On 1941, the Jews, and Us


by Nida Vasiliauskaitė

I read Kęstutis Girnius’s and Leonidas Donskis’s essays on this more than once and can’t get rid of some strange impressions. Even if I pretended that I knew nothing about the Provisional Government, the LAF and that historical period in general, and my only source of information were these two texts addressed to each other, they would suffice to start to make clear some things not just about the past, but also about its intimate connection with the present. How this is being talked about here and now is not less important than that (and the things connected with that) which actually happened. 

The remarkably calm tone of Girnius consciously contrasts with the emotionally agitated speech of Donskis: here, for you, is an objective, proper, unbiased, polite reaction to “dissatisfaction expressed” (without neglecting to recall that “to express dissatisfaction” is in no way appropriate for a person who once chose the motto Sine ira et studio). It was precisely this tone that seemed to me worthy of attention, complemented by the choice of appropriate words and logical argument. Let’s understand it like this: I, Girnius, am listening patiently, even extremely patiently, and in no way justify, in no way deny the participation of Lithuanians in the massacre of Jews, but Donskis (he) is obviously exaggerating, and unjustifiably accuses (us), because he (for some reason) “is angered.”

Here the illuminating point is that, dealing with such issues, “we” (for some reason) immediately mobilize to defend ourselves and defend “our own” Provisional Government (PG). Girnius’s main and it seems only counterargument, repeated throughout the text in a plethora of forms, is this: “There is much we still do not know about the activity of the Provisional Government.”

Okay, let’s say that’s true (although many professional historians apparently don’t think the PG is, in this particular respect, such an “unidentified object”), and then let’s ask: how can this “insufficient” knowledge of the PG’s activities be considered a serious argument that the PG didn’t support and didn’t carry out Nazi antisemitic policies, if, firstly, we do have information about their gestures corresponding to these policies and we do know about their greatest efforts in order to gain the recognition of Nazi Germany, and moreover, we have no information about any attempts by the PG’s people to distance themselves from or renounce antisemitism?

So does this presupposition that there were such attempts, based on nothing (except gaps in knowledge and the desire to believe), counterbalance and negate the real facts of flirtation with the Nazi regime?

To go beyond Girnius’s text (to the archives) isn’t necessary here. He in no way denies that there was a PG resolution of 30 June 1941 to establish a concentration camp. Nor does he dispute that “a concentration camp sounds horrible.”  He only doubts the camp’s location at the Seventh Fort near Kaunas and adds that it was only a small one. In this manner he descends into an obscene “arithmetic of death,” as if the size of the camp and the number murdered are the main issue in judging the activity of the PG, rather than the fact that this camp existed and, what is no less important, that the rhetoric making it a reality was formally approved. Or did perhaps the “smallness” of the camp somehow demonstrate PG disapproval?

Or: maybe one can decide about the disapproval from the fact that the PG adopted the infamous regulations on the situation of the Jews at the time “when it was already clear that the Nazis together with a council of their [local] agents would take over total governance of the country within a few days and the regulations, in common with other PG resolutions, would never see the light of day because of Nazi censorship”? No, without further hypothesization one cannot come to such a conclusion. It is likely the contrary. The question arises: Why did they seek to please the Nazis even after the hopes of independence had been buried, instead of leaving “that issue” for the Nazis to take care of, keeping themselves “with undirtied hands”?

Girnius writes: “There are several versions of the blood-curdling announcement ‘Dear enslaved brothers’ that the Lithuanian Activists’ Front (LAF) allegedly distributed on 19 March 1941,” Girnius writes. Here this “allegedly” applies, one understands, to all known versions, although I do not encounter in any later paragraph any basis for the adverb. Perhaps the basis exists, but Girnius doesn’t provide it, so the “allegedly” in his text only performs the function of an indicator of the author’s predisposition, strengthened by the totally free-floating speculation that the statement written in one version,  that “Traitors will only be forgiven if they demonstrate that they have liquidated at least one Jew each” was perhaps “inserted by a local fanatic” ― perhaps, but equally, perhaps, that fanatic was expressing the official LAF position.

Later in his answer to Donskis, the claim is made that Lithuania didn’t have any other choice other than “to operate together with Nazi Germany” because all other options, undoubtedly, were and seemed worse (for some reason there is no clarity provided on the “were” and the “seemed”). Especially because in 1941, allegedly, the “inhumanity” of the Nazi regime “hadn’t completely revealed itself.” Unfortunately, for many of the thinking people around the world at that time, that which “hadn’t completely revealed itself” had been more than disclosed, whereas the Soviet Union was indeed idealized in the West for a long time to come, since information about what was going on there in reality was lacking.

The moral of the story is clear. “We” couldn’t have done anything differently, therefore “We” are innocent (and please will you stop expressing your dissatisfaction with “Us” here). And the premise: the aspiration (even if very fragile) of the independence of the state is undoubtedly more important than the majority of the lives of the Jewish citizens of that state. Does this thinking then and the justification nowof actions from that time not show that Jews de facto were and are considered “alien” and who, in the name of a “noble aspiration,” can be instantly sacrificed if
the need arises, and that the Holocaust topic is therefore “their” rather than “our” issue?). Read: Lithuanians wanted to “rid themselves of the red occupier,” so why on earth worry about some Jews? And what are individual people worth when the State and the (ethnically pure?) Nation is at stake?

One more detail is worth noting. In one case it’s “the red occupier” (an emotionally suggestive phrase Girnius likes), in another — no, not “the brown occupier” but simply “Nazi Germany” (which, according to Girnius, appeared completely respectable at that time). Those who chose from among the two evils the “red” one here are called “simple-minded” or “steadfast servants of Bolshevism” who “demolished the remains of the Lithuanian state” (of course, many of those people indeed behaved that way). Those, however, who chose “the brown” one, are described using far more polite vocabulary and are a priori (up to a specific limit) considered rational, sincere patriots; and while some of them sullied their “good name” they in general and overall, Girnius seems to believe, made the correct choice and therefore it is not nice to “accuse” or suspect  they had any ideological connection with the object of their choice, i.e., Nazism. So: accidental, zero-demonstrating  and uniformly neutral figures of Girnius’s speech that one shouldn’t find fault with, or, alongside other analogous nuancing, clear asymmetry on the Nazis’  behalf?

Lexicon, tone, arguments…

Even appearing to be proper, something is wrong.

Revealing more about the relatively liberal attitude of the Lithuanian intellectual toward these acute issues than he himself would prefer, something about his predisposition which he himself likely doesn’t know. For some reason I, for example, have no desire to find at any cost some proofs that the PG and LAF had nothing in common with antisemitism and Nazism ― because I have no basis to believe such proofs do exist, and I see that such a “defense” is neither unbiased, nor non-disgusting, and it is uncomfortably eerie.

My “We” in this context is much more the Jews than the PG, the LAF or all of the defending-itself-as-innocent-not-interested-in-hearing-anything Lithuania.

Note. This English version of the Lithuanian original has been approved by the author. The translation was prepared with the assistance of Geoff Vasil. The original Lithuanian essay appeared on 14 September 2010 on Delfi.lt (available here).

Posted in Bold Citizens Speak Out, Double Genocide, History, Legacy of 23 June 1941, Leonidas Donskis, Lithuania, Nida Vasiliauskaitė, Opinion, Politics of Memory | Comments Off on On 1941, the Jews, and Us

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