Lithuania continues to grapple with a tragic uncomfortable history. Progress is visible, but resistance remains, particularly in acknowledging the extent of Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis.
Lithuanian Holocaust memory is intense and difficult.
The traditional nationalist narrative of Lithuania’s wartime experience equates Nazi
and Soviet occupations. Developed as a response to Soviet narratives, it considers
Lithuanians as almost equal victims to Jews. In this view, the Soviets and Nazis were evil and the Lithuanians were a decent people who deserved a nation. The myth claims good
Lithuanians had nothing to do with the crimes of either regime and resisted at every opportunity.
Soviet historiography and the USSR’s prosecution of “war criminals,” some of whom were
innocent, provides additional, incorrect, evidence for this narrative. Soviet sources tended to exaggerate Lithuanian fascism and collaboration to justify the occupation of the country.
Lithuanians, especially older generations, tend to view research on potential collaboration by partisans with suspicion. Some interviewed continue to believe that the emphasis on the Holocaust and crimes committed by Nazis is unfair, and that the crimes of the Soviet Union remain underplayed. While public trials of Nazi collaborators have taken place, few, if any, prominent trials of Soviet collaborators have been held.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly freed Lithuania rehabilitated war criminals and propagated the nationalist narrative. Yet in the runup to European Union and NATO membership, the government made some progress in recognizing Lithuanian responsibility. It has formed the Genocide and Resistance Research Center and the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. It sponsors conferences on Holocaust history and seminars on how to teach it, and funds a wide range of research into both Nazi and Soviet crimes.
The old nationalist historiography is is beginning to be expunged, but still has substantial
influence. Nazi collaborators, and likely war criminals, are still honored for their anti-Soviet
resistance. The government has created a definition of genocide, unique to Lithuania, designed so that the Soviet deportations can be described as equal to the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and other actual genocides. It has also proposed passing a law that critics say will effectively forbid discussion of controversies around the Holocaust. Periodically, attempts to discuss collaboration, either Nazi or Soviet, by Lithuanian nationalist heroes will be met with a wave of anger, abuse, and scorn. Most infamously, the Museum of Genocide and Resistance, the flagship museum of both Nazi and Soviet memory, did not mention the Jewish victims of Genocide until 2011.
Before the Holocaust, Lithuania was one of the world’s great centers of Jewish life and learning. Today, Lithuanian civil society, at home and abroad, shows a rising interest in this history. Where Lithuanian Jewish history was once seen as a separate entity, it is increasingly embraced as a part of “actual” Lithuanian history. Holocaust memory is increasingly driven by on-Jewish Lithuanians looking for ways to bring Jewish life and the legacies of the Holocaust into greater focus.
The Holocaust in Lithuania
In 1940, Soviet forces occupied the country and began purging much of the local intelligentsia, business owners, and government officials. Some Jews even welcomed Soviet forces with flowers. Jews, previously excluded from the civil service, found themselves presented with the opportunity to work for better wages in the Soviet occupation government. Many also saw themselves as facing a choice between oppressive Soviet rule and anti-Semitic Nazi rule, and chose what they saw as the lesser evil. Lithuanians who committed atrocities against Jews after Soviet forces withdrew frequently characterized their actions as just retribution against Soviet secret police NKVD informants and other collaborators.
Though the overall number of Jews as a proportion of the population, at 7.6% (approximately 160,000 Jews in total) was not as high as in Poland or Ukraine, Vilnius was such a center of learning and worship that it was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Nearly every major Lithuanian town was at least 30% Jewish, and in many small towns the proportion of Jews in the population reached 75, or even 80%. Such density often meant that Jews were rounded up by their neighbors and killed in pogroms, rather than sent to the ghettos or camps which tend to dominate Western Holocaust memory. This “Holocaust by bullets” was orders of magnitude more brutal than any Western roundup or massacre, and left proportionally deeper scars. Depending on which source you believe, the killings either began before the Germans arrived, during the period of the provisional government just after the Soviet withdrawal, or after German forces had entered the country.
