Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rewriting History

Note: In the course of our trip we were confronted with some challenging issues about how modern day Lithuania deals with the Holocaust and particularly the fact that many of its citizens collaborated with the Nazis. This wasn't quite what I anticipated addressing in this blog, but felt that I would be remiss not to paint a full picture of what we learned and experienced. Just as this blog is titled "Layers of the Onion", this issue is multi-layered. Hopefully I've peeled back a few of them. If you would like to learn more you will find a number of links to the right of this post.

“History is written by the victors” Winston Churchill

Or in the case of Lithuania, the last ones left standing. One of the things we struggled with in our Vilnius visit was the constant reframing of history. We first noticed this in the language at monuments commemorating the death of Jews by the Nazis. Or were they Jews? Under the Soviet regime the language frequently only referred to them as “Soviet citizens”. In one of the shtetls we visited we found one of the old Soviet plaques that read, “In this place in August 1941, Hitler’s Fascist and Lithuanian Bourgeois Nationalists ferociously killed 1000 people”. Our guide was surprised that the language was still there as most traces of the Soviet regime have been eradicated.

Upon Independence in 1990 a new debate took place. Lithuania and the other Baltic states were noted for the complicity of many with the Nazis. Many Jews were murdered by locals before the Nazis took control. Yet we understood that it was the subject of much debate to include language to that effect in memorials. The language at Ponar, the mass killing site outside of Vilnius, now refers to “the Germans and their local helpers”.

While we were in Vilnius we went to the Genocide Museum. Housed in a building which was once the Gestapo headquarters and then the KGB headquarters, it was an apt place for a museum of that name.
Much to our surprise; however, the museum was focused solely on the repressive Soviet regime. Apparently the murder of 45% of the population didn’t count as noteworthy genocide. I believe that the labeling of Jews as a nationality distinct from Lithuanian contributes to their exclusion from what is termed “genocide against Lithuanians”.

The term “partisan” is another word which is used in an often confusing fashion. The Jews who became partisans escaped the ghetto and certain annihilation. They went to the forest where they lived in underground bunkers as they carried out missions against the Nazis. The main opponent of the Nazis was the Soviet Union so Jews had no choice but to fight alongside Soviet-supported partisan groups. A group of students at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute organized a trip to the forest where the Jewish partisans lived. We were accompanied by Fania, a former Jewish partisan. Here we learned of how the Soviets provided guns and support to the Jewish partisans in their fight against the Nazis even while the Germans provided guns to the Lithuanians.

At the Genocide Museum we encountered the term “partisan” in a very different context. Enough so that it prompted me to seek out a definition. A partisan is defined as “a member of an irregular military force formed to oppose control of an area by a foreign power or by an army of occupation”. The Jewish partisans allied with the Soviets to fight the Nazis. At the Genocide Museum we read about how members of the Lithuanian Freedom Army (LLA) were sent to German intelligence schools with the expectation of being prepared for guerilla warfare. They used the interests of the German military leadership in order to obtain weapons. After the war ended in 1945 with the Soviet occupation, those who had fought in Lithuanian units on the German side joined the ranks of the partisans fighting against the Soviets. We found this terminology quite confusing as up until that point we had only used the term in conjunction with the Jewish partisans. Suddenly it took on a new meaning, especially because many of these “partisans” had fought with the Nazis.

In 1945 there were 30,000 of these partisans in the forests. The Lithuanians consider these partisans to be heros as they fought for freedom from the Soviet regime. The fact that many of these same partisans were often engaged in actions against the Jews through their earlier alliance with the Nazis results in an uncomfortable schism in how they are perceived and reluctance to prosecute them for war crimes. Despite a documented history of collaboration, Lithuania has not punished a single war criminal.

There has been no such reluctance evidenced relative to the Jewish partisans who were fighting for their lives during WWII. In recent years there has been an attempt to prosecute Holocaust survivors who served as partisans. Jewish partisan memoirs have been combed for any possible grounds for prosecution and unsubstantiated charges have been brought (and subsequently dropped although investigation continues). Often these charges appear to be retaliatory for actions which publicized the collaboration of Lithuanians with the Nazis. Three Jewish former partisans, now in their 80s, either had charges filed against them or were sought for questioning.

The publication of Ponary Diary, 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of a Mass Murder was edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yad Vashem Chairman emeritus. Dr. Rachel Margolis pieced the diary together and aided in its first publishing in Polish. The diary was originally written on loose sheets of paper which were placed in empty bottles and buried in the ground. The author, Kazimierez Sakowicz, was a Polish journalist who lived in Ponary. There he was a witness to the murders which occurred. This document clearly indicted Lithuanian locals as active participants in the murders, an unpopular view in Lithuania. Interestingly Yitzhak Arad and Rachel Margolis were among those targeted by the Lithuanian prosecutors.

One of the other partisans who was targeted was Fania Brantsovsky, our guide to many of the Jewish sites within Vilnius. At 87 Fania serves as the librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her family lies in the pit at Ponar. We marveled at her ability to take groups to such places where she has such a deep and personal sorrow, but realized that she does this as her act of testimony against the horrors she witnessed.

