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11 December 2017
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“Facing History: The Burden of 1941”


Dr. Saulius Suziedelis.
Scholar of Lithuania’s Holocaust history.

Photo: www.komisija.lt/lt/naujiena.php?id=1301995164

By Ellen Cassedy

“The only way for Lithuanians to lighten the difficult history of 1941 is to embrace it.”

The writer of these words, Dr. Saulius Suziedelis of Millersville, Pennsylvania, USA, will be honored in Vilnius on November 18, 2011, by the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and Science. 

Also receiving awards will be Dr. Vytautas Cernius, a longtime professor of education at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Arvydas Kliore, a space scientist with NASA.  The prizes for intellectual achievement are awarded annually to Lithuanians living abroad.

Dr. Suziedelis is a leading voice in the field of Holocaust scholarship. In his groundbreaking essay, “The Burden of 1941,” published in 2001 in Lituanus, the Lithuanian quarterly journal of arts and sciences, he encouraged Lithuanians to face the fact that more than 90 percent of the country’s 240,000 Jews were killed between 1941 and 1944, and that thousands of Lithuanians participated in the Holocaust. 

“Recognizing a historic burden is not the same as accepting collective guilt,” Dr. Suziedelis cautions in his essay. “No honest person argues that Lithuanians are a nation of criminals, or that today's Lithuanians are responsible for what happened in 1941 (any more than contemporary Americans are responsible for slavery). But the legacies of such crimes, the historical burdens, remain.” 

Born in Germany at the end of World War II to parents who came from Kaunas, Dr. Suziedelis grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, speaking Lithuanian at home and attending a bilingual parochial school. 

He acquired a Ph.D. in Russian and Eastern European history in 1977.  In the 1980’s, while working at the U.S. Department of Justice, he came to recognize how little he knew about what had happened during World War II in Lithuania. “The rest of my country, except for the killers, knew even less,” he said.  “I realized a lot of research had to be done.”

Delving into the vast archive documenting the 1941-1944 administrative structure of the Nazi occupation – at least a million pages, he estimates – he educated himself and began to publish widely in Lithuanian venues. 

Stepping into this historical terrain was not easy.  “You fight to not believe people of your culture committed horrible crimes.”

“With good reason,” he writes, “both Jews and Lithuanians consider themselves victims of the Second World War. There is no need to question that status.”

Yet, he goes on, “many Lithuanians and Jews remember this tragic history, especially the first weeks of the Nazi-Soviet war, from perspectives so opposed that sometimes it appears they cannot possibly be reflecting on the same events.”

More ethnic Lithuanians were killed after the war, during the pokaris, or postwar period, than during it.  From 1945 to 1950, Dr. Suziedelis estimates, for an ethnic Lithuanian, the statistical chances of dying a violent death were about ten times higher than during the war.

The tug of war between two histories has led to a syndrome of “competing martyrologies,” Dr. Suziedelis notes, and this is unfortunate.

Soviet and Nazi crimes in Lithuania “didn’t occur on different planets,” he says.  “There are striking similarities between the two systems.  But that doesn’t mean they are equivalent.  And you certainly can’t use one system’s crimes to excuse the atrocities of the other.”  

Each history is unique, he stresses. “There are similarities and differences,” gray areas and difficult conundrums.  What comparisons can be made between the Soviet and Nazi crimes?  Lithuania’s 20th century history is complex, Dr. Suziedelis says. “You cannot fit it into a sound bite. I struggle with it.”

If Lithuanians are to “own their own history,” he believes, they must do three things:

  • view Jewish history as part of Lithuanian history as a whole. “In the past,” Dr. Suzedelis says, “Jews wrote about Jews and Lithuanians wrote about Lithuanians.”  Today, this is changing.  An increasing number of ethnic Lithuanians are studying Jewish history.
  • understand the Holocaust as the central event of the Nazi occupation. “The genocide of the Jews constitutes the greatest single atrocity in modern Lithuanian history.”
  • assess Lithuanian participation in that event “without evasion, without squirming.” 

Dr. Suziedelis is the author of numerous studies about Lithuanian history, and since 1998 has served on the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.  From 2006 to 2010 he chaired the Annual Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, USA, where he is a professor emeritus.

In February, he participated in “No Simple Stories:  Jewish-Lithuanian Relations between Coexistence and Violence,” an international conference sponsored by the Institute of Jewish Studies, University College London.  In the spring, he delivered a series of lectures at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas on genocide and mass murder in the 20th century.  He is currently at work on an essay about Polish-Lithuanian relations.

Ellen Cassedy traces her Jewish family roots to Rokiskis and Siauliai.  Her book, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, will be published in March of 2012.  She lives in Washington, D.C. Visit her website at www.ellencassedy.com.

Category : Featured black / Litvak forum / Speakers corner!
  • Donatas Januta

    Suziedelis' essay which is discussed and quoted extensively by Ms. Cassedy was written 10 years ago. In that essay Suziedelis refers to Lithuanian scholars and politicians who at that time had embarked on reviewing the Holocaust in Lithuania based on new archives and information. For example, Suziedelis in that essay in 2011 states that for Lithuanians to accept the burden of 1941, Lithuanians have to acknowledge that "some Lithuanian citizens assisted in the murder of other Lituanian citizens." I don't think any rational person does not acknowledge that. It seems that we have gone beyong that, and current disputes seem to be on the specifics, the details. It would be interesting to hear from Suziedelis what progress or changes in historiography or attitudes he sees in the 10 years since his essay.

    November 13 2011
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