The killing site at Paneriai, largest of its kind in Lithuania, saw up to 100,000 deaths, including 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Though ghettos in Vilnius and Kaunas held up to 70,000 Jews at their peak, most of the killing took place within the first nine months of German occupation. These killings often involved large parts of the Lithuanian community. In the most notorious example, the Lietukis garage massacre, Lithuanians beat to death several dozen Jewish men, while a gathered crowd watched, clapping and cheering. After the massacre, accordions were brought out, and the Lithuanian national anthem played while the crowd danced on the dead bodies.
Other massacres, especially in the countryside, were less well documented but just as bloody. “The willingness! The readiness! The joy with which Lithuanians killed Jews!” recalled Rachel Konstanian, a Holocaust survivor and the former director of the Green House Holocaust exhibition in Vilnius, “That is the main point.” She recalls accounts of Lithuanians lined up near the killing sites, waiting for a chance to sift through the discarded belongings of the victims for clothes and valuables to take home, and of crowds which gathered to watch and cheer as the killings took place.
By November 1941, only 40,000 Jews, as well as the very rare few who managed to escape
into the woods, were left. It is worth noting that the Germans only moved to disband
independent Lithuanian organizations in August and September 1941, after the destruction of much of Lithuania’s Jewish population.
The remaining Jewish population was concentrated in ghettos in Vilnius, Kaunas, Siauliai, and Svencionys. In 1943, these ghettos were either liquidated, their inhabitants killed or transferred to other camps, or transformed into concentration camps in their own right. Roughly 90 to 95% of the Jewish population in Lithuania at the beginning of the occupation perished, leaving only about 20,000 survivors.
- 1944: Soviet occupation of Lithuania resumes
- 1945: Monument for Jewish victims erected at Paneriai. This Jewish community erected
this small monument without official support from the Soviet government. The inscription
read “Ponary, everlasting rest for the murdered saints, the Vilner and other Jews,
exterminated by the Hitlerist Fascist murderers, hated by humanity. The blood of
innocents cries out from the ground. Revenge the spilled blood of the saints. July 1941 -
- 1944: First Soviet War Crimes Trials Begin. These trials, held in the wake of the
Nuremberg trials and aimed at prosecuting mid- and low-level participants in the
Holocaust, were used by the Soviets as a political tool. (Prusin, p. 4-5) They served as
tools of vengeance and to delegitimize the partisan movement and continued on and off
until 1980. (Kulikauskas; Shtetl Skud)
- 1948: Soviets erect official obelisk at Paneriai site. The monument reads: “For the
victims of Fascist terror 1941-44”
- 1952: Jewish monument at Paneriai removed; Jewish museum shut down. Under
Stalinist policy, any sign of nationalist ideas was seen as a deviation from the party line,
and snuffed out. The promotion of national histories, such as commemorations of the
Lithuanian or Jewish experience, was shut down whenever possible, and sometimes
- 1960: Soviets open museum at Paneriai
- 1985: Soviets redesign Paneriai memorial site
- 1989: The Lithuanian government begins to issue pardons for those convicted of war
crimes by Soviet courts.
- 1989: Monument to Polish dead created at Paneriai
- 1990: Supreme Council of Lithuania condemns the Holocaust and expressed regret for
- 1991: Lithuania becomes independent
- 1991: The Holocaust Exhibition, known as “the Green House” opens
- 1991: New memorial stones erected at Paneriai
- 1992: The Lithuanian government begins revoking pardons following an intense
campaign by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the international community. By 2006,
about 160 pardons had been revoked.
