by Sergejus Kanovičius, poet and essayist
I always find it difficult to talk about the subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania. And not just talk about it – it is difficult for me to think about it, too. It is the biggest crime ever committed on the Lithuanian soil. We all play our part in history, we all–from historians to history fans, political figures, the general public–have our own interpretation of it. I am a writer, a descendent of Lithuanian Jews and Holocaust survivors, a child of Lithuania.
And I am honestly confused. And I don’t think I am the only one. The cautious statements that the Holocaust in Lithuania was a tragic page in our history, the popular expression of pseudo-empathy when fallen Lithuanian Jews are referred to as fellow citizens; but at the same time, no one is ever mentioning–even at the parliament–who their executioners were, and the list of people who have been identified as collaborators in that crime, remains hidden.
When the president of the Republic–and not just he alone–compares the uprising with the Reform Movement, historians–with the Kosciuszko Uprising and even the 1918 fight for independence, when the Genocide Centre publishes, on June 22, a report by Dr. Alfredas Rukšėnas about the June Uprising, in which he uses everyday language to give a rather boring account of how it all happened by the day, by the hour, by the minute: “Early in the morning, at around 3 AM on June 23, 1941, L. Prapuolenis, Dr. A. Damušis, and J. Vėbra made a final draft of the declaration of restoration of Lithuania’s independence and a brief proclamation to the people of Lithuania, and went to the Kaunas radiophone station shortly after. At 9:28 AM Leonas Prapuolenis made this announcement on behalf of the Chief Staff of the LAF over the Kaunas radiophone: ‘The provisional government of the newly reborn Lithuania hereby declares its restoration of a free and independent state of Lithuania. In front of the pristine conscience of the whole world, the young state of Lithuania promises, with great enthusiasm, to make its own contribution to organizing Europe on a new foundation. Ravaged by the ferocious Bolshevism, the nation of Lithuania has set itself about creating its own future on the basis of national unity and social justice.’ It was followed by an announcement of the composition of the provisional government of Lithuania, a broadcast of the Lithuanian anthem and the national hymn Lietuviais Esame Mes Gimę. Finally, the radiophone played Saulelė Raudona by Kipras Petrauskas–the LAF’s signal for Lithuania to rise up. The composition of the government was announced on June 23.”
Dr Rukšėnas has remembered to mention that “captain Jonas Noreika was stationed in Plungė where he was publishing 500 to 1,000 copies of proclamations in the name of Lithuanian activists.” Some anti-Soviet literature would be prepared outside of Lithuania as well. What they choose to omit, is the contents of the proclamations. Because a large part of it was anti-Semitic in nature. Just like they choose to omit the fact that right after these declarations had been made, the radiophone made a transmission to the people of Lithuania that were was no more place for Jews in Lithuania. That was also part of the uprising.
Simonas Jazavita, who has just received his PhD in history and, the way I understand it, loves to portray Kazys Škirpa as a better human being than he ever was, once generously said in an interview that the ‘Lithuanians had to choose between the rock and the hard place, realizing they could not make a stand alone. This realization resulted in certain compromises, with the provisional government attempting to go a different route, trying to speak for the Jews. We can see the efforts of Stasys Raštikis, a member of the LAF and former commander of the Lithuanian military and defense minister to talk to Wehrmacht officers who would only spread their arms like they could not do anything about it. Many of them had an anti-Semitic mindset, yet even they were opposed to the mass killing of Jews. So if the Wehrmacht was unable to do anything, the provisional government had its hands tied as well.
“Of course, there might have been more initiatives of this kind, yet there was a surge in anti-Semitic sentiments amidst the public in the wake of the occupation by the Soviets, the prevalent stereotype being that of the ‘Communist Jew’–it was as if every Jew was in favor of the Communist ideology by default. Of course, this was a false mindset: how could a yeshiva student, a rabbi or a member of a Zionist organization who was cherishing dreams of the Israeli state, be a Communist? It was a big fallacy but it would be wrong to imagine that their word meant anything to the Nazis from the comfort of the 21st century easy-chair.”
Just like that: there was the rock and the hard place, they had to choose, a false mindset, and all the other obligatory clichés. But was it just the Nazis that the voice of the provisional government, and the LAF before it, spoke to? Was it the Nazis that it addressed? We all know that it was not so.
Certificates issued in the era of the Genocide Center’s Teresė Birutė Burauskaitė regarding K. Škirpa and Jona Noreika–certificates which contradict the historical facts just as they desecrate the concept of the Holocaust in its own right–are still in full force and effect. So are hundreds of judgements by the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Supreme Court rehabilitating people involved in the Holocaust, while the mayor of Ukmergė does not have the guts to tear down the monument to a killer of Jews.
