The Man Who Is Rewriting History

Ten years ago, after 45 years of Soviet rule, the Holocaust came into the curriculum in Lithuania for the first time. "All the books that were published before then were very Soviet, and their aim was to strengthen the regime of the Soviet Union and not the historical facts," explains the head of the Foundation for Educational Change in Lithuania, Vytautas Toleikis.

VILNIUS, Lithuania - Ten years ago, after 45 years of Soviet rule, the Holocaust came into the curriculum in Lithuania for the first time. "All the books that were published before then were very Soviet, and their aim was to strengthen the regime of the Soviet Union and not the historical facts," explains the head of the Foundation for Educational Change in Lithuania, Vytautas Toleikis. "In the Soviet textbooks, there was no topic called the Holocaust. They talked there about the slaughter of inhabitants of the Soviet Union. I still remember from my childhood that in villages and small towns in Lithuania where Jews were killed it says: `Here inhabitants of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were killed by Hitler's people and bourgeois nationalists who lived here.' Now these signs have been changed, and here too the Holocaust is studied in the fifth and sixth grades."

Toleikis, 44, began his career in the educational system as a teacher of Lithuanian language and literature. In 1999, the Foundation for Educational Change, whose main aim is to encourage independent school initiatives and multicultural education, was established. The teaching of the Holocaust plays a major role in the work of the foundation, partly due to Toleikis' personal story. "I was born in small village to a pious Christian family. When I was still a young boy, my mother told about a neighbor of ours who had turned in the Jews of the village, who was later murdered. He claimed that the Jews had brought about the arrest of his brother, and therefore, he turned them all in to the Nazis. My mother showed me the houses where the Jews had lived, and the whole village regarded this man oddly. Because of this story, I began to take an interest in the Holocaust and to research it."

The walls of Toleikis' office in downtown Vilnius are decorated with pictures of three cities that are sacred to Christians - Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth. On his desk are inscriptions in Hebrew and photographs from Yad Vashem. Toleikis has visited Israel twice and is in constant contact with Holocaust researchers in Israel. "Jewish culture had a great influence on Lithuania, and I am very proud of this," he says. "I'm very proud of our multiculturalism, of having been born in a part of the world that is so interesting historically. I am proud that three Nobel Prize winners came from Lithuania - one of them of Polish origin and the other two Jews."

Toleikis believes that while most Lithuanians relate to the Soviet rule of their country more severely than to the Nazi occupation, "it is necessary to take into account that these people have a different perspective. For the Jewish Lithuanians, the Nazi occupation was certain death; for the Lithuanians, it was a regime that brought back private property. From the historical perspective as well, the Lithuanians greeted the German soldiers with flowers," he says.

Soviet army forgot to leave

"In the Baltic countries, we don't mark May 8, the date of the liberation from the Nazi occupation. Anyway, the Soviet army stayed here for years - they simply forgot to leave. I think that as the years go by, we will look back at this period in a less hostile way. Then no one will regard with hostility the Lithuanian Jews who fought beside the Soviets and the Americans against the Nazis. Today, no one humiliates those fighters - they meet and they write books, but everything is done pretty much secretly," he continues.

"Another question is what is being done at the historical sites where the Lithuanian partisans fought. These sites are crumbling and require refurbishing, but in the meantime, the government is not approving such renovation due to fears that it will look pro-Communist. Nevertheless, I believe that in the future, the public will recognize these people's historical role."

Toleikis believes that Lithuanians are starting to recognize their role in the slaughter of Jews. "Our society has already begun to acknowledge that this slaughter did indeed take place, and this is very important. Only a decade or even five years ago, the situation was completely different. A few months ago, we announced a competition on the topic of `Toward a Civil Society.' The students could choose among many topics - they could write, among other things, about the Soviet occupation or the Holocaust. We received about 150 projects, and I was surprised and glad to see that the largest number of essays were written about the Holocaust."

