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Senn, Alfred Erich. "A trojan Horse." In his Lithuania 1940: Revolution from Above

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Senn, Alfred Erich. “A Trojan Horse.” In his Lithuania 1940: Revolution from Above. On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom and Moral Imagination in the Baltics, ed. Leonidas Donskis. Amsterdam, NY: Rodopi, 2007.
III: A Trojan Horse?
“A nation is composed more of the dead than of the living.”

– Augustinas Voldemaras,

Lithuanian Yellow Book, 114-16.
“They did not give us all this for our beautiful eyes....”

– Kazys Grinius, Lithuanian Prime Minister, 1920

Trojan horse – “someone or something intended to undermine or subvert from within.”

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

On October 14, Smetona’s Seimas ratified the mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union. The government’s official mood of the moment found expression in the speech of deputy Mečys Kviklys, who praised the “leadership of the powerful Soviet Union, who, one can say, atoning for tsarist Russia’s guilt in the troubles and sufferings of the our people, today show their noble impartiality and great generosity toward us, a small nation, in returning that which both historically and ethnically belonged to us through the ages.” He still went on to complain that the Soviet Union had not yielded all the territory inhabited by Lithuanians, but he concluded with the thought that “Soviet Russia is a state whose word one can trust, in whose good will one cannot doubt.”i This was a hopeful statement, asserting that the Soviet Union was accepting responsibility for historic wrongs against the Lithuanians, complaining that the Soviet Union had not fully recognized what was due the Lithuanians, and working to convince listeners that nothing bad would come as a result of the movement of Soviet troops into the land.

“Trust” was a key word in the political vocabulary of the day, together with “good will” and “sincerity.” Could Lithuania, could Latvia and Estonia, “trust” the “good will” and “sincerity” of Soviet promises, nay Stalin’s promises, that the Soviet troops moving into the Baltic had only defensive purposes and that the Soviet government had no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of any of the three countries? In a major speech in January 1940 Urbsys declared that those who criticized the mission of Soviet troops into Lithuania “have based their argument on the view that the Soviet Union was not sincere.” These people, he declared, were mistaken.ii Privately, no one in the government could be so sure.

As of the fall of 1939, Lithuanians had contradictory images of the Soviet system, but they had a positive image of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. There were stories of arrests, to be sure, but the stories of persecution in Germany were hardly better. The Soviet government had steadily supported Lithuania in the Vilnius question, and in the mid 1930s, even Smetona and some other government leaders had suggested that perhaps Lithuanian culture could survive better under a Soviet protectorate than a German one. For a generation, the Soviet Union had had the image of being a friendly state. The Soviets claimed to have protected Lithuania against a Polish threat in 1927 and then again against the Polish ultimatum of March 1938. Now, as the choice began to appear more urgent and real, Lithuanian officials hesitated to make a commitment, while a number of leftist intellectuals, increasingly hostile to the Smetona regime, expressed enthusiasm for the coming of the Red Army, apparently convinced that Lithuanian language and culture would thrive under Moscow’s umbrella and apparently not even considering the possibility of Lithuania’s losing its independence.

Some critics have called the Red Army a Trojan horse, but others, considering the deceit involved in the original Trojan horse, wondered whether the Vilna region itself was to be a Trojan horse. Did the Soviet Union turn Vilnius over to the Lithuanians with the thought that it would eventually take over all of Lithuania? (Before the Lithuanians entered the city, the Lithuanian Saugumas speculated as to whether the Soviets expected to get the region back with “all bolshevized Lithuania.”)iii The original Trojan horse had been an inanimate object with troops hidden within it; rather than concealing troops, Stalin’s “gift” of Vilnius to the Lithuanians came clearly wrapped in Red Army units. Nevertheless Vilnius itself might well be considered a “Trojan horse” in this drama; all the more so because Lithuanians were not wont to look critically at their own claims on the city. Vilnius now became the source of great stress for the Lithuanian government and a major vehicle for the Soviet penetration of Lithuanians’ consciousness.

The city’s multi-national population posed a myriad of problems for the Lithuanians. At the beginning of the 21st century, when Lithuanians constitute a majority of the residents of the city of Vilnius, it is perhaps difficult for a foreigner – certainly for a Lithuanian – to understand the controversy over the city in the first half of the 20th century, when Lithuanians constituted only a few percent of the inhabitants of both the city and its surroundings. The present-day Lithuanian majority is a relatively recent development, perhaps realizing itself only in the decade following Stalin’s death in 1953. When I first visited Vilnius in 1960, I found that I had to speak Russian rather than Lithuanian to make my way around; Poles I met told me that they spoke Russian in public. On my second visit, in 1970, I could speak Lithuanian almost everywhere. To be sure, using the same – unscholarly – test in 1988, I found I could shop in the city on a Saturday morning speaking only Polish. The city’s history is a multi-national kaleidoscope.

