- Following the pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939, Lithuania fell into the German sphere of influence. This arrangement was altered in September 1939 when Lithuania refused to join Germany in the war against Poland. In response, Germany exchanged its interest in Lithuania for territory in central Poland and Lithuania became part of the Soviet sphere of influence in the Baltic region. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania, whose people, at first, welcomed them as liberators from Bolshevik tyranny. Among the Lithuanian population there was a sizable German-speaking population who sought a union with Germany. Since the early 1930s, a nascent Nazi movement had operated in Lithuania that grew to about 15,000 people on the eve of World War II. The Lithuanian “storm troopers” modeled themselves after the Schutzstaffel (SS) and received their training in Germany. Following the German occupation of Lithuania, most of the country’s Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppe, who were aided by pro-Nazi Lithuanian supporters. On 25 June 1941, in one shtetl, for example, hundreds of Lithuanian Jews were killed, synagogues destroyed, and an entire residential district burned down. An additional thousand Jews were murdered the following night, many brutally beaten to death with clubs and iron rods. All of this was witnessed by the Wehrmacht, who did not interfere. Members of the surviving Jewish population were herded into ghettos in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Siauliai, where they were used for forced labor and gradually worked to death. Perhaps the most brutal of the German massacres of Jews took place at Ponary located about six miles from Vilnius (Vilna) in July 1941. Tens of thousands of Jews from Vilna, as well as Soviet prisoners of war, were brought to the wooded area of Ponary and were shot to death in pits by the Einsatzgruppe and their Lithuanian collaborators. Estimates of the number of persons murdered at Ponary range from 70,000 to 100,000; the great majority of the victims were Jews. The bulk of Lithuania’s Jews were killed between mid-July and December 1941. The strategy employed by the Einsatzgruppen with regard to the Jews demonstrated to the outside world that the local population issued measures on its own as a natural reaction to decades-long repression of the Jews and to the terror of the communists during the previous occupation.Beginning in the fall of 1942, tens of thousands of Jews were deported to Lithuania from other parts of Europe to be used as slave labor. They were used to mine oil shale for the production of synthetic fuel, and when they became too ill to work, many of them were killed, and others died of disease or hunger. With the approach of the Red Army in the fall of 1944, the remaining Jews from the camps were sent to the Stutthof forced labor and death camp. The number of Jews killed, including those deported to Lithuania from other parts of Europe, is estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000. About 20,000 Jews were able to escape to the Soviet Union, and another few thousand were rescued by Lithuanians.
Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. Jack R. Fischel. 2014.
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