A judicial inquiry into the wartime activities of Jewish
anti-Nazi resistance fighters in Lithuania has led to accusations
that the small Baltic state is trying to distort the history
of World War II.
The row follows investigations
by the country's prosecutor into whether the former partisans
- Holocaust survivors now in their 80s - themselves committed
Israel has denounced the inquiry as scandalous and refused to allow one of the
main potential witnesses to be questioned. Britain's
foremost World War II historian, Sir Martin Gilbert,
told the BBC he was "deeply shocked" by the investigation, which he called "perverse".
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which works to track down Nazi war criminals, claims
it is part of an attempt to establish a "false symmetry" between atrocities committed against Jews and atrocities allegedly committed
And the dispute has now led
to a tense meeting between the Lithuanian prime minister
Gediminas Kirkilas and American Jewish leaders.
At least four former fighters
have now been questioned or are being sought for questioning.
All deny any wrongdoing, and so far the main evidence
appears to be memoirs written by former partisans themselves.
The row began to develop last
September when the Lithuanian prosecutor for war-crimes
and crimes against humanity asked to talk to Israeli
historian Yitzhak Arad about his experiences as a 16-year-old
boy, after he had escaped from a Nazi-run ghetto in Lithuania
and joined the Soviet-led resistance force in the forest.
Dr Arad, 81, is former head of Israel's Holocaust Memorial Authority, Yad Vashem.
He was not informed what provoked the inquiry, but the prosecutor, Rimvydas Valentukevicius,
told the BBC he was investigating the killing of at least
one civilian in a raid by partisans on Girdenai, a village
in eastern Lithuania in 1944.
In his book, The Partisan,
first published in English in 1979, Dr Arad described
how his brigade was ordered to mount a "punitive action" against villagers who, he wrote, were armed by the Germans and had shot partisans
attempting to requisition food.
Dr Arad described how houses
were burned. But he denies involvement in the killing
of any civilians.
He has said he is willing
to be interviewed by Lithuanian journalists, but not
by the police. "I don't trust them," he said. "The case has no basis. It is trying to falsify events. And I don't want to be
part of this play."
Dr Arad, like other former
partisans, insists that joining the Soviet-led resistance
force was effectively his only means of staying alive
in Nazi-occupied Lithuania.
Historians say about 95% of
the country's Jews - 200,000 people - were killed by
the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators, probably
the highest proportion in Europe.
Under Lithuanian law, any
citizen can initiate an inquiry into wartime crimes,
and Dr Arad believes the inquiry into his record is revenge
for expert evidence he gave at the trial in the United
States of a former Lithuanian Nazi collaborator accused
of involvement in the killing of Jews.
"I think they use
my case as a general intention to rewrite history," he said, "to show that Jews are not the only victims."
Lithuania's deputy foreign
minister Jaroslavas Neverovicas told the BBC that Dr
Arad was wanted as a witness, not a suspect.
But the case has undone painstaking
work by the government a few years ago to establish an
international commission of historians tasked with examining
the crimes of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Lithuania,
and attempting to draw up a definitive version of highly
One aim was to reconcile differing
assessments, inside and outside Lithuania, of the extent
of Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust.
Dr Arad, seen as a key Israeli
scholar, was originally persuaded to join the Commission
only after the personal intervention of Lithuania's president.
But he has now withdrawn, at least until the case is
dropped, as has Britain's representative, Sir Martin
was one of the best things that happened in post-Soviet
Lithuania," the deputy foreign minister, Mr Neverovicas, said. "It's unfortunate that such an episode appeared. But when the accusation happened,
our prosecutor's office could not sit still, it had to
The government-appointed head of the commission, however, believes that its work
has been deliberately sabotaged by nationalist forces
who want to lead Lithuania away from the European mainstream.
Conservative member of parliament Emmanuelis Zingeris, Lithuania's leading Jewish
politician, who was one of those at the forefront of
the country's campaign to break away from the Soviet
Union in the late 1980s, said:
"Someone has tried
to dismantle this carefully-built bridge between Lithuania,
Israel, America and world historical opinion. And it's
a real tragedy.. a highly counter-productive move against
Lithuanian liberal values, against all our shared values
with NATO and EU countries."
For the Simon Wiesenthal Centre,
the world's main Nazi-hunting organisation, the investigation
of Jewish partisans is part of a wider attempt by Lithuania
to improve its international image by rewriting the history
of World War II.
of so many Lithuanian volunteers in the mass murder of
Jews is a very sensitive subject," says Efraim Zuroff of the centre's Jerusalem office. "However if it emerges that there were Jews who committed crimes against Lithuanians,
that would blunt the shame that Lithuanians feel in response
to their World War II crimes."
obfuscation, distortion and deflection going on in Lithuania
should be a very serious cause of concern in the EU and
Nato," he added.
"I think what is
happening in Lithuania and elsewhere throughout Eastern
Europe is far more serious than the phenomenon of Holocaust
denial which has never penetrated mainstream European
Dr Zuroff describes independent
Lithuania's record in prosecuting Nazi war criminals
as a "miserable failure". Since 1991, it has prosecuted three Nazi collaborators - and 24 people accused
of crimes against humanity or genocide under the Soviet
The country has its own judicial
definition of the word "genocide", wider than that used by the United Nations.
It includes attempts to wipe
out particular social as well as ethnic groups, and can
therefore potentially be used to prosecute Soviet crimes
as well as Nazi ones.
Many non-Jewish Lithuanians argue they were subject to a form of genocide because
the Soviet Union attempted to destroy the nation's intellectual
elite through mass deportations to Siberia, the fight
against anti-Soviet guerrillas, and other forms of persecution.
As for Nazi collaborators, the government says most were prosecuted in Soviet
times, whereas the task of finding Soviet collaborators
could only begin after independence.
Deputy foreign minister Neverovicas
says Lithuania is being even-handed in investigating
both totalitarian regimes and is right to be spearheading
efforts in the European Parliament to make Western Europeans
more aware of Soviet crimes.
But his government is clearly
embarrassed by the still-widening investigation of the
This spring prosecutors questioned
86-year-old Fania Brantsovskaya, who still lives in Lithuania,
about the role her partisan brigade played in an alleged
massacre of 38 civilians in the village of Kaniukai in
south-eastern Lithuania in January 1944.
Mrs Brantsovskaya insists
she was not present during the raid and has now also
been told that she is not a suspect.
Nevertheless the prime minister
Mr Kirkilas was so concerned about the possible impact
of the case on Lithuania's relations with America's influential
Jewish community that he invited her to tea before his
trip to New York.
Lithuania insists, however,
that the judiciary works independently of the government,
and the inquiry continues.