Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Epilogue by Rita Gabis

[She knew her grandfather as a child: tall and wide like a wall; a tree with low, spreading branches. He bought her forbidden sweets, took her fishing. Everywhere they go together he introduced her with pride. But he never spoke about the war back in Lithuania and there were signs that she barely understood at the time. “Be a Roman Catholic, not like your father.” He killed fish that others threw back. Above all silence about the war and the escape of her family to America from a detention camp in Germany in 1946.  As she grew older not knowing took its toll. She spent years unravelling the mystery, hoping to discover something good about her grandfather.]

Try to look . . if you don’t find anything, don’t regret your efforts. There’s little hope, but there’s still some sort of tiny crystal of hope.

When I first began to learn about Lithuania during World War II, One Simaitre – who in addition to having the same first name as Babita (her aunt) was also, like Babita, a Lithuanian librarian - captivated me.

Employed at the Vilnius University Library, Simaite continually risked arrest and death as she smuggled food and supplies into the Vilna ghetto under the cover of participating, with Herman Kruk and others, in the decimation of Jewish literary culture by finding and sequestering important books for the Germans.

Yad Vashem lists eight hundred Lithuanians as Righteous Among the Nations, Simaite included, but Lithuania still keeps its wartime secrets. In the countryside especially, there is still a fear of saying too much, fear of a bad neighbor, a reprisal from one quarter or another, some of the fear left over from the Soviets who, directly at the war’s end, immediately executed roughly the same number of Lithuanians honored today by Yad Vashem,. And then after that, year after year, killed or deported more.

Members of the same family are often deeply divided about the past. On a trip to her mother country, my mother was told by a Lithuanian relative that “we got rid of both of them, the Jews and the Russians.” A few days later, a cousin drove my mother to a small memorial for local Jews massacred during the war.

I am sure that many Lithuanian families have as yet untold stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents, fathers or mothers, uncles and aunts, who brought butter to the ‘black window” and refused to be paid, who thrust bread into the hand of someone marching from work or to a labor camp, who gave shelter, or simply saw and did not report someone running for his life.

There were Germans also – not many, but some – like the well-known Major Karl Plagge, who through a factory in Vilnius offered extra food, protection, and life-saving permits to many of the Jewish workers there.

Some people both hurt and helped. Some people collaborated – the inadequate word – and then stopped, for reasons that might have had nothing to do with horror and the massacre of the Jewish population of Lithuania. Some helped those in need for a price that kept getting steeper.

As I read through the interrogations of those who worked under my grandfather and Jonas Maciulevicius (later executed as war criminal), certain tropes repeated themselves. Many witnesses insisted they provided aid to “Soviet citizens” trapped under fascist (German) rule. Lozas Breeris, warden of the Svencuionys prison, claimed that he had released a significant number of prisoners close to the end of the war, and had witnesses to back him up. No one my grandfather worked with ever mentioned under interrogation that Senelis had been arrested by the fascist Germans for freeing prisoners, even though they might have attached themselves to his efforts – he was their superior, after all – to win some slight mercy at the Soviets’ hands.

Certainly there were Lithuanians who abandoned their work on behalf of the Germans without repercussion. Joachim Hamann’s killing squad, for example, had its share of Lithuanian defectors,  who were allowed to walk away from the carnage without any punitive measures. MY grandfather might have been horrified to find himself at a meeting in the early fall of 1941 that mapped out the killings at Poligon (8,000 Jew shot And dumped naked into a hastily dug pit) and the creation of the Svencionys ghetto, but if so, it had not been enough to make him request another posting.

Still, as an historian I interviewed and questioned via e-mail several times noted, my grandfather was never put on trial. Though he lied on his naturalization and immigration forms, the lies were not picked up by the U.S. Justice Department. He never had the opportunity to address questions about his wartime life and answer them in a court of law, even an immigration court. According to my mother and her sister, he never mentioned either Poligon or the 1942 Beck reprisals (400+ Poles shot for the killing of a German officer by partisans), so again, in the end, there is no direct account of his role (or lack thereof) in these events.

I recently received a pro-forma letter from the FOIA unit of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department regarding the case file and notes for Vincus Valkavuichus, the Poligon guard. His extradition case still intrigued me. Why, I wondered – and still wonder – had a Poligon guard living in the United States been located and prosecuted, while Senelis, chief of the security police for the whole of the Svencionys region, had been left untouched?

Perhaps, the letter suggested, since my FOIA request had taken so long to fulfill, my interest in the material might have waned. If I no longer wanted the material, the harried specialist – who, as she told me during several phone calls, is short on staff and constantly pulled out for meetings and had a pile of requests on her desk that has mounted at a twenty cases in CD format, month after month after year, with mine close to the bottom of the stack –perhaps could pull my files out of the pile and send them back to storage. “If you are still interested . . . and wish for the request to be processed, please respond . . .”

“Yes, I am interested, yes, I wish,” I write back right away.

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