I met Yitzhak Arad in the cafeteria of his upscale retirement home outside Tel Aviv. To his enemies, this short man, softened by age and bundled in long sleeves against the facility’s overzealous air conditioning, is a kind of Jewish Kurt Waldheim: a brutal war criminal who deftly covered his tracks and went on to run one of the world’s leading human rights institutions. Waldheim, a former Nazi officer, famously became secretary-general of the United Nations before the truth came out. Arad allegedly committed atrocities against Lithuanian anti-Communists on behalf of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, before moving to Israel and becoming the director of Yad Vashem, the nation’s holocaust museum.
Sitting near a table of wheelchair-bound women Arad, who is 88, recounted blowing up trains in Nazi-occupied Europe. With his blunt fingers and lupine eyes, I could still sense the fearsome fighter he’d been as a teenaged partisan in the frozen Baltic forests and later as an IDF desert tank commander. As a teenager, Arad lost his parents and most of his family in the Holocaust. He insisted to me that he has nothing to apologize for. “I am proud that I fought the Nazi Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators,” he said. “That fate made it possible for me to fight against the murderers of my family, the murderers of my people.”
At my request, Arad went upstairs to the room he shares with his wife and fetched a war medal he received for his service fighting the Nazis behind enemy lines. It had been issued by the Soviet Union, which backed the partisans in their struggle against the Germans. “This is the Partisan Medal, First Degree,” Arad explained. “The most important medal for partisans.” Cast seven decades ago, the tarnished medal had outlived the state that issued it, but the profile of Stalin proudly staring off into the distance, upstaging a profile of Lenin behind it, remained clear.
Although Arad claims no sympathy for communism, he held onto the medal when he abandoned Stalin’s Lithuania at the end of the war and made his way to Palestine. “I hid it in bread,” he told me, explaining how he’d hollowed out a loaf and stuck the medal inside. “If I’d been caught by the Soviets, they would have—if not killed me—sent me to Siberia for fleeing. I deserted.” Keeping the medal was a risk, he said, but it was important to him because it was the only recognition of his service during the war. “Look, I was fighting a few years, I wanted it, of course,” he said. “Maybe it was a stupid thing.”
Arad also kept the award’s accompanying certificate acknowledging his service to the Soviets under his birth name, Itzik Rudnicki. When he showed it to me, I saw that it was hand-signed by Justus Paleckis, the brutal puppet president who ran Lithuania for Stalin.
These days, Arad, and others like him, are no longer lauded for their wartime efforts on behalf of Lithuania. In a new party line, institutions of the contemporary Lithuanian government now portray Nazi-aligned nationalists as anti-Soviet heroes and anti-Nazi partisans—in particular the Jewish ones—as traitors. Arad lives under the cloud of an open-ended investigation by Lithuanian prosecutors for crimes against humanity committed in the final days of World War II, when he allegedly executed Lithuanian anti-Communists, including civilians, for Stalin’s secret police. After decades of being hailed as a war hero, the old man sitting across the table from me had, in the eyes of his homeland, become a war criminal.
The Lithuania where Yitzhak Arad was born, in 1926, was much like the Israel where he lives today: a center of gravity for the global Jewish community. Given the perpetually shifting borders of the Eastern European lowlands over the centuries, the Lithuanian capital, now called Vilnius, found itself at times part of Russia and Poland as well as Lithuania, but to its Jews, the city was always “Vilna” and they were always “Litvaks”—a Yiddish word that literally means “Lithuanians.”
Though fewer than 5,000 Jews live in the country today, from the 14th through mid-20th centuries, Lithuania was a hub of Jewish life. The initial influx arrived in the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague swept through Western Europe killing thousands of Jews—many from the plague itself, but many others at the hands of Christian neighbors who blamed them for the disease. Jews fled to the east and thrived in the culture of tolerance they found there. By 1750 the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which included parts of modern-day Poland, Latvia, and Belarus, had become the world’s largest Jewish community. By the early 20th century, Vilna, “the Jerusalem of the North,” boasted more than 100 synagogues and a thriving secular Jewish life, replete with Yiddish newspapers and theaters and civic groups. Economically, Jews dominated trade and the learned professions, provoking the ire of Catholic Lithuanian ultra-nationalists who urged Lithuanian society to break free from the supposed stranglehold of its Jewish minority. Before World War II, about 60,000 Jews lived in Vilnius, constituting roughly one-third of the city’s population.
