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Muddling the Holocaust in Lithuania

As Peter Novick argues in The Holocaust in American Life (1999), in the late 1940s Americans, especially Jews, hesitated to discuss the Holocaust openly.  The Nuremburg Trials and the presentation of film footage of Nazi atrocities in the concentration camps had appropriately shocked citizens in the U.S. and allied countries. The conversion of postwar Germany into an ally against the Soviet Union as the Cold War began did not change the horror of the extermination of six million Jewish civilians by the Nazis and their collaborators, but it did encourage American leaders to focus on the “Red Fascism” of the U.S.S.R. instead of the German fascism that had produced the Holocaust.

This has changed of course during the past sixty years.  American presidents have visited the sites of concentration camps, and Hollywood has supplied a vast array of television series, documentaries, and feature films testifying to the human misery inflicted by the Third Reich during World War II.  The end of the Cold War in the last decade of the twentieth century further allowed the Holocaust to become a subject of public discussion and analysis without upsetting the U.S.’s geopolitical demands in battling Communism. 

Yet the end of the Cold War has brought about ironic and dangerous twists in remembering and depicting the Holocaust.  The dissolution of the Soviet Empire and the creation of independent republics in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States brought political, economic, and intellectual freedoms.  However, this independence has posed challenges both for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive as well as for safeguarding those remaining elderly Jews who fought on the Partisan side during World War II alongside the Soviet Union.  Such is the situation in Lithuania, where the Nazis and their collaborators murdered over 200,000 Jews, around 95 percent of the country’s prewar Jewish population.

Ironically, as Lithuania has entered a closer alliance with the United States through NATO and membership in the European Union, it has revived a new internal cold war.  Without rejecting the idea of the Jewish Holocaust, the Lithuanian government has called for historical “symmetry,” one that recognizes and even privileges the suffering of Lithuanians under Soviet rule.  In promoting a kind of holocaust equality, the Lithuanian government financed an “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania” and established a “Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania” in its capital, Vilnius. The problem is not in vindicating the historical suffering of diverse victims of tyranny, but in using this anti-Soviet sentiment to minimize Lithuania’s enormous complicity in the destruction of its wartime Jewish population.  This is no attempt by the government to engage in the shameful, anti-Semitic practice of Holocaust Denial, as practiced by the Iranian government, but to confuse the issue in such a way that diminishes sympathy and support for Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The disreputable cause of Holocaust Denial has been replaced by what one scholar, a professor at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, calls “Holocaust Obfuscation.”  The term has been gaining traction since the Economist published a piece on the subject last August, “Lithuania must stop blaming the Victims.”

The key to Holocaust Obfuscation is to stress the connection between Jewish citizens who escaped certain extermination by joining the Soviet-sponsored partisan groups in fighting the Nazis on the one hand; and on the other the Stalinist regime that inflicted pain and terror upon the Lithuanian people and upon its Jewish minority too.   Undoubtedly there were Lithuanian Jewish Communists (before the war well under 1 percent of the Jewish population), but placing their actions on a par with the Nazi slaughter of millions of people masks a sophisticated and pernicious form of anti-Semitism in the name of equality and tolerance. Indeed, Vilnius’s Genocide Research Center displays many books about Soviet deportations, but almost none about the Jewish Holocaust. Its Genocide Museum barely mentions the Holocaust at all.

To make matters worse, Lithuanian officials have recently sought to question Lithuanian Jews on suspicion of “crimes against humanity.”  One of them is Fania Brantsovsky, the 86-year-old librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. A former partisan, Brantsovsky has been called “a murderer” for her time fighting with the Soviet partisans against the Nazis, and a local newspaper has demanded “she be put on trial.”  At the urging of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, the American Embassy in Lithuania honored Brantsovsky with a certificate of achievement last April, and in August, the British Embassy organized a walking tour of the former Vilna Ghetto, led by Brantsovsky, in which fifteen Western alliance embassies participated (but none of the Baltic States).

Another target is Dr. Rachel Margolis, 87, a retired Vilnius University biologist who helped set up a Holocaust exhibit in the city and published a fine book of memoirs in 2006. She had also rediscovered, transcribed, and published the lost diary of a Polish witness to the murders at Ponar (Paneriai), the mass murder site outside Vilnius (an English edition, Ponary Diary, was brought out by Yale in 2005). Some surmise that this work inspired a craving for revenge, because the diary reveals exactly who the killers were, a fact masked in many local treatments of the period, and left wholly unmentioned by the new “genocide industry” in town. A dual Lithuanian-Israeli citizen, Margolis is in Rehovot, unable to return to her native city, Vilnius, for her annual lectures on the Holocaust. Last May, armed plainclothes police came looking for her. Three American congressmen took up her cause last August, but she has yet to receive assurances of safe passage for return to Vilnius. A group of European Union and NATO ambassadors has recently sent her a joint letter expressing the wish to hear her lecture in Vilnius. They include representatives of Austria, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Ireland, Sweden and the United States.

All of this comes despite the poor record of the Lithuanian government in pursuing non-Jewish war criminals. No Lithuanian collaborator of the Nazis has been punished since the country achieved independence in 1991, and the recent efforts to target Soviet anti-Nazi partisans seems to name only Jews, who were a minority in the partisan movement.  It also comes at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Vilnius, as witnessed by the parade of some 200 neo-Nazis through the city on Independence Day, March 11, 2008, and the more recent painting of swastikas  and anti-Semitic slogans on the tiny number of Jewish community centers in the country.

The actions of the Lithuanian government have occasioned protests from the tiny Jewish population remaining in Vilnius as well as from some academics and staff associated with the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at the University of Vilnius.  But these folks at the Institute are running afoul of the state security services and Genocide industry establishments, and may be in danger of marginalization and losing their jobs. The government, however, doesn’t want bad publicity to interfere with its attempts to show the western world, and especially American Jews, that Lithuania remembers Jewish suffering, while at the same time they obfuscate the memory of the Holocaust with their anti-Soviet priorities.  It is vital for people to rally around the truth tellers in the Yiddish Institute and let the Lithuanian government and academy know that, in the words of the 1960s, “the whole world is watching.”