The recent four-day trip by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Lithuania to boost Israel’s relations with the Baltic states has reopened the toxic 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 anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion in Eastern European countries, in order to curry favor with the Baltic states.
Netanyahu has been seeking 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.
Critics say these efforts come with an unacceptable price tag: acquiescing to the refusal of Lithuanians to admit culpability in the extermination of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust. The Lithuanian government’s long-running practice of downplaying and minimizing the atrocities against the Jews is another flashpoint.
In tune with this spirit of denial, Lithuania has turned into national heroes various individuals who are known to have played an active role in the killing of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. These “patriots” who fought the Soviet invaders and murdered Jews with equal enthusiasm, are honored with plaques and monuments attesting to their noble deeds.
As documented by eyewitness testimony, photographs, and Nazi records, the Christian 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 butchering their Jewish neighbors before German rule had even been firmly established.
Over the next three years, 96 percent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews were massacred wholesale—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.
Crime and Punishment
It’s not as if the identities of the perpetrators are not known. Attorney Joseph Melamed, 86, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto and a partisan who fought in the forests, was chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel until his death last year at age 93.
In 1999, he published a volume titled Crime and Punishment that listed the names of more than 4,000 Lithuanian volunteer executioners, nicknamed zydsaudys (“Jew-Shooters”).
The list is based on testimony taken from survivors and eyewitnesses. Melamed demanded that the Lithuanian prosecutor general investigate their crimes. He said he hoped that after Lithuanians won their independence from the USSR, they would work on bringing the murderers to justice.
Instead, in one of its very first steps as a free sovereign state, Lithuania’s parliament formally exonerated several Lithuanians who had collaborated in the Holocaust and had been convicted by Soviet military courts after the war. The gunmen who had carried out the mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews 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 honor and in 2010, a state school was named after him.
Earlier this month, leaders of Lithuania’s Jewish community asked authorities in Vilnius [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, 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.
Harassment Campaign Against Holocaust Survivors
Historical revisionism has been taken so far in Lithuania that the government, urged on by an anti-Semitic press recently attempted to criminalize elderly Holocaust survivors who fought the Nazis in partisan units 70 years ago.
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 Nazi-run 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.)
Dr. Margolis too published her memoirs, A Partisan From Vilna (2010), describing the murder of Lithuania’s Jews, and her ordeals as a young woman who had left a safe hiding place to join her doomed family in the Vilna Ghetto. As the ghetto was on the brink of liquidation, Rachel managed to escape and join anti-Nazi partisans in the forests, emerging after the war as the lone survivor of her family.
Years later, these memoirs would be used against their authors in a Lithuanian witch hunt.
Secrets of the Dead
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Rachel Margolis helped build a small Holocaust museum in Vilna and personally led tours through the museum and the Vilna Ghetto. During this time, 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 the Ponary forest.
Margolis painstakingly assembled the yellowed documents that Sakowicz had sealed in containers and buried in the ground near his cottage, from where he observed the mass murders by Lithuanian paramilitary forces. His journal meticulously records the horrors he witnessed, day after day, week after week, month after month.
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 to serve the nearby airbase had been under construction. Large pits, twelve to thirty-two meters in diameter and five to eight meters deep, had been excavated for fuel tanks. But the facility was abandoned as the Nazis seized control of Lithuania, occupying Vilna on June 24,1941.
The Nazis used the pits and ditches that connected them for the extermination of tens of thousands of people. Ponary became one of several sites of horrific large-scale massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe. Executions by shooting continued there for three years, from July 1941 until July 1944.
One day in 1944, after venturing too close to the site, Sakowicz was detected and gunned down by either Germans or Lithuanians guarding the murder pits. After the war, his neighbors dug up the containers in which he had buried his journal and turned the pages over to the Jewish Museum of Vilna.
After stumbling across Sakowicz’ lost diary, 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 in English, edited by Dr. Yitzhak Arad (Yale University Press 2004).
