We often hear complaints that the Holocaust is being mentioned too much and too often, that the subject of the Jewish Catastrophe is simply being forced on educational and public institutions and on national society as a whole. And these things are said not only in Lithuania. At least in part, this phenomenon can be explained by human nature — the unwillingness to think, to speak, to assess cruel events of unprecedented scope in Lithuania, all the more so because many Lithuanians participated in these crimes. Undoubtedly, this response motivates hostility to reflections about the Jewish genocide. In addition, as the editor of this collection has noted, “the subject of the Jewish Catastrophe and everything connected with it was taboo during Soviet times.” One should, at the same time, emphasize that among postwar emigres the Holocaust (Shoah) was also enveloped in a thick fog of denial and oblivion, through which only occasionally there broke through a more sober, self-critical voice open to history, for example, during the discussion that took place at the Santara-Šviesa convention in 1978 (published in Akiračiai, 1978, nos. 9-10). Both in Lithuania and among emigres, this tendency toward indifference was further promoted by the image of Lithuanians as the victims of Soviet terror. If one accepts this view, it is difficult to acknowledge that one’s nation also contains some monstrously cruel criminals who do not necessarily belong to the so-called “dregs” of society.Published in 2001, the first volume of readings in Šoa (Holokaustas) Lietuvoje presented several historical sources and historical commentaries to help readers understand the course and scale of the mass killing and persecution of the Jews in 1941 during the German occupation. At the end of this collection, several documents were included that reflect the attitude of today’s Lithuanian Catholic Church toward the Holocaust. This second volume of readings draws attention to the discourse taking place in Lithuanian society on the subject of the Jewish Catastrophe. Let us understand that the Holocaust is not only history. Whether in a scholarly study or at a round-table discussion, a view of history is determined by a multitude of so-called contextual factors: the educational level of society, the openness of the educational system, the alignment of political forces, and — what is most important, perhaps — traditions of tolerance and democracy as well as the civic maturity of society.Unfortunately, Holocaust research in the post-Communist space encountered some unique problems that greatly complicated public discussion of the Jewish genocide. After the restoration of independence, as a counterbalance to the Soviet mentality, works published during the 1930s were often simply and quite uncritically reissued (this collection mentions Maceina’s Tauta ir valstybė [Nation and State] and Tarvydas’ Geopolitika [Geopolitics]). Lithuanians forgot that prewar ethical and scientific values (the principles of eugenics, for example, and the racial and national stereotypes that were prevalent in Europe at that time) had been rejected during the postwar decades by western democratic societies as unnecessary and even dangerous relics which must be renounced in order to avoid future genocides. It was understood that civic tolerance must be fostered, as well as intolerance toward manifestations of racism and anti-Semitism. One must acknowledge that during the postwar years this new spirit and understanding almost completely bypassed Lithuanian society. For a long time, both the people of Lithuania and the greater part of the older emigre generation remained cut off from developments in the West. The former suffered from Soviet censorship, and the latter remained secluded in their emigre cultural ghetto.
During this same period, a new understanding of the Holocaust as a unique genocide became established in the west. In the early postwar years, there did not exist any notable, exhaustive scholarly studies of the Jewish genocide, and even the concept of the Holocaust (Shoah) was still only taking shape. There was a shortage of qualified scholars. In public discourse, the victims of Nazism were often lumped together — Jews, Catholic priests, prisoners of war, etc. For a while, many (by no means all) Jewish survivors of the Holocaust kept silent; some were even ashamed of the image of the Jew as helpless victim. With difficulty, the state of Israel was being established.
Growing western interest in the Jewish Catastrophe can be traced back to the publication in 1961 of the American professor Raul Hilberg’s major work The Destruction of the European Jews. This was perhaps the first comprehensive study of such a scope which revealed the apparatus of destruction and the methodology of genocide as practiced by the Nazis and their collaborators. soon, there was an outpouring of numerous scholarly studies, films, and literary works on the subject of the Jewish Catastrophe. This growing abundance of material enabled people to understand that the Holocaust was not only mass killing, repressions, and unusual cruelty, but also constituted a unique historical tragedy, perhaps the only attempt by a developed and supposedly civilized Western state to totally destroy a nation by using the most modern technology of killing, while justifying this process with the supposedly scientific principles of a thorough and comprehensive political ideology. Not only the Germans but also all other nations with a Christian heritage had to confront the past and their consciences. Before the late 1970s, however, these processes had very little effect on the Lithuanian world.
