Lithuanian Public Radio and Television Interview with Arūnas Bubnys

Lithuanian Public Radio and Television Interview with Arūnas Bubnys

/Translation from the Lithuanian language/

Fresh at the GRRCL’s helm, Bubnys opens about the connection between the June Uprising and the Holocaust, Noreika’s personality, and historic truth

‘There is no such thing as the absolute historic truth. And I do not believe there can be any on principle,’ said Arūnas Bubnys, the new head of the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (GRRCL). In his interview with the portal he also spoke about the challenges the Centre had faced, and the plans to boost the GRRCL’s prestige.

Bubnys did not have an easy accession to the post of the GRRCL’s director. After a conflict with the staff that had ran for a few months, Adas Jakubauskas, the Centre’s director for nine months, was fired in early April. The Parliament approved this decision by a majority vote, however Bubnys’s nomination as the new head was immediately met with allegations from the parliamentary opposition.

Some members of the opposition argued that Bubnys had perpetrated a coup and had allegedly had his eyes on the director’s post from the very beginning of the conflict. The GRRCL’s new director told the portal he had not even considered this possibility.
He also said he had not expected to be offered to run the conflict-ridden Centre, and had had his own doubts: ‘I would have gladly surrendered this position to someone else, had there been anyone who would want to have it and assume the responsibility for the complicated situation at the Centre.’
I would like to go back to July of last year, when there was a change in the management and Mr Jakubauskas became the director. What expectations did you have back then, in the face of the changes?
‘I cannot speak for everyone at the Centre. But if we were to speak about our department, the Centre’s historians, I would say the expectations were optimistic. The director himself said that the science–expert wing of the Centre needed bolstering, that the entire Centre – or at least a part of it, once he had learned that the Centre is a multifunctional institution – had to be qualified as a scientific institution, a position.
‘The former director had a lot of interactions and meetings with the Centre’s divisions, historians. The first impression was quite good. The new director radiated an image of a charming, socialising person for the first few weeks or months.’
When did it all start to change?
‘I believe the situation started to change gradually with the appointment of Vidmantas Valiušaitis as the chief advisor. He had rather broad powers, and kind of oversaw the publishing operations of the Centre, and, to some extent, the work of the Department of Genocide and Resistance Research, the certificates that were being issued, as well as other things.
‘Even before he had come to work for the Centre, Valiušaitis had been on the receiving end of some criticism from the press. That desire to control historians’ work, criticism aimed at them would only grow, resulting in a negative response.
‘Valiušaitis had been awarded the status of a Freedom Fight participant for his attendance of the 23 August 1987 meeting, which condemned the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocols. This fact was criticised by Dr Mingailė Jurkutė; she believed the status was not fully deserved. This only escalated the situation further. I would say there was some persecution for the criticism going on. Jurkutė was subjected to her first disciplinary action for having violated work discipline. That action also made the relationship between the directorate and the Centre’s historians worse.
‘That marked the beginning of the conflict somewhat clearly, even though there were many other things as well. All in all, there was a general air of distrust in the Centre’s historians and the management of the department. Finally, this opposition intensified and we would be further and further removed from making critical decisions. New departments were founded after the New Year’s, but no meetings of the Centre’s entire Council would be called, and everything would be settled in a small circle of people.’
Back in October last year, interviewed four employees of the Centre, who spoke of an alarming situation; it was a little bit later that Ms Jurkutė opened up about it as well. The then director of the Centre said that those who were voicing their outrage in public allegedly did not even try to solve the problems through talks inside the Centre. So were there any attempts to talk the problems and the concerns out internally at the Centre?
‘In terms of communication, the seminars that took place in October last year were a rather good thing. They were conducted by Ignas Stankovičius and were actively attended by our employees and historians. They provided a forum to speak about all problems at the Centre in a quite candid and frank manner.
‘There had been a couple seminars but then the quarantine happened and they were discontinued. And the amount of discontent was growing on both sides: the directorate and the historians alike. I would not say that there were any efforts to reach an agreement, a compromise, or to settle these matters peacefully.
‘The situation was escalating all the time, and exacerbated further with Jurkutė’s disciplinary action, reaching a point where neither of the sides was able to stop. Imposing a second disciplinary action on Jurkutė and her termination was the final moment of the confrontation.’
When your nomination was being deliberated at the Parliament, there were all kinds of comments: that you were involved in a coup and that it was your goal for the former director to be removed so that you could take his post. How did you take these comments?
