Efraim Zuroff is the Director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I met him last March in his Jerusalem office and we discussed his ongoing efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of atrocities during the Second World War. He recently visited Vilnius, Lithuania, where his great-uncle was kidnapped on July 13, 1941, by a gang of Lithuanians “roaming the streets of the city looking for Jews with beards to arrest.” We also discussed the efforts of Lithuania and other countries to whitewash their role in the Holocaust. And a pretty bad role they had.
As the German army went deep into Soviet territory after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, special units went right behind them all along the front with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing every Jew in the numerous Jewish communities that lived there. As a result of their murderous work about 1.5 million Jews were killed. The process was slow, bloody, and was affecting the morale of the Germans. Not because they felt pangs of conscience that killing thousands of Jews every day was immoral, but rather because even for these murderers getting splattered blood and pieces of brain all over their uniforms, and dealing with agonizing screams as they murdered Jews at close range all day long, day after day, was simply too unnerving. To make this easier, and to make it feasible to gather, control and murder so many people, the German killing squads recruited people from among the local populations. This allowed the German overlords to take a supervisory role as the local auxiliaries did the dirty work.
One of the more interesting aspects of the role of the local populations of the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and other places is the underlying reasons of why they were so willing to participate in the extermination of the Jews. In those countries, as in other countries occupied by the Germans (or their proxies) such as Latvia, Belarus, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, France, etc., it was-for the most part-the local auxiliaries who willingly participated in denouncing their Jewish neighbors, helping Germans round them up, cordoning them off in the way to the murder site, bludgeoning them, jeering at them, and ultimately shooting them naked at the edge of a mass grave.
One needs to ask the question of why the locals were so willing to murder Jews, and why they showed such zeal. The reason why this is an important question is because, first, the claim that the Germans forced the locals to become auxiliaries in the extermination campaign is untrue, and second, because the local populations were not subjected to the relentless racial propaganda and brainwashing the German population had been exposed to. Thus, one needs to dig deeper into the psyche of these willing perpetrators to understand why they were so antisemitic. Actually, one needs to ask the question of what made these people antisemitic in the first place. Surely many hated Jews because they felt Jews were associated with the Bolsheviks, and surely some hated Jews because they felt they had too much money, and surely there were many other reasons. But why were the local Christian populations so ready to uncritically accept these and many other accusations against their Jewish neighbors? After all, it’s true some Jews were Bolsheviks, but so were some Christians. Some Jews were wealthy, but most were poor, even very poor.
The ancestors of these Ukrainians and Lithuanians taught their children that Jews were responsible for the social upheavals and revolutions of the 19th century. Their ancestors in turn told their children that the Jews were guilty of poisoning wells, of bringing the Black Plague, and of killing little Christian boys to extract their blood to make Passover bread. And their ancestors had told their children that Jews were Christ-killers, bent on defiling the Christian mind, of desecrating the host, of being minions of the devil, of usury, of blindness when faced with what they perceived to be the obvious theological truth, and on and on. These people asked themselves the question of what kind of person would reject Jesus, God, and what was to them self-evidently true Christian revelation.
To European Christians, it was a simple Manichean dichotomy: either the Jews were wrong in their rejection of Jesus as the messiah, or Jesus was not the messiah. Clearly unable to accept the latter, they chose the former and realized that only an enemy of Jesus would be blind to him and his revelation. To Christians, the anti-Christ was associated with the Jews. From there, it should not be too surprising that European Christians syllogistically arrived at the conclusion that since only agents of Satan would fight Jesus, and the Jews were enemies of Jesus, then the Jews had to be agents of Satan. As preposterous as this may sound to us today, in the past Christians saw Jews as demons complete with horns and tails and that emitted a foul, hellish odor. Having demonized the Jews, European Christians then proceeded to dehumanize them, which of course was not hard to do at all given that Jews were thought of as demonic creatures, not human beings. Medieval Christians all across Europe conceived of Jews as poisonous serpents, vipers, hells-spawn and rats. Hitler simply had to update the lexicon and transformed the Jews into vampires, germs, bloodsuckers and parasites. When the Germans presented eastern Europeans with the opportunity to exterminate these “pests,” they eagerly complied.
It’s really not that difficult to understand why Eastern Europeans already deeply hated Jews at the beginning of WWII when one understands the previous 18 centuries of relentless vilification and persecution of Jews in Christian teachings. It’s really not that hard to understand why all those Ukrainians and Lithuanians signed up to kill their Jewish neighbors, and why they did it with gusto, all day long, day after day, when one understands that to these people those Jews were the killers of Christ, evil, demonic and allegedly responsible for all the ills of the world, concepts they heard all their lives from the New Testament to the writings of the Church Fathers going through popular folklore and priestly sermons.
Moreover, no one should be too surprised that these people killed with a clean conscience, given that they never heard from their pope, bishops, or parish priests that murdering Jews and stealing their property was a crime and a mortal sin, and that participation in mass murder would condemn their souls to hell. Not receiving any instruction to the contrary, no one should be too surprised they continued to slaughter Jews given they thought that what they were doing was the right thing to do, while the leaders of the Lithuanian Catholic Church “forbade the priests to help Jews in any way whatsoever” or priests in Poland were instructing the faithful in their sermons that “No trace of a Jew is to remain. We should erase them from the face of the earth.”