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The Lithuanian Holocaust - The Extermination of the Jewish Population of Lithuania

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Extermination of the Jewish People of Ponary

Ponary near Wilno (Vilna)/Vilnius, Lithuania, Jewish victims of execution before the mass burial, 1943.

Ponary near Wilno (Vilna)/Vilnius, Lithuania, Jewish victims of execution before the mass burial, 1943.

Pre-war Lithuania was home to up to 250,000 Jewish people and was a prodigious hub of Jewish learning. The capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, was referred to as the Jerusalem of the North. By 1942 only approximately 43,000 Lithuanian Jews were left alive and many of these were forced to work for the Nazi military industry. In 1943, Himmler ordered the destruction of all Lithuanian ghettos and any remaining Lithuanian Jews to be sent to concentration camps. The survival rate for Lithuanian Jews was 3-5%. About 4,000 Jewish people were counted in the Lithuanian census of 2005.

Sites of Pre-War Lithuanian Jewish Populations

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The Lithuanian Holocaust

The Lithuanian Holocaust started without a lead-up. Executions occurred from the first day of the Nazi occupation, unlike in other nations where there had been a gradual disintegration of Jewish civil rights and process of ghetto-isation prior to the deportations and executions. Perhaps, like in other parts of Europe, this was because there was sympathy with the process on the part of many Lithuanians.

The Ghetto at Kaunas - 1941

Above-Lithuanian Jews in Kaunas being put to work in 1941

Above-Lithuanian Jews in Kaunas being put to work in 1941

Nazi Anti-Jewish Propaganda

Nazi Propaganda  1941 Lithuanian 'Jews are your eternal enemies! Stalin and Jews are the gang of criminals!'

Nazi Propaganda 1941 Lithuanian 'Jews are your eternal enemies! Stalin and Jews are the gang of criminals!'

Lithuanian Participation and Hatred of Communists

There is much controversy surrounding the level of Lithuanian participation in the genocide of the Jewish Lithuanian population. It seems to be a subject that the nation of Lithuania has not yet faced up to and appropriately aired (see Naylor, 2010). There is no remaining significant Jewish population in Lithuania today. This makes it really difficult to gauge how wide-spread levels of current anti-semitism actually are, although there is some evidence that anti-semitism is alive and well.

In Kaunas, a large Lithuanian city, there are no significant stand-alone memorials to Holocaust victims. In Kaunas, the 'Ninth Fort', was home to the brutal massacre of 10,000 Jews, including upwards of 4,000 children, in a single day in October 1941; the so-called 'Great Action'. There are no signposts to the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. The plaque at the Ninth Fort simply says "This is the place where Nazis and their assistants killed more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries." According to Naylor (2010), half or more of the Jewish people killed in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation were killed by Lithuanian volunteers, and there is no real national acknowledgement of this.

The sympathy of the Lithuanians towards the Nazi invaders must be seen in the context of the brutally oppressive Communist occupation of Lithuania just prior to the German invasion. One night in June 1941, a week before the Germans invaded, the Soviets deported 30,000 Lithuanians to Siberia without notice. The Soviets had ruled with terror and did not hesistate to comit mass killings of influential Lithuanians. They confiscated land, nationalised industries and severely curtained the freedom of the press along with individual freedoms.

The initial Lithuanian sympathy towards the Nazis was also somewhat exacerbated by a common perception of a close connection between the Community Party and Jewish people. Hatred of Communists was almost a universal theme in World War II Lithuania and of course continued up to independence. This is seen in the bloody and violent resistance to the Soviets in the years after the war by Lithuanian resistance fighters. From 1944 to 1952, up to 30,000 Lithuanian partisans were killed by the Soviets. This resistance never stopped until the Lithuanians finally achieved independence from the USSR in 1990.

