Poland and Lithuania covering up the complicit cracks of the past
By Stephen Schulman
Seventy seven years have passed since the defeat of Nazi Germany. Memories fade, survivors have passed away together with many of the criminals who remained unexposed and unpunished. Poland and Lithuania today, are in the throes of official movements to renovate and refurbish a new national image and recreate the national narrative. As with any refurbishing, there is much discarding, covering up of the old and adopting of the new and this move ties neatly in with a decidedly revisionist history that has been legislated, seeks to create myths, recraft a sanitized past and muzzle any historical research that may reveal unpleasant truths.
In 2018, Poland’s Senate passed a bill that outlaws blaming the country for any crimes committed during the Holocaust. The bill was proposed by the country’s ruling Law and Justice Party and calls for up to three years in prison or a fine for accusing the Polish state or people of involvement in or responsibility for the Nazi occupation during World War II. Tragically, this blatant attempt to whitewash the past rings hollow in the light of historical facts. Nevertheless, the prevailing winds of nationalism are blowing strong and many Polish historians are loath to tack against the gale lest they find themselves on the shoals of criminal prosecution. Consequently, they now take care to modify their researches. There is a powerful movement to discredit and besmirch Jan Gross and last year, in a decision widely condemned by American and European academics, a Polish court found Jan Grabowski and fellow researcher Barbara Engelking guilty of defaming a small town mayor in their book on the Holocaust.
The Poles were victims of Russian and German invasion and oppression and paid a heavy price. Nevertheless, there are well documented histories of Poles not only collaborating with the Nazis but also taking their own initiative in the murder of Jews. The pogrom at Jedwabne in 1941 was far from being an isolated incident as a recently published book by Mirosław Tryczyk shockingly sheds light on fifteen other locations. Anna Bikont, a courageous journalist, in revisiting that town sixty years after the slaughter, noted the denial, the amnesia, the obfuscation, the intimidation, the fear of witnesses to speak out and the open threats made to those who wished to acknowledge the town’s guilt.
The annual March of the Living when many groups of all ages from Israel and abroad visit the death camps has been compromised due to the Polish government’s demand that now each one be accompanied by an official guide to provide a governmentally approved narrative. It appears that what comes from the mouths of the regular guides paints an unpleasantly discomforting picture.
The attempts made throughout the years by Holocaust survivors and their descendants for restitution of family property have been fruitless, long obstructed by prevarication in the passing of a bill compensating for property seized by the Nazis and the subsequent Communist regime. In September 2021, however, the government stirred itself enough to pass a law which prevents claimants from challenging administrative decisions older than 30 years, including those issued without legal basis or issued in gross violation of the law. In practice, it will become virtually impossible for all former Polish property owners – including Holocaust survivors and their descendants, many of whom have had claims pending for years to seek redress.
How ironic that the Polish government whilst squelching private compensation claims is now demanding 1.23 trillion Euro in compensation from Germany for the damages caused to the country during the Nazi invasion and occupation. It appears that the 30 year limit for claimants’ restitution does not apply to the government itself. When interests dictate, there is seemingly no time limit!
Moreover, in an act of unprecedented callous cynicism, the government has sought to include in its claims for damages, the towns where pogroms of the Jews were carried out by the local inhabitants. They will no doubt also seek restitution for the barn in Jedwabne where the good townspeople herded in, set on fire and burnt 300 of their Jewish neighbours alive.
A nation, said John F. Kennedy in October 1963, just a month before he was assassinated, “reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”
Lithuania today refuses to come to grips with its wartime past and honours people who have a dark past of collaboration and murder. The national establishment is determined to repackage the country’s wartime history of the Nazi occupation as one of victimization, non-collaboration with and complete noninvolvement in the murder of its Jews. Those who have tried to dismantle this edifice of distortion, obfuscation and denial have not only come up against a blank wall but have paid a price.
