For anyone seeking to understand why the Nazi crimes of the 1940s are still a source of controversy throughout post-communist Eastern Europe, “Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust” is a shocking book — and essential reading.
Part road trip, part “buddy film” and part true-crime expose, “Our People” follows veteran Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff and renowned Lithuanian journalist Ruta Vanagaite on a journey through the haunted house of Lithuania’s past.
Co-authored by the duo, the book caused a national sensation when it was first published in Lithuania in 2016. It became a bestseller, dividing families and sparking an establishment backlash so intense that the publishers withdrew all of Vanagaite’s books from sale, and she felt so threatened she fled the country. The book was published in English in March.
It will come as a shock to many to learn that the Holocaust in Lithuania — home to 220,000 Jews before the Nazi occupation, of whom perhaps five percent survived, is indeed “hidden.” The beautiful countryside is invisibly scarred by dozens of pits, some of them unmarked, where thousands of Jews were slaughtered, dumped, covered with lime and rubble and left to rot. Lithuania’s earth is soiled with the blood and stench of mass murder perpetrated in large part by Lithuanian citizens, many of whom have never been identified, let alone arrested and prosecuted for their terrible crimes.
Zuroff, the Nazi-hunter, had been trying to bring Lithuanian Holocaust criminals to justice for years. The great uncle for whom he was named, Efraim Zar, lived in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, where he was seized and killed in 1941.
“There’s no question in my mind that trials have a much stronger impact than history books,” Zuroff says. But the Lithuanians, flush from their liberation from Soviet rule, were in no mood to spoil the celebration of their newfound independence by arresting elderly citizens.
Zuroff had never met Vanagaite until she discovered that her grandfather and her uncle may have been implicated — directly or indirectly — in the murder of Lithuanian Jews and the seizure of their property. She wanted to know more about this largely unwritten chapter of her country’s past and started to organize Jewish-themed events and visits to the places where these unspoken horrors occurred.
Looking for guest speakers to spice up a Holocaust history discussion in Vilnius, she was warned not to invite Zuroff, who was said to be a bully and anti-Lithuanian provocateur, most likely in the pay of the country’s nemesis, Vladimir Putin. She was told he was aggressive and made schoolteachers cry. She decided to meet him, if only to see if he could be persuaded not to spark a fistfight at the event.
For his part, Zuroff agreed to have coffee with Vanagaite but with zero expectations. In the years since Lithuanian independence in 1990, he had been trying without success to persuade the authorities to confront their role in the murder of the Jews during the Nazi occupation, and their continued failure to bring hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Lithuanian war criminals to trial.
Zuroff was the opposite of the puny, bookish Jewish sterotype that Vanagaite was expecting. “Here before me was a giant,” she recalls. “An unexpected powerful presence seemed to ooze from this person. I didn’t want to sit too close to him.”
Zuroff, ever skeptical, wondered aloud whether Vanagaite’s sudden interest in her country’s Jewish past was motivated by the availability of generous European Union funding. But it was the tireless Nazi hunter and ruiner of reputations who was taken by surprise.
“No,” she replied. “I am doing it because I discovered that some of my relatives had most likely taken part in the Holocaust. And I feel that in remembering and honoring the Jews murdered, I will to some extent make amends for their crime.”
Her response rendered Zuroff speechless. “She was the first person I had ever met in Lithuania who admitted a thing like this,” he says.
An unlikely roadtrip
Vanagaite began wondering what it would be like to travel with Zuroff to the sites of the mass murders and try to find the last living eyewitnesses to the terrible events that had taken place there in the 1940s. Zuroff was thinking along similar lines. Now he had finally found a well-known, eloquent Lithuanian who admitted her family’s role in the Holocaust, perhaps her people would listen.
“I thought maybe if the message comes from an ethnic Lithuanian, Ruta Vanagaite, not Jewish, no connection — maybe this will finally convince them of the truth and the accuracy of the real narrative of the Holocaust,” Zuroff says.
Like any good buddy story, they set off on their travels an unlikely couple, each deeply suspicious of the other. As Vanagaite’s jeep began rolling, they were both nervous. All the witnesses would be very old. Would they find anyone who would talk?
I thought we might have a very unpleasant journey and we might fight a lot
Even though Zuroff and Vanagaite both saw the importance of revealing the history of those events, they agreed on little else. Zuroff wanted the remaining criminals to stand trial — Vanagaite was unconvinced. Zuroff seemed to have nothing good to say about Vanagaite’s beautiful country which was finally celebrating its release from crushing Soviet tyranny. And they hardly knew each other. The project seemed liable to collapse at any moment.
