A brief Jewish history in Lithuania
For 700 years Jews lived in Lithuania, where the capital, Vilnius, was the global centre of Jewish intellectual and rabbinical life. At the start of the 20th century, one in three Lithuanians living in Vilnius was Jewish and Vilnius was affectionately known across the Jewish world as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’.
By 1945, 95% of Lithuanian Jewry had been wiped out. More than anywhere else in Europe, this happened at the hands of the local population.
The Lithuanian ferocity in the killing of their Jewish neighbours took even the Nazis by surprise. In a few days in June, before the Nazis arrived, thousands of Jews were slaughtered.
Once the Germans put in place their ‘orderly’ system for the rounding up and killing of Lithuanian Jews, it was the local Lithuanian population who volunteered and were willingly recruited to do much of the actual killing.
There were certainly many courageous Lithuanians who put their lives at risk defending and protecting their Jewish country-folk and many are recognised at Yad Vashem in Israel, as The Rightous among Nations.
Unlike countries such as Germany, Poland, France and Italy, Lithuania is not yet prepared to acknowledge its role in the destruction of its rich Jewish heritage.
The contemporary context
Lithuanians regard themselves as historical victims after living under the oppressive and cruel rule of the Soviets for four decades. Lithuanians were tortured, deported and oppressed. Hundreds of thousands died.
But they were not victims of deliberate mass killings or attempted annihilation.
In their national pain, the Lithuanians are now rewriting history. They have adopted a definition of genocide that differs from the UN Convention on Genocide, and have downgraded the genocide as experienced by the Jewish community by making it equivalent to the broader Lithuanian experience.
This rewriting of history is compounded by two significant facts:
- Many of those that fought and opposed the Soviets during World War 2 were the same individuals who were personally involved in the killing of the Jewish community. They are often national heroes for their role on establishing the Provisional Lithuanian Government in 1941. To admit their role in the killing of Jews means removing national heroes.
- Jewish partisans, escapees from the Vilna Ghetto who survived the Holocaust, sided with those who were fighting the Nazis, namely the Soviets. Thus, in the Lithuanian public mind, Jews are accomplices of the Russians, and not real Lithuanians
- Since Lithuania’s independence in 1991, not a single Lithuanian Nazi war criminal has been punished.
- The State Prosecutor has opened investigations into Jewish partisans, who survived Nazi deportation and fought the Nazis and their allies, for war crimes.
- The National Genocide Museum is completely dedicated to the Lithuanian experience under Soviet rule. It makes no reference to the genocide of Jews.
- The Criminal Code was amended in June 2010 introducing criminal penalties for supporting, denying or downgrading crimes committed by the Soviet Union. The content of this website would be a criminal offence in Lithuania.
- A Commission reporting to the Prime Minister’s office has been established to pursue a policy of double genocide – that equates Nazi and Soviet crimes – as official policy within the European Union. One of its objectives is to “overhaul” all European textbooks to reflect this revisionist history
- The ultra-nationalist Lithuanian Government’s historical campaign has led to a rise of anti-Semitism and intimidation of the tiny Jewish community that remains in Lithuania today.