Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Few books have ever been off to such an outrageous start in Lithuania as the new book by the country’s best-selling author Rūta Vanagaitė. «Mūsiškiai» («Ours») is a book definitely not to everybody – that is the way many book reviewers described it.
Zeroing in on the massacre of Lithuanian Jews back in 1941-1944 – most of the executioners were Lithuanians – the book sheds light on the tragic life of Lithuania’s the then Jewish community, which was literally wiped out from Vilnius during the years.
Many of killers were teenage boys
The killers of around 200,000 Jews were Lithuanians most of the time, insists the author. Moreover: many of the perpetrators, in fact, were teenage Lithuanian boys.
«Thousands of young Lithuanians were involved in the killings. I cannot blame the youngsters, but I cannot justify them, too. If it happened once upon certain circumstances, can we be sure that it will not be repeat again? Why do we have to condemn «Islamic State’s» boys if our own 15-16-year-old boys would set out to shoot people after their classes 75 years ago?» the book author asks rhetorically.
«I chose the topic, because I was aghast at how Lithuania is afraid of it. I wanted to understand what was going on with our own people in our own country and, most importantly, why it happened. I do not see it as an historic book. It is devoted more for self-education. I am aware that Lithuania has not waited for the book. But that’s exactly why I have written it,» Vanagaitė told in a statement.
It is estimated that Lithuanian forests contain around 227 places where Jews were slain.
Famous Nazi hunter contributed to the book
In the book on holocaust, she has interviewed not only Efraim Zuroff, a famed Nazi hunter, director of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem Bureau , but also Ričardas Doveika, a well-known Lithuanian Catholic priest, also Tomas Šernas, a survivor of the Medininkai border patrol massacre, when Soviet paratroopers murdered 7 Lithuanian customs officials and handicapped horribly the eighth one.
Having found herself in the limelight this week, Vanagaitė acknowledged some of her closest family members and friends have repudiated her, but she asserts she does not regret it.
«It is a weird feeling: I am not afraid of attacks and accusations at all. I feel as if having performed my duty and therefore I feel very calm. Today (January 27-L.J) is my birthday. I will go skiing on that occasion,» the author posted on her Facebook Wednesday.
Why Lithuanians killed Jews?
Asked perhaps the main question- why ordinary and, often, very young Lithuanians joined the Jewish-aiming death battalions – Vanagaitė reasoned some did it out of greed – seeking to obtain the valuables, others, perhaps, were tricked by the Nazis, who managed to persuade many Lithuanians to join them, arguing that the formations were the beginning of an independent Lithuanian army.
«Some believed that, in the battalions, they were fighting the Soviets and defending Lithuania,» Vanagaitė reckoned. «In the beginning, the battalions were assigned to guard certain objects, later on – Jews and, thereafter, members of such formations would force the Jews get in the lorries and haul them to forests and put on the brink of a ditch. It would take a lot to tell then: «I won’t shoot…»
Inquired why she wanted to explore the subject, Vanagaitė told she had done several projects on the topic.
«I find the topic very interesting, although I do not have Jewish blood in my bloodstream,» she admitted.
He defended her curiosity in the subject, arguing she wanted to take anew at it, giving it some new, never-shown-before tinges.
«I attempted to take a closer look at the people who were killing, try to understand why they did so and find out how they resolved for that. Finally, what their motivation was,» explained Vanagaitė.
Vanagaitė showed holocaust otherwise
Under her belt, she has another two books, «Ne bobų vasara» («Not Old Wives’ Summer») and «Pareigos metas» («Times of Duty»). The latter book, revealing the difficulties family members encounter when taking care of elderly, often handicapped and mentally disturbed, has been especially a big bestseller in Lithuania.
In the book, Vanagaitė defended euthanasia, still a taboo topic in the Conservative Lithuanian Catholic.
Undoubting of her new book’s blockbuster fame, Rokas Tračevskis, a Lithuanian journalist and historian by profession, says, although the subject of holocaust is scrutinized in Lithuania, no one until now succeeded in revealing so many so many shades of the history.
«She knows how to tell stories, she has proved already she does it very well and her latest book is no exception. Many of the historians would lay out only plain numbers and descriptions of the tragic events. Vanagaitė gave a human face to holocaust in Lithuania,» Tračevskis told BNN.
He, however, has not read the book, but is likely to give in to the hoopla surrounding it and get one…
Asked whether the book’s success is only about the novel forms of storytelling, the historian reckoned there must be some other reasons beyond it.
«Let’s remember: during the Nazi years in Lithuania, through 1941 and 1944, even those Lithuanians who had received their trust were allowed in Nazi security service to work with different cases, they, nevertheless, would be barred from access to security cases on Nazis and Jews. In other words, even Lithuanians corroborating with the Nazi, feeling insecure, sought their trust, often perhaps for the sake of survival of their own families and themselves, and do unimaginable: kill the innocent,» Tračevskis reasoned.
