We all know how the physical genocide of European Jewry ended, in the gas chambers in places such as Auschwitz. But too few of us know how it began, in death pits such as those in non-descript village of Ponar 10 kilometres outside of Vilnius. It was at Ponar where mass killings by the Nazis and their local allies began in an organised, systematic and genocidal way.
From 1940-41 the Soviets controlled the Ponar area where they built large pits to store fuel. However, these pits came to serve a far more sinister purpose after the Soviets fled the advancing Germans. The Nazis and their local allies quickly brought Jews from Vilna to this network of pits where they were lined up and shot in mass graves. Between 60-70,000 Jews, and 10-20,000 other victims, were murdered in this way at Ponar.
A few weeks ago the memorials at Ponar were defaced. One plaque was daubed with a swastika and the words ‘Hitler was right’. At the largest central monument there was graffiti referring to the contentious parliamentary bill which provides financial restitution to the Jewish community for World War II loses.
One would think such acts in the largest mass grave site in Lithuania would generate outrage both locally and globally – imagine if it happened in Auschwitz or in Germany. Yet when it comes to Lithuania developments such as these just seem to fall under the radar.
I constantly struggle to wonder why this is. Is it because people just accept anti-Semitism as inevitable fact of life in Lithuania? Is it because this is a tiny country and Jewish and general organisations have much bigger fish to try? Is it because the Jewish community is itself tiny and unable to assert itself and mobilise Western opinion in the way other communities do? Is it because in Lithuania the history is so complex and contemporary politics is so nuanced that many outsiders fail to recognize or understand what is occurring?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a combination of all these factors, which makes the imperative to convey what is occurring in Lithuania all the more necessary and urgent. This is why I set about making the film Rewriting History. Ultimately, I believe the Lithuanian Government’s broad policies on Holocaust issues create a climate where the graffiti attack in Ponar can be deemed by its unknown perpetrator as being in sync with the national mood.
The Ponar attack led Yale University historian Tim Snyder to explore how current Holocaust related developments in Lithuania are tied up with widespread public perspective of their suffering at the hands of the Soviets. It’s worth a read http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jul/25/neglecting-lithuanian-holocaust/
Thanks for your support and interest,
Image: Graffiti on the graves in Ponar. The text reads: “Hitler was right”.
Image is sourced from DefendingHistory.com