– Journey with the Enemy –
A descendant of victims of the Holocaust and a descendent of its perpetrators team up to unravel the truth of who murdered the Jews of Lithuania
By David. E. Kaplan
Consider the following:
Of the 220,000 Jews that lived in Lithuania when the Nazis invaded on June 22, 1941, 90% would be killed over the ensuing three years – not in gas chambers – but by “personal murder” – by shooting. And yet, there were less than 1000 Germans in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation!
So who did so much of the killing or more specifically:
What was the extent of Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust?
It is this much avoided and deflected question that set off two intrepid investigators – Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) Chief Nazi Hunter and Director of the SWC’s Israel office and one of Lithuania’s most influential and popular writers and a descendent of Lithuanian persecutors of Jews, Rūta Vanagaité, on a journey of discovery.
The result is their groundbreaking publication:
Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust
This compelling ‘book of revelations’ traces the truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania focusing on the role played by ordinary Lithuanians and exposes the efforts of past and current governments to hide crimes of murder perpetrated by Lithuanians on their fellow citizens. It is the first documented history of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust based solely on Lithuanian sources.
It focuses on a number of contentious issues, notably:
- What was the extent of Lithuanian collaboration? Just how many Lithuanians participated in the execution of Jews?
- Were there murderous attacks against Jews before the Nazis arrived?
- The efforts by Lithuanians to create a false symmetry between communist and Nazi crimes. There are constantly attempts to glorify those who fought against the Soviets after 1944, despite the fact that these people had participated in the genocide of the Jews
The urgent need to unveil this dark past was all too evident earlier this year in January 2020, when over 200 Israelis, mostly of Lithuanian descent including this writer, braved the freezing cold and rain to protest outside the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv. The reason for the protest – to register opposition to a proposed parliamentary resolution declaring:
“Lithuania has no responsibility for the murders and extermination of Lithuanian Jews during the Second World War because it was occupied by Soviets and then by Nazi Germany.”
The proposed resolution was to absolve Lithuania and Lithuanians of involvement in the Holocaust for the murder of 95% of Jewish citizens because it was occupied successively by Russia and Germany. Should not a nation’s law be there to reveal the truth, not hide it?
With the message of this protest outside the Lithuanian Embassy being “No One Saved Their Lives, Lets Save The Truth”, the book by Rūta Vanagaité and Efraim Zuroff – one of the speakers at the Tel Aviv protest – could not come soon enough!
Frustrated with the passage of time of “fewer suspects to bring to justice, the focus,” says Zuroff, “is shifting from prosecution to education.” In other words from the courtroom to the classroom. The monumental material presented by these two brave Holocaust detectives will hopefully impact – if too late for a court of law, at least in the court of public opinion.
The book is unusual in many respects. Firstly, it is the product of a ‘partnership’ rather than a “collaboration – a word that does not contextually resonate well with me,” quipped Zuroff – between the descendants of victims and collaborators. The two investigative writers visited over a period of 40 intense days, dozens of mass murder sites in Lithuania and Belarus, where they interviewed witnesses still living “right next these sites.”
Exchanges between the cowriters interspersed throughout the book reveal the depth of their motivation in embarking on their journey. In one, Zuroff says, “You can cry from today till doomsday, but it does not change the facts… You know why everyone in Lithuania hates me? Because they know that I am right,” to which Vanagaite responds, “So let me see if you are right or not. Let me face this truth. Let us face it together.”
In this way, the descendant of victims and the descendant of victimizers undertake a joint “journey with the enemy,” in a quest to unearth the unvarnished truth about Lithuania’s Holocaust.
It is also the first book to bring verbatim quotes from those who participated in the shootings – those who actually pulled the triggers! Having personally visited many of these sites in Lithuania, I recall at the time, noting the close proximity of the mass grave pits to the villages, what the residents must have thought as they watched their neighbours marched out of town followed shortly by the thunderous sounds of gunfire?
As Zuroff notes:
“There were killing sites where there had been only Lithuanians; other sites where the only Germans present were those photographing the shooting, and then there were locations where Nazis from Germany and Austria together with Lithuanians carried out the mass executions.”
To understand the mindset of these “ordinary” Lithuanians who pulled the triggers, this 1998 interview of a 28-year-old volunteer to the Lithuanian 12th Battalion that was transported to Belarus in a unit assigned to kill Jews is most revealing. His participation in the slaughter of at least 15,424 in 15 different locations around the country, mostly occurred before the notorious 1942 Wannsee Conference called to coordinate the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
He describes the procedure:
“The local police went through apartments and collected Jews, then herded them onto the square.” The Germans kept back anyone likely to be useful to them, and the rest were marched by the Lithuanian unit, in a column four people wide, to pits already dug beyond the city limits.
“They were herded into the pit, laid on the ground, and then we shot them.”
Having slaughtered one batch, they forced the next group to lie down on top of the corpses before firing on them, then the next.
“The small children were carried; the others were led. We murdered them all.”