“I thought we might have a very unpleasant journey and we might fight a lot,” Vanagaite recalls. “I thought if we start fighting we just have to cut it short. It was really an experiment because I didn’t know what was going to happen, whether he would become aggressive or not, if he would make me cry or not. In the end, he cried a lot himself, so that was my big achievement. Sometimes we cried together.”
They were perfectly matched for the task at hand. Zuroff carried in his head the details of the terrible events they were trying to uncover, but he would always be an outsider, a foreign Jew with an American accent and an imposing physical presence. Vanagaite arrived with decades of reporting experience, a hunger for knowledge and an easy manner with the elderly interviewees. Together, they plucked the hitherto silent witnesses from the obscurity of their village lives. Many had never spoken before of the horrific crimes they had stumbled into as frightened children.
Standing on the doorsteps of village homes, in the forest clearings where the massacres had been carried out, and in the streets of small country towns, this odd couple of Holocaust chroniclers breathed new life into long-forgotten memories of events so shocking that the force of their retelling after decades of silence, overlaid with guilt and pain, seemed to change the very air.
“I never expected I would find any witnesses. I never expected they would talk,” Vanagaite says.
Gathering the stories
In Svemcionys, a town where 8,000 Jews once lived, they saw an old woman leaving a grocery store who seemed about the right age. Her story tumbled out. She and her sister were very close to two Jewish sisters, the Bentski girls, aged 7 and 15. In October 1941, when nearly 4,000 Jews were rounded up to be shot dead at a local military base on Yom Kippur, the woman’s parents discussed whether they could adopt her friend and take her in. They decided it would be too risky.
“When they were marched by us, my mother and I cried because we couldn’t save the little girl,” the old woman told her visitors.
“You probably were very afraid of the Germans?” asked Zuroff.
“No, we could have hidden her forever,” the old woman replied. “We were afraid of our neighbors.”
“She started crying,” Zuroff says. “It broke my heart. It was obvious she had never told the story to anybody. She was walking around with this on her heart since 1941, more than 70 years, and she finally was able to tell someone. I think it was a relief for her but it was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking.”
As in so many of the mass murders of Jews and others throughout the country, the Special Unit squad in Svemcionys in October 1941 was made up largely of Lithuanians. Many of them escaped prosecution.
There were only about 800 Jews in Butrimonys in September 1941 when the local police chief ordered them rounded up in the local primary school so they could be killed the following day. The murders were planned to be carried out by the 3rd Platoon of the TDA, the National Labor Defense Battalion, born from the insurgents who had battled the Soviets as they retreated from Lithuania in 1941.
The 3rd Platoon were busy murdering the Jews of Alytus, another town nearby. They hurried over. The Jews were stripped naked in the town square and marched off to a clearing in the nearby Klidzionys Forest.
“The pits in the forest had already been dug; everyone knew they would shoot the Jews, and were waiting for it to happen,” Antanas Kmieliauskas, one of Lithuania’s most famous artists, then 9 years old, told interviewers from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1998.
Kmieliauskas and his friends hid behind a house and watched as the Jews were led, naked, in groups of 10, to the edge of the pit and shot dead.
“After those shootings I had nightmares. About pits. Perhaps all the children had nightmares,” he said.
Before visiting the town, Vanagaite called on the artist, then 83, to see if there were any more details he remembered.
After the shootings, the children neared the scene to find “some people in the pit were still alive,” he recalled. One badly wounded man was trying to breathe through the blood blocking his nose. “The killers did not want to waste the bullets on the victim, so one of them went to the forest to get a stone.”
Kmieliauskas sketched the scene that had haunted him for so long and gave Vanagaite the drawings, but after telling her the final piece of the story, the artist was worried.
“Please, Ruta, don’t say that these people spoke Lithuanian. Don’t tell the story in the book,” he pleaded. “I love my country. I know it and you know it. Let’s not say it in public. Let’s not shit in our own nest.”
Too close for comfort
The same reluctance to air this dirtiest of laundry in public also haunted Vanagaite’s family. Ruta Vanagaite never met her aunt’s husband, Antanas. They emigrated to the US after the war, from where he sent her jeans and other prized Western contraband while Lithuania was part of the Soviet bloc. It was only after he died that she realized he had been the police chief in Ponevezh, home of the famous yeshiva, where more than 8,000 Jews were massacred by late August 1941. She still doesn’t know if he played any part in carrying out the Nazi orders to murder the town’s Jews and steal their property, which was distributed among the rest of the population, including household goods and clothing.