Toleikis is very worried about the rise of anti-Semitism in Lithuania. He was among the first to sign a petition against the editor-in-chief of the widely distributed newspaper Respublika, Vitas Tomkus, who published anti-Semitic articles in the paper. Toleikis believes the current anti-Semitism is mainly based on hatred of Israel. "In Lithuania, a lot of anti-Israeli articles are published in which only one side of the conflict is presented," he says. "Our journalists see the reports on Israel on the BBC and CNN, and some of them are pro-Palestinian. We are already accustomed to reports in which Palestinians are seen crying or reports about a child who was shot down and killed by mistake by a helicopter. In the pictures that are supposed to present the Israeli side, all we see is tanks bursting into Palestinian villages. We don't see funerals of Jews here. Many Lithuanians are saying to themselves, why are they blaming us? After all, they're socking it to the Palestinians now."

Toleikis believes the solution lies in Israel's expanding an information campaign in Lithuania, but cultural ties between the two countries can also help. "I'm not all that interested in basketball, but by chance I saw the game between Zalgiris Kaunas and Maccabi Tel Aviv at a local pub. The people were very excited and disappointed that Zalgiris lost, but there wasn't any anti-Semitism there. The fact that Sarunas Jasikevicius is playing for Maccabi is also very positive in my opinion. All of this develops the multiculturalism in both societies. I'm certain that in the coming Eurovision, many Lithuanians will vote for Israel and the Israelis for Lithuania."

A critical historic approach

The changes that have been introduced into Lithuania's curriculum do not end with the teaching of the Holocaust. The schools in Vilnius no longer teach Marx and Lenin, and economics and business administration are now the most popular courses. "During the past 14 years, ever since we received our independence, the textbooks have changed quite a bit," says Toleikis. "All the books have become more critical, and they no longer tell only the heroic story of gaining independence. If in the lower grades the approach to history is still positive, in the upper grades the approach is far more critical. We give the students historical documents, extracts from newspapers, and encourage discussion of everything."

How do the textbooks that are published in Lithuania today relate to the Soviet regime?

"What do you mean by how? The way they ought to! In a negative way!" says Toleikis with a laugh. "Our foundation has prepared a special book called `Soviet Lithuania. How our Parents Lived.' In this book we examine the period between 1953 and 1985, the period after Stalin's death and before perestroika. The attitude toward this period is, of course, negative, because after all, there was an occupation here, there was exile to Siberia. But on the other hand, the period of Khrushchev and Brezhnev is viewed more positively. We try to find something positive in every period. It must be recalled that even during the Soviet era, Lithuania was in first place with respect to infrastructure and quality of life. This is the Lithuanian Communists' greatest achievement, that they managed to adapt themselves to this regime. Even in the absurd conditions that prevailed then, even during the Five Year Plans and when Moscow led other stupid plans, those people continued to work, and the country flourished compared to the other Soviet Union republics."

In favor of the EU

Prior to Lithuania's entry into the European Union, the Foundation for Educational Change distributed educational aids to help the population integrate into the new Europe. In 70 percent of the schools in Lithuania, a referendum was held among students as to whether the country should join the EU. After a propaganda battle between students who split into two camps, the Euro-skeptics were defeated by a majority of 70 percent in favor of the EU.

The foundation's leaders believe that their most important mission is to change the mentality of Lithuanian children. "After Lithuania became an independent state, there was a bad problem of xenophobia here, and extreme nationalism also sprang up. I hope that joining the EU and NATO will change this," Toleikis says. "The students have to internalize the sense of freedom and responsibility. In my opinion it is equally important to adopt national pride here. Many Lithuanians think how we, such poor and tired people, can stand out among the sleek Germans or people from other countries. This is precisely the time to examine our history. We have already found the underground fighters who fought against the Soviet Union until the middle of the 1950s, and now the most important thing is to look for the national heroes who fought for human rights."