Holocaust survivors, and veterans everywhere, are anxiously and apprehensively following Lithuania’s current attempt to pursue elderly partisans who fought the Nazis under Soviet direction during the German occupation of Lithuania.
What makes the Lithuanian chief prosecutor’s pre-trial investigation suspect is that the partisans targeted are almost all Jews. As The Economist commented in an article on Aug. 21, this “investigation” is all the more atrocious since “Lithuania’s record on prosecuting war criminals of the other stripe has been spotty, to put it mildly.” Among the partisans on the list of witnesses was Sara Ginaite, a retired University of Vilnius political economist now residing in Toronto.
The prosecution alleges that in one of the military actions at the end of January 1941 conducted by anti-Nazi partisans in the Rudnicky forest, in the village of Koniuchy (Koniukai), 38 villagers were unjustifiably killed by the partisans. However, there is no evidence of a “war crime” at Koniuchy. In fact, to give one example of the sloppiness of these allegations, Ginaite was not even in the vicinity of the village when this military action occurred.
Sara Ginaite was born in Kaunas (Kovno) and found herself imprisoned in the Kovno ghetto when the Germans occupied Lithuania after their attack on Russia in June 1941. Still an adolescent, she joined the Kovno Jewish resistance, and shortly after that a partisan detachment in the forests. Among her assignments was to return to the Kovno ghetto to bring Jews out of the ghetto to the forests. In fact, as she makes clear in her prize-winning history/memoir, Resistance and Survival (Mosaic Press, 2005), she was on just such a mission in Kovno when the Koniuchy action occurred.
Sara Ginaite lost almost all her extended family in the Holocaust. Following the war and advanced education, she was a distinguished professor at Vilnius University, publishing 10 books in her field of political economy and on the Holocaust. In the early 1980s, she emigrated to Canada and taught at York University. Two more books followed in Toronto.
She is understandably upset at the Lithuanian prosecutor’s attempt to investigate the elderly partisans. Early this August, she wrote a letter to the prosecutor, Rimvydas Valentukevicius, politely explaining her view of these allegations and objecting to this unjustified and unwarranted investigation. She wanted to clarify the cause and circumstance of the tragic event in Koniuchy, although she herself had not been in the Rudnicky forest when the action occurred.
In his answer, Valentukevicius wrote: “Most likely some try to justify it as the fight against fascism. Justification of this action can be presented by those whose conscience is dirty, and the burdens of guilt and responsibility, the danger of being exposed, even after 65 years, forced them to justify their so-called idealized activity, hoping that by attaching themselves to real fighters against the Nazis, they will be freed of responsibility for their activity whose cruelty oversteps the limits of human behaviour.”
I guess that in writing about “those” and “some,” the prosecutor had in mind anti-Nazi partisans, as well as those critical of the investigation.
Yet, as The Economist explained, in Lithuania during World War II, “Jews’ only chance of survival was to fight alongside Soviet-backed partisan groups.”
In an interview, Sara Ginaite was willing to give an insight into what happened and the possible motivation of the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office.
Fuerstenberg: As a respected former professor at Vilnius University you have friends in intellectual circles there whom you visit regularly almost every summer. Now you tell me that you decided not to go this year. Why?
Sara Ginaite: I cancelled my long-planned and regular summer trip to Lithuania on the advice of an attorney in Vilnius. I was informed (by a reliable source) that my name is on the list of Jewish anti-Nazi partisans whom the Lithuanian prosecutor is investigating in the current campaign to cast aspersions on those Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi partisans in the forests during the war. The prosecutor seems to have taken the names on the list from my books and other partisans’ memoirs. However, months went by, yet there were no specific accusations (nor could there be!), nor was there any exoneration or notice of closing of the investigation. Instead, new names were being added for possible “interviews” (they even had the gall to send the list to Israel’s attorney general for possible assistance in locating some of the named). This “process” soon elicited a series of open letters from the Jewish community in Lithuania, as well as articles in major publications like Ha’aretz, the English Forward, the Manchester Guardian, the Economist and others.