In his diary, Sakowicz describes the final stage in the destruction of the Jews of Vilna, and their last moments in the valley of death that was Ponary. His diary entries are written in a matter of fact tone, from the viewpoint of an uninvolved bystander who witnessed tens of thousands of innocents murdered in front of his eyes on an almost daily basis over a period of two years and four months.
Written unemotionally, purely as a chronicle of events, he begins, “July 11: Quite nice weather, warm, white clouds, windy, some shots from the forest. Probably [military] exercises.” The writer soon realized the truth behind these rifle shots. Thus began his daily note-taking as the annihilation of Vilna’s Jews proceeded before his eyes.
During the summer of 2009, Dr. Margolis, who now lived with her husband in Israel during ten months of the year, was advised not to return to Vilna due to a wave of anti-Semitism that had gripped the country. A neo-Nazi march, weekly press articles and a campaign of harassment and suspicion against former Jewish anti-Nazi partisans captured the mood of a country drifting backward into fascism.
In addition, Lithuanian prosecutors were investigating aging Jewish partisans for committing war crimes 65 years earlier. Although no witnesses or evidence of such crimes had surfaced, the Lithuanian Prosecutor general was lifting sentences out of survivor memoirs, such as those authored by Dr. Margolis and Dr. Arad, as a basis for investigating and prosecuting elderly Jewish partisans as “war criminals.”
On May 5, 2008, two officials came to the address where Margolis is registered in Vilna as a resident each summer, seeking to question her. Fearing she would be arrested, Margolis remained in Israel. In the ensuing years, following international protests, charges against Dr. Arad were finally dropped and the file on Margolis was closed.
The Myth of ‘Double Genocide’
“Instead of punishing war criminals who collaborated with the Nazis and murdered entire Jewish populations in cold blood, they were harassing the partisans, turning the charges of “genocide” against these Jewish heroes,” Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said.
Under Communist domination, Eastern Europeans were taught that the great struggle of WWII was between Nazism versus Communism, in which the Jews were identified as the Communist enemy.
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 was not possible, especially in a land riddled with the mass graves of hundreds of thousands of Jews, such as in Ponary, the Seventh Fort and Ninth Fort in Kovno and other sites across Lithuania.
The need to adjust the historical narrative to qualify for EU membership spawned the claim that a double genocide had been perpetrated in Eastern Europe; genocide against the Jews by Germany, and genocide against the Lithuanians by the “Bolshevik-Communists (erroneously identified as Jews).
By pushing the fiction of a double “genocide,” Lithuanian’s nationalist government has hijacked the term and robbed it of meaning, political observers say. If all parties committed ‘genocide,’ then everyone was killing everyone and everyone is equally at fault. Why single out the Lithuanians?
This distortion of history has been gaining traction in Eastern European countries in the last decade, as the slogan about two genocides became an official policy direction.
“Until recently, Lithuania was the locomotive pulling this whole train of Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe,” a New York Times article recently quoted Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi tracker, as saying. “Now Poland, Hungary and Ukraine all have engaged in trying to minimize the Holocaust.”
Museum of Genocide Victims
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, whose country it occupied for many years during and after WWII.
While Soviet rule was brutal, to classify it as genocide is absurd. Some 20,000 Lithuanians were killed in Stalinist purges and in Siberian gulags. There was never a campaign to wipe out the Lithuanian population.
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 “genocide” by the Soviets.
Dovid Katz, an American historian and Yiddish language scholar who lives in Vilna, called the museum “a 21st-century version of Holocaust denial,” in a New York Times interview about the institution.
“I came here in the euphoric post-independence years [after 1991], when world peace was around the corner,” Katz said. “My own euphoria diminished with every neo-Nazi march after 2008 and attempt to justify and explain away the Holocaust, events that are becoming even more common and acceptable…”
Lithuania is one of the few countries where neo-Nazis are free to brandish swastikas on the street. A New York Times article noted the irony in the fact that Lithuania’s “Western-looking government encourages Litvak Jews to return and has proposed to declare 2019 ‘The Year of the Jew,’ while at the same time, there is so much about the country that would make a Jew “uncomfortable.”
