Were the Jewish Partisans Stalinist Dupes?

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[H/t to A.L. for bringing this to my attention. Above image of Jewish Partisans from Vilnius is from the Holocaust Research Project]

Nazi hunter: Lithuania hunts ex-partisans, lets war criminals roam free

By Yossi Melman

A few months ago, Lithuanian policemen and agents from the security service knocked on Rachel Margolis’ door in Vilna. Fortunately she was not home, and was thus saved the humiliation of an interrogation. Margolis, almost 90, was a Jewish partisan during World War II, and is finding it difficult to recover from the trauma even now, when she is living in her daughter’s home in Rehovot.

“My sin in the eyes of the nationalists and the anti-Semites in the Lithuanian government,” she says, “was that I was a partisan and fought against the Nazis and their collaborators.”

The Lithuanian policemen and agents wanted to interrogate her about her memoir, in which she told about her partisan colleagues who in January 1944 attacked the village of Koniuchy (or in Lithuanian, Kaniukai).

The Lithuanian partisans, who operated under the aegis of the Central Partisan Command of the Soviet Union, had information that there was a German garrison in the village. After the fact, it turned out that the Germans had abandoned the place. In the battle that ensued, 38 villagers were killed, including women and children. In independent Lithuania, with a tendency to rewrite history after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, they describe this attack as a “massacre,” and a special prosecutor opened an investigation.

Margolis says she was not even in Lithuania at the time of the attack, and was active in another partisan unit in White Russia.

“I wrote a book about the war, and in it I mentioned in a few lines that I had heard from partisan friends about the attack,” she says.

In the book she mentions another partisan friend who was among the attackers, Fania Brantsovsky, and another partisan, Sara Ginaite, both of whom are also suspects and wanted for interrogation.

“That’s Lithuanian chutzpah,” says Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Israeli branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “To date, Lithuanian governments have not punished a single Lithuanian war criminal. In spite of our considerable efforts and the large amount of information we have given them, they handled three cases with astonishing slowness. Not one of the three served a single day in prison. On the other hand, they’re not ashamed to persecute and harass Lithuanian partisans who fought the Nazis. What is common to all these cases is that they’re all Jews. Instead of punishing Lithuanian criminals who collaborated with the Nazis and murdered Jews, they’re harassing the partisans, Jewish heroes.”

Perhaps the height of chutzpah was the attempt by Lithuania to investigate Dr. Yitzhak Arad, a Holocaust historian and one-time partisan, a former brigadier general and a chief education officer in the Israel Defense Forces, and the chairman of the board of Yad Vashem.

The Lithuanian claim against Arad was that he served in a Soviet security services, the NKVD, which engaged in murder and looting, and that he was involved in the murder of innocent Lithuanians. In the Lithuanian newspaper, Republika, they even published an article two years ago entitled “The expert with blood on his hands.”

Arad explained that the Lithuanian claims against him were false. The Foreign Ministry and Yad Vashem sharply protested the Lithuanian demand, and refused to cooperate with the request.

However, there are some in Israel who believe that neither the Foreign Ministry nor Yad Vashem are acting with the determination expected of them, and are demonstrating weakness. There are voices who believe that Israel should lower its diplomatic contacts with Lithuania if it continues harassing Jewish and Israeli partisans. One of the critics is Zuroff.

“In the State of Israel, they prefer to let Jewish organizations do the dirty work and fight against the rewriting of history in Lithuania,” Zuroff said. “The State of Israel and those involved in the issue should have made it unequivocally clear to the Lithuanian government that it is crossing all the red lines.”

Another harsh critic of Israeli policy is historian Prof. Dov Levin, an expert on Lithuanian Jewry. Levin chronicles in his books how more than 200,00 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, mainly by the Lithuanian collaborators who were eager to engage in murder without the German Nazis having to convince them.

Levin, himself a partisan in Lithuania and a member of the Yad Vashem council, was opposed to the decision about 10 years ago by the Foreign Ministry and Yad Vashem to cooperate with Lithuania in the study of the history of World War II. His view was not accepted, and a joint international committee of Israeli, Lithuanian and other historians was established.