- 1993: Monument to Lithuanian dead created at Paneriai
- 1994: First Day of Jewish Genocide commemoration
- 1995: President Algirdas Brazuaskas apologizes for Lithuanian participation in the
Holocaust at Yad Vashem
- 1998: The Commission established
- 2000: Polish organizations raise a memorial cross at Paneriai
- 2004: Lithuania joins IHRA
- 2008: Jewish Holocaust survivors prosecuted by Lithuanian government for war crimes
- 2008: Work of the Commission suspended
- 2009: March of the Living begins. A commemorative march starting in Vilnius and ending
at the Paneriai
- 2010: Lithuanian activists involved in Holocaust memory begin public readings of the
names of Holocaust victims
- 2010: Declared Year of Remembrance for victims of the Holocaust
- 2013: Work of The Commission resumes
- 2016: Ruta Vanagaite publishes “Our People,” a book discussing the collaboration of
- 2016: March to Moletai
- 2019: Anticipated release date of Izaokas. This movie about a Lithuanian activist who
kills a Jew in the infamous Lietukis garage massacre is expected to bring issues of
collaboration and the Holocaust into public discourse.
Official Lithuanian Holocaust memory is caught between the memory kept alive under Soviet occupation and the more nationalistic memory of the emigre community, between domestic and international demands, and between the national identity it crafted for itself from the stories of that era and the less flattering historical reality.
In 1990, just before independence, official recognition of the Holocaust took place. On May 8, the Supreme Council of Lithuania “categorically condemned the Holocaust in the name of the Lithuanian nation and expressed regret that there had been ‘Lithuanian citizens’ among the killers.”
At the same time, the new free democratic Lithuanian government issued pardons from
surviving convicted war criminals. These pardons took the form of certificates proclaiming the innocence of the person in the eyes of the Lithuanian government and their right to
compensation. While this process was in line with other efforts to undo the legacy of Soviet
occupation, the rate at which they were issued (nearly 2,000 in a year) suggested that the
process represented a wholesale repudiation of the Soviet era rather than a thorough attempt to judge historical claims. This drew the ire of the international community. By 1992, the Lithuanian government had begun reversing some of the rehabilitations.
Ever since, these swings between controversy and commemoration have continued. On the plus side, government programs in Holocaust memory, ranging from research to establishing memorials at mass killing sites to further education, are expanding. On the down side, the government recently considered a bill banning selling materials “distorting historical facts about the nation,” which many worry will allow conservatives to shut down discussion about Lithuanian collaboration.
A second source of controversy lingers over the commemoration of national heroes with
checkered histories. Two major flashpoints are Kazys Skirpa and Jonas Noreika. Both are
honored as national heroes. Both participated indirectly in the murder of Jews. Skirpa has a
street named after him in Vilnius, and Noreika received the nation’s second highest military
medal. Despite protests, the government still has not acknowledged their guilt or revoked their awards. In general, Lithuania has difficulty discussing those who collaborated, particularly those who later joined the resistance.
After independence, the Lithuanian government defined both Nazi and Soviet killings as
genocide. In 1998, crimes against social and political groups were added. This definition allows the government to refer to the Soviet deportations of Lithuanian intelligentsia and upper classes as a genocide, which is reflected in the former “Museum of Genocide Victims.” This museum focuses almost exclusively on Lithuanian suffering and resistance during Soviet occupation, with only passing reference to the extermination of Lithuania’s Jewish population.
The Lithuanian government has prosecuted Jewish members of anti-Nazi resistance groups as war criminals. In 2006, a Lithuanian state prosecutor even opened a case against Yitzhak Arad, an Israeli historian, retired IDF brigadier general, former director of Yad Vashem - and a former Soviet partisan who fought the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Following an international outcry, the investigation was dropped in the fall of 2008. This investigation had the side effect of disrupting the until-then highly productive work of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes, which shut down for years following that case.
In contrast, no prosecutions have taken place Lithuanians accused of collaboration with the
Nazis since the Soviet war crimes trials. Efraim Zuroff, the head Nazi hunter for the Simon
Wiesenthal Center, has made long-running, but ultimately futile, efforts to spur the Lithuanian government into action on collaborators. According to Dovid Katz, an American-born Vilnius based scholar, this "Holocaust obfuscation" involves a series of “false moral equivalences: Jews were disloyal citizens of pre-war Lithuania, helped the Soviet occupiers in 1940, and were therefore partly to blame for their fate. And the genocide that really matters was the one that Lithuanian people suffered at Soviet hands after 1944.”
