The locals may never own what they did, but Yad Vashem’s chairman spoke truth to power, calling out their role in eliminating a vibrant Jewish world
By Dr. Efraim Zuroff
(First appeared in The Times of Israel)
During the past two decades, virtually every country in Europe, and many in the Western Hemisphere, have adopted a Holocaust memorial day, many inspired by the decision of the United Nations to do so in 2005. Quite a few have chosen to follow the example of the UN by commemorating the date of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945, but others chose dates that mark significant events in the history of the Shoah in their respective countries. In some cases, the choice is a reflection of the significance of specific Holocaust events for their societies, or the desire, or lack thereof, to emphasize the complicity of local Nazi collaborators.
Thus, for example, France chose July 16, the anniversary of the mass arrest in Paris in 1942 of 13,152 French Jews, who were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz by the local police. Similarly, Hungary chose April 16, the date of the initial orders for the ghettoization of Hungarian Jewry, the prelude to the deportation of 437,000 of them to Auschwitz in spring of 1944. Bulgaria, by contrast, chose March 10, the date on which the government revoked its original plan to deport the country’s entire Jewish population to Treblinka.
Other countries’ choices of the memorial day are a reflection of their attempts to distance themselves from Holocaust crimes. Thus, Estonia, which to date has done little to deal with its Holocaust past, and the complicity of its locals with the Nazis, chose January 27, which has no connection to Estonian history, since none of the local Jewish community was deported to Auschwitz. A more striking example of a desire to deflect attention from the highly significant and very extensive participation in the murder of their Jewish citizens by local collaborators is Lithuania’s choice of September 23, the date of the evacuation of the Vilna Ghetto, which was carried out by the Nazis. If the Lithuanians really wanted a date that expressed their self-reflection about their role in the Holocaust, they would choose October 28, when, in 1941, Lithuanians murdered approximately 10,000 Lithuanian Jews in the Ninth Fort in Kovno.
Those of us who are acquainted with the phenomenon of Holocaust distortion and are trying to combat it are well aware of the false Holocaust narrative created and promoted by successive Lithuanian governments. They have repeatedly attributed the mass murder of 212,000 Lithuanian Jews, as well as thousands of foreign Jews killed in Lithuania by local Nazi collaborators, almost exclusively to the German and Austrian Nazis.
A major reason these lies have persisted for decades has been the refusal of Israel to protest these falsehoods, a policy crafted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try to enlist the support of the new democracies of post-Communist Eastern Europe. Instead of objecting to the Lithuanians’ false narrative of the Holocaust, Netanyahu even praised their efforts to commemorate the Shoah during a state visit to Lithuania in 2018. No Israeli official has ever publicly criticized the Lithuanians’ refusal to admit the extensive participation of Lithuanians in the implementation of the Final Solution, not only in Lithuania, but even in neighboring Belarus, where a Lithuanian unit murdered at least 20,000 Belarussian Jews.
This policy apparently came to an abrupt and surprising end last week, when Dani Dayan, the chairman of Yad Vashem, addressed the Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament, as part of the events of this year’s Holocaust memorial day on September 23. He began his highly emotional speech by mourning the destruction of the incredibly vibrant prewar Jewish life and culture that had earned Vilna the title of “Yerushalayim de-Lita,” – the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
He then continued by describing the scope and nature of the tragedy:
“Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in this country by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. Almost the entire Jewish community became extinct. The totality of the destruction of such a…remarkably vibrant Jewish community, almost like none other, annihilated so cruelly, so systematically during the Holocaust – and to a significant extent, by the local population.
Insane, poisonous antisemitic hatred eradicated an entire civilization – my civilization – here in your homeland…
We are encouraged by gradual but substantial progress made over the years in Lithuania… but, unfortunately, I must say that not yet enough progress has been made… a great deal remains to be accomplished. Our task will not be completed until this understanding… trickles down to the very last member of the Lithuanian civil society.”
Dayan then broached one of the most sensitive issues in Lithuania regarding local Holocaust perpetrators, one that had never been broached by any Israeli official:
“An antisemite, especially a murderer of Jews, cannot be considered an ‘otherwise good person.’…For sure, he cannot be considered a hero. In addition to refraining from attributing public honor to such butchers, Lithuania must consistently acknowledge that many of the Lithuanian Jews massacred in the Holocaust died at the hands of their Lithuanian co-nationals, and that Lithuanians also took part in the extermination of Jews in neighboring countries.
Such recognition is obviously owed to the Jewish victims, but also, and probably even more, to the present and future generations of Lithuanians.”
Dayan then mentioned three specific cases of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators who have been glorified, and elevated to the status of national heroes, despite their role in the murder of Jews. “Such names as Noreika, Skirpa, and Krikstaponis do not add to the honor of your nation.”
He concluded his historic speech with the “El Malei Rachimim” prayer for the souls of the deceased, and received a loud ovation.
The question now remains whether Dayan’s bold and extremely moving speech will lead to a serious change in the government’s policy regarding the official historical narrative of the Shoah in Lithuania. It took France 50 years to accept responsibility for the crimes of the Vichy regime. Hopefully, Lithuania will not take that long. Without Israeli pressure, however, I am afraid nothing will change. That said, who knows? Perhaps one day Lithuania will commemorate the Shoah on October 28, instead of September 23.
About the writer:
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs.
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