by Vytautas Bruveris
What are the methods for Lithuania as a country and society to demonstrate by deeds rather than words true solidarity with the country’s Jewish community, almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust, with the victims and with their descendants?
Why Is There No Basic Number?
So if there’s no national agreement on what should be considered contributing to the Holocaust and what criteria might define this, then does the determination of direct participation in the mass murder of Jews not raise any conceptual misunderstandings?
It seems as if it couldn’t be any clearer: direct participants in the Holocaust are those people who murdered Jews or issued orders to kill them.
It seems as if the main issue in this area would be to count all known murderers of Jews based on the most complete and specific information.
On the one hand, to determine the true, or more honestly the best estimate, of the scope of Lithuanian society’s involvement in the mass murder of Jews. On the other hand, to identify as many specific people as possible who carried out this crime.
But it seems that however simple and elementary this might sound, this task isn’t being carried out for Lithuania.
No one–not even professional historians–can say clearly and more specifically how many Lithuanians might have been directly involved in the mass murder of Jews, murdering them with their own hands, nor who these people were.
This sort of information is still very preliminary and disjointed, with some researchers and experts on the period saying from several thousand to several tens of thousands of members of different puppet structures could have participated.
Of course there is the even less clear situation–attempting to determine how many people were involved in others activities in the industrial machine for the genocide of 200,000 people, the capture and imprisonment of victims, preparation of killing sites and finally theft of property.
Why Is That?
While it seems there is an abundance of historical studies by professional historians on the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania, they mainly address separate episodes of the Holocaust in different locations in the country. So it seems the main thing would be to systematize and synthesize these studies.
One of the main reasons or the main reason for this is the irrational and vague but instinctual and irrepressible conviction that this kind of synthesis and inventiorization would signify recognition of “collective guilt” by Lithuanians as a people. And that is politically dangerous, both internally and at the international level.
After all, the “assignment of collective guilt” is the sort of accusation which the fiercest “patriots” assign to the enemy camp at every opportunity, and which causes any critic of these “patriots” to make the sign of the Cross over himself at every opportunity.
It is tragicomic and absurd that all these discussions, arguments and battles over “collective guilt” which always appear every time there is a discussion of the Holocaust and Lithuanian culpability in the Holocaust are basically arguments without a subject.
More accurately, the object of these discussions is not about what is spoken in words but about what is meant.
The Specter of “Guilt” Haunts Again
The recent situation in the Lithuanian parliament demonstrated that Lithuania’s public discussion on the participation of Lithuanians in the Holocaust, who should be held responsible and what the responsibility should be remains stuck at the same dead end as it was thirty years ago.
MP Arūnas Gumuliauskas, a representative of the ruling coalition and the chairman of the parliament’s Commission on Battles for Freedom and State Historical Memory, came out saying he would present a resolution to parliament in which he would proclaim “the Lithuanian people and state did not participate” in the Holocaust because they were occupied at that time.
Gumuliauskas says “separate people” participated in the mass murder of Jews, and that the courts have to decide on any responsibility they bear or their actual participation. Period.
This initiative by the parliamentarian recalls an almost identical initiative in neighboring Poland which was taken over by a radical right government so beloved by our [ruling] peasants [party]. Several years ago it was even codified in law that anyone who links Poland or the Polish people with the Holocaust should be punished.
Anyone who said “the death camps of Poland” when talking about Nazi death camps would be punished under this law.
After an extremely negative reaction in the West, mainly in the USA and Israel, the law was made less strict and criminal accountability was removed for these kinds of “crimes.”
It’s no surprise there has been a similar reaction in the West now, although it is, of course, less pronounced. Nonetheless the highest level of Lithuanian government reacted swiftly, and both ruling Peasants Party prime minister Saulius Skvernelis and foreign minister Linas Linkevičius issued statements calling this one man’s initiative which truly would not receive the parliament’s blessing.
Meanwhile, Gumuliauskas confirmed unnamed people had asked him to draft the parliamentary resolution and one of his main motivations was the desire to present an appropriate response to Lithuania’s enemies “in the information war.”
The military and the security services also use every opportunity to remind us Russia, waging “information war” against Lithuania, constantly attempts to assign “collective guilt” for the Holocaust to Lithuania, her people and the state, and at the same time to assign that guilt to the entire post-war resistance.
It’s clear Gumuliauskas’s initiative grew out of the battles over Jonas Noreika, aka General Storm. He himself doesn’t hide this.
At the same time the commander-in-chief, president Gitanas Nausėda, commenting on Gumuliauskas’s initiative, responded to it rather skeptically, probably because it caused unpleasant irritation just before his planned visit to Israel then.
In early January Nausėda was supposed to go to Israel to attend the Fifth Global Holocaust Remembrance Forum.
Commenting on Gumuliauskas’s idea, the head of state expressed doubts it would ever become flesh. He also expressed surprise at the assumption someone presumably was accusing the entire Lithuanian people and state over the Holocaust.
The president asked, “Who is accusing,” in such a tone as if this were something he hadn’t heard before and didn’t understand, giving to understand this kind of parliamentary resolution was completely meaningless, without content and subjectless.
