Volume 47, No. 4 - Winter 2001
Editor of this issue: M. Gražina Slavėnas
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2001 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Diagram from a report to Berlin by Unit A about executions between October 16 to January 31, 1941-42 in the Baltics, Byelorussia and in and around Leningrad and Pskov. Numbers next to the names of cities indicate number of people still alive; numbers by the caskets are people killed. In Estonia Judenfrei (all Jews cleared). From Alfonsas Eidintas, ed. The Case of the Massacre of the Lithuanian Jews. Selected Documents and Articles. Vilnius: Vaga, 2001.8).


Millersville University

Few themes evoke more respectful rhetoric than love for the nation and its past. Indeed, when the national past touches upon a shared sense of victimization, the discourse is conducted in hushed tones befitting sacred memories, often in places which are, in Lincoln's celebrated phrase, sanctified as hallowed ground. It is difficult to imagine any meaningful community, be it national or religious, without the mythology, ceremony and ritual which surround the act of commemoration. We are, after all, what we were, or at least what we think we were; in that sense, nations are "Imagined Communities."1 Clearly, how we imagine the past is an important, perhaps even the most decisive, catalyst in the formation of collective identity, especially national consciousness. In as much as the purpose of commemoration, the affirmation of a particular vision of a shared history, is the reinforcement of group loyalty, the exercise of the various solemn national remembrances is, at heart, a political act. By its very nature, the act of remembrance is hostile to critical analysis—shades of gray are unwelcome. This is particularly true of historical events characterized by mass violence. Wars, revolutions and genocides have winners as well as losers, perpetrators as well as victims, and it is natural that irreconcilable memories will clash.

Few historical periods are as vexing to Lithuanians as the summer and fall of 1941, for these are the months which witnessed unprecedented cataclysms for the nation: the mass Soviet deportations of the "June days"; the Nazi invasion and anti-Soviet revolt which followed; above all, the Holocaust. Nothing in the national past could have prepared the Lithuanian people for these disasters, especially the extent of the violence, which had no historic parallels either in the quantitative or qualitative sense. October 28, 1941 stands out as a brutal record. On that day sixty years ago, nearly 10,000 Lithuanian Jews were slaughtered at the Fort IX in Kaunas by the Nazis and their local collaborators. Never had so many been killed on Lithuanian soil in so short a time. It is small wonder, then, that the painful record of 1941 continues to confront, embarrass and annoy Lithuanian society.

The politics of commemorating the events of that year are complicated by psychological and political factors. Many Lithuanians and Jews remember this tragic history, especially the first weeks of the Nazi-Soviet war, from perspectives so opposed that sometimes it appears they cannot possibly be reflecting on the same events. At times, political and community leaders have muddied the waters by getting into the act and asserting simplified versions of the past intended to appeal to their respective constituencies rather than to explain the more complex historical processes. Much of the older generation, which can still recall the events, remains frozen in a kind of Fortress Memory, reacting violently to any perceived threat to its cherished tunnel-vision of the past. With good reason, both Jews and Lithuanians consider themselves victims of the Second World War. There is no need to question that status.

But the emphasis on martyrology and victimhood has, over the years, helped construct a rigid pattern of collective memories impervious to any revision based on new research. Two examples will suffice. In a recent review of Tivador Soros' memoirs, the noted Hungarian scholar Istvan Deak pointed out that "there were a great many sympathetic bystanders outside of Denmark," and criticized the purveyors of a simplified view "who hold that during the Holocaust there were only perpetrators, callous bystanders, victims and a mere handful of saviors."2 The Lithuanian Jewish museum has recently published extensive lists of Lithuanian rescuers, who are now estimated in the several thousands, provoking some grumbling that Lithuanians are trying to "pad" the numbers of good Gentiles. In a nation of three million this is considerably more than a handful.3 For their part, Lithuanians have frequently claimed that there were only a small gaggle of native perpetrators during the Holocaust, dregs of society, and that much of the killing was carried out by Germans in Lithuanian uniforms. The later is a myth for which there is no solid evidence of any kind. Worse yet, too many still attempt to justify the genocide as retaliation for the alleged "crimes of the Jews".