The original, original inhabitants of the Vilna region were ancestors of modern day Lithuanians, but as the city developed in its capacity of capital of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy, it drew residents from all peoples in Eastern Europe. Before Lithuania’s union with Poland, the official language of the Grand Duchy’s administration was an ancestor of modern Belarusian. Slavic culture spread into the city’s hinterland. Jews came in increasing numbers over the centuries. In the 400 years of the union between the Grand Duchy and the Kingdom of Poland, the city took on a Polish face even though according to the 1897 Russian Census, Jews constituted a plurality of the population, some 39%. World War I and two decades of Polish rule further altered the ethnic balance in the city. By 1939 Polish authorities claimed that Poles constituted at least 70 percent of the population.iv After the outbreak of war, the number of Jews in the city grew as Jewish refugees from other parts of Poland fled to Vilnius, especially after it seemed that the Soviet Union would turn it over to Lithuania; many came with the hope of obtaining exit visas to escape Eastern Europe and the Nazi threat altogether.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Lithuanians admitted that in the city their numbers were few, but, claiming the Grand Duchy as their historic state, they insisted that Vilnius should be the capital of their new national state. Poles, Jews, Belarusians might all disagree with the Lithuanian claims to Vilnius, but the Lithuanians were adamant. The city’s history, the Lithuanians insisted, belonged to them whatever the mixture of people then living there might be. As Augustinas Voldemaras once wrote, “A nation is composed more of the dead than of the living.” In the 1960s, I once challenged a prominent Lithuanian diplomat of the 1920s to justify Lithuania’s claim to the city; he responded, “Just let us rule Vilnius for ten years, and you will see how it will become Lithuanian.” Most of the prominent leaders of the Lithuanian national movement before the First World War, including Antanas Smetona, lived and worked in Vilnius. Lithuanians argued that the natives of the region would surely realize their ethnic Lithuanian heritage once a Lithuanian national administration was in place; Poles who moved to Vilnius in the 1920s and 1930s, they declared, were only foreign immigrants without any right to stay on once Lithuanian rule was “restored.”

As national states came into being in Eastern Europe after World War I, Vilnius’s history constituted a kaleidoscopic peephole on the turmoil accompanying the process. When German troops withdrew in January 1919, the Lithuanians raised their national flag there for only one day before Polish forces marched in. The Poles in turn almost immediately withdrew in the face of the advance of the Western Red Army. For three months Vilnius was the capital of a Soviet republic, first called the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and then the Lithuanian-Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic – often called the “Lit-Bel republic.” Polish troops seized the city in April 1919 and held it until July 1920, when the Red Army returned. The Soviet Union now recognized the city as Lithuanian, but only after the Poles had defeated the Red Army’s march on Warsaw, did the Soviet authorities turn the city over to the Lithuanians, who held it some six weeks before Polish forces drove them out. The Lithuanian government refused to give up its claim to Vilnius and declared that it was in a state of war with Poland. Kaunas, it continually stated, was only Lithuania’s “provisional capital.”

Polish commentators frequently argued that the Kaunas government’s stance was a tactic to facilitate its goal of eradicating historic Polish influences in Lithuanian society and culture. Whatever its conscious or subconscious rationale was, the Lithuanian government, in the 1920s and early 1930s, based both its domestic and foreign policies on an anti-Polish foundation. The passionate, uncompromising position epitomized in the slogan “Mes be Vilniaus nenurimsim,” “We will not quiet down without Vilnius,” blocked governmental moves toward improvement of relations with Poland, and it even evoked strong criticism of Smetona’s refusal to join the Nazi cause and send troops into Vilnius in September 1939.

Against this turbulent background, when the Lithuanian government in October 1939 could finally gain power over the city, enormous practical matters arose. For a generation, Vilnius had been a provincial city of Poland, cut off from its natural hinterland. Kaunas, in contrast, was now a European capital city. In 1937 a Swiss friend of my father’s described the city’s new face: “You would no longer recognize the city of Kaunas… One can almost say that no stone remains atop another. A broad network of streets extends across a region formerly empty and now occupied by simple homes and beautiful villas. The intensive bus service in the city and in the province leaves hardly anything to be desired. Even the workers of the suburbs have long since become accustomed to running water and sewers… In a word – Kaunas has developed into a city.”

Although Kaunas was only Lithuania’s “provisional capital,” after the Polish ultimatum of 1938 had forced the Lithuanians to open diplomatic relations with Warsaw, some city authorities in Kaunas began to think of the need for new governmental buildings befitting a European capital. The recovery of Vilnius instead posed tremendous costs that eventually demanded considerable sacrifice from Kaunas. In the short run, possession of the city carried with it the problem of caring for some 14000 Polish soldiers and thousands of Polish and Jewish refugees; in addition, during the second half of September and the first half of October, the Soviet authorities stripped the city of its valuables, even some of its factories. In the long run, in later years when funds were available for capital construction, the lion’s share of the money went to Vilnius, not to Kaunas.

Despite the excitement at getting Vilnius, the government had to wait to show its authority. On October 16, the Lithuanian and the Soviet governments exchanged notices of the mutual assistance pact’s ratification. When would the Soviet Union now physically transfer Vilnius to Lithuanian sovereignty and when would the Soviet troops enter Lithuania? (Soviet troops of course already stood in the Vilnius district.) Almost as imposing a question was: How would Lithuania administer the Vilnius territory and how would it handle the obvious social and economic problems that it would face there? Now that it could rule the city, the government faced a tangle of threatening new problems.

