NEW YORK (JTA) – The president of Lithuania has promised that his country’s investigation into the wartime activities of several elderly Jewish World War II partisans will be dropped, according to an official of the Simon Wiesenthal Center – but can he keep the promise?
The promise by Valdas Adamkus is the latest twist in an oddly inverted war crimes inquiry of the chairman emeritus of Yad Vashem and two other former partisans who are being forced to testify about their partisan activities with an eye toward possible indictment.
It comes after several Jewish organizations and members of the U.S. Congress demanded that the Lithuanian government stop the judicial action against the Holocaust-era partisans and be more proactive in the fight against anti-Semitism, which has become a growing concern in recent months.
The 2-year-old inquiry stems from the publication of memoirs recalling partisan activities in wartime Lithuania.
Adamkus reportedly has spoken to the prosecutor in the inquiry of Yitzhak Arad, Yad Vashem’s chairman emeritus, and the two other partisans. Partisan allies, however, are not convinced that the entire inquiry will be dropped. They point to a pattern of moral equivalency between Jewish partisan operations and Nazi war crimes, both of which, according to some interpretations of Lithuanian law, amount to genocide.
Partisans’ advocates are unsure about the status of the case.
According to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, where one of the former partisans works, Adamkus said he was asking the prosecutor to shift from requiring the three partisans to bear witness against each other in court testimony and instead ask them to volunteer their memory as experts in an inquiry into a massacre by Soviet partisans in the village of Kaniukai.
Thirty-eight villagers were killed, including children and a pregnant woman.
Senior Prosecutor Rimvydas Valentukevicius found excerpts of Arad’s 1979 memoir that place him in Kaniukai when the villagers were massacred. Though he has not been formally charged, Arad is considered a suspect in a war crimes inquiry.
Advocates of the partisans remain dubious as to how Adamkus can uphold such a promise in that his office does not have the authority to override the prosecutor.
Lithuania’s consul general in New York, Jonas Paslauskas, acknowledged that no decision has been made and that Adamkus had taken up the case because of the negative publicity it has generated.
Paslauskas said there “may be no need for such big noise,” but added that the level of emotion in Lithuania over the deaths of the 38 villagers was difficult for his government to overlook. He promised that his government would do whatever it could to resolve the case, but could not promise the inquiry would be dropped because no one could overstep the authority of the prosecutor.
The prosecutor’s office could not be reached for comment.
The investigation of Rachel Margolis, a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, was initiated after she published a memoir in 2006 that included an account of World War II partisan activities by herself and others.
Prompted by the memoir, Professor Irena Tumaviciute, a retired lecturer of German at Vilnius University, published a newspaper article that equated violent partisan resistance to Nazism and demanded that the Lithuanian government investigate the Kaniukai ambush.
In the memoir Margolis wrote that a friend, Fania Brantsovsky, participated in the shooting. A historian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, where the 86-year-old Brantsovsky works as a librarian, said that Brantsovsky was in a makeshift hospital on the nearby partisan base during the shooting and did not participate.
Shimon Samuels, the director for international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center who recently met with Adamkus, said the Lithuanian leader assured him that the survivors would not be forced to testify. Samuels had expressed concern that the high-profile investigation of the partisans and Holocaust survivors was placing the general Jewish population at risk of hate crimes.
His words seemed prescient, as two Jewish community centers were vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic epitaphs in an attack earlier this month. The attacks occurred in the capital, Vilnius, and in the nearby town of Panevezys.
The incidents come against the backdrop of increasing concern about anti-Semitism in Lithuania. Months before this month’s incidents, a neo-Nazi rally with about 200 demonstrators, mostly youths, was held in Vilnius in March. Lithuanian police at the rally were caught on tape appearing to be enjoying themselves.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, also of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, believes that the Lithuanian police have the ability and the resources to quell anti-Semitic crime. He faults the political establishment.
“Their words are important,” Cooper said, but “the proof is in the pudding.”
Cooper said political leaders must tell law enforcement to "go and do your job.”
The case of the partisans has drawn the attention of U.S. lawmakers.
Reps. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif) wrote to Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas questioning the Lithuanian government’s disproportionate attention to Jewish partisans.
The congressmen wrote that they were vexed by the “sudden energetic pursuit” of the partisans in question, while no Nazi collaborators have served a sentence in prison since the country became an independent state in 1991.