[Click here for Part 1] In a follow-up email exchange, Prof. Sužiedėlis responded in meticulous detail to my question about comparing the war-time and post-war experiences of the three Baltic countries:
. . . When dealing with the history of the Reichskommissariat Ostland, which included Estonia, Latvia and Belarus as well as Lithuania, I try not to generalize too much when referring to the role and attitude of non-Jews. The experience of the non-Jewish populations of the four different countries during the Nazi occupation was vastly different.
Of course, the Holocaust was the singular crime which enveloped all of the Ostland province. However, in contrast to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, non-Jewish Belarusians (like the ethnic Poles) suffered mass atrocities which in scale (millions of victims) cannot be compared to sufferings of ethnic Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, where the victims at the hands of the Nazis numbered in the thousands, many times less. The Belarusian experience was also different in that the population in the central and eastern part of the republic had been under Soviet rule for two decades, while the other Baltic peoples has just undergone a traumatic year of Sovietization (1940-1941) which had greatly increased tensions and encouraged violent clashes among the different nationalities and social groups on the eve of the German invasion.
Prof. Sužiedėlis (rt.) at Vilnius Jewish Public Library
The difference in the way in which non-Jews experienced the German occupation is a complicating factor in their coming to terms with the Holocaust. In Latvia the Jewish community was about three time smaller than in Lithuania. In Estonia, the Jews numbered a few thousand. Thus, the overall scale of violence was less and native collaboration was, in numerical terms, less extensive than in Lithuania. (The issue of the Latvian and Estonian Waffen SS divisions, the so-called “legions,” is a different issue.) According to one well-researched estimate, the total number of indigenous civilian victims in Estonia was about 8,000, of whom about 1,000 were Jews. Estonia is unique in Eastern Europe in that the majority of Nazi victims in the country were not Jews.
Thus, one is hard put to explain to an Estonian today that the Holocaust was the worst experience in their country’s history: statistically many more Estonians perished under the Soviets than the Nazis. I tried to make clear that the Lithuanian case, where the number of Jews murdered was a hundred-fold greater, is the reverse of the Estonian one. It is simple to prove to a Lithuanian that the Holocaust was indeed the bloodiest page in the country’s modern history, although whether a person wishes to internalize that fact and make the appropriate conclusions is another matter.
You are right that Estonia and especially Latvia are undergoing serious problems in dealing with the post-colonial issue of the very large Russophone minorities which had arrived after World War II. (In Lithuania, it is the Polish rather than the Russian minority which is a source of conflict.) But I’m not sure that Latvians or Estonians are any more xenophobic than Lithuanians, if one considers the right-wing demonstrations that have recently marred the celebration of independence days in Vilnius and Kaunas.
The Latvians and Estonians have also done considerable research on the Holocaust since 1990, but there is still continued resistance among the older generation in accepting the fact of native collaboration in the murder of the Jews. The poor relations of the Baltic States vis-à-vis the Russian government have led to “wars of memory” and, in consequence, highly politicized and clashing historical narratives played out in the international and diplomatic arenas. While this has little effect on academic research, the knee-jerk reaction to the Russians’ narrative of World War II sometimes indirectly complicates public discussions of the Holocaust.
To continue with the Lithuanian story, consider reading YIVO’s Yedies blog for a two-part interview with Dr. Donskis: The Painful Dilemma of Memory Politics [Part I] and Part II. One of the two interviewers is YIVO’s Director of Digital Initiatives, Roberta Newman, an old friend from our days together in Americans for Progressive Israel, a predecessor of Partners for Progressive Israel.