A journey into Lithuania’s heart of darkness

A journey into Lithuania’s

heart of darkness

By Steve Linde

lN AN unprecedented partnership to discov-
er the truth about the Holocaust in Lithua-
nia, the Jerusalem-based Nazi hunter Efraim

Znroff and Lithuanian writer R[taYanagaite
undertook a 40-dayjoumey together through
the country – and co-author a book about it.
What makes things even more poignant is

that Vanagaite was motivated by her dis-
covery before the trip, that her relatives had

played a role in the persecution ofJews by
Lithuanians, while Zuroff- whose matemal
grandparents were bom in Lithuania – was
named for a great-uncle murdered with his
family in Mlnius.
“When we set out on our mission to visit
sites of mass murder of Jews by Lithuanians
during the Holocaust, we were not really

sure what we would find,” they write. “Af-
ter all, no one had ever attempted to do so,

let alone a descendant of the perpetrators

together with a Nazi-hunter who was a de-
scendant of the victims.”

During their hanowing joumey, Vanagaite
and Zuroff interviewed eyewitnesses, found
mass graves of the victims and vowed to do
whatever they could “to inform Lithuanian
society about the scope and nature of this
terrible tragedy.”
When they launched their book in 2016
in Lithuanian, Musi|kiai: Kelioni su prieiu
(Our People: Journey with an Enemy\, at a

restaurant in Vlnius that had been the war-
time base of a notorious Lithuanian mur-
der squad, it became an instant bestseller.

Despite harsh criticism by the Lithuanian
govemment, they say, “large segments of
the public… welcomed Musiikiaias the hrst
book of its kind to tell the truth about the

scope of Lithuanian complicity in the anni-
hilation of Lithuanian Jewry in an interesting

and easily readable manner.”
The govemment took revenge in 2017,
when the publisheq Alma Littera, severed
relations with Vanagaite and removed all
27,000 copies ofher six books, only one of

which dealt with the Holocaust, from all the
bookstores in Lithuania.
“When \Ytautus Landsbergis, the father
of Lithuanian independence, suggested that
she should do her countryment a favor and
commit suicide, she realized that she could
no longer reside safely in her homeland, and
she moved to Jerusalem,” the preface states.
The authors say that rather than burying
the issue, which the govemment sought to
do, the Holocaust has become a hot topic of
debate in Lithuania. They cite the example

o[ the debates over whether antisemitic po-
litical leaders such as Kazys Skirpa or Holo-
caust perpetrators who became prominent in

the anti-Soviet resistance after World War II
such as Jonas Noreika should be lionized as
national heroes.
Efforts to hide Holocaust crimes have thus
been challenged, they argue, and the first
steps toward an accurate historical narrative
of the Shoah are being ‘painfully” taken.
“We hope and pray that this will indeed be
the case, and if so, the many tears we shed as
we traversed Lithuania will not have been in
vain,” they write.
Vanagaite and Zuroff take tums in telling
their stories and the stories ofthe people they
interview and places they visit, including the
dozens of Holocaust mass murder sites and

neglected gravesites in Lithuania and Be-
larus. They document the role played by the

pre-war Lithuanian political leadership and
the thousands of ordinary Lithuanians in the

murder of their Jewish neighbors, and un-
cover hints of the rich life that had existed

in hundreds of Jewish communities across
On the day that Hitler began the war on

ltne22,1941,the authors tell us, the Lithua-
nian Activist Front, led by Skirpa, broadcast

an address entitled, “Let’s liberate Lithuania
forever from the yoke of Jewry.”
Addressed to “Lithuanian brothers and

sisters,” it contains some of the most offen-
sive antisemitic language ever documented,

which is why it is worth repeating here:
Vytautas the Great granted Jews the right
of refuge in Lithuania, believing they would
not transgress the obligations ofbeing polite
guests. This, however, was only see as an
initial opportunity for the bloodsucking tick
of Israel to insinuate itself into the body of
the Lithuanian people.

Before they embark on their “mission im-
possible,”.the two writers have an interest-
ing exchange about facing the truth about the

horrors ofthe past.
“Let me face this truth,” Vanagaite says.
“Let us face it together. Let’s start the journey

with an enemy. We’ll split the gas. Hopeful-
ly, we will not fight all the time; otherwise,

this joumey could become a nightmare.”

