Lithuania Book Sparks Soul-Searching About Holocaust Complicity
As the author of a best-seller that deals with female sexuality after 50, the Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite is used to embarrassing questions from journalists about her private life. But even she was astonished when a reporter for a popular television station demanded to see her birth certificate to ascertain the veracity of claims that she is Jewish.
The question came during an interview about Vanagaite’s latest book, “Musiskiai” (“Our People”), a travelogue about the Holocaust consisting of interviews with witnesses to the atrocities perpetrated by Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors.
The book’s publication last month has triggered the first major public debate in Lithuania about local Lithuanians’ complicity in the genocide of the Jews. It currently tops the best-seller list of the Pegasas chain of bookstores and has prompted officials to promise to publish this year the names of 1,000 Holocaust perpetrators they have been keeping under wraps for years.
Though she found the journalist’s request to see her birth certificate unsettling, she complied anyway. “I know where it’s coming from,” she explains. “Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust is such a taboo that being a Jew or a Russian spy are the only explanations for wanting to talk about it.”
But that is beginning to change thanks to Vanagaite’s book.
Geoff Vasil, a spokesman for the Jewish Community of Lithuania, said “the turning of the tide within Lithuanian society” on this issue “now appears to be taking place like never before.”
The 304-page volume has prompted not just the official Jewish Community of Lithuania but also local media outlets to demand the government publish its list of suspected war criminals. The government received the names in 2012 from its own Genocide and Resistance Research Center but failed to publish them or issue any indictments. The center’s director now has promised to publish the names by 2017.
Vanagaite’s book also has highlighted the fact that despite ample evidence and testimonies of widespread complicity, not a single person has been imprisoned in Lithuania for killing Jews during the Holocaust.
Vanagaite experienced this reluctance personally last year when she made an unwelcome discovery that served as her motivation to write the book in the first place.
In researching the life story of her grandfather — a well-known activist against communist Russia’s occupation of Lithuania until 1991 — she found documents that showed he helped German authorities compile a list of 10 Jewish communists during World War II. The German authorities then gave him some Jews to work on his farm as slave laborers before they were murdered.
In Lithuania, locals who fought with the Germans against the Red Army are widely revered as patriotic freedom fighters — including Juozas Ambrazevicius, the leader of the Nazi collaborationist government.
Lithuania is the only country whose government officially branded Soviet occupation as a form of genocide. That “Soviet-sponsored genocide” is commemorated in Lithuania far more prominently than the Holocaust. And even any mention of the Jewish genocide had been absent from Vilnius’ state Museum of Genocide Victims until 2011.
It is precisely Vanagaite’s credentials as a good Lithuanian from a good Lithuanian family that has made her message so piercing to fellow Lithuanians, said Zuroff, the co-author of “Our People” and longtime critic of Lithuanian governments.
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