‘ No simple stories: Jewish-Lithuanian relations between coexistence and violence’

Antony Polonsky


On 6 and 7 February 2011, an international scholarly conference with the title ‘ No simple stories: Jewish-Lithuanian relations between coexistence and violence’ was held at University College London, convened by Dr François Guesnet, Sidney and Elizabeth Corob Reader in Modern Jewish History, Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University College London and Dr Darius Staliunas, Lithuanian Institute of History, Vilnius. The conference was part of a week of cultural events: the exhibitions The Synagogues of Lithuania and The Sounds of Silence: Traces of Jewish Life in Lithuania which were held at the Lithuanian Embassy and the film screenings of I Leave My Child to You (Lithuania, 1999), The World was Ours: The Jewish Legacy of Vilna (US, 2006) and Yitgadal V’yitkadash: Memorial Statues in the Strashun Forest (Israel, 2005). This was was followed by an open discussion with the workshop participants on the theme of ‘Why is it still difficult to speak about the Holocaust in Lithuania?The Vilner Klezmorim presented a contemporary take on the klezmer music of Lithuanian and Vilnius Jews.

The goal of the conference and of the whole week of activities was to place the discussion of the difficult issues which have divided Jews and Lithuanians on a firm and solid basis with genuine and honest exchanges of opinion. This was necessary because of the problems the Lithuanian-Jewish dialogue has encountered in recent years. Given the involvement of significant sections of the Lithuania population in the mass murder of the Jews in 1941, the traumatic effect of the two Soviet occupations of Lithuania, the second lasting nearly half a century, and the unstable nature of the Lithuanian political scene, with the temptation this offers to demagogic politicians to engage in populist rhetoric, it is not surprising that discussion of wartime issues has proved difficult and painful. It is further complicated by the fact that two separate issues are involved: the establishment of an accurate and fully documented record of what occurred during the Nazi occupation, and the call to prosecute Lithuanians who had committed crimes against humanity. It may also be the case that to see Lithuanian Jewish history solely through the prism of the Holocaust is to neglect the more complex and long-term aspects of Lithuanian–Jewish relations and the rich and diversified Lithuanian Jewish heritage.

Some progress seemed to have been made on examining the issue of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust. The freedom that came with independence encouraged research into previously taboo topics and greatly increased contact with the Western scholarly community. In this situation all aspects of the Lithuanian Jewish past have begun to be investigated, leading to a more nuanced understanding of the events of the Second World War. New studies have examined the anti-Judaic policies of the Catholic Church and the emergence of modern Lithuanian antisemitism, the development of Jewish–Lithuanian relations between the wars, and the impact of the crises of 1939–41. Jewish scholars also participated in academic conferences in October 1993 in Vilna and in September 1997 in the seaside resort of Nida.

The need to consolidate independence and to ease Lithuania’s entry into NATO and the European Union made it imperative to establish better relations with the Jewish world. From the first days of independence, a series of public statements by Lithuanian leaders expressed regret at Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust and condemned the genocide. This culminated in the visit of President Brazauskas to Israel, during which, in his address to the Knesset in March 1995, he publicly asked forgiveness ‘for [the actions of] those Lithuanians who mercilessly murdered Jews, shot them, deported them, stole from them’. However, this was not universally well received in Lithuania, and led to calls for the Jews to respond by apologizing for their ‘crimes’ against the Lithuanian nation during the Soviet occupation.

The growing mood of self-criticism within the Roman Catholic Church also had an impact. On 13 March 2000 the Bishops’ Conference of the Lithuanian Catholic Church expressed its regret that during the Nazi period ‘a portion of the faithful failed to demonstrate charity to the persecuted Jews, did not grasp any opportunity to defend them and lacked the determination to influence those who aided the Nazis’.

The prosecution of war crimes created much more difficulty and mutual antagonism. Thus, in March 1997 ninety-two members of the Israeli Knesset sent a letter to President Brazauskas calling on him to arrest Aleksandras Lileikis, who had been in charge of the wartime Vilna Security Police and was allegedly involved in the murder of thousands of Jews in the Vilna ghetto. (Liliekis was eventually put on trial but died in 2000 before the trial was concluded.) Only two other individuals, Kazys Gimzauskas, deputy commander of the Lithuanian Security Police in the Vilna district, and Algimantas Dailide, an officer in the same force, both of whom had been extradited from the United States, were put on trial. Gimzauskas was convicted but never punished since he was suffering from dementia. Dailide was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison but the sentence was never carried out because of his age. Lithuanian resentment at demands to try war criminals led Rimantas Smetona, a member of parliament and chairman of the Lithuanian National Union, to call on the Lithuanian prosecutor-general in August 1997 to institute proceedings on a charge of defamation against Efraim Zuroff, the Israeli representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who had complained of slowness to take action on this issue.