Finally, there have been some efforts to determine at a recent conference that the June Uprising hardly had to do something with the LAF, and had absolutely nothing to do with the Holocaust, because the objectives of the uprising had been already achieved on June 28 (by the way, Dr. Rukšėnas suggests the uprising should ‘end’ on June 25: could it have been so that it ended before it could begin). They are even saying it over and over again that the rebels were not formally involved in the pogroms and the killings because… the uprising had ended. Who can contradict that? The dead do not have a voice. Nor do they have respect. The worst thing is that historians are keeping quiet.
Of course, the conclusions by the Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes from the 2005 investigation by the professors Saulius Sužiedėlis and Christoph Dieckmann are still valid, covering both the assumptions for the Holocaust in Lithuania and the anti-Semitism on the part of the LAF and the provisional government (PG). The final part of the conclusions reads: ‘the anti-Semitic attitudes of the LAF and PG have been well-documented. The most comprehensive expression of the PG’s official anti-Semitism was the draft of the “Regulations on the Situation of the Jews” of August 1, 1941. But the cabinet, even as it approved decrees segregating and expropriating the Jews, avoided endorsing public organized slaughter. The PG, which claimed to speak on behalf of the nation and more than once insisted on its own moral authority, did not publicly disassociate itself from the murder of Lithuania’s Jewish citizens.’
Today, knowing that the provisional governmental did not distance themselves, we are trying to justify it. Even though we have enough evidence to be able to say that it is a documented fact that the LAF and the provisional government chose to work with the Third Reich. In other words, it chose the path of collaboration.
How can they distance themselves when all of the LAF’s platoform documents refer to Lithuania without Jews? Nonetheless, despite being aware of it, even professional historians are trying to sweep it under the rug, avoiding mentioning this fact at all, let alone emphasizing it. How can a historian keep silent about the truth?
And so I ask myself: What is this revision and manipulation of history that I am being witness to and participant in? What has caused this revision? Are historians who want to draw a line between the LAF and the uprising or the provisional government no longer aware that the uprising’s noble goal of restoring the Lithuanian independence was compromised by another objective, that of getting rid of Lithuanian Jews? Was it so that the architects of the uprising, the LAF, had lost any political responsibility in seeing Lithuania free of any Jews, and the propaganda that they spread before, during, and after the uprising was one of the reasons why it took the Nazi Germany mere months to achieve the same level of Jew extermination in Lithuania, and years in the Poland next door?
The uprising had identified its goals and enemies: the Bolshevik regime and the Jews. The uprising’s ideologists had also picked their partner–Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, hoping that Lithuania would become an independent state and an ally to the Third Reich. Why is nobody talking about that?
Should we condemn the import of Stalin’s sun by Paleckis’s delegation more than the premeditated choice of the uprising’s ideologists and the provisional government established on the basis of the LAF to collaborate with the Nazi Germany? The enemy had been identified, the brothers in arms– the Wehrmacht,-chosen. Pogroms started right away, the killings came later–any process takes time to complete, and property would be returned to everyone but Jews.
People wearing the white LAF bands stood by the holes in the ground–in August and in September they were enforcing the LAF’s directive of getting rid of the remaining Jews in Lithuania, which mirrored the Nazis’ plans quite perfectly. Is it a moral thing to justify an uprising that fought for Lithuania’s independence without one of Lithuania’s historical ethnic groups, the Jews? Is it a moral thing to talk about the uprising whilst leaving aside the anti-Semitic ideology and propaganda of its high command? What duty do we have as players in today’s history and critics of those days past? Is it to keep our mouths shut, or to help politicians, leaders of the state, and the members of the society who have lost their way to find their bearings, at least when it comes to assessing the budding form of Lithuanian national-socialism and to make a stand against new forces of radical nationalism?
What place did my father, who was twelve at the time, have designated for him by the LAF and the provisional government in Lithuania? Is there any doubt, when Chapter IV Guidelines to Prepare for the Uprising of the 18-page document dated March 24, 1941 and titled Instructions For Liberating Lithuania read: “The Germans regard the Lithuanian Activist Movement as a political factor and rely on it while they knit a political network with Lithuania. For the nation of Lithuania to reach its ideological maturity, the anti-communist and anti-Semitic action has to be strengthened. … It is critical that we seize this opportunity to get rid of the Jews, too. Therefore, we must create in the country an atmosphere so stifling for the Jews, that not one of them would even entertain the thought that they could have some minimal rights or possibilities to subsist in general in the new Lithuania. The goal here is to make all Jews flee Lithuania together with the red Russians. The more of them abandon Lithuania on this occasion, the easier it will be to get rid of the Jews later. The Lithuanian hospitality that Vytautas the Great once bestowed on the Jews is hereby being revoked for good for their recurrent betrayal of the people of Lithuania to their oppressors.”