The very first complications that the Lithuanians faced obviously arose from the Soviet occupation of the city. When the Red Army had occupied the city in July 1920, the fledgling Lithuanian Communist Party used it as a base for plans to overthrow the Lithuanian government in Kaunas. It gave up those plans only after the Red Army had begun its retreat from Warsaw. Now, in the fall of 1939, news came that the Soviet authorities were arresting potential opponents, stripping factories, and even encouraging Belarusians to claim the city and its surrounding lands. In their talks in Moscow, Stalin had pressed the Lithuanians to act quickly because, as he put it, the local population in the Vilna district was showing great enthusiasm for the Soviet order, and if the Lithuanians delayed too long, the Soviet Union would not be able in good conscience to turn the Vilna region over to them With the news that Lithuania would take over the city, Belarusian authorities, claiming sovereignty over the city’s history, carried off books and archives from the city’s libraries.

When Stalin urged the Lithuanians to act quickly, he of course knew that the sovietization of Belarus was proceeding according to Moscow’s plan rather than just through spontaneous local action, but he nevertheless could have been concerned about establishing Belarus’s territorial identity before the meeting of the Belarusian “People’s Assembly.” When Soviet troops marched into eastern Poland in September 1939, the Politburo, the Political Bureau of the Communist Party, not a formal agency of the government as defined in the constitution but the all powerful organ of the Soviet party-state, dictated the policy that the occupation authorities were to follow. In a document entitled “Protocol No. 7 of the Decision of the Politburo of the AUCP(b) Central Committee for September 4 to October 3, 1939,” that included details on mobilizing party resources, the group laid out the process for annexing the lands taken from Poland. Under the protection of the Red Army, local Communists were to divide the territory into a Belarusian and a Ukrainian section and establish “a new revolutionary order.” (The territory of “Western Belarus,” it might be noted, included “the Vilnius district.”) Provisional administrations in Belostok and Lviv were to arrange the elections of “People’s assemblies.” Elections would take place on October 22, and the assemblies would meet on the 26th. The key issues in the election campaigns, the Politburo decreed, would be the establishment of the Soviet order, the incorporation of Western Ukraine into the Ukrainian SSR and of Western Belarus into the Belarusian SSR, land reform, and the nationalization of banks and large industry.v

The Soviet operation in Ukraine and Belarus would eventually serve as a blueprint for the work of the Soviet camp in all three Baltic states in 1940, but in October 1939 the first question at hand for Lithuanian-Soviet relations was when would the Soviet government actually turn Vilnius and the surrounding region over to Lithuanian administration. While Lithuanian and Soviet officials negotiated the conditions and rules for the stationing of Soviet troops in Lithuania and also the details of the new Lithuanian-Soviet frontier, Kaunas expressed serious concerns about the behavior of the Soviet forces in Vilnius. The Soviets were reportedly stripping factories, hospitals and schools of equipment, machinery, furniture and even food supplies. On October 19, the government instructed Natkevičius in Moscow to protest the looting, the arrest of prominent Lithuanians, and even the lack of respect the local Soviet officials were showing to its plenipotentiary in Vilnius, whom Soviet officials did not even permit to come to Kaunas for information and instructions. (In May 1940 the Soviet government declared that it would return nothing taken from Vilnius in the fall of 1939.) On the same day, Urbšys asked Pozdniakov when the Lithuanians could take over Vilnius. On the 21st, when Pozdniakov reported that he had as yet received no response from Moscow, Urbsys complained about the growing anarchy in the occupied territory.

On the 22nd, Molotov informed Natkevicius that the Lithuanians “can begin gradually to go into the Vilnius region” and that a Soviet military commission would immediately go to Kaunas the next day to fix details. The process, however, moved only slowly, as the negotiations were Lithuanian military authorities could not find space in Vilnius to house Lithuanian troops. In addition there were countless preparations: selecting police and military units as well as administrative personnel. Although Kazys Bizauskas, a Christian Democrat, was first designated to be the chief administrator of Kaunas, Smetona then installed Antanas Merkys, the mayor of Kaunas, in that position. On the 24th, Urbsys sent notice to the Vatican that Lithuania expected to be consulted on the naming of a new Archbishop in Vilnius. Finally, on October 28 the Lithuanian army solemnly advanced onto Vilnius under the leadership of General Vincas Vitkauskas.

The Lithuanians entered the city with great ceremony, and at first without any significant opposition. The authorities in Kaunas had carefully selected both troops and police for this service, and the soldiers and police who entered Vilnius in Lithuania’s name had orders to be on their best behavior: “In our Vilnius march we must be smart, lively, and orderly.” As the Lithuanian Minister of Internal Affairs, Kazys Skučas, told the police, they had to understand that this was Lithuanian territory, but they would confront a different culture than what they knew. Most of the people had yet to learn – or, as Lithuanians frequently put it, “relearn” – the language. “Be carriers of culture,” he directed. The Lithuanian press spoke glowingly of the troops being greeted with flowers.vii

Although the first reactions of the populace throughout the region were basically favorable, Lithuanian Saugumas officials reported that Polish “nationalists” in Vilnius jeered the Lithuanian troops and that the Polish church hierarchy prevented the ringing of church bells in celebration. The Red Army broke up a few small anti-Soviet demonstrations on the 28th, but more worrisome for the Lithuanians were various demonstrations by Polish youths. On the 29th, one group of demonstrators publicly and defiantly sang the Polish national anthem, Jeszcze Polska nezginela (“Poland has not yet perished”). Moreover, thunderclouds of uncertainty hung over the city: lack of jobs, uncertainty about the value of the Polish zloty, the problems of dealing with an estimated 100,000 rubles put into circulation by the Red Army, and massive shortages of food. Under the Soviet administration, peasants were said to have been leery of delivering food to the city for fear of its being confiscated by the Red Army; Lithuanians spoke of feeding 20-25,000 persons each day. In addition, on October 30 a Lithuanian report spoke of “great hatred toward the Jews.”viii