When the Soviet collapse opened hitherto inaccessible archives there was much satisfaction about the possibilities of solving vexing historical questions, especially by those who had reason to suspect Soviet manipulation of historical research. The nation's treasure of the now liberated voluminous historical collections would finally disgorge the truth and put an end to politicized speculation of selective historical facts! Some spoke piously of accepting the verdict of the archives regardless of whether the findings hurt the national psyche. It is striking how quickly this love of history and the archives evaporated once it became clear that the dusty collections could not be counted on to reaffirm long-held and revered versions of the past; if anything, the documents uncovered new conundrums about 1941.

A full accounting of the tragedies and crimes of the Nazi occupation must await further study, but much has already been done by Lithuanian scholars with a command of the primary sources; we can mention Drs. Alfonsas Eidintas, Valentinas Brandišauskas and Arūnas Bubnys, among others. Most would agree that the most contentious issues involve the events of the first week of the war, including the role of the Lithuanian Provisional Government which existed between June 23 and August 5, 1941, as well as the slaughter of the Jews during the peak period of the Nazi genocide, that is, the summer and fall of 1941. This last period, the time of Lithuania's killing fields, effectively annihilated the country's Jewry and is the single bloodiest page in the nation's modern history.

No one should doubt that the anti-Soviet uprising of 1941, which accompanied the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet war, was more than justified. The wrath of the populace was inflamed by the egregious behavior of the Stalinists who, in addition to their brutal behavior during the year of Soviet occupation, massacred hundreds of innocents during the Red Army's chaotic retreat. The image of heroic Soviet anti-fascists being "shot in the back" by a treacherous fifth column of Lithuanian traitors is, of course, a fatuous folk tale peddled by the Kremlin's apologists. And yet it is also true that the revolt inaugurated episodes of horrific violence against real and alleged Communists and, especially, the Jews. The massacres of the night of June 25-26 in Vilijampolė, as well as the Lietūkis garage killings of June 27, 1941, are the most egregious examples. The Germans encouraged, watched and lurked in the background; nonetheless, the killers were mostly ethnic Lithuanians. There were smaller and isolated incidents in the countryside; some Jewish refugees were picked off as they attempted to flee east. On the other hand, notwithstanding a number of such incidents, the available evidence does not support the image of huge mobs of locals hunting down Jews by the thousands even before the arrival of the Germans as some have claimed. But there was enough anti-Jewish violence to go around.

One of the most contentious issues is the question of the role of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), the main anti-Soviet resistance movement, and its controversial offspring, the Lithuanian Provisional Government (Lietuvos laikinoji vyriausybė). In September 2000, Lithuania's Seimas passed a resolution granting legitimacy to this government as a restorer of the country's sovereignty, arousing a storm of protest. The bill was so ill-conceived that the leader of the Conservatives who had backed the measure, Vytautas Landsbergis, hastened to beg President Adamkus to block its passage. The legislature, trapped in a classically tragicomic situation, rescinded the law, igniting another round of recriminations and arguments about the role of the Provisional Government (PG) and the bloody history of the summer of '41.

