Yitzhak Arad escaped to the forest at the age of 16, days before the Jews in his native Lithuanian village were massacred. He is proud he joined the Soviet partisans to fight the Nazis and their collaborators. For a Jew, just to survive the Holocaust was a victory, he says; to tell about it was an obligation. That's why Arad wrote his memoir, The Partisan: From the Valley of Death to Mt. Zion, published in English in 1979.
The book is a raw account of an orphaned teenager fighting the Nazis in desperate conditions after the murder of 40 members of his family. Arad describes his main activities with the Soviet partisans as blowing up German military trains, and he also details some of the grislier aspects of forest warfare. In one passage, he describes a "punitive action" against the village of Girdan, where two partisans had been killed: "We broke into the village from two directions, and the defenders fled after putting up feeble resistance. We took the residents out of several houses in the section of the village where our two comrades fell and burned down the houses. Never again were partisans fired on from their village."
"It was a cruel war," the 82-year-old Arad recalled recently. "We did the best we could to survive." He dedicated his memoir to those who fought with him and died along the way -- his "heroic friends."
But when Lithuania's chief war crimes prosecutor, Rimvydas Valentukevicius, read Arad's book, nearly 30 years after its publication, he didn't see a hero. He saw a possible war criminal. And in September 2007, when the prosecutor's office publicly announced an investigation into Arad, it was clear The Partisan would be Exhibit A against him. More war crimes investigations of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors have followed, and in each case, memoirs are playing a central role.
These events are all the more shocking to those who remember that the country was once a sort of Jewish promised land. Lithuania's capital, Vilnius, was known as "the Jerusalem of the North." About one third of its population in the 1920s and 30s was Jewish. Yiddish was in the air then. Synagogues welcomed the faithful. Cafes overflowed with young Jewish painters, writers, and poets. Vilna, as the city is called in Yiddish, was the seat of intellectual, spiritual, and artistic life for Eastern European Jewry.
All of that is long gone, destroyed by the Nazi war machine with the active assistance, in a dark chapter for Lithuania, of many local collaborators. Vilnius today has only one synagogue. Lithuania's once flourishing community of more than 200,000 Jews -- over 90 percent of whom were annihilated during the war -- is now about 4,000. All that is left are the Holocaust survivors' stories, and now those, in the case of Arad and several others, are being used against them.
How a country that was once a center of Jewish life has now begun targeting the few remaining victims of history's worst crime is a story of foreign occupiers, former Jewish partisans, and modern-day Lithuanian ethnic nationalists. But more broadly, it is a story of books, memory, and a small country's ongoing struggle to make sense of its tangled, bloody historical narratives -- a struggle facing all of Eastern Europe.
In a strange twist, this whole affair began with a good-faith effort to heal those deep, lingering ethnic divisions. In 1998, President Valdas Adamkus created a high-level commission to try to establish the "historical truth" about Lithuania's horrific occupations during the 20th century: first by the Soviets from 1940-41, then by the Nazis from 1941-44, followed again by the Soviets from 1944-90. The commission attracted a prestigious collection of international scholars, including Arad, who had gone on to become a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces and director of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust remembrance center. However, as the commission began excavating the layered narratives of guilt and suffering from this period, ethnic tensions flared.
The biggest obstacle for Lithuanians in confronting their history is the now well-established fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of Lithuanians voluntarily participated in the Holocaust. Many of the country's Jews were shot by local police and by a special unit of Lithuanian killers incorporated into the Nazi SS. Since its independence in 1990, only three Lithuanian collaborators have been charged with war crimes, and none was punished.
"The genocide of the Jews is the bloodiest page in the country's history," said Saulius Suziedelis, a Lithuanian historian and member of the presidential commission. But for many Lithuanians, he said, "just to mention that obvious fact turns them off because they want to talk about their own victimization."
That victimization came during the brutal Soviet occupation. It was marked by the repression of Lithuanian culture, the deportation of many thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia, and the murder of Lithuanian independence fighters. The Soviets strictly controlled information and wrote Lithuania's history books. Today, as the country struggles to write its own narrative, most Lithuanians see the Soviets as the real villains of World War II. "The Spielberg view of the war is totally irrelevant to [Lithuanians] because that was not their experience," Suziedelis said. Instead, Lithuanian Jews, who allied with the Soviets to fight the Nazis, are today often regarded as deserving of punishment for Soviet crimes.