On October 31, a large scale anti-Jewish pogrom exploded. The action may have originated in the lines of people gathered at bread stores; amid reports that Jewish storekeepers were hiding food; calls for “vengeance” multiplied. By 9.30 a.m. demonstrators were interfering with traffic, and when the police tried to restore order at 10 a.m., violence erupted. Lithuanian reports spoke of trouble “in almost all the central streets of the city of Vilnius.” In four streets of the old city – Chopin, Konska, Zavalna, Subaciaus – demonstrators broke windows and looted stores. In the ghetto area, Dominikanu and Vokieciu Streets, demonstrators called out “Down with the Lithuanians, give us the Soviets!” At the Dawn Gate, on the edge of the old city, 300 workers demanded more pay and cheaper bread, and they cheered Soviet troops. (Soviet soldiers remained in Vilnius through the winter.) Demonstrators on Didžioji Street whistled at Lithuanian soldiers and called out “Long live Stalin!” and “Go back where you came from!” In the afternoon Lithuanian troops dispersed some 200 youths who had gathered on the same street to beat Jews. “Terrible riots,” declared the Lithuanian Saugumas.ix

In the succeeding days, the Lithuanians broke up scattered demonstrations more quickly. A demonstration of 20,000 Poles in the Rasai cemetery shouted slogans “Precz z zydami!” (“Away with the Jews!”). 2000 activists marched into the city, but the police quickly contained them. Lithuanians characterized the disturbances as “Polish vengeance against the Jews,” but spokespersons for Vilnius Jews aimed sharp criticisms at the Lithuanians for not having intervened sooner and more forcefully. A Jewish delegation reportedly requested the Red Army to “bring about order in the city.” According to official Lithuanian accounts, the Soviets declared that keeping order was now “the task of the Lithuanians,” but Soviet tanks appeared in the streets. Jewish merchants demanded guarantees of protection before they would reopen stores. Although some kept repeating the charge that the Lithuanians “let the Poles beat and rob” the Jews, by November 6 the Lithuanians believed that they had survived the worst.x

The pogroms and riots were a serious embarrassment for the Lithuanians. In first reporting the Lithuanian entry into Vilnius, Lietuvos aidas, the newspaper of Smetona’s Tautininkų sąjunga, had trumpeted stories of the joyous reception the army was receiving. The first report of trouble, published in Lietuvos aidas of November 2, spoke of incidents between Poles and Jews, incited by criminal refugee elements in the population. Lithuanian state authorities, the report declared, will act strongly against any disorders. On November 6 the newspaper emphasized the pro-Soviet demonstrations. Antanas Merkys, the government’s plenipotentiary in Vilnius, spoke of “various criminal elements” in Vilnius, and Kazys Skučas, the Minister of the Interior, offered a lengthier statement, saying that there had been “some incidents” (išsišokimų) for the authorities to deal with. He blamed “refugees” first of all, but he went on to explain that the troubles arose from “hatred of one group of residents toward another, the disagreement of one national minority with another.” This, he declared, led to “unacceptable excesses.” He explained, “Here I have in mind first of all the Jews and the Poles in Vilnius,” but he insisted that he considered this the action of individuals rather than of national groupings. “Nevertheless, he declared, the “Jewish community” must accept “moral responsibility” for those of its “conationals” who interfere with “administrative organs.” In conclusion, he declared, “the Government deeply regrets” the events in Vilnius.

The reports of Lithuania’s military officials analyzed the events very differently. Calling the 31st an “ill-starred (nelaiminga) day,” reports characterized the pogroms as “the vengeance of the Poles against the Jews” and criticized the Lithuanian police force as inexperienced and unprepared. The police lacked personnel who spoke Polish or Yiddish, and they did not know the streets of Vilnius. “It seems to me,” declared one report, “that the police chief was at fault,” and therefore the military had to step in. A week after the events, it might be noted, the military officials involved had to respond to complaints that they had overstepped their authority in those crucial days.xi

Other commentators have offered a wide variety of interpretations of the origins of the riots. The Lithuanians saw the disturbances as the result of tension between Poles and Jews, in which the Lithuanians had to be the arbiters. The Poles, they would say, still hoped that the French and the English would quickly win the war, and they sought revenge against the Jews, who had allegedly supported Soviet rule. Lithuanians, in these stories, were not responsible for the troubles, and Lithuanian police officials had suffered injuries, even one death. A Polish historian has seen the disturbances as “symptomatic of the views and position of a significant part of Polish society.”xii

Writers concentrating on the experiences of the Jews have looked at the events from different, and at times conflicting, perspectives. Henri Minczeles has written of Poles’ rioting with the slogans “Down with the Lithuanians,” “Down with the Jews,” and “Down with the Soviets.” Using the passive voice Dov Levin put the blame on the Lithuanians: “With the encouragement of the Lithuanian police, a pogrom was staged, killing one Jew and wounding nearly 200.” N. N. Schneidman wrote that the Lithuanians “helped” the pogromists. Solomonas Atamukas identified Polish nationalists as having begun the disturbances, but he charged that Lithuanian police had not acted to control the situation and had even supported the action. The Lithuanian Communist Party blamed “Lithuania’s police agents and fascists.” Anna Louise Strong, repeating Lithuanian Communists’ views in the summer of 1940, unreservedly blamed the Lithuanians for the pogroms: “Promptly the Smetona government staged one of the worst pogroms in Vilna’s history, attacking under the name of “Jews” all persons who had shown sympathy with the Red Army.”xiii