At this juncture we might well ask: in general terms, what can we conclude with reasonable certainty about the PG and the LAF? No one doubts their sincerity in seeking to restore Lithuania's independence. The real problem arises when one considers the kind of Lithuania they were seeking to build. Here the evidence is quite troubling. The Lithuania imagined by the LAF and PG (which, thank God, never came to pass) was clearly intended as an antidote to the failed First Republic of 1918-1940. But the interwar state, for all its political troubles under the Smetona dictatorship, was a relatively tolerant country, accepting of ethnic and religious diversity, supportive of Western Catholic culture. Despite the growing anti-Semitism of the 1930s and the siren call of Promethean political systems, whether fascism or communism, Smetona's Republic does not suffer by comparison to the violent racism, public lynchings and fascination with eugenics which characterized the United States of the same period. But the radical LAP ideologues who derided Smetona, especially the polemicist Bronys Raila, envisioned the "new Lithuania" as one-party anti-Semitic nationalist dictatorship with a single leader (vadas) who would guide a disciplined, ethnically and culturally monolithic nation to a new future under the overall guidance of Greater Germany. An extreme faction of the supporters of Augustinas Voldemaras, a group which also worked within the LAF, actually envisioned a racially exclusive "Aryan" Lithuanian state. This latter handful of radical officers was thoroughly Nazified in their world view. (The older members of the LAF, for example, General Stasys Raštikis, found it hard to swallow this new radicalism). It is important to recognize that this description of the essence of the LAF program is not Soviet propaganda: one only has to read the writings and documents of the radicals themselves.4

By no means were all Lithuanians enamored of the "New Europe," but those who were had plenty of company. From France to Slovakia and Norway to Croatia, 1941 was the hour of those who held a heroic vision of a reinvigorated continent liberated from Judeo-Bolshevik shackles and the oppressive "plutocracy" of corrupt "Anglo-Saxon" capitalism. Again, to see this we only need to read what the admirers of the New Order themselves proposed. Undoubtedly, most Lithuanians who would today take the trouble to read these authors would (one must hope) feel intensely embarrassed, but these men are as much a part of the country's history as the martyrs and heroes.

Since the genocide of the Jews constitutes the greatest single atrocity in modern Lithuanian history, it is hardly surprising that recent Lithuanian scholarship has confronted the two major issues which are at the heart of the "burden of 1941": the role of the country's political and communal leaders in the face of the Holocaust, as well as the manner of the genocide itself. Inevitably then, we must consider what it is that we can ascertain about the actions and attitudes of two institutions: the PG and the Lithuanian police. The anti-Semitic attitudes of the LAF and PG are well-known. Anyone who has read the first issue of { laisvę is struck by the polemic prominently displayed on the front page. The hour of liberation is greeted with the charge that "Jews and Bolshevism are one and the same."5 There are even more strident passages in Naujoji Lietuva (published in Vilnius) and the provincial newspapers. While it is true that German military censors began their activity within a few days of the invasion, they did not plant these articles (although they must have approved of the content). There is nothing in the evidence to suggest that Lithuanian (or, for that matter, Croatian or French) anti-Semites penned their diatribes with Nazi guns at their heads. The PG understood the anti-Semitic atmosphere within the country. Like most governments, it discouraged the populace, both publicly and privately, from taking the law into their own hands. On the other hand, the newly discovered protocols of the PG cabinet meetings make it clear that, while it had no plan to kill the Jews en masse, it was ready to enact anti-Jewish economic measures modeled on the Third Reich's infamous Nuremberg Laws of the 1930s. The most comprehensive expression of the PC's official anti-Semitism was the cabinet's draft of the "Statutes on the Situation of the Jews" (Žydų padėties nuostatai) of August l, 1941.6

The men of the PG were clearly discomforted, even shocked by the excesses and they are on record as disassociating themselves from the pogromists, especially the infamous Klimaitis gang. The protocols record that when Minister Landsbergis-Žemkalnis witnessed the infamous murders of June 27, 1941, he "reported on the extremely cruel torture of the Jews in the Lietūkis garage in Kaunas." So what did the cabinet decide? In their own words: "Despite all the measures which must be taken against the Jews for their Communist activity and harm done to the German Army, partisans and individuals should avoid public executions of Jews."7 This is hardly a ringing condemnation of anti-Jewish violence. The country's metropolitan, Archbishop Juozas Skvireckas, who confided to his diary that Hitler's Mein Kampf made some good points about the Jewish world conspiracy, also wrote of his horror at the Lietūkis killings and sent his right hand, Msgr. Kazimieras Šaulys, to intercede with Kaunas authorities to halt such excesses. But none of this amounted to a public scolding which alone could have persuaded at least some of the Lithuanians who had volunteered or been co-opted into participating in the killings to rethink their behavior. The units which spewed forth death in the forts surrounding Kaunas were not manned by Martians: these were young Lithuanian men who had been raised in a country which was, after all, predominantly Catholic and oriented towards the West. (Of course, many Nazis came from a similar culture.) Only public leadership could have dampened the ugly atmosphere of ethnic hatred. In other words, the institutions which claimed responsibility for the restoration of a liberated nation failed to send a clear message. A single voice within the PG circle, historian Zenonas Ivinskis, reportedly urged the PG to publicly disassociate itself from the massacre of the Jews but to no avail. It is true that, during the final sitting of the PG, the acting prime minister Juozas Ambrazevičius (Brazaitis) regretted that the PG "could not affect" the massacres of the Jews in the provinces. Again, hardly a stern denunciation of the slaughter of thousands of the country's citizens.

