The scandalous act was first reported in the Jerusalem Post by Efraim Zuroff. He is an American-born, well-known Israeli historian and Nazi hunter who has played a key role in bringing indicted Nazi and fascist war criminals to trial. Zuroff is also the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Jerusalem. He spent years seeking out and prosecuting Lithuanian perpetrators of mass crimes against Jews during the Holocaust.
In December 1941, Zenonas Ignatavičius left seminary in Kaunas and became the chaplain of the 2nd Lithuanian Battalion of the Auxiliary Police Service, later renamed 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Police Battalions.. This unit was formed by volunteers four months earlier and sent to Belarus. There these ‘Lithuanian patriots’ were very busy, mostly murdering the local Jewish population. Between October and December 1941, they exterminated over 15,000 people in Kojdanów, Kleck, Minsk, Nieśwież and Słuck.
The battalion was also used to commit mass killings of Soviet prisoners of war. Its soldiers carried out six mass executions in POW camp No. 352 in Minsk and shot nearly 3,000 people. The ‘Lithuanian patriots’ also took part in Nazi hunts for Soviet guerillas and their civilian supporters; 209 deaths are documented so far.
The bloody trail of Lithuanian Nazi-collaborators is exhaustively described by many experts. The Lithuanian historian Alfredas Rukšėnas is among them. In the journal Genocidas ir rezistencija (Genocide and resistance) he published many analyses. What the Schutzmannschaft Battalion’s past record is no secret. However, in Vilkija, the authorities and some of the residents accept that mass killings on the order of the Nazis brings glory to Lithuania.
The engineer Egidijus Juodis, who spoke during the unveiling of the plaque, said that it is dedicated to “an exceptional man.” Later he pointed out in his speech, that in the past people “honestly believed in God” and when they had to face death on a daily basis “they certainly needed consolation, spiritual strengthening, a good word and the priest’s ordinances.”
He conveniently skipped the fact that these Lithuanian collaborators truly faced death on a daily basis, but as murderers and not victims. The 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Police battalion had a particularly gloomy reputation even in comparison to other Nazi-collaborating police and military units. The priest, arriving in Minsk on Christmas Day in 1941 to take over chaplain duties could not have not known about it. There is no evidence either that he tried to prevent these crimes, condemn them or even urge the soldiers to come to their senses. Like most Lithuanian collaborators his assumption was that the Jews were meeting their well-deserved punishment for sympathizing with the communists, and Hitler’s invasion of the USSR was, in Ignatavičius’s view, a new crusade. That was the essence of the propaganda from Lithuanian nationalist organizations in 1941.
As noted by Efraim Zuroff, until now the Lithuanian central and local authorities and social organizations providing Nazi collaborators with memorials and plaques justify their actions with the fact that these people after 1944 took part in anti-Soviet guerrilla activities and this is what the current ‘version of history’ is and what the country values most. Still, the scandal in Vilkija is a precedent. They honored a man who fled west with the retreating German troops, lived a peaceful life and died in 1975 in Brazil.
Such an individual is also to be a model for Lithuanian soldiers! The initiator of the ceremony was the organization of veterans – the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union. Honorary assistance from the side of the army was also provided. Apparently, the Lithuanian Catholic Church also complies with the new trends and sees nothing wrong in applauding such a ‘priest’. In addition to soldiers and officials sent from the nearby city of Kaunas,a representative of the Jesuits, Fr. Antanas Saulaitis took part in the unveiling of the commemorative plaque.