Up until the violence at the end of October and beginning of November, Vilnius had been a haven for Jewish refugees from both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht. “Vilna fever,” it was called. In the words of Dov Levin, “Vilna was the only remaining escape route from occupied Poland.”xiv Vilnius was a gateway for leaving Eastern Europe altogether – emigrating from Lithuania should surely be easier than emigrating from the Soviet Union. Once in Vilnius, refugees lined up at the Lithuanian consulate to obtain visas to travel on to Kaunas where they could seek visas to go to other lands. The violence of October 31, however, cast a long shadow over Lithuania’s image as a haven, both for refugees and also the native Jewish population of the country.

The violence complicated the task of the Lithuanian government. Probably the vast majority of Lithuanians, obsessed as they were with images of Vilnius as their capital, had not considered the actual problems of administering the city, where Lithuanians constituted a small, if not minute, minority. They had apparently not expected opposition: The Lithuanian government now claimed to rule Vilnius and its inhabitants should obey. The people should become loyal Lithuanian citizens; they should learn, or “relearn” Lithuanian. Lithuanians could not comprehend that Poles would consider the Vilna region Polonia irredenta, and they presumed that the Jews would simply accept the new administration. As the Lithuanian military complained, the police had no plan for dealing with large scale opposition. This all cost the prestige of the Lithuanians heavily, particularly in questions of Jewish acceptance of Lithuanian rule.

Of the two major nationalities in Vilnius, the Jews were undoubtedly more amenable to cooperating with the Lithuanians than were the Poles. But Jewish society in the Vilna region of course had deep, significant political divisions. Among the activists were communist sympathizers, especially among the poor and the young; there were Zionists on both the left and the right, who wanted to live elsewhere, in a Jewish state. Conservative and passive elements, who just wanted to live their own lives, were nevertheless probably in the majority. According to most testimony, many – perhaps even most – non-Communist Jews in Vilnius seemed to prefer Lithuanian to Soviet rule in October and November of 1939.

Of the groups in the Jewish community, however, the pro-communist activists were probably the most visible in public, and they evoked the strongest reactions as they cheered the Red Army. Some demonstratively left to go to the Soviet Union when the Red Army drew its troops back. As Dov Levin wrote, “In the latter half of October, shortly before the expected entry of the Lithuanian army, the exodus assumed mass proportions... While some emigrants were motivated to relocate by their pro-Soviet ideology, others chose to leave Vilna in order to escape the reputedly anti-Semitic … Lithuanian regime.” In another work, Levin had more specific comments: “For a variety of economic and political reasons, approximately 300 Jewish workers at the Elektrit factory and their families accompanied their employer to Russia. In addition several thousand young Jews, primarily Leftists who had served in the militia or in the Workers’ Guard, also went along.” Anna Louise Strong later wrote that when the Soviet Union delivered Vilnius to the Lithuanians, “Some twenty thousand of Vilna’s workers, especially the Jewish, didn’t wait for this pogrom. They went with the Red Army into the USSR.”xv

Many Lithuanians in turn had traditionally looked at Jews as the mainstay of the communist party. Skučas’s criticism of what he considered the “provocative” actions of Vilnius Jews, cited above, reflected past problems in the relations between the Jews and the Lithuanians, and at the same time his comments bode ill for the future for the future of Jewish-Lithuanian relations. Echoing the Lithuanians’ perceptions of the public actions of Jewish radicals, Skučas called for “responsible” Jews to recognize their “responsibility” for restraining those who act “destructively.” This reflected what Alfonsas Eidintas has called the “Jew-Communist’ stereotype” in the Lithuanian mentality.xvi Although, as of the fall of 1939, the traditions of the past 20 years in Vilnius were different than those in Kaunas, nevertheless, Skučas’s statement could serve the reader as a harbinger of emotions that welled up under Soviet rule in 1940 and 1941: Many non-communist and anti-communist Lithuanians considered Jews to be agents of Soviet communism.

Besides concerns about sympathies that elements in the Jewish community might have for Soviet rule, Lithuanians faced the problem of dealing with the Poles in Vilnius. Reports abounded that the Poles had concealed guns and that they were plotting against the Lithuanians. Polish radio broadcasts from the west called on Poles to keep up their spirits and work for the reestablishment of their state, urging them not to “collaborate” with the Lithuanians. Both Lithuanian and Soviet officials anxiously worked to control this threat of resistance throughout all of the territory into which the Red Army had moved. The western allies, however, urged the Lithuanians to treat the Poles carefully; French military intelligence was using them as a resource.