In 1939, Hitler and Stalin secretly divided Eastern Europe between them. Lithuania, pressed up against the Russian border, was allotted to Stalin and was absorbed into the USSR in 1940 after a sham election in which the Stalin-backed party was the only one on the ballot. Jews suffered under Soviet occupation. Since they ran a disproportionate number of businesses, newspapers, and civic organizations—the civil society institutions with no future in a Soviet utopia—they were natural targets for the Stalinists and thousands were deported to Siberia. At the same time, since there were also many Lithuanian-Jewish communists, Jews were blamed by their countrymen for the Soviet takeover. That Russian Jews had been wildly overrepresented in the generation that led the Bolshevik Revolution is indisputable. But by the time World War II broke out, Stalin had long since purged most Jewish Communists from the Soviet elite in Moscow. After the war, Jews would have only a minor role in running Soviet Lithuania, in part because of Soviet anti-Semitism but, more crucially, because nearly all of them would be dead.
In hindsight, the Lithuanian Jews who got sent to the gulags were the lucky ones—they were much more likely to survive World War II than those they left behind. In June 1941, Hitler launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, overrunning the Baltics in a few weeks. As documented by eyewitness testimony, photographs, and Nazi records, the Christian majority welcomed the Germans as liberators and right-wing paramilitary groups began massacring their Jewish neighbors before German rule had even been firmly established. Over the next three years of German occupation, around 200,000 Jews, more than 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish population, were murdered—a more complete destruction than befell any other European country. In an of inversion of Denmark, the nation where massive local resistance to the Nazi occupiers saved the lives of most Danish Jews, in Lithuania, zealous local collaboration ensured near-complete extermination. One of the only ways for a Jew to survive the Holocaust in Lithuania—the deadliest place on a deadly continent—was the way Yitzhak Arad did: as a partisan fighting the Nazis and their collaborators in the forests.
After the war, Lithuania was reincorporated into the USSR and Soviet authorities suppressed the truth about the significant Jewish role in the partisan resistance and the remarkable degree of local Christian collaboration with the Nazis. The myth that Soviet citizens of all ethnicities had united to valiantly resist the Germans became the official party line. In Soviet Holocaust memorials, the victims were typically referred to as “Soviet citizens” and the murderers as “fascists,” obscuring the facts that Soviet Jews had been singled out for extermination because of their ethnicity and that many of the murderers were also Soviet citizens, albeit disloyal ones. The closest the Soviet authorities would ever come to acknowledging the important role Jews played as partisans was the placement of the official partisans memorial, erected in 1983, in a park on Vilnius’ Pylimo Street, the main thoroughfare of the city’s pre-War Jewish neighborhood.
When Lithuania broke free of Soviet rule in 1991, the roughly 12,000 Jewish Lithuanians then remaining in the country were anxious to set the record straight. “We hoped that when Lithuania gained its independence, it would be possible for the Jews to find their place in the consciousness of the society,” said Rachel Kostanian, who helped re-establish Vilnius’ Jewish museum, which I visited in a tiny house that had previously been part of the pro-Soviet Revolutionary Museum. The museum’s first exhibition portrayed the Jewish experience in Lithuania during the Holocaust using horrific historical photographs to unflinchingly document the local collaboration that made it so lethal. “During Soviet times there was no possibility to talk about or explore these questions, so we were burning with a desire to show what happened,” Kostanian told me.
With Soviet archives now opened, international academics also embarked on new research into Lithuania’s Holocaust. Long-suppressed eyewitness accounts of local collaboration compiled at the conclusion of the war by Soviet Jewish journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman were declassified and published. Rachel Margolis, an elderly Jewish former partisan in Vilnius, found and published an eyewitness account of the execution of the city’s Jews penned by a Polish Catholic journalist who lived near the killing fields. His chilling diary fingered Lithuanian volunteers as the triggermen. In the face of these additional sources, the central question that has preoccupied mainstream historians of the Holocaust since the end of the Cold War is not whether there was massive local collaboration in Lithuania but why. A 1993 academic paper on the subject was titled simply, “Why Lithuania?”
