Bill Evokes Ugly History of Lithuanian-Nazi Collaboration
80 years after the Holocaust, in a move that prompted a searing review of Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis, the Lithuanian parliament has passed a law that will set aside $38 million in restitution for survivors and their heirs.
The long-deferred restitution law which capped years of wrangling, nearly doubles a grant of $37 million allocated for Holocaust claims over a decade ago, reports JTA.
The earlier funds were aimed at compensating the Jewish community for communal property looted under the Nazi occupation. The present bill would allow survivors and their heirs to apply for restitution for personal property as well.
The collective amounts of restitution represent a fraction of the value looted and pillaged from Lithuania’s pre-war population of about 250,000 but exceeds any other restitution settlement in the Baltic states.
Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered 96 percent of this community during the German occupation. The killers butchered hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout the country, including the highly organized massacres at Ponary, a suburb of Vilna, (today’s Vilnius), where 70,000 Jews were murdered between 1941 and 1944.
Lithuanian battalions also organized deportations to the Majdanek death camp in Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto, shooting and killing untold numbers of victims.
Murderers of Jews Honored
For decades, Lithuanian governments had downplayed the atrocities against the Jews, even honoring as national heroes individuals known to have participated in the brutal murder of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
Amid the rise in nationalism across Eastern Europe, streets, schools and monuments have been named for some of these Lithuanian collaborators. These “patriots” who fought the Soviet enemy—the Nazis—and slaughtered Jews with equal enthusiasm, are honored with plaques and monuments.
Today only 5,000 Jews remain in the country.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte introduced the new restitution bill in November. It passed with an overwhelming majority, with 72 parliamentarians in favor, six against and two abstaining.
The World Jewish Restitution Organization called it “an important step to providing a measure of justice to Lithuanian Holocaust survivors and their families for the horrors they suffered during World War II and its aftermath.”
The bill’s passage was welcomed by the United States embassy in Lithuania.
“The passing of this legislation is an important step in recognizing the tragedy of the Holocaust in Lithuania,” Robert Gilchrist, the US ambassador to Lithuania, said in a statement. “The United States Government strongly endorses the Lithuanian government’s proposal to address longstanding issues of restitution for the Lithuanian Jewish community devastated during the Holocaust.”
“This law is also a moral debt that should be acknowledged, although not 100 percent resolved,” Prime Minister Simonyte stated.
Shift in Public Opinion
The bill’s passage signified a slow shift in public opinion toward admitting Lithuania’s wartime collaboration with Nazi genocide—once a toxic subject in this country.
In 2020, Lithuanian lawmakers considered a law that would have declared that neither Lithuania nor its leaders could be blamed for participating in the Holocaust, because the country was occupied.
The proposed law whitewashing Lithuanian crimes against the Jews was dropped in the face of strong opposition from Jewish leaders, Israel and the United States. Some political parties such as Democratic Union For Lithuania still favor such a law, and were opposed to the restitution bill.
“Our faction did not support the [restitution law]. Neither the motives nor the real reasons for it make sense,” said Saulius Skvernelis, chairman of the Democratic Union party.
“If we’d apply the same approach, then the story of compensation would be endless,” Skvernelis complained, pointing to non-Jewish Lithuanians who lost property during both the Nazi and Soviet occupations, as if those injustices could be equated with the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry.
Identities of Lithuanian Perpetrators Are Known
As documented by eyewitness testimony, photographs, and Nazi records, the non-Jewish population in Lithuania welcomed the Germans as liberators [from Soviet occupation] in 1941. Almost immediately, Lithuanian citizens from all strata of society began persecuting and murdering their Jewish neighbors before German rule had even been established.
In a period of three years, 96 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews were massacred —a near-complete extermination, greater than in almost any other part of Nazi-occupied Europe. The country has never recognized the magnitude of Lithuanian collaboration in these mass murders.
In some cases, the identities of the perpetrators are actually known. A volume titled Crime and Punishment that listed the names of more than 4,000 Lithuanian volunteer executioners, nicknamed zydsaudys (“Jew-shooters”), was authored by Attorney Joseph Melamed, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto and a partisan who fought in the forests.
