An unknown fact: Lithuania was the first country in the world to issue Jews with “Visas to Life”

Foto: Lehtikuva / Scanpix

Lithuania is constantly defending itself against accusations or dubious statements that Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust. At the same time it's usually in the archives of historians where information is discovered about Lithuanians who, before anybody else, were opening up a path for refugees who were Jewish and of other nationalities, Lietuvos Žinos writes.

According to the creator of the television program "Menorah" Stasys Lozoraitis and Inter-cultural dialog award winner Vitalijus Karakorskis, it's strange that so little is said both inside and outside of Lithuania of the deeds of Lithuanian intellectuals in 1939. The journalist who for many years has been researching Lithuanian-Jewish relations shared with Mr. Lozoraitis his new discoveries and insight.

- Why are you interested in that the Lithuanian diplomats who saved Jews?

- I've been interested in Jewish refugees and their fate for a long time. It is by the way a topic that is well-known to Lithuanian historians but little known to a wider audience. What's more, interest in the refugees naturally lead to an interest in the diplomats from various countries who saved them. The Lithuanian share of this history stuck in my head when in about 2000 there was a huge international event in New York to honour the "righteous among nations" where around 84 diplomats from 24 countries where mentioned. Unfortunately there were no Lithuanians amongst them although it was namely our diplomats who were the first to issue "visas to life".

- Was the central Lithuanian figure in your research Birutė Verkelytė-Fedaravičienė who recently passed away?

- When I became interested in the life and actions of Birutė Verkelytė-Fedaravičienė I discovered that she had close relations with the Jewish community, relations which were not limited to just her work in the Lithuanian consulate in 1939. She graduated from a Lithuanian school in Vilnius and studied in the Stefan Batory University where she endured hardships along with the Jewish students. Polish students would refuse to share desks with both Jewish and the few Lithuanian students. It was namely Birutė Verkelytė-Fedaravičienė who was the first to set an example and occupy a place in "her" part of the auditorium with the Jewish students.

She knew all too well about the struggles of Lithuanians in the Vilnius area. Yet the purpose of my research was to cast a light another less known work of hers, one that is little known of in Lithuania but almost unknown anywhere else and that was her work as one of the righteous among nations – saving thousands of Polish citizens amongst whom were Polish Jews – at the very beginning of the Second World war, something diplomats of no other country were doing.

- Birutė Verkelytė-Fedaravičienė worked at the Lithuanian consulate in Vilnius but she was not a diplomat. What do we know about that short-lived mission?

- The consulate was opened on the 2nd of September 1939 just after the war began. Two prominent Lithuanians worked there – Antanas Trimiakas and Viktoras Čečėta. The consulate was located on the Gediminas Avenue in the building of the St George Hotel.

As a matter of fact it was in that very same hotel, when the Soviets invaded, that Lavrenty Beria's deputy Vsevolod Merkulov stayed. He arrived in Vilnius with the documents of "General Petrov" when the consulate was still in functioning and after many years it was Viktoras Čečėta, who had seen a photograph of Vsevolod Merkulov and who confirmed to historians that he was indeed the secretive "General Petrov" who was staying at the St George hotel.

With the arrival of the Soviets the first to suffer were the Poles and of course the Jews who had fled the war. The Consulate of Lithuania played the most important role in the fate of these people. Soviet suppression of the Lithuanians was still to come.

- The Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara is the most well-known of saviour of Lithuanian Jews

- I think that there is confusion around this issue. It could be that most Lithuanian Jews were saved in Kaunas when Chiune Sugihara was there as was the resident British diplomat Harold Preston who, despite London's opinion to the contrary, issued at least 1 200 authorisations for Jews to go to Palestine.

At that time, according to the information that I have, Chiune Sugihara compiled the documents mostly for those refugees, whose document our diplomats has endorsed in Lithuania.

Chiune Sugihara performed great work using a refugee migration plan – not to Japan but to territory conquered by Japan. For example, a large Jewish community formed in Shanghai and in the puppet state of Manchuria where the Japanese even planned to settle Jews.

Chiune Sugihara's name is indeed known throughout the world but I have discovered also "strange" depictions of his life story, including a film which shows a "No Jews allowed" sign hung up in Kaunas. Imagine! That's simply absurd. I later found out where the idea for that sign most likely came from - in an actual photograph of the Sugihara family they're shown next to a sign just like that in occupied Prague.

