On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Polish Jews who came under Nazi control were ghettoed and persecuted but not subjected to mass murder. That policy was not established until January 20, 1942, at the Wannsee Conference. By that date, about 96% of Lithuania’s 220,000 Jews had been murdered, including dozens of my own relatives. They were murdered by everyday Lithuanians, who displayed to the Nazi regime what was achievable, in Lithuania and later in Belarus.
The bureaucratic German authorities inventoried the Lithuanians’ handiwork. On December 1, 1941, Karl Jäger, the commander of SS Einsatzkommando 3 (“EK3”), issued a secret report entitled, “A Complete List Of Executions Carried Out In The Einsatzkommando 3 Zone Up To December 1, 1941.” The report detailed, by date and location, and the number and classification of 137,346 killed in the zone assigned to his unit. Of this number, all but possibly 2,058 were Jews. The excruciatingly detailed report makes clear that in all cases most of the murders were conducted “by” or “in cooperation with Lithuanian partisans.” How many Nazis were involved? The EK3 unit had 139 personnel, of whom 44 were secretaries and drivers, and 95 were murderers.
This was long before Germany constructed industrial-scale murder factories in remote areas to which Jews from elsewhere in Europe were euphemistically sent for “re-settlement.” Had the civilized populations of Western Europe known of the sights and smells of the crematoria, they would have recoiled in horror. In the summer and fall of 1941, local Lithuanian partisans simply took their Jewish neighbors to nearby woods and shot and buried them there. When larger numbers were to be killed, the victims were brought to the murder sites in sites in groups, with lime or soil placed on top of each successive group of victims. The local residents heard the shooting, and the screams of the victims, who were, after all, their neighbors. They also knew that the homes of the victims, who typically constituted about half of a Lithuanian town, were now “vacant” and that the personal property of the victims was “available” for plunder. Years later, when Lithuania regained its independence and Westerners were permitted to freely visit Lithuania, the greatest fear expressed was that Jewish descendants of those murdered would come to reclaim the property that local Lithuanians had seized.
Although most of Lithuania’s Jews had been killed before December 1941, some were kept alive in the larger cities to be used as slave laborers. These Jews were herded together into a poor part of the city that was cordoned off with wire fences. Each day, prisoners would be taken under armed guard from these “ghettos” to local work sites.
In the second half of 1940, a Lithuanian diplomat living in Berlin, Kazys Škirpa, founded the “Lithuanian Activist Front” (“LAF”), an umbrella group of underground Lithuanians who would stage an “Uprising” against the Soviet occupiers of Lithuania when Nazi Germany inevitably invaded Lithuania. During the winter and spring of 1940-1941, Škirpa formulated the LAF’s “Instructions for the Liberation of Lithuania,” a statement of the actions that should be taken by everyday Lithuanians when the invasion occurred. One key point was that “it would be very important to take advantage of this occasion to get rid of the Jews.” Another element of the LAF policies was plunder: Jewish property was to be confiscated.
Undigested Past: The Holocaust in Lithuania, by Robert van Voren, (Rodopi 2011), at 62-63.
The LAF’s messages to Lithuanians were sent across the German-Lithuanian border and circulated broadly. The organizing efforts were highly successful. For example, noted Lithuanian historian Dr. Arūnas Bubnys observed that “The main organizers and future participants in the uprising were the šauliai, members of the Šaulių sąjunga (Riflemen’s Association), officers and non-commissioned officers of the Lithuanian army, policemen, local government officials, teachers and patriotically inclined farmers. In the first days of the war several days before the arrival of the German army they began their activities.” Bubnys praises “the mass desertion of the Lithuanian troops from the Red Army … and their merger into the ranks of the uprising. Lithuanian soldiers on a massive scale and with their weapons joined the uprising and formed major military units. About 1500–2000 partisans (including the Lithuanian soldiers withdrawing from the [Red Army]) participated in the June uprising in northeast Lithuania. … Before the arrival of the German army the uprising participants had essentially freed northeast Lithuania from the Soviet occupation and ruled the area for several days.” “1941 m. Birželio sukilimas Šiaurės rytų Lietuvoje” (“The Uprising of June 1941 in Northeast Lithuania),” by Arūnas Bubnys, English-language Summary, Lietuvių katalikų mokslo akademijos metraštis (Lithuanian Catholic Scientific Academic Annual [Review]), Vilnius, 2006, pp. 141, 168, http://etalpykla.lituanistikadb.lt/fedora/objects/LT-LDB-0001:J.04~2006~1367162143322/datastreams/DS.002.0.01.ARTIC/content.
At this time, northwestern Lithuania came under the control of Lithuanian Captain Jonas Noreika. His signed orders to ghetto the Jews and plunder their property are confirmed by the current Lithuanian government. The Lithuanian government holds extensive documents that reflect Noreika’s power over life and death of his co-citizens, in addition to his pre-war writings calling for the ethnic cleansing of Lithuania’s Jews. The government, confirms that they have already examined all available material on Noreika – and are untroubled by the material. Noreika, like Škirpa, and others who designed or carried out Lithuania’s only genocide, continue to be honored as national heroes. Several cities have erected monuments to their glory, and there is even a public school was named for Noreika. Thousands of schoolchildren have been taught, and continue to be taught that these individuals reflect Lithuanian valor.