‘I tried to read as little of the comments as I could, because the negative pressure was huge already. Me reading the comments carefully would have amounted to me poisoning my consciousness and would have only aggravated my mental state. I did not give too much mind to them.
‘But of course, I had to take into consideration the comments that were said after the removal of the former director and my own nomination, and I had to meet with the parliamentary panels, commissions, factions. That was intense work and there was a lot of criticism, especially from the opposition: the ‘Peasants’, the Labour Party, and the Mixed Faction all had a lot of negative opinions about me.
‘Speaking of the allegation that it had been my intention to remove the former director general so that I could claim his post, I can tell you frankly: I had no such plans. I would have gladly surrendered this position to someone else, had there been anyone who would want to have it and assume the responsibility for the complicated situation at the Centre.
‘I would definitely not have objected it, I would not have competed with such nominees. But no one wanted to accept that responsibility and run for this position in a situation like that. And I was in an even more difficult situation, because I was on the side of the opposition, which makes communication and efforts to unite the staff harder.’
So you did not expect the Parliamentary Speaker to suggest that you run for the director’s position?
‘At least until early April, I did not. The former director was recalled on April 1 and apparently, they had to find a new candidate for the position as soon as possible. I do not know all the details of what went on behind the scenes, I cannot tell you what the overall situation was, but I did not expect the Parliamentary Speaker to make the offer.’
Did you have any doubts?
‘I did. When I got the offer to run, I asked for time, for a couple of days to think whether I would bear that cross or not. But seeing that no one else was willing to run and the situation was such that someone had to pick up this difficult job, I decided to run for the post nonetheless.
‘After all, the Centre and I go back a long time. Since 1998, I have worked as a historian under various authorship agreements, and was employed full-time as the head of the department in 2009. I cared about the situation at and the future of the Centre. I could not remain impassive and step away from those things.’
When you were being vetted by the Parliament, you said you would try to sit down with the Centre’s staff and have a talk, listen to what they had to say. That meeting has already happened, and what did they staff tell you?
‘The first meeting of the full council of the Centre took place to mull important matters. The first thing was to amend the Law of the Centre so that the Centre would be able to initiate and organise the building of statues and monuments in foreign countries. We have not been able to legally do so, but it is very important because Russia, Kazakhstan, and some of the other ex-Soviet republics have quite a few former camp sites and exile locations where many Lithuanian people were kept imprisoned and died.
‘It is important for us to immortalise their memory and initiate the building of memorials. That is why we prepared an amendment to supplement the law and will send it to the Parliament. We also considered the idea of establishing a Search and Identification Department. We have spent years looking for the remains of fallen partisans and this work needs to be formalised as a separate field of activity.
‘Everyone agreed that the department was a very necessary thing. This work used to be done by several of our staff members in addition to their routine work; this was not their main line of work. But I believe that it is important that we free people from other activities and have them focus on conducting search and identification.’
And how is it going interacting and agreeing with the colleagues who were on the opposite side during the conflict?
‘I would say, so far the interaction and cooperation has been fine, there have not been any conflicts. Of course, we have our differences in opinion, but this is normal, that is the way it should be. But I have not observed any principled disagreements or ambitions yet.’
After you were appointed, you have been asked on several occasions if you would be re-hiring Ms Jurkutė and Monika Kareniauskaitė, who no longer work for the Centre. Have you talked to them? Are they coming back?
‘I said I would like Mingailė to come back to the Centre in the position of a historian from which she was fired. Yet this matter is being addressed by the Labour Dispute Commission and, resolution and settlement between the Centre and Jurkutė pending, we cannot forestall the events and say that she will definitely come back. (On May 18, Dr Jurkutė was reported to have been reinstated as Chief Historian –
‘I spoke with Ms Kareniauskaitė, but she has other plans and would not be able to return to the centre due to her busy schedule.’
Speaking about the Centre’s staff – there have been talks going on for years now about how the Centre was having difficulty in attracting top specialists due to low wages, and the specialists that are currently employed by the Centre are following their calling rather than doing it for the money. How do you think this problem should be addressed?
‘It is really a serious problem. The average net salary of full-time employees is EUR 680. Obviously, retaining promising young employees with this kind of salary is hard – and so is attracting them to work for the Centre.
‘There are several possible ways to solve it, one of them, obviously, being to ask for additional funding. /…/ I have been invited to meet with Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, we talked about different matters relating to the Centre’s activities, the situation at the Centre, its outlook, the work we have scheduled for this year.
