In Other Words

In Other Words: Baltic Ghosts

In Other Words: Baltic Ghosts

Yitzhak Arad escaped to the forest at the age of 16, days before the Jews in his native Lithuanian village were massacred. He is proud he joined the Soviet partisans to fight the Nazis and their collaborators. For a Jew, just to survive the Holocaust was a victory, he says; to tell about it was an obligation. That’s why Arad wrote his memoir, The Partisan: From the Valley of Death to Mt. Zion, published in English in 1979.

The book is a raw account of an orphaned teenager fighting the Nazis in desperate conditions after the murder of 40 members of his family. Arad describes his main activities with the Soviet partisans as blowing up German military trains, and he also details some of the grislier aspects of forest warfare. In one passage, he describes a "punitive action" against the village of Girdan, where two partisans had been killed: "We broke into the village from two directions, and the defenders fled after putting up feeble resistance. We took the residents out of several houses in the section of the village where our two comrades fell and burned down the houses. Never again were partisans fired on from their village."

"It was a cruel war," the 82-year-old Arad recalled recently. "We did the best we could to survive." He dedicated his memoir to those who fought with him and died along the way — his "heroic friends."

But when Lithuania’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Rimvydas Valentukevicius, read Arad’s book, nearly 30 years after its publication, he didn’t see a hero. He saw a possible war criminal. And in September 2007, when the prosecutor’s office publicly announced an investigation into Arad, it was clear The Partisan would be Exhibit A against him. More war crimes investigations of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors have followed, and in each case, memoirs are playing a central role.

These events are all the more shocking to those who remember that the country was once a sort of Jewish promised land. Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, was known as "the Jerusalem of the North." About one third of its population in the 1920s and 30s was Jewish. Yiddish was in the air then. Synagogues welcomed the faithful. Cafes overflowed with young Jewish painters, writers, and poets. Vilna, as the city is called in Yiddish, was the seat of intellectual, spiritual, and artistic life for Eastern European Jewry.

All of that is long gone, destroyed by the Nazi war machine with the active assistance, in a dark chapter for Lithuania, of many local collaborators. Vilnius today has only one synagogue. Lithuania’s once flourishing community of more than 200,000 Jews — over 90 percent of whom were annihilated during the war — is now about 4,000. All that is left are the Holocaust survivors’ stories, and now those, in the case of Arad and several others, are being used against them.

How a country that was once a center of Jewish life has now begun targeting the few remaining victims of history’s worst crime is a story of foreign occupiers, former Jewish partisans, and modern-day Lithuanian ethnic nationalists. But more broadly, it is a story of books, memory, and a small country’s ongoing struggle to make sense of its tangled, bloody historical narratives — a struggle facing all of Eastern Europe.

In a strange twist, this whole affair began with a good-faith effort to heal those deep, lingering ethnic divisions. In 1998, President Valdas Adamkus created a high-level commission to try to establish the "historical truth" about Lithuania’s horrific occupations during the 20th century: first by the Soviets from 1940-41, then by the Nazis from 1941-44, followed again by the Soviets from 1944-90. The commission attracted a prestigious collection of international scholars, including Arad, who had gone on to become a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and director of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center. However, as the commission began excavating the layered narratives of guilt and suffering from this period, ethnic tensions flared.

The biggest obstacle for Lithuanians in confronting their history is the now well-established fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of Lithuanians voluntarily participated in the Holocaust. Many of the country’s Jews were shot by local police and by a special unit of Lithuanian killers incorporated into the Nazi SS. Since its independence in 1990, only three Lithuanian collaborators have been charged with war crimes, and none was punished.

"The genocide of the Jews is the bloodiest page in the country’s history," said Saulius Suziedelis, a Lithuanian historian and member of the presidential commission. But for many Lithuanians, he said, "just to mention that obvious fact turns them off because they want to talk about their own victimization."

That victimization came during the brutal Soviet occupation. It was marked by the repression of Lithuanian culture, the deportation of many thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia, and the murder of Lithuanian independence fighters. The Soviets strictly controlled information and wrote Lithuania’s history books. Today, as the country struggles to write its own narrative, most Lithuanians see the Soviets as the real villains of World War II. "The Spielberg view of the war is totally irrelevant to [Lithuanians] because that was not their experience," Suziedelis said. Instead, Lithuanian Jews, who allied with the Soviets to fight the Nazis, are today often regarded as deserving of punishment for Soviet crimes.

This is certainly the view of many Lithuanian "ethno-nationalists," according to Antony Polonsky, professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University. In 2006, after the presidential commission published interim findings for a report that Polonsky called "a devastating account of the Lithuanian involvement in the mass murder of the Jews," these firebrands mobilized, he said. They took to the pink-tinted pages of the right-wing Respublika newspaper — Lithuania’s second-leading daily, which has been sanctioned for running anti-Semitic material. Their target was Yitzhak Arad. In an April 2006 article, Respublika published portions of his memoir and denounced him as a murderer and war criminal. The following month, Lithuanian prosecutors opened their investigation into Arad.

