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


University of Wisconsin

The subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania exemplifies the arguments of those who insist that there is no such thing as "objective history." Historians can establish that something took place in a certain place on a certain date, but this, by historical standards, constitutes only chronology or, as East Europeans call it, "faktologija" ( "factology"). The moment a historian begins to analyze the larger context, his findings become unacceptable to one or another group of readers. As in any murder trial, one side calls for indictment and punishment, while the other tries to mitigate or deny the guilt of the defendant by presenting a variety of extenuating circumstances. Survivors and victims of the Holocaust demand condemnation and punishment. Anything else seems tantamount to rationalization or sympathizing.1

Mass indictments in mass killings invariably lead to stereotyping nations. In the mass killings of 1941, Lithuanian Jews were victims of a stereotype casting them as KGB agents and traitors to Lithuania. Jewish survivors carry with them stereotypes of Lithuanians as murderers. In 1947, a gathering of Jewish survivors condemned the entire Lithuanian nation: In the words of Lucy Dawydowicz: "Almost to a man, the survivors regarded all goyim as unmitigated anti-Semites".2 Survivors have shown themselves reluctant to modify their judgments. However, continued stereotyping of nations is usually counterproductive and often leads to a breakdown in communication.

As the former Lithuanian Ambassador to the United States and now the designated Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel, Alfonsas Eidintas, by training a historian and author of numerous publications on Lithuanian history, has the background and experience to examine the Holocaust in Lithuania in a wider context. As the title of his book suggests, he attempts to investigate it like a murder case, except this is the mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry. He calls his book Lietuvos žydų žudynių byla (The Case of the Massacre of the Lithuanian Jews). What makes this case so difficult is the fact that it is occurring sixty years after the fact.

First and foremost it must be kept in mind that Eidintas, who is writing in Lithuanian, is addressing a Lithuanian audience. Foreign readers not thoroughly familiar with the topic might have difficulty to always correctly understand the context of issues that are raised, and they may even have trouble with the terminology. A major example of this is the Lithuanians' use of the word "genocide." Most Western scholars associate the word "genocide" with mass murder, or extermination of a nation or community. Lithuanians use this term when referring to Soviet policies toward nationalities. The Lithuanian Center for Research on Genocide and Repression in Vilnius was established about ten years ago for the purpose of documenting "Lithuanian genocide", that is all kinds of political repression during the Soviet occupation against Lithuanians, not the Holocaust during the Nazi occupation. To Lithuanians, "genocide" meant their own national suffering during the Soviet occupation, including cultural and spiritual as well as physical genocide. It is a relatively recent development that several young historians at the Center have begun to research and publish material on the Holocaust, or the "Jewish genocide", as it is often referred to. As Eidintas notes correctly, this use and understanding of the word "genocide" causes another problem because it leads to the concept of the "two genocides" somehow connected in a cause-and-effect relationship, a certain "symmetry" in balancing guilt and suffering, an approach prevalent among Lithuanians. Jewish authors justifiably reject this type of reasoning as misleading.

Eidintas' work consists of two parts: a lengthy historical introduction about Lithuanian-Jewish relations and a collection of essays and documents by Lithuanian authors since 1941 to the present. The introduction covers five major topics. First he discusses Lithuanian-Jewish relations from the time of the serious development of Lithuanian political consciousness in the late 19th century up to the time of World War I, including specific attitudes and the overall mentality of ethnic Lithuanians toward the Jewish minority that lived among them for centuries. Then he recounts the role of Jews in the independent state of Lithuania, 1919-1940. The third and the fourth sections constitute the raison d'étre of the work, an examination of specific issues in Jewish and Lithuanian thought and memories and a presentation of the convoluted ways in which Lithuanian authors, mostly in emigration, dealt with it. The last section considers developments since 1990. All this is accomplished by reprinting documents and representative articles as well as recent research. Eidintas concentrates on Lithuanian attitudes toward Jews rather than on Jewish views of Lithuanians. In his dual function as a historian and a policymaker, he repeatedly recommends topics for further analysis.