Fear without Subject
Truly, it’s worth stopping to consider again and more carefully what is meant by raising the issue of the s-called collective guilt of the nation and the state.
Yes, one does hear statements in the West and Israel that Lithuanians differentiated themselves from all other Nazi-occupied countries by their enthusiastic participating in the mass murder of Jews, and that this participation was very much mass participation. Due to this enthusiasm and scope of participation, the Nazis allegedly succeeded in exterminating almost the entirety of the country’s large Jewish community.
It is further said the oppression of the Jews based on anti-Semitism was also the policy of the country’s local government, and the fact this was a puppet government doesn’t fundamentally change anything. They claim it reflected and expressed the “collective” will of society, or more precisely, its dominant tendencies.
Moreover, statements so many times denied by Lithuanian historians are being repeated to the effect the mass murder of the Jews began before the Germans entered Lithuania; we’re supposed to understand the Lithuanians would have exterminated the Jews even if there hadn’t been a Nazi occupation.
At the same time the Lithuanian state and society of the present time, of course, are attempting to rid themselves as much as possible of that responsibility and even to deny any Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust.
But, as Grant Gochin’s example shows, these sorts of statements are not a reflection of prevailing opinion. The most frequent statement is Lithuania until now has simply failed to asses the scope of its own society’s participation in the Holocaust at that time and hasn’t come to terms completely with that participation.
Along with that statement is the emphasis that no nation or society can be accused “collectively” for the Holocaust, nor for other historical crimes.
Both the One and the Other Are Patently True
There is no way to provide a foundation for accusations against “the entire nation” or “state” which really was occupied at that time. In the end these sorts of accusations in this case and in all other similar cases are simply an emotional and political offensive against an entire country and society which someone wants to insult as much as possible or to portray in the worst light possible.
How can “the whole nation” or “the entire society” be “responsible” for participating in the Holocaust when the entity which is being assigned this responsibility is so unclear? What is this “nation” or “society” and how can it “wholly” or “collectively” be named responsible for the Holocaust?
Purely in terms of etiology, history and of course the law, railing against these sorts of accusations are really the same kind of senseless thing as battling windmills, or fighting something which doesn’t exist in reality.
So was president Nausėda therefore correct in saying this parliamentary resolution would be a senseless engagement in an argument which is about nothing from a purely formal point of view?
The Attempt to “Close” the Issue
Arūnas Gumuliauskas, however, probably has in mind more than just such self-evident matters and is fighting not just against “the information war” from the East, reflecting the moods and understandings prevailing in society and among a large portion of the political, security structure and security service elite.
When they speak of “state” and “society,” of “Poland” and “Lithuania,” they primarily and basically exclusively mean this rather than that earlier society’s relationship with the Holocaust.
These kinds of statements, resolutions and laws are an attempt to deny, reject and dispute the idea that the contemporary Lithuanian or Polish state and society have some broader and more general responsibility–not just legal, but also moral and ethical–to render any judgment at all about the role of Lithuanians and Poles in the Holocaust.
This is exactly what Gumuliauskas wants to say in claiming the only possible connection with the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust is the specific guilt of separate individuals and proof of responsibility rests solely with the courts.
Put simply, if there is some information about the specific culpability of some Jonas, Petras or Zbyszek in the murder of Jews, it has to be proved in court. If not, end of story. Period. Society and the state shouldn’t and can’t make any other decisions or take any other actions of different and somewhat more general nature.
Clearly this is aimed at the same idea, the idea modern Lithuanian society and the state nonetheless should determine as accurately as possible the scope of engagement by Lithuanians in the mass murder of Jews, and our connection with that.
There is a desire to say this is a pointless and dangerous thing. Dangerous because it nonetheless does provide our enemies a basis for saying the Lithuanians themselves are beginning to “admit” that Lithuania “participated” in the Holocaust, and thus adds fuel to the enemy’s fire.
This position directly leads to position of the radical camp of the Lithuanian view of the Holocaust, that it wasn’t separate, discrete individuals who took part in the mass murder but a “handful of people” who “have no ethnicity” in general.
Proponents of this view are also afraid any attempt to systematize and determine a total number of murderers and also their closest aides could end up with that number providing a basis for “collective accusations.”
Basically they don’t want any number, and thus no action towards systematization and synthesis. “A handful” is a sufficient number, or perhaps maybe “several hundred,” but several thousand or tens of thousands of murderers from the ranks of ethnic Lithuanians is completely forbidden, something against which all measures must be taken.
Also, this part of society and much broader social strata are also considering another issue: the restitution of the property of murdered Jews.
The Lithuanian state has set up a special Goodwill Foundation which allocates monies annually for supporting the cultural and religious activities of the country’s Jewish communities.
Recently there have been increased calls for taking up this last issue, at least to begin considering how it might be possible to return property or compensate for it, to individuals, to real people, to those who survived or to heirs.
Lithuania’s most important partners in the West, primarily the USA, also support these calls. Lithuania’s political elite, however, won’t even talk about it, publicly claiming this is too complex and is essentially impossible to do, but actually out of fear of the negative reaction from the majority of voters.
Full text in Lithuanian here.