Some might dismiss this timing as coincidence. But not Rytas Narvydas, head of special investigations for the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, which investigates and memorializes past state crimes. He and the lead prosecutor, Valentukevicius, acknowledge that the Arad investigation started in response to the Respublika article. When asked whether anti-Semitic elements in Lithuania had manipulated the war crimes prosecutor’s office, Narvydas conceded, "It does happen from time to time."

Lithuanian Foreign Affairs Secretary Oskaras Jusys criticized the prosecutor for getting pushed around by "outside" elements and said the investigations never should have been opened. "The mistake was made by the prosecutor’s office from the very beginning," he said. "Their mistake was to go ahead without clear evidence."

The Arad case "created so much damage" for Lithuania, Jusys said, referring to the significant diplomatic pressure imposed by the United States, the European Union, Israel, and international Jewish groups. Lithuania’s foreign minister and president appealed personally to the prosecutor to drop the Arad investigation, Jusys said, and in September of last year the case was closed. But in the meantime, prosecutors had opened investigations into several other Holocaust survivors. "We have been able to clean one mess," Jusys said in frustration, "and now other things are happening again."

The most public of the ongoing investigations involves Rachel Margolis, an 87-year-old former biology professor living in Israel who joined the Soviet partisans after escaping the Vilnius ghetto. Here, too, a book is at the heart of the case. In Margolis’s memoir, published in 2005 in Polish (and later in Russian and German), she recounts a partisan raid on the village of Kaniukai on January 29, 1944. Facts about the raid are heavily disputed, including whether the villagers were acting in concert with the Nazis, but the war crimes prosecutor alleges that 46 people were murdered, 22 of them children.

According to Margolis’s memoir, she did not take part in the Kaniukai raid, but her longtime friend and fellow partisan, Fania Brancovskaja, did. Now an 87-year-old librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, Brancovskaja was attacked in print last year by the ultraright-wing nationalist newspaper Lietuvos Aidas. It labeled her a murderer, called on investigators to charge her with war crimes, and demanded they summon Margolis as a witness. And, last May, Lithuanian prosecutors publicly announced they were seeking to question the two women.

The heightened scrutiny of these investigations clearly frustrates Valentukevicius, the prosecutor, as does having to defend himself against accusations of anti-Semitism. When asked about it recently, he raised a copy of Lithuania’s procedural code and said he’s just doing his job — investigating all war crimes allegations as the law requires. But with dozens of potential cases of Lithuanian collaboration yet to be examined, the decision to focus on Jewish Soviet partisans has attracted suspicion.

So has the very public nature of the prosecutor’s investigation. Faina Kukliansky, Brancovskaja’s attorney and an ex-prosecutor, complained that the former partisans are being tried by "innuendo" in the court of public opinion because prosecutors lack any evidence to try them in a court of law. "Everything has been done with a wink and a nod," she said.

Many critics agree and say it is no coincidence that nationalists sought out Margolis’s memoir, a light seller at best. Prior to its publication, Margolis had detailed aspects of Lithuania’s history that many would rather ignore. She helped publish works on the Holocaust, including the diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a searing account of the heavy participation of Lithuanians in the murder of 50,000 to 60,000 Jews in the Ponary forest outside Vilnius. The 2005 English edition of the book, for which Margolis wrote the foreword, was edited by Yitzhak Arad.

Margolis has not returned to Lithuania since prosecutors came looking for her. Brancovskaja met with prosecutors last May to explain that she was recovering from an operation at the time of the Kaniukai raid and had not taken part in it. Margolis sent her old friend a letter backing up Brancovskaja’s account, and said her memoir should be regarded as literature, not historical fact. That may be true of all memoirs, but the distinction takes on a special significance in the context of the Holocaust, where survivors write to bear witness and deniers have long seized on small inconsistencies to discount the larger event.

For his part, Arad stands by the accuracy of his account as vehemently as he denies committing any war crimes. "I am proud of what I did during the wartime," he said. "If I would feel I did something not to do, I wouldn’t write a memoir."

As during the Arad affair, the world is watching Lithuania’s investigations of the elderly Jews who fought with the Soviet partisans, and Brancovskaja and the others will likely escape war crimes charges. But charges may never have been the point. The prosecutor’s simple act of initiating the Arad investigation was enough to derail the half of the presidential commission researching Nazi crimes and Lithuanian complicity in them. It has not published anything since 2006. This may be the investigations’ most enduring harm.

"You have to do what’s right, not what’s easy," said David Crane, a law professor at Syracuse University and founding chief prosecutor for the U.N. war crimes court in Sierra Leone. "Some people in society may not want these things found, and in the short term, that may seem like a solution. But in the long term, 25 years from now, they’ll still be arguing about this."

Other consequences are more personal. The relationship between Brancovskaja and Margolis, a friendship that started before the war, has suffered. The two women have been divided by a 65-year-old memory and a passage in a book. "It is very painful what they are doing," Brancovskaja said, sitting in the Yiddish library surrounded by the many volumes she tends. But then she added, "I have lived through so much. This is not the worst."