Lithuanians ready to confront history

  • 2001-03-08
  • Howard Jarvis
VILNIUS - An apology from the Catholic Church in Lithuania last year took the pope's lead in repenting for the mistakes of the past, including the role of some church members in the Holocaust. But there are some Lithuanians who argue that the apology did not go far enough.

Reflecting on the past is not something Lithuanians enjoy doing. A tragic recent history involving occupations and mass deportations by the Soviets to Siberia, not to mention the shadow of the Holocaust, is not easy to live with. The scars of 50 years of persecution have only just begun to heal.

Lithuania was the only former Soviet republic with a majority Catholic population, and the Catholic Church in Lithuania was on the front line in the battle against communism.

Many priests who failed to inform on their parishioners were dispatched to Siberia or shot. The nation's beautiful baroque and gothic churches became museums, cinemas or warehouses.

Most of the churches have been patched up and repainted and are now landmarks on the tourist trail. But people's emotional traumas are not so easy to repair.

First words

As part of the 2000 jubilee year of the Catholic Church, in April the church in Lithuania held a "Day of Penance and Apology." A letter of apology from the Lithuanian Bishops Conference listed a number of "regrets" for past mistakes.

Most notably, this included a sensitive first public statement from the church on the subject of the Holocaust, in which 250,000 Jews - 94 percent of the prewar Jewish population - were slaughtered. There are barely 6,500 Jews in Lithuania today.

Since then, there has been nothing but silence from a church that is known even in Catholic circles for its conservative attitudes, and that has been a close defender of Lithuanian identity since the 19th century when Lithuania was under czarist occupation.

"As a Catholic, I am disappointed that the church took so long to prepare its apology," says Linas Vildziunas, director of the House of Memory, founded in March 2000.

"We have had 10 years of independence already. Lithuania has a very old-fashioned brand of Catholicism because it was touched by the postwar development of Catholicism very little."

The House of Memory is an NGO bringing together 20 or so like-minded Lithuanians who think that more should be done to help stimulate public discussion of the Holocaust. With guidance from the Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Center in Nottingham, the House of Memory aims to preserve the memory of Jewish life and culture in Lithuania by setting up an information center and museum and promoting public debate.

Vildziunas sees education as the best battleground for destroying divisive ideas. "All the wrong attitudes of the past can only be changed in schools. The tragedy of the Holocaust is close to every Lithuanian's personal experience. There are still many people who remember the wartime events, and if young people are willing to go out and ask questions, they can relate these events very closely to the experiences of their own families."

End to tolerance

Jews have lived in Lithuania since the 14th century. The vibrant Jewish culture of Vilna (Vilnius) earned the city a second name, Jerusalem of the North. But by the end of the 19th century the region's famous religious tolerance was fading.

The rebirth of the Lithuanian nation was a long and often courageous struggle. But it was accompanied by a literature that sometimes resorted to anti-Semitism to stir up nationalist emotions.

Jews fought alongside Lithuanians in the battles for independence in 1918, and after it was achieved Jewish cultural life briefly flourished. In 1926, however, a right-wing coup led to the introduction of discriminatory laws.

The hysteria of the period throughout Europe, together with an often populist press, added to the atmosphere of paranoia.

When the Soviet Union invaded Lithuania in 1940, many Jews were relieved at the protection this offered, both from Lithuanian nationalism and from the Nazi atrocities going on in Germany and Poland. Inevitably, some joined the Soviet power structures. This included the forerunner to the KGB, the NKVD, which on June 14, 1941 rounded up thousands of Lithuanians to be sent to the gulags of Siberia.

The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. During the Holocaust, some Lithuanian priests allowed Jews to hide in monasteries and churches. Many Jewish children who survived did so because they were hastily baptized. One priest, Bronius Paukstys, saved about 150 people, mostly children, from the ghetto in Kaunas.

Rev. Rolandas Makrickas, secretary of Lithuania's Jubilee Committee, admits that the church hierarchy did little to protest against the killings. "Many priests and believers saw what was happening 50 years ago but did not act. Some collaborated with the Nazi regime, against the good of other nations. Church officials did nothing against it. Our apology was for those Catholics who collaborated with foreign forces that killed people."

When the church has tackled the subject of the Holocaust at all, it has been with extreme sensitivity.

In 1997, a program made by the production company Kataliku TV (Catholic Television) looked at the role Lithuanians played in the Holocaust. It was shelved when the church authorities fully realized the controversial nature of the subject.

Vaidotas Reivytis, the program's director, explains why. "The church authorities felt that it was too early to show this kind of film. They said that it could raise unnecessary tensions because people still have the idea in their minds that Jews worked with the NKVD against the Lithuanians."

Reivytis, also on the House of Memory board, does not feel bitter towards the church for refusing to allow his program to be broadcast. His new film, again produced by Kataliku TV and aimed for use in schools and universities, takes a more comprehensive look at the context of the Holocaust.

Called "Saulelydis Lietuvoje" (sunset in Lithuania), it reveals something of Jewish life in prewar Lithuania, and features interviews with Lithuanians and some Jewish survivors of the period.

They recall how the two communities lived and worked together in Lithuania's rural areas. Teachers will attend seminars and be given information as to how to use the film in the classroom.

Future warning

Some Lithuanian commentators have suggested that memories of the Holocaust are perhaps best left undisturbed and warn that raking up old divisions could be dangerous. The tiny Jewish community is already the target of verbal abuse.

Vytautas Sustauskas, a former mayor of Kaunas and member of Parliament, has advocated the destruction of the "Jewish mafia" while declaring his support for Joerg Haider, the former leader of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party.

Only 32 per cent of Lithuanians have a negative opinion of Sustauskas, according to one poll.

"The worst thing," says Reivytis, "is that on the rare occasions the Holocaust is discussed in Lithuania, it is rarely connected with what might happen tomorrow. The danger is, of course, that history repeats itself. Aggression may not be directed at the Jewish community. There is hardly anyone left.

"But it may be directed at the growing number of Asian refugees, who are complete strangers to Lithuania. My hopes lie with a widening circle of Lithuanians who believe that confronting the history of the Holocaust is necessary before we can build a democratic and civilized Lithuania."

The Catholic Church is popular in Lithuania. A recent poll by Baltic Surveys gave it a 67 percent approval rating. Parliament received 13 percent. This gives it the authority to take tricky subjects to the public arena.

There is one representative of the church on the House of Memory board. "My work with the House of Memory is important for me, because the Jewish part of the Bible is close to me," says Rev. Julius Sasnauskas.

"Innocent blood was shed. My grandmother told me about the killings and I shiver when I see photographs. It's hard to think how this happened to two peoples who lived side by side, and how the New Testament failed to work to stop the tragedy. On the other hand, it is difficult to look at those times from our perspective. You can't expect everybody to be a hero."

Sasnauskas explains that the apology offered by the church should not be taken as a proper assessment of what happened.

"The apology is symbolic. To study the events is a huge task, for historians rather than theologians. The apology took the form of a prayer. But it was a clear first step, and first steps are needed because some Catholics here still blame the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ."

Little reliable information is available in Lithuania about the Holocaust and the involvement of Lithuanians in the killings.

Priests themselves know very little about the subject. Last year, another NGO called the Center for School Improvement sponsored a series of lectures about the Holocaust in Lithuania at the Catholic seminary in Vilnius.

The organizers found out that it was the first time participants had learned anything about the Holocaust in their country.

Fortunately, there are priests like Sasnauskas who believe the reality of the Holocaust must be confronted. "We have to deal with our guilt," he says. "It was not the fault of the Nazis alone. We live on. This is not buried history."