Lithuanian authors have prided themselves on the aid that the Lithuanian authorities gave to Polish refugees in Vilnius in the winter of 1939-1940. Liudas Truska, quoting an article in Lietuvos aidas, wrote that the authorities helped the Poles in every way, from buying up worthless zloty to financially supporting Polish educational and cultural institutions. Polish nationalists, however, complained bitterly that the Lithuanians were cruelly discriminating against everything Polish in the region: “Neutral evidence confirms the fact that women and children have been beaten unconscious in the streets by the Lithuanian police at Wilno.” In the words of the Polish government in exile, “Lithuania, instead of regarding Wilno in the light of a trust and a bond for future collaboration, chose to practice nationalist oppression within the territories ‘ceded’ under the aegis of Germany and Russia.”xvii

The Lithuanians would have liked to reduce the Polish population of the region. Merkys spoke of “unnecessary elements” in the population of Vilnius. Urbšys told a British diplomat that “there were 100,000 Poles too many in Lithuania.”xviii The Lithuanian government anxiously asked the Soviets to accept former Polish soldiers who were natives of the Belarusian or Ukrainian lands. When western diplomats objected to such action, the Lithuanians assured them that this would only include “volunteers” who wanted to return home. Soviet officials to the contrary told the Lithuanians they should be more accommodating toward the Jews in Vilnius and they were “too gentle” in dealing with the Poles.xix Then there were the social and economic problems: unemployment and food shortages. The Lithuanians brought in food, struggled to provide work, expelled suspect Polish youth from the city, planned land reform to help the population in the countryside, and breathed sighs of relief as the inflow of refugees waned.

The exact ethnic make-up of the Vilna region at this time was and is the subject of considerable speculation and calculation. As noted above, Poles claimed to be 70 percent of the population of the region. According to a German estimate that circulated widely in the diplomatic community, Belarusians constituted 33 percent of the population of the region as a whole and 19 percent of the city’s population. Poles made up about 28% of the population of the region as a whole and 48 % of the city’s population. Jews constituted 17 percent of the regional population and 30 percent of the city’s population. According to this estimate, Lithuanians made up 20 percent of the region’s population and only one percent of the population in the city. The numbers of course do not consider the fact that many people were multi-lingual and had no clear national identity. Other estimates put the Poles in the city as low as 40 percent and the Jews at 35 percent. Estimates of the numbers of refugees ran to over 10,000 Jews and some 14,000 Polish soldiers plus perhaps 4-5000 additional Polish refugees.

If Lithuania kept these borders, the addition of almost half a million new residents, of whom only some 20 percent were Lithuanians, posed serious threats for the future not just to the Vilnius region but for the whole of Lithuania. In the 1920s, just the arrival of a handful of German deputies from Klaipeda in the Lithuanian parliament had upset the relationship between Lithuanian political parties. The minorities wielded the balance of power in the left’s victory in the 1926 parliamentary elections, and the military coup of December that overthrew Lithuanian constitutionalism had given as its justification the threat of a communist coup and also the threatening power of the minority deputies in the Seimas. In Smetona’s authoritarian system, the addition of this new population perhaps posed no immediate threat, but it held the potential for considerable trouble in the future.

The absorption of the population of the Vilna region could proceed only slowly. Although some Lithuanian authors have described the satisfaction of Vilnius and Kaunas Jews in their being able now to enter into closer ties, other writers have emphasized the cultural differences that had developed between the two groups in the two decades of their having been sequestered into different national states. These differences could even arouse social tension – what language did people use when speaking in public? Lithuanians distrusted the use of Russian or Polish language; if a Jew could not speak Lithuanian, Yiddish should be the vehicle for communication.

The spectre of the Holocaust, and specifically the killing of Jews in Lithuania after June 22, 1941, has deeply affected the judgments of all historians who have described the relations between Jews and Lithuanians before that time. Therefore it should be noted that the Lithuanian government also received good comments on its policies at this time toward the state’s minorities, and especially toward the Jews. Henri Minczeles, who criticized the Lithuanian police for their behavior in Vilnius on October 31, nevertheless called the Lithuanian government “assez tolerante,” According to Israel Cohen, “Under the rule of the Lithuanians the people breathed more freely and the Jews enjoyed a feeling of comparative relief,” and he described the “attitude of the Lithuanian government itself” as “one of satisfying tolerance.” In March 1940 an American diplomat in Kaunas reported home, “I have the honor to report as of possible interest to the Department that the Lithuanians are becoming, since the beginning of the war and the annexation of the Vilna Territory, more and more conscious of the presence in their midst of large minority groups which they feel will be difficult if not impossible to assimilate. In general they have not been intolerant of their minorities and have been fairly ready to afford refuge in their country to foreign exiles.”xx

The Lithuanian government understood only too well the task it had undertaken in trying to absorb Vilnius, and it took a series of actions aimed at isolating elements in the region that it considered potentially dangerous. There had been proposals to make Vilnius an autonomous multi-national region, but the government decided that it should be Lithuanianized. Non-Lithuanian critics spoke of “zoological chauvinism.” The government blocked free movement out of the Vilna region, and it imposed strict standards for residents of the region seeking citizenship. It first restricted citizenship to inhabitants (together with wife and children up to the age of 21, and adult children living with them as of October 27, 1939) who were living in the region on the date of the exchange of ratifications of the Soviet-Lithuanian peace treaty of 1920 and who on October 27, 1939 had a permanent domicile on the territory. With this, the Lithuanian government aimed at denying citizenship to refugees and to Poles who had moved into the region in the 1920s and 1930s. (Lithuanians commonly declared that the worst trouble in Vilnius came from Poles who had moved into the region between 1920 and 1939.) Between November 29, 1939 and May 6, 1940, the Lithuanian government reportedly issued 20,000 passports. On May 6, 1940, the government liberalized its conditions, and in the next month and a half, it issued another 5000 passports. This still could not satisfy the government’s critics, but the events of the summer of 1940 made all discussions of the topic moot.