In August 2008, US Congressmen Hodes, Wexler and Berman issued an appeal to the prime minister of Lithuania in which they expressed their concern at the “persecution of Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi partisan resistance to survive”. The letter goes on to state:

“We are particularly concerned about Lithuanian legal authorities’ repeated inquiries with Rachel Margolis, allegedly as part of an investigation into the wartime conduct of Soviet partisans. As you may be aware, Ms. Margolis recently published her memoirs recounting her experiences as a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and heroic efforts as a fighter in the Lithuanian anti-Nazi resistance movement. After the war, Ms. Margolis helped to found Vilnius’ Green House, whose mission is to educate about Lithuania’s history during the Holocaust. [...] She moved to Israel, but continued to return to Lithuania to give tours of the Green House museum during the summer, when international tourism is at its peak. Unfortunately this summer, Ms. Margolis will not be traveling to Lithuania, because she fears that she will be the object of harassment and intimidation, and of continued defamation by the Lithuanian media. It is our understanding that on May 5 [....] police initiated a search for Mrs. Margolis, as part of an investigation into alleged war crimes. This is truly an unfortunate turn of events, given that Ms. Margolis was honored by the former Prime Minister of Lithuania in 2005 for her heroism fighting in the anti-Nazi resistance. Today, Ms. Margolis’ autobiographical works are unconscionably being used to build a case against her and other partisans. Disturbingly, certain Lithuania media outlets have referred to Ms. Margolis and other prominent former anti-Nazi resistance heroes Fania Brantsovsky and Yitzhak Arad as terrorists and murderers, giving rise to serious concerns about anti-Jewish sentiment in national media. [...] Ms. Margolis and other partisans should not have to live in fear from reprisals, media defamation or harassment from authorities. We further request your assistance in helping us understand the sudden energetic pursuit of investigations into the activities of Jewish partisans, in contrast to the failure of Lithuanian prosecutors to develop cases against Nazi collaborators since Lithuania’s independence in 1991."

On the one hand there are attempts to discredit Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis as a way to divert attention from the serious collaboration of Lithuanians with the Nazis. In addition there is a move to equate the Soviet occupation with the Nazi Holocaust by labeling both as genocide, thus sidestepping the need to address the Holocaust and the collaboration which was a part of it. Embedded in this argument is the belief that Jews were unpatriotic to Lithuania, thus allowing the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Thus the Holocaust and local collaboration is viewed as retribution for Soviet “genocide”.

So what constitutes genocide? Leonidas Donskis, a Lithuanian philosopher, speaks to the devaluation of the term by its application to circumstances for which it is not applicable. Per Donskis genocide designates “the doctrine of deliberate extermination of national, religious or ethnic groups…(a genocide) is the annihilation en bloc of a people or of a race, irrespective of class divisions, dominant ideology and internal social and cultural differences.,, You are guilty at birth, and this fatal error of having been born – this original sin – can be corrected only by your extermination.” The years of Soviet control, while horrific for many, do not rise to the level of genocide.

That doesn’t present a problem for the Lithuania's legislature which has drafted a law for debate which would make it a crime to deny that a genocide against the Lithuanian people was conducted by the Soviets. Thus any discussion of whether genocide has been conducted against the Lithuanians by the Soviets is effectively silenced allowing it to be equated to the genocide of the Nazis against the Jews. This conflating of the Holocaust with the Soviet Occupation obscures the impact of the Holocaust. Through the provision of a sentence of 3 years imprisonment to anyone who denies the state version of genocide the law creates an atmosphere of fear which effectively quashes dissent. The most disturbing part of this law is the portion which forbids the slander of the Lithuanian citizens, members of the Movement of Struggle for Freedom of Lithuania or volunteer soldiers who were fighting the Soviet occupation with arms in 1944-1953. Keep in mind that many of the actual Holocaust killers went on to become “anti-Soviet partisans. Through this slight of hand they silence discussion of collaboration and obscure the magnitude of the Holocaust in an effort to remove a national stain.

The effort to equate the two has moved beyond mere rhetoric. Currently the European Parliament is discussing the Prague Declaration which states that Soviet Communism and Hitler’s Fascism are “equal” and demands new laws such as “fixing” textbooks to conform to this argument. The Baltic States are key drivers of this effort commonly known as “Red-equals-Brown”. In January 2008 the “Common-Europe-Common History” group of the European Parliament issued a press release complaining that “Never Again” is unfairly monopolized by Holocaust survivors. John Mann, a member of the British Parliament told the Commons that this “is just a traditional form of prejudice, rewritten in a modern context. In essence, it is trying to equate communism and Judaism as one conspiracy and rewrite history from a nationalist point of view.” Lithuania and the other Baltic States do not deny the Holocaust, they just distort the facts to the point that people throw up their hands in confusion.

The harassment of Holocaust survivors who served as partisans, the equating of Soviet Communism with the Holocaust and the quashing of discussion of Lithuanian collaboration all takes place against a larger backdrop of growing anti-Semitism in the press. In 2004 the editor of the daily Respublika published editorials mocking Jews and gays and described them as powerful interest groups that rule the world. The editorials were accompanied by a cartoon characterizing the stereotypic Jew and gay with imagery which could have come straight from the Nazis.
This cartoon was republished earlier this year in conjunction with an article about the recent neo-Nazi march in Vilnius. The article which accompanied it speaks of the marchers who chanted “Lithuania for Lithuanians” and “Jews out”. It claims “they are our future. Instead of choosing emigration or drugs, they carry the tricolor flags and declare that they love their home, their Homeland.” A frightening future indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Susan:

    This is extremely well written. Something that surprises me is that the new media is not being used as effectively as it could be to bring these issues to greater prominence and not buried in blogs and memoirs.

    I would love to see this entry of yours submitted as a guest editorial to newspapers such as the New York Times, Miami Herald and the Washington Post. Let's engage this issue directly with those who would otherwise deny us our heritage. One of the insidious goals of this type of revisionism is to undermine the legitimacy of the existence of the state of Israel. All of what you describe rises to a far higher level than the harassment of individuals - it is an attempt at indicting a people and we are they and must have the courage to speak out.