Zuroffreplies, “Okay. Let it be a ‘No Vio-
lence Journey with the Enemy.”‘

And so they embark on “a joumey with
the enemy” to 40 destinations. Before each
destination, they note how many Jews had
lived there before the Shoah. An estimated
212.000 of the220,000 Lithuanian Jews who
lived there under the Nazi occupation were
murdered in the Holocaust, more than 96Yo
of the Lithuanian Jewish population.
Thus, for example, the chapter on Kaunas/
Kovno begins by telling the reader that at the
end of the l9th century more than 25,000

Jews lived there (35.9o/o of the local pop-
ulation), while the community numbered

around 30,000 before the Shoah.
They begin their visit to Kaunus with a
professional Jewish guide, Chaim Bargman,
who disputes Zuroff’s claim that many Jews
had been murdered by firehoses shoved into

their mouths and the water tumed on to ex-
plode their stomachs.

“I certainly was not knowingly lying,” Zu-
roff says. “I had no reason to doubt the testi

mony of the German army photographer, but
now I have to admit that Chaim cast some
serious doubt on the story.”

Authors Efraim Zuroff and R0ta Vanagaite present Ambassador Michael Oren (center)
with a copy of their book in Hebrew
They then visit the site of the first of many
mass murders in Lithuania: Some 416 men
and 47 women were shot at the Seventh Fort
in Kaunus on July 4,1941, according to the
J?iger Report.
“A1l the Jews were pushed together into
the pit and shooting took only halfan hour,”
he wrote. “They kept shooting until no one
moved in the pit.”
At the site, a camp counselor shows them

a memorial post in the high grass of the Sev-
enth Fort where a children’s summer camp

is taking place. They find a Cold War muse-
um and a chemistry laboratory and see the

children engaged in various activities. “How
is it possible that mass murder sites have
been privatized?” they ask.
The web page ofthe Kaunas Seventh Fort
describes the site as “an oasis ofnature and
history” where celebrations and corporate
gatherings are held, and it invites children to
celebrate their birthdays there with activities
that include a “Treasure Hunt.”
Seventy-five years ago, they recall, Pranas
Matiukas, a murderer of the Jews, hunted
treasure in the large pit fil1ed with corpses

and after the war, worked as a dental tech-
nician in Joni5kelis. “How many gold teeth

pulled from the mouths of corpses were
melted down and placed in the mouths of the
residents of Joni5kelis?” they ask. “Maybe a
few teeth are still left in the pit at the Kaunus
fort, and it might be profitable for parents to

pay the three euros for the ‘Treasure Hunt’
Zuroff says, “Don’t you think that on the
way from this horrific place we should talk
about antisemitism in today’s Lithuania?”
Vanagaite responds, “Yes, we should.
Many Lithuanian people of my generation

have some antisemitic prejudices. I under-
stand them… Lithuanians of my generation,

or younger, have never met real Litvaks. The
majority were killed, the rest emigrated, and
what we encountered were mostly Soviet
Jews who came here after the war…”
After a fascinating exchange, Zurofftells

Vanagaite, “Listen you were antisemitic be-
fore the Soviets, then they made it worse.”

“Yes, they made it worse,” she agrees.
While I can’t go into all the mind-boggling

details that the book reveals during the pro-
tagonists’ joumey in Lithuania – from Link-
menys, the ancestral home of Zuroffs moth-
er’s family to Panevezys, the home of one of

the most important yeshivot in prewar Lith-
uania – it is both fascinating and shocking.

They end their joumey with “a heavy
heart. Not exactly the same heavy heart –
different nuances, different emphases – but
what we clearly share is a sense of anger and
frustration at what happened.” Vanagaite
prefers to call it “a strong sense of shame.
And of disgust. Because of what happened
then, and because ofhow we forgot all this.

For the criminal indifference of many peo-

Our People: Discovering
Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust
Rlta Vanagaite and Efraim Zuroff
Rowman & Littlef,reld Publishers, 2020
Hardback 240 pages; $24.95
ple in Lithuania.”
Zuroffsays this is the difference between
them. “I feel the anger,” he writes. “Because
no explanation in the world is sufficient to
explain – and certainly not to justiff – what
happened. And that leaves us with the crime
Vanagaite says they have one cofitmon
enemy: indifference. Zuroff begs to differ,
saying they have two enemies – indifference
and ignorance. “This book is mostly to fight
the other enemy.”
I recommend this book for those who want

to know the tnrth, and care about it. Honest-
ly, it should be essential reading at schools in

Lithuania, lsrael and throughout the world.
As Vanagaite concludes, the book sold
19,000 copies in Lithuania, and is passed on
from one reader to the other, leaving many

readers in tears; there is a waiting list to bor-
row the book at all the libraries in the coun-
try. It doesn’t matter, she says, that it has

been removed from all bookstores, which
don’t dare to sell it anymore. “The leaming
process has already begun – an imponant
part ofhealing for Lithuanian society.”