Murderers or Rescuers?
Lithuanian Journalists in a Crossfire of Historical Memory
by Gabrielė Niekytė
Žasliai, Lithuania. Photo from
- What is missing here?

I am looking around the town square in my mind, trying to revive the route I took every second weekend of my childhood, from one side of the town to another.

- I don't know, a cross? A monument? — I guess helplessly comparing other similar sized towns from memory. All of them look different to me.

- Well, we have a monument now. But no. There is no Lithuanian church in the town centre. — Through the phone, I could feel teacher smiling in victory. — Every other town, where Lithuanians were the majority, has a church in their main square.
Valerija Jakštienė was a history teacher in a small school of Žasliai, a town of less than 700 inhabitants. Now retired, Valerija is still actively engaged in researching local history and leading guided tours around the region. Žasliai, surrounded by three lakes, easily attracts any wanderer, with a picturesque neogothic church on a hill merging with a green valley and a seemingly endless lake beneath, calm and peaceful.

- Why there is no Lithuanian church? Because out of roughly two thousand inhabitants, only 600 were Lithuanians. Every other town would have a church. But here people decided not to have any religious building in the centre, better to build them a bit further. A church and two synagogues.

Driving across the town, one cannot help noticing that colourful wooden houses on both sides of the main street have a pair of doors facing the road. One was used as an entrance to the shop, and the second — to the house.

- The main street, leading to the church and few smaller ones were crowded with manufacturer shops, around 52, and tea rooms. Each village would only go to a certain tea room after the church, — Valerija was making a cup of tea while describing the merchant culture of the town. I could hear her teaspoon hitting the cup walls. — And there were 3 restaurants as well!

It is not difficult to imagine, how the town looked like less than a hundred years ago, full of life, merchants rushing back and forth. Now, only the architecture and few remaining stones of the historical square reminds us about the chaotic past. Religious differences aside, community lived in peace and harmony, solving common problems and gathering together to celebrate, dance and foster the culture, as Valerija tells. Together with her students, as a history researcher, she visited all people in the town and surrounding areas to talk and collect their memories about the society, history and cultural life of the twentieth century, and how they remember the roughest times.

However, Neringa Latvytė-Gustaitienė, a head of the History Research Department at Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, draws a different image. "In the small towns and villages, massacres happened very fast. This is how from the beginning of June until November, massive massacres [took place], and that was it. There were no Jews left in the province."

Don't Talk About It

Events in Lithuania during the Second World War and its aftermath is still an unspoken topic, an elephant in the room even behind the closed doors. There is not a single family around the country which avoided the impact of the War. Nevertheless, it is the second Soviet occupation which takes up the major part of public discourse. The events few years prior to it are left as thema non grata.

In the course of three years of the Nazi occupation, out of 208 thousand Lithuanian Jews, 195-196 thousand were murdered. Around 80 percent of the Jewish community was destroyed during the first three months.

The question which keeps Jewish and Lithuanian researchers up at night for decades since, how was it possible, that the country, known as the centre of thriving Jewish culture, fell into the Nazi demands and had its hundreds of years of history completely eradicated. In this scene, journalists usually find themselves in a crossfire, with two radically opposite explanations and an abyss beneath them. If you turn left, the conversation will circle around the cooperation between Lithuanians and Jews, heroic sacrifices, rescue stories, but not their interrelations. If you turn right, Lithuanians, especially from rural areas, will be turned to a typical radical example of systematic antisemitism, which was simply presented with convenient tools by the Nazi regime.

"Because of those historical moments, it is still hard for us to talk, because it is a traumatic memory, not only for Jews, but for non-Jewish as well", explains Neringa Latvytė-Gustaitienė.

The fate of the Baltic States in the wake of the Second World War was decided by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, secretly signed in Moscow. Fast forward to the night of June 14, 1941, mass deportations of Baltic citizens began, leading to more than 17 500 Lithuanians being thrusted into animal wagons and sent out in unknown directions within few days. The deportations were seized by the German occupation, when their forces entered the country on June 22, becoming a death sentence to Lithuanian Jewish community.

