What is the Secret the Lithuanian Government Doesn’t Want You to Know About?
The time was The Second World War, the setting Nazi occupied Europe.
The question to be answered is: Why was the treatment of Jews during the early period of the German occupations worse in Eastern than Western European countries?
Almost 95% of pre-war Lithuania’s 220,000 Jews perished in World War II. Moreover, they were almost all murdered within a 6 month period from the Summer of 1941.
Horrifyingly, in June, 1941, a large proportion of the Lithuanian people welcomed the German invasion. For many, they saw the Germans as great liberators, saving them from the strict collectivist rule of Soviet occupation.
The fate of Lithuania’s Jews during the early period of Nazi occupation is a tragedy beyond comprehension. The cruel treatment of Jews by the hands of the German occupiers is undisputed. Where the water is more murky, however, is when we study the treatment of Jews by the indigenous Lithuanians of the time.
In all occupied countries, the German administration coerced the people to help round up Jews. Failure to cooperate would risk execution and the deaths of their relatives. The Jews of Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and Ukraine were slaughtered at an early stage.
In contrast, the collaboration in the systematic degradation, torture and murder of Jews by the non-Jewish people of France and Scandinavia was much less significant.
Why this difference?
The Slaughter on an Industrial Scale Started Even Before the Death Camps
Most of the death camps, including Auschwitz Birkenau, were not active until 1942. Therefore, at the beginning of the war, the deportation of Jews for mass slaughter was not yet an option. The preferred methods of slaughter at the early stages of the war was delivered by the Einsatzgruppen. They were essentially a group of death squads that included the Waffen SS, Order Police, Wehrmacht, local nationalist forces and collaborators. The latter (ie local people) helped to identify and find victims as well as kill them.
Just one example of the group’s work happened over a two day period in September 1941. A small detachment of Einsatzgruppe C along with larger units of Waffen SS, Order Police and Ukrainian auxiliaries shot 33,771 Jews in Babi Yar, Kiev. It is well recorded that many of the killers and victims knew one another as neighbours and colleagues.
Only in Eastern Europe did these combined efforts of collaborators with occupying Germans lead to systematic mass murder within their countries. By “Eastern Europe”, I mean Latvia, Lithuania, what was East Prussia and what is now Belarus and Ukraine. (See the attached map).
The Kovno Garage Massacre
The Kovno Garage Massacre was just one example of many acts of brutality demonstrated by Lithuanian locals. They acted unsupervised by their German occupiers. A group of people with pre-existing prejudices against Jews, the German propaganda magnified their hatred and they eagerly bought into the narrative that Jews were Soviet collaborators. Dozens and dozens of Jews were lined up to be beaten to death by locals armed with crowbars and spades. The cheering crowds swelled. The throng of excited onlookers was so large that parents were lifting their children high on their shoulders so that they could witness the spectacle.
There are all too many surviving eyewitness accounts of shootings of Jews in Lithuania. There are, to this day, mounds that are clustered in an area outside the city of Kaunas that mark the burial sites of 5000 Jews murdered by locals. Witnesses reported that women and children were murdered by rifle and machine gun fire as they fell dead into pits. There are dozens and dozens more similar mass graves throughout Lithuania.
The Fate of the Jews in Other Parts of Europe
So, what was happening at this time in Central Europe and Scandinavia? The collective behaviours of those indigenous populations was very different. The Danish people, led by their king, had an altogether different collective response. The Danish resistance helped rescue almost all of the 8000 Jews residing in Denmark by sending them to the relative safety of Sweden. What is not so well known, however, is the sad fact that 6000 Danes also volunteered for the SS. They ran a camp in Babruysk, Belarus, where 1500 (non-Danish) Jews were murdered. In Croatia, 20,000 Jews were murdered without assistance from the Nazis.
Poland was known for its extensive collaboration with the Nazis, but not in such an organised way as with the Baltic states. Hungary sent Jews to death camps in the latter stages of the war. By contrast, Lithuania murdered its Jews before the establishment of death camps. The Jews in France were not subject to anything like the levels of collaboration and cruelty that their Baltic counterparts were. The Deportations to death camps began later in 1942.
There are probably many reasons for the treatment of Jews being so disproportionately brutal in Eastern European countries before the death camps were even operational. Most are likely to stem from intrinsic antisemitism, with many saw the Jewish people as either being disproportionately wealthy or in positions of socio-political power. What is less clear is why this antisemitism was higher in Eastern than Western Europe. The proportion of the populations of Jews in the different parts of Europe was not much different. I am left to conclude that the pre-war culture in the Eastern European countries was more antisemitic. Why this was, and whether the threat of the Soviets, or poverty, lack of education or ignorance were in part responsible, I do not know.
Lithuania’s Memory of the Holocaust is in Dire Need of Revision
The Museum of Genocide Victims in Lithuania was set up in 1992. The vast majority of the museum is dedicated to the period of Soviet occupation. Despite the museum’s name, there was no exhibition related to the Holocaust until as late as 2011 when a small room was set up in dedication to it (as seen in the photograph). In 2018, the American-born Lithuanian-based Jewish scholar and author, Dovid Katz, described the museum as “a 21st-century version of Holocaust denial”.
In 2018 the museum was renamed Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. Even today, the vast majority of the exhibits focus on the murder of the Lithuanian, non-Jewish population. Many Jews feel that this is an expression of Lithuania’s desire to define its own history, rather than to confront the darkness of its past. Many view this as a form of rehabilitation of perpetrators and collaborators as victims. We often say that history judges. The lessons of history can only be obtained by truth, openness and honesty.
So, what is the Secret the Lithuanian Government Doesn’t Want You to Know About? It’s that Lithuania’s memory of the Holocaust is in dire need of revision. I can only hope the Lithuanian government will allow its population to learn the truth of what happened. Only then can the great nation heal its wounds from the past.
Oh – and the image at the top of this blog – one of the pits from the Ponary massacre? Up to 100,000 people were killed in a series of mass executions by German SD and SS and their willing Lithuanian collaborator accomplices between 1941 to 1944.
If you found this post interesting, please like this on Facebook and sign up to my newsletter to receive more updates on my books and blogs. Adam Frosh is the author of the science fiction/ history novel, Space Taxis.