There were also complaints that, among the nearly 50,000 people convicted of crimes against the Soviet state who had been pardoned after 1990, some had been complicit in the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Some progress was made on this issue. In September 1997 the Supreme Court revoked the 1991 rehabilitation of Petras Kriksciunas, who had allegedly participated in the killings of unarmed people in Vilna during the Nazi occupation. Subsequently, the pardons of an additional twenty-two people who had collaborated with the Nazis were abrogated. However, the authorities have remained extremely reluctant to undertake new war crimes prosecutions.

It was in an attempt to lay these issues to rest that Julius Smulkstys, a former professor of political science and one of President Adamkus’s closest advisers, was appointed presidential liaison on Lithuanian–Jewish relations. In September 1998 he reported that the president had established an international commission to examine war crimes committed during the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lithuania. It was to be headed by Emanuelis Zingeris, and its role was ‘to investigate the Second World War period and the immediate aftermath in order to come up with answers to various questions concerning the Jewish and Lithuanian genocides’.

In a series of well-researched and scholarly volumes, written for the most part by Lithuanian scholars, the international commission investigated a number of key issues in the recent Lithuanian past. The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews during Summer and Fall of 1941 by Christoph Dieckmann and Saulius Suziedelis gave a horrifying picture of Lithuanian involvement in the mass murder of the Jews. It concluded that ‘The actual killings were organized by the chief of the police in occupied Lithuania [SS und Polizeiführer Litauen] and were for the most part carried out by two Einsatzgruppen (numbers 2 and 3)’ with ‘extensive support from the headquarters of the Lithuanian Police Department in Kaunas, local precincts, German and Lithuanian police battalion personnel and local volunteers’.

These conclusions were anathema to the nationalist elements in Lithuania, who were also unremittingly hostile to the post-communists organized in the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party, who had returned to power in 2001. (They lost power in the election of October 2008.) They had an important mouthpiece in the conservative daily Respublika, which in 2006 published excerpts from the diary of a member of the commission, the former head of Yad Vashem, Yitzhak Arad, describing his activities as a teenage partisan after his escape from the Švencionys ghetto and his brief service in the NKVD. On the basis of this material, they called on the prosecutor-general to investigate Arad for ‘possible war crimes’. The prosecutor-general prepared an indictment against Arad and also sought to interrogate several other elderly Jewish former partisans, mostly women in their eighties, who had previously been attacked in the nationalist daily Lietuvos aidas. One of them, Fanya Brantsovskaya, was accused of taking part in an attack on the village of Kanukai on the basis of the memoirs of another partisan, Rachel Margolis. The goal seemed to be to demonstrate the alleged moral equivalence of Lithuanian and Jewish behaviour: Lithuanians behaved badly during the Nazi occupation, but Jews behaved equally reprehensibly during the two Soviet occupations. This was a crude oversimplification, given that the scale and form of collaboration were entirely different, and given that the Jews faced the threat of annihilation at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators. Faced with a storm of protest, the prosecutor-general dropped the prosecution against Arad. Margolis has since confirmed that her statement that Brantsovskaya participated in the attack on Kanukai was based on hearsay and it has been accepted that Brantsovskaya did not actually take part in this incident; it is clear that she will not be brought to trial. The dispute certainly seriously undermined what has been achieved in establishing a dialogue between Jews and Lithuanians and serious attempts are now being made to re-establish the trust which was created in the early years of this century. 

The conference certainly contributed significantly to this goal. Among its participants were many leading Lithuanian and Jewish academics. They included Werner Bergmann and Klaus Richter  of the Zentrum für  Antisemitismusforschung at the Technical University of Berlin,Heinz-Dietrich Löwe of Heidelberg University, Motti Zalkin of Ben-Gurion University in Israel, Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University), Sarunas Liekis of Vilnius University)Vladas Sirutavicius(Lithuanian Institute of History, Vilnius), Joachim Tauber of the, University of Hamburg, Christoph Dieckmann of Keele University and Saulius Suziedelis (Professor Emeritus of History, Millersville University of Pennsylvania. The two days of deliberations enabled many difficult problems to be discussed and facilitated a serious and searching historical examination of the centuries-long relationship between Lithuanians and Jews which culminated in the tragic destruction of Lithuania’s Jewish community during the Holocaust. Let us hope that the good work undertaken at the conference will be followed by many more such initiatives.