In his book, Lithuania, Stepping Westward (2001), Lane states that Jewish representation in the Lithuanian Communist party was disproportionately high. He argues that some Lithuanians did not differentiate between Jews and Communist persecutors. The Nazi occupation gave the Lithuanian population an excuse for revenge on the communists and the Jews by association, according to Lane. Naylor argues that this perception was exploited by the Nazis.

Lane goes on to detail how some Lithuanian mobs committed atrocities against Jewish people but also describes how the Provisional Lithuanian Government tried to restrain the Gestapo from destroying the Lithuanian Jews and protested against the mass executions. (The Provisional Government was set up prior to the Nazi invasion and was only to last approximately 6 weeks until it was disbanded by the Nazis who had other ideas about who was to govern Lithuania.) On the other hand, the Provisional Government also issued proclamations in support of the Nazis and some anti-Jewish messages as well.

Massacre at Kovno - 1941

Crowd views the aftermath of a massacre at Lietukis Garage, where pro-German Lithuanian nationalists killed more than 50 Jewish men. The victims were beaten, hosed, and then murdered with iron bars. Kovno, Lithuania, June 27, 1941.

Crowd views the aftermath of a massacre at Lietukis Garage, where pro-German Lithuanian nationalists killed more than 50 Jewish men. The victims were beaten, hosed, and then murdered with iron bars. Kovno, Lithuania, June 27, 1941.

Moving Forward?

Fearon and Laitin (2006) posit that Lithuanians have an "historical burden of active complicity in the Holocaust". Their view is that the Lithuanian hatred of Jews and Russians has been a constantly re-cycled story of modern Lithuanian history.

Lane argues strongly that if each episode is not examined and the full extent of collaboration uncovered, the accusations of collaboration will continue. Any excuses, extenuations or attempts to 're-write' history will just contribute to greater controversy and suspicion. He points out that, in fairness, there are also many instances where significant numbers of Lithuanians risked their lives to save Jewish people. He highlights the efforts made to save Jewish people by the Catholic Church in Lithuania and the many individual priests who as a matter of practice opposed Nazism. It seems that both the Lithuanian community and the greater world community would benefit from a proper recounting of the Lithuanian Holocaust.

Last century was perhaps the most socially and politically complex and violent century of Lithuanian history. Whatever growth that might have occurred in the national psyche as a result remains unexposed.

Anti Semitism in Lithuania

More about the Holocaust

  • Holocaust Heroes--A short list
    In the Holocaust, 29 Who Made a Difference (a rather short list) The book is called "Diplomat Heroes of the Holocaust," and perhaps the most telling thing about it is that it is very slim....
  • Top Five Holocaust Films
    The holocaust will forever be a scar on the human experience. The guilt and shame of such an undertaking still permeates the air in countries which saw it firsthand. It's a very heavy feeling, as well it should be.

More in my Lithuania Series

Sources

  • Lithuania, Stepping Westward, Thomas Lane (2001), Routledge, New York.
  • Lithuania, Fearon J. & Laitin D, (2006) Stanford University - http://www.stanford.edu/group/ethnic/Random%20Narratives/LithuaniaRN1.3.pdf
  • "Double Genocide" and Lithuania, K Naylor (Wednesday, 15 September 2010), Central and Eastern Europe Watch - http://easterneuropewatch.blogspot.com/2010/09/double-genocide-and-lithuania.html
  • Baltic States, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Jan-Peiter Verhuel - http://fccorn.people.wm.edu/russiasperiphery/213408ccaade3ae3d026b2c9a28fe370.html

Comments

Amanda Alexander from The South on September 11, 2012:

It's great to see information being posted about the Holocaust and how it affected Lithuania. There are many articles on Germany and Poland but not as many on Lithuania and Lativa. Very interesting writing.

