Kazys Skirpa: Saviour of Independence or Perpetrator of Crimes against Humanity

Kazys Škirpa

Kazys Skirpa (1895 – 1979) was the head of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) and whom in 1941 rebels declared the prime minister of an independent Lithuania. It is worth reading and making known a review of his work entitled “Fight! Efforts to save Lithuania between 1939 and 1941” as well as his archive of documents.

Kazys Skirpa laid down two milestones when undertaking to lead the struggle against the Soviet occupation, 1) independence and 2) a Lithuania without the Jews. He wrote about these main aims in Berlin in a document dated the 24th April 1941 and which was entitled “Instructions for Liberating Lithuania”. This document, which he kept in his safe and gave to signaler Mykolas Naujakaitis to learn by heart, was highly extremely confidential because it communicated a secret subject to be hidden from the Nazis – Lithuania’s declaration of independence, even if the Nazis opposed it.

Along with it an instruction was given to expel the Jews. These days this would be called ethnic cleansing and would qualify as a crime against humanity, something even in those times that was considered terrible. Kazys Skirpa is in all respects responsible for declaring this aim:

“It’s very important to use this opportunity to get rid of the Jews. […] The more of them removed at this opportunity, the easier it will be later to finally be rid of the Jews.”

Disagreements regarding the eternalizing of Skirpa’s name (in street names etc.) harks back to the beginning of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. At the same time they afford an opportunity for sensitive people to ponder questions of conscience and morality such as, for example Skirpa’s slogan “Fight!” a slogan in which his personality and national disaster intersect. In his slogan we can see his modesty and his love for Lithuania as well as a desire to galvanise his fellow-countrymen with his inspiring dedication.

Instead of raising the left hand and saying in greeting “Heil Hitler!” Lithuanians were not to mention a local leader (for example “Glory to Skirpa!”) but rather embolden one another and encourage the overall campaign with “Fight! This is our slogan!” This Kazys Skirpa mentions in his project called “Working together to build a new Lithuania” which on the 22nd of July 1940 he presented to Peter Kleist, the assistant of minister of foreign affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop and an expert in Poland and the Baltic States (Document XXXV).

It’s here that we see another quality of Kazys Skirpa – the far-sighted quest of a diplomat to firstly ascertain from the Nazis what would be acceptable to both sides; the concept for example of a “New Lithuania” or the Lithuanian Activist Front, mentioned for the first time in the abovementioned project.

After agreeing on these points, Kazys Skirpa would then be ready to enlighten his fellow-countrymen at a suitable time. The slogan “Fight!” rings out at the end of a speech he gave on the 14th of August 1940, disregarding at the same time the Lithuanian embassy in Berlin (Document XXVI).

“Long live the new Lithuania and the free Lithuanian people” were the last words of that speech. The new Lithuania was to be a part of the New Europe planned by Hitler. Skirpa hoped that it would be acceptable and even useful to the Nazis to have a somewhat independent Lithuania like we assume Slovakia. He realised that in the new Lithuania there would be no place for the Jews.

Skirpa was known for his cold strategic way of thinking which dominated in seeking a solution for the Lithuanian people in a difficult time. He realised that the beginning of the war served as a an apt opportunity to expel as many Jews as possible, at the same time making it easier for Lithuanians to take up arms by inciting hatred for the Jews than for the Soviets or the Lithuanian communists.

Indeed, Skirpa like no one else opposed the occupation from the start of the Soviet invasion and his articles in the newspaper “The Lithuanian Echo” at that time reflect the resignation of most Lithuanians to the circumstances: after President Antanas Smetona had fled, the Seimas, army, riflemen, volunteers, veterans, cooperatives, Christian democrats, social democrats, springtimers and businessmen all welcomed Justas Paleckis and the people’s government.

For most Lithuanians, it was the Soviets had returned Vilnius and it was the Nazis who in 1939 cut the Klaipeda Region off from Lithuania. Had it not been for the growing horror of the Soviet occupation (arrests, expropriation of property), we Lithuanians would have started being ashamed of ourselves in singling out the Jews as “foreigners” and making them scapegoats.

