If you go to Vilnius and walk down Pylimo Gatve, there stands, only a few blocks away from the last remaining synagogue, a rather unassuming structure. Vilnius—a city that has particular fondness for the baroque churches of the Counter-Reformation—has on its streets a rather unassuming neo-classical reform church. Like most buildings in the city, it is mainly a brick structure, given it’s grandiose appearance from a thick layer of plaster that coats the entire surface—plaster that is slowly being chipped away by the elements. The stairs that lead up to the church are uniformly rectangular ranging in color from grey to a muted red. Here the question can be asked: why the difference in color if all of these stones ideally should have been extracted from the same quarry? Indeed these stones were all extracted from the same quarry—a quarry of the dead. Look closer at the stones themselves and it will become apparent that despite the perpetual precipitation that coats the southeast Baltic, horizontal demarcations can be made out—demarcations that are read from right to left. If this has not already become apparent, the stones here are not normal stones, but rather gravestones from a Jewish cemetery.
This example, while not completely pertinent to what I am about to describe, serves as a useful visual analogy to what is happening to the memory of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Slowly, little by little, the true memory of the Holocaust is being eroded, replaced by a new narrative that has more to do with contemporary East-European geopolitics than anything regarding the truth. This narrative is known as the theory of “dual-genocide”—a term little known in the West, but one that our leaders have fully accepted.
Before I continue, I should divulge the reasons for me writing this article. This summer I had the pleasure of learning Yiddish in Lithuania at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. The first day, whispers among the students indicated that something was not right. One name was mentioned that inspired particular interest and speculation: that of Dovid Katz, the program’s original director. The murmurings around this man were novelesque. He was described as a haggard figure, isolated from the rest of the world, perched high in his apartment outside of the historical city center. A troubled soul—this was the main thing recounted—a genius, but quick to make accusations. According to Professor Katz’s website “defendinghistory.com,” he was removed from the program for political reasons. Namely, that in 2008, the Lithuanian government decided to investigate two Jewish anti-Nazi partisans for supposed “war crimes.” One of these partisans, Rachel Margolis, has passed away, while the other, Fania Brantsovsky, is still alive, and is someone who I met while participating in the program. While the Lithuanian government at the time viewed these partisans as collaborationists who assisted the Soviet occupiers, Dovid Katz and the Jewish community (and most reasonable people I would assume) viewed and continue to view these partisans as people who were merely trying to stay alive and fight the fascist brute as their families were being butchered in the forests of Ponar. Since the Vilnius Yiddish Institute is a state funded enterprise connected to the University of Vilnius, Professor Katz was accordingly pushed out for his objection to the investigation, and for his being able to get the Irish ambassador at the time to hold an event celebrating Fania for her heroism.
There were of course other reasons why Dovid Katz was exiled from the program he formed with his own hands, but to enumerate them all would be a Herculean effort, and there still remains the task of actually describing what myself and a few others heard Dovid Katz talk about on that Summer evening in Vilnius.
There are three issues at play here. First there is the equivocation of Nazi crimes and the crimes of Communism. Secondly, there is the glorification of “national liberationists,” many of whom were active Nazi collaborationists. Lastly, there is the redefinition of the term “genocide” to begin with.
In 2008, the Prague Declaration was proposed and signed by several prominent European parliaments, and of course adopted by the Lithuanian parliament. The declaration establishes the main doctrine of “dual genocide.” Some of the provisions that are enumerated include: a revision of all European textbooks to teach about the crimes of Communism in the same fashion that Nazi crimes are taught, for the 23rd of August (the day the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed) to become a day of joint commemoration of Nazi and Communist crimes, and most importantly, the recognition that the crimes of Communism are inherent to communist ideology in the same way that the crimes of Nazism are inherent to Nazi ideology.
While it is true that Stalin’s reign did inflict great crimes upon Europe, it is inaccurate to state that inherent in Communist ideology as expounded by Karl Marx is the need for mass terror and violence. On the other hand, Nazi ideology explicitly calls for the elimination of entire people-groups. Additionally, while the theory of “dual genocide” does expound that both genocides should be equally commemorated, that is not the case in Lithuania. For instance, while the Soviet occupation is commemorated by a huge museum (the former KGB and Gestapo building) on the central boulevard, the Nazi Holocaust is only commemorated by a small cell in the basement of that museum and the “Green House,” which, tucked away behind the Jewish museum, is only seen by people who are looking for it. In my experience at the National Museum of Lithuania, there is no mention of the word “Holocaust.” The extermination of Jews is mentioned, but there is no mention at all of Lithuanian collaboration and participation in the Holocaust. In Eastern European countries where the Jewish population is minuscule, the theory of “dual genocide” inherently means the overemphasis of the Soviet occupation to the detriment of Holocaust commemoration and remembrance.
A recent Salon article in which the grandchild of Jonas Noreika reveals that her grandfather, well loved as a man who fought against the Soviets, and who was murdered by the KGB in 1947, was in fact a Nazi collaborationist and anti-Semite. Still, Nereikia is honored with a memorial dedicated to him and a school named after him in his home town of Sukioniai.
Lastly, Lithuania has also set out to change the legal definition of genocide. In 2014, the Lithuanian Constitutional Court ruled that Soviet counterinsurgency against a small group of nationalist partisans should be considered genocide. The logic of the Court was that since this small group of nationalists were the political “elite” of the nation, the attempt to destroy them was an attempt to destroy the entire nation. This flies against the most commonly accepted definition of genocide, that being the mass killing of people usually of one ethnic or national group.
This politics of “dual genocide” has a purpose: to portray Russia as a country equal to that of Germany, and therefore, to extract reparations from it, and to antagonize the West against it. And while it might seem harmless that one country is retelling history to fight the evil of Putin’s contemporary Russia, for the Jewish community of Vilnius, people who stayed despite the fact that they had nothing to return to after the war, this history is all they have.
Cover photo: One of the pits at Ponar. Photo courtesy of Misha Lerner.