Most importantly in my opinion is the silence or misunderstanding around what Chiune Sugihara did, namely that he saved the Jews in Lithuania not from the Nazis but from the Soviets. That means he continued the work started by the Lithuanian diplomats. Furthermore, the USSR profited from the Jews saved by Chiune Sugihara; lots of money of money was 'extracted' from them as they passed through Soviet territory.

- So the Lithuanian consulate in Vilnius was the first diplomatic mission to save Jews as of the first days of the war?

- I doubt whether there would have been anyone for Chiune Sugihara to save had the status of those very same refugees in Lithuania been authorised. After they received Lithuanian documents they could then appeal. There were so many refugees that saving so many Jews and even more Poles became the most important work at the consulate. At that time Lithuania treated citizens of Poland very humanely.

Also, there were two streams of refugees – one going through Vilnius and another through Suwalki. The latter stream was dealt with in Kaunas by a special institution – the Commissariat for Refugee Affairs. This institution continued to function for some time even when Vilnius was returned to Lithuania and the consulate was closed.

One thing I just don't understand is why Lithuania doesn't remind the world that in 1934 it handed over an official note to Germany warning that no action be taken against Lithuanian Jewish citizens living in Germany, and also that Lithuania was the first country in the world in which a Nazi trial took place? Moreover, today it is estimated that throughout the world there are about 50 thousand descendants of the people that Chiune Sugihara saved but does anyone know that it was Lithuanian diplomats who were the first to deal with these people?

We defend ourselves against Holocaust accusations yet we don't tell the world about the facts that counteract this. It's unfortunate therefore that that at events such as the one in New York no mention is made of Birutė Verkelytė-Fedaravičienė, Antanas Trimakas or Viktoras Čečėta.

- Diplomats of which countries were most evident when it came to saving Jews and when?

- According to the information that I have gathered diplomats of the various countries who systematically saved Jews did so as of 1940; Lithuanian diplomats were doing it as of 1939.

I'll go so far as to state that in Europe there were four centres for saving Jews – Marseilles, Zurich, Budapest and Vilnius. Diplomats were working for a time in Vichy-run Marseilles and it can be said that saving Jews became a quite a phenomenon. In neutral Zurich diplomats of certain Latin American countries were very evident. For instance at that time in El Salvador the number of Jews in country "suddenly" increased and this small country was almost the "Jerusalem of America" (he laughs – author's note).

I would also call Budapest a centre because for a long time Hungary resisted Nazi demands to hand over Jews. Anti-Semitic laws were of course in effect as they were for example in Italy, Bulgaria and Romania however they were applied without German "fervour" and that meant that there were a lot less victims. When the German army marched into Hungary and started deporting Jews to concentration camps, the dictator Miklos Horthy threatened to use the last army divisions loyal to him against Germany. Diplomats of neutral countries also worked in Budapest including the legendary Raoul Wallenberg.

And then finally there's Vilnius. From a chronological point of view this centre could be considered the first thanks to the efforts of the Lithuanian diplomats.

- What fate awaited the Jews in Vilnius who were saved by staff at the Lithuanian consulate?

- I initially mentioned Birutė Verkelytė-Fedaravičienė who went to live in Kaunas and despite the danger to her family hid Jews during the Nazi occupation. It could be that these anti-Nazi actions that later saved her from Soviet repression. However her husband, Petras Federavičius, was repressed when the Soviets came back as were many people in Soviet-controlled countries who saved Jews.

Antansas Trimakas managed to flee to the West where from 1953 to 1967 he was head of the Chief Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania. Viktoras Čečėta was deported and he to all intents and purposes can be considered the first diplomat in the world who saved Jews and who was repressed.

Here I'd like to add that unlike in the Western countries, in the Soviet-controlled countries after the war a lot of diplomats and politicians who saved Jews were repressed. I'd also like to say that I have never managed to find information about any diplomat of the USSR who saved Jews although right up to 22 June 1941 they had all the means to do so.

The most well-known victim of the Soviets (even though Moscow still denies it) was Raoul Wallenberg. Interestingly enough I heard a story that in 1953 just before the death of Joseph Stalin a decision was made in Moscow to "resolve" the Wallenberg murder trial; two Hungarian Jews (leaders of the Hungarian and Budapest Jewish communities) and two Hungarians who helped Wallenberg save Jews were arrested.

All four of them were tortured and forced to testify against each other. The torture was so horrific that one of the arrested Jews, brought by relatives to Australia never regained his sanity and the other one died shortly just after his release. The trial didn't take place because Stalin died. I would however like to say that writers such as Rūta Vanagaitė do remember what these four people and their 'confessions' meant.

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