind of thinking has never brought about anything good. I consider myself a cosmopolitan and at the same time a Lithuania. I don’t see any contradiction in that.
This interview was conducted as part of the project “Drafting and Publication of Recommendations on Actions to Fight Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania” and was published by project partner Delfi.lt in Lithuanian. Tee project is supported by the EVZ fund in Germany and the Goodwill Foundation in Lithuania.