Mel Jay (author) from Australia on June 11, 2011:

Thanks for your comment pitzele. Your husband's family migration story is fascinating, they were incredibly fortunate to have gotten out in time. The largely unwritten story about anti-semitism in Lithuania is so confronting that I found this quite difficult to write. I initially started down the migration track (inspired by my favourite TV show - 'Who do you think you are?'), fascinated with the upheavals created by the various wars of last century and ended up on a totally different theme. The really good thing about hubbing is the personal learning curve - have your ever thought about writing about your husband's grandmother's story? I would love to read it. Thanks - Mel

pitzele from Pennsylvania on June 05, 2011:

I found your hub absolutely beautiful. My husband's grandmother was from Kovno, but after the Cossacks held one too many raids, their family moved to England, and some came to America. I am immensely grateful for the particular timing - they missed the Nazis by less than a decade. Thank you for writing such a supremely important and moving hub!!

Mel Jay (author) from Australia on May 18, 2011:

Hey thanks for your thoughts writeronline :) This is a totally new journey for me so any stylistic devices are utterly unconscious if not accidental at this stage! I work in the legal industry so heaven help me if I ever truly express a passionate opinion - LOL (Hmm, perhaps things are not as accidental as I think?!) Seriously though, on issues of 'tone', I liked yours and I liked some of the information you have to offer, hence the following. Cheers, Mel

writeronline on May 17, 2011:

Hi Mel Jay, I was flattered to receive an email earlier today, to say you're now following me, (why, I have no idea, let alone where... :)

Still, I'm flattered whenever a fellow Hubber decides to follow me, and I always take the time to look at each profile, and check out some work. It's only polite really, isn't it?

This a very impactful and well written hub, (imho), both tonally, and in terms of content.

To me, with factual details and authentic images as horrendous as these leaping off the screen and almost physically assailing the reader, a clinical presentation style (as you've adopted) is far more effective in building outrage than any expressed opinion or perspective the author might otherwise feel compelled to assert.

Because, one; as a feeling human being, it's impossible to see and learn of such atrocities without wondering what happened to suspend all humanity on the part of the perpetrators. And those who stood by, and did nothing. In a sense, their heartlessness is reflected and reinforced in the relatively emotionless presentation of the statistics.

And, two, if someone reading this is the kind of bigot who wouldn't have cared then, and doesn't now, why waste your own emotions trying to make them see, and feel, something they never will?

(Sorry about that, didn't mean to submit a critique...just admiring the implicit, understated communication style.)

Anyway, again, well done. Cheers.

Mel Jay (author) from Australia on April 29, 2011:

Thanks for your comment Miss Lil' Atlanta, as always - much appreciated :)

I share your fascination with WWII. I did not know much about Lithuanian history either before I started, but I keep uncovering more and more, some of it positive, some of it just dreadful. I am trying to lighten my 'Lithuania mood' a bit with some migration stories at the moment, before delving back into the murkier aspects again..

Miss Lil' Atlanta from Atlanta, GA on April 29, 2011:

Wow, this is a really interesting hub Mel Jay, and so informative too.

To be honest I don't really know all the much about how the Holocaust effected Lithuania, so I've really learned some things on the Holocaust just by reading this.

I've always been fascinated by World War II, the Holocaust, and by history in general, so I'll definitely have to check out more of your hubs on these topics. Another nicely written hub Mel Jay.

Mel Jay (author) from Australia on April 28, 2011:

Thanks Alastar, I found it quite disturbing to do the research on this hub. A good thing for me though is that the material I looked at was so voluminous that I can make a series of hubs about things related to Lithuania and Lithuanian people. Re this hub, as hard as it is, issues of national shame affect most countries at some stage. For instance, the topic of the atrocities committed against the Australian Aboriginal people is something that I could write about, but at this point it is a bit close to home and would also be very disturbing. Hard topics.... particularly when a nation does not fully accept what has happened. I might try something a bit more positive in the short term, Cheers - Mel

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on April 28, 2011:

Excellent hub on one of so many areas where these things occurred. The Kovno massacre was particularly brutal. Notice how in the propaganda they always made the Jews look like rats. Up n use.

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