A speech by Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, speaker of the Seimas, at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem (2022-02-07)
Ladies and gentlemen,
In this place of remembrance, the mind, the heart, and the soul itself feel a tremendous need for silence. The silence for remembrance. The silence that tries to make sense of the memories that flow backwards. One feels the need for silence since the words are not strong enough to express the deep regret for the terrible tragedy of the Holocaust.
I come from Šiauliai, a city in Lithuania. Before the Second World War it was home to over 30 000 people. An active and creative Jewish community dating back to two and a half centuries ago, made up a quarter of the residents of the city. In the interwar period, Šiauliai had three Jewish kindergartens, two primary schools, a secondary school, a gymnasium, a library, a bookshop, a crafts school, a hospital with an operating theatre and a pharmacy. Jews were represented in the City Council. Jewish musicians, writers, athletes, journalists, and actors were actively involved in culture, sports, and theatrical life.
All of this intense and vibrant life was ruthlessly destroyed over a few years not only in Šiauliai, which had one of the three largest ghettoes, but throughout the entire Lithuania. It was not just an abstract tragedy. It was the Shoah, the catastrophe that had faces, names and surnames with their unique stories.
The faces of those smiling, full of life and hopes and then exhausted, tortured and emotionless buried in the ground and vanished in flames. They could not be spoken of for a long time. When this became possible, it turned out unbearably hard to do so.
Now there is a strong understanding of the need to speak, no matter how difficult it may be. Because remembering the faces of innocent victims means saving them from sinking into oblivion and saving ourselves as moral and conscious human beings.
Because we can talk about the future only if we are aware of the scale of the catastrophe and if we understand the circumstances and our responsibility.
The catastrophe also bears the names of those whose faces we would not want to remember. They were the ones who drew up the lists of people sentenced to death that often included their acquaintances, friends and neighbours. They were the ones who were involved in the killings and who killed with their own hands or divided up the Jewish possessions. We must remember their names, although we hate to see their faces.
The catastrophe itself, which has already become part of History, is made up of stories. Some of these stories are absolutely tragic, witnessing the dark side of human nature, in the face of which words freeze on the lips.
Others are miraculous. Stories that demonstrate courage and sacrifice in the face of lethal danger. They remind us that as human beings, we cannot be strangers to compassion and desire to help. Human solidarity was akin to heroism in these times of darkness.
When we talk about the Holocaust, we must not forget neither the victims nor the executioners. They will always remind us of the limits of humanity and the limits beyond which inhuman suffering and inhuman cruelty arise.
However, it would be wrong to forget the brave people who resisted the dark and blind forces and embarked on rescue missions at the risk of their own lives and those of their loved ones. To date, 917 Lithuanians have been awarded the honorary title of the Righteous Among the Nations.
These intellectuals, civil servants, peasants, priests, students, people of various social backgrounds and destinies, by their example, opened another frontier for humanity beyond which there was exceptional sacrifice and exceptional heroism.
The men and women who saved those lives were ordinary people who demonstrated the capacity for extraordinary deeds. Today, they have become small rays of light on this black page of history.
We must never again allow such darkness to enter the world. Let us pick up these rays of light. Let us share their stories. This is the only way to truly honour their achievement and to build our common future.
This Government of Lithuania has been paying particular attention to the Holocaust memory and historical justice and it will continue to do so. Lithuania participates in several Holocaust remembrance and education initiatives planned for the next five years.
The opening of new museum spaces and the updating of curricula in line with the new recommendations for teaching and learning about the Holocaust are among the most important ones. This is a substantial contribution to raising public awareness and education not only on Holocaust, but also on the long and rich history of the Lithuanian Jews.
Jewish people are at home in Lithuania. Jewish people are part of Lithuania. Artists and doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs. They have all shaped and contributed to the rich tapestry of the Lithuanian culture. They are now part of our common future. Lithuania without the Jewish people would no longer be Lithuania.
And now let the words return to silence that includes sincere repentance, great reverence, and timid hope.