The day Lithuania became a culture of we

This historic day, 75 years after the tragic event, heralds an era of renewed respect and unity for the Lithuanian people and the country at large. For many years, Lithuanian historians have urged Lithuanians to come to terms with the events of 1941 that suddenly ended Jewish civilization in their country. A change in public awareness, however, began with two recent publications. The first, Rūta Vanagaitė’s book “Mūsiškiai”, looked unflinchingly at the role of Lithuanians in the deaths of their Jewish fellow citizens. The second was May 2016 article written by Molėtai native Marius Ivaškevičius, entitled “The Jews [and] the Curse of Lithuania,” which, among other things, observed how Lithuanians are often perceived by those in the West who are quite familiar with Lithuania’s past.

The Molėtai march does not overcome Lithuania’s years of selective ignorance of the events of 1941. However, quite significantly, the majority of the participants were ethnic Lithuanians. This represents a major change in the public conversation about the Holocaust in Lithuania. By closing the “information gap” about the Holocaust, the Lithuanian people may, slowly, confront what Lithuanian historian Saulius Sužiedelis referred to as “the greatest single atrocity in modern Lithuanian history” and, hopefully, the West will see a new Lithuania in a better light.

In his May 2016 article, Ivaškevičius encouraged Lithuanians not to be mere spectators at the August 29 march. “Imagine: Several dozens of Molėtai’s Jews will walk the same way their relatives walked 75 years ago, and 6,000 citizens of Molėtai will watch them from their homes. This is the worst thing that can happen. My town cannot or does not want to understand the importance of this event. It should be helped. So I call for everyone to join us. You will not need to do anything, just go together with our Jews. The march will take place anyway, but the question is will the Jews go alone again or shall we go with them. May the 29th of August become the day of our reconciliation.”

And, quite happily, over 3,000 ethnic Lithuanians answered his call. Moreover, as one man in attendance noted, a viable energy was palpable, heavy, clinging in the air and to every participant.

This attendee, Aurimas Širvys, was asked by the event organizers to contribute to the success of the march after they learned of his exhibition “The Lost and Disappearing Architectural Heritage – Lithuanian’s Wooden Synagogues.” Širvys is a young architect who works to positively effect change and to help his country heal. He has spent several years visiting Lithuania’s towns and cities helping to identify the images of local churches and synagogues and to restore these buildings, even in the face of recurring vandalism, noting “while others may destroy, my place in this world is to repair”.

Širvys, along with 3,000 of his countrymen, marched the 2.2-kilometer route over which the Jewish population of Molėtai – 700 adults and 1,463 children – were herded to their deaths on that devastating day on August 29, 1941.

It was reported that a few drops of rain fell on the marchers as they walked, as if they heavens cried with them.

“A miraculous event occurred,” Širvys recalled of the procession. “As we began to march, the local residents simply started to leave their homes and joined in. It was almost surreal to watch; it was an amazing occurrence. And those who did not join, stood. They stood outside their front doors erect, as a sign of respect.

Širvys recalled the intensely somber feeling among the participants, heaviness. “As I walked shoulder to shoulder, I got the sense, looking from person to person, that we all could sense how the Jews of Molėtai must have felt when they walked this road 75 years ago. For me, and no doubt for the others, one could imagine the enormity of what occurred here. For the first time in many years, Jews and Christians once again walked together to pay tribute to fallen fellow countrymen. Today, those who walked, and who watched, finally began to understand the events of 1941 as not simply a Jewish tragedy, but as one that we all collectively share.”

In her address, President Dalia Grybauskaitė mirrored the sentiment of the day, stating that we as Lithuanians see, comprehend, and mourn these events as a shared Lithuanian tragedy.

The President’s words were moving, but of greater significance was participation of ordinary Lithuanians, who, individually, chose to publicly show respect and, thereby, made the Molėtai commemoration a turning point in Lithuania’s memory of 1941. Hopefully, August 29, 2016, will be written down a generation from now as the day Lithuania stopped being a country of “them” and “us” and became, once again, a country of “we”.

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