Lithuanian Nationalists Target Former Yad Vashem Chief

The Lithuanian-born historian Yitzhak Arad, a retired Israel Defense Forces brigadier general and former director of Yad Vashem, has been invited to go to Vilnius in two weeks to attend the discussions of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. According to a request received recently at Israel's Justice Ministry, if Arad goes, he could find himself being interrogated on the suspicion that he took part in the murder of Lithuanian civilians during the Holocaust. Lithuania's chief prosecutor is investigating Arad at the behest of right-wing extremists in the country, following affidavits Arad gave as an expert witness during trials of Lithuanian war criminals.

After the German army conquered Lithuania in 1941, the 15-year-old Arad fled his hometown ghetto and joined a unit of Soviet partisans until the Red Army took over the region. After the war he boarded an illegal immigrant ship to Israel, joined the Palmach [a prestate elite strike force], and later served as an officer in the IDF, retiring in 1972 as head of the Education Corps. In civilian life Arad became a scholar and lecturer on Jewish history, specializing in the Holocaust. He was director of Yad Vashem from 1972 to 1993.

As a world-class expert on Lithuanian Jewry in the Holocaust, Arad was summoned as an expert witness for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which hunts down Nazi war criminals and collaborators who managed to obtain American citizenship.

The affidavits Arad gave in the trials of Lithuanian Gestapo officials Aleksandras Lileikis and Algimantas Dailide, who were subsequently deported from the U.S., angered political elements in Vilnius.

The Lithuanian Holocaust is unique in that it was largely carried out by locals, especially members of the Order Police, who began butchering Jews the moment the Soviets left in 1941, even before the German army arrived. Only a few thousand of Lithuania's 220,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. Lithuanian nationalists object to the Holocaust's commemoration, claiming the people who should be memorialized are the victims of 46 years of Soviet occupation. A large share of the Lithuanians persecuted by the Soviets had been Nazi collaborators.

Despite opposition from nationalists, the international commission was established as part of Lithuania's efforts to gain European Union membership. The commission invited historians from Lithuania, Germany and the U.S. Arad was invited to represent Yad Vashem.

Arad does not intend to go, and Yad Vashem's director, Avner Shalev, informed the chair of the commission that in view of the proceedings against Arad, Yad Vashem has decided to suspend its participation in the international commission. The partisans' organization in Israel also sent a protest letter to Lithuanian President Vladas Adamkus.

The Justice Ministry declined to comment officially, but government sources confirmed the receipt of the Lithuanian request, adding that Israel views it as "nothing short of scandalous."

No comment was received from the Lithuanian embassy as of press time.