“I am wondering whether my grandmother received anything? Did my mother, who was 14, ever wear any of these clothes?” she asks.
Vanagaite’s doubts about her uncle hover over thousands more Lithuanian officials, including some of the country’s national heroes, lauded, like he was, for leading the insurgency against the Soviet occupiers as they fled before the Nazi invasion in 1941. Bitterness against the Soviet occupation framed Lithuanians’ sense of gratitude to the Nazis for liberating them from Stalin. When the Nazis began rounding up the Jews as the price of their occupation, many Lithuanians went along. Decades later, the sufferings of the Jews appeared to pale in comparison to the many years of Soviet tyranny.
The Nazis were there for a very short time, a very long time ago… And the Jews were not our people
“The Nazis were there for a very short time, a very long time ago, and they actually didn’t do anything so bad for Lithuanians,” says Vanagaite. “Of course we had to give our products to the army, but there was no crime that people would remember. And the Jews were not our people.”
“Lithuanians don’t equate them. The Soviets were much worse. They were attacking us and the Nazis were attacking the Jews,” she says.
Vanagaite’s grandfather was a national hero, Jonas Vanagas, a political prisoner convicted of anti-Soviet activities, who died six months after he was sent to a gulag in 1945 for helping to drive out the Soviet invaders in 1941. There is no evidence to suggest that Vanagas was implicated in crimes against the Jews, but records show that Balys Simke, arrested and imprisoned with Vanagaite’s grandfather, helped force march the Jews through Ukmerge to the prison where they were shot in September 1941 by the Rollkommando Hamann, a Special Unit made up of eight to 10 Germans and 80 Lithuanians who carried out mass killings across the Lithuanian countryside.
Even more controversial are the prominent nationalist leaders with blood on their hands, like Jonas Noreika, a key figure in the Lithuanian resistance to the Soviet occupation after World War II, who was implicated in Holocaust crimes. The Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania, funded by the government, officially exonerated Noreika. The center also disputed a list of 23,000 suspected Lithuanian Holocaust criminals compiled by the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, whittling it down to 2,055, then deleting it altogether from its publications.
Part of society thinks they were perpetrators and part of society thinks they are heroes. Both are true
“Part of society thinks they were perpetrators and part of society thinks they are heroes. Both are true,” Vanagaite says. “Noreika didn’t shoot anybody himself. But the question is: Did he know that signing the orders for the ghettoization of the Jews and redistributing Jewish property was ultimately part of the process of sending people to their death?
“We don’t know what was happening in his head. Hitler didn’t shoot anybody personally. For Lithuanians it’s much safer to think that if they didn’t shoot, they are innocent, especially if they were fighting the Soviets after the Holocaust,” she says.
Myth of ‘double genocide’
Zuroff says the attitude to the Holocaust of the modern Lithuanian state, and most of its citizens, is so warped by Soviet oppression that is has created a myth of “double genocide” in which the crimes of the Nazis and the Soviets are equated.
Even more dangerous, he says, are the efforts of Lithuania and other former eastern bloc states to try and export this double genocide doctrine to official Holocaust memorials and education in the rest of Europe.
“The Soviets were in Lithuania much longer and the Nazis were there relatively briefly, but if a country has a choice between being a country of perpetrators or a country of victims, it’s a no-brainer. Of course they want to be a country of victims,” Zuroff says. “I do not want to in any way minimize communist crimes against the peoples of Eastern Europe but the double genocide theory is very dangerous. It’s undermining. It’ll eventually change when people understand the truth.”
“But they also deserve to have their victims remembered and to get compensation from the Russians,” he says. “Part of the problem is that the Russians’ hands are not clean. They didn’t do anything to make up for it. They didn’t admit their guilt, they didn’t compensate the victims, they didn’t express regret for all the horrible things that the Soviet Union did — and it was horrible, absolutely horrible.”
Vanagaite says she understands the reluctance of Lithuanians to confront their complex past, but hopes that their book has started to thaw long-held convictions, especially as the people involved fade into history.
“Losing your hero or losing your image of the past or the history of your country is losing part of yourself,” she says. “All the people who are sensitive about the fathers and grandfathers — my generation — are dying away. So the ice will melt. Unfortunately I don’t think it will melt in my lifetime.”