Lithuania made Holocaust denial illegal with the amendment of the country’s criminal code in 2010. Unfortunately, the language once again mentions Soviet and Nazi crimes in one breath. The offence is punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.
Though Lithuania has this law on the books, it only enforces it “sporadically.” Another 2008 law bans the display of Nazi and Soviet symbols, though it was undermined by a 2010 judicial ruling in the city of Klaipeda that the swastika is a centuries old symbol which depicts the sun and nothing more.
Another source of controversy is the June 23rd uprising. When Nazi Germany attacked the
Soviet Union, the Lithuanian population rose up against the Soviet regime, declared renewed independence, and formed the short-lived Provisional Government. Within a week, the German Army took control of the whole of Lithuania. Many Lithuanians celebrate June 23 by much like July 4th is in the United States.
For Jews, the provisional Lithuanian government unleashed indiscriminate and gruesome
excesses, often before the Nazis arrived to take control, most notably characterized by the
Kaunas pogrom. Even though participation in the June 23rd celebrations of the Uprising has been discouraged, if not prohibited, f some (MPs and former officials, including Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuania’s founding head of state, still attended this year’s celebrations.
On paper, Lithuania strikes the right notes in teaching the Holocaust. It has rigorous measures to train teachers, as well as a system to design materials for schools based on the latest research. The subject is covered extensively in the curriculum.
After independence, the subject was avoided. Both Mantas Siksnianas, head guide at the
Paneriai memorial, and Rachel Konstanian, founder of the Green House Holocaust exhibition, note a lack of willingness to engage with Holocaust memory and discussions of collaboration during the 1990s.
Since then, major progress has been made. Almost 100 government-funded Tolerance
Education Centers support educational programs, tend to Jewish memorial sites, such as
cemeteries and organize regional events, seminars, and conferences. Between 2002 and the end of 2013, the government organized more than 100 workshops on teaching the Holocaust. Teachers and education workers have attended workshops at Auschwitz and at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington. In 2013, more than 84 percent of Lithuanian schools took part in commemorations around the Holocaust.
Under the official curriculum, Lithuanian teaching examines the Nazi and Soviet the episodes of occupation: the destruction of the population, the masses of Jews massacres, deportations and resistance to the occupants. “Students often tell personal family stories and a teacher only should encourage them,” says Roma Diktaraite, a teacher at the Utena Aukštakalnis middle school. Given the ratio of families which survived Soviet persecution to those which survived Nazi persecution, this well-intentioned policy accidentally overstates the effects of the Soviet occupation relative to the Holocaust.
For all these positive trends, comparisons between Soviet and Nazi occupations continue to pose serious problems. Tenth graders are tasked with “using various sources of information, [to] examine the peculiarities of Soviet and Nazi occupations.” Dovid Katz, the creator and editor of the Holocaust history site defendinghistory.com derides the government’s “Red-Brown commission” tasked with Holocaust education of being a part of an effort to create a false equivalence between the Nazi extermination and Soviet deportations.
The Austrian government sends two students a year to working at the Green House Holocaust exhibition. They travel to schools around the country giving workshops that present an overview of the Holocaust and start a conversation about collaboration. Overall, they enter a mixed verdict about the teaching they observe. Occasionally, students are surprised that there were so many Jews killed in Lithuania, or even that there were so many Jews in Lithuania. “About 50% of teachers go above and beyond [on Holocaust education] while the other 50% just show the slideshow and do what they have to,” says one volunteer Gregor Ladler.
Another program, the 50 schools initiative, familiarizes students with the lost Lithuanian Jewish heritage: http://litvakphoto.org/fifty-schools/. Despite material on the lost Litvak community being less controversial than material on the Holocaust itself, many teachers still feel uncomfortable. Omission of material is not uncommon, and teachers occasionally “teach things which are untrue and flat-out bigoted,” says Mark Harold, a Vilnius city councilman. “If you look at the curriculum, Lithuanian Holocaust education looks brilliant,” says Richard Schofield, director of the 50 schools project. “And it would be, if it were taught properly.”
