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Turning Away From Poland’s ‘Dark Past’

Should the law be invoked to confront the Holocaust?

Antony Polonsky
February 13, 2018
Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images
Wall commemorating 'Poles who saved Jews during WWII.'Photo: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images
Author’s Note: The recent controversy aroused by the amendments to the law on the Institute of National Memory passed by the Polish government shows how quickly the progress made in this article—first published in 2010 and reprinted here—can be undermined. I fully recognize that the use of terms such as “Polish concentration camps” and collective accusations of participation in genocide against the “Polish Government” or the “Polish Nation” is offensive. However, I have serious doubts about the use of the law to deal with this problem. These issues are better dealt with by the intellectual debate set out here. It is my hope that this important legacy can be maintained and that these difficult and complex matters can continue to be discussed in a calm and dispassionate manner.
Author’s Note: The recent controversy aroused by the amendments to the law on the Institute of National Memory passed by the Polish government shows how quickly the progress made in this article—first published in 2010 and reprinted here—can be undermined. I fully recognize that the use of terms such as “Polish concentration camps” and collective accusations of participation in genocide against the “Polish Government” or the “Polish Nation” is offensive. However, I have serious doubts about the use of the law to deal with this problem. These issues are better dealt with by the intellectual debate set out here. It is my hope that this important legacy can be maintained and that these difficult and complex matters can continue to be discussed in a calm and dispassionate manner.

The complex and often acrimonious debates about the involvement of Lithuanians in the mass murder of the Jews during World War II are part of a much wider argument about the totalitarian experience of Europe in the 20th century. These controversies reflect the growing preoccupation with the issue of collective memory. One key element in this memory is the “the dark past” of nations—those aspects of the national past which provoke shame, guilt, and regret—which needs to be integrated into the national collective identity, which itself is continually being reformulated. (The “dark past” is a commonly used term in the studies of collective memory. Other similar terms are the “difficult past” and the “troubling past.”) In this sense, memory has to be understood as a public discourse which helps to build group identity and which is inevitably entangled in a relationship of mutual dependence with other identity-building processes. Consequently, memory cannot be seen as static and unchanging. Rather, it is a representation of past reality, revised and modified according to the changing demands of present-day identity, something which is itself subject to modification.

Central to the recovery and understanding of the “dark past” have been the debates which have taken place in many countries in Europe about the origins and character of the genocide which the Nazis attempted to inflict on the Jewish people during WWII. These debates have only been possible in situations where the political culture has permitted a public reckoning with the more dubious aspects of the national past and where there is a high level of acceptance of the practice of national self-criticism. Not surprisingly, they have gone furthest in Germany, first in the Federal Republic and subsequently in the united Germany which was established in 1989.

Starting with the controversy aroused by the publication of Fritz Fischer’s Griff nach der Weltmacht in 1961, German historians have undertaken a thorough and complex re-examination of their country’s past, which culminated in the Historikerstreit of the 1980s and the debate over Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners. This has greatly clarified the problems of how the Nazis came to power, the nature of the regime they established and how they came to adopt and implement their anti-Jewish genocide. A similar wide-ranging debate has also developed in France, although it started somewhat later, over the character of the Vichy regime, the nature of the anti-Semitic policies it implemented and its responsibility for the deaths of perhaps a quarter of French Jews in the Holocaust. Analogous attempts to “overcome the past” have been undertaken in Austria, in Switzerland and elsewhere in Western and Central Europe, although the extent to which they have modified attitudes may be questioned.

In the Polish case, the question of the responsibility of the local population for the fate of the Jews in the Nazi genocide a debate did begin immediately after the war but was stifled by the imposition of a rigidly Stalinist regime in 1947. It resumed vigorously in the 1980s. Elsewhere, both in the states which during WWII were allied with the Nazis and in those areas where no state-level collaborationist regimes were established by the Nazis, as in Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, debate on this complex topic only really began after 1989-91. Since then there has been considerable dispute about the role of General Ion Antonescu in Romania and Father Tiso in Slovakia and of the conduct of the Nazi satellite regimes in Hungary and Croatia. There has also been a good deal of debate in Estonia and Latvia and rather less in Ukraine, about the participation of local militias and nationalist partisans in the mass murder of Jews.