In the first section, Eidintas discusses the contradictory ways in which Lithuanians looked at their Jewish neighbors in the 19th century. Jews and Lithuanians lived in almost daily contact, but Lithuanians considered Jews a distinctively different, even alien people. Looking on themselves as a community, Lithuanians divided humanity basically into "Lithuanians" and "non-Lithuanians" (lietuviai and nelietuviai). A Lithuanian peasant would refer to another Lithuanian as a "person," (žmogus), but to a Jew as Jew (žydas). Not being baptized, a Jew had no soul, thus was perceived as a "nonperson" (ne žmogus). Special terms were reserved for Polonized nobility, Germans and priests. Priests were of a higher order. The reader can begin to see the roots of stereotypes that later reappear in much more sinister forms.3

When Lithuanian leaders established an independent state after World War I, they in fact found considerable support among the Jews. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Lithuanian delegation made extraordinary promises to Jews concerning their cultural and even political autonomy, and, according to Ezra Mendelsohn, there was "a Jewish tendency in Vilna (in Lithuanian "Vilnius" and "Wilno" in Polish) and elsewhere to prefer a Lithuanian to a Polish (or Soviet) 'solution'." Jewish intellectuals such as Simon Rosenbaum and Jacob Robinson made important contributions to the theoretical and practical development of the concept of Lithuanian statehood.4.

The first phase of cooperation ended after the Allied Powers, in 1923, decided to recognize Poland's occupation of Vilnius, which the Lithuanians claimed as their capital. Lithuanians counted on Jewish support to reinforce their claim to the city and the surrounding region. After the Smetona coup of 1926, Jews had no representation but retained their rights granted under the Constitution.5 In the period of the Smetona regime, 1926-1939, Jewish business people resented the growth of Lithuanian enterprises and government policies of strengthening them. This was the other side of the coin that had earlier made Lithuania look attractive because of its economic backwardness.6 Jewish leaders, however, believed that they were better off under the authoritarian government than they had been under the Christian Democratic governments of the early 1920s. All in all, during the two decades of Lithuanian independence between the World Wars, the Jewish community, in the words of the Lithuanian historian Liudas Truska, was the Republic's most loyal minority.7

With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the relations and mutual perceptions of Jews and Lithuanians moved onto a larger stage that was built by Soviet-Nazi cooperation in Eastern Europe and then by Soviet-Nazi conflict. First the Soviet Union ruled Lithuania, then Nazi Germany, then the Soviets returned. Lithuanians and Jews reacted differently to the two systems. Since Jewish authors differ concerning the role of the Soviet experience in the violence against Lithuanian Jews in 1941, some comments on the existing literature seem to be in order.

The Jewish population in Lithuania grew significantly in 1939 because of two events. A large number of Jewish refugees flowed into the country after Germany seized Memel/Klaipėda in March, another at the beginning of the war when the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, including Vilnius, and then gave the Vilnius region to Lithuania. Jewish preference for Soviet or Lithuanian rule became the first major test of Jewish loyalties to Lithuania.

According to most testimony, non-Communist Jews in Vilnius seemed to prefer Lithuanian to Soviet rule in October and November of 1939. According to Israel Cohen, "Under the rule of the Lithuanians the people breathed more freely and the Jews enjoyed a feeling of comparative relief," and he described the "attitude of the Lithuanian government itself" as "one of satisfying tolerance."8 Jan Gross emphasized the deportation of Jews in Soviet territory who "refused to take up Soviet identity cards."9 As Soviet troops prepared to leave, pogroms broke out. Henri Minczeles writes of Poles rioting with the slogans "Down with the Lithuanians," "Down with the Jews," and "Down with the Soviets."10 Other authors have identified significant anti-Lithuanian feelings among the Jewish population in Vilnius. According to Dov Levin, "In the latter half of October, shortly before the expected entry of the Lithuanian army, the exodus assumed mass proportions... While some were motivated to relocate by their pro-Soviet ideology, others chose to leave Vilna in order to escape the reputedly anti-Semitic Lithuanian regime."11 Anna Louise Strong, an outspoken partisan of the Soviet order, recounted how, when the Soviet Union delivered Vilnius to the Lithuanians, "Some twenty thousand of Vilna's workers, especially Jews, didn't wait for a pogrom. They followed the Red Army into the USSR."12

In June 1940, the Red Army moved its forces into Lithuania and established the Stalinist order. Soviet authorities proclaimed that they were bringing the class struggle, turning the exploited against their exploiters. This, of course, meant a pronounced effort to weaken Lithuanian domination in culture and politics, but it also meant encouraging class warfare within every other national group, including the Jewish community. Almost all Lithuanians viewed the Soviet invasion as a foreign occupation that aimed to destroy their traditional society; most Jewish commentators saw in it a political maneuver preventing Nazi expansion into Eastern Europe.

