[By Jan-Pieter Verheul]
The Jews first settled Lithuania in the 14th century following an invitation by the Grand Duke Gediminas. Lithuania has maintained a higher Jewish population than Latvia and Estonia throughout the 20th century with a total of 7.6% of the population claiming to be Jewish in the early 1990’s (Lieven, 139). The first prayer house in Lithuania is rumored to have been built in 1440 in Vilna, and permission to build the first synagogue was granted in 1573. Vilna continued to grow as a center of Judaism in the Baltic States, especially in the mid-17th century when there was a large influx of Ukrainian refugees fleeing massacres of Jews and Poles of the area. The centuries saw the development of multiple rival sects, such as the Hasidic, Orthodox and Zionist Jews, and by the very late nineteenth century a Jewish Socialist Labor group known as the Bund had formed and begun promoting the rights and preservation of the culture of Jews in Eastern Europe. It was also during this time that Yiddish became a recognized literary language, and by the 1930’s Vilna had developed the Yiddish Institute of Learning (Lieven, 142).
During these times, although there was very little violence towards the Jews in the Baltic States, there was a mutual sense of alienation between the Baltic Jews and the rest of the population. A testament to this estrangement can be seen today in the Devil’s Museum in Kaunas, which houses a tremendous collection of renditions of the devil, the majority of which are “obviously meant to be Jews” (Lieven, 143). Lieven explains that while the Jews were seen as strange and “mysterious,” they were more feared and ultimately distrusted by the Lithuanians than they were hated; most felt that the murder of Jews during the Holocaust was a horrible tragedy, despite folk myths about Jews stealing Christian children for blood sacrifices (Lieven, 144).
Anti-semitism shifted from the peasant realm to the national level with the help of the Catholic Church, whose priests were responsible for most literature prior to 1914. They were joined by liberal writers in blaming the Jews for Lithuania’s “backwardness” and for their ‘grip’ on urban professions. This national sense of anti-semitism was especially exacerbated in the advent of Lithuanian independence, when Lithuanians realized that they could not outcompete the greater number of well-educated Jews, Poles and Germans for professions requiring stronger educations. Lithuania therefore instituted a state policy to strengthen the Lithuanian educational system, resulting in nearly a four hundred percent increase in the Lithuanian population in towns and cities. This, in turn, left a large number of over-educated people in urban areas with not enough jobs available. The fact that the Jews were an established successful group in urban areas only was used by their critics to fuel the growing anti-semitic sentiment. Eventually, a number of groups began boycotting Jewish businesses, and even students moved to have Jews segregated in or removed from Universities (Lieven, 145).
Prior to Lithuanian independence in 1918, there was no concept of Lithuanian national identity, which was especially true for the Jews, who had little interest in Lithuanian culture, history or language. Instead, the Jewish intelligentsia focused more on cultures which they believed had more to offer, such as German, Polish, and Russian. The Baltic Jews found integration into Russian culture especially inviting, both because of the Russian intelligentsia’s rich sense of culture, and their strong opposition to anti-semitism. The fact that the Russian intelligentsia itself was also an object of tsarist persecution further endeared Russian culture to Jews (Lieven, 147). Russian influence on the Baltic Jews continued throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, with many Jews taking an interest in Russian language and literature, thereby opening them up to the socialist revolutions of the times. The Soviet Union offered the Baltic Jews the opportunity to break away from the oppressive and isolated world of the Baltic States, providing freedom of culture and national identity. This lifestyle became particularly appealing in the late 1930’s with the rise of the Nazi regime and its threats of expanding fascism and violent anti-semitic acts (Lieven, 148).
Nazi propaganda in Lithuania only worsened conditions for the Jews, who were now made up more than half of the communist party in Lithuania. The majority of the Jewish population welcomed Soviet occupation of the Baltic States, and many Jews were quickly assimilated into the higher ranks of the Baltic communist party. Under the Soviet regime, the Jews were given newfound opportunities to maintain positions of power in the state; the Jews had now emerged with a sense of strength, freedom and political power, and this reversal of roles between the Jews and the non-Jewish members of the Baltic States intensified the anti-semitic sentiment in the area. The NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, namely the Soviet secret police) also had a strong Jewish component, and the deportation of thousands of citizens to Siberia prior to invasion of the Nazis provided plenty of anti-semitic ammunition, despite the fact that the NKVD also had a heavy Lithuanian component and that there were nearly twice as many Jewish victims as Lithuanian (Lieven, 150).
