Saulius Sužiedėlis
© DELFI / Orestas Gurevičius

It is not suitable to grant state honours to those who contributed to the holocaust in any way says US Millersville University history professor emeritus Saulius Sužiedėlis, who proposes for Lithuania to review who monuments have been built for.

According to S. Sužiedėlis, Lithuania could and should have done more in identifying and trying holocaust participants. The historian says that Lithuania need not take blame for the massacred Jews, however there is need to finally admit Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust without equivocating and without trying to lessen the significance of our countrymen who participated.

This, the historian explains, harms Lithuania's image, which is even important for defending national sovereignty. He believes that no-one will want to defend a land which has such a vile image.

This spring German historian dr. Christoph Dieckmann, who wrote the influential piece German Occupation Policy in Lithuania 1941-1944, questioned why the Lithuanian public did not protest when it could see and hear about Jewish massacres. Professor S. Sužiedėlis finds this question to be problematic because at the time there were few opportunities to actually resist, with the first two months having occupied the Lithuanian consciousness with mass deportations and retreating Red Army troops shooting over 1000 innocent Lithuanians.

"The psychology was completely different. What Lithuanian would go die for Stalin? Thus resistance would have been difficult psychologically.

What was worst was that the anti-Semitic rhetoric spread the most in the media. The media was semi-official for a time, black and murderous rhetoric toward Jews was particularly spread by regional newspapers. In June 1940 the first release of Į Laisvę [To Freedom], Naujoji Lietuva [New Lithuania] lead article for June 4 in Vilnius – there was no more terrible genocidal thinking than that article, everything is clearly expressed, what to do with Jews there. You cannot argue against these facts. The only force which could have said a word to stop the massacres was the Germans, who controlled the occupied the country.

Historian Timothy Snyder explains that one of the most important factors enabling massacres and local participation in them was the destruction of independent states on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. States which tried to protect their citizens' and also Jews' rights, if imperfectly, were brought down," S. Sužiedėlis states, albeit pointing out that the intelligentsia members that wrote the articles were not forced and wrote of their free will and beliefs, this becoming a major catalyst for others to participate.

The professor notes that in the end there was an administrative structure operating under German supervision and it was not just fringe degenerate elements that partook in Jewish massacres. He points to the example of Colonel Vytautas Reivytis of the Lithuanian police department in Kaunas, who organised Jewish segregation in order to assemble them for massacres. "Genocide cannot occur on the basis of scum and fringe elements – an administrative structure is needed, local officials. Who was it that ordered the creation of small ghettoes in rural towns? Local officials," S. Sužiedėlis states.

As such he notes that the number of participants was likely far greater than Lithuanians would like to admit. Nevertheless, the professor emphasises that there is a need for specifying what participation was and that Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas standing with a gun among guerrillas, defending an object and shooting at retreating Red Army detachments does not mean he participated in the Holocaust. In the end though the numbers of those participating in the Holocaust in Lithuania number in the thousands, far more than initially expected.

Such events should not lead to collective guilt however, S. Sužiedėlis states. This is because the Holocaust itself was also enacted on the basis of collective guilt, performed as a reflection of Nazi ideology viewing all Jews as guilty, claiming that the Jews are a mortal threat to the Arian Germans.

Instead he proposes to consider the concept of collective shame. "For example I found out about the Holocaust already as an adult. It was somewhat eye opening, what happened in Lithuania back then. I felt great shame – how can people who speak my language, are of my nationality, mostly Catholic, could do this. It is a moral feeling of collective shame, but I personally do not feel any guilt for the Holocaust. And there is no reason to recall guilt," S. Sužiedėlis explains.

Regarding the recent scandal regarding Rūta Vanagaitė and her claims about A. Ramanauskas-Vanagas, the professor emphasises that such issues need to be brought up in a healthy discussion, but this needs to be done fairly and under good will, opinions can change when facts are presented. S. Sužiedėlis notes that in this case matters were, however, different and there was no reason to expect good will and a fair viewpoint from Efraim Zuroff in particular, especially when claims of self-harm were made about an individual who was clearly interrogated and tortured, with no proof of A. Ramanauskas-Vanagas participating in the Holocaust.

In terms of commemorating prominent figures of the time, whose role in the Holocaust is occasionally ambiguous, S. Sužiedėlis states that any individual who participated in the tragedies of 1941 should not receive state honours and commemoration, such as J. Krištaponis who served as an officer in a battalion which clearly murdered thousands of innocents or K. Škirpa and J. Noreika who both may not have killed anyone, but participated as part of the administrative structure.