Can Memories Be Trusted?

- There was that time, Jewish Genocide Day, a lot of Jews would visit one of the villages near Utena to commemorate it, — Valerija Jakštienė remembers her own experience, struggling to pick the right words. — I would ask my mom, what is this big celebration, why they are all so nicely dressed. But my mom would keep silent. Nobody wanted to talk about it.

50 years of occupation leaves a scarred nation and twisted historical legacy, with manufactured facts that take decades to solve. There are vast debates to be held about the ways occupation regime suppressed the history, demanding a separate article, though some points are necessary to mention here.

The defeat of Nazi Germany created a comfortable image for the USSR in the eyes of its allies as a resolute fighter against Nazi ideology and its leftovers in the Eastern Bloc, allowing them to mend archival data in any convenient way. NKVD and KGB forces used the documentation and orders to discredit persons who were inconvenient to the regime, especially the resistance fighters and dissidents, labeling them as anti-Semitic, robbers, traitors, people influenced by Nazi ideology, to name a few common epithets. However, with extremely critical evaluation, the archives from that time offer valuable data and insights to the society, historical developments and fates of people.

When even raw data cannot be trusted, Valerija Jakštienė insists — testimonies of people are where the truth can be found, pointing out the differences of her work compared to similar investigations by non-local researchers or journalists.

- Žasliai people, they really did not want to talk. But they let me in, only because they trusted me. — With easy to spot pride, characteristic to teachers, she explains her work with students and neighbours, mostly Lithuanians.

Let us take a step back here. Memory is a phenomenon which is considered to be reliable with precaution, however, the researchers would still turn to testimonies of people who have experienced the conflict. The paradox of moral responsibility stands as the basis for deviating discussions. As described by a philosopher Thomas Nagel, not only the moral judgment but moral decisions are dependent on the individual circumstances and perception. According to him, external and internal causes produce our beliefs and memories, which brings a dilemma into the daylight. Taking a hypothetical example, if a man, born and raised in a Lithuanian-majority town during the 1920's had met a beautiful lady during his studies and moved to a Jewish-majority village on the opposite side of the country, there is a chance he would have survived the Soviet deportations, but risked being forced by Nazi regime to exterminate his Jewish neighbours to rescue his own.

Humans are conditioned by the circumstances and chain of events leading to the moment of the vital decision, varying from person to person. The notion of incompatible experiences, explored by a researcher Christopher Mick, adds that there is no unanimous way of remembering traumatic events, especially the genocide. Differences can be traced not only between nations, ethnic groups but, what is especially distinctive to Lithuania, even between urban and rural communities.

There were people on both sides, who believed in the Nazi regime, and who acted against it, with the majority simply seeking to survive. As an efficient method of governance, locals were chosen to collaborate with the regime, to turn against their own communities.

With a distant voice, nervously playing with a napkin between her fingers, Valerija Jakštienė mentions a man, whose name she never reveals.

All Lithuanians were talking, not only his life was ruined until the end of days, but lives of his family and his children as well. Why he did this, I cannot tell, was he collaborating, were Germans forcing him, I cannot tell. Would you willingly go and hurt other people, I sincerely doubt it.

His nickname was Meter. He was responsible for forcing the Jewish girls and women to pick the grass between rocks in the pavement of the Žasliai main square at the hottest time of the day. If they refused, he would use a leather whip.

- There is nobody left. Tatars, Crimean Karaites, Poles, Lithuanians, all lived here, and the huge Jewish community, and everybody lived peacefully, and there was enough space under the sun for everyone, — Valerija stays silent for a moment. — I cannot simply understand elimination of people, especially the disruption of a nation, murdering children.

