House of Memory

  • 2000-09-14
  • Darius James Ross
A group of Lithuanian intellectuals has recently formed an officially registered non-governmental organization called "The Lithuanian Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Jewish Culture: The House of Memory." The idea for the center has been around for some years.

"What we started to see following Lithuanian independence was that subtle anti-Semitic voices started to be heard again in Lithuania. Anti-Semitism is one of the oldest trends in history," said Linas Vildziunas, the organization's president. Vildziunas said that many intellectuals felt that there was a need to respond to this trend but that it was difficult to do so on an individual basis.

He and fifteen other academics, teachers, filmmakers and journalists make up the Center. "We look at anti-Semitism and Holocaust history not from a narrow nationalist perspective but from that of a civil and pluralist society," said Vildziunas.

He feels that the biggest threat is in the "double Holocaust" theory that is espoused by many intellectuals and politicians. This theory holds that the Nazis massacred Jews when they captured Lithuania from the Soviets in 1941 and that the Jews brought this on themselves by collaborating with the Soviets in the period preceding this. Further, Lithuanians were not involved in the massacre of the Jews except for a tiny handful of mercenary collaborators, and Nazis carried out almost all of the killings. This theory is even supported by Romualdas Ozolas, head of President Valdas Adamkus' Center Union party.

Vaidotas Reivytis, a documentary filmmaker, has researched and produced several films on pre-World War II Jewish life and the Holocaust. "The truth is that there were Lithuanians involved in the Holocaust, just as there were Lithuanians who hid and protected Jews. Both of these groups are minorities. Disturbingly, the vast majority of Lithuanians were just passive spectators who watched and did nothing," said Reivytis. Recent studies have shown that the collaboration of Lithuania's Jews with the Soviets has been greatly exaggerated and also that many of the brutal Soviet officers who happened to be Jewish were not Lithuanian Jews but often came from other Eastern countries.

Reivytis wants the truth about the Holocaust to be publicly available and for it to be a topic open for discussion. "As we head for European Union membership this becomes increasingly important. When Lithuania becomes an EU member, it will become a more attractive country for refugees and economic migrants. The world will be watching Lithuanians' reaction to refugees. An open discussion of the Holocaust is the starting point in showing the world that this is a tolerant society," he said.

Vildziunas feels that because they are financed by groups such as George Soros' Open Society Fund and receive no funding from the Lithuanian government, his group will be able to promote discussion on Jewish issues more openly. "We want to avoid a discussion of the Holocaust tinged by modern-day politics and intellectual trends. History is history. The danger is in intellectualizing it too much, which leads to myths and negative stereotypes," said Vildziunas.

The definition of "collaborator" is a concern for the House of Memory's members. "In Lithuania, someone who worked closely with the Soviets is seen as a collaborator but anyone who received military training from the Nazis and then went on to fight the Soviets is not. Yet the Nazis built one of the worst killing machines in history. This makes no sense," said Vildziunas. The group's biggest success to date was organizing a discussion between Holocaust survivors and members of a Nazi-sponsored Lithuanian freedom movement. "The atmosphere was tense and little was resolved, but just getting these two groups together under one roof was a huge achievement," said Reivytis.

The House of Memory's main goals are educational. They distribute a film to high school teachers called "Sunset in Lithuania" that includes a workbook with suggested exercises. It is sponsoring a student competition where students are asked to document reminiscences by older people about pre-World War II town life in Lithuania. "Most people forget that in most Lithuanian cities, Jews often made up half of the population. There are still many people alive who remember this," said Vildziunas. Building an audio-video archive of these oral history reminiscences is also at the top of their list of activities.