The stones of Moletai: A lesson on the Shoah in Lithuania

The bitter truth exposed: the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry was committed largely and enthusiastically by the local police, known as white-band Lithuanian police, under the supervision and command of the Nazis. A memorial march

Dr. Inna Rogatchi,

OpEds Inna Rogatchi
Inna Rogatchi

August 29th, 2016 has become truly important day for the Lithuanian people, for Israel, and for all of us who does not know the past term for Holocaust. On that day, a small Lithuanian town of Moletai became a scene of a tangible and penetrating lesson on the Shoah. It was a rare event - unpretentious, quiet and sincere; determined and devoted; the real thing. 

Yet a couple of months ago, the people who were organising the March in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Moletai massacre, were expecting 200-300 people in attendance, mostly guests from Israel, South Africa, and the other countries where the relatives of the victims of Moletai are living today.  

“Observe this day in our memory...”

Moletai – which was Malat before all its Jewish residents were annihilated – is the place an hour's drive from Vilnius where all its Jews were locked for several days without food and drink in the one of the town’s several synagogues in the end of summer of 1941, this before they were marched two kilometres to the specifically prepared pit.

The 50 meter by 3-4 meter and 4-meter deep pit had been dug by forty Jewish male prisoners a day earlier. The digging took almost 24 hours. All the people forced on the death march were methodically killed next to the pit by the over twenty members of the Lithuanian white-band local police under the supervision of one Nazi officer, one translator, and the head of the Moletai district police. The decision to carry out the massacre came from the Nazi headquarters in Utena, the district where Moletai is located. The massacre was photographed by the Nazis.

The murders were perpetrated in a series, as the bodies in the pit had to be ‘organized’ in layers, in good Germanic order. There are at least three of them, but possibly up to five. Before the massacre, the Jews of Malat were thoroughly robbed, first their homes were looted completely, and then they were searched individually hours before the massacre. In that pit, two thousand and three hundred people from Malat alone were murdered in the ‘action’ that lasted for five hours. Their belongings, including the clothes which they had to strip off under the gun sights of their murderers, were sold to the local population, amassing 30.000 robles. Their houses were seized too, of course. 

The total figure of victims may be substantially higher: according to the official records of the Lithuanian Jewish Cemeteries register, 3 782 Jews from Malat and Utena together were murdered at the pit. It is also believed that none of the 5 443 Jewish persons registered as the residents of the Utena district as of January 1st, 1941, survived.

History does have miraculous threads for us in its arsenal. A few letters from the people of the doomed Malat reached their relatives outside Lithuania later on with the help of the Christian people from the town. The letters are preserved in Yad-Vashem now. So we could read the rows nervously scribbled in a rush by the victims themselves, just prior to their annihilation:

“For two days now we have not eaten and soon we are going to be murdered. [...] Everyone is dressed [and ready] with their beloved children and everyone is waiting. We are all [imprisoned] in the study house. Enough time remains so that sometimes we wish death would come already.[...] Observe this day in our memory: it will be the 19th of August.[...]Tsipora”  ( YVA, O.75/158).

Three Generations of Oblivion

The following 75 years, the time that encompasses three generations, were the years of oblivion. It is telling, indeed, that the March of commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the massacre is the first commemorative event for the victims of this terrible crime.

For several previous years, the efforts of the Israeli-based relatives of the brutally murdered Jews in Moletai to commemorate their memory at the place of their annihilation were fruitless and frustrating. And also shameful, as well-known Lithuanian director Marius Ivaskevicius has shown so well in his exceptionally powerful writings on the issue of modern Lithuanian society facing the truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania. As I see it, it was Ivaskevicius’ personal stand that triggered the awakening of the public conscience on the matter – and this is both healthy and timely.

The issue started to be discussed in Lithuania much more intensely than ever before.  For several years, a handful of Jewish activists, such as Sergey Kanovich, are publicly challenging the very concept of the Lithuanian attitude to the Holocaust and the way of remembrance of the unparalleled tragedy and mega-crime in which 94,6% of the Jewish population of the country was exterminated. A world record.

The throbbing nerve of the matter is that the crime was committed largely and enthusiastically by the local police, known as white-band Lithuanian police, under the supervision and command of the Nazis. Understandably, it is just impossible for the descendants of the Lithuanian Jewry to accept any kind of glorification of the Lithuanians who participated in any way in such hideous crimes.

