Prior to World War II, approximately 200,000 Jews lived in Lithuania — most of them in the city and region of Vilnius. About 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during the German occupation of Lithuania in 1941-1944. Paneriai, a village located 10 km outside of Vilnius, was the site of the murder of at least 100,000 people by Nazi forces and Lithuanian collaborators. Of those murdered at this place in the pine forests were 70,000 Jews, 20,000 Poles, and 8,000 Russians (mostly local), as well as Soviet soldiers taken as prisoners-of-war and local Lithuanians. There has been difficulty in Lithuania in coming to terms with the Nazi German occupation and the mass murder of Lithuania’s Jews. It much too complicated to address in a blog post, but these are a few of my opinions on the subject, along with some photographs from my visit to Paneriai a few weeks ago.
Some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis in mass murder; this does not mean that all Lithuanians are fascists but it is a fact. In my opinion, accusations of this kind and the denials of any collaboration or making excuses for collaboration by the other side serve only to foster continued anger and intolerance and display a lack of historical understanding. Confronting the past requires a lot of courage, honesty and compassion — it is not accomplished by blanket accusations or denials.
Suffering is not a game of one-up-manship. There was an almost complete destruction of Lithuanian Jews during World War II. Lithuanians suffered greatly under Soviet occupation, experiencing oppression, deportation and death. Recognizing that the Holocaust was an extreme form of assault on a people (called genocide, a term invented to describe the attempt to eradicate a population) or that some Lithuanians participated does not devalue Lithuanian suffering — or any other people’s suffering. Constantly trying to prove that one’s suffering is greater or that it justifies other actions or that there are excuses for attacking other human beings leads, in my opinion, to a lack of compassion and blindness to one’s own ability to inflict suffering. It also, once again, displays a lack of understanding about the complexity of history.
I usually avoid making any comments on this topic because it only leads to attacks by one side or the other. At the same time, walking through a forest where at least 100,000 people were murdered reminded me that avoiding conflict is exactly how Europe got into World War II and mass murder in the first place. Sometimes speaking out, even if it means taking flak, is the right thing to do.