Finally, I decided to write a polite letter to the prosecutor to explain that we fought with the partisans out of desperation and to defeat an enemy of democracy and of Lithuania. The reply I received included reiteration of the need for the “investigation” and the “interviews.”
Fuerstenberg: I know that you wrote in your memoir/history, Resistance and Survival, about some military actions by partisans, but what do you know about the village of Koniuchy?
Ginaite: The Lithuanian prosecutors allege that at the end of January 1944, in a military operation conducted by the Soviet partisans against residents of Koniuchy, a village about 40 kilometres from Vilnius in the Rudnicky forest area, 38 villagers were killed. Now, a number of elderly Jewish partisans alleged to have participated in this action are being investigated as suspects or witnesses.
In order to survive in the forest and fight the enemy, we had to collect food wherever we could, often from hostile villagers, but we tried as far as possible to seize food from German storage areas or from transports headed for Germany. But we didn’t always have the luxury to choose.
The villagers in Koniuchy had a record of hostility to the partisans and attacked us whenever we passed the vicinity of the village. They organized an armed group to fight the partisans, were supplied with weapons by the Germans, and collaborated with the Nazis and the local police. At the end of December 1943, during a food-gathering assignment in a village close to Koniuchy, we were spotted and attacked by the villagers. During the battle. two of our partisans were killed and a third was captured and handed over to the Nazi-controlled police.
A month later the partisans decided to conduct a military operation against the villagers. At the time, I was not in the Rudnicky forest, but I would like to stress that the villagers were not unarmed civilians, but rather collaborators and combatants against Soviet partisans.
Today, Koniuchy is being turned into a “monument,” of alleged atrocities committed by Jewish partisans against the innocent villagers. Lithuanian tourist guides offer tours to the village, where tourists are often given misleading accounts of the event.
The guides, of course, don’t mention the 239 Jewish communities completely destroyed, nor the 200 Jewish mass graves spread over the Lithuanian country-side. Nearly every former shtetl had its own “pit’ where Jews were mercilessly murdered. Nor do the guides mention the killing site in Ponar (Paneriai) where 70,000 Jewish men, women and children, all civilians, were butchered; or the infamous Ninth Fort where in a single day (Oct. 29, 1941), 9,200 Jews were brutally massacred, among them over 4,000 children. These were killings of civilians, not village battles, where, regrettably, villagers were occasional casualties.
During the two periods of Lithuania’s Soviet occupation (1940-41 and 1944-91), over 74,500 Lithuanian citizens perished, including Jews, Russians, Poles and others, but mostly Lithuanians. Many more were oppressed. Lithuanians, including many who saved Jews, were also killed by the Nazis. Drawing attention to the military actions of Jewish partisans under Soviet direction and atrocities committed against Lithuanians during the Soviet occupations may be an attempt to create a kind of “equivalency” of suffering.
Fuerstenberg: What do you actually know about the prosecutor’s current investigation of the Jewish partisans?
Ginaite: The pre-trial investigation was initiated in May 2006, after a notice was received from the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania (this centre has studied exclusively the atrocities committed against Lithuanians during the Soviet occupations). The centre sent a notice against a group of anti-Nazi fighters in the Rudnicky forest, accusing them of participating in the murder of 38 residents of Koniuchy in January 1944.
As this allegation had no juridical or moral grounds, there resulted no valid prosecution of any kind. The prosecutors never informed anyone or explained the aim of their “investigation” – everything was kept secret in this Kafkaesque procedure. Certainly, it had little to do with identifying war crimes and seeking to bring the alleged perpetrators to trial.
Nor does it seem to have anything to do with justice. Its goal is to create a negative image of Jewish partisans in particular and Holocaust survivors in general, and to present Jews as being disloyal, as well as perpetrators in the suffering of Lithuanians under the Soviets. It encourages the perception of two genocides, a kind of symmetry of suffering. The prosecutor may have responded to pressure from some rightist politicians and began the investigation even while knowing that he will not be able to charge anyone with a war crime, because there wasn’t one.
Sara Ginaite recently spoke about her experiences as a partisan in Lithuania, during Holocaust Education Week in Toronto.
Adam Fuerstenberg is professor emeritus at Ryerson University and former director of Toronto’s Holocaust Centre.