With independence, the remnants of the Lithuanian-born Jewish community abroad saw an opportunity to finally prosecute the Nazi collaborators who had escaped punishment in Soviet times. This should have been relatively easy in Lithuania, since what is generally considered the archetypal depravity of the Holocaust—the anonymity of tattooed prisoner numbers and transcontinental deportations to death factories—was unknown in the country. Most Lithuanian Jews were shot near their hometowns. And, according to Lithuanian historian Alfonas Eidintas, the majority of them were shot by other Lithuanians, not by Germans. In Lithuania, the murderers and the murdered were sometimes even neighbors—your dentist, your customer, your daughter’s middle school crush. This lack of anonymity was a survivor’s nightmare, but a prosecutor’s dream.
One veteran Jewish partisan, Joseph Melamed, had begun compiling a list of names of collaborators from his fellow survivors in 1944. He had been born in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city, and remembers the vigilante killing squads that swept through the streets when the Red Army fell back in the face of the Nazi attack. “The Germans were not there; the Lithuanians did it themselves,” said Melamed when we spoke in Tel Aviv (by phone; the elderly war veteran had just been admitted to a local hospital). “I saw them carrying off Jews and Lithuanians standing on the sidewalks were giving them ovations, shouting ‘Bravo! Bravo!’ ”
Melamed, who became a prominent attorney and art dealer as well as head of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, redoubled his research efforts when the Soviet Union collapsed. In 1999, he published a volume titled, Crime and Punishment that listed the names of more than 4,000 Lithuanian volunteer executioners, nicknamed zydsaudys (“Jew-Shooters”) during the war. “After Lithuanians got independence,” he told me, “we hoped that Lithuania would give us help.”
But it was not to be. In one of its very first independent actions, before even fully breaking free of Moscow, Lithuania’s parliament formally exonerated several Lithuanian nationalists who had collaborated in the Holocaust and had been convicted by Soviet military courts after the war. The right-wing paramilitaries who had carried out the mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews were now hailed as national heroes on account of their anti-Soviet bona fides. Among many now-glorified leaders was Jonas Noreika, a paramilitary fighter who was executed for his anti-Soviet activities in 1947. According to a Holocaust survivor’s account published in the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, Noreika led the extermination of the Jews in the Lithuanian city of Plunge. Since independence, however, Lithuania’s prosecutor general has restricted access to Noreika’s wartime files. Meanwhile, the state body charged with investigating and memorializing Nazi- and Soviet-era atrocities, the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, turned the former guerrilla leader into a national hero. In 1997, Noreika was posthumously awarded one of the state’s highest honors, the Order of the Cross of Vytis, First Degree; in 2010, a primary school was named after him. At the same time, the new authorities have denigrated the anti-Nazi partisans: the Partisans Memorial from Pylimo Street now sits in a countryside park where the despised Lenins and Stalins that once stood in every Lithuanian town are left to collect dust and bird droppings. Its Genocide Centre–provided plaque says that partisans committed atrocities and were “mostly of Jewish nationality [since] native people didn’t support Soviet partisans.”
With independence, the grand Gestapo-turned-KGB headquarters on the central avenue in the heart of Vilnius was converted into the Museum of Genocide Victims. Initially begun in a makeshift manner by activists who occupied the local KGB headquarters when Gorbachev evacuated the Red Army in 1991, the museum became an official institution of the Lithuanian state by order of the minister of culture and education in 1992. Since 1997, it has been run by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre. Despite its name, the institution is emphatically not a Holocaust museum. In what became a model for post-Soviet Lithuania’s new party line, the museum recasts the human rights abuses of the Soviets as the “genocide,” while the Holocaust is brushed under the rug, downgraded to what the permanent exhibit calls Gestapo “repression against Jewish and other populations of Lithuania.” Among the names carved into the museum’s stone facade is Jonas Noreika’s.
To Lithuania’s remaining Jews, half of whom would leave the country in the 1990s, the new nation’s new history was an ominous sign. But few beyond the borders of Lithuania were aware of what was happening. In public diplomacy, Lithuanian authorities made a great show—and still do—of a German-style reckoning with their troubled past. It wasn’t until Lithuania had safely joined the European Union and NATO, in 2004, that state prosecutors began publicly tarring the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis as betrayers of the nation.
Yitzhak Arad defected from Soviet Lithuania in 1945 and wasn’t permitted to return until the Glasnost era. When Gorbachev legalized independent Jewish cultural institutions in the Soviet Union, Arad flew to Vilnius for the opening of a community center. As the thaw continued and the Soviet Union unraveled, Arad, now chairman of Yad Vashem, became a frequent visitor to Moscow where he worked to gain access for Holocaust researchers to the Soviet wartime archives that had long hidden the truth about local collaboration.
