Lithuania Is Forming a New Relationship With Its Past—and With Israel
As political ties flourish, the country is taking tenuous steps to confront its Holocaust history. But it hasn’t gone far enough.
Soon after Yossi Levy assumed his role as Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania in August, his assistant, Ana Maizel, came across a swastika crafted from dirt on the ground in front of a Jewish community center—an inauspicious beginning to his tenure. He trod carefully in his response, condemning the crime while offering reassurance. “We Jews do not come here to accuse,” he said. “We do not blame the Lithuania of 2019.”
Levy arrived in Lithuania in a moment of change: Even as the country deals with anti-Semitic incidents, it is in the midst of a pro-Zionist rebranding that combines an imperfect public reexamination of the country’s experience in World War II with a heartfelt appreciation for Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has come under criticism for his friendliness with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, who is seen as a participant in efforts to promote historical narratives that diminish the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust and glorify Nazi collaborators who resisted the Soviets. But the country has begun taking tenuous steps toward a new relationship with its past.
Lithuania’s warming toward Israel has come alongside the beginnings of a new reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. Mainstream Lithuanian attitudes toward the country’s tumultuous war and postwar history have long privileged stories of surviving communism and set the crimes of the Soviet era on par with those of the Nazi period. In May, that narrative received a public airing, when a World War II-era chaplain for a Lithuanian police battalion accused of having murdered thousands of Jews was honored with a plaque for his work ministering to soldiers. In newspaper columns and political speeches, references to Lithuanian suffering and the deeds of Lithuanians who helped Jews during the Holocaust often come fast on the heels of any mention of the genocide.
In 2006, the country’s chief prosecutors started an investigation into the wartime destruction of a village. As part of that probe, they accused a group of Jewish ghetto survivors of having joined the pro-Soviet guerrillas, the implication being that they were pro-communist. But the accusation failed to recognize that their path was common among those who hoped to defeat the Nazis. Two of those guerrillas, now elderly, were based in Israel. They feared returning to Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, unsure about what kind of testimony they would be expected to give. The common view was that the ghetto survivors were evading justice. Israel was displeased. One former Israeli ambassador denounced the investigation, and Pinhas Avivi, the deputy general director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry at the time, told the Israeli daily Haaretz, “the ministry takes the persecution of the Jewish partisans very seriously.”
In 2010, the Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, who helped bring fascist war criminals to trial, wrote: “Nowhere in the world has a government gone to such lengths to obscure their role in the Holocaust [as in Lithuania].” State institutions were dragging their feet in seeking justice against alleged Nazi collaborators while running after any evidence that Jewish resistance fighters collaborated with the Soviets.
But when it comes to the history of the ghetto fighters, a transition in thinking is underway. Fania Brancovskaja was one of those ghetto survivors called to give a testimony to a prosecutor when allegations resurfaced of her guerilla group’s participation in a massacre against civilians. She was portrayed in Lithuanian media as a Soviet collaborator and a Jew—but not as a ghetto survivor and a Lithuanian. But then, in 2017, she received a presidential award, and in 2018, the Delfi news website invited her as a honored guest to speak about Holocaust memory.
The country has begun celebrating—and marketing—Jewish heritage in cities and towns. Mainstream politicians and media now talk about a collective mourning for Lithuania’s lost residents.
World War II decimated the majority of the enormous Lithuanian Jewish community, which numbered more than 150,000 before the war, and dispersed most of the few survivors. In the official narrative, and personal stories passed on within families, Lithuanians were victims, and collaborators were outliers. As Robert van Voren wrote in his book Undigested Past: The Holocaust in Lithuania, postwar deaths and suffering were deeply imprinted in Lithuanian collective memory and overshadowed the years under the Nazis. After Lithuania regained independence, and struggled to have the story of its suffering accepted in the West, many in Lithuania considered it unfair that President Algirdas Brazauskas apologized for Lithuanian participation in the Holocaust in a speech to the Israeli parliament in 1995. Lithuanian Jews in Israel felt this was too little, too late. But that relationship with historical justice has begun to change.
Now, high-ranking politicians now tweet greetings on Jewish holidays, mark Holocaust-related commemorative days, and no longer feel compelled to mention in the same breath that the Lithuanian nation suffered, too. And a new consensus against challenging each other’s national narratives is becoming an integral part of Israeli-Lithuanian relations.
