I did not read about the desecration of the memorial to the 72,000 Jews mass-murdered by German Einzatzgruppen in the Ponary Forest outside Vilnius, Lithuania, in any of my normal news outlets. I didn’t read about the red spraypaint that declares, “Hitler Was Right,” seemingly in honor of the 70th anniversary of the massacre in the Times, or the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz, or CNN or an American or European or Israeli newspaper; not in JTA or the Forward or, indeed, in Tablet Magazine. Instead, Timothy Snyder, one of our finest scholars of the Holocaust, reports on the vandalism on the New York Review of Books blog, and then provides the necessary context.
Vilnius—“the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” and only increasingly central to Jewish thought during the 19th-century Haskalah—experienced its first pogrom in 1939 and 1940, when the Soviet Union’s secret police deported 21,000 political and social elites (including many Jews) and killed thousands more. Next was the 24,000 Jews killed by Polish and Lithuanian nationalists backed by the Nazis, who in 1941 invaded in violation of the deal they had inked with the U.S.S.R. two years earlier. Only then came the systematic slaughter of nearly 100,000 people from in and around Vilnius, including (and what the desecrated memorial stands for) roughly 72,000 Jews, by the Nazis and collaborating Lithuanians.
Today, the Lithuanian government has concerns other than publicizing the role of some of their ancestors in the Holocaust, or indeed in publicizing the Holocaust itself. Politically, it casts the U.S.S.R. as Lithuania’s ultimate historical enemy, and is currently after the ex-KGB officer Mikhail Golovatov, who famously commanded a group that killed 13 protesters in 1991; Golovatov was freed from Austrian custody two weeks ago, likely under the pressure of Russia, to which he fled and which wishes to protect its own and pit former Soviet republics like Lithuania against other members of the European Union. Moreover, as Dovid Katz has written in Tablet, “Holocaust obfuscation”—in which the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews are minimized and deliberately blended into the Nazis’ crimes against the Slavs and the Russians’ crimes against everyone—is in vogue in the Baltics; complicating matters is that a not-insignificant proportion of the secret policemen who carried out the first attacks on Vilnius, in 1939 and 1940, were Jews.
“But indubitable Western ignorance of Soviet crimes is no excuse for neglecting the historical record of the tragedy of Lithuanian Jews,” Snyder concludes. “Horrible as the Soviet occupation was, the largest group of genocide victims in Lithuania were the Jews murdered by the Germans with the help of the local population.” One more reason to tell your friends about the vandalism 70 years later of the memorial to the 72,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis in a forest outside Vilinius.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.