The role of Jews in the Soviet order in 1940-1941 is one of those complicated and controversial historical problems that exemplify the dangers of "factology," of simply using "facts," without careful examinations of context and circumstances. In June of 1940, Jews constituted a high percentage of the membership of the Lithuanian Communist Party and comprised a prominent part of the gatherings which welcomed Soviet troops. Historians say that the percentage of Jews in the party was not disproportionate to the urban population, where the party membership was concentrated, but observations by historians cannot that easily reach back to alter contemporary perceptions. During 1940, Lithuanians perceived Jews as major supporters of the Soviet system and identified them with the regime.

Jewish writers agree that in 1940, Soviet troops received a festive welcome from Jews in Kaunas and that Lithuanians resented this. Zvi Gitelman writes that in the eyes of the Lithuanians, "Jews who welcomed the Red Army were seen as traitors ".13 According to Aba Gefen, a survivor, Lithuanians viewed "the loss of independence as a national tragedy and they could not understand why their Jewish fellow citizens, who had lived well in Lithuania, rejoiced at the destruction of their state".14 Jews, of course, had no other choice. To escape the Nazis, Jews in Lithuania obviously opted for the Soviet Union. According to Ben-Cion Pinchuk, "Pogroms and Nazi terror, not enthusiasm for Communism, were the dominant forces that drove the Jews towards the Soviets".15 But Jewish writers have also acknowledged that the Soviet order had significant support, particularly among young Jewish men. According to Zvi Gitelman, "Despite misgivings about the Bolsheviks' militant atheism, their persecution of Zionism, and nationalization of property, many Jews welcomed the Red Army as a liberator".16 Another Jewish writer declared: "Under Russia we were free," and... "with war raging in Europe, Lithuania could not remain independent for much longer.17 In general, accounts about the Jewish community in 1940-1941 under the Soviets view Soviet policies against religious and independent community organizations as specifically anti-Jewish rather than as a class conflict. Soviet authorities persecuted Bundists and Zionists, suppressed Jewish religious institutions and expropriated property, and Jewish authors point out that disproportionately more Jews than Lithuanians were deported to Siberia during the mass deportation of 1941. Ironically, they turned out to be the lucky ones. The case of Menachem Begin is exemplary.18

Other writers have mixed reactions. According to Jan Gross, many younger Jews used the opportunity to integrate into the secular society as a way of escaping the social and cultural restrictions of Judaism.19 According to Zvi Kolitz, Jewish members of the NKVD were imbued with the self-hatred typical for the evsektsiia [Jewish sections in the All-Russian Communist Party]".20 Dov Levin writes that "under Soviet rule, Jews experienced greater physical safety and appreciated the new possibilities for government service which opened up for them after the old restrictions and discriminatory policies were abolished".21 Several authors comment positive reactions by the Jewish community to the presence of Jewish officers in the Red Army.

There is considerable disagreement concerning Jewish participation in the new Soviet order. According to Ben-Cion Pinchuk, "Jews participated in disproportionate numbers in the Soviet-established institutions during the first few weeks of the new regime".22 Zvi Kolitz states that there is "no doubt that Jewish communists in Lithuania, whose number was estimated at 900 out of 2,500, were very actively involved in the expropriation of property and choice of people to be deported. They were assisted by Jewish members of the NKVD, who arrived together with the Red Army."23 (Kolitz, 201). Dov Levin, on the other hand, argues that "the proportion of Jewish functionaries, particularly holders of representative posts, did not exceed the Jewish proportion in the general population."24 Jan Gross also doubts that the intermediate administrative apparatus was predominantly Jewish.25 Of course, basic policy came from Moscow.

