The Lithuanian Holocaust - The Extermination of the Jewish Population of Lithuania
Extermination of the Jewish People of Ponary
Lithuanian Jewish History
This book is an amazing resource for anyone wanting to learn about the history of Lithuanian Jewry. It was fascinating reading, although not light reading. Greenbaum covers the rise of the various political, religous and zionist movements within the Jewish community, and most importantly, puts them within their historical context. The depth of her research is outstanding.
Pre-war Lithuania was home to up to 250,000 Jewish people and was a prodigious hub of Jewish learning. The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, was referred to as the Jerusalem of the North. By 1942 only approximately 43,000 Lithuanian Jews were left alive and many of these were forced to work for the Nazi military industry. In 1943, Himmler ordered the destruction of all Lithuanian ghettos and any remaining Lithuanian Jews to be sent to concentration camps. The survival rate for Lithuanian Jews was 3-5%. About 4,000 Jewish people were counted in the Lithuanian census of 2005.
Sites of Pre-War Lithuanian Jewish Populations
Lithuanian Jewish History
The Lithuanian Jews played an important role not only within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but in a wider context of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The changes at the end of the nineteenth century/beginning of the twentieth had a profound impact not only on the Jewish communities, but also on a parallel world of those who lived with them side by side.
The Lithuanian Holocaust
The Lithuanian Holocaust started without a lead-up. Executions occurred from the first day of the Nazi occupation, unlike in other nations where there had been a gradual disintegration of Jewish civil rights and process of ghetto-isation prior to the deportations and executions. Perhaps, like in other parts of Europe, this was because there was sympathy with the process on the part of many Lithuanians.
The Ghetto at Kaunas - 1941
Nazi Anti-Jewish Propaganda
When Russia annexed Lithuania in 1940, Jews, if not Christian Lithuanians, greeted the Red Army with flowers, recalls Gordon. But the following year, when Germany declared war against Russia, the then-16-year-old author's security as member of a large, close-knit family of affluent Kovno Jews would be shattered. In a Holocaust memoir made unique by its rare depiction of Nazi-occupied Lithuania and by its condemnation of the local Jewish council, Gordon bears witness to the brutality of Lithuanians and conqueror alike as he reconstructs his corner of hell from the German invasion to his 1944 rescue as a Dachau escapee, his two-year hospitalization and emigration to the U.S.
Lithuanian Participation and Hatred of Communists
There is much controversy surrounding the level of Lithuanian participation in the genocide of the Jewish Lithuanian population. It seems to be a subject that the nation of Lithuania has not yet faced up to and appropriately aired (see Naylor, 2010). There is no remaining significant Jewish population in Lithuania today. This makes it really difficult to gauge how wide-spread levels of current anti-semitism actually are, although there is some evidence that anti-semitism is alive and well.
In Kaunas, a large Lithuanian city, there are no significant stand-alone memorials to Holocaust victims. In Kaunas, the 'Ninth Fort', was home to the brutal massacre of 10,000 Jews, including upwards of 4,000 children, in a single day in October 1941; the so-called 'Great Action'. There are no signposts to the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. The plaque at the Ninth Fort simply says "This is the place where Nazis and their assistants killed more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries." According to Naylor (2010), half or more of the Jewish people killed in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation were killed by Lithuanian volunteers, and there is no real national acknowledgement of this.
The sympathy of the Lithuanians towards the Nazi invaders must be seen in the context of the brutally oppressive Communist occupation of Lithuania just prior to the German invasion. One night in June 1941, a week before the Germans invaded, the Soviets deported 30,000 Lithuanians to Siberia without notice. The Soviets had ruled with terror and did not hesistate to comit mass killings of influential Lithuanians. They confiscated land, nationalised industries and severely curtained the freedom of the press along with individual freedoms.
