Tensions Mount Over Lithuanian Probe

By Lana Gersten 
 and Marc Perelman 

Published July 02, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.
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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.”

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