In 1998, the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel showed up on Arad’s doorstep outside Tel Aviv and invited him to participate in the new state’s truth and reconciliation commission: The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. The young republic hoped to look honestly at the crimes of its past, the ambassador explained, and he hoped Arad, who had published extensively on the Holocaust in Lithuania would agree to serve.
Arad recalled that some of his fellow Lithuanian-born Jews urged him not to join arguing that the purpose of the commission was simply “to whitewash the crimes the Lithuanians committed.” To some, its very name presupposed a conclusion that the crimes were all committed by German and Russian occupiers rather than by Lithuanian collaborators.
But at the urging of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Arad signed on. Arad promptly directed the commission to research some of the most uncomfortable aspects of the Holocaust in Lithuania. “We decided one subject was Lithuanian anti-Semitism before the war,” he recalled. “Secondly, the [role of] the Jews during the first period of the Soviet occupation and how this influenced the relationship of Lithuanians to Jews. … And then we started a third subject, the wave of pogroms initiated by Lithuanians, then we decided about the organized murder of the Jews [and finally, the relationship between] the Lithuanian church and the Holocaust.” Over the next eight years, relying heavily on documents that before the collapse of the Soviet Union had been unavailable to scholars, the commission published hard-hitting research under the imprimatur of the new state, revealing that the Holocaust in Lithuania was not simply the work of bloodthirsty German invaders but was, to a remarkable degree, a local production.
Prosecutors, however, were reluctant to take action against surviving Nazi collaborators. “Instead of giving up the murderers,” Melamed recounted, they “started saying they didn’t do anything at all.” Under international pressure, three Lithuanian collaborators were eventually prosecuted, but all were deemed unfit for incarceration—two on account of ill health, the third on account of his wife’s ill health. “Not a single Lithuanian war criminal has sat one day—not one minute!—in a Lithuanian prison since independence,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s top Nazi hunter, Ephraim Zuroff, told me in his office in Jerusalem.
Instead, Lithuanian prosecutors were soon investigating Jewish partisans for alleged war crimes—starting with Yitzhak Arad. On April 22, 2006, Respublika, an openly anti-Semitic newspaper that is one of Lithuania’s highest-circulation dailies, published a story headlined, “The Expert With Blood on His Hands.” The article used passages of Arad’s memoir, The Partisan, published in English in 1979, to smear him. In the Respublika article, what Arad’s memoir terms a 1944 “mopping-up operation” against “armed Lithuanians” after the Nazi withdrawal becomes an “ethnic cleansing of Lithuanians” that was part of a larger Soviet genocide. Arad, who was a teenager during the Holocaust, is referred to as an “NKVD storm trooper.” The anti-Communist convictions that are evident throughout Arad’s Brezhnev-era book—his recounting of how Stalin crushed the organized Jewish community of Lithuania during the annexation of 1940; his description of his hometown’s market turned scraggly and abandoned in the fallout from disastrous Communist economic policies—go unmentioned. As for the defection of this supposedly rabid Communist from Soviet Lithuania, the article seems genuinely puzzled: “It is not evident why, but right after the war Y. Arad decided to run to the West.”
In the article, Vytautas Bogusis, an anti-Soviet dissident turned ultra-nationalist member of the Lithuanian parliament, argues for a new history that posits moral equivalence between the Nazi invaders and the partisans who resisted them. “The red partisans were exactly the same occupiers as the Hitlerists,” Bogusis says, “therefore I do not wonder why the inhabitants of Lithuania fought against them.” The head of the Genocide Centre at the time, Arvydas Anusauskas, contends that Arad’s partisan past should preclude him from being considered an impartial historian. As for bringing alleged partisan war criminals to justice, Anusauskas laments, “There is no statute of limitation for the Jewish genocide, because this is approved at the international level. The genocide of Lithuanians has no such status, and for the physical extermination of our nation essentially nobody is accountable.”
A year later, however, Anusauskas succeeded in getting a criminal investigation of Arad under way. In September 2007, Lithuanian prosecutors announced they had opened a formal inquiry into Arad after receiving evidence of war crimes from the director of the Genocide Centre. Prosecutors publicly stated that they suspected Arad of “crimes against humanity in respect of Lithuanian residents (murder of civilians, prisoners of war, murders of Lithuanian [anti-Soviet] partisans) which were allegedly committed during … the service of said person in the Soviet NKVD in the years of World War II in Nazi occupied Lithuania and the post-war years.”
