Category Archives: History and Memory

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Archives: Excerpts from Testimonies about the Holocaust in Lithuania

Ina Navazelskis (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Most of the 12,500 Holocaust-related oral history testimonies in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) were conducted with Holocaust survivors. However, some 1450 are interviews also with non-Jews, who provide direct eyewitness testimony to many aspects of the Holocaust. In my presentation I will highlight those witness testimonies that relate to the Baltics, including how the some 350 interviewees from the Baltic countries were identified and interviewed.

In addition, I will show excerpts from some interviews relating to Lithuania. Among the interviewees will be Ada Gens, daughter of Vilnius ghetto police chief Jakubas Gensas, who witnessed key events in the Vilna ghetto from 1941 until 1943. Another will be excerpts from an interview with Algimantas Gureckas, a long-time member of the US branch of Lithuanian World Community, a non-governmental organization that brought together Lithuanians living outside of Lithuania. Gureckas witnessed some of the repression that led to the eventual murder of Jews in northeastern Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Questions relating to how these oral histories inform Holocaust scholarship will be addressed. What do they contribute? How should they be used? What are the limitations of these individual testimonies?

Finally, I will briefly describe the digitized collection at the USHMM of about 100 million documents from the International Tracing Service (ITS), established after the war to help reunite families separated by the war and to trace missing individuals. Three quarters of these documents relate to non-Jewish refugees. I will provide samples of these ITS documents from some Lithuanian refugees to illustrate how they can augment oral history testimonies.

Four Baltic Proposals for European Unification in World War II

Pauli Heikkilä (University of Tartu)

During World War II, the general trend in post-war planning by the Western allies was to create a permanent system for European international politics.  This meant federations for the entire continent or, less ambitiously, on a regional basis.  The work of governmental offices was supported also by exile politicians. This paper will present four Baltic proposals for European (and Baltic) reconstruction and compare them with each other and with the overall plans in general.

The best-known proposal, by the Lithuanian Kazys Pakštas, was outlined in his book Baltoscandian Confederation, published by the Lithuanian Cultural Institute in Chicago in 1942.  The Latvian legation in Washington, D.C., had a similar intention when in 1943 they published Alfred Bīlmanis’ Baltic States in Post-War Europe.  Behind closed doors, Estonian Alexander Warma handed his plans for consolidating European peace to an American official in Helsinki in December 1942.  Lastly, Jānis Volmārs finished his book on European customs union in Göttingen as late as 1949, but as his premises apply explicitly to the situation preceding the war, it is justified to include his book here.

A comparison of these proposals shows that the plans differed not only in their concept of the Baltic but also how it was related to the expected forthcoming European federation.  They also disagreed on the tasks and duties of their proposed union.  However, the proposals agreed on maintaining peace and stated that the purpose of a Baltic union was to assist in avoiding the conflicts of the greater powers.

Keyword: Heikkila

Why the Baltic States in 1917-1921? The Role of International Politics


Chair:               Olavi Arens (Armstrong State University), with participants:

Karsten Brüggemann (University of Tallinn)

Vėjas Gabriel Liulevičius (University of Tennessee)

Eero Medijainen (University of Tartu)

The panel will discuss the establishment of the Baltic States in the post-WW I world from the perspective of international politics of the period.  While the perspectives of the major powers (Germany, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and United States) differed, we will address some of the common features, as well as difference, in their views and policies toward the Baltic States.

Keyword: Bruggemann

Keword: Liulevicius

Keyword: Vejas

County-Level Operative Groups and the Occupation of Estonia of 1944

Ardi Sillaberg (University of Tartu)

The second occupation of Estonia by the Soviet Union during World War II took place from February to November 1944.  To restart and control the re-sovietization of the conquered territory behind the Red Army, Soviet leaders decided to send into German-occupied Estonia operative groups of security forces and civil servants, including institutions of the Estonian Communist Party (ECP).

In the fall of 1943 Moscow gave orders to the projected leaders of the Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to prepare a conjoined project for a new Soviet county-level administrative structure.  Shortly thereafter, orders came to begin assembling staff for county-level institutions—both party and executive committees—into operative groups.   There were separate operative groups for Tallinn and Narva as these were considered to be the most important cities in Estonia.  There also were separate operative groups for both the NKVD (Internal Affairs forces) and NKGB (state security forces).