The beginning of this chapter raised the question, Was Vilnius meant to be a Trojan horse for taking over Lithuania? Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary actually offers two definitions for “Trojan horse,” one more active and definite and one more passive and indefinite: “a large hollow wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers and introduced within the walls of Troy by a stratagem during the Trojan War” and secondly, “someone or something intended to undermine or subvert from within.” The Soviet action in delivering Vilnius to the Lithuanians might be analogous to send the wooden horse into Troy, but the behavior of the soldiers did not fully fit the second definition: In the first six months of their stay in Lithuania, the soldiers’ behavior was exemplary, and many Lithuanians began to breathe more easily.

Giving the city to the Lithuanians helped Moscow to obtain the Lithuanians’ acceptance of Soviet troops as part of the mutual assistance pact. Just the threat to invade had been enough in dealing with the Latvians and the Estonians, and probably the Lithuanians would have yielded even if Vilnius had not been at stake. Just why did Stalin insist that Vilnius should be a part of Lithuania? Lithuanians themselves have shown a strong disinclination to consider this question since they consider their own claim to the city clear, historical, and even divinely ordained. To be sure, when the Lithuanian Constituent Assembly in 1920 discussed the ratification of the Lithuanian-Soviet treaty of July 12, 1920, Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazys Grinius declared that treaties were made on the basis of “do et des, I give and you give,” and he went on to say, “They have not given us all this {i.e. the Vilniius region – aes} for our beautiful eyes, not from good will, they gave it when they were preparing to war with the Poles.” In 1939 Lithuania’s political leaders did not want the public to look too closely at the concessions involved in the mutual assistance pact, and Lithuanians paid little attention to the question of just why Stalin gave them Vilnius.

A first response to this question might point to the fact that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact recognized Lithuania’s claims to Vilnius. But this fact alone does not provide a satisfactory answer: Stalin refused just to surrender the city; he dangled it before the Lithuanians’ eyes. It would seem possible that Stalin’s strategy here involved also his designs on eventually negating the German claim to southwest Lithuania. Refusing to give Vilnius to the Lithuanians at this point would have strengthened Germany’s claim to a piece of Lithuania.

Most likely, it would seem, is a factor that the German ambassador in Moscow reported home: Stalin wanted as few Poles within the Soviet state as possible, and awarding Vilnius to the Lithuanians would, in time, contribute to that end. (He may well have considered the Lithuanians stronger antagonists of the Poles than the Belarusans would have been.) More than once the German ambassador had observed that Stalin did not want to create a “Polish Soviet Socialist Republic” or any autonomous Polish region on the western frontier of the Soviet Union. Awarding the city to the Lithuanians served to weaken the Polish position as a neighbor. Vilnius was a key railroad hub in this region; without it Poland’s potential power vis-à-vis the Soviet Union would be considerably weaker. Furthermore, Stalin had traded the Lublin district with its Polish population to the Germans for Lithuania. In sum, the Soviet troops in the Vilna region served Stalin’s purposes by strengthening his western frontier and gave him a firm foothold in Lithuania. Their role in revolutionizing Lithuania lay in the future.

Another question arises here: Since communists living in Vilnius constituted an important reinforcement for the Lithuanian Communist Party, did the Soviets’ cession of Vilnius strengthen the Lithuanian Communist Party’s role as the dictionary’s “someone or something intended to undermine or subvert from within”? Moscow’s basic instrument of revolution in any of the territories into which the Red Army advanced in 1939-1940 was the local communist party, and the complex of problems emanating from Lithuania’s annexing Vilnius included some for the Lithuanian Communist Party too. The communists in Vilnius/Wilno had been a part of the Polish communist organizations, and in the course of the Stalinist purges of foreign parties in the latter 1930s, the Communist International had dissolved the Polish Communist Party. In the fall of 1939, while the Red Army held Vilnius, Soviet authorities worked to strengthen the communist base there, but neither the communists in Kaunas nor the communists in Vilnius were strong enough to push for a change in government. There were, moreover, signs of disagreement between the two camps.

In March 1941, a member of the American embassy in Moscow visited Lithuania and subsequently wrote, “This national antagonism [between Poles and Lithuanians – aes] had gone so far that a movement was started in Vilna for the creation of an autonomous Vilna district as a foundation for a new Soviet Socialist Republic.” Stalin, he continued, had rejected this thought, declaring, “I have stated on more than one occasion that Vilna was, is, and will be the capital of Lithuania,”xxi Nevertheless, the friction between the two party organizations continued, the American recounted, “and the party in Kaunas is still resisting the transfer of the Government to Vilna.” Lithuanian historians with access to party archives have not delved into this question, but the fact that the American found any such thoughts in Lithuania suggests that there may in fact have been some sort of friction. In any case, while its opponents might consider it a “fifth column,” the Lithuanian Communist Party was as yet too small and underdeveloped to fulfil the dictionary definition of “Trojan horse.”

