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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Seeking Holocaust reconciliation in Lithuania, from Los Angeles

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Eitan Arom
Eitan Arom is a Jewish Journal senior writer, covering a range of local Jewish issues such as civic engagement, culture, Holocaust memory, faith-based activism, politics and people. Before that, he worked as a freelance journalist in Jerusalem, Washington D.C and Los Angeles. He graduated from UCLA with bachelor's degrees in mathematics/economics and communication studies.

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The Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, occupies a stately stone building on a large, forested park in the city’s center. It is notably not a Holocaust museum. To find the Holocaust Exposition, look for a small, clapboard wooden building on a narrow side street.

Instead, the museum commemorates atrocities more often spoken of in Lithuania: the lethal brutality of the Soviet regime against citizens of the Baltic country, with Lithuanians as victims rather than perpetrators.

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Half a world away, Grant Gochin, a wealth manager in Woodland Hills, has spent the better part of a quarter-century trying to bring about greater recognition for the genocide carried out largely by ethnic Lithuanians against their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust.

On Aug. 26, he filed a legal action in Vilnius petitioning the city’s mayor, Remigijus Simasius, to order the removal of a monument to a man who ordered the murder of Gochin’s relatives.

“I can’t fix the whole world,” Gochin said. “But I can choose my battles, and this guy murdered my family, so I choose him.”

The country of his grandfather’s birth may be far away, but it’s never far from Gochin’s mind. He would be a lot wealthier, he said, if he spent less time advocating for Litvak (Lithuanian-Jewish) causes. He operates a blog largely dedicated to Litvak history, and he has argued a lawsuit up to the Lithuanian Supreme Court, advocating for citizenship rights for Jews who fled Nazi persecution, which he won.

For a while, Gochin tried to convince the Vilnius government on ideological grounds to remove the plaque outside the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences commemorating Jonas Noreika, a wartime commander of the Siauliai region for the Nazi-collaborating Lithuanian Activist Front. When that effort failed, he resorted to technical grounds: His research uncovered that the plaque had been put up without official government permits.

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By filing a motion in court, he hopes to force a choice by the city’s administration. “They can either make a public statement that they choose murderers as national heroes, or they can set the record right and select better heroes,” he said.

The monument seems to date to a chaotic period during the late 1980s when the Soviet Union began to collapse, leading, in 1991, to Lithuania’s becoming an independent nation.

Darius Gaidys, consul general of Lithuania in Los Angeles, is old enough to remember those years well. At the time, he was a law student at Vilnius University. The toppling of the Soviet Union resulted in what Gaidys called “a flood of information” as the repression of the Soviet years eased.

“Growing up during Soviet times, it was taboo to talk about the Holocaust,” Gaidys told the Journal during an interview in his Westwood office. “It was not mentioned.”

Prior to independence, monuments erected at the sites of mass murder tended to commemorate the killing of “Soviet citizens” without making specific reference to Jews, he said.

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After gaining independence, Lithuanians were more apt to remember Soviet atrocities than Nazi ones. Gaidys said that nearly every family in Lithuania has a relative who was deported to Siberia during the Stalin era to languish in a Soviet gulag. Many never came home. It made sense, then, to adopt as national heroes the men and women who fought against Soviet rule, regardless of the more ominous elements of their biographies.

“If you’re a nation that’s been oppressed for a long time and then you win independence, then instantly you’re looking for your new heroes,” Vilnius City Councilmember Mark Adam Harold said in an interview via Skype.

Harold, who is British, moved to Lithuania 12 years ago and won election to the council in April 2015; he is among Gochin’s allies in the fight to commemorate Jewish martyrs and force Lithuanians to terms with their country’s complicity in the Holocaust.

Harold expressed some sympathy for post-independence Lithuanians who chose to commemorate people they saw as freedom fighters. However, he said, “You fast-forward to post-European Union times, and it starts to look very inappropriate to have a commemoration to a person who, although he fought the Russians, basically also sent Jews to their deaths.”

On Aug. 22, 1941, Noreika ordered local authorities to transport all Jews in the Siauliai region to the town of Zagare, on the modern-day border with Latvia, according to the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania, a Vilnius-based effort to document mass murders in Lithuania. Included in that number were members of Gochin’s family from the town of Papile. Less than two months after Noreika signed the order to ghettoize the Jews, they were summarily shot.

Grant Gochin

Today, the plaque to Noreika exists in a legal and political gray area, Harold said.

Aleksandras Zubriakovas, an advisor to the mayor, said the decision to remove the monument is not up to the city.

“This building is not operated by Vilnius city municipality, so the library is free to decide what [to] do with the sign,” he wrote in an email. “No instructions are needed from the city.”

Ruta Matoniene, the city’s deputy director of urban development, said no records are available as to the plaque’s origins.

“The City of Vilnius cannot identify when this plaque was erected and by whom,” she told the Journal via email.

The library’s director, Sigitas Narbutas, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Gochin recognizes that removing one plaque won’t immediately awaken Lithuanians to the realities of the Holocaust. But cumulatively, he feels, his efforts to attain wider recognition for the Jewish genocide are bearing fruit.

“We’re actually at a tipping point with Lithuania, where we will bring them to that recognition and reconciliation,” Gochin said. “And that’s taken 25 years.”

The shift is largely the result of Jewish activists in the Diaspora like Gochin, along with their partners in Lithuania, where many of them receive death threats or face being ostracized for their work, he said.

“They’re coming to a positive place, because for the last 25 years there have been people of goodwill that are fighting them tooth and nail and dragging them to a positive place.”

There are now signs of a thaw.

Last month, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite addressed a crowd of hundreds gathered in the town of Moletai to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the 1941 massacre of 2,000 Jews there. The same week, remembrance marches took place across the country, marking a particularly bloody week in Holocaust history.

In February, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, published a book he co-wrote with well-known Lithuanian novelist Ruta Vanagaite called “Musiskiai” (“Our People”), relating oral histories of mass murders perpetrated by Lithuanians against Jews.

Gaidys, the Lithuanian diplomat, said the book lays out for the first time “in plain and open words” for a mass audience the part ethnic Lithuanians played in the genocide. When he visited Lithuania in July, he couldn’t find a copy; the book was sold out.

Meanwhile, Lithuania’s government has promised to release a list it has compiled of 1,000 suspected Nazi collaborators.

But recognition is still a work in progress.

There are still those who balk at a rethinking of their national heroes. When Harold went before the Vilnius city commission on monuments and street names to petition them to rechristen a boulevard currently named for Kazys Skirpa, a pro-Nazi propagandist, he was met with stark resistance from some members.

“The answer from the most aggressive commission member was, ‘You think we need to reassess everything?’ ” he said. “And my answer was, ‘Yes. Yes we do, every day. It should be constantly reassessed.’ ”

Harold’s crusades have won him few friends in the Vilnius government, and some enemies. Many can’t understand why he would fight on behalf of Jews if he is not himself Jewish. And he has fended off four attempts by the council to impeach him — though not necessarily because of his pro-Jewish efforts (he’s also a vocal defender of LGBT rights).

“I just annoy them, I guess,” he said of his council colleagues.

As a member of Lithuania’s foreign service, Gaidys has no official position on commemorations of Noreika or other so-called “resistance fighters” with Jewish blood on their hands.

However, he said, speaking “as a private person, we should not have heroes who committed atrocities. They are not heroes.”

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