70th anniversary of deportation and uprising of 1941

  • 2011-06-29
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

NO MORE GENOCIDES: President Dalia Grybauskaite went to the ethnographical open-air museum in the town of Rumsiskes to visit the replica of the yurt (house) of Lithuanian deportees near the Arctic Ocean and to meet a few survivors of that deportation to the Arctic, who were little children when they were deported on June 14-18, 1941.

VILNIUS - The entire month of June was marked in Lithuania with public commemorations of the 70th anniversary of Soviet-perpetrated mass deportations from Lithuania to the USSR in June 14-18, 1941, and the anti-Soviet uprising of June 22-28, 1941. Interestingly, like never before, many young people took part in those commemorations.

Arrests and deportations, executed by the Soviets and their local collaborators, started soon after Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union on June 15, 1940 and even before the official incorporation of Lithuania into the USSR on August 3, 1940. In October-November of 1940, the Soviets drew up lists of “anti-Soviet elements.” This term included a wide spectrum of people: members of non-communist parties, including heretical communists; members of patriotic and religious organizations; former police and prison officials; former officers of the Lithuanian army; former officers of tsarist and Polish armies who got refuge in independent Lithuania; former volunteers who had joined anti-Soviet armies in 1918-1919; citizens of foreign states, representatives and employees of foreign firms, and employees of foreign embassies; those who corresponded with foreign countries or consulates of foreign countries as well as philatelists, prostitutes and those who studied the Esperanto language; former high level state officials, Red Cross employees, clergymen of all religions; bankers and members of aristocratic families. There were many teachers and professors, school and college students, farmers, industry workers and craftsmen on these secret lists of people destined for deportation.

On June 14-18, 1941, the first massive arrest and deportation of the Lithuanian population was perpetrated. A cargo of 17,500 people were crammed into cattle cars. Moscow’s instruction required separation of men from their families: some 4,000 men were separated and transported to concentration camps in the Krasnoyarsk territory while 13,500 women, children and elderly people were transported mostly to Kazakhstan, the Altai Mountains territory, Russia’s republic of Komi, the Tomsk region, and the Arctic zone. The grandparents of modern-day Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich were also among those deported from Lithuania to the Soviet Arctic. Forty percent of these deportees were children under 16 years old. More than half of the deported died quickly. Pregnant women and babies born in the cattle cars were the first victims – they died in the trains. The deportation process was interrupted by the German-Soviet war.

“Gentlemen of Western Europe, you will not be able to identify the roots of such potential evil in your own countries if you will not evaluate how people were turned into slaves in Eastern Europe!” Emanuelis Zingeris, chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, speaking at a commemoration rally at the railway station in the Vilnius suburb of Naujoji Vilnia, which was passed by all cattle wagons carrying deportees to the East in 1941 (as well as during several post-WWII deportation campaigns which were even more massive).

“The facts do not allow doubting that mass deportation, which started on June 14, 1941, was the pre-planned brutal genocide of the nation. […] Historical sources state that the Bolsheviks planned to deport 700,000 people from Lithuania. The plan was interrupted by the war and emigration to the West,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said in her speech at the rally near the monument to victims of Soviet occupation in the center of Vilnius.

This time no elderly deportees were speaking at the monument. Maybe this is good, because their speeches are often full of anger. According to psychologist Danute Gailiene, everybody who went through the Soviet-era horrors suffers post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a number much bigger than those who went through the concentration camps of the Nazis because of the much longer period of suffering, and not much reward after those sufferings (according to lawyer Dainius Zalimas, such Russian companies as Norilsk Nickel, which used Lithuanian slave labor, should pay financial compensation to Lithuanians as German companies already have, compensating for their former Lithuanian slave workers). After Grybauskaite’s speech, the Stano International Choir, directed by Russia-born pop singer Stano and made up of young people of French, Polish, Kazakh, Moroccan and other nationalities as well as Lithuanians with Jewish, Russian and other ethnic backgrounds sang a patriotic Lithuanian gospel-style song, which was written specially for the occasion by a Lithuanian teenage girl, Vaida Arstikyte, and which glorifies those who “were not afraid to defend Lithuania.” Those who did defend Lithuania were commemorated on June 22-28.

On June 22, 1941, Germany, Hungary and Romania started their war against the USSR and on June 22-28, 1941, Lithuanians started their anti-Soviet armed insurrection. The participants in the uprising sought to take advantage of the clash of the two totalitarian powers in order to restore the independence lost in 1940 after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, though, for geopolitical reasons rather than political belief, were also ready to declare officially their support for Hitler’s “New Europe.” The Red Army was severely beaten by the Lithuanians in most areas of the country. The re-establishment of Lithuanian independence was announced on radio and an interim government was formed.

Even the escaping Red Army was committing terrible crimes. Soviet Secret Service officer Petras Raslanas, for example, was responsible for the massacre of 76 political prisoners (mostly young people, members of prewar Lithuania’s patriotic and Catholic organizations) on June 24, 1941, in the Rainiai Forest near the northern Lithuanian town of Telsiai, a massacre in which Soviet soldiers scalped their victims, made belts from the skin, plucked out their eyes, cut out their tongues, and cut off the men’s genitals before stuffing them inside their mouths - all of this while they were alive (the exhibition commemorating this massacre was on show in Kudirkos Square in front of the Lithuanian PM’s office on June 12-27). Raslanas, who lives in Moscow now, was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in Lithuania in 2001, but Russia has made no move to extradite him. Another Soviet secret service officer, Nakhman Dushansky, who was wanted by Lithuanian prosecutors to be questioned on his role in interrogations of political prisoners in Telsiai (later, they were killed in the Rainiai massacre), has died in Israel in 2008 (Israel refused to cooperate and did not respond to Lithuanian requests to question Dushansky as a witness or to extradite him).

In June 1941, Nazi troops entered Lithuania, which was mostly cleared of Soviet armed forces by Lithuanians themselves. However, the Nazis had no intention of recognizing an independent Lithuania. All Lithuanian political parties were banned, the provisional government was dissolved, the Lithuanian flag on Gediminas tower in Vilnius was removed and the Nazi repression started. Some Lithuanians, like the U.S.-based poet Tomas Venclova, accuse the uprising for the murders of Jews but, according to political analyst Kestutis Girnius, it is as wrong as accusing all Jews of supporting the Soviet occupation of 1940 – all these crimes and deeds mentioned in various accusations were indeed overlapping in activities of some people, but it would be historically wrong to generalize on it.

The majority of Lithuanians argue that accusing the uprising of 1941 of pro-Nazism is as wrong as accusing Polish guerillas of pro-Stalinism for their anti-Nazi uprising in Warsaw in 1944 (the Soviet army was advancing on Warsaw then). The center of the Lithuanian uprising was Kaunas, partly due to the fact that, according to Lithuanian-American historian Augustinas Idzelis, on the eve of the Nazi-Soviet war when Germany and the USSR were still official allies, the Gestapo did pass on to Moscow all the information about the organizers of the coming uprising in Vilnius and they were arrested. The Gestapo was very negative about the Lithuanian uprising, while the German army was less hostile. According to Girnius, the uprising shows that Lithuania had a higher political consciousness than Latvia, Estonia and other Soviet-occupied lands where, despite some armed anti-Soviet activities, no such re-proclamation of independence took place in 1941.