The sudden loosening of censorship and the transition to Lithuanian freedom and independence coincided with a new openness to history. what was already familiar in the west, that is, an understanding of the Holocaust as a unique crime of global scale and the greatest degradation of the much-idolized high civilization of Europe, gradually penetrated Lithuanian academic society as well. However, because of the above-mentioned reasons, it was difficult for a Western understanding of the Holocaust to make headway. Discussions about Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust came up against feelings of national defensiveness and the conviction of many Lithuanians that this confrontation with the historical events of 1941 was mainly instigated by world Jewry, that it was due as well to pressure from various Western institutions, perhaps even to intrigues from the secret services of unfriendly states. A Lithuanian scholar interested in the genocide of Lithuanian Jews was often regarded with suspicion. Some Lithuanians were convinced that raising the question of the Jewish genocide unnecessarily opened old wounds. Thus, it is no wonder that anti-Semitic myths re-emerged and thrived in the heads of some Lithuanians. Inevitably, public debates about the Holocaust in Lithuania became an important subject not only for historians but also for public figures, people active in culture, and politicians.
The reader of this volume will find interesting texts about the relationship of Lithuanians and Jews to their painful past. In addition to containing sections about people who rescued Jews and about the struggle of Lithuanian Jews against Nazism, this collection of readings can also be considered a kind of anthology of the discourse between Lithuanians and Jews about the Holocaust. These texts were written mainly during 1989-2001.
* * *
After leafing through this collection, many readers may ask: why on earth is it necessary to publish these polemics, various texts reflecting controversies that have been going on for years, that have even perhaps been forgotten, and, moreover, that people are tired of? Why is it not possible, once and for all, to thoroughly study this problem, publish the conclusions, and end this difficult dialog between Lithuanians and Jews? All that would be possible if the Holocaust were only history. But it is not. Let us remember that the Jewish genocide was the largest-scale massacre in the history of Lithuania. Never were so many people, citizens of the Lithuanian state, killed in such a short time. And for this reason, any discussion of the Holocaust cannot remain only in the sphere of scholarship. Our attitude toward the Jewish Catastrophe reflects the moral sensitivity of our society, the maturity of our civic consciousness, and our ability to objectively assess the crimes of our countrymen. In the simplest terms, when we speak about the Holocaust, we show ourselves and the world what we are.
The reader may notice that the authors of most of these texts are Lithuanians. Indeed, today’s critics of Lithuanian anti-Semitism are usually the older and younger generations of the liberal intelligentsia. One of the characteristic features of Lithuanian anti-Semitism is the so-called theory of the two genocides. No matter how much this theory is prettified and with what sophistication, it is in truth nothing other than an attempt to exonerate Lithuanian murderers on the basis of the principle “they did it to us, we did it to them” (see the texts about Jonas Mikelinskas’ “study”). In essence, this is an anti-human, anti-Christian, unjust, and immoral or, as Tomas Venclova put it, a “troglodytic” viewpoint (that is, one held by cavemen). It is precisely the thought that the Jews themselves are guilty for the Catastrophe which befell them that probably forms the essential ideological link in Lithuanian anti-Semitism. Sometimes this is expressed as an insinuation, and sometimes as a blunt retort. It is disquieting that most intellectuals and government officials continue to remain silent while such thoughts are being disseminated to the public, that these ideas have not yet been marginalized. It is vitally important, therefore, not to let the problem of the Holocaust (Shoah) out of our field of vision and to respond in a principled manner to every attempt to deny the Jewish Catastrophe or exonerate criminals with crude evasions or learned sophisms.
As an historical lesson, the Holocaust has painfully demonstrated to future generations what people can do when they have lost their spiritual equilibrium and sense of moral responsibility. Therefore, in the words of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who survived the Nazi epoch, the Jewish Catastrophe “should constantly be remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible at all times. Only through knowledge can it be prevented.”
Prof. Saulius Sužiedėlis
Millersville University of Pennsylvania
Member of the International Commission for the Evaluation
of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania
- Introduction to the second volume of this publication in Lithuanian: Šoa (Holokaustas) Lietuvoje, v. 2 (Vilnius, 2004).