Holocaust Teacher Resource Center

HOLOCAUST TEACHER RESOURCE CENTER
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Part One, Page Three

SECTION 1: (00:00-16:57)

Judy's mother, Mina, and father, Osser Beker
Judy’s mother, Mina, and father, Osser Beker

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

LITHUANIA
Lithuania is one of three Baltic States situated on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. (Refer to Appendix D for a map of the region.) Lithuania was founded as a state in the twelfth century, united with Poland in 1385 by royal marriage, and incorporated into Russia in 1795. Lithuania remained under Russian control until the of World War I, at which time it regained independence. Soviet Russia invaded Lithuania in 1940 and withdrew only when German forces moved against the Soviet Union in 1941, at which time Lithuania came under German occupation.

Prior to the atrocities that occurred during World War II, Jewish life had existed, flourished and wavered in Lithuania for hundreds of years. Although Lithuanian Jews did not have full rights under any of the ruling governments, they were often permitted to govern their own communities by Jewish law and to operate their own schools. Lithuania’s Jewish religious schools became famous and supplied rabbis and scholars to much of the world. The Jewish Lithuanian community also produced physicians, writers, and secular scholars.

The limited autonomy that Jewish Lithuanians experienced was part of a more general trend toward Jewish emancipation in Europe. Jews were never granted complete autonomy by any European country until the twentieth century, but, the end of the 19th century, Jewish civil rights were the topic of numerous conferences, and some European countries considered Jews a religious or ethnic minority, which provided Jewish communities with some protection and, in a cases, autonomy.

After the First World War, Lithuania provided the most generous minority rights of any of the newly independent Baltic states. Jews were represented in the government by a Ministry of Jewish Affairs. The Ministry’s official news report was published in Yiddish, one of the official languages of the land. Jewish schools received government financial support, Jewish cultural life flourished, and Jewish sports groups were formed. Jews opened their own non-exclusive banking network and contributed to the economic recovery of Lithuania. They participated at all levels of society. Unfortunately, the winds of fascism and racism reached Lithuania and in 1924 a more right-wing group took power. That administration abolished the Ministry of Jewish Affairs, and the rights of Jewish and other minorities began to erode. By the time the Soviets arrived to occupy Lithuania in June 1940, many Jews had been squeezed out of their jobs and livelihoods by anti-Semitic Lithuanian policies. Jews desperate for work accepted jobs in the Soviet administration, which only added to the resentment Lithuanian nationalists felt against Jews.

The restriction of Lithuanian Jewish rights prior to World War II was part, of a more general movement toward nationalism across Europe at the time. Dictatorships emerged in many European governments, a development which allowed anti–Semitism to surface within the political, cultural, and economic spheres. The Nuremberg Laws passed by the German Reichstag in 1935 are the most notorious example of the rapid growth of anti-Semitism during this period. These laws, which the Nazis enforced in all European countries they occupied during World War II, revoked Jewish citizenship and forbade certain kinds of interactions between Jews and non-Jews. The Nuremberg Laws were part of a larger pattern of laws designed to deprive European Jews of their civil rights and to separate them from non-Jewish Europeans. The laws eventually made possible the detainment, deportation, and mass slaughter of European Jews.

The rise of Nazism, the increase of anti-Semitism, and anti-Soviet sentiment among non-Jewish Lithuanians account for the pogroms (organised massacres) of Jews carried out by the Lithuanians even before the Germans invaded Lithuania. When the Germans occupied Lithuania in the summer of 1941, the Soviets fled in one day, leaving behind the Lithuanian nationalists who shared Germany’s anti-Semitic hatred. The Nazis were able to exploit the emotions of the nationalists and used their services to help the Einsatzgruppen systematically slaughter tens of thousands of Lithuanian Jews.