For people who follow historical literature at least to some extent, publications in Lithuanian about the Holocaust (Shoah) are no longer a novelty. Since the restoration of independence, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of articles, monographs, and works by scholars as well as students, both undergraduate and graduate, discussing the sources of anti-Semitism in Lithuania, relations between Lithuanians and Jews, the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jews, and finally the Jewish genocide during the German occupation. One may even conclude that the most significant research analyzing these sensitive issues, especially during the last few years, is taking place in Lithuania itself. This is an especially important phenomenon because not so long ago historiography about the Jewish genocide in Lithuania was crippled by the strict requirements of Soviet ideology, while the writings of Lithuanian emigres in the free world on the subject of the Holocaust were mainly limited to assertions of Lithuanian innocence. Israeli and western scholars were hampered by their ignorance of Lithuanian archives and, usually, of the Lithuanian language, but if Lithuanian sources are not included in the scholarship, it is not possible to comprehensively research this problem. Objective, well-argued works should help supplant the apologetics, the denial, and the generally shoddy journalism that keeps recurring, not to mention the anti-Semitic rubbish of extremists. In the future, two important initiatives should help promote society’s dispassionate assessment of the painful past: one is the recently created Holocaust education program, and the other is the research, already half completed, of the international historical commission established in 1998 by the President of Lithuania, especially its subcommission for the evaluation of the crimes during the Nazi occupation.
This collection of readings about the Shoah (Holocaust) is truly outstanding both in content and in purpose. Increasing numbers of scholarly works about the Holocaust, however valuable they may be for the academic sector, will not, by themselves, be able to overcome the indifference and ignorance of the general public about the significance of the Holocaust. Even more difficult to overcome, in the words of the well-known historian Dr. Egidijus Aleksandravičius, is the simple refusal of some Lithuanians to know.
Some of the documents presented in this book as testimony to the course of the Holocaust in Lithuania are probably new even to those Lithuanians interested and conversant in history. The Soviet document collection Masinės žudynės Lietuvoje (1941-1944) [Mass Murder in Lithuania (1941-1944)] is perhaps the most valuable work in this genre to be published before the restoration of independence, but it is nevertheless incomplete, limited in scope, and ideologically slanted. Clearly, the testimony taken from the collection Yahadut Lita, which was published in Israel, has been completely inaccessible to Lithuanians. The collection The Shoah (Holocaust) in Lithuania: Readings not only includes already known material but is also supplemented with documents, testimonies, and memoirs that have been uncovered during the last few years. This book will help even nonspecialists, those interested in their country’s past, to understand the most terrible pages in the modern history of Lithuania.
Many Lithuanian readers will doubtless be shocked by the various documents of the German occupation that attest to the collaboration of police precincts and local governments in the destruction of the Jewish community of their country. Undoubtedly, this is a bitter pill for those accustomed to the cliché that those who participated in the destruction of the Jews were barely a handful of people, the dregs and scum of society. Shooting and gassing were only the final stage in a complex, step-by-step process of genocide. Successful mass destruction involved an integrated process of dehumanization, which required logical and ideological preparation (anti-Semitic propaganda, or why is the Jew guilty?), a legal and administrative definition of the people to be destroyed (who is a Jew?), and the separation and concentration of the victims (where is the Jew’s place?). As can be seen from the documents presented here, the local organs of Lithuanian administration were drawn into this work quite successfully, and in some places local partisans and police officials outdid themselves in carrying out the wishes of the occupiers.
Recognizing this sad fact does not mean giving in to an image of Lithuanians as a nation of Jew-shooters and to the demagogy of collective guilt. Naturally, many Lithuanians feel defenseless in the face of these cruel facts and grasp at any means of psychological self-defense that are sometimes reminiscent of breaking down an open door. Yes, the Jewish genocide in Lithuania was organized and planned by the Third Reich, and it is clear that the Holocaust is unimaginable without the German Nazis and Hitler himself. Yes, there were also other Lithuanians, people of noble spirit, who rescued Jews (according to the latest data of the Vilna Jewish Museum, there were rather more of them than the small handful, often mentioned with bitterness). Yes, there were Jewish Communists (but who claims that all Jews are moral and all Lithuanians bad?). Finally, as every historian knows, in historical and personal testimonies, in the records of investigations, and especially in memoirs there occur inaccuracies, categorical assessments, and sometimes even vexing errors (all of which expand the areas of operation for those fond of apologetic dilettantism). The historian’s job is to explicate the sources, sometimes even to harmonize contradictory data. Of course, researchers themselves do not always agree in their assessment of events and the significance they give to them, all the more so because a phenomenon as complex as the Holocaust provides many opportunities for different scholarly interpretations (here, I do not mean the squalid exploitation of this subject or the opportunistic manipulation of facts). In all probability, disputes will continue for a long time about how many Lithuanians participated, how many Jews perished, the identity of the most important culprits, the motivations of the killers, etc. In a free civil society historiographical disputes like these are conducted with goodwill and in a civilized manner.
And yet no disputes about interpretations (or details) can deny the fact, as the poet Tomas Venclova has written, that “in late June 1941 Lithuanians, in the presence of a Lithuanian crowd, destroyed defenseless people and even that during the 20th century many nations, perhaps even all nations, did something similar. And I, as a Lithuanian, am obliged to speak about the guilt of my own people.” However, the problem of Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust can also be approached objectively. Some will ask: were there many or few such Lithuanians? In attempting to answer this question, the historian Solomonas Atamukas acknowledged that correctly determining the number of culprits is hampered not only by the intricacies of arithmetic but also by the problem of defining guilt. Nevertheless, one must suppose that his conclusion is logically acceptable: “[T]he entire process of persecuting the Jews — pogroms, plundering, forcing into ghettos, guarding, relocating, marching-transporting, and shooting — involved thousands of local people. Although that was a tiny part of a population of roughly 2.7 million, it is at the same time a large number of people who committed crimes against humanity.” But why on earth, as one can often hear the question, pick at the wounds of the past? Lithuanian society will hardly be able to climb out of the post-Soviet spiritual pit without assimilating into its consciousness the lessons of this tragedy, one so great that it is without precedent in modern history. It is precisely the Holocaust that shows us most clearly where race hatred, political demagogy based on ethnic stereotypes, a lack of tolerance, and disregard for moral and civic values lead.
The fact that part of society is already beginning to grasp the significance of the Holocaust as well as the need for openness to history in developing civic consciousness among the people of Lithuania, can be seen in the second volume of this book. This process received an important impulse from the documents presented here: the Pope’s reflections on the Shoah, the letter of contrition from the bishops of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, the critical research of Lithuanian scholars, and the statements of intellectuals. All of this shows that indifference is being overcome more and more often, as well as the fear that a critical look at the past will be understood as cosmopolitanism, and it seems that there is a growing determination to publicly condemn open and covert anti-Semitic attacks. These developments give hope that arguments denying manifest historical facts will continue to be marginalized both socially and intellectually and that people are beginning to grasp that the Holocaust is not only a Jewish concern. The tragedy that we call the Shoah was a horrible loss for all the people of Lithuania. What perished was Litvak culture, which had flourished for long centuries, a unique Lithuanian-Jewish civilization, which is mentioned with pride throughout the world. Its tragic death is reflected in the pages of this book.
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
- Tomas Venclova, “Žydai ir lietuviai,” in Lietuvos žydų žudynių byla, ed. Alfonsas Eidintas (Vilnius, 2001), p. 409.
- Solomon Atamuk, Lietuvos žydų kelias: Nuo XIV amžiaus iki XX a. pabaigos (Vilnius, 1998), p. 254.