Skirpa understood that most of Lithuania’s Jews were not communists. When he returned in secret from Kaunas on 0he 1st of July 1940, he noted the following in a long letter (Document XI) to Lithuanian envoys Jurgis Saulis, Stasys Lozoraitis, Petras Klimas and Bronius Balutis:

“The only ones who don’t feel bad are the Jews. The fact that there were and are now amongst them a lot of communists goes without saying. Nevertheless, fearing the Reich, most Jews, maybe even those who are not communists, would sooner side with Soviet Russia and surrender to communism”.

Sensitive to national identity, Skirpa’s imagination allowed him to see that at meetings organised by the communists, Lithuanians, unlike the Jews, were willing participants. In his words “only yesterday they were licking the feet of the Lithuanians” he was probably referring to his previous statement that the Jews were no more loyal to Lithuanian independence than the Lithuanians themselves. The inconsistency of the Jews struck him when they started insulting former Lithuanian officials.

In the meantime, as of 1939 he himself criticized President Smetana incessantly when the latter refused take Vilnius by force when the Nazis invaded Poland. For the benefit of Lithuania, Skirpa, in one declaration supported the authority of the President and in another blamed him for a national disaster.

In fact the relations between the two had to be complicated because Skirpa was one of the few Lithuanian officers to assert Lithuanian democracy. He did not approve of the 1926 putsch after which Antennas Smetana become the autocrat of Lithuania. The Lithuanian Activist Front, in calling itself “active”, opposed Smetona’s “passiveness” and recruited his enemies – Voldemarists, Christian democrats and social democrats who had previously flocked into the Lithuanian Activist Movement.

Skirpa however underestimated Smetona’s far-sighted approach in that it’s not the beginning of a war that’s important but rather its end which is when he would have to attend peace negotiations as in 1919. Smetona sat in Versailles with Augustinas Voldemaras and other Lithuanian delegates amongst whom were the Jewish representatives Simonas Rozenbaumas and Maksas Soloveicikas.

After writing a long letter to the Lithuanian envoys, Skirpa already the next day on the 2nd of July 1940 invited Paul Kleist, called the south “Springiness” of Nazi planning. What interested him was how the Lithuanians would behave in the case of war. There is a suspicion that it was Skirpa who suggested to Kleist that the Jews be expelled and not vice versa.

On the 15th of July 1940 when Lithuania had as yet not been annexed and incorporated into the USSR but only occupied, Skirpa gave Kleist his project “Proclamation to the Lithuanian People” (Document XXXIV) in which the new government of Lithuania was presented in the following words:

“Moreover, the Lithuanian people will be cleansed of a foreign race that for the last century has selfishly sucked the blood of the Lithuanian and the fruits of labour of his blistered hands, and which both now and as in past times of oppression, has always betrayed Lithuania. As the Jews rewarded the Lithuanian nation for its hospitality and humanity, so each one could during the last Russian Red Army occupation switch loyalty. What the these leeches off Christian nations have in the past denuded the Lithuanian people of, must be returned in a statutory way to the Lithuanian nation – especially to its poorer echelons – those who work the land, as they are the most disadvantaged, for the overall benefit of the Lithuanian nation.”

This proclamation was to have been signed by all of the future government ministers including the national-socialist Minister of Education and Propaganda Kazys Skirpa. Skirpa understood national education as being an incitement of hatred for the Jews. The minister for this task was to have been Bronys Raila whom Skirpa appointed a head of the LAF propaganda commission and who in 1925, for meritorious actions for Kaunas and Lithuania, was officially reburied in the Writers Pantheon of the Petrasiuniai Cemetery.

Bronys Raila was in his own way a sensitive and responsible man; he eventually left the LAF when Skirpa rejected his proclamation to Lithuanian culture specialists for not being militant enough and wrote to Raila in a completely unacceptable way in his “Word to the Founders of Culture (Document L).