Melamed was chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel until his death in 2017 at age 93. His list is based on testimony he obtained from survivors and eyewitnesses. The Kovno survivor said he hoped that after Lithuanians won their independence from the USSR in the early 1990s, they would work on bringing the murderers to justice.
Instead, in one of its very first steps as a free state, Lithuania’s parliament formally exonerated several Lithuanians who had participated in the massacres of Jews, and had been convicted by Soviet military courts after the war. These gunmen were now hailed as national heroes due to their anti-Soviet resistance activity.
Among many now-glorified leaders is Jonas Noreika who was executed by the KGB in 1947. According to a Holocaust survivor’s account published in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Noreika led the extermination of the Jews in the Lithuanian city of Plunge.
In 1997, Noreika was posthumously awarded one of the state’s highest honors and in 2010, a state school was named after him. In 2018, leaders of Lithuania’s Jewish community asked authorities in Vilna to remove a plaque honoring Noreika from a prominent wall in a state building, citing evidence that he had given the orders for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews.
Some of the evidence was supplied by Noreika’s own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, an American fiction author and teacher, who grew up believing her grandfather was a great man, only to discover later in life that Noreika had been a Nazi collaborator and a mass murderer.
“No more lies. My grandfather was a Nazi and a War Criminal,” Siliva Foti wrote in the New York Times, in one of her many articles seeking to set the record straight.
Lithuania’s Genocide Museum Made No Mention of the Holocaust
In 1991, a wave of Holocaust “house-cleaning” promoted by the United States under the Clinton Administration led to the European Union making it a condition of membership that countries acknowledge their wartime collaboration with the Germans, commemorate the victims and initiate some form of restitution.
In this changed climate, outright Holocaust denial lost some of its credibility, especially in a land riddled with the mass graves of hundreds of thousands of Jews, such as in Ponary, the Seventh Fort and the Ninth Fort—where Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d is known to have been murdered along with 3000 other kedoshim from Kovno and other towns across Lithuania.
Strikingly, until a few years ago, Lithuania’s acclaimed Museum of Genocide Victims made no mention of the Holocaust. All its artifacts and exhibits were about atrocities committed by the Soviet regime against the Lithuanians during and after WWII.
In 2011, after international criticism, the Museum of Genocide Victims bowed to pressure and added a single room in its basement that focused on the genocide of Jews.
The rest of its three floors of exhibits in the massive building that occupies almost a whole city block remains devoted to the so-called “genocide” of Lithuanians by the Soviets.
All of this contemporary anti-Semitism pales beside the awareness of Lithuania as a massive Jewish graveyard where, if the dead could talk, the horrors they would describe would make a person lose his mind.
The Kunikowsky Collection: Voices From The Grave
Leib Kunikowsky, a 30-year old engineer who had survived the Kovno Ghetto, was driven to document the annihilation of his people, and to record the names of as many of the Lithuanian killers as he could identify, based on eyewitness testimony and affidavits.
During the German occupation, Leib was conscripted into a forced labor unit in Kovno until he managed to escape. He found shelter in a bunker at a farmer’s home where he remained until the liberation of Lithuania in 1944.
For the next two years, he wandered through the war-battered towns of Lithuania, collecting testimonies from Jews who had survived. Their accounts focus on how the Nazi extermination was carried out in their hometowns, and who participated in the atrocities.
The collection includes over 170 testimonies regarding 150 towns and villages in Lithuania, 30 of them in the Vilna area. It contains 1,683 pages of closely handwritten testimonies in Yiddish, topographical maps and almost a hundred photographs (archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)
Leib was meticulous about the accuracy and authenticity of the information in the testimonies, and even had the witnesses sign their testimonies. Their harrowing odysseys include the names of thousands of Holocaust victims, the names of their murderers and those who had collaborated with the Germans.
Because so few Jews survived in Lithuania, eyewitness accounts of the persecutions and mass murder operations, especially in the small towns and so close in time to the events described, are extremely rare. They give the Kunikowsky Collection a searing authenticity.
