Tensions Mount Over Lithuanian Probe

By Lana Gersten 
 and Marc Perelman 

Published July 02, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A meeting between Jewish communal officials and Lithuania’s prime minister did not dispel increasing tension over Lithuania’s investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Jewish partisans during World War II.

PARTISANS: At a meeting with the Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, center, the head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, right, discussed a probe of partisans.
PARTISANS: At a meeting with the Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas, center, the head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, right, discussed a probe of partisans.

During a visit to New York, Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas made stops at both the American Jewish Committee and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. At both places, he was grilled on a current judicial probe in which three Jewish partisans, all of whom fought with the Red Army’s anti-Nazi resistance movement, are being questioned.   

The three people being questioned, including a former chairman of the Yad Vashem museum and two women who give tours of the Vilnius (also known to Jews as Vilna) ghetto, have denied the allegations. While no charges have been pressed, and the details of the probe remain cloaked in secrecy, it is known that Lithuanian authorities are looking to interrogate the Jewish suspects about their role in a January 1944 massacre in the village of Koniuchy (now Kaniûkai, Lithuania).

Given that only three Lithuanians have ever been tried for wartime crimes against Jews — nearly 200,000 of whom were murdered — the ongoing investigation of Jews has not gone over well outside Lithuania. There had been rumblings before Kirkilas’s trip that the probes may be dropped, but the prime minister’s visit with Jewish communal officials only heightened tensions.

“There was a fair degree of frustration and disappointment because there was nothing really forthcoming, nothing new, no commitments, no promises,” said Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the AJCommittee.  “We are all puzzled at why the investigation isn’t closed.”

Lithuania was once home to one of the world’s most vibrant Jewish communities and was a hub of Jewish scholarship. YIVO, the organization that Kirkilas visited in New York, was based in the Lithuanian capital before World War II. During the war, it is estimated that more than 90% of Lithuanian Jews were killed, one of the highest rates in Europe. More recently, antisemitism has been a continuing problem in the country.

Kirkilas was in the United States for a series of meetings in New York and Washington with government officials. His office initially contacted YIVO in order to request a tour of its library collection. More recently, the executive director of YIVO, Carl Rheins, asked to add the probe of the Jewish partisans to the agenda.

The probe appears to focus on Yitzhak Arad, former chairman of Yad Vashem. Arad was appointed in 2005 by Lithuania’s president to a high-level commission examining past war crimes. As a part of his work, Arad drew the ire of right-wing groups when he publicly asked that the country address the role of Lithuanians in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. After a number of attacks on Arad in right-wing Lithuanian newspapers, Lithuania’s chief prosecutor opened a pretrial investigation of Arad’s wartime actions in Kaniûkai. A Polish institute had earlier found that 38 people in the town were killed in 1944 by a Soviet anti-Nazi unit consisting of 120 to 150 people, including both Jews and non-Jews.

In June 2007, Israel was formally asked to question Arad — a request that Israel declined. Since then, Lithuanian authorities also have questioned two other women: Fania Branstovsky, a former partisan and now a librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and Rachel Margolis, who wrote a memoir about her experiences in the resistance.

“The murderers are now becoming national heroes,” Arad told the Forward, “and we, the few surviving victims who took up arms and fought the murderers, are being under investigation as criminals.”

Before his visit to the United States, Kirkilas met with Branstovsky in an apparent gesture of good will, though he did not give any indications that the investigation would be shelved.

At his meetings in New York, Jewish communal officials say that Kirkilas was “shocked” by the probe of Arad but declined to condemn it or to promise any changes. After the meeting, an official at the Lithuanian Consulate in New York told the Forward that “the prime minister expressed his personal sorrow that such cases as Arad’s are going on; however, justice must prevail, and everybody has to face justice.”

Rheins says that he told Kirklas how much the incident was damaging Lithuania’s reputation abroad.

“These are absurd charges,” Rheins said. “It’s an outrage that these charges are being leveled. Even seeking these people as witnesses is obscene.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.