“Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust” is a powerful, poignant and painful exploration of the murder by bullets of Lithuanian Jews by Lithuanian nationalists — not Germans. The unusual team of writers consists of the granddaughter and grandniece of perpetrators, and the great nephew of a murdered Jew.
Prominent Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite and preeminent Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff visited 35 killing fields throughout Lithuania — 234 mass Holocaust graves in that country — and five in Belarus, where Lithuanian police murdered 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in 1941-42 in that country alone. The authors personally were linked to many of these sites through family history. At each site they visited, they encountered the old men and women who, as young children, witnessed mass murders; the authors are forced to confront history and memory, and shatter conventional understandings of both.
“Our People” (Rowland & Littlefield) is a rare combination of meticulous scholarship and skilled interviewing presented as a sensitive, nuanced, well-rounded and historically grounded portrait not only of the perpetrators, but of the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate them and honor the Lithuanian nationals who killed Jews.
The book has come at just the right time. A bestselling and controversial book when first published in Lithuania, “Our People” has undermined many convenient truths that Lithuanians have told themselves about their nationalistic heroes. It offers a clear and unapologetic portrait of the diverse motivations of the killers. Some were rabid anti-Semites; more merely did as they were told without protest; and a few, a very few, refused to go along with the orders to kill.
Again and again, the reader wonders how such ordinary men could commit such horrific deeds day after day, town after town. Zuroff reminds himself and his partner in this journey that these men were not killers before. They were ordinary men wo went about their daily lives; after the killing was over and the war ended, they went back to their routine and became law-abiding citizens, family men, neighbors next door.
A visit to each of the killing sites is preceded by a stark statistic, the number of Jews in that community at the turn of the century and on the eve of the war. In the text that follows, we often read that the number today is zero. The Jews are gone; often, too, is their memory. From time to time, the authors encounter a remaining Jew or two living in a once-thriving community.
Where are Jews found? In the killing fields and cemeteries that have been plowed over. What follows the statistics is a description of the town in 1941 or 1942 and of the killing of these Jews. Townspeople, now in their 80s or 90s, often describe the scenes they remember. Where these people no longer are alive, their children speak of the stories they were told.
“Our People” has undermined many convenient truths that Lithuanians have told themselves about their nationalistic heroes.
Archives were exhaustively researched in advance to see what they contained — and they contain a lot. Finally, the authors reflect not only on what they have seen but on how the site and its Jews are remembered — or more often, forgotten — by the townspeople. Telz, also the site of a great yeshiva, has a sign stating it was relocated to Cleveland; the Ponevezh Yeshiva kept its name when it was relocated to Palestine (pre-state Israel) after the Soviets closed it when they attacked religious institutions during its occupation and annexation of Lithuania in 1940-41.
Zuroff is a trained historian. Vanagaite is a diligent journalist. Her grandfather had compiled lists of Jews and her uncle was directly involved in the actual shooting of Jews. The latter died of natural causes in Florida, where he had been living with a beautiful ocean view before the Justice department’s Office of Special Investigation was formed in the late 1970s. Had her uncle lived longer, Zuroff, who worked for that office as its researcher in Israel, might have been involved in bringing him to trial for misrepresenting his background on his immigration papers.
Both authors are fierce in their determination to find out the truth. At the beginning, they are unforgiving and unwilling to accept easy answers or simple judgments. Zuroff, known and hated in Lithuania for his efforts in the 1990s just after independence to pressure Lithuania to prosecute war criminals, is forced to concede he came too early. He crashed the party celebrating the nation’s liberation from the yoke of Soviet communism.
For historians, this work is important because it depicts the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania, town by town, and brings to non-Lithuanian readers the latest scholarship and archival research. It reinforces Christopher Browning’s thesis that the killers were “ordinary men.” Because the killing of Jews overwhelmingly was committed by Lithuanians, not Germans, it challenges Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s central notion that “Hitler’s willing executioners” were Germans raised on “eliminationist anti-Semitism” — get Jews out of German society and off German lands — who easily made the transition to “exterminationist anti-Semitism,” ready and willing to kill Jewish women and children, not just men.
It demonstrates that Jan Gross’ influential book, “Neighbors,” which depicted the killing of Jews in Jedwabne, Poland, by the townspeople — their neighbors — was not an anomaly in Eastern Europe but far more prevalent than local historical memory chooses to recall. The Lithuanians profited by killing their Jews because they could not only take possession of the dead’s immobile assets such as homes and businesses, but of their mobile assets that otherwise would have been shipped back to Germany: diamonds, dishes, gold, cash, clothes, furniture, etc.
The authors never lose sight of the horrific deeds the killers committed, yet understand the banality of the evildoer — not the evil. Zuroff, whose work as a Nazi hunter psychologically forced him to consider the Nazis as the abstract incarnation of evil, is compelled to see them as human beings and see the humanity — certainly not the humaneness or compassion — of the killers.
Vanagaite and Zuroff began their journey deeply skeptical of each other. They end their journey having shared the deepest of dialogues, transformed, shattered yet strengthened. The reader will be privileged to share that pilgrimage and their rare openness with each other.
Vanagaite paid a very high price for her writing. Admired by some and reviled by many more who prefer to distort the past to build their futures on amnesia and falsehoods, she become persona non grata in her homeland, subject to threats and violence. Zuroff could flee the scene and return home to Israel yet Vanagaite may find her home is no longer home. Vanagaite now is in exile in Jerusalem.
Michael Berenbaum is a professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University in Los Angeles.
During the self-quarantine, Zuroff and Vanagaite held a program about “Our People” at the Museum of Tolerance. It can be viewed online here.