Grant Cochin, a former South African of Lithuanian descent now living in the USA, in researching his family’s past discovered a great number of relatives who perished in the Holocaust and the names of Lithuanians complicit in their murder who have been elevated to the status of national icons. He has recorded that in the decades seeking redress and uncovering the truth, he has filed between 20 and 30 lawsuits against the Lithuanian government, encountering obstruction, denial, delay and threats of criminal charges. Moreover, he asserts that he has “exposed” virtually every corner of the government, courts, Parliament, public prosecutors, the president and prime minister, all of them involved in the cover-up.
In 2021 an exceptional book was published: The Nazi’s Granddaughter. How I Discovered My Grandfather was a War Criminal by Sylvia Foti. The book details a painful twenty year journey of intellectual honesty and raw courage of an American citizen with strong Lithuanian roots searching for and revealing the truth about her grandfather Jonas Noreika who has been enshrined as a national hero.
In June 2018, with supporting evidence from Sylvia Foti, Grant Cochin challenged the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center’s denial of Noreika’s war crimes. In spite of the overwhelming evidence, a Vilnius court threw out the case declaring for the government funded Center’s objectivity and veracity plus ordering Cochin to pay all the costs – a decision that he called:
“The Jew Tax”
Those who dare to challenge the official sanitized national narrative have borne the brunt of official opprobrium. Evaldas Balciunas who was the first to disclose Noreika’s past to the English speaking world and Dovid Katz who published his findings have been dismissed from their jobs, harassed by the government, interrogated by the police and declared “enemies of the state“.
Ruta Vanagaita too, has discovered the high cost of intellectual honesty and of voicing her thoughts in public when she questioned the past of a nationally revered hero: anti-Soviet resistance fighter. She not only immediately lost her livelihood when her publisher withdrew all her books from the shops and pulped them but fearing for her safety remained in the shelter of her home, eventually leaving the country for some time. Among the insults showered on her in the street was “pro–Putin Jewish whore” – in Lithuanian eyes, being called Jewish, is an insult in itself! A brave and resolute lady, she has remained undeterred in uncovering the truth about Lithuania’s participation in the Holocaust, leading tours to massacre sites and co-authoring a book with the Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff.
Lest we forget. A friend of mine, formerly from Lithuania, now also living in Israel, told me the following story about his home town.
One of its residents was a Jew who had fought in WW II. He was a loner who kept to himself. On market day he had bought a live goose, put it in a sack, slung it over his shoulder and started walking home. At the same time, there was a woman whose small child had gone astray and was engaged in searching for him/her. On seeing the man carrying the sack with the goose flapping around in it, she started screaming that the Jew had kidnapped her child. Old prejudices die hard and it did not take much to set the townspeople off on a Jew hunt. Fortunately, until the furor eventually died down, the local police prevented a pogrom by protecting the homes of the few Jewish residents. My friend as a boy remembers sitting at home, the fear they felt, the anti-Semitic insults and threats shouted by passersby and the stones thrown against their closed shutters.
This near-pogrom took place in September 1958!
A PERSONAL FOOTNOTE
Immersing oneself in the vast literature of the Holocaust is not only a daunting and an interminable task but also a heartbreaking one as you become overwhelmed by the horror and the immense scope of so many human tragedies. In my reading, over the course of time, while trying not to do injustice to so many other excellent and deserving works, I have attempted to focus on, what I consider relevant books. Below – with no pretensions of being comprehensive – is a short list of selected titles.
Anna Bikont: The Crime and the Silence
Miroslaw Tryczyk (Author), Frank Smulowicz (Translator): The Towns of Death: Pogroms against Jews by Their Neighbors
Saul Friedlander: The Years of Extermination
Nazi Germany and the Jews
Sylvia Foti: The Nazi’s Granddaughter
Jan Grabowski: Hunt for the Jews
Ruta Vanagaite and Efraim Zuroff: Our People. Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust.
Jeffrey Veidlinger: In the Midst of Civilized Europe
Jan T. Gross: Neighbors
Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Reiss (Editors): The Good Old Days. The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders.
Father Patrick Desbois: In Broad Daylight
David I. Kertzer: The Popes against the Jews
The Pope at War
About the writer:
Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.
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