The pope visited Lithuania on the day, which marked the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto. In almost all the speeches made in Lithuania, Pope Francis at least mentioned not only the holocaust, but also the ghettoes. And prayed at a monument in Vilnius that commemorates the victims of the Vilnius ghetto, Indrė Makaraitytė writes on lrt.lt.
The pope left, having spread much light, but the ghost of the ghettoes remain.
Juozas Krikštaponis is currently best known as the leader of one of the partisan districts, who was killed in 1945 in a clash with the NKVD. He is also President Antanas Smetonas’ nephew. A monument was built in Ukmergė for his achievements in defending Lithuania’s freedom. However, this person not only defended Lithuania’s freedom, but also participated in the massacres of soviet POWs and Jews.
In autumn 1941, when J. Krikštaponis led a company of Major Antanas Impulevičius’ Second Auxiliary Police Service Battalion, the battalion was sent from Kaunas for a secondment in Belarus. Historians have data that J. Krikštaponis’ company participated in the liquidation the Belarussian Rudensk Jewish ghetto.
“The German gendarmerie and the other troops of our company walked through that town and gathered Jewish residents. Later, near a sort of gravel pit, where gravel was dug, all the Jewish citizens were forced in and shot by the surrounding guards. (…) The German gendarmerie stood aside. Meanwhile, our squad was called here and the Jews were still in those pits. Two groups. One among us, a younger one said he couldn’t do this, shoot people. Then, Krikštaponis, the company leader, said that those, who cannot do it, should step back. Some 15 or 17 men withdrew to the side. We were some 20-25 meters away from all of it and saw everything,” historians quote the testimony of a former soldier in the battalion Martynas Kačiulis.
When the Jews were destroyed, the battalion had to aid in liquidating a Soviet POW prison camp. Both soviet POWs and civilians were held in a prison camp in the Minsk suburbs in 1941. The Kaunas battalion troops seconded here herded the prisoners to the pits and shot them. The order to shoot people would be given by company and unit leaders, also J. Krikštaponis.
This is, of course, four years, but the authorities in Ukmergė and freedom fight participants refuse to remove the monument.
In the same 1941, Šiauliai district chief Jonas Noreika signs one after another on orders and notes of this sort: “By the order of the Šiauliai district commissar, all the district’s citizens of Jewish ethnicity, also half-Jews, must be taken from the district’s elderships and towns and brought to live in a single area – the Ghetto.”
Unlike J. Krikštaponis, J. Noreika did not stand at gravel pits and did not shoot Jews. The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre states that Noreika, later shot to death by the soviets for organised activities seeking to recover Lithuanian independence was “successfully involved in arrangements related to Jewish isolation by the Nazi government, same as other Lithuanian civil administration officials.”
In a September 1941 note by J. Noreika, there were directions to liquidate the property of Jews and fleeing communists, where one part of the property (luxury furniture, rolls of fabric) would be safeguarded until separate instructions were given. A part of the property was to be distributed to schools, elderships, post offices, shelters, hospitals and other institutions. A part of the property was to be distributed to individuals, who suffered from the war and sold in auctions.
In other terms, J. Noreika’s orders brought the Jews into ghettoes and the ghettoes were liquidated after a few years. Some managed to escape the ghettoes of the major cities, however the Jews of smaller towns were destroyed to the last. From elders to the last baby. This is why ghettoes were such a prominent element in the pope’s speeches – it was the beginning of the end for the Jews. Robbed, humiliated, marked by yellow Stars of David, which they had to make themselves, they were taken to the ghettoes. They lost their homes, their property and dignity, their work and their bread. And finally they were killed.
So what do we make of it now? Krikštaponis and Noreika’s stories? Bar the Jews and the ghettoes, there is a square, a monument and memorial plaque for these two individuals – freedom fighters, also killed, just by a different occupying force.
No one knows, how they would act under conditions of total fear. But never, not at any time was there such a case that all people, faced with the most terrible choices of their lives, would act the same.
Thus, there were Jew savers and there was scum, who would betray families that hid even Jewish infants. There were those, who took food to the ghetto for nothing in return and there were those, who would report children, who fled from the ghetto, to the police, so that they would not be a disturbance. There were those, who lamented and went to ask to not kill Jews, offered ransoms and there were those, who killed them.
People have a choice at all times, just they do not always choose that, which one can be proud of later. We are not gods who can condemn any single one, but not all people are awarded and worthy of medals for sacrifice and incredible courage to be human.
That is one measure.
There is another. Let us consider, how much does it pain us, what happened to the Jews in Lithuania? Or that them no longer being here is a tragedy of Lithuania and us, Lithuanians? Is it just a painful historic circumstance afflicting one nation?
If the massacre of Jews is a tragedy for Lithuania, then why is it angering, when extra data surfaces that certain fellow citizens, even if they are dead, even if honourable in other deeds, participated in murdering other fellow citizens – Jews? In one form or another. Direct or just organisational. When new proof appears, how the crime was performed, we should be visited by a sense of justice, even relief.
But regarding this question it somehow… doesn’t. Anger does that once again Lithuanians are accused of something. And if someone notable, then it is either soviet or now Kremlin propaganda.
When the tragedy of the Jews is not our tragedy, then Jewish cemeteries, the memory of the Jews, Jewish gravestones in stairs in our city centres is not the matter of us, but of the tiny local Jew communities. Which are not only impoverished in people and intellectual capacities because after all there are no more Jews – either murdered or fled, but there is little historic memory in them still – most of the Jews, who live in Lithuania are not locals, but arrived after the war.
Next – even more hurtful.
When the Jewish hell is not our hell, orders are isolated, their herding into ghettoes can publically be explained as an insignificant detail. Yes, perhaps it is not a positive part of the biography, but not a sufficient stain on it that the person should not be called a hero. Under such circumstances, that the orders are simply viewed as enacting the commands of the occupier and supposedly, J. Noreika could not refuse to pass on these decisions as an official, this is counterbalanced by him opposing the Nazis over drawing Lithuanians into SS legions and being imprisoned in Stutthof himself.
However, only when the destruction of Jews does not hurt as a massive loss of our fellow citizens can you discuss that hear, the choice of some citizens to sacrifice others when an occupation rolled in had a truly noble goal. And it is namely this reason, why in Lithuania, there is no unambiguous evaluation and condemnation of the temporary Lithuanian government’s actions and documents regarding Jews.
And perhaps only when we do not want the Jews’ tragedy to become all of our tragedy, do notions appear in politicians’ speeches that it is occupations that are to blame for these tragedies and especially the holocaust. The most cruel, total occupations, which were not selective of their victims. Because when you find someone to blame, there is less blame left for you personally, the occupier is always a convenient scapegoat.
But with every occupying force, there was an individual and that individual’s decisions. And actions reveal who we are. Lies and linguistic manoeuvres for thirty years of our independence on the topic of collaboration with the Nazi and Soviet occupying forces, this is because for some it is convenient one way, for others – another way. It causes confusion in the public because there is nothing worse than washing responsibility.
When you wash it in one place, it is automatically washed elsewhere. Perhaps this is why we continue to meander – everywhere and at all times.