Lithuania's Museum of Holocaust Denial

This past winter here in Vilnius, the charming capital of Lithuania, was much like any other. During long solid weeks of subzero temperatures, as the flow of tourists and roots-seekers slowed to a trickle, I adjusted the route of my daily walk to pass by up to a dozen top tourist sights. Day after day, there was one constant: The most popular, winter-defying “must-visit” for foreigners is “The Museum of Genocide Victims.” Perhaps there is something grotesquely sexy about “genocide.” Maybe the promise of (real) former KGB interrogation rooms and isolation chambers in the basement is less run-of-the-mill and more strikingly authentic than much usual museum fare. Estimates obtained from the museum’s administrators suggest about a million visitors total to date.

Called “The Genocide Museum” for short, the city’s premier attraction is housed on the central boulevard in an elegant Russian imperial building completed in 1899 that was formerly used for the courthouse of the empire’s Vilna Province. The museum’s current headquarters are located in an annex dating to 1914-1915, just prior to World War I, which brought that empire tumbling down. Vilna would then change hands (depending how you count) around seven times through to 1920, when it came under the stable rule of the interwar Polish Republic, a rule that lasted until the Hitler-Stalin pact brought on Poland’s dismemberment in September of 1939. Then came little over a month of Soviet rule of the city (Sept.‒Oct. 1939), a little over a half-year of Lithuanian rule (Oct. 1939‒June 1940), a year of Soviet rule (June 1940‒June 1941) three years of Nazi rule (June 1941‒July 1944), 46 or 47 years of Soviet rule, and since 1990 or 1991, depending from when you prefer to reckon, the beginning of close to three decades of modern democratic Lithuanian sovereignty. Somewhere around the halfway mark of this modern period, in 2004, the country, along with a number of neighboring states that had been freed from Soviet yoke and became successful democracies with growing market economies, joined NATO and the European Union, cementing their firm and proud anchorage within the West.

This particular building had a starkly macabre function during two of its signal incarnations. It was the German Nazi Gestapo headquarters, with its own interrogation rooms, prison cells, and death chambers. Then for decades, it was a Soviet NKVD/KGB central facility used to coordinate terrorization of the undesired part of the population, particularly dissidents and resistance figures, who were incarcerated, interrogated, and tortured in its cells and shot on its premises during the Stalin years and beyond.

It is all the more eerie, painfully so, to have to say that this building now mars the pleasant Vilnius ambiance of the delightful, freewheeling city center in a raw, soul-destroying sort of way. Not because it tells the story of dark and brutal chapters of history. Those stories must be told. They are told in major museums in city centers around the world.

Moreover, there is no country on the planet without major blots on its history. It is a sign of maturity when for example the United States has museums dedicated to the national crimes of slavery, horrors against Native Americans, and commemorative sites for many others who were victimized and mistreated. Though far from perfect, these efforts indicate an elementary sense of national honesty, in dealing with the past that is, whether we like or not, very much part of our present. The “reconciliation” part of this effort has a lot to do with tolerance for minorities who may not see the “mainstream” historical narrative or its foundational heroes quite the way the standard schoolbooks like to have it, but who are nevertheless patriots who serve their country just like everyone else. America got some small “echo of a taste” of all that last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia. The proximate cause of discontent was the fate of a long-standing statue of Confederate States General Robert E. Lee.

So let us try a little “thought experiment”: Imagine not a statue of General Lee in Charlottesville, but an elaborate state-sponsored museum in the nation’s capital, in which the Confederate forces are depicted as pure heroes of independence and freedom, fighting off the central government of tyranny, and African Americans turn up only occasionally as evil collaborators with the Northern tormenters who came to destroy their beloved civilization. An American constitutional scholar might well explain why such a counter-historical museum, founded on intellectually and academically filtered racial hatred, could well be legal on someone’s private property as their own private realm but must not occupy public space. In the hands of specialists, it can all be made to look rather convincing to the proverbial outsider from Mars.

In Lithuania, the murder rate of around 96 percent of the Jewish population during the Holocaust was among the highest in Europe, which incidentally makes the bravery of those who did the right thing and rescued someone all the more inspirational. They were regarded as betraying their own nationalist cause. They are the people who should be honored throughout the land starting with a museum in the capital.

In today’s incarnation of the Genocide Museum, a stone’s throw from the nation’s parliament, there are no longer individual human victims in the flesh. The victim here, in the 21st century, is the truth. The point of the museum is to persuade all comers that Soviet crimes were the genocide that took place in this part of the world and that those groups to which most of the museum’s space is dedicated to glorifying were indeed humanitarian lovers of truth, justice, and multi-ethnic tolerance. The sad truth is, however, that many of those honored were collaborators who participated in, or abetted, genocide. There lies the heart of the title “Museum of Lies,” which Holocaust survivors here (now mostly gone) would use over these last decades to describe the project.