How has this debate evolved in Lithuania? This has not been only internal matters, since Lithuanian Jewish survivors and many others in the Jewish world, where the collective memory of these events was very different from that of the Lithuanians, have also played an active role in the attempts to reshape this memory. Certainly, Lithuanian and Jewish collective memories were very far apart. The Lithuanians, who lost their independence after the Second World War felt that the Jews had shown little regard for the favorable way they had been treated in interwar Lithuania and held the Jews collectively responsible for aiding the first and second Soviet occupations of their country. Only a small number of Lithuanians had participated in the mass murder of the Jews, comparable to the minority of alleged Jewish collaborators with the Soviets. Jews for their part highlighted the growth of anti-Semitism in the 1930s. They were particularly affronted by what they saw as the massive involvement of Lithuanians in the mass murder of the Jews, both just before the establishment of Nazi rule and particularly in cooperation with the Nazi occupiers and were shocked by the brutal behavior of Lithuanians in such incidents as the massacre at the Lietukis garage in Kaunas on 27 June 1941.

Given the large-scale complicity of Lithuanians in the mass murder of Jews in 1941, the traumatic effect of the two Soviet occupations of Lithuania, the second lasting nearly half a century, and the unstable nature of the Lithuanian political scene, with the temptation this offers to demagogic politicians to engage in populist rhetoric, it is not surprising that the discussion of wartime issues has proved a difficult and painful topic and has led to bitter exchanges between Jews and Lithuanians. The issue was further complicated by the fact that two separate issues had become intertwined—the establishment of an accurate and fully documented record of what had occurred during the Nazi occupation and the call to prosecute Lithuanians who had committed crimes against humanity. It may also be that to see Lithuanian-Jewish history solely through the prism of the Holocaust has led to a neglect of the more nuanced aspects of Lithuanian-Jewish relations and the rich and diversified Lithuanian Jewish heritage.

Some progress has been made on elucidating the problems of Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust. The freedom that came with independence certainly stimulated research into previously taboo topics and made greatly increased contact with the western scholarly community. In these new situations, all aspects of the Lithuanian-Jewish past were investigated which gave a more nuanced understanding of the events of the second world war. New studies examined the anti‑Judaic policies of the Catholic Church and the emergence of modern Lithuanian anti-Semitism after the late 19th century; the development of Jewish‑Lithuanian relations between the wars and the impact of the crises of 1939‑1941. Jewish scholars were also involved, and this led to scholarly conferences which took place in Vilnius in October 1993 and in September 1997 in the seaside resort in Nida.

The need to consolidate independence and to ease Lithuania’s entry into NATO and the European Union also made imperative the establishment of better relations with the Jewish world. From the first days of independence, a series of public statements by Lithuanian leaders expressed regret at the participation of Lithuanians in the Holocaust and condemned the genocide. The culminating point was the visit of President Brazauskas to Israel during which, in his address to the Knesset in March 1995, he publicly asked forgiveness “for [the actions of] those Lithuanians who mercilessly murdered, shot, deported and robbed Jews.” This was not universally well-received in Lithuania and led to calls for the Jews in response to apologize for their “crimes” against the Lithuanian nation during the Soviet occupation.

The growing mood of self-criticism in the Roman Catholic church also had an impact. On 13 March 2000, the Bishops’ Conference of the Lithuanian Catholic Church expressed its regret that during the Nazi period “a portion of the faithful failed to demonstrate charity to the persecuted Jews, did not grasp any opportunity to defend them and lacked the determination to influence those who aided the Nazis.”