There was little physical resistance to Soviet rule among the Jewish population. Jews obviously had no other alternatives. Levin mentions Jewish "opposition to a Soviet regime," but limits his discussion to efforts to maintain Jewish religious and cultural practices and records no signs of political resistance. He calls it a "policy of refraining from anti-Soviet activity."26 On the deportations, which Lithuanians view as a national tragedy, Jewish and Lithuanian reactions are markedly different. Although thousands of Jews were deported in June of 1941, Jewish writers overall do not display the outrage we find in Lithuanian writings. In retrospect, the deported Jews had a chance to survive.

Lithuanians, as Eidintas points out, view the Soviet experience in a totally different fashion. They tend to overlook how ethnic Lithuanians also "collaborated" in the new order and identify only Jews as "traitors", having welcomed the Soviet troops and profited most under the new system. An American diplomat who visited Soviet Lithuania in March 1941 reported "a strong, anti-Semitic feeling in the whole country, and the new regime is usually described as the 'Jewish government'".27 One must keep in mind that to Lithuanians, who were not used to seeing Jews in government or other positions of political power, the sudden reversal of roles reinforced existing prejudices. There were also almost daily conflicts in the streets and in public institutions, where young Jewish men previously looked down upon as second class citizens suddenly felt empowered and showed it. Some Jewish commentators have expressed regrets about such behavior.28 Young Jews were also active in Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. Jewish membership there, according to Levin, constituted "close to half, if not more".29 In the winter of 1940-1941, some young Lithuanian men relished fist fights with Jewish komsomols.30

An anti-Soviet resistance group that formed in Germany, the Lithuanian Activists Front (LAF), used this resentment for its openly anti-Jewish propaganda, identifying Jews as KGB agents, and calling on patriotic Lithuanians to fight anti-Communist and anti-Jewish activity and eliminate Jewish presence by creating a "new" Lithuania in which no Jew would expect to have even minimal rights or a possibility to make a living and would therefore flee together with the Red Army. Apologists for the Front now claim that "expulsion" does not mean "extinction". However, there is at least one proclamation issued in Berlin—although still not clearly established by whom—which did call for "total vengeance" and a "day of reckoning" with no forgiveness for Lithuania's traitors, unless they had "liquidated [likvidavo] at least one Jew."31 Violence was in the air.

It is especially difficult to reconcile Jewish and Lithuanian memories of Soviet rule in 1940-1941. For Jews Soviet rule was protection, for Lithuanians the loss of cultural and political independence and political repression. Where one sees freedom, the other sees occupation. Jews accuse both Germans and Lithuanians for the Jewish genocide, Lithuanians accuse the Soviets of Lithuanian genocide, with Jewish participation. Each side clings to a positive stereotype of itself and a negative stereotype of the other while any kind of negative activity by its own members is viewed as unrepresentative.

The growing tensions in Lithuania reached a climax in June 1941. The first deportation of civilians occurred on the night of June 13-14, when thousands of families, Lithuanian and Jewish, were picked up and herded into primitive railway cars for deportation to Siberia. A week later, on June 22, Germany declared war on the Soviet Union, and Lithuania became one of the first battlefields. Soviet troops, the KGB/NKVD, and local collaborators were forced to flee, killing or mutilating political prisoners before their departure. Many Jews also tried to flee by following the Red Army, but Soviet guards at the eastern border of Soviet Lithuania blocked most of them and forced them to return, where they faced revenge by Lithuanians as "collaborators".

When the Soviet order collapsed, there was no effective civil society in Lithuania. The above-mentioned anti-Soviet Activists' Front (LAF) proclaimed the formation of a provisional government and put itself in charge. Within a few days German troops established their own regime and started to implement their anti-Jewish policies (albeit intent on preserving their image). The Jewish population of Lithuania became the immediate target of the passions and emotions of vengeance and greed that ran wild in the streets.32