The recent book by Ruta Vanagaite “Ours. The Journey with the Enemy” has also served as quite a bitter settling of the account between Lithuanians and Lithuanians on the matter of the Holocaust and the active participation of many local people in it.

Both Ivaskevicius and Vanagaite are not Jewish; and both thought it necessary to emphasise that. Ivaskevicius has written a special statement-article “I am not Jewish” in the wake of his appeal to the Lithuanian conscience with regard to the Moletai massacre as a case-study on their attitude towards the Holocaust today. Vanagaite starts each of her interviews saying that she is not Jewish and that her motivation for writing a book challenging Lithuanian society was her familiarity with the documents telling of the participation of several members of her own Lithuanian family, including her grandfather, in the actions against Jews during the Holocaust.

Many people in Lithuania, even those who are not enthusiastic about the very disturbing book recounting Lithuanian crimes during the Holocaust and its too lenient attitude towards the ‘unpleasant subject’ afterwards, are saying that this book has brought the issue into the Lithuanian society - which now has to discuss it, willingly or not.

Just a month prior to the March in Moletai, a wide and heated discussion, both in Lithuania and beyond, erupted over the scandal surrounding the previously privatized 7th Forth in Kaunas, the first concentration camp in Lithuania, the place where five thousand Jews and three thousand POWs had been murdered at about the same time as the massacre in Moletai, in the summer of 1941. 

We shall not –ever - forget the many heroic Lithuanian people who did save Jews or who tried to do it, among them many clergy and nuns. In his deep and emotional letter on the eve of the Moletai March, famous theatre director Kama Ginkas, whose entire family are Litvaks, asked his friend and colleague Marius Ivaskevicius to place stones from him and his ten grandchildren, none of whom would exist unless several brave Lithuanian people, including a few clergymen and women, would have hidden little Kama whose grandfather and many members of the family were murdered in the  9th Forth in Kaunas. Many people who were unable to attend the March personally but wished to participate in this commemoration in a distinctly personal way did the same.

The People’s River of Memory

What happened in Moletai on August 29th, 2016, exceeded the expectations of many people who were familiar with the project. At least three thousand people in attendance, all of their own will, normal, ordinary people, many young ones, many with children, joined the visiting relatives of the massacred Jews of Malat .

March in Moletai 2016 INN:IR

There were priests, Franciscan monks, women in the Lithuanian national dresses, high-ranking Lithuanian military and soldiers, students, teachers, engineers, in river of people that flooded the streets of a small resort town. Additionally to many Israeli flags, there were Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian flags, too. The President of Lithuania Dalia Gribauskaite attended the ceremony along with Amir Maimon, the Ambassador of Israel in Lithuania and, in a truly thoughtful gesture, the Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Edwinas Bagdonas, also was present. The Lithuanian Minister of the Defence was there on behalf of the Lithuanian government, and the Chief of Staff of the Lithuanian Army with a beautiful arrangement of white flowers represented the country’s military force.

In the first row of the marchers column, our good friend, the first president of the post-Soviet Lithuania, the legendary Vytautas Landsbergis was marching with his wife in a physically demanding effort. There are rare moments in life when one is deeply proud of one’s friend, and seeing 83-year old Landsbergis and his wife marching in Moletai on August 29th, 2016, was the one of such fundamentally important moments. Our other dear friend Emanuelis Zingeris was there, and many well-known members of the public, as well.

There were large prints of many photos displayed along the way, both the victims and those who saved Jews, carried by many members of the public. For the first time in the life of three generations, the people who were thrown into the ditch on the morning of August 29th, 1941, came back to life, had faces.

Other people were marching with over-sized yellow Stars of David pinned to their clothes. Those were not Jewish people.

A black marble monument had been unveiled by the Ambassador of Israel at the place of that horrific ditch, with so many people queuing quietly and patiently in order to put the stone on the memorial and to light a candle there. Probably, the words from Marius Ivaskevicius’s article were flashing in the heads of many people in attendance; the words by which he, with barely controlled outrage, described the pitiful condition of the old small memorial stone to the victims of the massacre (not calling them Jews, of course, in typical Soviet style of omission) in the town. That stone had been knocked down some while ago, and private efforts by the foreign relatives of the victims to erect a modest memorial there got nowhere.

It was all avenged and fixed now. Both in the concrete case of the memorial to the Moletai victims, and in a broader context as well.