Assessments of the genocide in Lithuania are nominally under the domain of the inaptly named “Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania,” which is a state-funded governmental research agency with the dubious distinction of primarily serving to deny or obfuscate the culpability of ethnic Lithuanians in the murder of 96% of their Jewish neighbors – a higher death rate than even in Nazi Germany.
In a November 2017 interview, Lithuanian-American professor Saulius Sužiedelis explained that the current government’s policy of covering up the past is a public relations disaster. He said that Lithuania finally needs to admit the “collaboration by Lithuanians without excuses to stop downplaying the significance of that collaboration.” “Profesorius apie žydų žudynių dalyvius Lietuvoje: tai nebuvo tik saujelė išgamų, bet ir dalis inteligentijos,” Delfi.lt, November 26, 2017, (English translation.)
One consequence of the government’s studied efforts to come to terms with the Holocaust in Lithuania is the impression given to the outside world that all Lithuanians support the cover-up and denial of what is well known in the West. As Sužiedelis observed, “This is a large political and public relations problem. At the same time it’s a moral problem. This is seen from abroad, even by our very good friends who are favorable towards Lithuania … no one wants to defend a country whose reputation is so poor.”
Notwithstanding their government’s persistent failure to convene a credible and comprehensive truth-and-reconciliation process, citizens of conscience in Lithuania have repeatedly spoken out against the national hero status of Noreika and other Nazi collaborants. A 2015 petition regarding Noreika was filed with the government by 19 leading Lithuanian academics. The public response from the Genocide Center was, characteristically, not to investigate the truth but to condemn the messengers, “The contempt being shown for Lithuanian patriots is organized by neighbors from the East. They are assisted by some Jews, but also by a sufficiently large number of Lithuanians, (their last names [are] listed below the request to rescind the Award [Order], remove the plaque) in defamatory press articles. Some do it consciously, others – out of stupidity.”
As the government agency that supposedly charged with responsibility for fairly assessing war crimes in Lithuania, the Genocide Center has shown that more than anything is has become a strident counsel for the defense of Lithuanian war criminals. For example, the Center conceded the validity of documents signed by Noreika to ghetto Jews and plunder their property. These confirmations, however, were accompanied by familiar “Nuremburg Defense,” arguing that Noreika “was just following orders”. Eyewitness accounts of his deeds by a Catholic priest were dismissed by the claim that “the Priest’s testimony is unreliable.” Documentary evidence of Noreika’s actions have all been met with Kafkaesque explanations that the documents are inapplicable or should not be examined. All official responses confirm that Noreika and the other Nazi collaborators who murdered Jews, remain national heroes.
On July 14, 2018, Noreika’s granddaughter publicly stated that the efforts to deny Noreika involvement in the Holocaust were wrong. “My grandfather wasn’t a Nazi fighting war hero — he was a brutal collaborator: A deathbed promise led to me discovering his complicity in the Holocaust — and what it means beyond my family,” by Silvia Foti, https://www.salon.com/2018/07/14/my-grandfather-didnt-fight-the-nazis-as-family-lore-told-it-he-was-a-brutal-collaborator/ The Genocide Center is certainly aware of this article. No one in the government has responded. As Foti notes, “In the face of tremendous resistance by the Lithuanian government, the effort to convince it to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust will be long and hard. The souls of 200,000 Jews buried in Lithuanian soil demand such a reckoning.”
Noreika is not the only perpetrator honored by Lithuania. Burauskaite, the Genocide Center’s Executive Director exculpated Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejas, the leader of the guards at the Majdanek Concentration Camp, by claiming he worked “outside” of the death camp so he could not have been guilty of crimes. Burauskaite is appointed to her powerful post by the Lithuanian Prime Minister and can only be removed through impeachment by the Parliament. She claimed that Škirpa, the founder of the LAF, which installed Lithuanian’s “Provisional Government in June 1941, was merely speaking in the “language of the day” in directing the Lithuanian underground to cause an ethnic cleansing of Jews and, therefore , could not be deemed by the Center to be not guilty of wrongdoing. Streets in the principal cities of Lithuania continue to honor Škirpa, to the utter astonishment of visiting Westerners.
In my almost decade-long quest to overturn the honors for the man that murdered my cousins, I funded an independent academic study of Noreika that including eight months of studying Lithuanian archival material. The study showed Noreika’s extensive and documented Holocaust culpability, all which was confirmed by Silvia Foti, Noreika’s granddaughter.
After I presented the results of my research, including images of original documents, the Lithuanian government responded by saying that they are considering pursuing criminal charges against me for submission of the study. The Executive Director of Lithuania’s “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes in Lithuania” summarily stated in writing that the data is inaccurate and unreliable and that claims against Noreika and Škirpa are “total fake.” Thankfully, free speech is a right I enjoy in the United States. Such is how the Lithuanian government defends the indefensible.
The Lithuanian Jewish Community has now joined the call to remove the monuments for Noreika.
The Lithuanian government’s protestations that they have impartially examined all available material and found no evidence of Holocaust crimes by so many enthusiastic Holocaust perpetrators is Holocaust denial. This is their current crime against Humanity.