Writer visited Jew massacre places
Most importantly perhaps, for the book, Vanagaitė has met with still living witnesses of the Jew massacre sites.
«Some perhaps will find it hard to believe, but there still are people living nearby them and reminiscing the times. They are 85-90 year-olds. Amazingly, no one has ever asked them about the massacre, so now they are afraid of talking about it. None of them, except Romas from the settlement of Šeduva, has allowed us to take a picture of them. I asked the others what they were afraid of and the old people would say they are afraid of Lithuanians, who might come and kill them,» the writer related.
In a new twist, Vanagaitė claims in the book that some of the clergy had been involved in the killings, too.
«I was pretty aghast to find out that Catholic priests in a Catholic church in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, did view such kind of murders quite favourably. In fact, the killers would get their pardon for that kind of sins. Some young murderers would go to the priests in throngs of five people in order to alleviate their job. Those death squads in Minsk have killed 15 452 people, to my accounts,» claims Vanagaitė.
Warned now by revered Catholic priest Ričardas Doveika that, with the book out, she will see a lot of the doors being slammed in front of her face, Vanagaitė insists that is exactly what she sees happening now.
«Since the beginning, I’ve received some very adverse reactions. Some relative told me bluntly that I am betraying the family and I am a sort of Pavlikas Morozovas (a hero of Soviet propaganda; in 1932, he, a 13-year-old teenager he supposedly turned in his father to the Soviet authorities and was supposedly killed by the relatives later – L.J). Some of the friends have disavowed me at all,» the author admitted.
Still, the courageous woman was unstoppable – she says she is grateful to her children for the encouragement.
«I asked my children, who are 20 and 28 year old, and they were unwavering: «Mom, we are supporting you all 120 percent,» she heard from them. «I am pretty sure that no one else would ever brave up to write this kind of a book,» she is convinced.
A white spot in Lithuanian history
Before the putting her book out, she has read most of Lithuanian historians’ books on holocaust in Lithuania.
«All of them maintain that it was a process characteristic to all the Lithuanian provinces. Meanwhile, the prevailing perception is that it was happening only in the ill-famed Paneriai. In fact, the burials of slain Jews are strewn all over Lithuania. And I think this is a white spot in our historiography. I wonder why no one has ever put his or her hands on it? To my account, there only a few historians whose primary field of interest is the subject. They told me that five skilled scholars should devote entire five years in order to substantially explore the subject and come up with an estimate how many Lithuanians really participated in Holocaust. But we do not have anywhere those five people,» Vanagaitė told Delfi, a Lithuanian website.
She feels particularly blessed to have been able to work with Efraim Zuroff, a famed Nazi hunter and director of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem Bureau, for the project.
«It is no secret to anyone that he is the most detestable person in Lithuania and, because of the activity he is involved, he is not emanating much love for us… When I approached him as an observer of a Neo-Nazi marching some years ago, I asked him whether he was working for Putin. And he asked me whether I am keen on Jewish projects because of money. I replied him sincerely that, in my own family, I suspected some distant family members who may have participated in Holocaust. He was utterly moved and confessed to me that, over 25 years, for him I was the first person to have admitted it. It was when I suggested him joining me in the project and he nodded,» Vanagaitė remembered.
The experience she had with Zuroff was incredible. The Nazi hunter would be wiping tears away in every site where Jews had perished.
«I’d need to wait for him until he ended a prayer for the fallen,» Vanagaitė tells.
Online media is sizzling with comments
With the stories on the book amassing heaps comments in Lithuanian online media, few retained neutrality in their remarks.
«Dear Rūta Vanagaitė, I cannot continue reading your book. Every time I start reading it I begin to cry. What has happen to a human being to get him killing his neighbor and his neighbour’s child? Our guilt is so big against the Jewish nation. Thank you for your book, but I am afraid I won’t be able to read it…» confesses on Facebook Indrė Trakimaitė.
Meanwhile, Arvydas Reneckis, another poster on Vanagaite’s Facebook page, tells her that he will only flick through the book.
«Those who were shooting and those who were being targeted were part of a nightmare as nobody knew what was going on…Vanagaitė has screwed up it all…I don’t why, but I feel like defiled. She is not righteous…Sometimes it’s better not to write,» the man’s post says.
Although on a skiing trip following the presentation of the book, reached by Lithuanian media Thursday, Vanagaitė admitted she had been swamped with abundant requests for interview. Many of the journalists were from Russian outlets.
«Perhaps pandering, many are complimenting me on the book and admitting that it has shaken up them, want a time to speak to me about it,» she referenced to Russian journalists’ requests.
She says her answer to all of them is the same: «The book is for Lithuania and it is an interior affair. I am not intending to take trash of our own home. We have to deal with it ourselves.»
Vanagaitė did not respond to BNN query regarding her book.