VILNIUS—Lithuanians are taking an agonizing closer look at their forefathers’ role in killing Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust, a dark chapter of the Baltic country’s history that was hidden for decades.
A series of books and films has triggered national soul-searching by making the point that while Lithuanians were the victims of Nazi and Soviet occupation of the country, at times they too were perpetrators of crimes and their victims were Jews.
Bestselling author Ruta Vanagaite, who co-wrote “Our People” (Musiskiai) with top Israeli Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff, is the latest to spark difficult discussions.
Writing the book turned out to be deeply personal and painful when she discovered her grandfather had collaborated with the Nazis by working for a commission compiling lists of Jews in 1941.
“I want to break the silence, to open up the wound,” Vanagaite told an audience recently at a bookshop in Vilnius, a city once dubbed the “Jerusalem of the North” for its vibrant Jewish life before the war.
“A mature nation must know its history so it is not repeated,” the 61-year-old author said.
Two black-and-white photographs adorn the cover of her book: Jewish cyclist Isakas Nolikas who represented Lithuania in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics and perished in 1943, and Balys Norvaisa, a Lithuanian lieutenant who killed Jews.
Among the emotionally wrenching testimony in the book, an elderly woman told Vanagaite: “Many people wanted to help Jewish children, but they were afraid. Not of the Germans, but of their own.”
Lithuania was home to a community of more than 200,000 Jews before World War II. But historians contend that around 195,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators under the 1941-44 German occupation, nearly the entire Jewish population.
Today there are around 3,000 Jews living in the EU and Nato member state of three million people.
A state-funded research center has identified 2,000 Lithuanians suspected of taking part in the Holocaust, either by killing Jews, sending them to execution or by confiscating their wealth. The study is due to be released later this year.
At the same time nearly 900 Lithuanians hold the honorary title of “Righteous Among The Nations”, awarded by Israel to gentiles who risked their lives to save Jewish neighbors.