The Shameful Distinction of Lithuania

I first came across the writings of Dovid Katz while researching what happened to my relatives in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Though my novel 
The Lion Seeker
 is set in South Africa, it tells the story of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, still bound to that blood-soaked land during the horrors of that time. I had learned the details of how, following the withdrawal of Stalin’s forces, Lithuanians had turned on their Jewish neighbours in an orgy of mass murder that began weeks before the Germans took control, then continued under Nazi direction till over ninety-five percent of the country’s ancient Jewish community was wiped out, mostly in a matter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuanian death squads with their white armbands; on Katz’s website I saw the same white armbands but in full colour, the photos recent and sadly real.

Katz is an American linguist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a position at the University of Vilnius and began to travel all over the region, interviewing the last surviving Yiddish speakers. Ten years later he became aware of a change, something troubling in the young democracy. Fascists were again marching through the centre of the Lithuanian capital. It started with skinheads chanting the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larger and more diverse with each passing year. Sitting members of parliament and ordinary middle-class citizens have joined these parades, conferring authenticity. Other groups are routinely banned from marching, Katz says, but the neo-fascists always seem to get a permit, and have received police protection and centre stage for Lithuania’s independence day celebration. Above all, Katz says he’s seen little opposition, no popular outcry against these marches, even as they have spread to other cities.

When I talked with Katz earlier this year – an animated, amusing presence through the videolink from Vilnius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a persisting Brooklyn melody to his accent – he began by insisting that today’s Lithuania is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic society. “After living here happily all these years I don’t regard the Lithuanian people as anti-Semitic. The majority of people here, and especially the younger generation, are open-minded, non-prejudiced, interested in a better life, in travelling.”

Rather, he sees the burgeoning ultra-nationalism as the result of how Lithuanian institutions are dealing with their history, or failing to. In Lithuania, unlike in, say, Germany, there has been little honest soul searching and public scrutiny of the unusually extensive role that Lithuanians themselves played in the genocide of the 200,000-plus Jewish Lithuanians.

Lithuania was proportionately the worst country for the Jews during the Holocaust, with the lowest percentage of survivors out of any country with a large Jewish community. It was a high-speed genocide carried out in the open, mostly. People ­­­­­- children and infants, women – were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuanian volunteers did almost all the killing, Lithuanians rounded up the Jews, who were usually killed not far from their homes. A Lithuanian term zydsaudys or “Jew shooters” still endures, testament to how commonly well-known the activity was. The Jews “screamed like geese,” as they were shot, said one participant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Survivor testimonies, like those in the recently-published Kuniuchowsky archives, detail how the perpetrators included Lithuanians from all strata of society such as the clergy and intellectuals. The writings of various historians (like Timothy Snyder, Alfred Senn, Alfonsus Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Milan Chersonski), all helped to outline for me how widespread Lithuanian collaboration with, and approval for, the genocide was. Part of my research into my late grandmother’s village also included watching video clips of witness testimony from elderly Lithuanians, and this too, for me, was confirmation on a micro level of what had happened more generally.

In short, if there was a polar opposite to Denmark (where virtually every Jew was saved by their fellow citizens), then Lithuania unfortunately stands out as prime candidate for that shameful distinction.

In part two of my discussion with Katz, we delve a little more into the reasons behind this.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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