Soviet-built memorial adjacent to World War One-era fort, where thousands Jews from Lithuania and elsewhere were executed. It was initially dedicated to the murdered ‘citizens of the Soviet Union’ - establishing Holocaust as a taboo topic during the Soviet occupation.
Decades after Soviet terror, Lithuania confronts its Holocaust
The Soviets swept through Lithuania in 1940. The Nazis did the same in 1941, only to be pushed back once again by the Soviets in 1944. In the turmoil of shifting frontlines, Lithuania’s interim rulers gambled, collaborating with the Nazis in the hope of post-war independence.
They failed, and 80% of Lithuanian Jews, the Litvaks, were murdered during the first six months of Nazi occupation.
Five decades of Soviet atrocities followed - 5 to 10% of all Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia. Over 50,000 perished in the inhospitable swathes of the Russian hinterland; many were also Jewish.
This painful history became the binding glue of patriotism in the face of Moscow’s post-Cold-War posturing, which has repeatedly made overtures to the ‘illegality’ of Baltic independence.
It has subsequently overshadowed the urge to confront the nation’s own demons, and the complicity of many of its lionized resistance fighters in crimes against humanity.
Attempts to lift the fog of war were met with accusations of rewriting patriotic history.
Kazys Skirpa streets still dot various Lithuanian cities; Jonas Noreika was posthumously awarded the second highest military medal after the Lithuanian independence in 1991.
Both men were prominent figures in the Nazi-collaborating interim government. Jonas Noreika also waged partisan war against the Nazis, as well as the Soviets - further complicating the quagmire between collaboration and resistance.
Yet, post-independence Lithuanian governments have continued connecting the nation's narrative with the interim regime's plot for independence on the back of anti-Semitic collaboration.
Garsonas Taicas, armed with patience, piercing eyes and a casual suit, has trawled Lithuania’s National Archives on the outskirts of the country’s capital Vilnius for 18 years, evidencing the fate of various Litvaks during the atrocities.
“Lithuania has always been made up of different ethnicities, like the five fingers,” he says “By sacrificing one [for short-lived independence], we have remained invalids forever.
Taicas’s own family was mostly killed during the Holocaust in the city of Ukmerge, where today, he says, just 10 Litvak families remain from a pre-war population of about 10,000.
“In Soviet times, it was impossible to look into this topic. National anti-Semitism was prevalent in the USSR,” he said.
Since independence, however little has improved. The government, he alleges, is waiting for the all the “witnesses to die.”
Textbooks in Lithuanian schools only offer fleeting mentions of the Litvaks, an integral part of Lithuanian society for more than 500 years. And the history of the Holocaust moves swiftly on to the stories of the many Lithuanians who saved Jews.
The failure to cast a critical look back at its past has played into the hands of Russian propagandists, who have seized on the opportunity to accuse the Baltic state of ongoing “fascism” — a tactic that has been deployed to devastating effect in Ukraine during its seizure of Crimea.
“Children are not responsible for parents’ crimes,” said Arkadijus Vinokuras, the author of “We didn’t kill,” a book based on 35 interviews with relatives of Holocaust collaborators. “But does heroism [against the Soviets] dissolve crimes against humanity?”
The book title references the prevalent conflict among the older generation - whether all Lithuanians killed Jews, or if all Jews were Soviet collaborators.
“It’s time to stop blaming each other, leave our ghettos and start talking,” he adds.
In 2016, Ruta Vanagaite, a Lithuanian writer, injected the country’s Holocaust legacy back into public discourse with a book, “Our People,” which paints a stark contrast to the official historical narrative.
She was immediately swamped with interview requests, she says, by “Putin apologists” and representatives from the Russian media and Russian embassy in Vilnius. “I refused, knowing what it would mean for Lithuania,” she says. “We need to deal with this ourselves.”
She immediately became a love/hate figure in the public, but also came under attack for working with the infamous ‘nazi hunter,’ Efraim Zuroff.
Her driving motivation in writing the book was to collect the first-hand accounts and written sources that are rarely consulted and largely ignored in the country’s education system.
There’s hope, she says, in the post-Soviet generation, “who have no attachment to some ethnic victim and hero myth.”
“A large percentage of teachers educated during the Soviet occupation, have a problem telling the truth,” says Richard Schofield, who heads the NGO ‘Litvak Photography Center’ and travels to Lithuanian schools for education projects.
“Everybody knows thousands of Litvaks were exiled to Siberia under Stalin,” he adds, “and everybody knows there were ethnic Lithuanians in the KGB arresting and murdering their own people.” But few know the history of what happened during the country’s brief alliance with the Nazis.
“The same history teachers are more often than not relieved when I tell their students that the Holocaust didn’t happen because the Jews were communists. It seems to me that almost everyone wants the truth to be told, but nobody has the courage to tell it,” added Richard.
“The Soviet generation has a strange sense of anti-Semitism ingrained in them, whereas the new generation simply doesn’t know the history,” says Marius Janulevicius, a literature teacher who produced a Holocaust documentary, “The Forgotten,” together with a small group of students from the school where he works. “So, it’s important to start with them.”
Slowly, efforts to document and disseminate knowledge about the Holocaust are bearing fruit, as a growing number of Lithuanians acknowledge their country’s troubling history.
Lithuania remains one of the most prejudiced and xenophobic country in the EU, and starting with the Holocaust legacy would aid the belated post-Soviet reopening.
“It’s better not to glorify [controversial figures] at all, as it makes it harder to apologize later,” said Egidijus Puronas, whose relative, Pranas, was the head of regional intelligence unit in Lithuania under the Nazis. “My family acknowledged his inexcusable actions, it's in the open, and now there is nothing more to be said.”
He added, “A real hero for me is my grandfather who survived the war as farmer, and managed to feed his family.”