The prosecution of war crimes created much more difficulty and mutual irritation. Thus in March 1997 ninety-two members of the Israeli Knesset sent a letter to the Lithuanian president Algirdas Brazauskas calling on him to arrest Aleksandras Lileikis, who had been in charge of the war-time Vilnius security police and allegedly involved in the murder of thousands of Jews in the Vilna ghetto. (Lileikis was eventually put on trial but died in 2000 before the trial was concluded). Only two other individuals, Kazys Gimzauskas, deputy commander of the Lithuanian Security Police in the Vilna district and Algimantas Dailide an officer operative of the Saugumas in the Vilna district, both of whom had been deported from the United States, were put on trial. Gimzauskas was convicted but never punished since he was suffering from senile dementia, and Dailide was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but the judges refused to implement his sentence. The resentment at demands to try war criminals created led Rimantas Smetona, a member of parliament and chairman of the Homeland Unity Party in August 1997 to call on the Lithuanian prosecutor-general to institute proceedings against Efraim Zuroff, the Israeli representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who had complained of the slowness to take action on this issue. There were also complaints that among the nearly 50,000 people convicted of crimes against the Soviet state who had been pardoned in 1990 there were some who had been involved in the complicity with the Nazi anti-Jewish genocide.

Some progress took place on this last issue, and in September 1997, the supreme court revoked the 1991 rehabilitation of Petras Kriksciunas, who allegedly participated in the killings of unarmed persons in Vilnius during the Nazi occupation. Subsequently, the pardons of an additional 22 persons who had collaborated with the Nazis were abrogated. However, the authorities have remained extremely reluctant to undertake new war crimes prosecutions. In all only three persons have been brought to trial, two of whom—Kazys Gimzauskas and Algimantas Dailide—were convicted, but were excused imprisonment, in Gimzauskas’s case because of illness, in Dailide’s because of advanced age.

It was in an attempt to put these issues to rest that, in September 1998, Professor Julius Smulkstys, a former professor of political science and one of President Adamkus’s closest advisers, who had been appointed the presidential liaison on Lithuanian-Jewish relations, reported that the president had established an international commission to examine war crimes committed during the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lithuania. It would be headed by Emanuelis Zingeris, and its role would be “to investigate the Second World War period and the immediate aftermath in order to come up with answers to various questions concerning the Jewish and Lithuanian genocides.”

In a series of well-researched and scholarly volumes, written for the most part by Lithuanian scholars it investigated a number of key issues in the recent Lithuanian past. Among the titles were The First Soviet Occupation. Occupation and Annexation; The First Soviet Occupation. Occupants and Collaborators; The First Soviet Occupation. Terror and Crimes against Humanity; The Preconditions for the Holocaust: Anti-Semitism in Lithuania; Murders of Prisoners of War and Civilian Population in Lithuania in 1941-1944 and The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews during Summer and Fall of 1941. This last volume, by Christoph Dieckmann and Saulius Sužiedėlis, gave a horrific picture of Lithuanian involvement in the mass murder of the Jews. It concluded that “[t]he actual killings were organized by the head of the police in occupied Lithuania (SS und Polizeiführer Litauen) and were for the most part carried out by two Einsatzgruppen (numbers 2 and 3),” with “extensive support from the headquarters of the Lithuanian Police Department in Kaunas, local precincts, German and Lithuanian police battalion personnel and local volunteers.”

These conclusions were anathema to the more nationalist elements in Lithuania who were also strongly hostile to the post-communists who had returned to power in 2001. (They lost power in the election of October 2008.) They had an important mouthpiece in the conservative daily Respublika which in 2006 published excerpts from the diary, of a member of the commission, the former head of Yad Vashem, Yitzhak Arad, describing his activities as a teenage partisan after his escape from the Vilna ghetto and his brief service in the NKVD. On the basis of this, they called on the General Prosecutor was asked to investigate Arad for “possible war crimes.” The General Prosecutor prepared an indictment against Arad and also sought in to interrogate several other elderly former partisans, mostly women in their eighties who had previously been attacked in the nationalist daily Lietuvos aidas. One of them, Fanya Brantsovskaya was accused of participating in an attack on the village of Kanukai, on the basis of the memoirs of another Rachel Margolis.

