Surmounting Lithuania’s Holocaust past
The road to reconciliation cannot dodge recognition
Since its independence from the Soviet Union, an arduous and painful process in itself, Lithuania has gone to great lengths to take its place among the democracies of Europe. Securing both NATO and European Union membership are included in the tangible acts the nation has taken on the road to obtaining its place in the current world order.
There are, of course, responsibilities associated with these memberships.
Lithuania’s achievements notwithstanding, the nation grapples with the truth, particularly as it pertains to the Holocaust and its very substantial participation in it. The Holocaust, conceived and devised by Nazi Germany, saw the systematic and industrialized slaughter of roughly 6 million Jews.
Yet the Holocaust was perpetrated not only by the Nazis, but also at the hands of the countless anti-Semitic butchers from throughout German-occupied Europe — including, in significant measure, Lithuania.
After the war and the near-motionless years of the Soviet era, Lithuania sought to come to terms with its World War II-era history of complicity with the Nazis. The nation established the Genocide and Resistance Research Center (Genocide Center), a think tank and truth-and-reconciliationtype organization. The group was tasked with investigating and reporting on Holocaust issues in order to help the nation to take responsibility for and cope with its bloody past.
Unfortunately, in Lithuania, a 25year road was embarked upon, replete with denial of its involvement and culpability vis a vis the Holocaust, including the minimization of murderous and tortuous acts, and the obligatory obfuscation. Recently, Genocide Center Director Terese Burauskaite admitted that her center is subject to political pressure to issue determinations of fact that are politically expedient, not factual.
Prompted by the removal of Soviet-era monuments in the capital city of Vilnius, a group of prominent and engaged citizens petitioned the government to remove monuments erected in honor of Holocaust perpetrators. The petition was peculiarly met with opposition from Lithuania’s Genocide Center. Unconscionably, the center publicly shamed those calling for the dismantlement of these statues in a manner reminiscent of pre-World War II and Soviet rhetoric by dismissing them as “Jews,” “Kremlin agents” and “stupid people.”
Following this inexplicable exchange, several activists, in particular, Lithuanian-American Grant Gochin, approached the Lithuanian government directly. The request for the removal of the monument dedicated to Jonas Noreika — the man responsible for the annihilation of Mr. Gochin’s own relatives — was referred to the Genocide Center for an investigation of Noreika’s culpability.
The center, in turn, issued a report exculpating Noreika, while opting to flout the original “persecution instructions” already in the government’s custody. Further, the center dismissed eyewitness testimony of Noreika’s orders to murder as “unreliable.” In the end, a plethora of evidence against Noreika was summarily rejected by the very institution charged with dealing with issues like Noreika’s bloody past. The center even issued a letter glorifying Noreika’s actions during that period.
During Mr. Gochin’s investigation, he found “a consistent agenda of denial, minimization, and the creation of falsehoods as the modus operandi for Burauskaite and her Center.” Examples include the exoneration of a leader of the Maidanek Concentration Camp guard unit, claiming he served outside the camp and could not have possibly known what was taking place inside.
Although the center functions as a representative and an official spokesperson for the government of Lithuania, the Lithuanian president, Supreme Court and State Security Department all confirmed that no corrective actions are required, reinforcing Ms. Burauskaite’s pronouncements. His reputation intact, Noreika will remain a Lithuanian national hero.
Since independence in 1990, Lithuania has declined to punish a single murderer of a Jew. The Lithuanian government’s contention is that a dead man cannot be tried and that any evidence against him is irrelevant. Thus, monuments to murders stay erect and history’s official records remain blemished and incomplete.
It is the responsibility of any European government to accurately report genocide perpetrated in its territory. Lithuania’s denial that many of its citizens wholeheartedly participated in the Holocaust is unacceptable.
More immediately, whether the powers that be in Lithuania understand it or not, their nation’s avoidance of the truth and recognition of their murderous past will affect the nation’s natural development — a serious problem when trying to navigate the EU as a small power and when dealing with NATO members who either fought the Nazis or have come to terms with their complicity in that period. Either way, it would behoove Lithuania to deal with these issues and not be relegated to the periphery of Europe and the world stage.
Unconscionably, the center publicly shamed those calling for the dismantlement of these statues in a manner reminiscent of pre-World War II and Soviet rhetoric by dismissing them as “Jews,” “Kremlin agents” and “stupid people.”