The Baltic countries have been independent for three months now, and what a strange halfway house their independence is. During a recent visit to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia I saw Soviet guards at the Tallinn docks checking visas of passengers coming off the Helsinki ferry. Soviet militia and Latvian border guards share the same miserable portable cabin out in the featureless fields, where Latvia ends and Lithuania begins. Around the Supreme Council buildings in all three republics, the barricades still remain, as if nobody can quite believe the tanks won’t return. Behind the barbed wire and concrete slabs, Baltic politicians are working day and night to set up new, free institutions, uneasily aware that political liberty remains conditional as long as they remain, in effect, under Soviet military occupation.
Stalin’s work in these parts will take two generations to undo, in part because he was able to take up where Hitler had left off. After repatriating the Baltic Germans and then exterminating the Jews, the Nazis succeeded in decapitating the Hanseatic bourgeoisie. Stalin went on to take down the second pillar of the society, the small farmers. By deporting rich peasants, razing their farms, and then consolidating their fields, Soviet collectivization of agriculture sought to break the last stronghold of Baltic culture.
As the independence struggle proved, Sovietization never succeeded in breaking that culture, but the dull compulsion of Soviet economic life penetrated every sphere. The rusting hulk of Soviet civilization confronts you everywhere in the Baltic: the factories that spew out outmoded and defective goods; the Soviet patrol jets that drone overhead, the decrepit apartment blocks, the empty shops, and the most dangerous legacy of all, the nuclear power station at Ignalina, whose radioactive core may well be the Soviet system’s last malignant memorial in the next millennium.
There is also the huge Russian population which arrived as administrators and occupiers. Four percent of the Estonian population was non-Estonian on the eve of the Second World War. Now Russians make up 30 percent of the population. In Latvia, the percentage is edging toward 40 percent. The new republics believe these figures present them with the specter of their own cultural extinction. Hence the first item in the de-Sovietization of society will be a citizenship law, defining which Russians will be allowed to remain in the new republics.
The new citizenship laws present the new states with their first full-scale conflict between nationalist cultural expression and minority rights. Many Latvians and Estonians deny vehemently, however, that the former allpowerful “occupiers” deserve to be called a minority at all. They prefer to compare them to the French colons in Algeria, and the comparison evokes fearful pictures of expulsion and flight. Yet here as elsewhere, powerful desires for revenge coupled with anxieties about maintaining cultural identity are held in check by equally powerful desires, reinforced by the new republics’ weakness, to be seen to be good Europeans. In practice, the extreme nationalist proposal, in both Latvia and Estonia, to restrict citizenship to citizens of the inter-war republic and their heirs, will have to give way to a citizenship that enfranchises those Russians, free of a KGB past, who pass a native language exam and show themselves willing to throw in their lot with the new republics.
In these debates over citizenship, the constitutions of the prewar republics are combed through for precedents. Yet the inter-war past was scarcely a lost paradise of bourgeois freedoms. Single-party dictatorships, often of a tacitly anti-Semitic character, dominated Baltic politics from the middle Thirties onward. Baltic legislators in 1991 are quick to defend the inter-war republics, arguing that Baltic authoritarianism preserved the independence of these states and also saved them from domestic brands of fascism. Yet whatever the truth, the Baltic republics of the late 1930s will hardly serve as a usable model of what it is to be a “good European” in politics. Only the rapid integration of the Baltic into European institutions will ensure that they become good Europeans in practice.
The other troubling return to the suppressed past relates to the Jews. The Latvian parliament has gone on public record to condemn and lament the part played by Latvians in the massacre of Jews. The Latvian government has cooperated with the small surviving Jewish community to reopen the Jewish Cultural Center in the old Jewish theater, and to dedicate a monument to the Holocaust, in the Jewish cemetery in Riga.
In Estonia, however, there is still silence. As Gennady Gramberg of the Estonian Jewish Cultural Society told a group of visitors from The London Institute of Jewish Affairs, “The Estonians have a special way of dealing with the Holocaust. They never talk or think about it.” As is customary with Soviet memorials, the monument erected on a Nazi execution site near Tallinn does not say that the victims were mostly Jewish.