Government commemorations of the Holocaust in Lithuania are well-established, supplemented by a vast number of local commemorations. Many villages tend to mass murder sites and Jewish cemeteries. Commemorations often include a moment of silence, a laying of flowers and/or wreaths on the memorial, and speeches by attending dignitaries. At most ceremonies, President Dalia Grybauskaite and other government speakers place more emphasis on the tragedy of losing the Litvak community or the bravery of the Lithuanian Righteous among nations rather than on Lithuanian participation. These speeches often commemorate victims of both the Soviets and Nazis.
Until the late 90s, few of the small killing sites scattered around the Lithuanian countryside were marked. In some cases, locals joked about keeping the sites obscured since the murdered Jews must have had some gold with them. This attitude is now gone. Today, some 95% of sites are at least marked with a sign indicating their location, with most commemorated by monuments or plaques. The most prominent memorial is in Paneriai (Ponary), site of the country’s largest mass murder in Lithuania. It contains not only monuments to those Jews killed on the site, but also to Polish citizens and Lithuanian partisans executed there. An atlas of memorial sites is in the process of digitization.
Debate continues over the extent and direction of Lithuania’s commemoration efforts. In 2018, Vigilijus Sadauskas, ombudsman for academic ethics and procedures, offered a EUR1000 reward for anyone who published a thesis on war crimes or killings committed by Jews. When the speaker of the Lithuanian parliament called on him to resign, Sadauskas refused.
Just as official apologies can inadvertently create a sense of “we apologized already, what are we doing still remembering the Holocaust,” concern remains that these monuments will serve as indulgences, evidence of (ineffective) action which entirely absolves the government. “If you build the monument, you can forget the place at once,” worries Neringa Latvyte-Gustaitienne, Head of History at Vilna Gaon State History Museum. “It’s like you finish your duty and are done...that’s not memory.”
The Lithuanian State Archives are open to anyone who presents an ID, while private archives donated to the state are accessible based on the conditions stipulated by the original owners of the materials.
As with other archives, information about people’s private life and personal data is protected, and can only be accessed and made public with their consent. Should the person have died, there is a 30-year restriction, starting from their date of death, on access to documents. If their date of death is unknown, that restriction applies 100 years after their date of birth, or 70 years after the creation of the documents.
There are also private archives, worked on by such organizations as YIVO institute for Jewish research, which subscribe to similar rules.
Lithuania has made efforts at restitution and recompense, but the issue remains controversial. The complicity of some Lithuanians, and their willingness to profit from the slaughter of local Jews by taking their property means that many households had, and may have, Jewish property. The Lithuanian government has provided symbolic compensation of $622 to Lithuanian Holocaust survivors for “both the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation.”
The government has returned a few buildings to the Jewish community, three in Vilnius and five in Kaunas. In 2011, the Jewish community created the Goodwill Foundation to provide compensation for private property owners and to distribute government restitution. As of the 2016 audit, EUR 15.3 million or 40% of the eventual total, has been paid out.
The Goodwill foundation is responsible for directing the money from the government to
survivors, descendants of survivors, and the Jewish community, as well as making payments to those who saved Jews in Lithuania. Some rabbis who work in both Lithuania and Latvia praise the Lithuanian government for going beyond the efforts of their neighbor, while noting that the restitution which has been promised scratches the surface of what was lost. “Looking at all the real estate Jews owned in Lithuania,” says Rabbi Krelin, head rabbi of Lithuania, “says EUR 40 million hardly covers it.”
Another issue is citizenship, which is a precondition for restitution. Israeli Jews from Lithuania are considered ineligible for reclaiming their Lithuanian nationality, and Jewish applications for citizenship based on Lithuanian ancestry are frequently delayed. Grant Gochin claims this is a deliberate policy to limit restitution claims from descendants of murdered Lithuanian Jews.
While outright Holocaust denial is rare, neo-Nazi groups exist and their membership numbers in the hundreds. Regular Neo-Nazi parades have taken place. Yet, by and large, most figures interviewed for this report expressed the sentiment that the number of Lithuanians interested in the story of the Holocaust, and in Lithuanian Jewish culture is rising. Young people tend to be more willing to question the established narrative. Western pressure and the process of acceding to Western organizations, has played an important role in advancing Holocaust memory.
