Still struggling to face its country’s complicity in mass murder of its Jewish citizens, some Lithuanian leaders resort to – Blame the Jews!
By Dr. Efraim Zuroff
Just over two weeks ago, on January 27th, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) convened a special session to mark the occasion. What should have been an entirely conventional event, which had been held annually ever since the 2005 decision of the United Nations to mandate this day, turned into a national scandal, the likes of which the Baltic country has not experienced since it obtained independence in 1990.
The person chosen to deliver the major speech to mark the commemoration of the Shoah was MP Valdas Rakutis of the Homeland Union Conservative Party, who heads the parliamentary committee for National Struggles and Historical Memory. After emphasizing the importance of understanding how the Holocaust took place and the identity of those responsible for the crimes, Rakutis delivered the essence of his message to Lithuanian society regarding this important event in Lithuania’s history.
Part of it deserves to be quoted verbatim due to the importance of this text, which clearly presents the cardinal principles of the false narrative produced and promoted by the Lithuanian government from the day that the country obtained its independence from the Soviet Union.
Rakutis began by posing an important question:
“But about those [the Nazis’ Lithuanian] helpers? … Are they the leaders of the Lithuanian nation, such as… Kazys Škirpa [leader of the Lithuanian Activist Front and an ardent supporter of the Third Reich who pledged allegiance to Hitler and incited violence against the Jews of Lithuania] or General Vetra [the code name of Jonas Noreika, the Lithuanian liaison with Nazis in the Šiauliai region, who played a key role in the murder of the Jewish population and the robbing of their property and belongings]? … Despite the great uproar of recent years, [the revelations by Noreika’s granddaughter Silvia Foti that he was a war criminal and a key Nazi collaborator and the controversy over the honors bestowed upon him by the state and the lawsuits filed by Grant Gochin to cancel them] there was no way to prove that they organized the Holocaust. No, it’s quite different people, often uneducated, who tend to feel important when they get a rifle in their hands, sometimes severely affected by the Soviet repression of 1941, sometimes blindly following orders.”
In other words, these are classic excuses proffered by Lithuanian leaders and officials for the participation of local Nazi collaborators in the mass murder of the Jews. Our national heroes had nothing to do with it, and bear no responsibility (even if they had close ties with the Nazi regime).Those who did so, were either degenerates or socially marginal elements of Lithuanian society or individuals whose family members had been mistreated by the Communists during THE INITIAL Soviet occupation from June 1940 until June 22, 1941. And they were only following orders issued by Nazi officers.
Rakutis then continues:
“Let’s get to know them, let’s understand why they did so. After all, there was no shortage of Holocaust perpetrators among the Jews themselves, especially in the ghetto self-government structures. We need to name these people out loud and try not to have people like them happen again. But also to answer the question of what were the views of the Jews themselves, what ideas led some Jews to cooperate with the Soviet authorities, to occupy important positions in repressive Soviet structures. Sometimes understanding the causes also makes it possible to understand the consequences, although it does not justify the actions.”
Here we come to the most outrageous statement of all. There have been attempts in the past by extremist Lithuanian nationalists to accuse Jews of being perpetrators, but to the best of my memory, such an accusation was never made by any prominent minister or MP. Besides being totally fallacious, this assertion is another way to deflect the guilt of the Lithuanians. Thus Rakutis refers to the ghetto as an area of “self-government,” which means that the Jews ostensibly controlled their fate, and therefore those involved in their administration bear the responsibility for the deaths of the ghettos’ inhabitants. And to add insult to injury, Rakutis alludes to the fact that some Jews joined the Soviet police which cruelly treated Lithuanians prior to the Nazi invasion, another ostensible justification for Lithuanians who participated in Holocaust crimes.
The content and circumstances of this speech were so absolutely shocking, that there was a very strong, almost immediate, response. American ambassador Robert Gilchrist, tweeted on his embassy account:
“It is shocking that on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, of all days, a member of Seimas should espouse distortions regarding Holocaust collaborators in Lithuania and shamefully seek to accuse Jews of being the perpetrators [my emphasis-E.Z.].”
Shortly thereafter, similar messages were tweeted by German ambassador Matthias Sonn (“To even insinuate that the victims were to blame in any way for their own murderous persecution under the Nazi German occupation is utterly unacceptable.”) and Israeli ambassador Yossi Levi, who described Rakutis‘ remarks as “insensitive” and “disturbing”. Even Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielijus Landsbergis expressed his opposition to Rakutis‘ accusations. Such public criticism of the nationalist narrative, which has been in place ever since independence, is unprecedented, and therefore very noteworthy.
Those were not the only harshly negative responses to the patently distorted Shoah narrative promoted by the Lithuanian government in the wake of the assertions made by MP Rakutis. Even more surprising, were the criticisms publically aired regarding the Lithuanian government’s most important institution dealing with Holocaust-related issues, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center [GRRC], which has been at the center of numerous controversies in recent years and is notorious for its unequivocal defense of the bogus Lithuanian narrative of the Shoah. One of the best examples is the list of Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators it prepared at the request of the government, after Yosef Melamed, the Chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, published an estimate of approximately 23,000 such persons (LITHUANIA Crime & Punishment, January 1999, p.61). In response, the GRRC produced a list of 2,055, and explained that even those persons were not that responsible since they were under German command.
Another particularly outrageous example is the “expert opinion” it provided to the Vilnius District Court to defend the good name and reputation as a national hero of Jonas Noreika (“General Vetra”), despite his active participation in the persecution and annihilation of the Jews in the Šiauliai region of northwest Lithuania, against a lawsuit submitted by South African-born Grant Gochin, a descendant of Noreika’s victims, to cancel all honors bestowed upon Noreika. According to the GRRC, Noreika had no connection to the Holocaust and actually was a Righteous Among the Nations, who ordered the Jews to move to a ghetto to ensure their safety.
These cases no doubt constitute part of the background to the public statement signed by 17 historians of the GRRC in which they express their concern about “The devaluation of the discipline of history through the distortion of history research in an ideologized and politicized direction (encouragement to undertake ‘the defense of history’ and ‘memory wars’)….”. In addition, they point to “The disappearance of the line between expert professional work and amateur initiatives, both in history research as well as in the field of commemoration…”
And if this was not enough, there came the announcement by the Lithuanian History Institute and three prominent Lithuanian history scholars that they would no longer cooperate with the GRRC because of the unprofessional manner in which it was working.
It remains to be seen how Holocaust-related issues will develop in Lithuania, but the situation described above does give some hope that for the first time since independence, there might be a real opportunity to displace the false narrative and convince the Lithuania government to stick to the truth. They also have to stop glorifying Holocaust perpetrators, and promoting the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes. So now is the time for us to help persuade our leaders and governments, and Jewish organizations, to step up to this important challenge. And this will be the best way not only to remember our victims, but to truly honor their memory.
About the writer:
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the coordinator of Nazi war crimes research for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His latest book, with Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, is Our People; Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020) exposes the extent of Holocaust distortion in Lithuania, and has already also been published in Lithuanian, Polish, Hebrew, Russian, and Swedish.