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Around the Jewish World Book on Lithuanian Rescuers Prompts Debate with Nationalists

February 25, 2002
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A recently published book listing the names of Lithuanians who rescued Jews from the Holocaust has sparked a debate between the State Jewish Museum and Lithuanian nationalists.

After 13 years of extensive research, the State Jewish Museum last week released “Saving the Jews in Lithuania from 1941-1944.” The book by Viktorija Sakaite lists the names of 2,570 non-Jewish Lithuanians who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Baltic nation.

When the State Jewish Museum was re-established in 1989, it immediately appointed a special committee to research the number of Lithuanian rescuers and gather their daring stories.

But Lithuanian nationalists insist the actual number of Lithuanian rescuers is closer to 14,000.

The issue is especially sensitive in Lithuania, which is widely believed to have had the highest rate of collaboration with the Nazis among overrun states. During World War II, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators murdered 94 percent of the country’s 250,000 Jews.

But don’t cite such statistics to Ruta Gajuauskaite, a former member of Parliament and founder of the small Green Party in Lithuania.

She points to “The List of Gurevicius,” a 1999 book written by Lithuanian-Canadian journalist Antanas Gurevicius. Researched over several decades, the book cites more than 10,000 Lithuanian rescuers, also known as “righteous Lithuanians.”

Gajuauskaite says most Jewish survivors emigrated to Israel, South Africa and North America after the Holocaust, and this has made it difficult to locate rescued Jews.

Gajuauskaite, whose mother saved 12 Jewish children, treating them “like her own daughters,” calls the research by the State Jewish Museum truthful, yet incomplete.

She aspires to publish a substantially longer list under the Club of Signatures, a Lithuanian nongovernmental organization that includes more than 100 former Parliament members.

Her request to cite the work of the State Jewish Museum in her project was rejected by the museum’s director, Emanuelis Zingeris.

“Lithuanian radical and national groups are trying to make a better face of Lithuania, to make surrealist numbers of righteous people. Our small team here will never be used to create this sugar and propaganda,” he says.

“Lithuanians can make these lists ourselves,” Gajuauskaite counters. “All those accusations are mostly speculative and aim to make some violence between Lithuanians and Jewish people.

Jonas Morkos, a non-Jewish Lithuanian journalist who has produced documentaries on the Holocaust in Lithuania, says the debate is just one of many since 1991, when Lithuanian independence from Soviet domination opened the doors for historical research.

“At first, I thought the controversy was good because it brought attention to the subject,” Morkos says.

“But now I wonder if it’s just serving modern politics and has nothing to do with the experience of victims. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s 4,000 or 10,000. The important thing is that such people existed, and they are completely unknown by the public in the West.”

He calls author Sakaite “a great professional in looking for rescuers.”

He adds that Gajuauskaite and Gurevicius “are not a serious force.”

The argument over the actual number of righteous Lithuanians appears rooted in what each side considers suitable proof.

For example, the Jewish Museum got a lead about hundreds of Lithuanians in the small town of Utena who saved numerous Jews. The incident is tallied in Gurevicius’ list, but it was omitted by the Jewish Museum.

“We made the research, and it’s horribly incorrect,” Zingeris says.

Chaim Bergman, a Jewish tour guide in Kaunas, Lithuania, has ventured into the Lithuanian countryside to unite Jewish survivors and righteous Lithuanians.

The nationalists add to their lists everyone who claims to have been a rescuer, he says.

But “proof is the problem. It’s is very difficult to prove,” he adds.

One of Bergman’s findings resulted in a medal granted to a rescuer by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, which has honored 505 righteous Lithuanians. The Lithuanian President’s Office has cited more than 1,000 Lithuanian rescuers.

Meanwhile, some 1,000 copies of the State Jewish Museum’s publication will be distributed in Lithuanian public schools, public libraries, government offices and national and international museums. An English version is expected to be published this summer.

“This book is going to be an important source to historians who work on Holocaust issues,” says Ona Bievieniene, a Jewish Museum historian. “It will become an important education tool in Lithuania. Each countryside teacher having this list of names can initiate local research, seeking for survivors and relatives.”

Sakaite has been researching righteous Lithuanians since she joined the Jewish Museum in 1992. Among the challenges facing her was to get her subjects to discuss the past.

“Sometimes I’d have to spend days talking to some old man or women to make them speak,” says Sakaite. “I know Lithuanians can be modest and closed individuals, but I never thought it would be so difficult to get them to talk about the good they did in life.”

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