But it is in Lithuania that the issue of Baltic war crimes has surfaced most troublingly in the wake of independence. Many Lithuanians enthusiastically took part in the Final Solution. As Avraham Tory’s minutely documented Kovno ghetto diary makes clear, Lithuanian partisans who had been waging a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of 1940 greeted the Nazis as liberators and made themselves immediately available for the work of extermination.* Lithuanians guarded the ghetto. They manned the execution platoons in Kovno’s Ninth Fort and plundered abandoned Jewish property. There is no question that this participation went far beyond simple compliance with German orders. Even before the Germans had established civilian government in Lithuania in late June 1941, for example, at least a thousand Jews had already been butchered by Lithuanian partisans. The Germans proved adept at exploiting the indigenous anti-Semitism of the Baltic to their own purposes. Thus, they publicly explained their decision to set up the Kovno ghetto, in the summer of 1941, by referring to the hatred of the local population for the town’s Jewish community. The Germans made a point of emphasizing Lithuanian participation in these crimes. SS Brigadefuehrer Stahlecker, in charge of exterminating Jews in Kovno, reported on June 25, 1941, that
the impression had to be created that it was the local population which had initiated the anti-Jewish measures as a spontaneous reaction to their oppression by the Jews for many years and to the communist terror to which they had been exposed in the recent past.
The Nazi identification of Jews with Bolshevism struck a deep chord among Lithuanians and provided a new political rationale for old hatreds. It was widely believed in Lithuania that the Jews were a fifth column, actively welcoming Soviet occupation in 1939 and 1940. The facts, of course, were very different. Some Jews, for only too obvious reasons, believed the Soviets offered them the only chance of protection against Hitler. Some Jews occupied senior posts in the Soviet administration during 1940 and 1941. But those who owned businesses or property were dispossessed, sent into exile, or shot. The Soviets banned all Jewish religious and cultural organizations, and when they returned in 1945, they renewed this ban and went on to expunge the history of the Jewish fate from official monuments and histories.
Since May 1990, Lithuanians who had resisted the Soviet takeover in 1940 and 1945 have been applying to the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office for rehabilitation from sentences passed by Soviet courts. Some of them had been convicted by Soviet troika courts in 1945 for collaboration with the Nazi occupation regime; and of these, the petitions of five hundred were rejected by the prosecutor’s office on the grounds that evidence pointed to their involvement in war crimes and crimes against the Jews.
Within days of American recognition of Lithuanian independence, a report by Stephen Kinzer in The New York Times created the impression that the state prosecutor was issuing certificates of rehabilitation for Lithuanian war criminals. This report led the World Jewish Congress to write expressing its concern to President Landsbergis. He angrily replied that Lithuania would never pardon persons guilty of war crimes. The prosecutor was issuing rehabilitations to those convicted on the basis of confessions extracted by the KGB. “Confessions obtained by the KGB cannot be viewed as proof by any impartial court,” he said, insisting that the only people being rehabilitated were Lithuanian partisans who had resisted the Soviet takeover.
Landsbergis has invited both the Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli Parliament to send observers to assist the state prosecutor in assessing the evidence against the five hundred people concerned. Many are already dead, and applications for rehabilitation are being made by their families, in order that they may claim Lithuanian social security benefits. Whether or not subsequent investigation leads to prosecutions and trials, the story of Baltic participation in the murder of the Jews is the darkest part of the repressed past that is now returning.
When I visited the Baltic countries in October, I wanted to find out what ordinary Lithuanians know about Lithuanian complicity in the murder of their Jewish neighbors and colleagues. What basic facts survived the fifty years of enforced silence during the Soviet period? What facts have been allowed to emerge during nationalist revival? What facts still remain to be confronted?
I had dinner one night with the Urmonai family at their farm in northeastern Lithuania. It is a yellow brick farmhouse, set back from the dirt road, with old notched barns around it, a few sows nestling in manure, twenty piglets, four cows, some hens pecking about the farmyard, a dog yelping on a chain, and the fields of the kolkhoz stretching out on either side to the horizon. Mrs. Urmonai is in charge of the kolkhoz cattle herd—several hundred dairy animals—and Mr. Urmonai drives the kolkhoz milk truck. From five in the morning until about ten, the family works for themselves, on their own farm; the rest of the day they have to work for the kolkhoz.
Everyone in the family is around the table. Mrs. Urmonai is serving the pork and potatoes; Mr. Urmonai has just returned from hunting for wolves who were savaging the kolkhoz sheep. Instead of wolves, he killed two wild boars, and has just come in from cleaning them. Their teen-age son is learning English, and wants to drive long-distance Volvo trucks. Their daughter, Edita, who translates our conversation, is studying at Vilnius University. On the shelves are the books her parents have bought for her: next to Rabelais and Alexandre Dumas, a Lithuanian translation of the Polish-Lithuanian national poet, Mickiewicz, and a collection of Tomas Venclova’s translations of the poetry of Milosz, Eliot, and Auden.
