Elchanan Poupko

Letter to Antisemitic Lithuanian MP Žemaitaitis

Illustrative: Aftermath of the Kovno, Lithuania (or Kaunas) ‘garage’ massacre in June of 1941, perpetrated by pro-German Lithuanians. (public domain)

Dear MP Žemaitaitis

I recently met an older Jew in the synagogue who was originally from Poland. He was lovely, kind, and gracious. Despite what he had clearly been through over the years, he had a smile on his face.

He told me he was originally from Warsaw. I asked him about the years of the war. It is very unlikely and almost impossible for someone who is born as a child and Warsaw to survive the Holocaust and has so much more to make it to the year 2023.

He shared his story with me. His father owned a factory that employed many Polish people. One of the workers was an alcoholic. One day, the man’s wife came to this Jew’s father crying and telling him how she and her children live in poverty. Every time her husband got a paycheck at the end of the month, he would go out and spend most of the money on alcohol and his addiction. By the time she and the kids got something, it was not enough to last them until the end of the next month, and they went hungry and impoverished despite his decently paying job.

The Jewish factory owner was compassionate and understanding. He made an arrangement with her that the factory would not give this man his salary but rather give it to his wife directly in a way that she could control it and support his family. I don’t know how, but somehow the employer figured out a way to do it where his worker would have to consent to this arrangement. 

When the war broke out, this Polish woman came to this factory owner urgently and invited him to come live outside the city in a suburb where the Germans would not detect them.

Once there, the Jewish family could obtain Aryan papers and live out of the sight of the nazis. They would attend church every Sunday and make it through the war, presenting themselves as non-Jews.

The story got me thinking about the tragedy of Lithuanian Jewry and the vast majority of Jews during the Holocaust–no matter how kind, helpful, and giving they were to their neighbors, their fate was death. In the case of Lithuanian Jewry, an estimated 96% of Jews in Lithuania were killed in the Holocaust, many of whom were from my own family. Hundreds of members of the Poupko family from Lida, Vilnius, and Radun were murdered in cold blood. Their deaths were hardly recognized, and the grandchildren of their own murderers still settled their homes. 

How did this all happen?

How did Lithuanian neighbors, business partners, friends, fellow townsmen, classmates, and colleagues become the cold-blooded murderers of those to whom they were so close? It happened because of the kind of words and dehumanization you and others in positions of power and influence have espoused, knowing full well what those words can lead to. 

In a recent Facebook post of yours, you referred to my people as animals. You shared with your followers the following words:

“It turns out that we have other animals in the world besides Putin, and it’s ISRAEL. One is destroying schools with tanks, and the other one is using tractors.”

You added that Israel’s actions: “increase the anger and, at the same time, the hatred towards Jews and their nation.” As if this was not enough, you added the antisemitic saying: “A Jew was climbing a ladder and accidentally fell off. Take a stick, kids, and kill that little Jew.” and wrote, “After such events [Israel demolishing Palestinian school], no wonder that there appear sayings like this,” Žemaitaitis commented.”

Did you use any violence? Of course not. But it is this kind of rhetoric that sets the stage for the kind of barbarism that even the most vicious of Nazis found reprehensible, so much so that the German SS telegrammed Berlin that they were not able to cope with Lithuanian violence against Jews as it was too barbaric even for people as soulless as Nazis. They could not stand the Lithuanian practice of burning the Jewish children in mass graves–alive. It is the kind of dehumanization you espouse–calling Jews animals and worse–that has led to the worst crime in human history. 

But it is not too late. 

I urge you to study more history, not of the Jewish people but of your own people. You will learn that hate that begins against Jews never ends with just the Jews. Hate breeds hate. Violence breeds violence. Dehumanization breeds dehumanization. Nazi ideology did not end with six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust; it ended with more than 50 million–around 5% of the world population–dead during those dreadful years of war. 

As the great Jewish-Lithuanian writer and fighter, Abba Kovner wrote: “Remember the past, live the present, and believe in the future.” We must all believe a better future is possible. 

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

A grandson of one of the only survivors of the great Lithuanian Poupko family

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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