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Tuesday, October 15, 2019

During his more than 40 years in the “business” of tracking down ex-Nazis and bringing them to justice, Efraim Zuroff, a Brooklyn native, has been called many derogatory names. Most recently, his claim to fame is as ”the most hated Jew in Lithuania.” His Lithuanian colleague and co-editor of their newly published expose “Musiskiai” (Our People), Ruta Vanagaite, adds a few choice adjectives to his acclaim such as a “mammoth,” a “boogeyman” and a “ruiner of reputations.”

Zuroff and Vanagaite spent last Shabbat in Teaneck, specifically with the Rinat community. On Monday evening, November 7, Vanagaite was the recipient of the Woman of Valor Award at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s dinner held at the Waldorf Astoria in NYC.

After making aliyah in 1970, and completing his Ph.D. in Holocaust history, Zuroff worked for the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. Since 1986, Zuroff has directed the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Jerusalem-based human rights organization that combats anti-Semitism, named after the Holocaust survivor and legendary Nazi hunter who died in 2005.

As the last active Nazi hunter, Zuroff recently published “Operation Last Chance,” in which he describes his active pursuit of murderers of Jews before it is too late. Currently, Zuroff is digging into the tiny Eastern European country of Lithuania. Aside from the biological connection to his uncle Efraim Zar, for whom he was named and who was murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust, for Zuroff Lithuania represents one of the most culpable countries with the highest number of perpetrators among the enemy nations. More than 90 percent of Lithuania’s 220,000 pre-war Jewish citizens were killed on Lithuanian grounds. Estimates put the number of perpetrators at 27,000, all but three never brought trial.

Into the picture came Ruta Vanagaite, a celebrated Lithuanian author of “Life After 50” about women thriving as they age and a soon-to-be-published book called “Him,” which explores the inner workings of men’s minds. Vanagaite, a graduate of the Moscow Theater Institute, also works as a journalist and PR consultant. Not long ago she began delving into WWII histories and was horrified to discover that her own relatives were complicit in the murders of Lithuanian Jews. Her interest led her to organize a program called “Being a Jew,” which she incorporated into schools and which explored Jewish culture and tradition as background for student visits to selected mass-murder sites in Lithuania. While organizing a conference for her project, she met Zuroff. She was warned to stay away from the “boogeyman,” but after giving more thought to Zuroff’s version of the story, she began to re-think what she had learned in Soviet-era textbooks. She realized that from her schooling to her children’s schooling, the same narrative had been passed down that minimized or ignored the Lithuanians’ role in the mass murder of Jews. At that point, she contacted Zuroff and they began their collaboration.

Many factors makes the Lithuanian complicity so blatant. First of all, in contrast to the Western countries, such as France, Belgium and Holland, who rounded up their Jews and sent them east to be eliminated, the Baltic States did their own killing. They were active in murdering their own Lithuanian neighbors prior to any Nazi soldiers entering their borders. From highly educated individuals to uneducated laborers, Lithuanian citizens enthusiastically took up the cause of ridding their country of “the condemned.” At points it was almost like a sport or pastime.

According to Vanagaite, “People left their jobs in the post office to become killers, students would take summer breaks from their studies to participate in mass murders. Some perpetrators even took their children to these events as outings.”

Under Communist domination, Eastern Europeans were taught that the great struggle of WWII was between the two ideologies — Nazism versus Communism, the Jews being the Communist enemy. In 1991,as the Eastern European countries were hoping to become members of NATO and the European Union, the nations were forced to acknowledge their guilt, apologize, commemorate the victims, re-work their prior historical narratives, take upon themselves restitution and re-educate the public. The new version of the story that emerged was that the Germans went into their country and “murdered [their] Jews.” The role of the perpetrators was minimized and the roster of “righteous gentiles” was suddenly greatly expanded.

It was against this new reality that Zuroff and Vanagaite began their collaboration. “Traveling With My Enemy: Combating Holocaust Distortion in Eastern Europe” became their mission. In the summer of 2015, Zuroff and Vanagaite visited over 40 of the 220 killing sites in towns and villages across Lithuania. They were the first people in 75 years to come by and interview the locals. Some had been firsthand witness in 1941 when they were 7 or 8 and were able to clearly recall what had taken place. Many of the elderly whom they interviewed were frightened and refused to be photographed lest they suffer consequences at the hands of their neighbors. Many of the sites they visited were neglected but still recognizable as mass killing areas.

Upon concluding their horrifying trip, Zuroff and Vanagaite collaborated on their findings in their book. According to Vanagaite, the title, “Musiskiai,” was meant to imply, as is illustrated in the opening page in the book, that Lithuania consists of “one unified people, whether the Olympic cyclist murdered in 1943 or the commander of a killing squad that murdered 50,000 Jews.”

Zuroff’s name does not appear as co-author of the book published in Lithuania, as, they explained, that would have doomed it from the get-go. Instead, his findings are reported throughout the book without attribution. Astonishingly, the 2500 copies of the book were sold out within two days of their publication. Interestingly, most of the copies were purchased by young readers eager to know more about their authentic history. They then went on to share their copies with the older generations who may still have been hiding their participation and sympathy. It could even have been that among their own household possessions were the belongings of the 220,000 Jews who perished at the hands of their compatriots.

Their book continues to be called “scandalous” by many Lithuanians who may or may not have read it. Vanagaite has been threatened to the point that security personnel have been hired to protect her at book talks. Yet they are still in pursuit of a publisher for their already-translated English version so that it can be brought to larger, worldwide audiences.

According to Zuroff, “During my many years as a Nazi hunter, I have tried not to make it personal, because then I would be consumed by the job. For years I was successful at keeping it so. But the road trips with Ruta were so emotionally horrifying that I felt for the first time that the Shoah had taken over my life.”

By Pearl Markovitz