The goal seemed to be to demonstrate the alleged moral equivalence of Lithuanian and Jewish behavior. Lithuanians behaved badly during the Nazi occupation, but Jews behaved equally reprehensibly during the two Soviet occupations, a crude oversimplification given that the scale and form of collaboration were entirely different. Faced with a storm of protest the General Prosecutor dropped the prosecution against Arad. Margolis has confirmed that her statement that Brantsovkaya participated in the attack on Kanukai was based on hearsay and it was accepted that Brantsovskaya did not actually take part in this. It is thus clear Brantsovskaya will not be brought to trial, as the goal of those involved seems rather to exculpate the Lithuanians by stressing that Jews also were involved in the murder of civilians. The dispute certainly demonstrated how difficult it is both for the Lithuanian elite and for the public at large to come to terms with the painful legacy of Lithuanian complicity in the mass murder of the country’s Jewish population.

It is not my intention in this article to contrast unfavorably Lithuanian behavior with that of the Poles. Rather I have attempted to explain why the process of coming to terms with the past has, so far, been more successful in Poland than in Lithuania and to suggest some ways forward. In the first place, the fact that Poland after 1956 was an autonomous state within the Soviet bloc with a consensual autocratic system, while Lithuania was an integral part of the still totalitarian Soviet Union is crucial. The large group of Polonized Jews and even of people who considered themselves both Poles and Jews was a crucial factor in the dialogue—the small size of the comparable group in Lithuania made these discussions more difficult. The dialogue has also taken over much larger period in Poland.

In addition, although there has been some contact between the Lithuanian diaspora in the United States and American Jews, there is nothing comparable to the National Polish-American Jewish-American Council. Lithuania is also small country—unlike Poland, the tradition of “nie pozwalam” (I oppose), whereby one member of parliament could invalidate a piece of legislation, and the admiration for nonconformity is not as well established here. A final problem is the position of officially-sponsored bodies, the Polish Instytut Pamięci Narodowej and the Lithuanian Historical Commission. These are financed by governments and when they make findings which are not to the liking of ethno-nationalists, there is a great temptation for demagogues to ask why taxpayers money is being used to blacken the “good name” of the nation. Such reactions have not been unknown in this country either.

In spite of the problems, I do however remain hopeful. Looking at the Polish (and German) experience, I believe that it is debate among historians offers the best chance to move forward. This is part of a general process that could begin only after the collapse of the communist system—a coming to terms with many neglected and taboo aspects of the past. In the case of Lithuanian-Jewish relations, I believe we are beginning to enter a second stage, where apologetics will increasingly be replaced by careful and detailed research and reliable and nuanced first-hand testimony. It should be possible to move beyond strongly-held competing and incompatible narratives of the past and reach some consensus that will be acceptable to all people of good will and will bring about a degree of normalization both in the Lithuanians’ attitudes to the past and in Lithuanian-Jewish relations. What this normalization should mean was summed up by a young Polish historian Sławomir Sierakowski, editor of Krytyka Polityczna who in the course of a debate on Polish-Ukrainian relations, another bitterly contested topic, expressed the following sentiments in Gazeta Wyborcza on June 11, 2003:

I want something more! A fundamental paradigm shift. My generation needs something more than merely a precise calculation of losses and a historical truth created as a result of a balance of wrongs. We need to transcend the logic of national suffering. … We want to replace a history primarily concerned with confrontation and the defense of national honor—a paper war instead of the former confrontation on the battlefield—with a post-Holocaust universalism directed toward the future of the generations to come.

This article originally appeared in Jolanta Żyndul, ed., Parlamentaryzm, konserwatyzm, nacjonalizm: Sefer jowel. Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Szymonowi Rudnickiemu (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Sejmowe, 2010), and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Antony Polonsky is emeritus professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University and Chief Historian of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

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