However, Neringa Latvytė-Gustaitienė insists, memories cannot be reliable. "When you are taking an interview in a small town, especially from elderly, talking with those who can still remember, you will always hear the stereotypical phrases — we all lived nicely together, we were friendly, I could speak the Jewish language, everything was fine, we were living hand in hand. But then, what happened when Nazi troops arrived, how come the friendship suddenly changed and neighbours turned against their neighbours."

Doubts grow, as Neringa persists — "How could it be that half of the inhabitants were eliminated in one day. Then you approach them and ask, what happened. And they will just tell you — well, one day they disappeared."

Feeding the Attention

The discussions in the major Lithuanian media around the relations between the two communities are divided and dividing. Even talking about the victims and massacres, the topic is ultimately followed by a 'but' — "Lithuanians were also helping, rescuing, risking their lives. This comparison — which side weights more and who we are — murderers or rescuers — is inappropriate," claims Neringa Latvytė-Gustaitienė, and her words are echoed by the recent examples. The pattern of comparison of sins and good deeds resurfaces every time a new related controversy emerges.

Last autumn, online news portals were flooded with passionate discussions after release of a book "Our People" by Rūta Vanagaitė and Efraim Zuroff. The book tells about the people who were the acting force in pogroms. According to the authors, the story is based on the data found in KGB and NKVD archives, accusing Lithuanian historical figures of genocide. Historians, politicians and Jewish diaspora reacted in resistance; Vanagaitė contra-reacted. Conversation on the topic was revived, but journalists again split in their search for an alternative contribution to the conversation — who we are, after all, murderers or rescuers?

"Topics related to the Jewish community and its destruction are very sensitive, and demand extra delicate investment into the situation, a possibility to find reliable information and experts, historians, researchers, who could pinpoint why one or another sensational message might be false, doubtful or not factual," comments Dr Tomas Janeliūnas, professor at Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science. But the thirst of breaking news and possibility to present an alternative opinion, jumping into the fast track of discussion surrounding it, contrasts the editorial decisions and journalistic ideal for exploring the factual truth. Knowledge on the topic falls behind.

"Themes where it is necessary to carefully and sensitively explain the historical experience, for example, conflicts between Poles and Lithuanians, as well as those related to Jewish community, demand thorough and continuous work, avoiding temporary effect of sensation," — Dr. Tomas Janeliūnas explains. Elaborate investigation demands time, commitment and even personal interest of a journalist, whether covering historical debate, or current conflicts.

Use it With Precaution

Memory can be misleading, but experience is built on the memories conditioned by the fateful circumstances and individual perceptions, which creates a paradox in historical testimonies. Therefore, there is no single truth when it comes to sharing the experience, there is no single story to cover the tragedy of nations. Journalistic bias for the sake of having an alternative perspective without thorough investigation creates more tensions than builds knowledge and trust.

"Radical deviations from one journalistic position to another is not a good thing, in most cases, it just frustrates society and even divides it," criticizes Janeliūnas.

Responsible investigation of the historical conflicts, as well as war and humanitarian disasters around the world today, can bring the awaited change into the discussion. The challenge for journalists is to take a breath before diving into a new controversy, and find the best ways of presenting the explanations with respect. Cooperation between researchers and journalists is the key for connecting the missing parts in our history, as well as building bridges between the detached communities. However, it does not mean that one should stop relying on memories. It is a part of our history as well.

Valerija rushes to finish unexpectedly prolonged conversation, having to visit few neighbours. She leaves me with a heartfelt advice: "Talk to people. It is the most important. It makes everything real".
About the author: It takes a few moments to pick a label for Gabriele, a Lithuanian being an obvious one. Combining her love for travel, cinema, design, music and photography in writing, she tries to look for stories behind the closed doors. Passion for history, research and unscripted conversations led her from four years of Middle Eastern studies to journalism, keeping the same sparkle in her eyes whenever a slight chance of a new adventure or a story to be discovered appears in the horizon.

Gabrielė Niekytė
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