The Urmonai family owned land here during the “independence times” beginning in the 1920s, and for them, Soviet collectivization was what enclosure must have been for the yeoman farmers of England during the early modern period. Copses and fences were leveled to create consolidated acreages. Swamps were drained and filled; villages were plowed under to create the empty fields which stretch out on either side of the house. Rich peasants were taken from the land and deported to Siberia. Yet despite all this, tiny holdings like the Urmonais’ managed to survive. As the newly independent states struggle back to join the European economy they were forced to leave fifty years ago, the small family farm is among the few remaining independent entrepreneurial traditions they can rely on for their future.
I ask Mrs. Urmonai, an intelligent and capable woman with strong arms, brown skin, and a couple of bright brass teeth what independence has meant for her. “Since independence nobody at the kolkhoz wants to work. Everyone is waiting. Production is falling. We do not know what is going to happen.” Drunkenness among kolkhoz workers is getting worse. She would give up her position in the kolkhoz today if she could. Her people just aren’t showing up for work.
She hopes the republic will turn the kolkhoz into a cooperative run by the most efficient small farmers. “All the drunks and the free-loaders would have to go.” What would happen to them? I ask. “They would work for us for wages, and if they don’t work, they would be out,” she says firmly.
Rebuilding the family farm will not be easy. Most of the kolkhoz machinery and equipment is either out of date or too large for a small farm. Shortage of cash and available machinery may force families like the Urmonais to return to the horse and plough. I saw plenty of horses pulling ploughs through the fields, and plenty of kolkhoz families harvesting beets by hand. Yet in one respect the Lithuanian countryside looks more hopeful than the Russian. Most rural roads are at least paved, in contrast to the muddy tracks I’ve traveled on, for example, in the southwestern Ukraine.
Mrs. Urmonai wants a future that would be halfway to capitalism, with the cooperative producing meat and milk for a state marketing board that would set and maintain stable prices. A free agricultural market would be a disaster for everyone. “We have so few efficient people here. If only a Lithuanian would return from America or Germany and tell us how,” she sighs.
Mrs. Urmonai wants to be certain of independence before she and her husband embark on the arduous business of rebuilding the family’s fortunes once again. Every farmer in these parts remembers what happened in 1940 and again in 1945 when the Soviets came and deported all the rich families. Everyone’s memories are still too raw to put any trust in the euphoria of independence.
Mr. Urmonai’s mother was among those deported. She lives with her son now, a woman of eighty who sleeps in a room with a picture of the Virgin Mary above her bed and hops strewn to dry in the corner. She is at the table, bright, alert, and weatherbeaten, with a complete set of steel false teeth.
About fifty years ago, she tells us, she took some food to the Lithuanian partisans who were carrying on a guerrilla war against Soviet occupation. These “forest brethren” asked her to take a roll of film into town to be developed. On it were the portraits of fighters who had already been captured and whom the “forest brethren” wished to remember. When she came to pick up the film, she was arrested by the NKVD. Then in her thirties, she was taken from her sons and husband and sent to a prison in northern Russia. She did not return until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
I ask her about the old times before the war, when the windmills dotting the plains were still grinding grain. Was there electric light? She finds this question hilarious and laughs brightly. “No paved roads, no light, nothing but poverty.”
Then I ask her about their Jewish neighbors, saying that I am not Jewish, in the hope that she will not feel bound by the proprieties. She tells me that there used to be nineteen Jewish families in the village. They kept cows. They sold milk. Some were local peddlers. Some were good people. Some were bad. In the Jewish museum in Vilnius, there is a gold star of David for every significant Jewish settlement in prewar Lithuania. Every single small town in the country had a Jewish population, and every decent-sized village as well.
Old Mrs. Urmonai says, in a quiet voice, that before the war, people hereabouts used to believe that the Jews sacrificed Christian children and used their blood to make Passover bread. Others believed that Jewish grain merchants put glass in their flour to make the Gentile women bleed when they kneaded the dough. This is the first time that I have heard the language of blood libel. She doesn’t say whether she ever believed this herself. It is said neutrally, simply as something that people once believed in these parts.