Almost all of Skirpa’s twenty proclamation projects expound hatred of the Jews of Lithuania. He realised that propaganda is the work of professionals and so LAF funds were allocated to Bronys Raila and others as well as to his messengers who would risk their lives by entering Lithuania. Skirpa wrote in his memoirs how he would worry about money sent to workers as an advance, some of it sliced of as a donation to the LAF.

He outlined openly these things in his letter of the 15th of March 1941 to the Lithuanian authorised minister in Washington D.C Povilas Zadeikis: “I’d like to use this opportunity to inform Overthere that up to now I have avoided turning to the Germans for money, neither for a loan nor for anything else…I must at all costs avoid their financial assistance so that I don’t become their prisoner” (LCVA, f. MK-9, a.1, b.6, l.110)

This was Skirpa’s diplomacy: he would consult with other diplomats stationed in Lithuania, especially ones with authority and holding important positions. On the 10th of May 1941 Stasys Lozoraitis gave his blessing: “Let the Jewish proclamation go ahead. If after it when they have imprisoned 3 million Lithuanians, as many innocent Jews will suffer, there won’t be an earthquake, the world won’t come to an end” (LCVA f.668, a.1, v.734, l.199).

On the 12th of May 1941 Petras Klimas discussed and criticized:”The Procolamations Projects are all good, it’s just necessary to amend the language and even it out because it’s not expedient to address the people with such weak statements. […] the tone and contention of the proclamation and its themes are too soft. This however doesn’t mean that a proclamation like this is really necessary. It would be better not to publish it but rather when the time comes fulfill everything one hundred times more rigorously.” (LCVA f.MK-9, a.1, v.2, l.499–501).

Skirpa’s consultation confirms suspicions that it wasn’t the Germans who demanded that the Jews be expelled rather he himself who deliberated and suggested it to them. The Jews had not been expelled from Nazi-occupied Poland, they were dying in ghettos. Yet Skirpa found out from his colleague Paul Kleist that that it was planned to deport the Jews to Siberia. Nevertheless, Skirpa in his own way adhered to “Christian morals” as written in the LAF program. That should be understood as being the commandment “Thou shalt not kill!” not as starve out and expel.

The Voldemarists understood that it was “not realistic” for them to cajole the Nazis and declare independence for Lithuania. They bypassed Skirpa and formed a security council with the Germans. Lead by Jonas Pyragius, from the 23rd to the 24th of July 1941 they arranged a putsch ostensibly against the provisionary government. It in actual fact it was against the Kaunas military commandant Jurgis Bobelis because he was stopping them from killing the Jews of Lithuania. It’s obvious from the account of Karl Jeger that thereafter the mass killings of the Jews started.

On the 16th of September the head of the Lithuanian police gave the instruction that all Jewish men be arrested. By the middle of September 1941, 65 thousand Lithuanian Jews had already been killed. It was in fact only then according to Holocaust historian Christopher Browning that Hitler decided to murder the Jews in occupied Europe. It could be that Hitler was encouraged by the events in Lithuania. All the Jews in the Lithuanian provinces had already been shot when in January 1942 the perpetrators of the Holocaust gathered for the first time at Wansee to discuss the “final solution”.

In his memoires, Kazys Skirpa here alone makes much mention of the Jews even though in LAF propaganda they are the main target of hatred. It’s clear from this extract that he knew a horrific fate awaited the Jews in Lithuania. In his memoires he does not mention the Jews in this context and so blames and criticizes hardly any Lithuanians.

It’s clear that all of the LAF propaganda against the Jews was a despicable lie that unfortunately to this day carries still holds, making out that the Jews of Lithuania were guilty of something. Bronys Raila who never forgave the Jews, on the 11th of January 1995 wrote in “Atgimimas (rebirth)” that an apology from the Jews to the Lithuanians has as yet to be heard!

Furthermore, Egle Wittig-Marcinkeviciute in September 2015 repeated her opinion in “Cultural Bars”: “Up to now no official or unofficial voice of regret or apology has been heard for the “disproportionally large” number of Jews in the Soviet structures from 1940 to 1941 and which destroyed the Lithuanian state”.