Most of the operative groups began their activities in early March 1944, but in April 1944 the ECP Central Committee gave orders to postpone active preparations for return to Estonia.  In June the Central Committee concluded that only half of the personnel had been gathered for future Soviet institutions and that most had little to no qualifications.  From that point on, the only requirement for positions in the ESSR was knowledge of Estonian.  During the following months, quantity of future ESSR workers prevailed over quality, and this became the primary obstacle during the fall of 1944 when the re-sovietization of Estonia began.

Stalinist-Era Policies of Repression and Mass Arrests in the Baltic Countries, 1944-1945: The Case of Estonia

Meelis Saueauk (University of Tartu)

Mass arrests were an integral part of the sovietization of the Baltic region.  With the re-occupation of the Baltic countries by the Red Army in 1944, mass arrests were carried out in 1944 and 1945 by units from the organs of Soviet state security—the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security), and SMERSH (the Red Army’s counter-intelligence agency).  These arrests were the most numerous in the Baltic region during the entire period of Soviet rule.  This paper discusses these arrests, focusing on those in Estonia.

Arrests in the Baltic were also carried out by sub-units of the NKVD and NKGB that existed only formally under the jurisdiction of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian Soviet Socialists Republics, formed behind the lines in the USSR during the war.  These units were manned in part by Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians.

According to instructions from Moscow, supporters of independence in the Baltic region were slated for arrest; these were to be branded as “bourgeois nationalists” and collaborators with the Germans.  This effort was given to local Communist Party organization.  There was no meaningful control over the extent of the arrests due to the fact that so many offices were authorized to carry them out.  Consequently, it is difficult to determine with precision how many people were arrested; the surest method for a careful investigation of the arrests is to research each individual case and determine the fate of the person involved, despite the time and effort this requires.

Terror and Collectivization in 1929-32 and 1947-49: A Contextualization

Anu Mai Kõll (Södertörn University, Sweden)

The Soviet collectivization campaign that began in 1929 is generally regarded as a starting point of the “Stalin revolution.”  It served as a blueprint for the collectivization campaigns that took place in the late 1940s in the newly occupied areas of the Soviet Union—the Baltic states, western Ukraine and Moldova.

Interestingly, access to source materials since perestroika has not dramatically changed the picture of the initial Soviet collectivization campaign, while research in the Baltic states, and to some extent western Ukraine, has mushroomed in the last twenty years.  This paper presents a survey of the literature and tries to see what from the experiences of 1929-32 was used in the later campaigns and what was changed.  In the latter part, the focus is on Estonia.

While historians tend to agree on the intentions for launching the campaign against the kulak class, there are differences as to what extent it succeeded in breaking the back of the peasantry. There are also some questions regarding the procedure and the responsibility of differing Soviet institutions.  When it comes to the corresponding campaign in the late 1940s, one obvious difference is the impact of World War II and the German occupation of the new areas.  However, the war is not addressed at all in much of the existing literature.

Keyword: Koll

Estonian “June Communists” and Western European Fellow Travelers

Jaak Valge (Tallinn University)

Among the ministers of the Estonian pseudo-government that rose to power in June 1940, there were no prison-hardened old underground communists.  Like the pseudo-governments in the other Baltic countries, this Soviet-sponsored government has been called a “literary”-type government; since among the ministers there were a number intellectuals, the name is apposite.

The reason often posited why these individuals began working for Moscow seems at the first glance logical and persuasive: the authoritarian regime that emerged before the loss of the independence in Estonia and other Baltic countries rejected the intelligentsia.  However, further research reveals this was not the main reason.   An additional suggested reason that the left intelligentsia was willing to begin serving Soviet power in the summer of 1940 is their desire to soften the process of sovietization of Estonia.  This theory, however, is not supported by the evidence.