I then ask her what part Lithuanians played in the murder of their Jewish neighbors. I am expecting her to say that the Germans forced the Lithuanians to do what they did; or that the Jews had supported the Soviet regime and “naturally” got what was coming to them. These are not stories that she tells me. She is quiet as the question is translated, slightly hunched over her dinner, not looking at me, pensive far away. Then she straightens up and says, very clearly, “Nobody needed to teach us. Nobody forced Lithuanians to do these things. We did them ourselves.” And then she adds, “And we did wrong.”
The room falls silent while Grandmother Urmonai resumes her meal. This farmhouse where we are sitting, with its floral stencils on the wall, the linoleum on the floor, the copies of Mickiewicz and Venclova on the shelves, is several hundred yards from a small Jewish cemetery located in a copse at the end of a dirt road. The copse is so densely overgrown that no gravestones can be found. Only a tablet of the former Soviet Lithuanian government tells us that it is a national monument. All around here, in the dark woods which border the bare autumn fields, Jewish families were taken to be shot. Altogether two hundred thousand Lithuanian Jews were killed in 1941. All over Lithuania, there are abandoned graveyards like this one. They are the void into which the history of a Lithuanian people has fallen.
Vilna was the home of YIVO, the great archive of central European Yiddish culture, and of a synagogue so grand that Napoleon himself is supposed to have exclaimed, “This is the Jerusalem of Europe.” This Vilna has vanished, never to return. There were always four cultures here: the Russian Orthodox, the Lithuanian Catholic, the Polish Catholic, and the Jewish. Now only the Orthodox and Catholic church bells sound. You can walk the streets of the old town and never know what this place meant to the entire world of central European Jewry.
There is a survivor culture in Vilnius, and some of its members were leaders in the battle for Lithuanian independence. But Yiddish is dead, and the new generation was never taught the languages necessary to preserve what remains of the old culture. YIVO, now based in New York, is negotiating with the Lithuanian government to send to New York a remaining fragment of the YIVO archive which turned up safe and sound in the basement of a state book depository. Some local Jewish leaders believe it should remain on Lithuanian soil, but others, including the leading local Jewish writer, Gregory Kanovitch, argue that the culture which could have made use of this archive, or trained the scholars to use it, has now vanished forever. It must go to New York where it belongs.
Most Lithuanian Gentiles may not know that Vilnius was once the Jerusalem of a great Jewish culture, but they know very well that a great crime was committed, and that they bear responsibility for it. After talking to Mrs. Urmonai, I go down the road to talk to the history teacher. She lives in three bare neat rooms in a low apartment block built by that kolkhoz for its schoolteachers. She is a resolute widow, with the pathos of country schoolteachers who must watch their best pupils depart to the city. On her shelves there is a photograph of Pope Paul and a small cross. The wall is full of books. She has been teaching the children of this agricultural community for thirty years. When I ask her how her lessons have changed, her eyes fill with tears.
It is terrible to lie to children, she says at last.
What did she teach them that was not true?
She waves her arm in a small angry gesture which says everything: that the Soviet occupation brought us freedom and progress, when all around us, we could see it brought us the opposite. That the resistance movements were bandits, when we knew they were patriots. That the rich peasants were exploiters and kulaks, when we knew they were the backbone of our country’s life.
She had visits from local Party officials who would sit in the back of the classroom and tell her, after she had finished, that her pedagogical methods could not be faulted, but that she had not given sufficient emphasis to the leading role of the Party. It was ridiculous, she says. She never joined the Party, because she couldn’t. She had relatives abroad and an ideologically incorrect family background.
With the emergence of the independence movement in 1988, she could at last begin to teach the history that she had actually lived. She began to tell her students about the “forest brethren,” the anti-Soviet guerrillas after the war whose bodies she saw laid out in the square of the nearby town. She was now able to teach that, far from being crushed in 1946, they continued their struggle until the early 1950s.
And what, I want to know, does she teach children about the Jews? Before the war, she said, a quarter of the population in Siauliai, the nearest market town, were Jews. She remembered how as a child she used to drive with her family in their cart into town and buy from the local Jewish merchants. She remembered itinerant peddlers who came to the farmhouse door with buttons and scarves. Honest people, she said, and efficient too. Then there came a day, in 1941, when they drove into town and found all the Jews they knew, all the women and children too, drawn up in the town square behind barbed wire. She couldn’t give them bread because they were guarded by soldiers. She was also there when the ghetto was liquidated three years later, in 1944. She heard the Jewish families being loaded onto trucks. “I remember the screaming,” she said, looking away out the window, “the screaming.”
