To mark the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, LRT.lt speaks with Ruth Reches, a Jewish-Lithuanian scholar and the headmaster of the Shalom Aleichem Gymnasium in Vilnius, whose grandparents survived the Second World War.
The family of Ruth's grandfather, Samuel, owned a pharmacy in Alytus, a town in southern Lithuania. When the Second World War began, however, they decided to move to a smaller town, Veisiejai, to be closer to relatives and people they knew.
Unfortunately, the police soon knocked on their door and said that all Jews were required to return to the place where they were registered. Ruth's great-grandmother decided to go to Alytus to try and secure a permission for the family to stay in Veisiejai.
“My grandfather later discovered that, on that particular day when his mother left, they were detaining Jews right in the streets of Alytus. His mother was captured along with the others – people saw how she was put in a truck and taken to Alytus prison,” Ruth says.
She was later executed. “My grandfather thus lost his mother at the age of 11.”
The family was confounded. “No one could believe it – they did think there could be repressions against Jews, there had been pogroms before, but no one could believe they were shooting Jews”, says Ruth.
However, talks were spreading about executions in neighbouring villages and Samuel's family decided to flee. They crossed the river Nemunas and ended up in Grodno, Poland, where repressions against Jews had not yet begun.
“In Grodno, no one would believe when my grandfather's family told them that Jews were being executed in Lithuania,” Ruth says. “Eventually, they stopped talking about it, because people were saying they were mad.”
A few months later, however, a ghetto was set up in Grodno and the family was forced to move there. Towards the end of the war, it was liquidated and the remaining Jews were taken to the Maidanek death camp.
The family of Ruth's grandfather, however, managed to escape and returned to Lithuania. For two years, they were hiding in forests. “Grandad told me how they'd hide in a bear cave. They'd go out at night and ask people for food. And they lived this way until the end of the war,” Ruth says.
The family of Ruth's grandmother, Klara, also barely escaped death. They were from Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania, and were interned in the town's Jewish ghetto. During the days, Klara's parents would go out to work – the father ran a windmill – and leave children at home.
"Eventually, they stopped talking about it, because people were saying they were mad."
“But one day, grandmother's mum had a bad feeling and took my grandmother with her to work. It was the day of the ‘children's action’ – kids in the ghetto were rounded up and taken to be executed. Including my grandmother's two small cousins,” Ruth says.
In 1944, the family was split up and sent to concentration camps, the mother and three daughters to Stutthof, while the father and other men ended up in Dachau.
Ruth's grandmother spent two years in the concentration camp. As the Red Army was approaching, Germans forced the surviving inmates to walk to Germany – these were the so-called death marches. Ruth's grandmother and her family, however, were left sick in a barn. It was a month before the Red Army came. “On the day when people were liberated, my grandmother's sister died.”
After the war, the family decided to return to Šiauliai, because the mother hoped to reunite with her son. He had been a student in Kaunas before the war and had been evacuated to Russia. He was then immediately mobilised to the Red Army and was probably killed in action. But it wasn't until after the war that the family learned about it.
The family's windmill in Šiauliai had been taken over by a former worker. They were not allowed to return home, the new owners only gave them a bowl of water to wash and let them sleep in an empty hut.
"The environment they returned to after the war was not supportive, but traumatising."
“My grandmother, her mum and sisters would sleep on the floor, they had lice and wore the same clothes they had worn in the concentration camp,” Ruth says.
Later, Klara's father also returned from Dachau and the family's life improved. “But my grandmother remained sick for a very long time.”
Marked by the Holocaust
“The Holocaust would not leave my grandparents their entire lives,” Ruth says. They'd tell their kids stories about what they experienced, read books about the Holocaust, however painful it was.
“Reading would bring back memories about the Holocaust [to my grandmother], she was looking for answers that would help fill the gaps of her own memory.”
The grandfather, too, tried to find meaning in his experience, he wrote a book about it.
“The Holocaust was so traumatising for my grandparents also because the environment they returned to after the war was not supportive, but traumatising,” Ruth says. “Their homes were taken away, the society was not ready to welcome them. What they felt from the society was not support, but anger at their survival.”
Later, Ruth's grandparents moved to Israel, where they finally were among other Holocaust survivors.
Anger and resentment
There were Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis in the killing of their fellow citizens – a fact that some say the country has yet to properly accept and acknowledge.
“What happened in Lithuania cannot be grasped and explained by reason,” Ruth says. “People were killed by their neighbours, their classmates. There are so many stories about teachers shooting their own students, parish priests tolling church bells to drown out shooting sounds.”
“The insistence of the Western world that Lithuania acknowledge its guilt, in my view, only fans antisemitism."
“It was so amoral that one can understand why people are hurt when they're reminded of it,” she continues. “The insistence of the Western world that Lithuania acknowledge its guilt, in my view, only fans antisemitism. For someone guilty of crimes against humanity, it is easier to be angry with someone else, look for culprits and excuses rather than accept one's guilt.”
At the same time, it's not just black and white, she says. There were collaborators, there were people who were saving Jews, and many more who did not do either.
“There were different situations, one can also understand those people who wanted to help, but were scared for their family, for their children. That is human and understandable,” according to Ruth.
She believes the country's leaders must play a role in dealing with the history of the Holocaust.
"Because when the Jewish community does it, their statements are taken as a reproach, which provokes even more anger and resentment,"
“If the Lithuanian government took the lead in accepting the painful experience, appologising, living with it, then it would be easier for ordinary people to do it too,” she says.
She notes that President Gitanas Nausėda's participation last year in a ceremony in Paneriai – one of the biggest Jewish killing sites near Vilnius – was very significant for the Jewish community.
“The Lithuanian Jewish community talks a lot about the Holocaust, but it's not the Jews who should be talking about it. The Lithuanian community should. Because when the Jewish community does it, their statements are taken as a reproach, which provokes even more anger and resentment,” Ruth believes. “It's not how things should be.”