But there is one theme in this museum that is very honest, and necessary, and if it is one day disentangled from the Fake History components—and those components discarded—it would make a truly excellent Museum, namely a cabinet of KGB Crimes and Stalinist Horrors such as one finds in numerous other cities. These exhibits expose Soviet crimes against humanity, particularly in the Stalin period, including mass deportations, imprisonments and harsh punishments, including torture and barbaric murder, of supposed “enemies,” suppression of human freedoms including speech, religion, emigration and political beliefs, and, pervasive from morning to night for all those decades, a cruel forced occupation of one’s country by a larger empire with the resultant loss of freedom, identity and myriad basic human rights.

If the ghosts of KGB tormentors still linger in those cellars, they can only be giggling that their own cruelty is presented as part of a twisted tale in which the legitimacy of anything and everything sinks into some murky postmodernist mush under the inane heading of Everything is Equal.

The ‘LAF Rebellion’

The first major dynamic historical episode encountered in the Genocide Museum is a series of exhibits lavishly dedicated to the 1941 Lithuanian Activist Front (“LAF”) white-armbanded fascists whose “pre-Nazi invasion central planning” came from Berlin, and included a group of high-level Lithuanian Nazis, adherents of ethnic cleansing (to put it politely) stationed there in the months before the Nazi invasion of the then Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. But as the Soviet occupation collapsed in disarray on the day of the Nazi invasion, and especially the following day, Monday, June 23, 1941, many nationalist young men rapidly joined the “LAF” militias, often by donning a white armband and just “becoming LAFers” or joining related militias and gangs at will. With or without the armband, with or without documentary affiliation to the LAF, they have all come to be known as the “White Armbanders” in the local languages (Lithuanian Baltaraiščiai, Polish Białe opaski, Russian Bielorukavniki, Yiddish Di Váyse Órembendlakh, and so forth). Accompanied by a sham radio-address “declaration of independence” (that included the oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler—woe to such “independence”), they took over post offices, police stations, and town halls vacated by the fleeing Soviet forces for several days before turning them over, unctuously and with sumptuous servitude, to the arriving Germans.

The museum’s exhibits tell a very different story, which is not rooted in historical fact. A tall tale: that this was all a “rebellion” of the Lithuanian people against Soviet rule. That story is shameless nonsense. While the Soviets were in power, these White Armbander and LAF folks did not fire a single shot at any Soviet official or military installation. When the Soviets were fleeing for their lives from the Nazi invasion, the local militants fired at their backs and took over some freshly-vacated installations. (To be clear, the KGB and its affiliated organs did brutally murder many political prisoners and others in their last hours on the soil of the lands they had occupied in 1939 or 1940 all along the front of the arriving Nazi invasion forces.)

Put simply, you cannot “rebel” against an authority that has collapsed because of someone else’s attack, the less so when the folks you are “rebelling” against are already fleeing. Nor do you have much moral authority when your main “activity” during those days was butchering your Jewish neighbors. In other words, there was no rebellion. And, it goes without saying that the Soviet army was fleeing Hitler’s invasion, Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion in human history. As surely as water is wet, the Soviet Army was not fleeing the local Lithuanian White Armbander Jew-killers.

For that is, alas, what the White Armbander “Lithuanian nationalists” were doing in the final week of June 1941. They initiated the first phase of the Lithuanian Holocaust, murdering Jewish civilians, particularly younger women and older rabbis, often in macabre city-center shows of “victory,” such as the teenage Jewish girl cut in half in the center of Šiauliai (in Yiddish: Shavl), or Rabbi Zalmen Osovsky’s head put in a shop window in Kaunas (Kóvne). The late Professor Dov Levin, historian of the Lithuanian Holocaust, documented 40 locations in Lithuania where the actual murdering began before the arrival of German forces. If we add violence causing serious injury, plunder of property, humiliation, degradation and dehumanizing treatment, it is hundreds of places, not 40. And if we add the places where many of the same murderers continued on under German administration, the kill rate grows exponentially. But this is not about numbers, though the numbers of Jews killed by the LAF-affiliated White Armbanders is in the thousands, with the biggest single concentration in Kaunas itself. Kaunas was the interwar de facto Lithuanian capital and center of the “rebellion.” (Vilna, prewar Wilno, in Yiddish forever Vílne, was still a largely Polish city at the time, and there were vastly fewer instances of pre-German lethal violence in the city and its area, that Stalin had “given” to Lithuania in October 1939 when it became Vilnius.)</