Holocaust history in Lithuania, Poland and Germany

  • 2000-06-29
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - An open discussion entitled "An Interpretation of the Holocaust within Historical Research and the Politics of History" at the Vilnius Town Hall took place on June 22. The discussion was the second in a series called "Lithuanian, German and Polish Discussions about the Future of Memory" and sponsored by Vilnius' Goethe Institute. The panel comprised leading academics from all three countries: Norbert Frei of Bochum University, Bogdan Musial of Warsaw's German History Institute and Liudas Truska from the Vilnius Pedagogical University.

The speakers addressed the audience in their native languages - headsets with simultaneous translation in all three languages were available. The discussion was well-attended with about 100 people of all ages almost filling the meeting room to capacity.

"I'm very pleased to see so many young faces in the audience today. It shows that the young generation is interested in thinking about the Holocaust," said Germany's ambassador, Detlef von Berg.

Norbert Frei opened the discussion with a report on the evolution of Holocaust studies in Germany.

"Hitler's Reich lasted all of twelve years, but it has been an eternity for his victims," he said. According to Frei, after the Nuremberg trials and the allies' postwar de-Nazification programs, Germany quietly slipped into an extended period of silence about the Holocaust. The press was quiet on the issue. Formerly high-level Nazis quietly slipped back into public life.

"It was a step backward," said Frei. "The political elite distanced themselves from Nazism, responsibility for the Holocaust was indirect, the past was discussed in a euphemistic code language of sorts and never in detail, just generalities," he said.

This changed in the 1970s and 1980s with the weakening of the generation responsible for the Holocaust. Television programs on the subject began appearing, and German journalists began visiting the Eastern European countries where the liquidation of Jews took place. Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" had a huge effect on German society. "The further away in time we get away from this mountain of blame, the more we realize that it is bigger than we had previously realized. It is not enough to remember the Holocaust, we must also ensure our future moral responsibility," said Frei.

The Polish experience, owing to several decades of communist totalitarianism, was very different. "Communism deformed history in Poland and used it as a tool," said Bogdan Musial. "The return of memory will not be an easy task for us as the old guard of falsifiers are still influential and don't feel any guilt," he said.

Poland's education system never dealt with the disappearance of Jews from the country's ethnic landscape or ever mentioned any Polish involvement in the murders.

"Many Poles continue to think that most Poles helped save Jews except for a tiny handful of mercenaries. There are still many who don' t believe the Holocaust even occurred," said Musial. Nevertheless, there has been a renewal of interest recently. "Twenty books on the subject appeared last year. All Issac Bashevis Singer's novels are now available. A lot of these publications were privately financed, meaning that the demand is real, not part of government projects," he said.

Memory of the Holocaust in Poland is rife with complexities and contradictions, according to Musial.

"We cannot forget all the Poles and other nationalities who died in the Holocaust along with the Jews. Yet many Poles were indeed anti-Semites who helped the Nazis. But then you get a popularized stereotype that all Poles are killers of Jews, which also hurts Poland. The Soviets often portrayed themselves as saviors of the Jews, and yet they were also horrendous murderers. I find that countries damaged by communism want to rewrite their own history first, yet Western historians also want us to deal with Jewish history. Many Poles feel we don' t have the resources to do this now and should leave it to Westerners. One bright spot is the media where many sharp discussions are now taking place," said Musial.

As in Poland, communism has also affected Lithuania's perception of the Holocaust, according to Liudas Truska.

"For 50 years there was no work done on the Holocaust here for the simple reason that the official history maintained that the Nazis and bourgeois nationalists murdered the Soviet people. No one even referred to the Jews. They were simply part of the Soviet people. The fact is that Jews were murdered in 150 different places in Lithuania. Lithuanians in the police, government and military were involved in the thousands. It is our blackest page in history and the country was stained. It is important to deal with this issue not just for historical reasons - it is important for European Union and NATO membership," said Truska.

Truska was also critical of ŽmigrŽ Lithuanians. "While in Lithuania we had no freedom of speech, Lithuanian ŽmigrŽs in the West had full academic freedom but were completely silent. They thought by saying nothing the problem would just go away. They spoke up only when articles about the Holocaust in Lithuania began appearing in English-language newspapers. Essentially they maintain that the Nazis are almost entirely guilty except for a handful of accomplices from the criminal strata of society," he said.

In Truska's view, the ice has not been broken in dealing with the Holocaust in Lithuania, as the country is far more concerned with the postwar, anti-Soviet resistance and deportations to Siberia. However, he feels recent Catholic Church announcements about its wartime neglect of the Holocaust may get a more serious discourse started. In addition, he noted the many university-level courses on the Holocaust now available.

The Goethe Institute's series of discussions is the brainchild of its director, Martin Walde. "The Holocaust and World War II are of interest to all three countries. I thought it would make more sense than just a discussion between Lithuania and Germany. Also, open discussions between Poles and Lithuanians are not happening in Vilnius. Our concept of time and what our memories mean as we begin a new century are vitally important. We need to look forward in a constructive manner and not only backward. We also wanted these discussions to be public, not closed academic ones. That's why we held them at the Town Hall - it is a place for citizens of Vilnius," said Walde.