By the end of 1941 only a small minority of the Jewish community that had inhabited the land a year earlier remained alive. In light of the sheer number of violent deaths, many Jewish writers have ranked Lithuanians with the Nazi authorities as the bane of the Jewish nation. That Lithuanians participated in the killing of Jews is not open to serious historical challenge; it is a fact. The gruesome massacre in the Lietūkis garage in Kaunas is also a historical fact. Not yet completely resolved are exact numbers, a more precise determination of events during the so-called interregnum (the period between June 22 and the actual arrival of German troops), the identities of the killers, the chain of command, extent and nature of participation by resistance fighters (anti-Soviet partisans) and the general population. Jewish writers do not agree on the reasons for this explosion. Azriel Schochat has argued that Lithuania's historic "anti-Semitism" cannot by itself explain the violence and that the "special ferocity" which the population demonstrated toward Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust was undoubtedly the outcome of the very complex political situation created by the Soviet occupation in 1940 and 1941 and by the overall extreme conditions of partisan warfare.33 According to Dov Levin, "Soviet rule in Lithuania did defer the Holocaust there for twelve months and seven days, but ultimately it heightened the tragedy".34 Most authors agree that in pre-war Lithuania anti-Semitism was not an issue. Obviously, there is still much to be done.

Eidintas suggests that the very first killings targeted Communists, Jews among them. This view might separate the first massacres from the systematic executions that followed under Nazi military and occupational rule. It also opens the question of how and when the killings shifted their focus from identifiable Communists and their sympathizers to the Jewish population at large. Eidintas also suggests that Lithuanians participated in anti-Jewish campaigns under German control and direction. Jewish authors declare, to the contrary, that the white-banded Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance fighters-partisans turned on Jews on their own and indiscriminately. The role of the Provisional Government has been the subject of considerable controversy and is undergoing intense scrutiny.

The question of identifying the perpetrators raises fundamental problems in the relationship between history and justice. Advocacy history and journalism do exist and thrive, but should a historian claim to be both prosecutor and judge? What obligations does a prosecutor have to evaluate mitigating evidence on judging the guilt of a perpetrator? Here again the question of context arises. For many historians, the specific identity of the killers may be irrelevant, but this in turn leaves open the search for responsibility—and this can leave a nation at fault.

The scars may never heal for those who lived through it. To this day Jewish memoirs seem unable to use the name "Lithuanian" in a positive way. Even the revered title of "Righteous among Nations" often tends to mask the ethnic identity of those Lithuanians who are now acknowledged as having extended significant help at the risk of their lives in sheltering and saving Jews.

Examining the post-war Lithuanian literature on the Holocaust, Eidintas points out the tendencies, omissions and distortions both in Soviet Lithuania and in the writings of Lithuanian post-war émigrés in North America. Soviet authorities collected considerable documentation on the mass killings during the war, but did not identify the victims by nationality, referring to them as "Soviet citizens" rather than Jews. In 1991, Lithuanians were barely acquainted with western Holocaust scholarship or even the concept. Eidintas's basic theme in this section is to show the convoluted process of Lithuanian acquaintance with and reactions to Jewish memory of the Holocaust as well as attempts to confront the past without the previous denials and rationalizations.

In his last section, Eidintas presents the discussions and scandals of the last decade, including a brief characterization of the Lileikis case and of other cases concerning individuals deported from the United States. In the first glow of independence, the Lithuanian public was unprepared for the international reactions and concerns. Eidintas's account here draws heavily upon his experiences as Lithuanian ambassador in Washington and his current post as a specialist for relations with the World-Jewish Community. He also pays special attention to the publications of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, a topic so far largely ignored in Lithuania.

In all, this book constitutes a significant addition to the Lithuanian literature on the Holocaust. As already noted, it is meant for Lithuanians rather than foreign readers and should not be construed as either an indictment or an apology. The author's fundamental goal is to educate the Lithuanian public by laying before it many sides of the controversy and hopefully forcing it to weigh the facts in a critical and objective way and gain the moral courage to face the truth and accept responsibility. This is the only way to grow as a nation and to be able to deal constructively with whatever other serious issues and challenges may arise in the future. His book will no doubt stimulate discussion and argument for a long time to come.