In May 2008, plainclothes policemen fanned out through Lithuania looking for other Jewish partisans to interview as part of their widening war crimes investigation. The local television news announced that Vilnius police were searching for two former partisans to interview regarding Arad (though, strangely, neither of them had fought in the same region of Lithuania he had). One was Fania Brantsovsky, who worked as librarian at the Vilnius University Yiddish library. The other was Rachel Margolis, who had irked local nationalists by uncovering the eyewitness account of Lithuanian volunteers executing 70,000 Jews outside Vilnius. The prosecutors refused to guarantee that the women would not be charged. At the time, it was well known in Vilnius that Brantsovsky could be found any weekday at the university library and that Margolis spent most of the year in Israel, where her daughter had settled after the collapse of the Soviet Union, returning to Lithuania each summer to work at the city’s tiny Jewish museum. But the authorities made it sound as if there might be killers on the loose, sending armed police to search for the women and notifying the media of the urgent manhunt as if armed-and-dangerous babushkas were roaming the streets of the capital.
Brantsovsky was soon found and interviewed. She denied being present at the scene of any war crimes, let alone participating in them, and was released. Margolis reacted to the news from Vilnius by canceling her annual trip to Lithuania. She suffered a heart attack that summer and has never returned to her homeland.
At the retirement home near Tel Aviv, Arad observed how bizarre it was that he was targeted by the Lithuanian prosecutor, considering that “the [non-Jewish] Lithuanians in our unit became the whole government of Soviet Lithuania. They became mayors of the [major] cities, the ‘people’s commissars.’ ” The leader of Arad’s partisan unit, Motiejus Sumauskas, became the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. “But I was an ordinary partisan. In Lithuania, even today, there are still [non-Jewish] Lithuanians who commanded me. My commanders are there. [The government] didn’t come out against them. They picked me.” (The Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s office did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.)
The allegations against Arad never made it to court—in September 2008, the prosecutor’s office announced that it had failed, as yet, to collect adequate evidence for a trial and appealed to the public for help in unearthing the crimes of Arad and his partisan unit. The investigation succeeded, however, in calling into question Arad’s impartiality and moral authority. From 2006 until 2013, the international body was essentially frozen, as international scholars ceased to participate in solidarity with the embattled Arad. Though it officially relaunched in 2013 with a majority of members sending a letter to Arad “express[ing] our sorrow and anger at the unwarranted attacks on you, which led to the suspension of the meetings of the Commission,” it has yet to resume publishing the type of no-holds-barred historical research Arad had overseen. It has not held a single session since its 2013 relaunch.
The investigation also succeeded in muddling the historical narrative by positing a moral equivalence: Lithuanian paramilitaries may have paved the way for the Nazi’s Holocaust, but Jewish partisans had committed atrocities that helped pave the way for the Soviet “genocide.” Even Ronaldas Racinskas, the executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, who signed the letter calling the attacks on Arad “unwarranted,” told me that during the 1940s “in one situation [the same person] was a victim and in another a perpetrator.” While there is “no excuse for killing innocent people, during these times ordinary people tried to survive and some chose the Soviets and some chose the Nazis.” Racinskas told me that the notion that “if someone is fighting the Nazis, they’re automatically given a plus—I think this is a problem. … For some people the bigger evil were the Soviets.”
Anne Derse, who served as U.S. ambassador to Lithuania from 2009 to 2012, believes the accusations against Arad were a calculated attempt to undermine the International Commission. “There’s no question that someone was politically motivated,” she told me. “The historical commission was doing some absolutely excellent work.”
The Lithuanian ambassador to the United States, Zygmantas Pavilionis, sees things more conspiratorially. He claims the accusation against Arad was not the work of Lithuanian anti-Semites but rather the work of a Russian conspiracy to make Lithuania look anti-Semitic in the eyes of the world. “I suspect personally that it was a nice KGB-type operation” orchestrated by the “Kremlin-based KGB regime,” the ambassador told me by phone. “Whenever you have different kinds of big steps from Lithuania with rapprochement with the Jewish community, something is happening. And in this particular case, the Arad case happened when we are preparing big visit of my president to America. I see that clearly … you have some third party involved, somewhere in the East … trying to destroy the dialogue.” I was taken aback at the sitting ambassador from an EU and NATO member state weaving conspiracy theories on the record. I told the ambassador that my understanding was that the attack on Arad initially came from a Lithuanian ultra-nationalist who read Arad’s memoir and contacted Respublika. Pavilionis then insinuated that I, too, might be part of the Russian conspiracy albeit more as a dupe than an agent. “They [the Russians] do it in a very professional way with American journalists,” he told me, with “one from Chicago, one from L.A., one from Washington, in a very Hollywood style, a very professional way.”
