By Christopher Hale on April 17, 2011
I took a bus to Kaunas today where I met Simonas Dovidavicius. Simonas is director of the Sugihara Museum ? which I will write about in the next blog.
Simonas took me first to one of the most infamous sites of the Lithuanian Holocaust ? the Lietukis Garage. I was surprised how close it was to the centre of town: for some reason, I had the impression the garage was on the edge of the city. It?s right in the centre ? and not far from the hulking grey building once occupied by the German gestapo. The Lithuanian Gestapo had its headquarters nearby.
The terrible pogrom that took place in the Lietukis Garage at the end of June 1941 was one of the most savage and grotesque single atrocities of the Shoah.
But what made the Lietukis Garage infamous is a photograph ? it shows a young man wielding an iron bar and standing, apparently with a smirk on his face, next to a pile of corpses. This Lithuanian became known as the ?Death Dealer of Kovno?.
This infamous photographic image was taken by a German photographer ? and we have a number of eye witness accounts of the Death Dealer ?at work? from German soldiers and officers. What the image and the statements seems to confirm is the leading role by Lithuanian killers. As Ilya Lempertas pointed out to me it is common currency in recollections of the Holocaust to say ?the Lithuanians were worst?.
But the photograph does not tell such a simple story.
It is certainly the case that Lithuanian ?partisans? murdered many Lithuanian Jews in this first, chaotic period of the German occupation after June 23, 194. These ?partisans? murdered Jews apparently spontaneously, without the involvement of SD murder squads.
But that is not to say that Germans played no part to play in the pogroms that erupted in Lithuania1. We know now, as I describe in ?Hitler?s Foreign Executioners?, that there had been significant contact between the German RSHA that managed the Einsatzgruppe ?Murder Squads? and Lithuanian ultra nationalists ? the LAF.
It served German purposes to allow Lithuanian killers to kill and terrorise Lithuanian Jews not so much to ?do the dirty work? but so that they could make a calous and mendacious offer to protect the Jews from hostile Lithuanians inside ghettos.
It was also useful to have evidence ? like that infamous photograph ? that Lithuanians had indeed turned on their Jewish fellow citizens with utmost savagery and without mercy. These pogroms implied that Jews had somehow offended against Christian Lithuanians ? they, must it seemed, be guilty of something.
Above all, the Germans reinforced the poisonous idea that there was a bond between Jews and Bolshevism. For some nationalist Lithuanians, all Communists were Jews; it is a short step to present Communism itself ? or Bolshevism ? as in some way ?Jewish?.
If we read the many eye witness accounts with this in mind then the ?Death Dealer of Kovno? and what he did with his fellow murderers in the Lietukis Garage forecourt takes on an altogether different significance. This isn?t to exonerate this man and his fellow killers, but to place him in a real historical moment and not a mythical one. Here is an especially telling statement made by Vytautas Petkevicius (published in 2001).
Here is the first extract:
?At around one in the afternoon after several dozen Jews had been assembled in the yard, the Lithuanians set upon them with clubs and iron bars. They battered them until they were senseless and then, as the victims lay prostrate on the ground they set upon them with hosepipes (usually used to wash cars) which they forced up their rectums and then turned the water on and left it on until the victims? bowels burst under the pressure. I stood at the side of the yard and watched it all together with my friend Ricardas. I will never forget what I saw for as long as I live.?
There is no need to comment on this barbarism. Now here in the second extract, we get a surprising insight into what is really happening:
?After a while, a member of the White Armband patrol showed up and announced that the ?members of the Klimaitis group (who carried out the pogrom at Slabodka on June 25) should now leave the area as they are needed for another job elsewhere.? A number of Lithuanians then left the scene while the rest carried on with their ?work.? They were all under the command of the L.A.F. [Lithuanian nationalists] Chief of Staff Alexandras Bendinskas (who later became a member of the Seimas following the declaration of independence).?
So the men who had taken part in the gruesome murders in the Lieutikis Garage were not it seems simply ?Lithuanians? ? but Lithuanians who had been recruited by a former journalist, now working with the German SD called Algirdis Klimaitis, and members of a radical nationalist organisation, the LAF. Urged on by Reinhard Heydrich in Berlin, the LAF had distributed anti-Semitic posters and leaflets in Kaunas days before the German invasion of the Baltic states.
The German witnesses may have had no idea about who the killers were? One asked someone in the crowd who gathered to watch and he was told that some of the ?Death Dealer?s? family had been deported by the Soviets. The German appears to accept this as sufficient explanation! Underlying that ready acceptance is the myth that ?all Jews were communists?. This lethal delusion is the mirror image of the chimerical ?Jewish-Bolshevik?.
This analysis of the ?Lietukis Garage? pogrom demonstrates the very complex nature of collaboration. What the ?Death Dealer? and his accomplices did on that terrible day cannot be exonerated. Nor can the people who gathered to watch ? including those German officers.
But he did not act only as a ?Lithuanian? ? he was the agent of a much more ambitious scheme, that had been planned in Berlin.
This entry is filed under Hitler's Foreign Executioners Tour.
I'll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one.: LBJ's Ghost