It’s nonsense that the NKVD which hardly even considered itself Jewish and operate in the name and for the good of the Jewish people, could represent them. In the meantime claimants to the will of the Lithuanian people – Kazys Skirpa, Stasys Lozoraitis, Petras Klimas and Stasys Rastikis – while not even mandated democratically, in the name of the Lithuanian people and almost for the good of our nation gave their blessing to the crimes against humanity.

From Skirpa’s written legacy it’s clear that as of the middle of May 1941 he stopped provoking hatred for Lithuania’s Jews. Unfortunately, the propaganda of the LAF had taken effect. Juozas Ambrazevicius the acting Prime Minister as well as Zenonas Ivinskis, Juozas Girnius and Jonas Virbickas edited the first edition of the newspaper “To Freedom” in which in an article by C.P (Captain Pyragius?) encouraged sympathy for Lithuanians who were selling themselves, in the meantime identifying the Jews (women, children, old people) with bolshevism in that they were one and the same inseparable thing.

This edition was distributed during the Vilijampole pogrom. The Kaunas LAF detained several thousand Lithuanian Jews and the provisional government of Lithuania instructed that they be held in a concentration camp, the Seventh Fort in Kaunas. From the 4th to the 6th of July, Kaunas military commander Jurgis Bobelis did not oppose SS Karl Jeger’s order and allowed the Voldemarists to lead away approximately 3 thousand Jews and Lithuanian communists to be shot without trial.

Statesmen, officers, the clergy – not just historians in the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre have assessed these events. Only people who understand when it’s right to sacrifice their own lives can demand the same of others as did Jurgis Bobelis, a professional officer and specialist in military law or the Catholic bishop Vincentas Brizgis’s who stuck up for the Jews: if priests had at that time made a general attempt to stick up for the Jews they themselves would have been lynched by the Lithuanians. I believe that these two victims at the very start of the war would have disciplined the entire Lithuanian nation, perhaps even history would have taken a different turn and thousands of Lithuanian Jews would have been saved.

After analysing the anti-Semitic statements in the texts prepared by the Berlin LAF it can be confirmed that its members proposed that the solution to the “Jewish problem” was not genocide but expulsion. However, according to Lindas Truska, the proclamations of the LAF were one of the reasons why in the summer of 1941 some Lithuanians carried out the Nazi’s criminal orders. It must be noted that on the eve of the war, members of the Berlin LAF had no information that the Nazis were planning to kill the Jews.

Terese Birute is the managing director of the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre.

The writer found copies of Skirpa’s manuscripts in the archives of Bronius Kazys Balutis, the Lithuanian envoy to London (LCVA f.648, a.2, and b.581–582) as well as in the embassy archive of the First Secretary Albertas Gerutis (VUB f.155–310). These manuscripts were discovered when Lithuania regained its independence.

Some of the manuscripts were also already known to the Soviet Lithuanian agent Bolslavas Baranauskas and historian Aldona Gaigalaite and were kept in the Lithuanian Communist Party archives. In the library of the Academy of Sciences there are fibre-preserved documents of General Stasys Zaskevicius along with Skirpa’s accompanying letter written in Berlin and dated the 1st of December 1942 to Professor Juozas Ambrzevicius, the acting priminister of the Provisional Government (MAB f.29, a.1287, b.1, l.1).

Skirpa mentions these documents in his letter dated the 30th of May 1945 to a K Baltys and other envoys (LCVA f.648 a.2 b.480 l.1–17). In an interview with “Teviskes Ziburiai” in 1965 he cast light on the history of the manuscripts when, at the funeral of his wife’s cousin Vanda Neniskuyte-Balsiene, he spoke about how she typed out more than one thousand pages.

It’s obvious that in 1973, Skirpa was backed up by the copy of his manuscript when the US announced a documental review of “The Uprising to restore Lithuania’s Sovereignty”. However, already in 1991 in an interview with “Akiraciai”, historian Saulius Suziedelis noted that the extract from the documents does not match the original found by him in the Hoover Institution’s Edvardas Turauskas archive.

