VILNIUS, Lithuania (JTA) — 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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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