July 16, 2019

In my post about Ponar, I mentioned the struggle of trying to understand how neighbors become killers. This is, indeed, an extremely difficult theme to work one’s head around. What is even more difficult, and I find myself becoming more and more bewildered by this, is how long it has taken or is taking for countries to acknowledge their role in dehumanizing and terrorizing their Jewish neighbors.

In Vilnius we learned how eager the Lithuanians were to begin persecuting the Jewish community on a large scale. There are a number of reasons for this. One being that, when Lithuania came under Soviet rule before the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Jews were treated better than previously: with greater rights, more mobility in society and economy. Lithuanians, however, found that they were suffering more under Soviet rule. This created a resentment of the Jewish community, who they saw as Soviet collaborators. Once the Germans occupied Vilnius, collaboration of the Lithuanians began immediately. Of course, this is only one of the many reasons. General antisemitism certainly played a role as well.

We went to a museum which featured an exhibition that had been done about 20 years ago. It used to be a traveling exhibit but now hangs as part of the permanent exhibit. The panels covered Jewish life extensively but the panels focused on the Holocaust, the Soviet periods, Ponar, etc., were particularly worrisome. It portrayed Lithuanians purely as victims, that they hated the Germans and what they were doing to the Jews. It went as far as saying that the majority had no direct part in what was happening; only that they were bystanders.

There was nothing about their incredibly active participation in torturing, rounding up and killing of their Jewish neighbors. I had asked our guide if the information was available online from the exhibit: “No, I’m sorry. It is 20 years old and needs to be edited and updated.” Seeing how inaccurate it was I am surprised they keep this exhibit up at all. An academic on our trip was standing next to me as we read the panels. He pointed to a section claiming Lithuanian innocence in all of this, shook his head and said: “See this? This is complete bull***t.” He was clearly agitated.

This is only one example of the many that we are seeing through our excursions. People ready and willing to betray their own community. Not only that, we are seeing a painfully slow acknowledgement (and with many individuals complete denial of collaboration altogether!) on the part of the countries themselves to what their people had done. Seeing mass graves, memorials and sites of massacres the only thing I can offer these souls is: “I am so sorry we didn’t do more.”