At the same time a line must be drawn, S. Sužiedėlis adds. Vincas Kudirka's writings may contain anti-Semitism, however he did not kill anyone, remained of democratic views and was yet another to have been swept up by the spirit of those times.

The professor emphasises that the Lithuanian problem is not a lack of writing and research on the Holocaust, but rather a disinterest, lack of knowledge or accepting the truth within much of society. He notes that we must understand that this was a massive tragedy for not only Lithuanians, but also for Jews and their history must be included in Lithuanian history curricula because Jews were greatly integrated into Lithuanian history and the Holocaust histories are the bloodiest page of Lithuanian 20th century history which receives far too little attention in textbooks and teaching, as well as overall public discourse.

"We need open admission, not self-defence that it happened, we need a statement that we will investigate, admit the blame of those who participated in the Holocaust and we will strive that such things do not repeat in the future," S. Sužiedėlis states.

Regarding the hysterical efforts at defence and at dismissing the role of Lithuania in the Holocaust, S. Sužiedėlis finds this to be a large political and public relations problem, as well as a moral one. He points out that many friends of Lithuania question not out of ill intent, but in an effort to aid the country and improve its image.

"The image of a country is important even for defending sovereignty – no-one will desire to defend a country whose image is so vile.

The only answer is for us ourselves to honestly present history as it was. However this does not mean that we cannot criticise those who distort history. If the publications of Alexander Diukov are released in Russia, filled with nonsense and one-sided claims, we can answer to it and criticise.

I believe one of the largest mistakes being made is the efforts to excuse the actions of the temporary government, whitewash it. The more I look at its actions, the grimmer it appears," The professor says.

Several years ago he pointed out that in the USA Lithuania is known for its Jewish massacres. S. Sužiedėlis explains that while Lithuania may not have been the only country in which such things happened, a number of reasons highlight specifically Lithuania. For one, the influence of Litvaks, Lithuanian Jews, is notable in the world and they recall what happened to their families, something that unsurprisingly forms a very specific image of Lithuania for them.

Secondly Lithuania's experience of World War II was very different to that of the West. In the West any who collaborated with the Nazis is held as evil, but for Lithuanians, the German occupation was not the worst time, with Lithuanian casualties in the post-war era having been by far greater and thus having a psychological influence.

"I believe that the expatriate community also did a disservice. They were strongly anti-communist; this is good, but anti-communism sometimes was primitive, somewhat mixed with anti-Semitism and Americans catch on to this very quickly, are very sensitive to it. It lasts.

When the Sąjūdis arose in 1990, everyone in the West expected a positive image of the country, but instead articles about Nazis, collaborators and Algirdas Klimaitis [the organiser of the Vilijampolė pogrom] flooded in. Nonsense was written as well. I recall how the Newsweek journal presented a photo where Hitler drove down the streets of Klaipėda in March 1939. The heading states that Lithuanians congratulated Hitler's arrival, but those standing on the roadsides were not Lithuanians, but Germans, Klaipėda Nazis. This is a misunderstanding of what happened in Lithuania, a confusion of nuance. It also has an impact. But I believe that in recent times the situation improved somewhat.

Only sometimes little scandals appear such as with A. Ramanauskas-Vanagas, R. Vanagaitė suddenly is made into a hero, a martyr of the freedom of speech, her books being burned," the professor explains.

Just as with those who killed Jews, he points out that it was not just a handful of people who aided Jews, with some 900 being recognised for it by now. Just as some of the murderers were not tried, similarly not all those who helped Jews have been recognised. S. Sužiedėlis believes the number of those who provided aid is at least two-three times greater than featured on the list in Jerusalem, potentially reaching several thousand.

"This was not some small handful of people, it was a minority, but in the context of other countries, there were a fair amount in Lithuania. The saviours deserve a monument. These were heroes and in the summer and autumn of 1941 there were very few acts of heroism," he states.

During his visit to Israel in 1995 Algirdas Brazauskas promised to try those guilty [for Holocaust participation]. S. Sužiedėlis finds this to be a black mark, with Lithuania could and should have done more. The potential defendants may have already been old and of poor health, but they should have been prosecuted for their crimes, particularly when former istrebitels [Soviet destruction battalions] began to be prosecuted. "Naturally the question comes from abroad, why you prosecuted those, but not the others," S. Sužiedėlis concludes.

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