No action by the PG or, for that matter, any Lithuanian leadership could have prevented the Holocaust. Even if not a single Lithuanian had lifted a finger against the Jews, the Germans could have accomplished most of their task with an additional police battalion or two of their own. Public opposition to the massacres by the political leaders would not have saved the Jews, but it would have preserved the nation's honor. In early July, the city's Lithuanian military commandant, Col. Jurgis Bobelis, reported to the PG. At the same time, the Nazi Einsatzkommando was orchestrating mass shootings at the Kaunas forts over which the Lithuanian commandant's office, seized in mid-July by a Nazified faction of Lithuanian officers under Gestapo direction, had nominal jurisdiction. The PG had no real control over the Lithuanian companies co-opted for this gruesome task, but it had approved their formation. Furthermore, the PC's public alignment with the Reich, as well as its fawning rhetoric of gratitude to Hitler and "Greater Germany," did nothing to alert the populace to the genocidal aims of Nazism. No foreign government recognized the PG and even Lithuania's diplomatic corps still functioning in Western capitals was concerned about the rebel government's political direction. Such was the ill-fated regime which the Seimas wished to put on a par with the patriots of February 16 (1918) and March 11 (1990)!

To their credit, most members of the PG refused to join the Nazi-sponsored Council headed by Gen. Petras Kubiliūnas. The government formally dissolved on August 5, 1941 while still insisting on friendship with Germany. However, there remained intact a rudimentary local administrative structure entrusted with preserving law and order, staffed largely by officials who had served before the Soviet occupation and had now been reinstated. The most important native law enforcement agency was the Lithuanian Police Department headquartered in Kaunas and supervised by Col. Vytautas Reivytis. This office was to play a fateful role in the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry.

The decision for mass murder was approved in Berlin. In Lithuania, the director and accountant of the destruction was SS Col. Karl Jager, whose reports of September 10 and December 1, 1941 stand out as chilling business journals of genocide. But the mastermind of detail, the daily manager of murder, was a rather low-ranking Nazi henchman from Kiel, 28-year old SS First Lieutenant Joachim Hamann. The older Vytautas Reivytis could very well have considered himself superior to Hamann in both rank and social status. The son of a respected local patriot from Mažeikiai, the younger Reivytis had entered police service in 1925, completing advanced criminology studies in Kaunas and Berlin. He rose through the police bureaucracy, achieving a high rank in the railroad security service. An accomplished target shooter and ju-jitsu expert who competed internationally with some success, an aviation enthusiast, Reivytis fit the self-image of the voldemarininkai, the hard right-wing "men of action." In 1940 Reivytis fled to Germany rather than await his fate at the hands of the Soviets.8

Throughout the summer and fall of 1941, a mobile squad, the Rollkommando, headed by the energetic Hamann, traversed the country slaughtering tens of thousands of Jews. The unit employed about a dozen Germans and at least five times that number of Lithuanians commanded by Lt. Bronius Norkus. Wherever they went, Hamann and Norkus were assisted by members of the local police who were operating under a secret directive from Reivytis to round up and guard the unfortunate Jews. During large actions, such as in Marijampolė and Rokiškis, local men were co-opted to bolster the ranks of the shooters. Whenever problems arose, Reivytis was quick to implore Hamann for instructions, even on the minutest details of the operation.9 There is no way to know whether the colonel was galled by his humble subordination to a lowly SS lieutenant, but there was no doubt about his subservience and loyalty to the German cause throughout the occupation.10 Thus, while the Holocaust was, above all, a German project, the servile Reivytis and many of his policemen did a great deal to implement and assist the murders.