The initial Lithuanian sympathy towards the Nazis was also somewhat exacerbated by a common perception of a close connection between the Community Party and Jewish people. Hatred of Communists was almost a universal theme in World War II Lithuania and of course continued up to independence. This is seen in the bloody and violent resistance to the Soviets in the years after the war by Lithuanian resistance fighters. From 1944 to 1952, up to 30,000 Lithuanian partisans were killed by the Soviets. This resistance never stopped until the Lithuanians finally achieved independence from the USSR in 1990.
In his book, Lithuania, Stepping Westward (2001), Lane states that Jewish representation in the Lithuanian Communist party was disproportionately high. He argues that some Lithuanians did not differentiate between Jews and Communist persecutors. The Nazi occupation gave the Lithuanian population an excuse for revenge on the communists and the Jews by association, according to Lane. Naylor argues that this perception was exploited by the Nazis.
Lane goes on to detail how some Lithuanian mobs committed atrocities against Jewish people but also describes how the Provisional Lithuanian Government tried to restrain the Gestapo from destroying the Lithuanian Jews and protested against the mass executions. (The Provisional Government was set up prior to the Nazi invasion and was only to last approximately 6 weeks until it was disbanded by the Nazis who had other ideas about who was to govern Lithuania.) On the other hand, the Provisional Government also issued proclamations in support of the Nazis and some anti-Jewish messages as well.
Massacre at Kovno - 1941
Fearon and Laitin (2006) posit that Lithuanians have an "historical burden of active complicity in the Holocaust". Their view is that the Lithuanian hatred of Jews and Russians has been a constantly re-cycled story of modern Lithuanian history.
Lane argues strongly that if each episode is not examined and the full extent of collaboration uncovered, the accusations of collaboration will continue. Any excuses, extenuations or attempts to 're-write' history will just contribute to greater controversy and suspicion. He points out that, in fairness, there are also many instances where significant numbers of Lithuanians risked their lives to save Jewish people. He highlights the efforts made to save Jewish people by the Catholic Church in Lithuania and the many individual priests who as a matter of practice opposed Nazism. It seems that both the Lithuanian community and the greater world community would benefit from a proper recounting of the Lithuanian Holocaust.
Last century was perhaps the most socially and politically complex and violent century of Lithuanian history. Whatever growth that might have occurred in the national psyche as a result remains unexposed.
Anti Semitism in Lithuania
More about the Holocaust
- Holocaust Heroes--A short list
In the Holocaust, 29 Who Made a Difference (a rather short list) The book is called "Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust," and perhaps the most telling thing about it is that it is very slim....
- Top Five Holocaust Films
The holocaust will forever be a scar on the human experience. The guilt and shame of such an undertaking still permeates the air in countries which saw it firsthand. It's a very heavy feeling, as well it should be.
More in my Lithuania Series
- Famous Lithuanian Americans - Successful Migrants
The lives of these successful people show that the dream of a better life is possible, if not for migrants, then for their children or grandchildren. Sometimes success can spring out of the great misfortunes that cripple nations.
- Charles Bronson - Famous Lithuanian American
The United States of America, like my home, Australia, is a nation built on the backs of migrants. People from all walks have dreamed of going to America, but only some have been able to realise their dream.
- Lithuanian Diaspora - A Brief History of WWII Lithuanian Displaced Persons
Lithuania is one of the Baltic States, nestled above Poland on the Baltic Sea. It is 65,300 square kilometres in size with the longest border being 724 kilometres and the smallest about 110 kilometres.
- Lithuania, Stepping Westward, Thomas Lane (2001), Routledge, New York.
- Lithuania, Fearon J. & Laitin D, (2006) Stanford University - http://www.stanford.edu/group/ethnic/Random%20Narratives/LithuaniaRN1.3.pdf
- "Double Genocide" and Lithuania, K Naylor (Wednesday, 15 September 2010), Central and Eastern Europe Watch - http://easterneuropewatch.blogspot.com/2010/09/double-genocide-and-lithuania.html
- Baltic States, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Jan-Peiter Verhuel - http://fccorn.people.wm.edu/russiasperiphery/213408ccaade3ae3d026b2c9a28fe370.html