As to the question of the role of the Germans, this soldier replied:
“The Germans shot rarely; mostly they used to shoot photographs.”
This type of testimony reinforced by photographs, reveal that in most cases the massacres were carried out by Lithuanians. At times, no Germans were even present!
Equally fascinating was the soldiers reply to the question whether he ever asked himself why these Jews were being shot?
“I don’t blame anyone anymore, only God…… for allowing the murder of innocent people. And that’s how I thought about it then as well.”
In other words, God was responsible!
What made this book all the more compelling and authentic was that Zuroff’s partner was a descendant of “the very people we were investigating.”
It is important to understand how this unusual partnership arose:
“The first time I met Rūta Vanagaité,” says Zuroff, “was in 2015. She had a grant to teach non-Jewish Lithuanian students about Judaism and Jewish history. What had motivated her was the discovery shortly before that two of her relatives had been complicit in the Holocaust and she was looking for a way to shed light on her own families dark past – in a way to atone for their sins.”
Growing up in Lithuania, she told Zuroff that she knew nothing about Jews, which prompted her to start a program called “Being a Jew”. She received a grant from the EU (European Union), to run the programme and to expand it beyond Lithuania to include Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic. As part of the grant, the EU obligated her to run a conference on Holocaust education. “However, she had no idea who to invite as she had never dealt with the subject before, so she approached some people in Lithuania who had been dealing with this issue and they said you can invite anyone except two people.”
One of those they all warned her against – was the Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff!
“All Rūta had to hear was whom NOT to invite and she, of course, invited us both.”
A month before the conference, which Zuroff was unable to attend, he needed to visit Lithuania and curious to meet Rūta, he communicated with her and she invited him to speak. This came as a huge surprise. “I had not been invited to speak in Lithuania for 25 years where I am persona non grata there – not officially but in effect. Anyway, we met, and she told me about her relatives that had participated in persecuting Jews. I was in shock. I had visited Lithuania dozens of times over the years in my efforts to prosecute Nazi Lithuanian collaborators and no-one had ever told me that their families had been involved. Given the huge number of Lithuanian collaborators, I’m sure I must have met people who families were involved but they never said a word.”
Here for the first time, Zuroff met someone who not only admitted; but felt the need to do something about it.
Realizing what they were up against, literally a wall resisting the truth, “we realised that it may be better if the message came rather from Rūta than me. After all, she was Lithuanian, not Jewish with no axe to grind. Me on the other hand, I am a Jew from Jerusalem; with a Brooklyn accent; and a very hated figure in Lithuania. It was a no-brainer, and this is why our book now published in six languages, on the Lithuanian edition – my name does NOT appear.”
Not that made any difference. While Our People became a best-seller in Lithuania, it has now been removed from its bookstores.
To the question whether other descendants of perpetrators would be encouraged by the book to follow the example of Rūta, Zuroff replies that “It’s not only what the descendants of perpetrators will do but more a question of what Lithuanian society will do! We hope that the book will create a veritable revolution in terms of Lithuanians understanding what happened and coming to terms with the truth.”
And there has been some encouraging signs. “Soon after the book was published, a dedication ceremony to the martyrs of the Holocaust in Moletai in north eastern Lithuania where in the past 50 people would attend, over 3000 people showed up to march from at the site of the former synagogue destroyed by the Nazis to the site of the mass murder outside the town.”
On the other hand, Lithuania’s most popular writer is paying a price.
Rūta Vanagaité has been harshly treated. During her research, she questioned an initiative in 2018 to honour one of Lithuanian’s post-WWII anti-Soviet fighters. “She had read his file in the KGB archives and knew his past during the Nazi occupation was questionable.”
The response was swift and vengeful.
“Her publisher severed relations with her, removed all her books from bookstores, and they are now stored in a garage in Vilna,” relates Zuroff.
“Originally they said they were going to turn her books into toilet paper, but she sued to get the books back, but no bookstore in Lithuania is prepared to stock them.” Clearly, this harassment has backing from above. “The father of Lithuanian independence, Vytautas Landsbergis wrote an op-ed in the country’s most influential and popular website, basically telling Rūta that now that she has betrayed her country, why does she not go commit suicide. That was sufficient to convince her that it was time to leave Lithuania and today lives much of her time in Israel.”
Why this book is so important for the future is articulated best by the writers themselves:
“If there is anything that has been learned from the events of the past almost three decades….. when it comes to facing the Holocaust in post-Communist Eastern Europe, lip service is the dominant currency. In that respect, Lithuania is not only an excellent example, but is in fact, the leader of the efforts to elude an honest confrontation with Holocaust history, and in the process rob the Shoah of its justified status as a unique case of genocide. This process is known as Holocaust distortion, not to be confused with the far-better known phenomenon of Holocaust denial. Yet it is those efforts, which have intensified over the past fifteen years; especially since the Baltics were accepted as full members in both the European Union and NATO, which currently pose a particularly dangerous threat to the future of Shoah memory and education, and make this book of unique significance, way beyond Lithuania’s borders.”
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