A detailed preliminary examination of the death toll between June and December 1941, carried out under the auspices of the present Lithuanian President's historical commission on the Nazi and Soviet occupations, indicates that more than 120,000 citizens of the Republic of Lithuania, mostly Jews, were murdered during this period by the Rollkommando, German Nazi special squads, certain Lithuanian police battalions and other assorted, mainly native, irregular forces. A conservative estimate of the number of killers indicates at least several thousand perpetrators. Much new material has already been published concerning the Holocaust in Lithuania and a number of historians are preparing studies which will soon provide us with a far more comprehensive understanding of the tragedies of 1941.11 For the most part, the Second Republic's professional historical establishment, especially the scholars working for the Lithuanian Institute of History, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, as well as Lithuania's universities, have moved towards an honest examination of the history so long denied and distorted. Younger scholars in particular seem less reluctant to confront a painful and embarrassing past.

This general view of the roles of the PG and Lithuanian police in the events of 1941 runs counter to much of what is in the memory banks of at least two generations. The response to the more damaging revelations has thus been predictable. As anyone who has followed the polemics, reviews and academic discussions knows, the attitudes to the new scholarship inhabit a broad spectrum—from outright rejection and denial (with the usual attending conspiracy theories), to a questioning of selected facts and interpretations, to acceptance. It is pointless to discuss the more ludicrous fantasies, for example, that the NKVD was behind the Lietūkis killings: such ruminations, of course, add nothing to the discussion, although they illuminate the spiritual and moral malaise of a part of Lithuanian society, a subject for social psychologists rather than historians. Attempts to construct a convincing exculpatory rationale for the actions of the PG have failed miserably.12 More serious criticism has come from some academics, both non-specialists and historians, who question the authenticity and meaning of recent archival findings and their interpretation.

Indeed, there are inconsistencies and gaps in the historical record. Perhaps, some of these are intentional since the Soviet authorities were keenly interested in discrediting "bourgeois nationalism" and engaged in considerable disinformation, especially during the 1970s and eighties. But there is no evidence that any of the significant documents on which recent studies are based have in any way been altered or forged. Any professional who has worked with documents in the archives knows that they contain discrepancies, contradictions, even occasional factual errors. Secretaries mistype dates, officials exaggerate to their superiors; sometimes authors of authentic documents lie, prevaricate and conceal. Dealing with these problems, sorting out the less significant inconsistencies from the serious ones, is part of the historian's craft. No scholarly reconstruction of the past is ever complete, perfectly assembled to the last brick. Scholars also can disagree on the meaning of evidence even when there is consensus on the authenticity of the evidence. One of the tactics of American Creationists is to gleefully cite disagreements among evolutionary biologists and gaps in the fossil record as proof against the scientific basis of evolution. But we know that no serious mainstream scientists believe that the earth is six thousand years old even if they cannot agree on how exactly life on the planet evolved. In other words, the general picture remains valid even when some of the pieces of the puzzle don't quite fit. There has been some of this kind of "creationist-style" questioning in response to the recent discovery of the 1941 protocols of the cabinet meetings of the Provisional Government. Perhaps, for those not on the political fringe there is no other way to avoid confronting the unpleasant realities emanating from the archives.

