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Published: 16 may 2012 12:19

Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis' reburial reignites historic debate on Lithuania's 1941 provisional government

Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis
Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis

Lithuania's preparations to welcome and rebury the remains of Juozas Brazaitis (Ambrazevičius), head of the country's provisional 1941 government, revived discussions over the controversial legacy of the Cabinet that operated for six weeks during World War II.

The provisional government is applauded for its efforts to restore the Lithuanian statehood that had been damaged by the Soviet occupation, while critics maintain that its policies were hostile towards Jews. Lithuania's current government earmarked funds for the reburial, yet it will not delegate ministers to official events.

After changing his name from Ambrazevičius to Brazaitis during World War II, he moved to the US and died there in 1974. He won recognition in Lithuania in 2009 when then President Valdas Adamkus awarded him with the highest state award – the Grand Cross of the Order of Vytautas the Great.

Adamkus remembered that the provisional government, which restored Lithuania's independence in 1941, when he was a 14-year-old student, remained his idol for the rest of his life.

The government, which announced the appeal to the nation, was the ideal that inspired patriotism in me, pride and belief in my nation. (Valdas Adamkus)

"I will never forget the minute when Kaunas radio suddenly started playing the national anthem, immediately after the first explosions ripped next to Kaunas. Once the radio was seized, Lithuania announced to the world it was returning to the company of free nations and proclaimed Lithuania's provisional government. There are no words to describe these feelings," Adamkus said in an interview to BNS.

"The government, which announced the appeal to the nation, was the ideal that inspired patriotism in me, pride and belief in my nation. Let me be honest - the day and the moment was my first conscious psychological breakthrough that made me what I am," the president said.

The Lithuanian independence declaration was read on the Kaunas radio in the morning of 23 June 1941. When the German troops entered the city on 25 June, the city was fully controlled by guerrillas.

Brazaitis took the helm of the provisional government after Kazys Skirpa, an intended leader of the Lithuanian activist front for resisting the Soviet regime, was barred by the German administration from returning to Lithuania.

However, actions of Germany's military and, later, civilian administration soon deprived the provisional government of the control of the restored Lithuanian administration. After refusing to become subordinate to the Germans, the provisional government terminated its activities on 5 August.

"The June uprising and formation of the provisional Lithuanian government proved the Lithuanian nation's aspiration for and ability to fight for independence," reads the Lithuanian Universal Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, critics say it shuts eyes on the dark side – the anti-Semitic policy.

MEP Leonidas Donskis believes that a solemn reburial supported by the current government means that "we, as a state, de facto assume the responsibility for the policies of the Cabinet."

"Unfortunately, the policies are sad, including the first days of the Lithuanian activist front, the radio address made by (the leader of the June Uprising Chief) Leonas Prapuolenis to recall the privilege granted to Jews by Vytautas the Great and listing Jews as traitors of Lithuania... This is something rather sad," he said.

"I do not identify the provisional government with the Nazis – they were not the same at all, but the fact is that they issued a number of laws and decrees that distinguished Jews from other citizens of Lithuania," Donskis told BNS.

In his opinion, solemn reburial of Brazaitis could undermine – in the eyes of Western democracies – the current Lithuanian administration's efforts to preserve the Jewish heritage in Lithuania and pay compensations for Jewish property nationalized by totalitarian regimes.

I'm afraid that the solemn event that the government contributes to wipes off the superior efforts and the work that was done in the past (to commemorate the Holocaust). I think it is a mistake. (Leonidas Donskis)

"Lithuania has made some very nice and kind gestures by announcing 2011 the Year of Remembrance of Holocaust Victims. It even excelled a number of Western countries on the issue of restitution of Jewish property. But you should agree two policies cannot be pursued – you can either honor Holocaust victims or honor a government which, in the eyes of the world, was on an entirely different side," Donskis said.

"I'm afraid that the solemn event that the government contributes to wipes off the superior efforts and the work that was done in the past. I think it is a mistake," he said.

The provisional government is viewed critically by the Lithuanian Jewish Community as well, saying that the policies, "which were in most cases dictated by the Lithuanian Activist Front, showed clearly to the Lithuanian population that Lithuanian Jews were not equal citizens," thus "encouraging, not halting, the massacre."

Furthermore, according to the statement issued by the community in 2010, there was "not a single public statement or other document issued by the provisional government of Lithuania in protest of the mass persecution of Lithuanian Jews."

"This is a Lithuanian business, however, Jews are Lithuanian citizens and were harmed by the provisional government, which de facto supported the Nazis. Official institutions should not support this. This compromises Lithuania in the eyes of the world," Simonas Alperavičius, chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, told BNS.