* Alfonsas Eidintas, ed. Lietuvos žydų žudynių byla (The Case of the Massacre of the Lithuanian Jews. Selected Documents and Articles) .Vilnius: Vaga, 2001.
1 For an example of how contending parties can confuse a murder prosecution and compromise a trial by introducing their own political priorities, see my account of the assassination of the Soviet diplomat Vatslav Vorovsky, Assassination in Switzerland (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981).
2 Lucy Dawydowicz, From that Place and Time: a Memoir, 1938-1947 (New York: Norton, 1982), 302. See also vengeful thoughts in Aba Gefen, Defying the Holocaust (Santa Barbara: Borge 1993); Aleksandr Slavinas, Gibel' Pompei (Tel Aviv: Ivrus, 1997); Rich Cohen, The Avengers (New York: Knopf, 2000).
3 For relations between Jews and Lithuanians in the 19th century countryside see Gerhard Bauer and Manfred Klein, Das alte Litauen (Koln: Bohlau, 1988) 264-284.
4 Alfred Erich Senn, The Great Powers, Lithuania and the Vilna Question (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1966).
5 Ibid.
6 Senn, ibid., 236-238. Masha Greenbaum, The Jews of Lithuania: a History of a Remarkable Community, 1316-1945 (Jerusalem: Gefen, 1995) 271-280.
7 Liudas Truska, "Ar 1940 m. žydai nusikalto Lietuvai?", Akiračiai, 1997/7.
8 Israel Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1943), 469-473.
9 Jan T. Gross, Revolution from Abroad (Princeton: Pirnceton University Press, 1988) 161-162.
10 Henri Minczeles, Vilna, Wilno, Vilnius. La Jerusalem de Lituanie (Paris: La Decouverte, 1993) 376.
11 Dov Levin, Baltic Jews under the Soviets, 1940-1946 (Jerusalem: Avraham Harman Institute, 1994) 128.
12 Anna Louise Strong, The New Lithuania (New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1941) 26.
13 Zvi Gitelman, "Soviet Reactions to the Holocaust, 1945-1941" in The Holocaust in the Soviet Union (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1993), 5.
14 Aba Gefen in Lietuvos rytas, March 23, 1996.
15 Ben-Cion Pinchuk, Shtetl Jews under Soviet Rule (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) 22.
16 "Soviet Reactions to the Holocaust", op, cit,, 4-5.
17 William M. Mishell, Kaddish for Kovno (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1988) 8.
18 The case of Menachem Begin is exemplary. See his White Nights (London: McDonald, 1957).
19 Revolution from Abroad, op. cit. 165.
20 Zvi Kolitz, "The Physical and Metaphysical Dimensions," op. cit., 201.
21 Dov Levin, Baltic Jews under the Soviets 1940-1946, op. cit., 117.
22 Pinchuk, Shtetl Jews under Soviet Rule, 26.
23 Kolitz, "The Physical and Metaphysical Dimensions", op. cit., 201.
24 Levin, Fighting Back: Lithuanian Jewry's Armed Resistance to the Nazis, 1941-1945 (New York: Holmes and Meyer, 1984), 29.
25 Gross, Revolution from Abroad, op. cit., 160.
26 Levin, Fighting Back..., op. cit. 24-25.
27 United States State Deparatment Decimal File 1919-1939, 86-m. 00/471.
28 Aba Gefen, Lietuvos Rytas, March 23,1996.
29 Levin, Fighting Back..., op. cit. 224, 37. Also see Azriel Schochat, "Jews, Lithuanians and Russians, 1939-1941", in Jews and Non-Jews in Eastern Europe 1919-1945, Bela Vago and George L. Mosse, eds. (New York and Jerusalem: John Wiley and Sons, Israel Universities Press, 1974) 307.
30 For personal examples see Sukilimas 1941 m. birželio 22-28 d., 2nd book, Antanas Matinionis, ed. (Vilnius: Kardas, 1995).
31 Valentinas Brandišauskas, Siekiai atkurti Lietuvos valstybingumą (Vilnius: Valstybinis leidybos centras), 1996,151.
32 On the Culture of Violence see Wolfgang Benz and Marion Neiss, eds. Judenmord in Litauen (Berlin: Metropol, 1999).
33 Azriel Schochat, "Jews, Lithuanians and Russians," op. cit,, 310.
34 Levin, Fighting Back, 21, 23.