Sixteen years after slipping the Soviet yoke, nothing stirs the national soul in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia like debates over the five decades of Soviet occupation, which Moscow kicked off by deporting hundreds of thousands to Siberia.
Even symbolic reminders serve as grist.
In Estonia, lawmakers took steps in January to remove a Soviet monument from downtown Tallinn, the capital, that commemorates the 1944 liberation from Nazi forces.
That debate soon spilled over into Latvia, which revived discussion over removing its own Soviet monuments from the capital, Riga.
Latvian nationalist leaders wrote in an open letter that keeping the tributes “would be as unethical as to erect a monument to German ‛liberators’ in Israel.”
Some Russian lawmakers have responded with threats of sanctions against both states. One leader branded the monument controversy an effort to “rehabilitate Nazism.”
And in Lithuania, Parliament in recent years has demanded compensation from Moscow for the families of those deported, and for 50 years of Soviet occupation. The bill: $20 billion.
On the margins of these tensions are 25,000 or so Jews living in these teenaged democracies.
Whereas many Baltic citizens viewed the invading Nazis as liberators and the postwar Soviet government as an occupier, for the fraction of Jews who survived the Holocaust, the Soviet Army were liberators then became occupiers.
Thus many non-Jewish Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians see their own Jewish populations, even today, as tied in with the hated Soviet occupiers. That limits sympathy for the atrocities committed against Jews.
“People here like to have their own tragedies, they like to be the victims,” says Gita Umanovska, executive director of the Riga Jewish community. “But there doesn’t exist here an understanding that the Holocaust was a tragedy of the whole society. They don’t feel it’s a part of their Latvian history.”
In Lithuania, at least, one group aims to bridge these contrasting narratives by highlighting the tragedies endured by both Jews and the ethnic majorities.
“The problem exists that under these two occupations, two different peoples suffered differently, and two different historical memories were shaped,” says Ronaldas Racinskas, executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.
“We may not always agree on the facts or on the interpretation of those facts, but we want to find common ground between two Lithuanian groups Lithuanian Jews and Lithuanian Lithuanians because both are Lithuanian,” he says.
But that is dangerous terrain. It inevitably leads to some people comparing, if not equating, the two, which is anathema to Jews who defend the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
Racinskas, though, says his group underscores the key distinctions: While the Nazis went after Jews as an entire ethnic and religious group, the Soviets were bent on eradicating certain classes, like aristocrats, landowners, farmers and intellectuals.
That included some Jews as well. Still, to Jews, Racinskas says, “the Soviets meant prison, the Nazis meant gas chambers.”
Exploring the past has its pitfalls in a region of raw national sensitivities after a half-century in which the Soviets skewed or obscured history for propaganda purposes.
And history here is far from black and white. In 1939, the Germans and Soviets signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in which Berlin secretly ceded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Moscow.
The Soviets occupied and annexed the small Baltic nations in 1939-40, executing, imprisoning or deporting tens of thousands of locals deemed “anti-Soviet elements.”
Further blurring the lines are the facts that some Baltic locals embraced the Soviets and helped deport fellow countrymen; some local Jews were among the deported. And some Jews were in the Soviet Red Army and secret police, fueling a hatred of Jews in certain quarters that associated all Jews with the despised Soviets.
Thus, these small nations welcomed the German arrival in 1941.
“In their collective memory, the Nazis were less evil than the Soviets, looking at their personal experience and that of their families,” Racinskas says.
Many young men in each country also joined police units that collaborated with the Nazis. According to historical accounts, they enthusiastically set upon local Jews.
In justifying this collaboration, Umanovska says, some assert a disproportionate role of Soviet forces who happened to be Jewish, rationalizing, “The Jews were with the Soviets, so when the Nazis came, people took revenge. Of course this is a normal reaction: If you kill my mother, I will kill your mother. There’s always an excuse.”
Later, when the Soviets returned to “liberate” the Baltics, they deported, executed and imprisoned hundreds of thousands more locals.
Of the approximately 10 million Baltic citizens, some 600,000 prisoners were exiled to the eastern hinterlands, according to the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania, a swathe of humanity that touched and traumatized virtually every family.
The Latvian Jewish community itself has a club of Soviet World War II veterans.
In many cases, Baltic Jews today are not indigenous to the region but are children and grandchildren of the very Soviet forces who liberated these nations.
“So they keep quiet, yes,” Umanovska says. “But nobody asks our opinion, either.”
The scarring of the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian psyches remains, observers say, and seems to manifest itself in frequent diplomatic sparring with Russia.
These Baltic countries are now members of both the European Union and NATO, but they still keep a wary eye on their huge eastern neighbor.
Such focus on one’s own trauma allows little compassion for another’s. Yet Racinskas suggests the empathy deficit goes both ways.
“Oh my God, is it difficult to find that middle ground,” he says. “Even if they recognize there’s a wall of collective memory between the two communities, in their minds they still believe their memory is the truth.”
Racinskas’ commission, which recently published “The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews During the Summer and Fall of 1941,” has been criticized by both sides.
“Some Lithuanians says we are a commission of Jews, paid by Jews, protecting Jewish interests and almost part of a Jewish conspiracy,” Racinskas says. “And some Jews say we’re paying lip service for Lithuanian PR or to whitewash the past. But as long as we’re criticized by both, I think we’re going the right way.
“Because,” he adds, “we must break down this wall.”