I look around her bare, spotless, drab apartment, and try to imagine an honorable life spent teaching lies, a life whose supreme misfortune was that it had to be lived “in Soviet times.” What, I ask, after a while, do you teach now?
She replies that since there are no books about the Jews, she has had to rely on the Lithuanian nationalist press, and that it was from these newspapers that she learned how Lithuanian militias and pro-German partisans had taken part in the atrocities against the Jews. “This too we must teach. We have had too much lying. This too we must teach,” she says.
It is often said in the West that the revival of Eastern European nationalism has gone hand in hand with a systematic suppression of all that is offensive to the national memory. Equally it is said that nationalist revivals bring with them a revival of forms of hatred that were kept in check under the Soviet system. Lithuania is certainly no exception to the revival of nationalist hatreds. Just ask the thousands of Poles who live in the southeast of the country, on the border with Poland. They have seen their local councils suppressed because they were accused of having collaborated with the former Soviet regime; non-Polish Lithuanian administrators have been appointed in their stead. Polish-Lithuanian hatreds are very close to the surface in the new state.
Yet nationalist revivals are not everywhere synonymous with the resurgence of old hatreds and old myths, and they are not always antithetical to truth telling. It was from the nationalist press that a provincial school-mistress first learned about the complicity of some Lithuanians in the massacre of Jews. Indeed, it was Antanas Terleckas, the leader of the National Liberty League, the most outspokenly nationalist of the independence movements, who first published an article describing in detail Lithuanian involvement in crimes of genocide. Other writers followed, notably the brilliant poet and critic Tomas Venclova. More than anyone else, they forced the issue of Lithuanian complicity in genocide onto the consciousness of the Lithuanian national revival.
Historical truthfulness was central to this revival, because of the way the Soviet regime lied about the Hitler-Stalin pact, and falsified the mandate for Soviet occupation of the Baltic states. It could be argued that because the simple establishment of historical truth was so uniquely central to the cause of Lithuanian independence, the same attention to truth was required, as a matter of honor, in the matter of Lithuanian participation in the murder of the Jews.
The importance of truth telling in the nationalist revival surfaced again in a conversation I had with a historian of modern Lithuania at Vilnius University. I ran into him by accident: he was certainly not recommended to me by the government as an ideologically acceptable spokesman. Once again, I said that I was not a Jew.
Some nationalist groups, the professor admitted, were attempting to deny our responsibility for what happened. They were saying that we were forced to it by Nazi occupation. This is true, but still no excuse. They were also saying that Polish anti-Semitism was worse. This might also be true, but was irrelevant. As for the claim that Jews welcomed Soviet power, this was also true, but only of some Jews, and in any case, again is no excuse. The fact is, he went on, whatever Jewish collaboration there may have been with Soviet power in 1940 cannot justify what happened to them between 1941 and 1942. “No sober person,” he concluded, “can find excuses for Lithuanian genocide.”
But what about the prosecutor’s decision to cancel the sentences of the Soviet courts on war criminals? These sentences, he agreed, had to be annulled. They were kangaroo courts; they sentenced thousands of innocent people to death or exile, and they ruined countless lives. Unfortunately, the annulment of these sentences also appears to rehabilitate a number of criminals. Speaking strictly as a private person, he said the Lithuanian state must bring these people to justice. This is a matter, he concluded, of “the nation’s conscience before international opinion.”
A history professor at the university, a teacher at a country school, an old peasant woman: they all knew what was done, they all knew that the Nazi occupation regime made use not just of a few local sadists and criminals, but of an extensive network involving thousands of Lithuanians. It will be said that what I heard was not typical, that my informants were unusual. Possibly. There is simply no way to assess how widely the facts are known; but it is important, surely, that they are known among some ordinary Lithuanians and that an attachment to truth, however painful, is understood by people such as the ones I talked to, to be necessary to the honor of the new Lithuanian nation. As the Lithuanian writer Justinas Marcinkevicius told the second Sajudis Congress in October 1988, “We have finally understood: woe to those peoples whose history and memory are silent or tell falsehoods.” How the new Lithuanian state decides to proceed with the five hundred Lithuanians still suspected of war crimes will show just how much truth it is prepared to face.
November 21, 1991
See the review by Istvan Deak of Tory’s book, Surviving the Holocaust; The Kovno Ghetto Diary (Harvard University Press, 1990), The New York Review, November 8, 1990. ↩