A growing population of Lithuanians are taking an interest in Jewish history and the memory of the Holocaust. Since independence, the perception of Jewish history and Lithuanian history being separate entities has faded. Lithuanian Holocaust memory, which long attracted only expats and Jews, today appeals to Lithuanians with no Jewish family background.
Activists organize many private commemorations. The Vardai, or names, initiative, began in
2010 with the reading the names of Jewish Holocaust victims at a local church and community center. Today, the name readings have spread across Lithuania, taking place in more than 20 towns, and driving interest even beyond the liberal and academic circles of the “Vilnius bubble.” The vast majority of participants are not Jewish. Politicians have even begun to show up, drawn by the crowds and a chance to demonstrate their commitment to Holocaust memory.
A prominent Lithuanian director, Kama Glinkas, wrote a passionate appeal for Lithuanians to join Jews in their annual commemoration march on the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Moletai. Some 3,000 people joined. The march now takes place each year.
Many projects aim to reclaim and restore the Litvak culture to Lithuania, working to end the
perceived division between Lithuanian and Jewish history. These range from restoring
synagogues to entire shtetls. A Litvak photo project, aims to document Litvak culture wherever it can be found, and the Lost Shtetl project, which aims to restore the Seduva shtetl to its pre-war state. (www.litvakphoto.org).
Defendinghistory.com, a website run by Professor Dovid Katz, is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and countering what its authors see as assaults of Lithuanian
The presence of Russia also skews conversations within Lithuania. The government says
Russian television and online activities sow discord, falsely overemphasize the scale of
nationalism and Holocaust denial in Lithuania. Internet trolls also accuse anyone critical of a nationalist narrative of pro-Russian agitation, poisoning discourse.
Controversy surrounds the treatment of Lithuanian Nazi collaborators such as Jonas Noreika, who wrote a deeply anti-Semitic pamphlet, issued orders for the sequestration of Jews, and instructed his men on how to execute them. Grant Gochin, a South African of Lithuanian descent who has calculated that he lost 100 family members to the Holocaust in Lithuania and dozens of them in territory under Noreika’s control, has spent years fighting for government recognition of Noreika’s crimes. In 2018, he filed a suit against the director of the Lithuanian commission on Holocaust research for distorting the facts of the Holocaust in a further attempt to force the government to strip Noreika of his honors.
In 2016, Ruta Vanagaite book Our People: Travels with the Enemy: recounts the non-Jewish
Vanagaite’s research and travels in her homeland with Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, confronting the ways in which Lithuanians were an integral part of the Nazi killing machine. She visited 40 sites of mass murder in Lithuania,
interviewing eyewitnesses and piecing together the role of different elements of wartime
Lithuanian society, being forced to came to terms with the fact her uncle and grandfather,
among others, played a role in the Nazi killing machine. The book was an unexpected best
seller, breaking taboos and triggering a national conversation.
It also triggered a backlash. In 2018, after she criticized a Lithuanian resistance hero for
collaborating with the Russians, the Lithuanian national archive took away permission for its
photographs to be used in translated editions of “Our People.” Vytautas Landsbergis –
Lithuania’s first head of state after the country declared independence in 1990. wrote a scathing Op-Ed that included chilling words that she interpreted as calling for her death: “You so-called writer, you should go to the forest, find a tree, pray and condemn yourself,” he wrote. Internet trolls then asked if she had gone to the forest yet, threatening to “help her along” if she hadn’t gotten the message.
Despite this backlash, nuanced discussions of the Holocaust are beginning to emerge in
national media. Most prominent among these is Izaokas, a movie about a Lithuanian activist who kills a Jewish man at the Lietukis Garage massacre and how he handles his guilt years later.
The Lithuanian Jewish community numbers between 3,500 and 5,000 strong. This represents a dramatic decline in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, where many Jews emigrated to either the United States or Israel. The government supports this small community.
-Author: Justin Jin