Whatever fears Lithuanian politicians might have had about both the coming of Soviet troops and Vilnius’s possible role as a Trojan horse, the situation in the country remained calm in the winter of 1939-1940. As time passed, the leaders of all three Baltic republics became bolder in asserting that they were still independent. They could not, of course, ignore, as imagery puts it, “the five-hundred pound gorillas” sitting in their respective living rooms; as will be discussed in the next chapter, they always had to keep in mind the danger of angering the Soviet government. But the soldiers in Lithuanian displayed exemplary behavior. For the moment the situation in the Baltic seemed fortuitously stable; Stalin’s key agents to “undermine and subvert” the three Baltic governments were still in Moscow.

i LOA, 99-100.

ii USNA, 860m.00/424. Kazys Skucas later told his NKVD interrogators that Smetona had called Urbsys “a great optimist” (bol’shoi optimist) for thinking that the Soviet Union would observe the terms of its treaty with Lithuania. LYA, 3377/58/806, p. 156.

iii LCVA, 387/10/187.

iv “The Wilno territory to which Lithuania considered she was entitled was, and remains, 70% Polish with a Lithuanian population not exceeding 2½ % in some parts, the rest of the population being composed of Jews and White Ruthenians. Any Lithuanian claims are, therefore, quite unsupported by any serious proofs.” “The Polish Territory Occupied by the Lithuanians,” mimeographed press release in English, issued by the Information Department of the Polish Government, Angers-Paris, March 1940.

v USSR DVP, 22/2:19-22. In Mikhail Gorbachev’s time, his associate Egor Ligachev called the Politburo “the highest political organ of the country,” and Vladimir Kriuchkov, the KGB chief, called it “the highest leading organ in the country. Egor Ligachev, Zagadka Gorbacheva (Novosibirsk: Interbuk, 1992), p. 6; Vladimir Kriuchkov, Lichnoe delo (Moscow: Olimp, 1996.)

vi Raštikis, op. cit., 1; 617-30. Raštikis used the image of a “Trojan horse” in the epigraph to this section of his memoirs. The negotiations were intense: The Lithuanians wanted to restrict the Red Army to the Vilnius region, while the Soviet military wanted to spread across as much of Lithuania as possible. See LOA, pp. 125-47; also SSSR/Litva. Besides the Red Army units in the Vilna region, the Lithuanians agreed to three Soviet bases to the south and east of Kaunas, in Alytus, Prienai, and the Gaižiunai proving ground near Kaunas. On the negotiations over the dislocation of Soviet troops, on the Lithuanian protests concerning the looting of Vilnius, and on the general problems raised by the presence of Soviet troops in Lithuania after October 1939, see SSSR/Litva, passim.

vii Order no. 2 to the Vilnius troops, October 17; Klasta ir smurtu (Vilnius: Kardas, 1995), p. 46. Turauskas, op. cit., p. 159, spoke proudly of the appearance of the police.

viii See Truska, Lietuva 1938-1953 metais, p. 42; Valstybes Saugumo Policijos Vilniaus Apygardos biuletinis, LCVA, 401/4/2.

ix Full account in Regina Žepkaite, Vilniaus istorijos atkarpa 1939-1940 (Vilnius: Mokslas, 1990), 67-68.

x A number of commentators have declared that Soviet troops and tanks “had” to intervene to put down the disturbances. Žepkaite credits the tanks with having stopped the rioting, ibid., p. 68. The Latvian minister in Kaunas reported home that the Lithuanians had asked the Soviet military for help. LVVA, 5969/1/132, pp. 5-6. In February 1940 Urbsys filed a complaint with the Soviet Foreign Ministry about the movement of Soviet tanks during the disturbances. LOA, pp. 161-62.

xi LCVA, 496/2/22.

xii Piotr Lossowski, Litwa a sprawy polskie 1939-1940 (Warsaw: Panstwowe Wydawnictwo naukowe, 1982), p. 67. The New York Times, November 2 and 3, reported the disturbances as conflict between Poles and Jews.

xiii Henri Minczeles, Vilna, Wilno, Vilnius. La Jerusalem de Lituanie. (Paris: La Decouverte, 1993), p. 376. Dov Levin, Fighting Back (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985), p. 12; N. N. Schneidman, Jerusalem of Lithuania (Oakville ON: Mosaic, 1998), 18. Anna Louise Strong, The New Lithuania (New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1941), p.26.

xiv Dov Levin, The Lesser of Two Evils: Eastern European Jewry under Soviet Rule, 1939-1941 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), p. 199.

xv Levin, Fighting Back, p. 11, see also the endnote on p. 248; Dov Levin, Baltic Jews Under the Soviets, 1940-1946 (Jerusalem: Avraham Harman Institute, 1994), p. 128.

xvi See Eidintas, “A Jew-Communist Stereotype in Lithuania, 1940-1941,” available on the Internet through the homepage of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, University of Vilnius,

xvii Truska, Lietuva 1938-1953 metais, p. 43. Information Department of the Polish Government, “The Polish Territory Occupied by the Lithuanians,” p. 10.

xviii Crowe, op. cit., p. 143.

xix See LOA, p. 161-62; Polpredy soobshchaiut, p. 169. Soviet officials came to fear that Polish soldiers interned in Lithuania might manage to go to Finland as volunteers, but they rejected the Lithuanians’ request for a joint communiqué declaring that there would be no repression of individuals repatriated to Soviet territory under this program. See SSSR/Litva.

xx Henri Minczeles, op. cit., p. 377, but this statement came in a chapter entitled “L’extermination methodique”; Israel Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1943), pp. 469-73; USNA, 860m.00/432.

xxi The diplomat was an American-Lithuanian, who spoke Lithuanian and had previously served in Lithuania. He therefore had a circle of acquaintances in Kaunas from whom he could obtain first-hand information. Reprinted in SBW, pp. 208-211.

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