The only way for Lithuanians to lighten the load of the difficult history of 1941 is to embrace it. However artfully presented, the strategies of denial and evasion, the finger-pointing and righteous indignation directed at the Other, serve only to further weigh society down. To admit that the country's moral and political leadership failed in 1941, and that thousands of Lithuanians participated in the Holocaust, is one of the preconditions for Lithuania's acceptance as a member of the trans-Atlantic community of nations. Recognizing a historic burden is not the same as accepting collective guilt. No honest person argues that Lithuanians are a nation of criminals, or that today's Lithuanians are responsible for what happened in 1941 (anymore than contemporary Americans are responsible for slavery). But the legacies of such crimes, the historical burdens, remain. As a general proposition, attempts to evade, deny, minimize or misrepresent historical offenses are unsuccessful in the long run.13 On the sixtieth anniversary of the Holocaust in Lithuania, on September 20, 2001, the Seimas held a solemn session during which Alfonsas Eidintas, the historian nominated as the Republic's next ambassador to Israel delivered an eloquent address. His speech may well be the most direct and honest public accounting of the annihilation of Lithuania's Jews. The most awful and relevant aspect of this sad history, he concluded, was that "some Lithuanian citizens assisted in the murder of other Lithuanian citizens."14 To acknowledge this is to accept the burden of 1941.


1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 1991). One need not agree with Anderson's entire approach to appreciate his insight that nations are historically evolved intellectual constructs.
2 Istvan Deak, "Artful Dodger," New York Review of Books, Vol. xlvii, No. 18 (November 15, 2001), 49.
3 See Dalia Kuodytė and Rimantas Stankevičius, Išgelbėję pasaulį: žydų gelbėjimas Lietuvoje (1941-1944) (Vilnius: LGGRTC, 2001).
4 For Raila, see his draft brochure, "Už ką kovoja aktyvistai," in the Manuscript Section of the Central Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences, F. 9-3105. The outline program of the extreme voldemarininkai is written down in the soon to be published diary of Zenonas Blynas, available in the former Archive of Lithuanian Social Organizations, now part of the Lithuanian Special Archive, F. 3377, Ap. 55, b. 235. Those who doubt what is described above should go to the archives and read the material themselves. Obviously, some will continue to live in the never-never land of denial and fantasy, charging that these negative traits of the anti-Soviet resistance are based on Communist fabrications.
5 See {laisvę, June 24,1941.
6 Published in Lietuvos Laikinoji vyriausybė (Vilnius: LGGRTC, 2001), 135-137.
7 Ibid., 17-18.
8 Biographical profile is in Lietuvių enciklopedija (Boston: Lithuanian Encyclopedia Press, 1961), vol. xxv, 92.
9 The relevant correspondence is in the Central Lithuanian State Archive, F. R-683, Ap. 2, b. 2. Only a few of the documents in the file have been published, mostly notably in the series of Soviet propaganda publications of the 1960s and 1970s.
10 For more on Reivytis see Petras Stankeras, Lietuvių policija 1941-1944 metais (Vilnius: LGGRTC, 1998).
11 At present one of the most comprehensive overviews is Alfonsas Eidintas' extensive introduction in Lietuvos žydų žudynių byla: dokumentų ir straipsnių rinkinys (The Case of the massacre of the Lithuanian Jews: selected documents and articles), (Vilnius: Vaga, 2001).
12 Two such books, Adolfas Darnusis, Lithuania Against Soviet and Nazi Aggression (Chicago: The American Foundation for Lithuanian Research, Inc., 1998), and Algimantas Liekis, Lietuvos Laikinoji Vyriausybė (1941 06 22-08 05) (Vilnius: Lietuvių tauta, 2000) were so lacking in academic merit that even some supporters of the Seimas' attempt to "legalize" the PG were taken aback by the poor quality of the works.
13 An example of how even long-held myths have difficulty surviving scrutiny is the way in which recent American historical writing has effectively demolished a number of traditional Southern notions surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction, for example, that the war was primarily about states' rights and that Northern carpetbaggers "persecuted" downtrodden white Confederates.
14 I am grateful to Rimantas Stankevičius for providing me with a stenographic record of the Seimas' special session of September 20, 2001.