Lithuanian Holocaust Rememberance

            April 2013    
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Holocaust Remembrance poster in Lithuanian high school


Remembering the Holocaust in Lithuania

By Ellen Cassedy

The sight of neo-Nazis parading through Lithuania's capital city in an unsanctioned march last month sent chills down the spines of many people both inside and outside this small Eastern European country. And rightfully so. Public expression of hatred in a land with a horrific Holocaust history is cause for alarm.

More than ninety percent of Lithuania's Jews - including some of my relatives - perished during World War II. Today, only 4,000 Jews remain in this place that was once a vibrant center of Jewish culture.

This month, as we observe Holocaust Remembrance Day, Yom HaShoah, I will remember those who perished.

I will also remember the students, teachers, museum directors, and tolerance leaders I met recently in six Lithuanian cities - people who abhor the neo-Nazi creed as strongly as I do and are working to create a future of tolerance.

Laima, a 20-year veteran teacher in the city of Kedainiai, is leading a project on the Holocaust involving 15 high school teachers. Walking through the corridors of the school, I saw student-made posters and artwork everywhere, telling the story of Lithuania's Jewish heritage and the painful facts of its destruction.

Audra, a young tolerance leader in Vilnius, told me how she and her fellow activists brought yellow stars - like those that Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi occupation - to the halls of Lithuania's parliament. They asked elected members to wear the stars in an act of remembrance and solidarity. Many did.

Valdas, a young businessman, talked to me about his successful effort to install a plaque honoring the murdered Jewish population in the center of Zagare, one of Lithuania's oldest Jewish communities. The new plaque, he said, is "a small step forward to explain the truth to local residents." He added, "I do not want my children to grow up in a world of lies. The Jewish spirit is alive, and I and my family want to make it stronger."

Ingrida heads a network of teachers at more than 80 high schools designated as official Tolerance Centers. The teachers receive special training and carry out a variety of projects with their students.

As I spoke about Lithuania's Jewish history - especially about the Holocaust - to attentive audiences in Lithuanian high schools, I reminded students that young people themselves will help to determine whether Lithuania becomes a place where citizens can stand up and speak up for tolerance. I asked them: What do we expect of ordinary people in terrible times? What should we expect?

I asked them: Going forward, is Lithuania destined to be a land where neo-Nazi voices grow louder, or a land where people take Holocaust remembrance increasingly seriously and dedicate themselves to ensuring that such a tragedy cannot happen again?

In return, they asked me some questions of their own: What should have been done to prevent the killing of the Jews? What do we need to do to ensure that such a tragic story never occurs again? How do we answer those who say it's time to close the book on this history and move on?

Tough questions - and vitally important ones.

Twenty-two years after winning independence after the fall of the Soviet Union, this country is still struggling with the burden of its 20th-Century history - both the Nazi and the Soviet eras. In Lithuania, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, a call has arisen for greater recognition of Stalin's crimes, and that call often seems bound up with an effort to diminish or distort Hitler's crimes.

The forces of hatred will not soon be obliterated. The need for Yom HaShoah will forever be with us. As one tolerance leader said to me, "We have still a long way to go - but the main thing is that we are going."

Lithuania has not finished coming to terms with its past, and in fact that task may never be completed. Only through eternal remembrance and reflection can Lithuania make steady progress toward becoming the active civil society we all want to see here in the land once known as the "Jerusalem of the North."

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, as I mourn the catastrophe visited upon the Jews of Lithuania, I will remember the brave people I met there - people who are striving to create a proudly tolerant society. I will do what I can to spread the word about their efforts to all who care deeply about the past, the present, and the future in the land my forebears once called home.


Ellen Cassedy is the author of "We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust" (University of Nebraska Press, March 2012). She lives near Washington, D.C. Visit her website at


from the April 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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