January 27th is the United Nations-designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the world will remember the victims of the Holocaust. In Lithuania, where the massacre of the Jews was swift and brutal, teachers and students will join in this day of commemoration by launching a project called “The Rescue of Another is the Highest Human Virtue.”
On this 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, students throughout this small Baltic country will begin seeking out elders in their communities in a concerted search for untold stories of rescue – instances when non-Jewish Lithuanians sought to save their Jewish neighbors from death during World War II.
The goal is to “encourage the younger generation to understand that everyone is responsible for his or her actions, that good deeds and noble actions reveal a person’s moral and spiritual value,” according to the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, which organized the initiative along with the Vilnius Jewish Public Library.
For centuries, Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors lived in Lithuania in peace. During World War II, however, this place of relative harmony became a land of ghettos and mass murder. By the end of the war, only six percent of Lithuania's 240,000 Jews remained.
Some of the Jews who did survive were saved by non-Jewish Lithuanians who smuggled them out of ghettos, pulled them out of death marches, concealed them in barns and cubbyholes, and secretly passed them from home to home.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, has honored 877 Lithuanian “righteous gentiles” who risked their lives to save Jews.
Renowned rescuers in Lithuania include Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat stationed in the city of Kaunas who defied orders to help thousands escape to safety, and Ona Simaite, a librarian at Vilnius University who made repeated forays into the Vilna ghetto to bring in money and bring out children. Dr. Petras Baublys worked with the Jewish underground in the Kovno (Kaunas) ghetto to hide dozens of children in his orphanage.
At the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, an exhibit called "Rescued Lithuanian Jewish Child Tells About the Shoah" presents the stories of child survivors who were aided by Lithuanian neighbors. “These stories show that people had a choice,” says curator Danute Selcinskaya. “This is the medicine for the unhealing wounds of the Holocaust.”
The exhibit does not hide the fact that rescuers were few and far between within the Lithuanian population. “We talk about the killers,” Selcinskaya says, “and about the many Lithuanians who participated in the civil administration of the Nazi regime. The stories we tell are as complex as the reality.”
As students talk with their elders about the lost Jewish world, they will help to determine whether Lithuania is destined to be a place where neo-Nazi voices grow louder, or a land where people take Holocaust remembrance seriously and dedicate themselves to ensuring that such a tragedy cannot happen again.
Together, old and young will explore questions of vital importance: What do we expect of ordinary people in extraordinary times? What would I have done? And what will I do?
As they ponder these questions, Lithuania’s young people will have the opportunity to become a new generation of rescuers – rescuers of their nation’s memory, rescuers of moral conscience.