This presentation analyzes the views of the left intelligentsia in the 1920s and 1930s and their motives in 1940.  What brought such a large proportion of the left intelligentsia to serve Moscow in 1940?  What was the appeal of Soviet communism?  Did their views and actions differ from those of their Western European fellow travelers, and if so, how?  Is there reason to think that had the Soviet Union had occupied a Western European country, many of their local left intelligentsia would have also been willing to serve the occupying power?

Friends in the North? Finnish and Estonian Defense Capability in the Reports of Polish Military Attachés in Helsinki and Tallinn/Riga, 1919-1939

Piotr Wawrzeniuk (Södertörn University, Sweden)

On the eve of World War I, Finland, Estonia, and Poland were among the new states that appeared out of the fallen empires of the Romanovs,  Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs.  Using source material from Polish archives, this presentation follows the quest for security among these three states through the eyes of Polish military attachés.  Polish military analyzers held a wide view of security that ranged from state domestic politics and economy to purely military matters.  The material provides valuable insights into Polish perceptions of Finland and Estonia during the interwar period.

This paper follows the failed attempts to form a military alliance among the so-called “border states” situated between the Soviet Union and Germany.  It then analyzes the Polish evaluations of Finland and Estonia in light of their anti-Soviet fears.  Although there was no military cooperation reminiscent of a military alliance, the military elites strived to create insights into one another’s work, and there was ongoing exchange of intelligence.  While the military circles of the three countries retained a considerable degree of mutual understanding, the gap and distrust between politicians remained wide.  In a world viewed as increasingly hostile by the small states, even the slightest expressions of goodwill and understanding were evaluated in detail from the perspective of one’s own security.

Security in the Baltic: Swedish Military Assessments of Finland, Estonia and Poland in the Interwar Period, 1920–1939

Fredrik Eriksson (Södertörn University, Sweden)

This paper focuses on how Swedish military attachés assessed Finland, Estonia and Poland during the interwar Period.  The aim is to explain how the attachés described their respective assigned countries concerning military structure and development, political development and stability, and the role each state played in the Swedish understanding of security in the Baltic.  Based on Swedish material, the paper will address the role each state had in the security policy of the region.  Although Sweden was neutral, its neighbors all played vital roles in a regional security system.  In terms of theory, the paper relies on belief systems in explaining the foundations for Swedish military assessments of these border-states.  In general, the situation after World War I was seen in positive terms as Sweden was protected from Russia by a shield of border-states.  At the same time, these states’ political systems were judged as unstable, which entailed the expectation of additional incoming information, for example from attachés.  The role of the military attaché as an observer of the political and military stability of the new states was crucial.  The information provided by the attachés was used in the Defense Commissions of the 1930s.  At the same time, the material they collection gives insight into the daily routines of military attachés concerning contacts and judging information.

Greimas (1917-1992) as Schizophrenic: The Lithuanian Publications

Thomas F. Broden (Purdue University)

“I am double,” A. J. Greimas once observed; “I’m a perfect schizophrenic: I live in two languages that don’t intersect.”  The scholar, known throughout the world, was a specialist in linguistics and semiotics who taught in Paris and wrote and spoke in French.  Yet throughout his career, Greimas published continuously in Lithuanian.  A member of the first generation to grow up in an independent Lithuania since the Middle Ages and to be schooled in Lithuanian, he published in his native tongue in order to be an active member of the greater Lithuanian community, to share his knowledge of ground-breaking trends in French intellectual life, and to defend and illustrate the language.  The texts discussed in this paper reveal three facets of his oeuvre and his person quite different from his familiar academic Gallic persona.

First, whereas non-Lithuanians knew Greimas only as an “expert” in his field, he in fact functioned as a complete modern “intellectual,” publically reflecting and taking positions on a wide range of topical issues.  Secondly, alongside the French linguist’s highly scientific discourse, Lithuanian readers knew Greimas as a literary critic enamored of innovative lyrical works which he presented in an emotionally rich prose.  This voice stunned non-Lithuanians when they heard it for the first time in the scholar’s last sole-authored book written in French (1987).  Lastly, a steady stream of scholarship in Lithuanian on comparative mythology establishes that field as a major focus of his career and figures as a central component of his ongoing intellectual legacy.