The shift began in earnest in 2016. One milestone was a memorial march to commemorate Holocaust victims in August 2016 in Moletai, a town about an hour’s drive north of Vilnius. After a public call by the well-known playwright and director Marius Ivaskevicius, the march gathered more than 1,000 attendees and drew prominent dignitaries.
That August in Moletai, then-President Dalia Grybauskaite laid a stone on the mass murder site, flanked by the then-Israeli ambassador to Lithuania and representatives of the Jewish community. The president had participated in commemorative events at the presidential palace in Vilnius, at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, but the event in Moletai stood out. She, along with other high-ranking politicians, traveled to a remote region to send a signal that Holocaust memory would from that day forth be part of the mainstream ritual in a country dotted with numerous mass murder sites. A month later, a procession to commemorate the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto in Paneriai again drew crowds.
To be sure, far-right groups can still be heard chanting “Lithuania for Lithuanians” at Independence Day parades (including the one in 2019). And in July, the removal of a plaque and the changing of a street name dedicated to people suspected of aiding the Nazis drew crowds of protesters. But while Lithuanian nationalists were heard chanting “Juden raus”—Jews out—in 2008 (and six individuals were convicted of incitement to hatred a year later), the extreme fringes of the nationalist movement seem to have since refocused their ire on the LGBTQ community and Muslim refugees.
Anti-Semitism in Ukraine is far from vanquished. Violeta Davoliute, who researches Holocaust memory at Vilnius University, has observed that though the taboos around Jewish history in Central and Eastern Europe are falling, historical research remains highly politicized. “Everything is so politicized and confrontational that … it is difficult to conduct neutral research,” she said. Notably, there remain certain red lines as to how far the Lithuanian establishment—and a large part of the society—is willing to go in challenging the official narrative. “We suffered, our Jews suffered, too. They, the Germans and the USSR, were the perpetrators,” Davoliute said, in summary of the establishment perspective.
Israel became generally more popular in Lithuania after the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. Lithuania saw that hand-wringing from NATO, Western powers, and the European Parliament was not enough to stop Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in the region. In response to a newly muscular Russia, Lithuania doubled its military spending between 2013 and 2016 and reintroduced conscription. Speaking at Vytautas Magnus University in May 2015, Darius Degutis, the former Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, praised Israeli conscription for instilling patriotism, which, he maintained, penetrated other areas of Israeli life, from employment to dating. As Lithuania’s presidential elections approached in May 2019, LRT, the public broadcaster, asked candidates to say where they stood on the idea of conscripting women—and pundits referred, in positive terms, to Israel in analyzing their responses.
This year, Skvernelis volunteered to proclaim Lithuania “Israel’s voice in the EU, which can elaborate on Israel’s position.” He also decided not to meet representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA) during his official visit to Israel. Although Lithuania continues providing development aid to the PA—its focus shifted from democracy to entrepreneurship—it appears to increasingly consider the latter a diplomatic liability. In 2011, Lithuania voted against the Palestinian UNESCO membership.
Lithuania buys Israeli weapons. It also buys into Israel’s right to self-defense narrative. Lithuania’s foreign minister tends to reaffirm that right on Twitter every time he hears about a fresh outbreak of violence against Israelis. In so doing, he is reaffirming Lithuania’s right to the same. In exchange, Israeli officials seem to be willing to accept Lithuania’s flawed emergent efforts at Holocaust reemergence.
For Eastern European populists, Israel today is an “old dream realized,” the political scientist and populism expert Ivan Krastev wrote in the run-up to the Israeli elections last spring. In other words, an Israel that is militaristic and unabashedly ethnocentric feels like a comfortable model for Lithuanian and Eastern European leaders.
In the summer of 2018, Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Lithuania, and when he did, he explicitly tied the new historical approach to the countries’ newly robust relationship. “I believe that by coming to terms with the past, striving to combat anti-Semitism, as the Lithuanian government is doing, telling the new generations the truth about the historic tragedy so that such cases could be avoided in the future, through this we can create strong bilateral relations,” he told reporters. “Once again, just like with technologies, with progress, equally in this—we can do more together.”
Critics say Lithuania has not done nearly enough—and Israel is letting it off the hook as a matter of political convenience. Many Lithuanians remain unwilling to recast their war heroes as Holocaust perpetrators. But some changes, however shaky, are certainly underway.