There is in fact a draft in Skirpa’s still unordered archive in the Martynas Mazvydas National Library of Lithuania and which editor of “Independent Lithuania” Jonas Kardelis returned to Skirpa in 1951 calling the collection of his articles “Genesis of the Government of the Uprising”. In it is the deleted LAF 16-point schedule: “The Lithuanian Activist Front revokes Hospitality for the Jewish National Minority in Lithuania”; subsequent points have been renumbered. It seems that Skirpa himself made the deletion in the draft because in all of the other points he wrote Lithuanian Activist Front in its abbreviated form LAF and it’s in this point only where it is written in full.

The philosopher Antanas Maceina took a long time to write the LAF’s schedule. It was then edited by Skirpa and Antanas Valiukenas. The leaders of the Kaunas LAF later denied never seeing this schedule. Proclaimer of the restoration of Lithuanian independence Leonas Prapuolenis in his speech to the General Commissioner von Renteln on the 6th of August quoted it in entirety, including the revoke of hospitality to the Jews. His speech was signed by the leadership of the Kaunas LAF: Division General S Pundzevicius, General Staff Colonel I Kraunaitis, General Staff Colonel M Maciokas, Dr. Engineer A Damusis, Colonel J Jankauskas, Dr. Engineer Colonel K Bauba, P Zukauskas and J Valiulis. The “Liberated Inhabitant of Panevezys” was announced loud and clear at the height of the Holocaust.

In his memoires of 1942 to 1943 entitled “Introductory Words”, Skirpa invites future readers to speak on if we have walked on the true path.

“The objective researcher of the past, without a doubt, will find more to say in the future about that which today he must still be silent about. Only when a long time has passed, when the today’s tempest of war has passed and the world once again settles down, will he, free of any extraneous circumstances, be able to tell extensively of the reasons that caused Lithuania to lose its independence and also if the road taken by Lithuania was hitherto true and why it didn’t lead to full victory.”

In the second part of his memoires entitled “Preparation for Lithuania’s Resurrection” he ends with the following reflections:

“From what is quoted in this passage of the review, the reader himself will be able to be convinced if, in total, there was a seduction and if there was then who seduced who: did the Germans seduce Kazys Skirpa in their quest for their expansion eastward, or did Kazys Skirpa seduce the Germans, in his quest for the restoration of Lithuania’s independence?”

Should Kazys Skirpa Avenue be renamed?

On finding out about the Vilnius Municipality’s upcoming discussion “Should Kazys Skirpa Avenue be renamed” which is to take place on Tuesday the 29th of November at 18:00 in the Chamber Hall of the Vilnius Town hall (31 Didzioji Steet), the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community was somewhat surprised that director of the Jewish Museum, the president of the commission investigating Soviet and Nazi crimes, the chairman, leaders of “other” Jewish organisations which are taking part in all kinds of commercial projects or any organisation using the name “Jewish” or “Litvak” even of its activities are financed by the government or if in it there are simply no longer any Jews, should speak about the sensitive topic of Skirpa.

Why weren’t more historians researching this horrific period for the Jews in Lithuania invited to the discussion? Finally, it was acknowledged that the Holocaust was a tragedy for all of Lithuania and not just the Jews. It’s hard to come to terms with the proven facts that more Lithuanians than Nazis took part in the killing of Jews in Lithuania, and that they were inspired by the ideas of heroes like Kazys Skirpa. Lithuanian Jews both inside and outside of Lithuania are expecting a clear position from today’s politicians and leaders. (Extract, 2016 11 28).

“Should Kazys Skirpa Avenue be renamed?” This question was posed to the Vilnius Council by member Mark Adam Harold. The discussion was moderated by member Darius Kuolys. Taking part were historians Rimantas Miknys, Antanas Kulakauskas, Alfredas Rukšėnas and Simonas Jazavita, writers Antanas Jonynas and Sergejus Kanovičius, journalist Vidmantas Valiušaitis and head of „GO Vilnius“Darius Udrys.

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