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Lithuania: Past Imperfect -- Addressing Grim Past Remains A Struggle (Part 2)

  • Valentinas Mite

During World War II, when Lithuania was occupied by Germany, an overwhelming majority of the country's Jews were killed with the active cooperation of ethnic Lithuanians. Sixty years later, Lithuanians are beginning to acknowledge their complicity in the grimmest chapter of their past. But as RFE/RL reports, there is a lingering tendency among Lithuanians to see themselves as victims of, rather than participants in, the crimes of the German forces.

Prague, 19 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- More than 90 percent of Lithuania's Jewish population -- around 200,000 people -- were killed during the German occupation of World War II. In many cases, the killings were carried out with the active participation of ethnic Lithuanians.

It is a grim moment in Lithuania's history that many there are still reluctant to acknowledge, preferring to think of themselves as victims of both the Germans and later the Soviets. But efforts are under way to present a more objective picture of Lithuania's past.

Open discussion of the Holocaust is still a relatively new concept in the former Soviet Union, where the crimes of the German forces were categorized as atrocities against the "Soviet people." Despite the publication of reports detailing the crimes of World War II, the fact that the majority of the victims were Jews was often downplayed. It was only after Lithuanians regained independence in 1991 that they began to investigate their role in the slaughter of the country's Jews.

Dalia Kuodyte is the director of Lithuania's Genocide and Resistance Center, a state institute formed to investigate the history of both the Soviet and German occupations. She said many Lithuanians still think of themselves as the victims of the horrors of World War II, and not the perpetrators. "Ethnic Lithuanians make up a majority of the population in contemporary Lithuania. And they sincerely think that what happened [during World War II] was only one in a string of occupations. I think this 'victim syndrome' is very natural, and it persists. And it is prevalent mainly among common people who, as a rule, are not well-read, who don't know a lot and aren't eager to know more," Kuodyte said.

Kuodyte said recent historical investigation into the German occupation of Lithuania reveals an unsavory truth: Thousands of ethnic Lithuanians participated in rounding up and executing the country's Jewish population. Between 165,000 and 225,000 Jews were killed in Lithuania during the war.

It is a difficult image for many Lithuanians to acknowledge. While the country's political elite has taken steps to address the issue, Kuodyte said older people, particularly those who suffered during the Soviet occupation, feel Lithuanians should not be blamed for the Jewish deaths, and that German forces were responsible for the slaughter. Lithuania, they argue, had no government of its own during the German occupation and therefore was poorly equipped to resist the German onslaught.

Kuodyte said Lithuanians are only starting to come to terms with the past. "It will take a long time for us to come to terms with our past. It is very hard for us to accept it as it was," Kuodyte said.

Members of Lithuania's small Jewish community say they appreciate the progress they see toward acknowledging the reality of World War II. But they say more needs to be done. Simonas Alperavicius is the chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community organization. He said that during Lithuania's 10 years of independence, the country has taken notable steps to recognize its past. In 2000, the Lithuanian Catholic Church publicly apologized on behalf of parishioners who had participated in the killing. And former Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas, during a 1995 visit to Jerusalem, apologized for the role of ethnic Lithuanians in the slaughter.

Alperavicius said despite such high-profile gestures, much work remains before the general public accepts this updated version of the German occupation of Lithuania. Many theories, he added, still abound in Lithuania that justify local complicity in the murder of Jewish citizens. "The theory of double genocide has fewer supporters but it still exits in Lithuania. It is the so-called 'symmetry theory,' which holds that there were two genocides in Lithuania. Its advocates insist the Communists who killed Lithuanians in 1940 during the first Soviet occupation were primarily Jewish. This belief, for them, explains why Lithuanians then actively participated in the killing of the Jews during the German occupation. Of course, it's an absurd [theory], because many Jews also suffered during the Soviet occupation," Alperavicius said.

At the official level, Lithuania has taken strides toward facing the realities of the German occupation. In 1998, President Valdas Adamkus founded the International Commission to Investigate Nazi and Soviet Crimes in Lithuania. And in 2000, Lithuania set up a National Holocaust Education Program to help acquaint citizens with the life of Lithuanian Jews before 1940, and to commemorate their achievements in culture and business.

This public awareness extends to the country's education system. The Holocaust is included in Lithuania's secondary-school and university curricula. Snieguole Matoniene, a history teacher in Vilnius, said eighth-grade pupils read and discuss "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," one of the most famous accounts of life under Nazi persecution. Students in the 11th and 12th grades also study the Holocaust and the Jewish genocide in Lithuania, including the relations between the ethnic Lithuanian and Jewish communities before the war.

Matoniene said students are encouraged to draw their own conclusions from such lessons, but that many come to the classes with preconceived notions about the Holocaust. "Pupils bring a lot of prejudices from their families, and as a rule those prejudices come not from parents but from grandparents. Parents don't discuss [the Holocaust], but grandparents often tell their grandchildren stories about the Jews torturing Lithuanians in KGB cells, about the Jews deporting Lithuanians to Siberia. It makes the situation very complicated because people get one type of information at home and another type at school," Matoniene said.

Matoniene said the situation is similar when dealing with the Soviet occupation. Some pupils, especially those whose families are now struggling financially, come to school with the conviction that life under Communist rule was better than life today and have no information about the repressive nature of the regime.

Vytautas Radzvilas teaches at the International Relations and Politics Institute in Vilnius. He said only a small minority of Lithuanians are concerned with the Holocaust. The majority, he said, are indifferent to the country's past, be it the Holocaust, the Communist regime, or other aspects of Lithuanian history. "[Lithuanian] society cannot be more concerned with the Holocaust, during which [the Jews], people of a different nationality, suffered, when it is not concerned with its own past," Radzvilas said.

Radzvilas said the Holocaust and the crimes of Soviet occupation are interconnected, and that it is impossible to probe the Jewish genocide without devoting equal attention to the crimes of the Soviets, and the role of ethnic Lithuanians in each. He said historians must be able to address the crimes of both regimes frankly, adding: "You cannot be honest in one sphere and dishonest in another. There is no desire to face 50 years of occupation frankly, because many people who actively collaborated with the Soviets are now respected statesmen and businessmen in independent Lithuania."

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