RIGA, Latvia (Sep. 4)
Fifty years after the Holocaust — and six years after the fall of communism — the tragic fate of local Jewish communities during World War II remains a repressed issue in many of the countries that comprised the former Soviet Union.
Local collaborators, often with passionate zeal, helped the Nazis kill 800,000 Jews in Belarus, more than 200,000 in Lithuania and 75,000 in Latvia.
Indeed, over 90 percent of Lithuanian and Latvian Jews perished in the Holocaust, the highest percentage in Europe.
During the years of Soviet rule, the government largely ignored the specific Jewish nature of the tragedy, preferring instead to focus memorials and educational lessons on all of the “victims of fascist crimes.”
And since the demise of communism, several former Soviet republics have sent conflicting signals about their willingness to come to terms with the Holocaust.
Some steps have been taken to acknowledge their complicity in the Holocaust.
Indeed, during a visit to Israel in 1995, Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas publicly apologized for his country’s involvement in the Holocaust, and both Lithuania and Latvia have established national days of mourning for Holocaust victims.
But local Jewish leaders say that little has been done to educate people about the extent of local participation in the Holocaust.
The event is given only a brief mention in Belarussian, Lithuanian and Latvian history textbooks.
In Lithuania, no legal action has been taken against several alleged war criminals who were stripped of their U.S. citizenship and deported to their homeland in recent years.
Since the fall of communism, the Lithuanian government has pardoned more than 50,000 citizens who were convicted as war criminals by the Soviet courts after World War II, including persons suspected of participating in the Holocaust.
Lithuanian and Latvian ultranationalists who participated in the mass killings of Jews are now glorified in book and articles, as well as in public ceremonies honoring Nazi collaborators as anti-Soviet fighters.
Last month, a delegation from the Anti-Defamation League visiting Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia spoke about one such case to a high-ranking Lithuanian official.
On the eve of the Nazi invasion of Soviet-occupied Lithuania, Kazys Skirpa, Lithuania’s prewar ambassador to Germany, called on Lithuanians to liberate their land “from the long-standing Jewish yoke.” From Germany, he coordinated the operations of Lithuanian fascists who took an active role in brutally murdering Jews.
Recently, a street in Kaunas, the nation’s second largest city, was named after Skirpa — who is considered a national hero by many in Lithuania.
Neris Germanis, the foreign affairs adviser to the Lithuanian president, explained to the ADL delegation that Skirpa “also did some good things for his country” as a diplomat and a member of the prewar Cabinet.
Soon after the Baltic republics gained their independence six years ago, nationalism flourished along with a desire to settle historical accounts for the 50 years of Soviet occupation.
As has often been the case in this part of the world, Jews were made the scapegoats, accused of collaborating with the Communists, especially in the 1940-1941 Soviet campaign to exile thousands of residents of the Baltic republics to Siberia.
This charge served as a thinly veiled justification for the collaboration of local residents with the Nazis.
While the wave of nationalism has diminished in the last few years, “there is a need to come to grips with the painful past,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The ADL offered to involve these countries in several ADL-sponsored programs, including a project honoring Righteous Gentiles and an educational seminar aimed at reducing prejudices.
Another Jewish organization, B’nai B’rith, teamed up with the Lithuanian Ministry of Education last year to organize Holocaust awareness programs in Lithuanian schools.
The ADL mission was assured that the Baltic states and Belarus will continue to support local Jewish organizations.
Authorities in these countries do not hinder organized Jewish activities, even those aimed at encouraging immigration to Israel.
But Foxman maintains that the governments have to be more vigilant in opposing anti-Jewish prejudice and condemning anti-Semitic acts.
Jewish communities here, for example, expect the return of communal property that was nationalized during the Communist regime.
Belarus does not have a law regarding restitution. As a result, the 100,000- strong Jewish community has been able to reclaim only five synagogues out of several dozens of former communal buildings across the country.
In a meeting with the ADL delegation in Minsk, Ivan Pashkevich, deputy head of the Belarussian presidential administration, said the major obstacle to restitution is the reluctance of local officials to give up the property.
In Lithuania and Latvia, Jewish communities have been relatively successful in reclaiming synagogues. However, other communal property has been difficult to reclaim.
Foxman believes that by resolving the restitution problem in a manner that would satisfy the Jewish communities, these states could demonstrate their desire to cope with the past.
“These are unresolved questions that relate to the past, but still haunt the present,” he said.
Foxman is uncertain that future generations will ever learn what happened to Jews here.
“The question is how much of an investment in time, money, energy is it worth? Will the youth of Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus ever know the truth?”