Every year since 2011, on September 23, thousands gather in Ponary, Lithuania, to commemorate the 70,000 Jews murdered here and thrown into mass graves in this forested area outside the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, or Vilna. The date chosen for this National Memorial Day for the Genocide of Jews in Lithuania coincides with the beginning of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto in 1941. This year, however, there will be memorial services not only in Ponary, but at other mass grave sites throughout the country, thanks to a campaign called “Here Lie Our People,” organized by Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite.
“The campaign aims to let Lithuanians understand that people who are buried in these mass graves are not just Jews or Soviets, but they are our people, and they are our history,” Vanagaite told me.
Vanagaite’s recently published book, Our People, which she co-authored with renowned Nazi-hunter Ephraim Zuroff, consists of interviews with witnesses to the atrocities perpetrated by Lithuanians against Jews during the Holocaust. What made Vanagaite write the book was her own discovery that members of her own family took part in these killings.
The book managed to do what years of previous efforts by historians and academics could not: trigger the first major public debate about Lithuania’s Holocaust complicity, which prompted the government to promise to publish the names of 1,000 Lithuanian residents who perpetrated the tragic events of the Holocaust. It also caused ordinary Lithuanians to look in the mirror, and then at themselves and their own family members and friends, and consider admitting whether or not they were part of the killing brigades. Many Lithuanians labeled Vanagaite a traitor.
“I see what is happening now in Lithuania as a split between generations,” Vanagaite said. “While older people are uneager to join the conversation about the Jews and the Holocaust, because this will often mean to admit that your relatives took part in the killings, younger people want to get away from their parents’ fears and prejudices, and to deal with the past honestly.”
The fact that the book was written by a best-selling Lithuanian writer proved crucial, allowing for locals to start internalizing the awful events of 75 years ago. “Vanagaite managed to achieve what I failed to in my 25 years of attempts,” Zuroff said.
Around the time when Vanagaite’s book came out last year, Israeli soccer agent Tzvi Krizter was in Lithuania to organize a memorial march in the town of Moletai, where his family was killed during the Holocaust. He expected 20 to 30 people to arrive. This attracted the attention of Marius Ivaskevicius, a prominent Moletai-born Lithuanian writer who penned an essay, urging his fellow citizens to take part in the march in solidarity and to acknowledge the cruelty of what happened in the past. “You won’t need to do anything,” he wrote. “Just go. Just show them that we are not enemies any longer. This march will take place anyway, the question is, will the Jews go alone again, or shall we this time go with them?”
Following the publication of the article, thousands came to Moletai on August 29 this year, including Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaite, and other officials. They walked from the local synagogue, where, in August 1941, 2,000 Moletai Jews were held for three days without food and water, to the site of the local mass grave.
During the event, as a cantor was reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, a Lithuanian from the crowd approached Krizter, one of the organizers, hugged him and sobbed on his shoulder. “The event in Moletai represents a real milestone on the road to progress, one that will enter history books, but the country has a way to go,” says Professor Dovid Katz, an American-born historian of Lithuanian Jewry and founder of the website DefendingHistory.com. “There are small but powerful circles of ultra-nationalists in the government, academia, and media who are determined to rewrite and falsify the history.”
September 23 will be a test for Lithuanians. There are 227 mass graves around the country, so anyone can find one in less than half an hour drive from their home,” Zuroff said. “We will see if Lithuania is ready to deal with its past.”