Sunday, September 10, 2017

Lithuania confronts its Holocaust History

From Politico, 30 Aug 2017, by BENAS GERDZIUNAS:

Attempts to lift the fog of war are met with accusations of rewriting patriotic history, but that hasn’t stopped some from trying to confront the country’s complicity.


A Soviet-built memorial sits adjacent to a World War I-era fort where thousands of Jews from Lithuania and elsewhere were executed. The monument was originally dedicated to the murdered “citizens of the Soviet Union.”

VILNIUS — The Soviets swept through Lithuania in 1940. The Nazis did the same in 1941, only to be pushed back once again by the Soviets in 1944. In the turmoil of shifting frontlines, Lithuania’s interim rulers gambled, collaborating with the Nazis in the hope of post-war independence.

They failed, and 80 percent of Lithuanian Jews, the Litvaks, were murdered during the first six months of Nazi occupation. And after the war, the Soviets stayed.

Five decades of atrocities followed. Some 5-10 percent of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia, more than 50,000 perishing in the inhospitable Russian hinterland; many of these victims were also Jewish.

Lithuania’s painful post-war history became the nucleus of patriotic resistance to Moscow’s post-Cold War posturing, as the Kremlin repeatedly described Baltic independence as “illegal.”

It has also overshadowed any effort to confront the country’s own demons — or to acknowledge the complicity of many of Lithuania’s lionized resistance fighters in crimes against humanity.

In the years following Lithuanian independence in 1991, a succession of governments have offered a narrative of history connecting the modern state to the World War II effort to win independence at the cost of collaboration.

...Textbooks in Lithuanian schools offer only fleeting mentions of the Litvaks, an integral part of Lithuanian society for more than 500 years. And the history of the Holocaust moves swiftly on to the stories of the many Lithuanians who saved Jews.

The failure to cast a critical look back at its past has played into the hands of Russian propagandists, who have seized on the opportunity to accuse the Baltic state of ongoing “fascism” — propaganda that was deployed to devastating effect in Ukraine during Russia’s seizure of Crimea.

...“A large percentage of teachers educated during the Soviet occupation have a problem telling the truth,” says Richard Schofield, who heads the NGO Litvak Photography Center and travels to Lithuanian schools for education projects.

“Everybody knows thousands of Litvaks were exiled to Siberia under Stalin,” he adds, “and everybody knows there were ethnic Lithuanians in the KGB arresting and murdering their own people.” But few know the history of what happened during the country’s brief alliance with the Nazis.

“The same history teachers are more often than not relieved when I tell their students that the Holocaust didn’t happen because the Jews were communists,” he says. “It seems to me that almost everyone wants the truth to be told, but nobody has the courage to tell it.”

...Slowly, efforts to document and disseminate knowledge about the Holocaust are bearing fruit, as a growing number of Lithuanians acknowledge their country’s troubling history.

“The Soviet generation has a strange sense of anti-Semitism ingrained in them, whereas the new generation simply doesn’t know the history,” says Marius Janulevicius, a literature teacher who produced a Holocaust documentary, “The Forgotten,” together with a small group of students from the school where he works. “So, it’s important to start with them.”

Lithuania remains one of the most prejudiced countries in the EU. Any effort to tackle the history of the Holocaust can only accelerate the belated post-Soviet reawakening....
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