‘We underscored two things. First, we want to establish a Search and Identification Department, which will require seven new jobs to be created. We also want to open the Homo Sovieticus Museum at the Memorial Park of Tuskulėnai, to be staffed by 5 people. That is 12 new jobs that would be critical to our continued work.
‘We are yet to receive from the Government a compensation for the last year to the tune of EUR 80,000 so that we can raise the minimum salary rates. We have requested a total of 168,000 for the second half of this year.
‘We did not get any firm promises, but our requests were received quite favourably at the meeting with the Prime Minister and we expect some additional funding to come our way this year.’
You said the average net salary at the Centre is EUR 680. What kind of salary do you think would make the Centre’s historians feel that they are earning a respectable amount?
‘In Vilnius county, the average gross salary right now is EUR 1,603. The average gross salary at the Centre is EUR 1,195. In other words, the salary of the Centre’s employees is EUR 408, or 34 per cent lower than the index for employees in Vilnius county. If we were to reach the county index, that would be a decent achievement, and our employees’ salaries would see a EUR 400–500 bump.’
After your visit to the President’s Office, a statement was released that the president approves of your priorities regarding the search for partisans and victims of the Holocaust and other repressive regimes. You mentioned a new department that you intend to establish, and that more staff will be required. What other things are needed? When could it actually become operational?
‘Department or no department, we have been working intensely in this area since 2017: the remains of Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas, Antanas Kraujelis-Siaubūnas have already been discovered. This was done by the staff of our Centre in association with archaeologists from Vilnius University.
‘We can see that it is a key field, it creates a very high value for the Centre, giving it good publicity. Before 2018, when the remains of Ramanauskas-Vanagas were found, few people knew about the Centre at all. This helped promote the Centre and boost our prestige.
‘As a result, we can see that this area needs an extra boost, with a special department established, more employees hired, a DNA bank set up with a set of genetic, biologic samples to be able to identify fallen partisans and other persons who were killed during the occupation from their relatives.
‘But we need additional staff, additional funding for this work to continue and its intensity to increase.’
Following your meeting with the president, the country’s leader voiced his position that the Centre should conduct high-level inquiries just as it ought to disseminate them in Lithuania and abroad. Do you have a plan of how this can be achieved?
‘We had this area of activity underdeveloped, with too little effort invested into it. Generally speaking, the Centre lacks internal and external communication. There is the new Strategic Development and Communication Department, but it only has two staffers at this time. I believe this is not enough for communication do be decent.
‘Of course, the problem is that we do not publicise our work enough, we have too little interaction with the media. There are a plethora of good scientific papers written, but the problem is that our work is little known to the public, both in Lithuania and abroad.
‘We have to try to network with the media more, stage book presentations, attend conferences. It is very important that the work of our historians is translated into English and other foreign languages and the achievements of our staff are published online.’
You said you want to resume working with the domestic universities. Have you already discussed how this work could proceed with them?
‘Officially, not yet, but we have had some informal talks. I am accepted by the academia as a person and as the director general of the Centre. We interact, we share some plans regarding conferences. But of course, official meetings with university principals, the director of the Institute of History of Lithuania have to happen soon so that the “blockade” of the Centre is lifted and we can communicate as we should.
‘In turn, we will invite students to do internships at the Centre, we sometimes need assistance in various fields. We are open to cooperation and I hope that the universities and the Institute of History of Lithuania will be favourable in their approach to the changes in the situation at the Centre.’
We have seen time and time again that matters of historic truth are becoming the object of massive conflicts in Lithuania. We saw this happen with Lukiškės Square and Jonas Noreika-General Vėtra. Why do you think it is so in Lithuania?
‘It is probably because the society is much differentiated, and so are its views and beliefs. There are a lot of parties in Lithuania with varying programmes and ideological mind-sets. So do people, as individuals, have their own understanding of historical events, processes, and personalities, too?
‘The controversy is natural, inevitable. But the bad thing in my opinion is that each side is too encapsulated within its own point of view. Take, for instance, Noreika-General Vėtra. Some see only the bright moments in his biography, how he was part of the Soviet resistance in 1941, how he was arrested by the Nazi, taken to a concentration camp, how he had an option never to return to Lithuania but flee to the West but returned to resume his anti-Soviet activity, which resulted in his arrest and execution.