Under the Nazis, the Balts had support to fulfill their retaliatory desires on the Jews. In 1941 Lithuanians killed thousands of Jews with no direct German interaction (Lieven, 139). That same year saw the rising of the Lithuanian Activists Front (LAF), which issued a directive openly pushing for removal of the Jews and fomented anti-semitism and anti-communism so as to eventually return to a state of independence (Lieven, 151). Immediately before the Nazis invaded, the LAF began attacking and killing Jews in extraordinary numbers in the city of Kaunas, where more than two thousand were murdered in the course of one week (Lieven, 152). Many members of the Catholic Church did not desire the murder of the Jews, but rather the maintenance of an established Jewish Ghetto in order to promote separation from the Jews. It was in one such ghetto that the Germans ordered several hundred Jews be rounded up and exterminated; the officers carrying out the orders were, in fact, Lithuanian volunteers seeking revenge for their suffering under the Russians (Lieven, 153).
Life in the Baltic States after the holocaust has been nearly as tumultuous for the Jews as it was beforehand. Many questions regarding who is to blame, who should be rehabilitated, who should be tried, who should be awarded medals of valor, and a general lack of acknowledgement on the national level are still controversial topics. One major factor in this situation lies within Soviet occupation. After the Great Patriotic War, the Soviets destroyed many damaged synagogues and replaced the memorial to tens of thousands of Jews at Ponary with a monument to all Soviet victims. The next four decades of Soviet rule throughout the Baltic States contributed to the ignoring of many anti-semitic events before and during the war. The Soviets were also able to use the Holocaust to their advantage through propaganda in order to deflect Baltic nationalism and movements for independence (Lieven, 154).
Another group which Lieven holds responsible for the cloudy vision of the Baltic past during the Holocaust is the large group of émigrés, who have maintained silence throughout the Soviet regime, possibly in order to keep the Soviets from connecting them with Nazis as members involved in murders. Such a correlation would not only diminish the severity of the Holocaust but also any sense of national identity. With no objections from these groups, the national history was rewritten with adjusted, reduced, and even absent portrayals of ethnic groups (Lieven, 154).
One of the Baltic national defenses regarding persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust consists of the argument that as nations they had no government or armed forces and were therefore unable to act in opposition on behalf of themselves or the Jews. The fact that the Baltic peoples themselves were also oppressed seems to blur the line between Baltic and Jewish suffering. Equally valid is the notion that no Baltic nation was itself responsible for the atrocities that occurred, only certain individuals and certain groups. This assertion, however, causes some very serious problems in that many Baltic groups responsible for persecution of the Jews were also considered patriotic heroes for their efforts to defend their nations in the wars. One such group is the Latvian SS Legion, which was controversially commemorated in 1993 for its heroic wartime efforts. Latvia also provided state pensions for Latvian SS soldiers and police, while withholding pensions from Soviet veterans; however, it did agree to sign extradition treaties with the US and Australia for war criminals. Similar commemorations in Estonia and Lithuania in the early 1990’s have also sparked international controversy; when Estonia established a veterans’ association in 1991, Sweden actually threatened to cut off aid, which only raised anti-semitism in the area (Lieven, 156-157).
There have also been ceremonies to recognize those compatriots who did their part to help the Jews. For example, in Lithuania the day September 23, the anniversary of the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto, was declared “Day of the Genocide.” On that day, in 1992, the Speaker of Parliament awarded medals to those Lithuanians who aided or hid Jews (Lieven, 157). A few years earlier, the late 1980’s had brought the first questions by Jews in Estonia regarding recognition of the events of the Holocaust and Estonia’s role, the extermination of Jews immediately prior to the war, as well as the role of the Estonian SS. These questions were not well received by the government, and although an official “regret” was released by the Estonian parliament, no formal research was undertaken (Lieven, 140).
These types of activities, while noble, still leave a large margin for an improved recognition of the past. Without question, the role of the Baltic States both during and after the Holocaust has helped maintain the rift between the Jews and the state. Even in modern day Lithuania, with the largest Jewish population (around five thousand people), there has been no political motion to recognize Jewish cultural autonomy on the grounds that as Lithuanian citizens, they are already guaranteed such rights (Lieven, 158). It seems to be a question of chosen national identity; recognition of all of the events of the past would ultimately lead to a reflection on policies regarding the Jews before and during the Holocaust, many of which were forgotten during the Soviet era. “A serious examination of the role of those forces and their commanders,” Lieven concludes, “would merely mean that part of the national myth would not be tarnished, it would slide into a moral abyss” (Lieven, 157).
- Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).