“We are walking this road for them..”

The idea of how the 75th commemoration of the massacre in Moletai was conducted, the participation of so many different people, the role of the state in the commemoration, all this has created important precedent. It also contributed into what we all, Jews or not, need essentially: personal connection. We need it for ourselves, for decency of our life today and tomorrow.

Moletai march 8/2016 INN:IR

During the March, a small girl who became tired on the way, asked her mother:” Why we have to go so far, mummy?”. And her young mother told her, in Russian: “Many years ago, a little girl like you and her mom were forced to go all the way on this road, too. At the end of this road, they were murdered. Today, we are walking the way for them,” .And the girl did continue to march bravely despite being very tired.

Not one of the many young children in that column will forget that experience, not to speak of the very many teenagers and youth in their 20s attending. And this is the essential part of the March in Moletai.

It has become a memorable, crucially important lesson on the Shoah in real time, by real people, among whom the prevailing majority were non-Jews. The majority of attendees were Lithuanians, but there were people from Latvia, Russia, Belorussia, Poland, to join the hands with relatives of the victims who flew in from Israel, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, and the USA. To me, the most important characteristic of that true commemoration was the people’s own willingness to join the March. It made it real. And it made it principally important for all those others who were not marching in Moletai physically, but who care about keeping the record straight and memory alive.

The fact that it has happened, 75 years after the massacre, after many years of oblivion, and amidst the complicated context of the attitude towards the Holocaust in Lithuania currently, indicates that it is not ‘Never Again’ - which seems to be rather wishful thinking, sadly -  but ‘Never Too Late’ to learn and to admit. And to put that absolute pain and horror into one's own heart, Jewish or not, - which is the only recipe for decency.

“It is not ‘us’ and ‘them’ any longer...”

I cannot help comparing the March in Moletai with another recent commemoration of the 75th anniversary of another awful crime of the Shoah, the Kielce pogrom in Poland. Despite many efforts to run a representative event of commemoration by those who care, we saw few people in attendance, mostly the foreign relatives of the survivors of that absolutely black page of the history of the Holocaust in Poland. There was only one official at the sad and almost non-existant ceremony. The very same day of that utterly shameful episode, the minister of education of Poland made herself internationally infamous by calling the very well known and documented factual side of that pogrom in Kielce ‘a matter of opinion’ on Polish TV, to the visible shock of the presenter.

For some reason, the acting Polish authorities are persistently neglecting the core element in the current perception of the Holocaust and post-Holocaust legacy: that the truth about that terrible, relatively recent past is badly needed for the societies in which both the war crimes and moral atrocities were committed. Without putting the record on the Shoah straight, the societies in those countries will be morally corrupt and severely maimed integrity-wise. Thus, they will be not resourceful, not prone to efficient development; human-wise, they will be effectively disabled.

Back to Lithuania, the March of Living in Moletai has been true to its name, and it is really encouraging. Among the comments on my first reaction to the March, there has been the one from a young Lithuanian journalist who is interested in history and its lessons: “This is a historic day. From today one, it is ‘us’ in Lithuania, and not anymore ‘us’ against ‘them’”. I personally find this kind of development precious.

On behalf of mine and my husband’s extended family, a half of which are Litvaks,  a big thank you to everyone who conceived, organized, and put in all those noble efforts to awaken others. To those who participated in the Moletai March in Lithuania on August 29th, 2016. thank you for your conscious effort to overcome indifference and oblivion under the circumstances in which such effort had been needed. Thank you all for every stone put on the places commemorating the annihilated thousands of Jewish people there, for their photographs, their names, for their souls which are released from that pit now.



Art Photography: Inna Rogatchi (C). Our Memory. Lithuania. Fine Art Photography. Black Milk & Dark Stars series.

The letter from Tsipora from Moletai, August 1941. Document from Yad Vashem (C). 

The first president of the post-Soviet Lithuania MEP Vytautas Landsbergis with his wife on the March of Living in Moletai. Photo (C) Viktor Tombak. All photos from the March by Viktor Tombak (C). 

Dr Inna Rogatchi is writer, scholar, film-maker, and public figure, co-founder and president of The Rogatchi Foundation –  She is the author of internationally acclaimed The Lessons of Survival film on Simon Wiesenthal -  , series of historical analyses on Raoul Wallenberg,  and of the forthcoming book on the Post-Holocaust Legacy and its Challenges.