In 1950, with help from the HIAS organization, Leib emigrated to the United States. Holocaust historians were eager to see his documents but they remained inaccessible to researchers for many years, because the author insisted on publishing the collection in its entirety.
No institution or organization was willing to meet this condition, leading to “inexcusable delays,” said Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Finally, in 1989, Dr. Dov Levin of Jerusalem, a leading expert on the Holocaust in the Baltics, convinced Kunikowsky to donate his archives to Yad Vashem.
Further delays led to the collection being published in book form only in 2011.
The testimonies chronicle the dominant role played by Lithuanians in the mass murders, many of which were carried out without any German participation at all, say researchers who have studied the work.
“In every single provincial Jewish community, local collaborators were at least the majority, if not the only ones, doing the killing,” notes Efraim Zuroff in Haaretz.
“For example, according to survivor accounts, in towns like Lazdijai, Telsiai (Telz), Eisiskes (Eishishok), Joniskis, Dubingiai, Babtai, Varena and Vandziogala, there were no Germans present at all. In Onuskis, Vilkaviskis and Virbalis, the only Germans at the murder sites were photographing the crimes.”
Atrocities and pivotal events in the destruction of a town are reported in heartrending detail often by more than one survivor, with accounts that are strikingly consistent.
The collection identifies almost 1,300 local perpetrators by name.
Starting with the early period of Nazi occupation, the book recounts in graphic detail the imposition of forced labor, the plunder of Jewish property, the process of ghettoization and isolation, and ultimately, the mass annihilation of Lithuania’s Jews.
Survivors in almost every account cite the unspeakable cruelty displayed by the Lithuanians, the brutal attacks on Jewish women and girls, and the public humiliation and torture of rabbis. Children were thrown into killing pits alive, the murderers declaring “they’re not worth a bullet.”
The testimonies confirm that all strata of Lithuanian society voluntarily participated in the persecution and murder of the Jews.
“Thus in Dubingiai,” writes Zuroff, “it was a young priest named Zrinys who led the partisans and organized the murders.”
And in Alytus, Kuniuchowsky’s own native town, Leib himself describes how “Lithuanians of every social group and class participated in arresting, tormenting, bullying, robbing and eventually shooting the Jews of Alytus and those of the surrounding villages.”
Netanyahu: ‘Unpardonable Crimes’
During a 4-day state visit to Lithuania in 2018, Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu had harsh words for Holocaust-era collaborators.
Netanyahu was on a campaign at the time to build stronger ties with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in a quest to win their cooperation in containing the Iranian nuclear threat, and in softening the European Union’s antagonism to the Jewish State.
But his visit reopened the subject of Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis during the Holocaust. The trip generated fireworks even before it began, as Netanyahu was accused by critics of overlooking Holocaust distortion in Eastern European countries, in order to curry favor with the Baltic states.
At an emotional memorial ceremony for the Jews of Vilna who were murdered at Ponary in huge killing pits, Netanyahu did not mince words. “Unpardonable crimes were committed here; 70,000 Jews were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis and their collaborators,” he asserted. “All together, 200,000 Jews were murdered here and in other places in Lithuania.”
“Standing here today we remember all those who perished and all that was destroyed. … We also salute the heroism of those Lithuanians who, unlike the collaborators, risked their own lives and saved many Jews. We will always honor their memory,” Netanyahu said.
“We saw the ruins of some of the 100 Jewish synagogues,” Netanyahu later remarked. “We saw the barricade where Yechiel Scheinbaum and his brave colleagues fought to their deaths against the Nazi oppressors. We saw Jewish resistance in the heart of the ghetto.
“And we saw the courtyards where Jews were assembled before being carted off to Ponary where they were shot by Lithuanian collaborators and the Nazis, and then thrown into the death pits,” he continued.
“We saw all this. I saw their pictures on the walls of the ghetto. I heard their stories. I wanted to tell them: We are here. We are back. We are alive. Am Yisrael Chai.”