‘But the other side highlights the negative moments in his biography: /…/ how he was appointed head of Šiauliai circuit in early August of 1941, how he held to this position for nearly two years. And that position, that Lithuanian self-government, was subordinate to the occupational Nazi regime, the commissioners, and those who held that position had to follow Nazi orders. While those who would not face arrests, deportation to concentration camps, and so on.
‘In late August–early September of 1941, Noreika signed and sent to the heads of Šiauliai circuit volosts two orders from Hans Gewecke, commissioner of Šiauliai county /…/ to gather the Jews of Šiauliai circuit in the Žagarė ghetto. As these orders were followed, more than 2 thousand Jews from Šiauliai circuit were marshalled to the Žagarė ghetto where, a few weeks later, on 2 October 1941, they all were slaughtered. There is that.
‘Of course Noreika himself was not part of the slaughter, but the killing of every Jew in the Žagarė ghetto was a consequence of his actions. His other decree concerning the management of the property left behind by the Jews was also a kind of blemish in his biography.
‘The problem is that some people only see white, while others only see black. People do not want to see the whole picture, what in a person’s biography. And there were very few officials back then who could avoid actions in their line of duty that could bring negative consequences for the people of the land. That is the way things were.
‘The confrontation amidst the public is further stoked by the unwillingness to see the whole picture, the stubborn determination to only see black or white, and the fact that this kind of seeing things is being very actively promoted. This happens with different matters. Take today’s situation, for instance: the quarantine or vaccination are two extreme polarities in the public. The trouble is that people do not want to discuss it and talk to their opponents. This creates an atmosphere of zero tolerance and confrontation.’
As a historian, what do you think of the certificate, which appeared some two years back, that Noreika-General Vėtra was in fact a rescuer of Jews?
‘There is this kind of information, the testimony by the Rev. Jonas Borevičius and the testimony by Vladas Požėla, an ex-Chaplain at Šiauliai prison and one of the Righteous Among the Nations, that corroborates the evidence given by the Rev. Borevičius. That Noreika was part of the anti-Nazi underground movement is an undisputed fact. The Lithuanian national anti-Nazi resistance followed the tactics of unarmed strife that mainly featured acts such as boycott of various Nazi measures, anti-Nazi propaganda in underground press, boycott of mobilisation efforts, and so on.
‘Noreika’s involvement in saving Jews is up for discussion. None of the arguments should be dismissed. If there is any evidence, it has to be scrutinised closely. We cannot say that if a testimony does not match my conception, I will disregard it straight away. We have to consider the testimony as such as the historical context in which it was given.
‘One thing is for sure, and that is that he cooperated very closely with the family of Domas Jasaitis in Šiauliai. This family was very actively involved in helping Jews in Šiauliai city and circuit and was later officially acknowledged and admitted to the ranks of the Righteous Among the Nations. Even though no documented evidence exists, we can guess that Noreika himself knew about the secret activities of the Jasaitis family.
‘I cannot assert that it all happened in one particular way or another, but I think we should consider different testimonies, both those in favour of Noreika and those to his detriment.’
What should Lithuania commemorate this year – is it the anniversary of the June Uprising or the beginning of the Holocaust? And, all things considered, how do you think we should approach the connection between these two events?
‘I think we should commemorate both. These were very important historic events – both the June Uprising, and the beginning of the Holocaust in Lithuania even more so. But I consider them to be separate historic events, separate phenomena. They are connected, they took place at the same time, some links do exist, but I want to accentuate that these two events cannot be seen as one and the same thing.
‘To put it in layman’s terms, the June Uprising was an armed action, an act of resistance to the Soviet occupation, and a desire and wish to restore the independent state of Lithuania. That is the whole point. It was brief, only lasting a week, until the German troops invaded the entire territory of Lithuania. When we speak about the uprising, we should only speak about the exact time when it happened.
‘While the Holocaust, obviously, started with the Nazi-Soviet war, with the first mass slaughter of Jews in Lithuania committed on 24 June 1941 in Gargždai, when the operational squad of Tilžė Gestapo and a German police squad from Klaipėda killed 201 Jews.
‘Of course, the Holocaust continued throughout the period of the Nazi occupation, from late June of 1941 until the end of June of 1994, when the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos were liquidated and their inmates were taken away to Nazi concentration camps.
‘The thing is that the uprising had its own main purpose, which was to restore Lithuania’s independence, while the Holocaust was obviously a consequence of the Nazi policy, its purpose to exterminate every Jew in all European countries. The problem is that the citizens of all lands occupied by Germany, and the local authorities subordinate to the regime were involved in the mass slaughter and genocide as well. This was the case in Lithuania, too.