The committee, actually two subcommittees, is studying the murder of the Jews in the Holocaust in Lithuania as well as the murder of Lithuanians, during the period of the Soviet occupation of the country from 1940-1941 – as part of the infamous 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – as well as the Soviet period from 1945 until independence in 1991.

By doing so, the committee is unfortunately helping the Lithuanians equate the two historical developments. Levin believes that Yad Vashem should have severed any connection with the Lithuanian government and ended its activity.

I dissed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in a previous post (and at numerous comments on other blogs) for being Stalinist dupes rather than principled anti-fascists. I stand by that assertion. But this article in Haaretz regarding Jewish communist partisans displays the complexity of these issues. Were the Jewish partisans dupes as well? If not, why not?

I think not. For one thing, the situation of Jews in Lithuania was not analogous to the situation of the volunteers in the U.S. Lithuania was occupied by the Nazis and Lithuanian civilians participated in the Holocaust. Jews had four options in Lithuania. First, resistance; second, collaboration in the hopes of personal and family survival; third, seeking refuge where that was possible; and fourth, deportation to the camps. In the case of Lithuanian resistance, the communist partisan units were the only option.

Jews had choices in other countries. The Jewish Fighting Organization in Poland (more below) is one example and escapees from the Slovakian Novaky labor camp formed an independent Jewish brigade affiliated with the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair.

Regarding Lithuania, the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation notes:

In 1943, Lithuanian Jewish partisans became unified under the direction of Soviet Lithuanian partisan movement. Admission of Jews to the partisans was limited for political and military reasons as well as because of antisemitism. Even in some of the mixed units Jews experienced discrimination. Yet the partisan movement was their only vehicle to actively fight against the Nazis. In some cases, all-Jewish units were formed within the larger organization of Lithuanian partisans.

Poland was a different situation:

Because of the widespread Nazi hunts for escaped Jews, and centuries old antisemitism among some locals, many Polish Jewish partisans sought affiliation with Polish partisan groups. This was a difficult and dangerous task-a Jewish partisan could be robbed of his weapon, or killed for approaching a partisan unit. However, numerous Polish partisan units welcomed Jews, such as the People’s Guard. In the Generalgouvernement area of Poland (divided into four districts Warsaw, Cracow, Radom, and Lublin), hundreds of Jewish partisans belonged to Polish units of the People’s Guard, to the Home Army (AK), and to other groups. Considerable numbers of these Jewish partisans operated in commando units, and dozens of Jews took leadership roles as commanders.

Jews also fought as partisans in all-Jewish units, such as the ZOB (the Jewish Fighting Organization), which was active throughout occupied Poland. Against incredible odds, thousands of Polish Jewish partisans fought back, and most lost their lives. Many did not expect to survive, as reflected in the motto of one Jewish partisan group: “For those who seek life, we are not the address.”

Here is a map describing Jewish partisan activity in ten countries.

For more information on Jewish partisans, click on the image that says “Resist” on the left column of this blog or click here.

Read more about antisemitism in Lithuania here.

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4 responses »

  1. Interesting piece. That website about Jewish Partisans has some pretty enlightening material.

    I think this gets to the heart of the issue over Stalinist involvement in the War and pre-war years. I can recognize that it took faithful CP members loyal to Stalin to crush Fascism in Europe, and that in many areas; resistance to the Nazi regime was organized by folks loyal to the Soviet Government. But when offered with the alternatives you listed, there really is no option for those who wanted to see an end to fascism on their soil. I assume one can argue that partisans should have waited around for a “purer” democratic resistance to emerge; I however don’t see the world through that lens. These Jewish partisans did what they could with what they were presented with.

  2. Hi Modernity,

    I am out of town away from my computer (using a borrowed laptop to write this). I return on Tuesday and will be more than willing to assist in any way that I can when I get back.

    –TNC

  3. Pingback: Israel Chronicle | DefendingHistory.com

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