Lithuania Asks to Quiz ex-Yad Vashem Head Over WWII Killings

Gov't sources: Vilnius request to grill Yitzhak Arad over said wartime murders as partisan fighter an 'outrage.'

Lithuania's chief prosecutor is mulling whether to order a probe against the former director of Yad Vashem Yitzhak Arad into allegations he was involved in the killing of Lithuanians as a partisan fighter during World War Two.

In a letter to the Justice Ministry, Lithuanian authorities asked to question the Lithuanian-born historian and retired Israel Defense Forces brigadier general on murder accusations raised by a local magazine article based on quotes from his autobiography and testimony he gave as a witness in trials of Nazi criminals.

Government sources unofficially confirmed they have received Lithuania's request, adding that Israel views it as "nothing short of outrageous."

Arad has recently participated in a panel that met in Vilnius called the Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania.

As a panel member, Arad raised the issue of Lithuanian citizens' involvement in the murder of local Jews -a claim that has drawn the ire of many Lithuanian rightwing groups who say such accusations are exaggerated and that the panel should focus on Soviet atrocities instead.

In response to the probe, Arad has rejected an invitation to return to Vilnius to continue to take part in the panel's activity and claims he has been singled out by Lithuanian authorities.

"If it were just a personal matter, I wouldn't have made an issue out of it, but it is anything but personal," Arad said. "What they are trying to do with this probe is form an equation as though there were Lithuanians who killed Jews, but also Jews who killed Lithuanians - so now were even and can move on."

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.

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 pre-state 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.

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.

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.

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

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