When Museums Obscure History: Eastern Europe and WWII

FBI Director James Comey is taking heat for a speech he gave, reprinted in the Washington Post, that blamed Poland for the Holocaust as well as Germany. Polish officials condemned him and summoned the American ambassador to apologize. However, the scandal should be over the lack over the Polish officials’ interpretation of history. Without local collaboration, the Nazis couldn’t have killed the millions that they did, in Poland and beyond.

When I went to Lithuania, I toured The Museum of Genocide Victims (or the KGB Museum) in Vilnius. Housed in the former headquarters of the KGB, it’s an emotional testament to the horrors carried out under the Soviet regime. Located on Gedimino prospektas, the main street, the exterior of the building has memorial stones to those tortured and murdered inside. The exhibits describe Stalinist deportations, Lithuanian resistance (which continued into the 1950s), and the struggle against communism until the end of the USSR. Some prison cells are preserved. Other rooms used for torture have thick doors with padding to prevent any sound escaping. In the basement, bullet holes remain in the walls of the execution chamber. It is horrid.

"May the names of the Lithuanian patriots, shot to death in this former KGB building, bear witness to duty fulfilled to the motherland, its honour, freedom and independence."

A plaque to the left, outside the frame: “May the names of the Lithuanian patriots, shot to death in this former KGB building, bear witness to duty fulfilled to the motherland, its honour, freedom and independence.”

Independent after World War I, Lithuania was “annexed” by the Soviet Union in 1940. When the Nazis invaded the USSR, Lithuania was occupied by the Nazis until re-occupied by the USSR in 1944. The Baltic countries greatly resented Soviet occupation, and Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence on 11 March 1990.

The resentment of the USSR, however, led to a willingness to collaborate with the Nazis during their invasion (in hopes of re-establishing independence). In total, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered about 90 percent of the Jews in Lithuania. Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, Bloodlands, goes into great detail to document such atrocities and the radically different experiences on the Eastern Front during World War II.* That is not to diminish the efforts of Lithuanians who saved Jews — Yad Vashem counts hundreds of Lithuanians by name — but collaboration was a horror that cannot be overlooked.

Spending time in the KGB Museum, however, none of that will be mentioned. Despite the Gestapo using the building for its headquarters, Nazi collaboration is ignored. It is a national shame, and it’s unsurprising that a museum would downplay the fact. Yet it is necessary to avoid a simple narrative of the past, castigating the Nazis as the perpetrators of the Holocaust and all others as the victims. The Lithuanian partisans should be admired for their tenacity against the Soviet Union, resisting Soviet control until the 1950s. Yet it is crucial to recall the evil that was done beyond the swastika; anti-semitism in eastern Europe made the slaughter of Jews much more effective and collaborators more willing.

Any country with horrible events struggles to recognize it. After all, it’s rare to see any memorial about lynchings in America. It’s unsurprising to hear the Polish prime minister declare that “To those who are incapable of presenting the historic truth in an honest way, I want to say that Poland was not a perpetrator but a victim of World War II.” However, reducing World War II to perpetrators and victims obscures, blurs, and ignores great injustices.

At its worst, obscuring history gets twisted to the benefit of whoever holds power in the present. It’s a problem in Cambodia surrounding the Khmer Rouge, and in Russia, where Perm-36, a gulag camp-turned-museum, was de-Stalinized, with mentions of political prisoners removed. The rehabilitation of the Soviet Union and Stalin within Russia since the collapse of the USSR provides a convenient cover for authoritarianism and political restriction; when the Soviet Union is portrayed as a golden age, efforts to remake it in Putin’s image are harder to oppose. Especially when the repression is forgotten. When a fuller picture of history cannot be seen, a society cannot settle demands of justice and guard against other abuses in the future.

The experience of World War II and the Holocaust in the lands between Berlin and Moscow borders on the unimaginable for Americans. The intense barbarity within such a short time frame produced moral quandaries distinct from those faced by Americans past surrounding slavery, imperialism, and other atrocities. Grasping to understand what occurred in eastern Europe during the 20th century makes its history and museums a new experience, but it’s important to remember that a complete picture won’t always be on display.

*Bloodlands, “Final Solution,” pages 191-193:

Two hundred thousand Jews lived in Lithuania in June 1941 (about the same number as in Germany). The Germans arrived in Lithuania with their handpicked nationalist Lithuanians and encountered local people who were willing to believe, or to act as if they believed, that Jews were responsible for Soviet repressions. The Soviet deportations had taken place that very month, and the NKVD had shot Lithuanians in prisons just a few days before the Germans arrived. The Lithuanian diplomat Kazys Skirpa, who returned with the Germans, used this suffering in his radio broadcasts to spur mobs to murder. Some 2,500 Jews were killed by Lithuanians in bloody pogroms in early July.

As a result of trained collaboration and local assistance, German killers had all the help that they needed in Lithuania. The initial guidelines for killing Jews in certain positions were quickly exceeded by Einsatzgruppe A and the local collaborators it enlisted. … Despite Skirpa’s wishes, none of this served any Lithuanian political purpose. After he tried to declare an independent Lithuanian state, he was placed under house arrest.

The city of Vilnius had been the northeastern metropolitan center of independent Poland and briefly the capital of independent and Soviet Lithuania. But throughout all of these vicissitudes, and indeed for the previous half-millennium, Vilnius had been something else: a center of Jewish civilization, known as the Jerusalem of the North. Some seventy thousand Jews lived in the city when the war began. … Here the shooting took place at the Ponary Forest, just beyond the city. By 23 July 1941 the Germans had assembled a Lithuanian auxiliary, which marched columns of Jews to Ponary. There, groups of twelve to twenty people at a time were taken to the edge of a pit, where they had to hand over valuables and clothes. Their gold teeth were removed by force. Some 72,000 Jews from Vilnius and elsewhere (and about eight thousand non-Jewish Poles and Lithuanians) were shot at Ponary.

Ita Straz was one of the very few survivors among the Jews of Vilnius. She was pulled by Lithuanian policemen to a pit that was alreayd full of corpses. Nineteen years old at the time, she thought: “This is the end. And what have I seen of life?” The shots missed her, but she fell from fear into the pit. She was then covered by the corposes of the people who cam after. Someone marched over the pile and fired downward, to make sure that everyone was dead. A bullet hit her hand, but she made no sound. She crept away later: “I was barefoot. I walked and walked over corpses. There seemed to be no end to it.”

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