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Out of view memorial to Lithuanian Jews must not be forgotten

Editor’s note: A version of this op-ed first appeared in the Miami Herald. The author, Shelly Rybak Pearson, was born in Costa Rica and lived in San José as a young child. Some of her Lithuanian relatives were killed in the Holocaust. 

As the last generation of Holocaust survivors begin to leave us, it is more imperative than ever that, as an international community, we assure that the memory of the greatest tragedy of the 20th century does not perish with them.

As a descendent of Lithuanian Holocaust victims, I have spent the last 20 years assuring that the awareness of the Holocaust in Lithuania is not forgotten: 212,000 Lithuanian Jews perished under the hands of the Nazi and Lithuanian collaborators. Yet, the only Holocaust memorial in Lithuania’s capital stands hidden away from public view. This monument, which I have commissioned and aptly named Flame of Hope, is a vital physical reminder of the Shoah in Lithuania, and it is my deepest hope that the newly appointed Lithuanian Commission on Jewish Affairs seriously considers moving the monument to a more public site in the center of Vilnius, where its message can resound within the republic and the rest of the world.

Listening to the sound of my mother’s sobbing after the loss of her father, brother, family and friends in Lithuania, as well as taunts of “Polaca cochina” (Dirty Jew) from my Costa Rican classmates motivated me to spearhead a campaign to install a Holocaust monument in Lithuania to commemorate the genocide of 96.4 percent of the Nation’s Jews during the Holocaust.

The idea to create the monument in the capital of Vilnius in memory not only of my family but of the thousands of Lithuanian Jews killed in the genocide has filled my existence. I want to give life to a fitting memorial to their memory and to assure that Lithuanians remain conscious of the dark period of their role in the mass eradication of a community of citizens who had been part of their society, history and culture for centuries.

From Lithuania to Latin America

I’m the second child of parents born in Lithuania of traditional Orthodox Jews. My father immigrated in the early 1920s to Mexico then to Costa Rica to avoid the economic and social events in Mexico. In Costa Rica, he established what was eventually a successful textile business and became a leader of the Jewish community.

On one of his regular visits to Lithuania, he met my mother, whom he married in 1931. They returned together to Costa Rica, where my brother and I were born, and my parents were successful in bringing other family members to Costa Rica, including my Uncle Max and Aunt Fanny — my mother’s brother and sister. They sought to escape the rising uncertainties of life in Europe with the rise of Nazism. The last communication received — it was sent before the Nazi invasion — from my mother’s family was a letter from her father: “We have nothing to fear from our German business friends.” By the time the letter arrived in Costa Rica, they had been killed.

Our family’s house, in which I grew up for the first seven years and a half years of my life, was a typical one story rambling structure built around an interior patio in the old traditional section of Barrio Amón near the city’s largest park, the Parque Morazán. Across the street was an imposing two-level building with veranda. It was the German Legation. My first memory of it includes a huge red, black and white swastika banner hanging from the second floor and the black uniformed booted guards standing in front. I used to go there to play with my little friend, Hansi, the son of the German Minister, until my father told me to stay away from it.

The early 1930s saw the development of a noticeable growth of communist political movement in Costa Rica, as was the case elsewhere in Latin America, and a conservative-based counter movement which carried with it elements of anti-semitism. At times, when I was playing in the front yard of our house, passers by would taunt me and call out “Polaca cochina” meaning “Polish pig,” their way of saying “Dirty Jew.”

I can also remember my mother, who could be outspoken for the pain she heard in support of her beliefs, in heated argument with the Archbishop of San José criticizing the church’s failure to oppose the anti-semitic positions and actions of some of its extra conservative members.

My father, mother, brother and I moved eventually to New York in December 1941, as the United States entered World War II – and six months later invaded Russia.

Nightmare in the home country

It is that invasion that triggered the horror of the Lithuanian Holocaust, with some of the brutality carried out by the Leituvij Frontas (the Lithuanian Activist Front or LAF) composed of Lithuanian parties from the right and center political groups under the leadership of Col. Kazys Skirpa, the Lithuanian ambassador to Germany. He had long advocated for a closer relationship with Germany. He advanced Nazi ideology, racist concepts and anti-semitism.

