When Israeli soccer agent Tzvi Kritzer decided to build a monument in the Lithuanian town of Molėtai (Malat in Yiddish), where most of his family was murdered during the Holocaust, and to bring the relatives of the victims to the town for a memorial march, he was told to expect 20 to 30 people. A year later, on August 29, 2016, more than 3,000 people, including the president of Lithuania, arrived in Molėtai for the largest memorial ceremony in the country’s history to honor Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
The relatives of the victims from Israel, Canada, the United States, and elsewhere walked about two kilometers from the local synagogue, where Jews had been kept during the Holocaust for three days without food and water, to the location of the massacre.
A total of 2,000 Jews, which constituted 80 percent of the population of the town of Molėtai, were murdered in one day on August 29, 1941. Any reminder of the catastrophe has remained virtually absent, other than the abandoned mass grave found at the outskirts of the town, until a serious effort to change the situation was made by an Israeli descendant of the Jews of Molėtai and several prominent Lithuanians.
Tzvi Kritzer’s father was the only member of his large family to escape Molėtai to Soviet Russia before World War II and to thus be saved from annihilation. Kritzer, who brought his whole family to Moletai this year, including his son, an IDF soldier, told the author that he decided to commemorate the Jews killed in the town when he understood that “if I do nothing, their memory will just fade away.” He hired Israeli film director Eli Gershenzon to make a documentary about the Jews of Molėtai and began negotiating with the town to put up a monument at the location of the mass grave. He was ready to fund the monument on his own, but he needed authorization.
This is where a story about the power of words begins. The town was not willing to help Kritzer until three months ago, when prominent Lithuanian writer Marius Ivaškevičius, who was born in Molėtai, published a letter called Jews, the Curse of Lithuania.
“Imagine: Several dozens of Molėtai’s Jews will walk the same way their relatives walked 75 years ago, and 6,000 Molėtaians will watch them from their homes. This is the worst thing that can happen. My town cannot or does not want to understand the importance of this event. It should be helped. So I call for everyone to join us. You will not need to do anything, just go — together with our Jews. The march will take place anyway, but the question is will the Jews go alone again or shall we go with them. May the 29th of August become the day of our reconciliation,” Ivaškevičius wrote.
In response to the letter, the Molėtai municipality willingly turned itself into the organizational headquarters of the event. Municipal workers helped clean the gravesite, installed security cameras, and put up road signs to help guide visitors.
“I think my letter really helped people understand the importance of what is going on. I’m sure many people simply did not know about what happened in Lithuania during the war, just like I myself knew nothing about the tragedy of Molėtai’s Jews until several years ago. And those who knew the truth — that Jews here were killed not by the Germans, but by the Lithuanians themselves — found it too difficult to accept,” Ivaškevičius told me during a visit to Israel last week, together with actors from a Moscow theater who brought a stage adaptation of his play, Russian Novel, to Israel. “Lithuania is still trying to find its own way of dealing with its tragic past, and I hope that August 29, 2016 will become a milestone along the way.”
Only some 20,000 survived of the 220,000 Jews who lived in Lithuania before World War II. As in other countries of the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine and Latvia, where the local population played an active part in the murder of Jews during the war, official propaganda often relates that the locals were victims of the Soviets and not in fact torturers themselves.
“The problem is not with the Lithuanians — they are open, generous, outgoing, tolerant, and delightful. The problem is with the small but powerful circles of ultra-nationalists in government, academia, the media, and the arts, who are determined to rewrite and falsify history,” says Dovid Katz, an American-born historian of Lithuanian Jewry who served as a professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University from 1999 to 2010 and who has documented the country’s obfuscation of the Holocaust.
Katz also said that he would visit the town next week to examine whether it has dealt honestly with the history of its Jews, which he believes should mean in practice that it places the information prominently on display. He stressed that this information should include mentioning those responsible for the murder of the Jews and that memorial signs should also be written in Yiddish, the language of the entirety of the victims.