Sunday, September 30, 2012

Killed by their neighbors

Photo by Beile Delechky from pre-war Kavarsk
It took more than six decades, but a unique collection of blood-chilling survivor testimonies about Lithuanian collaboration in the Holocaust is finally available to the public.

Expulsion and Extermination
Holocaust Testimonials from Provincial Lithuania, by
David Bankier. Yad Vashem, 232 pages, $58
From a review by Efraim Zuroff:
The Kuniuchowsky collection of testimonies of Holocaust survivors from the provincial towns and villages of Lithuania is extremely valuable.
Leyb Kuniuchowsky, an Alytus-born engineer who had survived the Kovno Ghetto, had made a determined effort to record the names of all the numerous Lithuanians who had participated in the murders, making his collection a resource of potentially unique significance in the efforts to bring these Nazi war criminals to justice.
It was only in 1989 that Dov Levin of Jerusalem, the leading expert on the Holocaust in the Baltics, finally convinced Kuniuchowsky to donate his archives to Yad Vashem. And it is only now, another 20 years afterward, that parts of this unique resource have finally been published, edited by the late David Bankier, the former head of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, with the assistance of Holocaust researcher Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky.
In Lithuania, the government has systematically tried to minimize or hide the unusually extensive participation of local Nazi collaborators in the annihilation of the country’s Jews. More than 96 percent of them were killed in the Holocaust, with almost all the murders carried out locally, in the vicinity of the Jews’ residences, with the majority of the participants Lithuanians. This collection clearly unmasks distortions of the historical narrative of the Shoah by chronicling the numerically dominant role played by Lithuanians in the mass murders, many of which were carried out without any German or Austrian participation at all, and by naming and identifying almost 1,300 local perpetrators.
In Bankier’s words, the value of these testimonies is that “they identify those who humiliated, abused and tortured [the Jews], pillaged their belongings, ejected them from their homes and, in the end, massacred their families.”
In order to maximize the value of the testimonies, the book begins with an introduction about Leyb Kuniuchowsky and his collection, and then provides a concise summary of the annals of provincial Lithuanian Jewry from the country’s independence after World War I until the destruction of these communities during the Holocaust. It is followed by a more in-depth treatment of the various stages of persecution and murder of the provincial Jews, using excerpts from the testimonies to illustrate the trials and tribulations suffered by the Jewish inhabitants of the more than 200 Lithuanian towns and villages that had Jewish communities.
Starting with the initial days of the German occupation, the book recounts in vivid detail the imposition of forced labor, the plunder of Jewish property, the process of ghettoization and concentration, and ultimately the mass annihilation of Lithuania’s Jews, with additional chapters devoted to the role of the local non-Jewish population, focusing on the local Nazi collaborators who did the actual killing.
In these chapters, the unique historical  significance of these testimonies becomes readily apparent, as they provide critical dimensions in vivid detail of the tragic fate of approximately half of Lithuanian Jewry, elements that are missing from the pertinent official German and Lithuanian documentation.
While the latter give us important information about the administrative implementation of the Final Solution, they hide or ignore highly significant aspects of the murders, which are critical to our ability to construct an accurate narrative of the Holocaust in Lithuania, where the proportion of Jewish citizens killed among communities that had more than 1,000 Jews was the highest in Europe.

In this regard, the most pertinent of the themes that emerge from the witness testimonies is, first and foremost, the extent to which it was primarily Lithuanian volunteers who carried out the murders. In every single provincial Jewish community, local collaborators were at least the majority, if not the only ones, doing the killing.
Thus, for example, in places like Lazdijai, Telsiai, Eisiskes, Joniskis, Dubingiai, Babtai, Varena and Vandziogala, there were no Germans present at all, and in Onuskis, Vilkaviskis and Virbalis, the only Germans at the murder sites were photographing the crimes.

A second theme that is evident in almost every testimony is the incredible cruelty displayed by the Lithuanian Nazi collaborators.
In many cases, the preliminary stages of the Final Solution were accompanied by the brutal raping of Jewish women, including girls as young as 13 and 14 years old, and the public humiliation and torture of rabbis, as well as other Jews.
It was also fairly common for Jewish infants to be murdered by having their heads smashed against stones or trees or being thrown alive into mass graves, since “the little ones were not worth a bullet,” as a Lithuanian “partisan” in Kudirkos-Naumiestis explained to an eyewitness.

A third theme is the nationalist context of the murders, which were viewed by many of the participants as acts of patriotism.
Thus in Merkine, for example, a witness described the celebration staged by the murderers: “Their faces glowing, they sang happily and loudly the Lithuanian national anthem and other nationalist songs.”
A similar scene took place in Zarasai, where a Polish witness related that the killers not only sang “Lithuanian national songs,” but were very “happy and satisfied.”
These testimonies are reminiscent of the notorious murder of several dozen Jewish men in Lietukis Garage in Kaunas in late June of 1941, after which the large assembled crowd joined in singing the Lithuanian national anthem.
It was this ultra-nationalism which undoubtedly fueled many of the acts of extreme cruelty by Lithuanians toward their Jewish neighbors, whom many Lithuanians erroneously perceived as communists.

A fourth – and extremely important – theme is that all strata of Lithuanian society voluntarily participated in the persecution and murder of the Jews.
This is a fact that has systematically been hidden or ignored in Lithuania, where local participation in Holocaust crimes is usually attributed solely or primarily to “hooligans” or criminal elements.
The sad truth that emerges clearly from these testimonies, however, is that participation in the mass murder of the Jews encompassed all strata of Lithuanian society, from the clergy and intelligentsia, including doctors and teachers, to the most marginal groups.
Thus in Dubingiai, it was a young priest named Zrinys who led the partisans and organized the murders, and in Kuniuchowsky’s own town, as he himself noted, “Lithuanians of every social group and class participated in arresting, tormenting, bullying, robbing and eventually shooting the Jews of Alytus and those of the surrounding townlets in Alytus county.” These elements complement the previously available documentation, which describes the murders from the perspective of the perpetrators and fails to fully acknowledge the extent of local complicity in, and responsibility for, the murders, as well as their more grotesquely cruel and bestial manifestations, all of which make the Kuniuchowsky collection a veritable treasure and indispensable resource for the study of the Holocaust in Lithuania.

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