After the invasion, Lithuanian “partisan” and police units took the first steps in what became the Lithuanian Holocaust before the German troops reached the principal murder sites of Kaunas, Vilnius and Siauliai, and before Juozas Ambraze Vicius and leaders of the LAF established a Provisional Government, the purpose of which was to form an “independent Lithuanian state” as an ally of Nazi Germany.

The first period of Holocaust pogroms began in the last week of June 1941, when the Provisional Government had control of Lithuanian partisan and police units. The most notorious of these events was the massacre of the Lietukis Garage in Kaunas, which is well documented by photographic evidence and was carried out by Lithuanian elements armed with iron bars and wooden clubs. Rabbi Ossouski was beheaded by army officer Vitkauskas Viktoras and his head was prominently displayed from the upstairs window.

The initial stage of the Lithuanian Holocaust occurred before the era of the gas chambers and was carried out by beatings or shooting and victims buried in mass graves.

The Simon Wiesenthal Foundation in Israel has said that of the 220,000 Jews living in Lithuania before the Nazi invasion, 212,000 were killed in the genocide, or 96.4 percent of the Jewish population.

My mother’s family lived in Kriukai in northern Lithuania for generations. On June 26, 1941, all the Jews in Kriukai and surrounding towns were rounded up by Lithuanian “activist” units under the command of Stanislovas Kackys and concentrated in a ghetto in the nearby center of Zagare. On Yom Kippur, thousands of Jewish men, women and children were moved out of the town and shot by Lithuanian auxiliaries with their bodies dumped into mass graves.

Deep satisfaction, short-lived

My odyssey to create the Holocaust Monument began with my initial contact with the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington in 1995, and a series of negotiations that took five years.

In the process, I had to overcome objections of neighbors of the proposed site in the courtyard of the building in the Old Town of Vilnius, which had housed the Judenrat, the center of the Jewish community administration during the German occupation from 1941 to 1945.

When the monument was finally installed in October 2000, I was filled with deep satisfaction after so much frustration before it was brought to fruition. Still, it was difficult then to foresee the problems that would confront the project in the years ahead.

I visited Kriukai in 2001 to learn about my family’s history. No one claimed to remember the events of the German occupation or Jews living there at the time. The young town priest sent me to the town clerk who told me that he was a young teenager in 1941 but that he remembered nothing.

I was surprised that his memory was not clearer. I found the same lack of memory as I talked with Lithuanians around the country. It convinced me of the importance of erecting a monument so that what happened to the country’s Jews will not be forgotten. For years after the installation of the monument, it remained in semi-isolation with restricted access in the courtyard of the former Judenrat.

No notice was posted to indicate the presence of the monument. For months, the courtyard was covered with broken construction material and discarded rubbish and the grass was left uncut, according to a report of the staff of the United States Embassy in Vilnius.

In 2009, then-U.S. Rep. Ron Klein told me that he was denied access to the monument. Others who tried to visit, including U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Delray Beach, had the same problem. The problem of access remains today, and I have subsequently requested that Vilnius and Lithuanian governments remove the monument to a location more accessible to the public. Those repeated requests have fallen on deaf ears.

On Jan. 14, 2015, Lithuania created a Commission to deal with the culture and history of the Lithuanian Jews and had its first meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. The commission is headed by Alminas Macilius, chancellor of the government, and will examine issues related to Lithuanian Jewish cultural and historical heritage, preservation of Jewish cemeteries and Jewish mass graves. The commission will involve not only Lithuanian public institutions and organizations, but also American and international Jewish organizations, as well as Lithuanian Jews (Litvaks).

It is my hope that this commission can study relocating the Flame of Hope to a central location in Vilnius — much like Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial — so that the Lithuanian people and visitors can view the monument that bears witness to the history of the Holocaust.

Pearson Rybak lives in West Palm Beach and is president of the International Foundation for the Arts.

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