Holocaust haunts Lithuanians as painful past comes to light
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Holocaust haunts Lithuanians as painful past comes to light

A series of books and films has triggered national soul-searching by drawing attention to the country's brutal WWII role

  • The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
    The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
  • The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
    The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
  • A memorial to the 70,000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, Vilnius, Lithuania, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
    A memorial to the 70,000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, Vilnius, Lithuania, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
  • The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
    The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
  • The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
    The Vilnius PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, February 16, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
  • The PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, is pictured in Vilnius on February 16, 2016. 
More than seventy years after the Holocaust, Lithuanians are finally coming to terms with their forefathers' role in killing Jewish neighbours during a dark chapter of history that many in the Baltic EU state would rather forget. / AFP / Petras Malukas
    The PANERIAI memorial in memory of the 70000 Jews of Vilnius and its environs killed by Nazis and their accomplices during World War II, is pictured in Vilnius on February 16, 2016. More than seventy years after the Holocaust, Lithuanians are finally coming to terms with their forefathers' role in killing Jewish neighbours during a dark chapter of history that many in the Baltic EU state would rather forget. / AFP / Petras Malukas

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AFP) — Lithuanians are taking an agonizing closer look at their forefathers’ role in killing Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, a dark chapter of the Baltic country’s history that was hidden for decades.

A series of books and films has triggered national soul-searching by making the point that while Lithuanians were the victims of Nazi and Soviet occupation of the country, at times they too were perpetrators of crimes and their victims were Jews.

Bestselling author Ruta Vanagaite, who co-wrote “Our People” (Musiskiai) with top Israeli Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, is the latest to spark difficult discussions.

Writing the book turned out to be deeply personal and painful when she discovered her grandfather had collaborated with Nazis by working for a commission compiling lists of Jews in 1941.

“I want to break the silence, to open up the wound,” Vanagaite told an audience recently at a bookshop in Vilnius, a city once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the North” for its vibrant Jewish life before the war.

“A mature nation must know its history so it is not repeated.” the 61-year-old author said.

Two black-and-white photographs adorn the cover of her book: Jewish cyclist Isakas Nolikas who represented Lithuania in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and perished in 1943, and Balys Norvaisa, a Lithuanian lieutenant who killed Jews.

'Our People' (Musiskiai) by Nazi hunter US- born Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff and Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite pictured during the presentation of the the book in Vilnius, February 17, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
‘Our People’ (Musiskiai) by Nazi hunter US- born Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff and Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite pictured during the presentation of the the book in Vilnius, February 17, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)

Among the emotionally wrenching testimony in the book, an elderly woman told Vanagaite: “Many people wanted to help Jewish children, but they were afraid. Not of the Germans, but of their own.”

Lithuania was home to a community of more than 200,000 Jews before World War II. But historians contend that around 195,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators under the 1941-44 German occupation, nearly the entire Jewish population.

Today there are around 3,000 Jews living in the EU and NATO member state of three million people.

A state-funded research center has identified 2,000 Lithuanians suspected of taking part in the Holocaust, either by killing Jews, sending them to execution or by confiscating their wealth. The study is due to be released later this year.

At the same time nearly 900 Lithuanians hold the honorary title of “Righteous Among The Nations,” awarded by Israel to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jewish neighbors.

Distorted or ignored

Critics argue that Vanagaite, also a public relations guru, exploited the Holocaust to gain publicity and failed to provide any new historical information.

But Zuroff, who has slammed Vilnius for being slow to prosecute suspected collaborators, insists that Vanagaite’s own soul-searching is valuable.

There is “a good chance that it will help Lithuanian society because it is written not in an academic way but in a journalistic way” that is more accessible to readers, Zuroff, who works at Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, told AFP.

Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite presents the book "Our People" (Musiskiai) with co-author top Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, February 17, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas_
Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite presents the book “Our People” (Musiskiai) with co-author top Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, February 17, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas_

Respected Lithuanian author Sigitas Parulskis was among the first to hit a raw nerve when he focused on the genocide in rural Lithuania with his novel “Darkness and Partners” (Tamsa ir Partneriai), earning him a local human rights award in 2012.

Film and theater directors have also focused on the Holocaust, notably the movie “Ghetto” by Andrius Juzenas.

The Holocaust was either distorted or ignored in Lithuania under five decades of Soviet rule. An honest examination only began after it became the first republic to split from the USSR in 1990.

Education lagging

The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania in 1940 under Moscow’s secret pact with Nazi Germany, and later the Soviets deported over 17,000 Lithuanians to Siberia.

Anti-Semitic propaganda blaming the Jews for Soviet terror became rife.

Germany then drove out the Red Army when it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Some Lithuanians hailed the Germans as liberators, hoping they would grant Lithuania a measure of sovereignty.

The Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, which came to be known as the 'Fort of Death' during World War II, when it served for the murder of over 10,000 Jews by Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.
The Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, which came to be known as the ‘Fort of Death’ during World War II, when it served for the murder of over 10,000 Jews by Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. (Shutterstock)

The Soviets returned in 1944, going on to deport and exile more than 275,000 Lithuanians, mostly to Siberia. Another 21,000 died in an anti-Soviet insurgency.

President Algirdas Brazauskas apologized for Lithuanian collaborators with the Nazis during his historic 1995 speech in Israel’s parliament.

Lithuania’s parliament passed a compensation package in 2011 for Jewish communal property seized by the Nazis and then kept by the Soviet regime.

It marked a milestone for the Baltic state’s tiny Jewish community, but its leader says a great deal of work is still needed.

“There has been a tremendous amount of academic research about the Holocaust, but I think we lag behind in education,” Jewish community leader Faina Kukliansky told AFP.

“The history of Lithuanian Jews must become an integral part of Lithuania’s system of education.”

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