Two terrible truths abide in Lithuanian war crimes

February 23, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Staff writer

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- The killing started even before the Nazis arrived, and it redoubled under German guidance.

By the end of 1942, more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were dead -- killed not in concentration camps but in the cities and villages where they lived, shot down by their neighbors.

Lithuania's Jewish population has gone from 250,000 in 1938 to 5,500 today. In 1938, Vilnius was one of the most important centers of Jewish culture and scholarship in the world. It had 60 synagogues. Today it has one.

In Vilnius, the past has not been sorted out.

Were all the young men wearing the black uniforms of the Lithuanian Battalions criminals? Or did they become victims? After 50 years of Communist single-mindedness and determination to crush all enemies and would-be enemies, can anyone know? Are the lies of the past being swept away now by the truth, or simply being replaced by new lies?

As though a lid that was closed in 1945 is just now being lifted, Lithuania is coming up abruptly against the issue of war crimes. Questions that the countries of Western Europe have been dealing with for four decades -- questions of guilt and complicity with Nazi rule -- are suddenly out in the open.

Under Communist rule, those questions were dealt with brusquely and simply: Anyone remotely associated with the Nazis was punished, severely. Probably thousands more were tarred with the same brush, on trumped-up charges, and also punished.

Now, Lithuania is rehabilitating thousands of people who were sent to Siberian camps by the Soviets. But critics ask how many genuine war criminals are getting free passes in the zeal to undo the damage wrought by communism.

The issue was open to unusual scrutiny earlier this month in a court hearing that involved aged veterans of the Lithuanian Battalions, firsthand accounts of mass slaughter and recollections that seem to have changed with the political winds over the years.

The whole question of Nazi collaboration is in the forefront in Lithuania today. But it clearly lies ahead for other republics as well that have emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union: Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Last week, for instance, Moldova granted veterans' status to soldiers who served in World War II in the Romanian army, which fought alongside the Germans against the Soviets.

Wiping the slate clean

In Lithuania, the outward signs of 50 years of communism are being wiped away with a vengeance. Lithuanians have fervently eradicated the slogans, the hammers and sickles, the red stars, the Marxes and Lenins that at one time afflicted every Soviet city.

They want to wipe the slate clean.

Whatever was done in the name of communism, the Lithuanians would undo. Those who the Communists put down, the Lithuanians today would raise up. What once was wrong, now is right.

On May 2, 1990, the Lithuanian government of President Vytautas Landsbergis established a commission to "rehabilitate" those convicted of resisting "the occupying regime." Almost 23,000, convicted of a variety of crimes over four decades, have been rehabilitated so far. Their records have been cleared, they have been allowed to reclaim confiscated property and they have been paid 50 rubles for each month spent in prison.

Mindaugas Losys, chairman of the supreme court and head of the rehabilitation commission, said 600 appeals have been turned down because evidence was found of actual war crimes -- the murder or torture of civilians during World War II.

But some here contend that perhaps thousands of others who served in the Nazi-led battalions have been unjustly rehabilitated.

"The purpose of these battalions was to kill Jews. There wasn't any other purpose. They weren't fighting on the front," said Faina Kukelinskita, a Vilnius lawyer who represents the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Vienna organization that seeks out Nazi war criminals.

Ms. Kukelinskita said she would not object if the government were granting pardons to war criminals, but rehabilitation means that in the government's view no crime was committed.

"Who shot the Jews, if nobody's guilty?" she said. "Rehabilitating these people is like shooting us a second time."

"We're not sweeping this under a rug," Mr. Losys said. "Mostly we are interested in restoring the truth."

The government contends that only a small minority of the Lithuanian Battalions took part in the murder of Jews -- the 600 whose appeals were denied, as well as others who chose not to appeal their convictions in the first place, and those who died and left no survivors.

Ms. Kukelinskita disputes that the numbers could be so small.

The government argues that the KGB went to great lengths to frame people for committing war crimes, coercing confessions and incriminating testimony with threats and torture.

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