Things like the main streets in Vilna being named after people like Kazys Skirpa, an anti-Semite who advocated ridding Lithuania of Jews even before the Holocaust began.
And one of the capital’s most prominent churches, the Evangelical Reformed Church, “has its main front steps formed of headstones from Jewish cemeteries, some with Hebrew inscriptions clearly visible,” the Times article noted.
All this pales, of course, 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.
Netanyahu: An Unpardonable Crime Was Committed Here
While in Lithuania, Netanyahu, accompanied by the Lithuanian government’s top brass, participated in a memorial ceremony for the Jews of Vilnius who were murdered and buried in the murder pits at Ponary during the Holocaust.
Speaking at the event, Netanyahu said, “An unpardonable crime was committed here; 70,000 Jews were murdered in cold blood by the Nazis and their collaborators. 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 collaborators, risked their own lives and saved many Jews. We will always honor their memory,” Netanyahu said.
The Israeli prime minister paid an emotional visit to the Nazi murder pits at Ponary, where tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children were forced to strip before being shot to death by Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators. Their bodies were then kicked into pits.
“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.”
Good Will Gestures
Ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, the Lithuanian government disseminated a document to the press that acknowledges that 95 per cent of the Jews in Lithuania at the time of the Holocaust were killed and calls the deaths “a great tragedy for the Lithuanian state and society.”
“It is regrettable that Lithuanian civilians were personally involved in the mass killings organized by the Nazis,” the document reads, stopping short of confirming that thousands of Lithuanian citizens in many cases initiated the slaughter on their own.
Zuroff and other critics were not pacified by this statement. “Netanyahu should “express Israel’s unequivocal opposition to their ongoing efforts to rewrite the narrative of the Holocaust and to promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes,” Zuroff wrote in an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post at the time.
He said the Center had the names of 20,000 Lithuanians who participated in the Holocaust but that only three were ever prosecuted and convicted — and of those, none ever served jail time. “It’s a joke,” he said.
Also last month, ahead of Netanyahu’s visit, the Lithuanian Parliament reacted to the controversy over the Museum of Genocide Victims by passing a bill that would change the museum’s name to the Museum of Occupation.
“We are happy [to change the Museum’s name] and focus more on Nazi crimes and Holocaust,” the Museum’s chief historian told reporters, blaming tight funding for the delay in carrying this out.
Such wonderful goodwill gestures. Why don’t they make anyone feel good?
Perhaps once the trapdoor to suppressed memories has been sprung, it refuses to close.
When innocent blood has been shed on such a stupendous scale, over weeks, months and years, and with such unfathomable cruelty and depravity, perhaps the aftershocks of sheer evil continue lurching down the corridors of history. And the magnitude of the crimes unleash a cross-generational blood guilt that will forever seethe, that no amount of diplomatic smiles, photo ops and handshaking can hope to remove.
In addition to the invaluable Sakowicz Diary and the Kuniuchowsky Collection discussed above, a third discovery in 2016 revealed a never-before known chapter to the Ponary story. This was the archeological uncovering of a tunnel through the death pits at Ponary to the forest, where eleven Jews escaped.
These Jews had been part of a group of 80 prisoners forced to reopen the graves of tens of thousands of Jews at Ponary and to burn their corpses, so that advancing Soviet forces would not discover the Nazis’ war crimes.
The 100-foot tunnel was dug by prisoners whose feet and hands were chained. Yet with their bare hands and metal spoons, over two months in the dead of night, they managed to excavate a tunnel 8-10 feet deep. The escape took place on the last day of Pesach, 1943, when the Jews knew no moonlight would reveal their movements. Part 2 tells this story.