On September 23, 2001 during the “Ten Days of Penitence” between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Lithuania will observe the day officially set aside by the Lithuanian government to commemorate the mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust. This will mark the tenth anniversary of the initial observance of the memorial day in the Baltic republic which regained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and it is therefore an appropriate time to assess the attitude of the Lithuanian government to those events and the practical measures it has taken in response to the terrible crimes committed by Lithuanians during the Shoa. Any such assessment must be preceded, however, by a brief summary of the role played by Lithuanians in the implementation of the Final Solution.
In that respect, Lithuania stands out for two reasons. It had the highest Jewish victimology rate in Europe during the Holocaust - approximately 96% of the 220,000 Jews who lived in the country under Nazi occupation were murdered – and the percentage of those killed by local Nazi collaborators was particularly high because of the extensive scope of Lithuanian participation in the murders. Even before Nazi troops reached various locations in Lithuania, Jews were physically attacked in at least forty different communities, such as Uzpaliai, Zarasai, Birzai, Debeikiai, and Dusetos, where gangs of Lithuanian “Activists” did not require the Nazis’ presence, let alone their encouragement, to begin the persecution and murder of their Jewish neighbors.
Once the Wehrmacht completed its occupation of the country, the role played by the local population in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry was extremely significant. Lithuanian volunteers in the National Labor Defense Battalions (Tauto Darbo Apsaugos Batalionas), which eventually became the Auxiliary Police Battalions (Pagelbines Policijos Tarnybus Battaliones), actively participated together with the Nazis in the mass murder of Jews in the large cities of Vilnius (Vilna); Kaunas (Kovno); and Siauliai (Shavel), as well as in many of the provincial towns and villages. In some communities, in fact, the treatment of the Jews was exclusively in the hands of Lithuanians, who zealously carried out the annihilation of the Jewish population. If we add the involvement of the Lithuanian Security Police (Saugumas) in the persecution and murder of Jews throughout the country and the role played by Lithuanian Auxiliary Security Police units in the mass murder of Jews in Belarus and as guards in Polish death camps, it is obvious that any Lithuanian attempt to deal with the Holocaust would have to relate in a forthright manner to Lithuanian complicity in these crimes.
As a Nazi-hunter and Holocaust scholar of Litvak origin, I have closely followed the steps taken by successive Lithuanian governments in confronting these issues. Like other post-Communist societies, Lithuania had to address this matter almost immediately after gaining independence as it sought to establish diplomatic relations with Israel and renew ties with the Jewish world as part of its efforts to enlist American support and integrate into democratic Europe, and it was clear that there could be no possibility of reconciliation between Lithuanians and Jews without a serious attempt to deal with Lithuanian crimes during the Shoa. At this point, a decade later, we are in a position to assess the steps taken and analyze the current status of Lithuanian-Jewish relations.
The response of the Lithuanian authorities to date can be divided into two main categories: declarations and symbolic gestures,and legal steps and practical measures. As far as the first category is concerned, it was clear from the outset that the Lithuanians would have to begin by making an initial declaration acknowledging their guilt in the crimes of the Holocaust. This was done as early as May 8, 1990 by the Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament, but the formulation of the declaration left much to be desired and, in essence, was a warning signal that the Lithuanians were having enormous difficulties in dealing with the participation of their nationals in the Holocaust.
Another example of a public declaration which reflects the attempts of Lithuanian leaders to minimize the responsibility of Lithuanians for the murders was a speech delivered by Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius in June 1991 at the dedication of a memorial to the Jews killed at Ponar, the site of the mass murder of the Jews of Vilnius. Besides trying to equate the (minimal) assistance provided by Lithuanians to Jews during the Holocaust to the (far greater) participation of Lithuanians in the murders, he claimed that those responsible were solely criminal elements and that the tragedy lasted “at least three months.” Given the fact that Lithuanian Jewry was forced to suffer twelve times as long at the hands of the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators and that the participants in the murders came from all strata of Lithuanian society, Vagnorius’ speech clearly reflects the conflict between the realization in official circles that Lithuania’s Holocaust crimes must be acknowledged and the willingness to admit their true scope and the implications thereof.