Whoever is responsible for the drumbeat of investigations coming out of Lithuania, they have not stopped. Shortly after speaking with the ambassador last March, news broke that the non-Jewish Lithuanian documentary filmmaker, Saulius Berzinis, who built a video archive of Holocaust survivors’ and collaborators’ testimony, has received a letter from the Criminal Division of the Vilnius Police. The letter notified him that he was under investigation for slandering Lithuanian nationalist paramilitary fighters, including Jonas Noreika, as Holocaust collaborators.
I met Dovid Katz, the leading Western Jewish activist monitoring and protesting Lithuania’s new approach to its history, at his apartment in Vilnius. Situated in a hilly neighborhood of stately fin-de-siecle apartment buildings, Katz’s home is lined with leather-bound volumes of pre-war Yiddish books. A framed, antiquarian Yiddish parchment map of the region hangs on the living room wall. By coincidence, Katz learned after moving in, this very living room had been the main meeting space of the city’s Yiddish writers’ circle before the war. The musty flat has an air of mystery to it, perhaps enhanced by the fact that Katz looks like a disheveled wizard: Tall yet portly, with long black hair and a bushy black beard, Katz cuts a strikingly eccentric figure.
In 1999, Katz began teaching Yiddish at Vilnius University and he has been living part-time in Vilnius ever since. As the Lithuanian government moved away from an honest reckoning with the past, Katz began to spar with the authorities. In 2009, he launched his cluttered, scrappy website, DefendingHistory.com, which keeps the world informed on the latest developments from Vilnius. The following year, he lost his university post, he says because of his activism. He remains in the city and now calls himself “a dissident.”
In present-day Eastern Europe, Katz explained in his Brooklyn accent, “Holocaust denial” is being replaced by a seemingly respectable “Holocaust obfuscation.” Lithuania and other Eastern European countries are embracing a “double genocide” theory that posits that both the Nazis and Soviets committed genocide. What the hypothesis lacks in intellectual honesty, it makes up for in political expediency. By positing twin genocides, Lithuanians become victims—and “Judeo-Bolsheviks” become perpetrators—in a second, mirror-image holocaust. As Ephraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center summarized, “If everyone is guilty, then no one is guilty.” To Leonidas Donskis, a part-Jewish Lithuanian intellectual who has served in the European Parliament in Brussels where he has opposed official Nazi/Soviet equivalence resolutions, the ultimate purpose of the “double genocide” theory is to allow Eastern European ultra-nationalists to “portray the people who were killing the Jews as people who fought the Soviet regime. [It is] dangerous nonsense.” As an added bonus, this historical narrative nicely fits the present moment in which Lithuania is (justifiably) more worried about Putin’s Russia than Merkel’s Germany.
Jewish leaders who rarely visit Lithuania are likely unaware of how Lithuania’s history is presented in Lithuania. The nation’s diplomats very publicly celebrate their historic Jewish community when abroad. In Israel, the Lithuanian ambassador told the Jerusalem Post that it’s “cool” to be Jewish in modern-day Lithuania; in the U.S., Ambassador Pavilionis has pushed for links between Christian Lithuanian-Americans and the Litvak diaspora, acknowledging only obliquely that such links are “not always possible in Lithuania.” When well-to-do Litvak descendants visit Vilnius each summer, they travel on tour buses that stop at the city’s peripheral Jewish sites, avoiding the Museum of Genocide Victims in the city’s heart.
I visited the Museum of Genocide Victims, on the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. The museum’s chief guide told me that the museum’s name, which baldly posits that the genocide perpetrated here was committed by Russians against Lithuanians, would be changed in two to three weeks. But when I later asked the museum director what the new name would be, he seemed caught off-guard. “Maybe the Terror and Resistance Museum,” he offered while the chief guide backtracked, telling me that the name-change could take months and, later, that the director was “only thinking about it.” The museum’s name remains the same.