Lithuanian Campaign Against Holocaust Survivors
By 2008, historical revisionism had gained so much traction in Lithuania that the government, urged on by an anti-Semitic press, attempted to criminalize elderly Holocaust survivors who fought the Nazis in partisan units 60 years earlier.
Victims of this warped campaign included historian and former Yad Vashem chairman Dr. Yitzhak Arad and Israeli biologist Dr. Rachel Margolis. The government in 2008 accused the two of taking part in war crimes against a Lithuanian village during the Holocaust.
Dr. Arad (then Yitzchok Rudnitzki) was a 16-year-old boy when he escaped from a ghetto in Lithuania, fled to the forests and joined a Soviet partisan force that fought the Nazis. Years later, he wrote about his experiences in The Partisan (1979).
In her later years, Dr. Margolis too published her memoirs in A Partisan From Vilna (2010), describing the murder of Lithuania’s Jews, and her ordeal as a young girl who left her safe hiding place to join her family in the doomed Vilna Ghetto. As the ghetto was on the brink of liquidation, Rachel managed to escape and join anti-Nazi partisans in the forests, where she survived the war. Her entire family was wiped out.
Years later, the memoirs of these two survivors would be used against them in an outrageous witch hunt orchestrated by Lithuanian Holocaust revisionists, reported the Jerusalem Post and Defending History.com. The shameful story unfolds below.
Shocking Eyewitness Account of Ponary Massacres
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989, Rachel Margolis helped build a small Holocaust museum in Vilna and personally led tours through the museum and the Vilna Ghetto.
At one point, she came across one of the most shocking documents of the Holocaust period—a detailed eyewitness account by a Polish Christian, Kazimierz Sakowicz, documenting the slaughter of Vilna’s Jews in the killing pits of Ponary.
Sakowicz’s cottage was located in the Ponary woods close to an area where, during the period of Soviet control of Lithuania (1940-41), a fuel storage facility had been under construction. Massive pits had been excavated for fuel tanks. The facility was abandoned as the Nazis seized control of Lithuania, occupying Vilna on June 24, 1941.
Ponary became one of several sites of horrific large-scale massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe, as the Nazis used the pits and ditches that connected them for the extermination of tens of thousands of people. Executions by shooting continued there for three years, from July 1941 until July 1944.
From a unique vantage point in his back yard, Sackowicz had observed the mass murders of Jews being carried out by Lithuanian forces on a regular basis for almost two and a half years. His journal meticulously records these horrors as he witnessed them during this period.
One day in 1944, after venturing too close to the site, Sakowicz was detected and gunned down by soldiers guarding the murder pits. After the war, his neighbors dug up the containers in which he had buried his journal and turned the largely intact pages over to the Jewish Museum of Vilna.
Dr. Margolis spent years uncovering missing pages and arranging the material in chronological order. It was published in Lithuania in 1999 as A Bystander’s Account of Mass Murder, and later translated to Hebrew and English, edited by Dr. Yitzhak Arad (Yale University Press 2004).
During the summer of 2009, Dr. Margolis, who resided with her husband in Israel most of the year, heard that two Lithuanian policemen had come to the address where Margolis was registered in Vilna as a summer resident, seeking to question her. Alerted by neighbors, and aware of the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the country, Margolis remained in Israel.
Shockingly, Lithuanian prosecutors were investigating aging Jewish survivors for committing “war crimes” 60 years earlier. Although no witnesses or evidence of such crimes had surfaced, the Lithuanian prosecutor general was lifting sentences out of survivor memoirs, and using them as a basis for prosecuting former Jewish partisans as “war criminals.”
That is how, decades after the Holocaust, in a land so soaked with Jewish blood, Rachel Margolis and Yitzhak Arad fell into the crosshairs of vicious anti-Semites and Holocaust revisionists in their native Lithuania, reported the Jerusalem Post.
Media outlets in the west were alerted to the case and the scenario of Lithuanian prosecutors persecuting Holocaust survivors caused an international furor. Under diplomatic pressure, the bogus charges against Arad and Margolis were subsequently dropped and their files closed.