I know that the fallen cannot vote, but I think that we all have a duty to protect their memory and to tell the historical truth to the society. We can only do this when everyone–historians and politicians, the society and each and every one of us–stops telling only half the truth. Because half the truth is a lie.
I say that the LAF’s anti-Semitic propaganda, the provisional government’s collaboration with the Nazis was one of the assumptions for the Holocaust in Lithuania. It did not end with the outbreak of the uprising, or with its formal end, which the esteemed Arūnas Bubnys suggests happened on June 28. The uprising had failed to achieve but one goal, which is to restore Lithuania’s independence without Jews. However, as the Germans did not face any official protests against the pogroms and killings, Lithuania virtually lost all of its Jews. The responsibility here lays at the feet of the LAF, and the rebels, and the provisional government as well. We have to say this clearly.
I would like to remind you that the Holocaust was not just the slaughter of Jews. In the beginning, there was a word. The word defined every Jew in Lithuania as a legitimate target and enemy. Then the word turn into flesh–pogroms, ghettos, and finally killings. That word, that idea, was someone’s brainchild; someone saw to it that it would spread wide, and many of those who heard the word, believe it. All for want of another word: “let’s not kill the innocent.”
The responsibility for the deaths of two hundred thousand Jewish neighbours lies both with the LAF, and the uprising, and the provisional government. Unless we keep making revisions to the history, spreading rumors that are not grounded on any hard evidence, such as General Vėtra, whenever he had a moment to spare from persecuting Jews, would attempt to save them, and he would do this on his own initiative, while all his bad deeds, according to the still-valid certificate from the Genocide Center, were down to the fact that the “occupational Nazi regime had succeeded in involving him, and other officials of the Lithuanian civil administration, in the management of matters relating to the isolation of Jews.” Apparently captain Noreika was strolling down the street and someone somehow got him involved.
Will we continue to argue that Škirpa has nothing to do with that anti-Semitic propaganda hysteria and the Holocaust, that he did not have any political responsibility as the LAF’s head because, according to another valid and shameful certificate from the Genocide Center, the LAF under him “proposed addressing the matter of Jews NOT THROUGH GENOCIDE, but by banishing Jews from Lithuania.” If today the Genocide Center is arguing that what transpired in Lithuania back then and what the LAF was encouraging did not create an assumption for Jewish genocide, we can hardly expect that one day, the entire truth will be told and a moral, rather than amoral approach to the Holocaust will take hold in Lithuania.
Will we pay unconditional respect to patriots, forgiving them their collaboration with the Nazis, because their obvious sins were offset by their fight against the Soviet invaders?
In conclusion I would like to go back to the report by Dr. Rukšėnas which offers a certain approach to the uprising and the concurrent persecution of Jews. In fact, the document does not contain a word about Jews. This is how it ends: “The uprising helped the people to recover from the humiliation they had gone through in the summer of 1940 and later. Even though the occupation regime would not recognize the rebel authority, the uprising inspired the people to continue the fight for freedom that lasted all the way to the eleventh of March, 1991.”
I will have to admit that, contrary to the Genocide Center, this wording does not inspire me to fight for freedom just as it does not motivate me to trust the institution that has been called to conduct unbiased investigations of the genocide. That wording is hurtful in what is omitted, which amounts to lies.
My grandparents were not in the uprising. They were not invited. Because the uprising was directed against them–a young tailor, a housewife, and their single twelve-year-old son, as well as the rest of the Jews in Lithuania. Had the entire Lithuania followed the objectives of the uprising, neither myself, nor my Father would have been able to make a stand in the honorable fight of March 11, which was a fight for your and our freedom, and not the kind of freedom that the Lithuanian Activist Front had in mind: a freedom and independence without Jews in Lithuania.
Eighty years ago, on the very same June 27, the uprising still went on. On that very same day 80 years ago, Jews were being slaughtered on a massive scale in Lietūkis garage in Kaunas.
Therefore I am asking what I hope to be a completely unrhetorical question: When will we finally get tired of the lies, of half-truth, and confront these things publicly?
This text is the foreword delivered at the discussion titled “Assessment of the Holocaust and the State of Our Morality” on June 28.