The provisional government was set up during the 1941 June uprising held by the Lithuanian Activist Front that cooperated with Germany. The uprising broke out after the start of the war between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Some Lithuanians were enthusiastic about the war, expulsion of the Soviets and the coming of Germans, especially because of the Soviet terror that culminated in massacres and deportations in June. Shortly after beign formed, the provisional government applauded Adolf Hitler's efforts to fight Bolshevism and announced its plans to join the "construction of a new Europe." However, the first weeks of the invasion to Lithuania brought pogroms, which killed thousands of local Jews.

Reviewer and journalist Vidmantas Valiušaitis said the provisional government is often assessed without proper consideration of the historical context and based on the stereotypes formed by the Soviets.

"The topic has been used for propaganda for 50 years. There is a certain stereotype that is rather popular around the globe. The Soviets wanted to compromise Brazaitis, as he was the symbol of Lithuanian attempts to restore independence," Valiušaitis told BNS.

(The provisional government) attempted to contact German army representatives and influence them into treating Jews as gently as possible. (Vidmantas Valiušaitis)

In his opinion, the past events cannot be judged "based on what we know today" – there were no suspicions at that time that the persecution of Jews would evolve into the Holocaust, nobody knew about the plans to establish a German province in the Baltic states. Furthermore, the provisional government had no real influence upon Nazi policy towards Jews.

"They attempted to contact German army representatives and influence them into treating Jews as gently as possible. They were told that neither Lithuanians, nor the army had any competence in connection to Jews, it was a matter of the SS and domestic policy," Valiušaitis said.

In his words, it is also important to refrain from identifying the provisional government with some members of the Lithuanian Activist Front who supported the Nazi policy.

Valiušaitis said there were many ambiguities regarding the so-called regulations on the Jewish situation discussed by the provisional government. The regulations are one of the key accusations against the provisional government.

He noted that there was no common opinion whether the regulations were ever adopted – they were never published and never operated and, furthermore, were more gentle than the earlier German rules.

During the German occupation, Brazaitis was an active figure of the anti-Nazi movement, and four members of the provisional government were sent to German concentration camps.

To avoid arrest during the war, he changed his name to Brazaitis and fled to Germany in 1944 and moved to the United States in 1951 to become an active figure in the Lithuanian expat community.

Lithuania values Brazaitis' merits to the Lithuanian literature and his research and pedagogical work. In the interwar period, he was a lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University, worked as a journalist and wrote a few biographical books.

Urns containing his remains will be welcomed at the Vilnius International Airport on Thursday, with farewell ceremonies scheduled to take place at the Christ's Resurrection Church in Kaunas on Friday and Saturday. He should be buried in the churchyard on Sunday.

Lithuania's government earmarked 30,000 litas (EUR 8,700), but the country's top officials will not attend the events. The reburial is part of the government-approved 2012 plan for fostering historical memory.

A conference on Brazaitis' research, educational, resistance and political activities was planed at Vytautas Magnus University on Saturday. However, the university said earlier this week it no longer wanted the event in its premises. A new venue is to be found. A premiere of a film on Brazaitis is scheduled at Romuva movie theater on Sunday.

About 23,000 Lithuanian residents were jailed, massacred or deported during the first Soviet occupation in 1940-1941, which was followed by a three-year Nazi rule that took lives of more than 90 percent of Lithuania's Jewish population of 200,000.

After the Soviets returned to Lithuania in 1944, the Soviet resumed its imprisonment and deportation policy, also killing over 20,000 guerrillas and their supporters.

Need for better understanding

United States Ambassador to Lithuanian Anne E. Derse also joined the discussion about the reburial of the remains of Juozas Brazaitis (Ambrazevičius), head of Lithuania's Provisional Government of 1941. She said that differences of opinion showed the need to step up work to ensure better understanding of Lithuania's tragic history during the Nazi and Soviet rule.

The ambassador paid attention to the Provisional Government's anti-Semitic laws because of which the reburial of Brazaitis' remains has been criticized by Jewish organizations.

"Opposition to this event stems from the fact that while Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis is being recognized for his role in Lithuania’s declaration of independence from Soviet occupation in June 1941, he was also the leader of a Provisional Government which presided over the adoption of anti-Semitic legislation that separated Jews, expropriated their property and set the stage for their mass murder," the ambassador said in a statement.

Derse also cited the investigation by the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes which states that the Provisional Government "made no specific public reference to the massacres of Jews which were taking place in Kaunas, on the government’s very doorstep," "made no discernible attempt to interfere with or, at the very least, disassociate themselves from the German takeover of the hastily formed units composed of former anti-Soviet partisans and Red Army deserters," and ultimately "failed in its responsibility to at least attempt to clearly state its opposition to the anti-Jewish violence beyond urging avoidance of “public massacres” of Jews."

"This controversy underscores the crucial importance of the International Commission’s resuming its historical work, intensifying its educational efforts and promoting an informed national examination and discussion of Lithuania’s tragic history under the Nazi and the Soviets," the US ambassador said in the statement.

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