This past week, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, Andrius Kubilius, was a guest of the Israeli government, on a state visit to Israel. For many Jews, just the mention of the name “Lithuania” is painful; after all, the Lithuanians were among the most enthusiastic supporters of Nazis outside Germany, with Lithuanians from various backgrounds volunteering to help round up and kill Jews eve before the Nazis arrived in the country in 1941. Jews were rounded up by the thousands, brought to the forests surrounding the towns where they were massacred, falling into the huge pits they had been forced to dig. Lithuanian forests, beautiful and green, abound in these large, now- covered mounds.
The assistance rendered by the Lithuanians, historians say, was one of the reasons the German killing machine that operated in the country between 1941 and 1945 was the among the most efficient in the entire Nazi empire – with 95% of Lithuanian Jews murdered by the time it was all over.
For years, Lithuania failed to own up to its responsibilities and its past, and it was only in 1995, five years after the fall of communism, that Lithuanian leaders apologized for their countrymen’s role in murdering Jews. According to some Israelis and Jewish leaders, however, the Lithuanians’ efforts to build bridges with Israel and the Jewish people today are, if not a sham, then a convenient way to build up its relations with Europe, which requires Vilnius to put on a mask of “introspection,” at least where the Holocaust is concerned.
Writing in the Jerusalem Post, for example, is Nazi war criminal researcher Efraim Zuroff, who is very critical of Lithuania’s relentless efforts to equate Lithuania’s suffering under communism with the brutality of the Nazi occupation. The result, writes Zuroff, is a perversion of justice, such as Lithuania’s “campaign to prosecute Jewish anti-Nazi Soviet partisans for supposed war crimes to create a false symmetry between crimes by Lithuanians against Jews [pillage and murder] and those by Jews against Lithuanians [being pro-Russian, ed.].”
However, Rabbi Yisrael Rosenson, an expert on Lithuanian Jewry, says that the country may deserve more credit than many Jews are willing to give it. “I would be hesitant to dispute anyone else’s perception of modern Lithuania, but it seems to me that at least some elements of the country’s society are making a very sincere effort to reevaluate their behavior, to make an honest accounting of their crimes against the Jews.”
Rabbi Rosenson, director of Michlelet Efrata, is the author of the Hebrew work “Jersusalem is No Longer in Lithuania,” an account of the history of the Jewish community before and during the war. The book’s title alludes to the flourishing Jewish community in Vilna, once called “Jerusalem of Lithuania”.
Speaking to Israel National News, Rabbi Rosenson says he understands why many Jews think of Lithuania as an unreformed land of Nazi sympathizers. “While the Holocaust was of course a horror everywhere, it was unique in Lithuania. Before the war, there were almost no public manifestations of anti-Semitism, yet even before the Nazis took over the country, many jumped on board with the Nazi agenda and began persecuting Jews, often outdoing the Germans.”
After the war, Lithuania fell into the hands of the Communists, being absorbed directly into the Soviet Union – further cause for anti-Semitism, as many Lithuanians identified Communism as a “Jewish plot.” During those years – under Soviet influence – the destruction of the Jews was ignored, and the only thing generations of Lithuanians learned about the war years was the Nazi hatred of Russians and Germany’s war against Russia. As the Lithuanians felt persecuted by the Soviets, says Rabbi Rosenson, some even saw the Nazis as allies against Communism.
As soon as Communism in Lithuania fell in 1990, though many of those attitudes changed, Rabbi Rosenson says, and today, the Holocaust – and the persecution of the Jews during the war period – is taken very seriously. “Lithuania has its own Holocaust Memorial Day – September 23rd, the day the Vilna Ghetto fell, and this day is taken very seriously by everyone, to the highest levels of leadership and society. The country also has many citizens who themselves, or whose parents, helped hide Jews – what we call “the righteous of the nations” – and these people are highly honored in Lithuania.
“Lithuania has its own Holocaust educational center, which coordinates programs for all children in the country’s schools. Teacher delegations from Lithuania come to Israel at least twice a year, and the teachers run the programs in the schools. There are Holocaust research centers in Lithuanian universities, with many studies discussing the Lithuanian people’s failures regarding their Jews. It seems to me,” says Rabbi Rosenson, “that these efforts are sincere, and that there has been a true effort among Lithuanians to analyze their behavior during the war.”
Of course, there were – and are – genuine Nazi sympathizers in Lithuania, Rabbi Rosenson says. “And there are many issues that have not been addressed. No discussion on compensation for property Jews lost has yet begun, and after independence in 1990, the country was very resistant to try its own war criminals who helped the Nazis during the Holocaust. On the other hand, we must remember that it wasn’t until the 1980s that France tried Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie – and unlike Lithuania, France was not under Soviet occupation, with Moscow refusing to even discuss the murder of Jews.”
Lithuania’s relationship with the state of Israel reflects this change, Rabbi Rosenson says. “Lithuania is striving to be a European country, so it has adopted European attitudes, which are sometimes critical of Israel. But in 1995, the Lithuanian Prime Minister came to the Knesset and apologized for what his people did – long before former leaders of other former Communist countries, like Ukraine, did. And the fact that Lithuania has an embassy in Israel is significant as well,” he says. “Lithuania is a small country with a limited budget for foreign representation, and it does not have embassies in Jordan and Egypt.
“By rights it shouldn’t have an embassy in Israel either, as Lithuania has no diplomatic interest in this part of the world – but it does have a moral interest, and the establishment of their embassy here, along with their activities in commemorating the Holocaust, indicates to me that many Lithuanians have done a great deal of thinking in recent years. I wouldn’t dispute those who feel differently, considering what we are talking about,” Rabbi Rosenson says. “But personally, I think this is more than a show to impress Europe – or us.”
On his visit here. Kubilius met with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and other top officials. He visited the Kotel, Yad Vashem, and the Carmel forest, and he planted a tree in the JNF’s Grove of Nations. At the tree plantin, Kubilius said that Israel had done a wonderful job of rebuilding the Land. “Over the last 2,000 years, the land was neglected, so much that in his famous novel about his trip to the Holy Land 150 years ago, the American writer Mark Twain describes it as deserted and ugly. But if you travel around Israel today, you will see a beautiful country, uniquely positioned as a bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa. If you study Israel’s plants and birds, you will discover that there are so many different species in such a small country.”