We spent our third day in Vilnius sightseeing and spending more time in Old Town, meandering through the narrow streets, and stopping for ice cream and people watching. There is something special about this place that is hard to put into words. I think it boils down to a kind of authenticity that you rarely find in tourist locations. The mood is low key and relaxed in contrast to high energy places that are on so many bucket lists. Vilnius may be Europe’s best-kept secret. However, I am hesitant to broadcast this because if it were to become the go-to spot for tourists, all this would change. But for now consider it a rare gem; just don’t tell too many others so that it will retain its magical character.
But all is not perfect in paradise. Or rather all has not been perfect. The country has a horrific past that seems almost inconceivable to us today. It was ground zero for the Holocaust of World War II. We spent most of the afternoon of the third day visiting two Holocaust museums where we learned about what happened in 1941 and again in 1945.
But first some facts about Lithuania. The country is only about half the size of Colorado and has a total population of about 2. 8 million in 2019, almost double what it had in 1941. In terms of population density it comes in 171 out of 200 countries, making it one of the least populated countries in the world. Over 70% of the country live in three cities—the capital, Vilnius, with almost a million people, and two others with around 200, 000 each. Everyone else lives in one of the several hundred tiny villages or in one of the countless farmhouses that dot the landscape. In other words it is tiny; and because of its small size and its location, it is vulnerable and powerless against the whims of the big boys and girls next door, especially Russia and Germany.
Over the millennia that Lithuania has been a country, the people living here have been ruled at one time or another by Russians, Germans and to a certain extent Poles, in some cases multiple times. Yet despite all this they have hung in there and been able to preserve their identity and national character. Early in its history it was one of the giants itself when in the Thirteenth Century its second or third king expanded the borders (“The Grand Duchy of Lithuania”) to include most of European Russia, Belarus, and Poland, actions which made it the largest country in Europe, but that was long ago. The country also enjoyed a relationship with Poland that allowed the combined alliance to dominate central Europe for several centuries, but that too was long ago. Beginning in the Twentieth Century Lithuaina was open game.
Following the end of World War I, modern Lithuania declared its independence in 1918 and remained independent until the beginning of World War II when the Soviet Union occupied the country after it signed a non aggression pact with Hitler. Russian dominance was short lived. The Nazis broke the treaty and invaded Lithuania, other Baltic states, and Norway beginning in 1941. Following the end of World War II, Lithuania became a part of the Soviet Union, where it remained unhappily until the breakup of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. In 1992, it reclaimed its independence.
What made Lithuania different from the other European countries were the large number of Jews living there–more than 200,000– accounting for roughly a quarter of the entire population, the highest percentage of Jews in any country in the world. This made it an ideal target for a madman whose mission was to eliminate all Jews from the face of the Earth. In Lithuania this is what happened.
The reason that so many Jews were living in Lithuania is that for centuries it had a reputation for accepting the Jewish population. If not welcoming Jews, at least the country “tolerated” them better than most other countries. Jews were restricted to living in ghettos, and most spoke only Hebrew or Yiddish, maintained their own culture with their own schools, synagogues, and institutions, and were rarely assimilated into the larger community. However, there were no pogroms and relatively little open, anti-Semitism. This attracted Jews from all over Europe, many of whom became wealthy businessmen, professionals, teachers, university professors, artists and intellectuals—creating a large, upper class Jewish population.
In 1941 this all changed almost in a blink of an eye.
Life for Jews in Lithuania had not been so great under the brief Soviet rule. The Soviets shut down all Jewish schools, closed synagogues and Jewish newspapers, and made life miserable for the average Jew living there. When the Nazis moved in, many Jews were relieved, thinking life could not get any worse. That was in June 1941. In early December 1941, official reports we read in the Holocaust Museum stated that the mission in Lithuania had been completed successfully: all Jews except those necessary for the Nazi war effort had been “ liquated.” The official number at that time was over 137,000 Jews killed. This amounted to killing Jews at a rate of almost 1,000 persons a day during the five month period starting in June 1941. In a highly organized and efficient effort , Jews were systematically identified, rounded up, taken to the closest wooded areas, and shot—men, women and children. The Nazi report complained of the hard work involved in digging so many mass graves in such a short time but boasted of their “accomplishment.” Many non Jewish Lithuanians were enlisted to assist in this effort as were some Jews, who were not given a choice. In the end almost all the Jews who survived the 1941 Holocaust, perished in the concentration camps in 1945. No one knows for sure what the final tab was, but most historians estimate that less than 10% of the entire Jewish Lithuanian population survived, most by escaping.
Sure, you may think, everyone knows about the Holocaust. There is nothing new here. But let me tell you: When you are standing in the place where it all happened, it is very different. It becomes real in a way that reading the facts in a history book do not. You can only remain speechless, contemplating the horror that we humans are capable of inflicting on one another . Will anything like this ever happen again? It has come close in Rwanda, Cambodia and more recently in Myanmar.
And just yesterday I read (again) about the migrant children in detention centers in Texas where young Central American children including some infants and toddlers were forcefully taken from their parents and made to sleep on cement floors with no blankets and were not given enough food. Our president has called their parents rapists and murderers, “low lifes,” and animals. This is the same president who has repeatedly threatened to arrest and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and to take action against a “fake press.”
But this talk is all bluster, isn’t it? Nothing like the Holocaust could happen in the U.S., could it? We should not worry too much about Trump or what he says, should we?
Are those are the same kinds of questions, I wonder, that were whispered in Jewish communities in Vilnius and throughout Lithuania in May 1941, days before the invasion by the Nazis?