Lithuania's bitter World War II legacy

Lithuania's bitter World War II legacy

25th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

For decades, the plight of Lithuania’s murdered Jewish population went unspoken.

Seventy years after the start of World War II, Lithuania is still plagued by a bitter legacy of the conflict: compensation for Jewish property seized by the Nazis.

Lithuania's capital Vilnius was dubbed the "Jerusalem of the North" before war broke out on September 1, 1939 but the Nazi invasion led to the near complete disappearance of the Baltic nation's once vibrant Jewish community.

More than 90 percent of the country's 220,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust, with some locals helping in the massacres organised by the Nazi Einsatzkommando.

Restitution for Jewish communal properties seized by the Soviets after the war and taken over by independent Lithuania after 1991 remains a sticking point in relations with the Jewish community.

Parliament is due to consider in the coming months a draft law foreseeing compensation to the tune of 128 million litas (37 million euros, 53 million dollars), or a third of the estimated value of confiscated properties.

But the Jewish community says the sum does not go far enough. And debate over the issue is reviving painful memories.
Soldiers attend the 65th annual commemoration of the Paneriai massacre on 29 June 2009 in Lithuania, some 40 kms northwest of Vilnius.

Horror in the forest

In one of the less known horror stories of World War II, Lithuanian Jews were methodically gunned down and dumped in mass graves in a forest outside the capital.

While the Nazis used death camps in neighbouring Poland, Latvia and Estonia to carry out their genocide against European Jews, they used bullets in Lithuania.

In July 1941, just weeks after the Third Reich stormed into the country, the Nazis executed more than 30,000 Jews in Paneriai forest, hiding their remains in huge pits originally dug there by the Soviets to stockpile fuel.

"They lined people up at the edge and as they were shot the person fell into the mass grave," said Algis Karosas, a historian and director of the Paneriai memorial.

By 1944, some 70,000 people were killed there, according to one of the many memorial stones inscribed in Lithuanian, Hebrew and Russian in the majestic pine and oak tree forest.

"Paneriai was the scene of the largest massacre in all of Lithuania,” Karosas said. “Jews were exterminated there but also other people of various nationalities, Soviet prisoners of war, thousands of Polish intellectuals and resistance fighters and clergymen."

While historians believe that as many as 100,000 people were buried in 10 mass graves, the exact toll is impossible to determine as the Nazis tried to hide the slaughter.

"Towards the end of the war in 1944, they dug up and burned the cadavers,” Karosas said. “But they did not succeed in hiding all the evidence. The local residents were eyewitnesses."

When the Soviets took over Lithuania after the war, about 8,000 people were found guilty of collaborating with the Nazis, including those involved in the Paneriai atrocity. Several dozen were put to death.

But the genocide of Lithuania's Jews was kept in obscurity during the near half-century of Soviet rule, which ended in 1991.

And 20 years after Lithuania regained its independence, Jews are still trying to win back what they lost in the war.

"We spoke only of the extermination of Soviet citizens, not Jews," said Arvydas Anusauskas, a historian and Lithuanian member of parliament.

Today only the rattle and clatter of long freight trains disturb the silence of the site of the genocide.

"I knew what happened here,” said Romas Guigo, author of an exhibition at the Paneriai memorial. “But when I see the photographs of children waiting to be executed, I just can't stand to look at them."

Simonas Gurevicius, the executive director of Lithuania's small Jewish community, has hailed the moves to discuss compensation as an "important step" but says it falls far short of what the Jewish community wanted.

"At a superficial level, people know what happened but do they really understand?” asked Gurevicius. “Neo-Nazis still draw swastikas on the door of the headquarters of our offices."
Marielle Vitureau/AFP/Expatica

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