By Tim Whewell
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents
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 war crimes.
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".
Fania Brantsovskaya was questioned about a 1944 massacre
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 by them.
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 that about 95% of the country's Jews - 200,000 people - were killed by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. This is 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 controversial events.
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 Gilbert.
"The Commission 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 investigate."
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.
"The participation 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."
"The Holocaust 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 society."
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 regime.
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.
Former Soviet political prisoners mark the 1941 mass deportation of Lithuanians to Siberia
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 partisans.
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.
Crossing Continents: The battle for memory was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 17 July at 1102 BST.
We asked for your comments, a selection of which you can read below.
I find the Zionist propensity to ignore the deaths of five million non-Jews during the Holocaust to be reprehensible. I am also appalled at the undermining of Lithuania's attempts to investigate the crimes committed by the Soviets during Stalin's reign. Few Westerners are even aware that during the "Sitzkrieg" following the German invasion of Poland, while French and British armies did nothing, Soviet armies conquered Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and eastern Poland, and began purging millions of people. Are those lives of no value because they were Gentiles and not Jews? Does their blood not cry out for justice?
Zionists are experts at historical revisionism. Do American and British schoolchildren today learn of the murders of British soldiers and officials by Jewish Irgun and Stern Gang terrorists? No. Do they learn that as a young man Menachem Begin eagerly participated in the extermination of a village full of Arab women, children and old men? No. And now the Zionist lobby is intent on denying the role which Jews played in the conquest and occupation of Eastern Europe. For shame!
Justice for some, but not for all, is not true Justice.
Christian Leopold Shea, Hollywood, California, USA
I find the following comment from the article interesting, "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." Many people who joined Nazi efforts only did so because they thought it was the only way to get rid of Soviet oppression. I dont think that everyone who joined Nazi forces should be vilified, similarly I dont think that everyone who joined soviet forces, such as Dr. Arad should be vilified. WW2 was a very complex and difficult time. It is easy to judge people more than 60 years later.
Yuriy, New York, US
I don't understand why saying that Jews were not the only victims of the holacaust and uncovering the truth (if that is what it is) about Jewish involvement in war crimes, is the same as rewriting history. History is what happened, not how you interpret it. What is Israel really frightened of? That if we find out that some Jews were also capable of murder, then somehow the slaughter of Jews during WW2 will be invalidated? The truth is that millions of non-Jews also perished, including 3 million christian Poles as well as homosexuals, gypsies and the disabled, and that there were a few Jewish collaborators. Why are we not allowed to talk about this?
Ewa, Krakow, Poland
Dr Arad is clearly right when he says 'joining the Soviet-led resistance forces was effectively his only means of staying alive in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, and might I add - putting up some form of RESISTANCE to the unspeakable crimes winessed there. For a background to this period, may I recommend Primo Levi's factually-based book - 'If not now, when'.
Laurence Whitfield, 72181 Starzach-Sulzau, Germany.
I completely understand the sensitivity towards this subject. But the idea of preventing people from asking questions and investigating contradicts what are considered to be standard liberties and rights. Instead of viciously attacking these investigators, I think cooperation and dialogue would be the better approach. With the current response (of Israel, etc.), it just looks like they're trying to hide something.
Being German and married to a Jewish wife we visited her relatives in Vilnius 20 years ago. There was a discussion in this family if they would accept a German as a guest. It was settled by the family elder who was interned in a German concentration camp during the war. He reminded them that several thousand Jews survived in Berlin hidden from the Nazis by their neighbors. Nothing like this is heard of about Vilnius.
Interesting story, I find it rather bizarre that when any " Jews " are merely questioned over possible war crimes it is labeled as a scandal, a fabrication , or a distortion and attempt to rewrite history by Isreal and others. Get real people , the jewish partisans were no different than anyone else in the war , they would have killed innocent people to.It is so hypocritical to jump up and down and say they should not be investigated.
Remy 1100, Perth,Australia
I am not entirely surprised by this development. Lithuania is a country in serious denial about their tainted WW2 past. During a visit to Vilnius in 2003, I was amazed to find that the city's famed "Museum of Genocide Victims" was almost entirely focused on the 75,000 (non-Jewish) victims of the Soviet occupation. The only item in the whole "genocide" museum that mentioned the murder of 200,000 Jewish Lithuanians was a small placard in a hallway that estimated that the Nazis had killed 240,000 Lithuanians in a three year period "including about 200,000 Jews".
The bus tour of the city offered more of the same: after hearing mind-numbing architectural details about every church and monument, the tape-recorded narration offered just a terse comment when it passed the site of the Jewish ghetto, pointing out that this was where tens of thousands of Jews had been killed.
The whole experience was a creepy reminder of the fact that the Lithuanian Jews were not slaughtered just by the invading Nazis, but also by their Lithuanian neighbors.
Mithra Busler, Red Bank, USA
Here we go again. In a world were we can investigate anything, the existence of god, the cosmos, Presidents...anything, one thing remains untouchable, The holocaust. Why? what is it that some people want to hide? if there is nothing to hide, then allow people to do their investigations and present their evidence, just as is done with any other topic.
Jews expect a special, privileged treatment and praise for whatever, whenever they have done.It's not fair. Many Poles and other people of this part of Europe know very much about the terrible involvement of many Jews into the Communist crimes.Trotsky, Sverdlov, Zinovjev, Kamenev, Lenin himself ( partially ), Jagoda, crowds of leading Polish, Hungarian, Rumanian commies etc.
Stefan Weber, Poznan, Poland
Surely the important thing here is that ALL war crimes are investigated. The Holocaust was a terrible thing, but if Jews participated in war crimes then they should be brought to justice just as the Nazis and their supporters are.
To say that they should not investigate the allegations just because they are Jewish and they suffered during the Holocaust is an injustice to those Jews who were killed in the Holocaust, anyone who may have been killed by Jews committing war crimes and every soldier that fought and died to stop the atrocities of WWII
Jamie, Austin, TX
"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"."
While Sir Martin Gilbert is Britain's foremost World War II historian, I feel that when using his name in this context, it is important to point out the fact that he is also Jewish.