The Baltic states are erasing the memory of the Holocaust — and even prosecuting survivors. Where is our outrage?
WITH YOM KIPPUR coming up, I know we are meant to be atoning for our own sins rather than making accusations against others. But some crimes are too big to ignore. The crime in question is the Holocaust — or, more precisely, the way we remember it. As the remnant of survivors shrinks, and as that event passes from living memory into history, there is a battle underway for how the Shoah will be recorded for posterity.
We think we know who our enemies are in this struggle. We would cite David Irving, recently allowed onto the airwaves of BBC Radio where he was described as a “controversial historian”, even though the High Court has established that he is, in fact, a “pro-Nazi polemicist” (to quote the judge in his 2000 libel trial). We would mention Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who regularly questions the historical veracity of the Holocaust.
But these are the easy targets. We are turning a blind eye to another, no less serious assault on the truth of the Shoah, an assault mounted by those widely regarded as our friends.
I am speaking of the Baltic states, those that now sit in the European Union as apparently democratic nations. Take Lithuania. It recently decided to take seriously its obligation to chase down those guilty of war crimes committed during the Second World War — by investigating four Holocaust survivors, Jews who had defied the Nazi slaughter to fight as partisans.
You read that right. Four heroes of the Jewish resistance are wanted for questioning by the Lithuanian state prosecutor. Among those investigated is Yitzhak Arad, former head of Yad Vashem. Now 81, he faced prosecution — only dropped in recent days — for his conduct as a 16-year-old. His mistake, it seems, was to have recalled in his memoirs the raid he and his comrades made on the village of Girdenai. That place was a target, according to Dr Arad, because its people, armed by the Nazis, had shot partisans while the latter tried to take food.
Hunting down the victims like this is shocking — but it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. After all, since independence in 1991, Lithuania has prosecuted only three former collaborators with the Nazis. And that’s not because such people are in short supply. On the contrary, the Lithuanians joined the Nazi Jew-killing effort with such glee that they wiped out 95 per cent of the country’s Jewish population — 200,000 people — which put them close to the top of the collaboration league table. Of course, German officers led and directed the operation. But it was local Lithuanian volunteers who made the speed and scale of it possible. And they didn’t just disappear in 1945.
The pursuit of Dr Arad and his fellow partisans is appalling, but it fits with a Lithuanian effort to play down the horrors of the Nazi era — and to cast themselves as the real victims. Vilnius’s Museum of Genocide Victims lingers on the 74,500 Lithuanians who suffered under Moscow’s post-war rule, but makes only a brief mention of — and features no exhibit on — the 200,000 murdered Jews. Similarly, while only those three Nazi collaborators have been prosecuted, there have been 24 prosecutions of Soviet-era crimes.
In this, Lithuania is utterly in step with its neighbours. Latvia gained unwanted publicity when it declared a public holiday, “Legionnaires’ Day”, to celebrate the veterans of the Latvian Legion Waffen SS. In attendance at the 2005 rally in Riga of these old Jew-killers was the head of Latvia’s armed forces and the deputy speaker of its parliament. Local Russian-speaking Latvians mounted a counter-demonstration, but they were condemned by the Latvian president for failing to respect the SS men’s “right of free speech”.
Meanwhile, a bill reached the Estonian parliament last year honouring those who had volunteered for the 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS as “fighters for Estonia’s independence” — and ensuring they got a decent pension.
Now, I understand what these Baltic nations are up to. The oppressor they are keen to remember is Stalin and the Soviet Union: that makes them want to airbrush away the Nazi period, recasting Lithuanian SS men as early freedom fighters against Moscow.
But here is what I don’t understand. Where is the Jewish outrage on this? Where are the institutions that, rightly, look out for antisemitism in every corner of the Arab press and every nook and cranny of the blogosphere? Why are they — we — not screaming blue murder at the conduct of these nations, now given the full respectability of EU membership?
Could it be that our communal leaders would rather not make waves because these nations of the “New Europe” are pro-America and therefore, usually, pro-Israel? Or is it because we have decided our fight with radical Islamism takes precedence over all other threats, including this kind of naked assault on our past?
I don’t know what the answer is. I only know that what is going on is appalling — and our silence shameful.