On the positive side of the ledger we must note the designation of September 23 as an official memorial day for the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry, but it is still not clear what impact if any the observance of the memorial day has had on Lithuanian society.
If we examine the legal steps taken by the Lithuanian government over the past decade, we see that the two most important issues that have dominated the Lithuanian-Jewish agenda in this context have been the prosecution of Lithuanian Nazi war criminals and the rehabilitations granted by the Lithuanian judicial authorities to convicted Lithuanian Nazi murderers.
The first issue, which is a natural outgrowth of the acknowledgement of the role played by Lithuanians in the murder of Jews has become increasingly problematic over the course of the past decade. Following independence, the Lithuanian authorities did not take any initiatives to prosecute Holocaust perpetrators, noting the numerous postwar prosecutions carried out the Soviets. But the
return to Lithuania of 10 Nazi collaborators who had escaped after World War II to the United States and had lived there for at least four decades, but were suddenly facing prosecution by the US Office of Special Investigations for concealing there wartime activities, seriously exacerbated the problem.
In this regard, the case of Aleksandras Lileikis, who had commanded the Lithuanian Security Police in the Vilnius district during the entire period of the Holocaust, and who arrived in Vilnius from Boston following the loss of his American citizenship in May 1996, became symbolic of the issue. Lileikis was the most senior Nazi collaborator to return to Lithuania and his presence in the country unprosecuted generated considerable pressure on the Lithuanian authorities, who up to this point had not initiated a single investigation, let alone prosecution, of a Lithuanian Nazi war criminal. Yet Lileikis was not even questioned as a suspect for more than a year after his arrival, and was only indicted after it was clear that he was medically unfit to stand trial. Throughout this period, and to his dying day, it should be noted, Lileikis was not in jail for a single day, nor was he ever forced to attend a single session of his proceedings, and only once-in November 1998 – did he actually appear in court (of his own volition) for a total of ten minutes.
In order to fend off external criticism of the lack of progress on this and other cases, the Lithuanian parliament passed new laws to enable the investigation and prosecution of medically unfit suspected genocidists, but the practical results achieved have been extremely meager. Lileikis died without being tried, whereas his deputy Kazys Gimzauskas was indicted and convicted but only after it was clear that he was medically unfit to bear any punishment for his crimes. In fact, the only good news from Vilnius in this regard was the submission in March 2001 of a request by Lithuania to Great Britain for the extradition of Edinburgh resident Antanas Gecas (Gecevicius), who had served as an officer in the infamous 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalion which murdered tens of thousands of Jews in Lithuania and Belarus during the years 1941-1943. One can only hope that this step will mark a concrete change in Lithuanian policy on the issue of the prosecution of Lithuanian Nazi war criminals.
As far as the rehabilitations are concerned, the manner in which the government has handled this issue also clearly reflects Lithuania’s difficulty in facing its past. Despite the fact that the rehabilitation law passed on May 2, 1990 specifically forbade the granting of rehabilitations to individuals who had “participated in genocide,” numerous Nazi murderers convicted by the Soviets were among those granted pardons (and generous financial compensation) during the years 1990-1991. When this scandal was exposed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, pressure mounted on the Lithuanian government to take action to remedy the situation, and a joint Lithuanian-Israeli commission of inquiry was established. Following an initial research trip to Vilnius in early 1995 by its Israeli members, however, the commission ceased functioning and the Lithuanian authorities are ostensibly reviewing the cases themselves, albeit at a snail’s pace, with absolutely no input from their Israeli counterparts. To date, almost a decade after the establishment of the commission, a total of 47 rehabilitations have been cancelled, but not a single person has been forced to return the money he received, nor have any of the names ever been published in the Lithuanian media. If the Israeli members had been allowed to continue to participate in the research process, there is no doubt that the results achieved would have been significantly greater.
* Le Dr Ephraïm Zuroff, chasseur de nazis, historien, spécialiste de la Shoa dans les pays Baltes et directeur du bureau de Jérusalem du Simon Wiesenthal Center de Los Angeles.