With Arad and his international commission sidelined, the full responsibility for telling the story of the nation’s horrific 20th century has fallen to Lithuanian officials. During my time in the country, I was interested to learn what the government is teaching its people about their history. I made an appointment to speak with one of the key officials, the current general director of the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania. The center’s official emblem is a crucifix sharpened into a dagger.
The day of the interview, I walked to the center’s headquarters on the edge of Vilnius’ World War II–era Jewish ghetto. Before my meeting with the director, her secretary eagerly showed off the winning entry of a national middle school art of remembrance competition the center had organized. It was a handmade cardboard model of a cattle car with an oaktag-mounted montage behind it. The mixed-media work was headlined with the simple math equation: swastika equals hammer plus sickle. It was the essence of “double genocide” broken down into an aphorism even a child could master.
When I met general director Terese Birute Burauskaite, she explained to me why Soviet repressions of Lithuanian nationalists constitute genocide. “[In] the human rights conventions’ definition of genocide,” she said, “there is no place for political groups or social groups, only for ethnic and racial groups.” Under the center’s broadened definition, by contrast, Stalin’s targeting of social groups—the intelligentsia, for example, or the capitalists—can be considered genocide. (Shortly after our interview, in November 2013, Lithuania’s Constitutional Court officially embraced this redefinition.) An academic paper published on the Genocide and Resistance Research Center’s website went even further than Burauskaite or the court, questioning whether the Holocaust meets the standard for genocide since “although an impressive percentage of the Jews were killed by the Nazis, their ethnic group survived” and later flourished. The Soviet repression, it argues, was indisputably genocide since the Lithuanian intelligentsia, eliminated by Stalin, has never regenerated.
Perhaps one reason Lithuania’s intelligentsia remains so stunted today is that despite the fall of Communism, open debates about the nation’s history remain illegal. A 2010 law criminalized minimizing Soviet crimes, making it punishable by up to two years in prison—the same term mandated for Holocaust denial. (The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine have similar laws.) Anyone who officially questions the government’s official history in public risks jail time, as in Soviet times.
The Genocide Centre’s easy moral equivalency of swastika equals hammer plus sickle would have been even more shocking had it not been for my experience the previous day touring a partisan fort outside Vilnius with a young Lithuanian couple. I had bartered a full tank of gas—nearly twice what a typical Lithuanian earns in a day—for a few hours of services from a couple working as a translator and driver. Born in the late Soviet period, the underemployed artist and architect were the kind of worldly youth that should be the hope of the new Lithuania. The architect took on freelance design projects for Western European firms at Eastern European rates. The artist made ends meet creating Internet video ads for local beer brands that he was too sophisticated to drink. He was perplexed by my request to drive into the woods to see the remains of an anti-Nazi partisan fort. “Why go to a Soviet fort?” he asked. “That has nothing to do with us.”
We drove down a smooth, wide, EU-funded expressway for a stretch before exiting onto a narrow local street and then turning down a dirt road muddied by the Baltics’ perpetual precipitation. For the partisans who escaped the Vilnius ghetto to fight here, this was a three-day walk. For us, it was a 45-minute drive. After a few minutes of sloshing down the dirt road, we came upon a clearing in the woods. I had been prepared to find a foxhole or two—all my sources, both in print and in person, had called it a “fort”—but this was much bigger, a bona fide base. Seven different rooms, arrayed in an approximate circle, had been dug out of the ground, lined with logs, and covered with crude roofs of wood, dirt, and moss. Two of the structures appeared to be in imminent danger of collapse. Inside another, the trash strewn about the floor suggested its use by local teens for parties.
The decay was, of course, the result of intentional neglect. Since it is not an official Lithuanian historic site—indeed, according to the new party line, it was a hive of traitors to Lithuania—the fort is not protected. It will soon be gone, much like the elderly partisans who fought in it.
Heading back into Vilnius, the young couple mulled their nation’s bloody history. “The Nazis were bad; the Soviets were worse,” the artist offered matter-of-factly. “My grandmother remembered the war,” the architect added. “She always said the Germans were polite and the Russians weren’t.” When I pressed her on her Soviets-were-worse-than-the-Nazis assumptions, the most she would concede was a post-modern gloss that it was all a matter of perspective. “It depends who you were: the Nazis were worse for Jews, the Soviets were worse for Lithuanians.” The blithe, implicit assumption was that Lithuanian Jews were not Lithuanians.
