WASHINGTON (JTA) — Lithuania’s Parliament has declared 2011 a Year of Commemoration to Victims of the Holocaust. Whether this will turn out to be a disappointing empty gesture or a genuine opportunity to address unfinished issues is an open question.
In May 1998, the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia invited me to a Baltic summit in Riga. Each president announced the creation of a national historical commission to provide a means to examine openly and critically the Holocaust period in their respective countries.
Since the Baltic States were forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union before the end of World War II, no objective analysis had ever taken place. Each president also recognized that a historical examination must address the Communist period as well.
While the commissions in Estonia and Latvia have finished their work, the one in Lithuania is stalled. It has faltered and fallen victim to critics inside the country who sought to derail it and to critics outside who from the beginning have sought to repudiate it.
When President Valdas Adamkus established the Lithuanian Historical Commission, he was sensitive to charges that grouping the Holocaust and Soviet crimes under one umbrella would draw equivalencies between the two. Therefore, separate sub-commissions conducted the work. What has been produced so far — the combined works of historians from Europe, the United States and Israel — can stand the scrutiny of historians anywhere.
These historians describe the widespread anti-Semitism that was present in Lithuania before the Nazi occupation. And they offer documentation on the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust crimes — perhaps less than what some critics abroad have asserted, but surely more than what many in present-day Lithuania want to believe. Unfortunately, publication of these first essays and documents has been limited. They deserve wider distribution and attention.
This important research would have continued if the general prosecutor had not opened an investigation into the wartime activities of Yitzak Arad and other Jewish partisans. Arad, a noted historian and founding director of Yad Vashem, was an important contributing member of Lithuania’s historical commission. There is little doubt that the investigation was initiated with political motives in mind to obstruct the commission’s work.
It is not easy to confront the dark chapters in one’s national history. After regaining their freedom, the Baltic states were correctly singled out for not disciplining their own citizens who cling to the memories of a Nazi past. Waffen SS veterans paraded in Riga and were received by senior government officials. Nazi war criminals were sent back to Lithuania, but prosecutors were reluctant to bring charges.
Though these criticisms were fair in the 1990s, since then there has been definite if incomplete progress.
During this Year of Remembrance for Victims of the Holocaust, Lithuania should address those issues which still remain a source of irritation in Lithuanian-Jewish relations as well as implement new initiatives that can have lasting value.
The prosecutor’s 6-year-old investigation into the wartime activities of the Soviet Partisans, with its particular interest in the actions of Jewish members, needs to end.
The national historical commission should reconvene, complete its work, publish its analysis and documentation of the Holocaust in Lithuania and widely disseminate those findings.
Lithuania stands alone among all its neighbors in not restituting former Jewish communal property. After many years of negotiations, the Parliament is now considering legislation that would pay partial compensation for these properties.
This bill should be passed soon and compensation funds transferred to the Lithuanian Jewish Heritage Foundation, which links international Jewish organizations with the Lithuanian Jewish community. The foundation will guarantee transparency and insure that there is ongoing support for Jewish communal activities and the restoration of Jewish heritage in the country.
The tragic reality of the Holocaust in Lithuania is that the long and rich history of Litvak culture came to an abrupt end with those murdered and buried in the mass graves at Ponary on the outskirts of Vilnius.
This year of remembrance also should be the occasion to develop an appropriate plan for this site that befits its significance. Ponary is a pilgrimage place for mourners and a heritage site of tragic history. The stories of the 70,000 Jews who perished there should be told to visitors, using the tools and techniques of modern museum design and drawing from the experience of other mass graves memorials.
At long last, this is the year for Lithuania to join the list of nations that have come to terms with their Holocaust-era past.
(Rabbi Andrew Baker is the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs.)