Vilijampolė, Kaunas, winter. The project "Being a Jew". A group of thirty teachers led by a Jewish guide are standing in the former Kaunas ghetto. Houses, garages, storage spaces, wood piles where, during the war, thousands of Jews were herded like animals by the Nazis, where Jewish children played, and from where they were later taken to a square or to one of the Kaunas forts and shot.
Rūta Vanagaitė
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

The houses and storage buildings have been rebuilt, renovated, replaced, and people now live in them who don't know where they live and what happened here before they came. And how could they know? There is no written notice, nothing preserved, only a stone next to the entrance. One building, which is being renovated, used to house a store whose display window once featured the severed head of a rabbi who had lived here.

An Audi stops next to us. A man with a shaved head rolls down the window and shouts: "Well, Jews, what do you want? What are you doing here? What are you looking for?" After our guide gives him a polite response, almost apologizing for our presence here, the man drives off down one of the small streets of the ghetto, but several minutes later turns around and drives back towards us at full speed. The brakes screech and the car comes to a stop almost ploughing into our group.

I thought things might go badly and so went up to the man in the vehicle to try to mitigate the situation. There was an open, unfinished bottle of beer on the passenger seat. I said to the man: "Don't be angry. We are not Jews, this is just a tour. This was the ghetto, after all, didn't you know that?" I saw that this was news to him and he didn't know what ghetto meant. "Maybe you shouldn't drive," I told the man with the shaved head, "since you've had a few. You don't want the police to catch you."

"I am a policeman," he said. Finally he drove away, not having done anything to us.

Several weeks ago, for the closing of the "Being a Jew" project we held an international conference on the Holocaust. Prominent historian Saulius Sužiedėlis spoke about something the majority of Lithuanian people really don't know, and probably don't want to know: it wasn't the dregs or rejects of the society who were shooting Jews. Thousands of us, of our own, of Lithuanians shot the Jews, they were "average guys", as Sužiedėlis called them.

Not out of sadism, either. It was simply that when the Germans came in the summer of 1941, pushing out the Soviets, these "average guys" resurrected all of the administrative structures of independent Lithuania, including the police, self-defence units, etc. Average Lithuanians, who loved their country, went back to work or began work in these structures or became members of these battalions. And then they got their first order: to kill the others, people who were different. The "average guys" carried out their assignment well, so all that was left for the Nazis to do was to observe and report their satisfaction back to Berlin.

"Obedience to the bureaucratic mechanism and loyalty to their comrades were the main consideration in turning 'average guys' into murderers," Saulius Sužiedėlis said. Greed, alcohol and good old-fashioned Lithuanian anti-Semitism also helped those men carry out their assignments.

Slander? Lies? I read the case files of my relatives who were sentenced. All files on political prisoners and deportees are accessible to everyone, all you have to do is go to the Special Archive across the street from the Lukiškės Square in Vilnius. I read the files of my grandfather and of others arrested along with him — one man, who was in jail with him, had taken a group of Jews to a killing site, for which he was rewarded with a house and 4.5 hectares of land that had belonged to a Jewish man.

My grandfather didn't kill, didn't receive Jewish property, he only participated in drawing up lists. Could he have refused to do that? I don't know. Were many in our families those same "average guys" who loved Lithuania and became murderers against their own will? Could they have refused to do what they did? I don't know.

I know that we in Lithuania haven't spoken about this, are not speaking about it now and will not speak about it in the near future. Jews from Israel and the United States speak about it, while we heroically fend against their "fantastic inventions".

It doesn't seem to matter that our own historians know the facts. Historians investigate them and then keep quiet. The facts are not good for us, they are even dangerous. For even if we admit openly and publicly that Lithuanians were not heroes, and that some things did happen, that would be very useful to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. He will exploit that and turn us into Nazis and fascists, and then he will surely attack our country. As I was escorting Tomas Venclova after the conference, I asked him about that. The poet answered simply: "The truth cannot be useful for Putin, nor for any other of our enemies. The truth can't hurt Lithuania. The lie, or suppression, can, and it is exactly the suppression that serves Putin's policies."

The idea has been put forward in Lithuania to institutionalize an official history policy. The parliament wants to implement the idea with legislation. We do not need this law since there already is an officially-sanctioned history policy. "Our history is commemorative, it aspires to commemorate the heroic acts of the nation, to recall the losses the nation has suffered and to honour the dead," Saulius Sužiedėlis said. "The ethnic Lithuanian can only be an innocent victim or a heroic fighter, and often both simultaneously," Tomas Venclova added.

Everything beyond "commemorative history" is not our history, and is therefore unimportant. It doesn't matter that Vilnius was a Polish and a Jewish city, or that if you live in an apartment in the Old Town, there was probably a Jewish family who lived there before they were murdered. No one is going to place a memorial plaque on the colossal Jewish hospital in Vilnius which still has its old doors, wood flooring and windows, but now houses apartments for Vilnius residents in former operating, delivery rooms and X-ray facilities.

Our tour group didn't go there, because some "average guy" would likely emerge from one of the apartments and say something like: "Well what do you want now, Jews?" Nor will anyone probably conserve the largest library of judaica in Europe, it has been left to the ravages of time, after being privatized, abandoned and locked up.

School children from Vilnius do not travel the short distance to Paneriai [Ponar], located just outside Vilnius, where 70,000 people were murdered, and not exclusively at the hands of the Nazis. Where in order to save bullets, men dashed the skulls of living infants against trees. The trees are still standing there. But those who were murdered at Paneriai were not “our” people, they were "others".

For the culmination of the "Being a Jew" project we brought 700 students from Vilnius to Paneriai, to the killing pits, and asked if anyone had been there before. Around thirty students raised their hands. Over their twelve years at school, all students certainly visit all the important Lithuanian museums, including the Horse Museum and the Chocolate Museum.

Several years ago, the Genocide Research Centre published on their website the names of a thousand Lithuanians who were involved in killing other people between 1941 and 1944. After a couple of days that list disappeared; apparently, history policy had come into play, which is implemented in Lithuania easily, through a single telephone call.

Why am I writing about all of this? For whom and for what purpose are these tours, conferences and commemorative events? Why delve into the past, why not let bygones be bygones? "After all, all peoples suffered," an acquaintance of mine told me. “The times were of such a nature," another said.

Now of course times have changed. On 16 April, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, when our project participants, 700 children, boarded the train from Vilnius to Paneriai, some of the boys saw some Jewish kids standing nearby. "Well, let's load the Jews on the train cars," they said, and laughed. The Jewish kids began to cry. The history policy implemented by the Lithuanian government has truly been effective.

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After this piece was published on DELFI, in Lithuanian, the Genocide Research Centre responded with a comment that there was never any list published on its website with names of people who collaborated in killing Jews.

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