Lithuanian writer and journalist Ruta Vanagaitè does not consider herself a hero. She has had a long and impressive career as a theatre critic, becoming a well-known writer in Lithuania who has written several books about women’s issues and other related topics. However, one of her most recent books is not like the others, and has been cause to a lot of scandal.
Vanagaitè’s best-selling book, Our People: Journey With an Enemy reveals the horrors of what happened in Lithuania during the Holocaust, and is something that a lot of Lithuanians do not know about. It is essentially a Holocaust travelogue, that consists of interviews with Lithuanian witnesses, who as children, observed how their Jewish neighbours were systematically murdered in forests and areas near their homes. The book was co-authored with famous Nazi-hunger Efraim Zuroff, and has ignited a long-overdue and much-needed conversation about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and the role that the non-Jewish Lithuanians played in it.
Vanagaitè spoke at the Schwartz Reisman Centre in Vaughan on Nov. 28, and spoke to a group of Russian-speaking Jews, many of which have Lithuanian roots, about her story and how she, as a non-Jewish person, got so involved in this Jewish issue.
In 1941, there were approximately 250,000 Jews in Lithuania, and by the end of the war, about 90 per cent of the Lithuanian-Jewish population was murdered. A 2005 census showed that there are about 2,000 Jews living there today. The estimated number of perpetrators that aided in Holocaust in Lithuania is about 27,000, and despite this, very little was taught about it in schools, especially during the Soviet era.
“I’m a product of the Soviet Union, I studied in Moscow and in a soviet school in Lithuania. I have no Jewish roots, and I didn’t have any Jewish friends, so I didn’t know very much about Jews and never took an interest in them,” said Vanagaitè, who majored in theatre at the Moscow State Art Institute.
She first became interested in Lithuanian-Jewish history when she happened to find herself at a conference for educators in Lithuania, and heard a lecture that contradicted everything that she had been taught at school, which had stated that the Germans were the ones who killed the Jews.
Vanagaitè, who always knew that her paternal grandfather participated in fighting against the Soviets, came to the horrible realization that he had taken part in the Holocaust. She began researching this more, and found out that her uncle, who had moved to the United States after the war, had also aided in the Holocaust. This information shocked her, and she decided to write about this issue in an “engaging way, so that it would reach people,” since most of the literature on this topic was dry, academic material.
She describes that there was a power pyramid created during the years of the Holocaust, with the Lithuanian government and administration on top. There were also a lot of patriotic volunteers that aided in the massacres, and often did a lot of the “dirty work” that the Germans didn’t want to do. This enormous amount of people created a “killing machine” that worked very “quickly and effectively.” Hitler had promised the Lithuanian government that he would give them independence from the Soviet Union once the war was over, and Vanagaitè explains that this is why so many Lithuanian patriots had volunteered to help with the Holocaust.
After spending over six months in the Lithuanian archives studying reports on the Holocaust, Vanagaitè embarked on a trip with Efraim Zuroff, where they spoke to dozens of people who were witnesses to horrors that occurred not far from their homes. Throughout her investigations, she heard many gruesome and horrible stories of things that people saw throughout the war. “It was so important for me to shock people, so they will wake up,” said Vanagaitè. The witnesses, many of them well into their 80s, believed that these were events that occurred only in their villages or towns, and the majority of them have kept silent for decades, since they feared they would be “killed like the Jews.”
The book came out in January 2016, and Vanagaitè, who had consulted many of her friends and family about whether they would be interested in this book, was sure this was not going to be very popular. However, all 2,000 copies of her book were sold within the first 48 hours, leading her publishing company, The Alma Littera, to create more copies. According to Vanagaitè, the public response was mixed; the senior and the younger generations found this very interesting, while the middle-aged generation, that was very patriotic and educated in the Soviet system, did not like it.
However, after Vanagaitè was cited by a journalist in saying that there are people who witnessed Adolfas Ramanauskas, a well-known anti-Soviet fighter, commanding troops to murder Jews in the Druskininai ghetto, there was a huge public outcry. She received a lot of criticism and hateful acts from the Lithuanian public, and because of this, her publishing company will be destroying thousands of her copies of her books. The book will no longer be available in Lithuania, as of Dec. 1, 2017.
Despite the amount of backlash that she has received for this book, and the loss of friends along the way, she still believes that she did the right thing as she has started up a conversation in Lithuania that was necessary, and she is determined to have her book republished. However, Vanagaitè insists that she is “not a hero, [she is] just a normal person who has a conscience.”
The event was organized by the Canadian Courier and J. Projects, and generously supported by the Genesis Philanthropy Group and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.