‘Speaking about the uprising and the Holocaust, they are connected through individual destinies because some of the rebels that joined various civil and political power structures after the uprising, some of them were involved in the arrests, imprisonment, and mass slaughter of Jews. Police battalions and auxiliary police squads were involved in the Holocaust in volosts and circuits, and some of the members of those units had participated in the June Uprising.
‘Sad as it may be, it is still a fact. The problem is that we still cannot say for sure how many rebels switched to serve in various structures under the German regime, and how many of them participated in the Holocaust. We do not have any inquiry results for the whole of Lithuania. But things like that really took place and, unpleasant as it may be, we have to admit it and investigate it.’
Did the Provisional Government of Lithuania take any action to stop the Holocaust?
General Stasys Raštikis and some of the other former members of the Provisional Government say that at the time of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Kaunas, the operational squad of the German security policy that had arrived in Kaunas on 25 June 1941 to organise the pogroms managed to involve the unit under the command of the journalist Klimaitis in executing the pogroms. That unit had a few hundred members, they got weapons and special certificates from the German security police lest they were arrested by the Lithuanian police for instigating the pogroms, and what not.
‘Some members of the Government advised Klimaitis to stay out of the German politics and the anti-Jewish pogroms. But Klimaitis tried to plead that he was being forced to do it, he had been arrested and imprisoned by the Soviets, he said he had been threatened by the German security police that, should he refuse to follow the orders, he would be executed by firing squad.
‘Members of the Government, I believe they were General Pundzevičius and Raštikis, advised him to flee from Kaunas, to go into hiding and stay out of the dirty business, those late-June pogroms that were organised by the German security police and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Kaunas Jews.
‘Raštikis himself has said he went to see the German commandant in Kaunas to ask him to put an end to the pogroms that took place in Kaunas on June 25–28. But the German commandant, a high-ranking officer, said he could not do anything about it for that was the province of the Gestapo.
‘Indeed, that is exactly how it was. Based on instructions from Berlin, from the Reich Security Main Office, it was those operational groups and squads that were in charge of the extermination of the Reich’s enemies – both real and potential – in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. And they did just that.
‘In reality, the German military command could not do much against this official position of the Third Reich’s brass, even if it wanted. The general policy was clear: first instigate pogroms, involve as many residents of the occupied lands into the pogroms, into the Holocaust, and spread Nazi propaganda that the residents of the land that has been liberated from the Bolsheviks are apparently “cleansing” the land from communists and Jews on their own initiative.
‘Then the period of pogroms abruptly ended to be replaced by systemic persecution of Jews, who would be placed in ghettos and slaughtered in Kaunas, Vilnius, and in the provinces – in circuits and volosts – on a massive scale.
‘There were attempts from the Provisional Government, but they failed. Then again they were doomed to fail from the start, for that was the official policy of a power such as the Third Reich, which was being enforced in one way or the other in all lands occupied by the Nazi, Lithuania no exception here.’
We can hear a lot of talks about the monument to Petras Cvirka, Salomėja Nėris’s street, and so on. Should memorials to those persons be removed from our public spaces?
‘That is rather the province of the Parliament – it should pass certain legislation. A regulation banning Soviet and Nazi symbols in Lithuania is already in place. Some of the monuments were built to certain persons not to commemorate them as writers or culture figures, but rather as a propaganda tool.
‘Take Cvirka as a case in point. He was not just a writer: he had favoured the underground Communist Party and the Soviet Union even before Lithuania was occupied. He was part of the Lithuanian parliamentary delegation that travelled to Moscow to bring back the so-called Stalin’s Sun, when Lithuania allegedly asked to be accepted to the Soviet Union. He was not just a writer, he was also a political activist who played a certain hand in Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union.
‘It is my subjective opinion that the monument to Cvirka commemorates his political doings during the Soviet era rather than his work as a writer.’
Do you think there is such thing as the historic truth? And can it be achieved? Or is history open to interpretation, after all?
‘There is no such thing as the absolute historic truth. And I do not think there could be any on principle. We can only strive for the ideal of the historic truth, but as history is not a natural science or mathematics, it is not ruled by the same laws that apply in nature.
‘A person is a subjective creature by nature. We have the humanities – history, philosophy, where the human subjective factor is strong and attaining the absolute truth is an impossibility. There will always be a degree of subjectivity and room for interpretation.’