I had wanted Fania Brantsovsky to show me around her old partisan fort but she declined to make the trip. Instead, I met her with my translator at the Vilnius University Yiddish library where she still works. Though in her 90s and dwarfed behind the bookshelves of aging Yiddish volumes and an old aleph-to-tav card catalog, she was a hummingbird of a woman, petite with a bright smile and a pixie cut. She repeatedly jumped up on her chair to pull down books from the top shelf that were relevant to her activities as a partisan.
One of the volumes she grabbed was Rachel Margolis’ memoir, A Partisan From Vilna. I had read the book, which included a description of a partisan attack on a town called Kanyuki, and knew that, according to Margolis, Brantsovsky was present at that battle. On Page 484, Margolis wrote: “A Nazi garrison was stationed in Kanyuki village. It blocked the partisans’ way into the region and was very dangerous for us. The brigade high command decided to attack the garrison and send all our detachments there. Fania went on this operation with a group from Avenger Detachment.”
“I’m not in this book,” Brantsovsky told me in decent English—a surprise since we had been communicating in Russian through a translator and because I knew she was mentioned in the book. Later Brantsovsky backtracked, telling my translator in Russian, “She [Margolis] wrote in the book that I was in the battle but I have documents that I was in the hospital.”
Kanyuki is an example of a battle where war crimes were likely committed though sorting out the facts today is difficult. In her memoir, Margolis portrays the battle at Kanyuki as an act of self-defense and a great partisan victory, but there were certainly civilian casualties there. Another Jewish partisan, Paul Bagriansky, has described outright atrocities, including one Jewish partisan “holding the head of a middle-aged woman against a big stone and hitting her head with another stone. Each blow was accompanied by sentences like: this is for my murdered mother, this if for my killed father, this is for my dead brother.” The Kanyuki Massacre, as they term it, is a central wartime event for double genocide theorists. Even Dovid Katz admits, “Kanyuki was definitely a Soviet partisan excess.”
No one has the right to bash a woman’s head in with a rock. And fighting for the right side in a war does not permit those fighters to commit war crimes. But the point of the Lithuanian media and prosecutorial allegations against Jewish partisans is not impartial justice. The Lithuanian nationalist interest in people like Arad and places like Kanyuki, when there are sites like Paneriai, outside Vilnius, where 70,000 Jews were murdered by Lithuanian volunteers who can’t claim self-defense suggests a desperation to recast the war as a violent chaos of armed Lithuanian Christians killing unarmed Lithuanian Jews and armed Lithuanian Jews killing unarmed Lithuanian Christians when it was nothing of the sort.
If Lithuanian prosecutors were interested in impartial justice, they would be investigating war criminals of all ethnicities and holding trials with firm rules of evidence in which the accused could defend themselves in open court on the basis of an alibi or a claim of self-defense. The real point of the investigations of Jewish partisans is to overturn the narrative that the anti-Nazi partisans were fighting on the right side of the war. At the extremes, this is to claim that, in post-Cold War hindsight, the Nazis were the right side—at least for Lithuanians. Even in the softer version that is taught to Lithuanian schoolchildren, it claims that was there was no right side. Swastika equals hammer plus sickle.
Prejudice and conspiracy theories are often born of a desire to blame others for one’s own faults or bad luck. Spending time in Lithuania, I came to comprehend the nation’s urge for its current condition to be someone else’s fault. While similarly situated countries like Estonia, the Czech Republic, and Poland have leapt ahead socially, politically, and economically since the end of the Cold War, Lithuania lags. Even a college education guarantees little; the maximum salary for a secondary school teacher is under $8,000 a year. With the exception of a few choice parts of central Vilnius, Lithuania still looks like a post-Soviet backwater of crumbling slab apartments. The shiny fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and chain stores that occasionally enliven some of the old storefronts are less signs that Lithuania has joined Europe than reminders that a prosperous continent lies just beyond the nation’s borders. For Lithuanians, the main benefit of EU membership has been the freedom to leave the country; tens of thousands of Lithuanians now work in the more successful countries to its west. Those who remain are often underemployed. Since 1991, the chief guide at the Museum of Genocide Victims told me, 700,000 people have left the country seeking greater opportunities in the West. “In a country of 3 million people,” he asserted, “that is a genocide.”