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Last-Modified: 2010 July 2

SAN DIEGO, July 2, 2010 ( – Efraim Zuroff 
is the Director of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. 
I met him last March in his Jerusalem office and we discussed his 
ongoing efforts to bring to justice the perpetrators of atrocities 
during the Second World War. He recently visited Vilnius, Lithuania, 
where his great-uncle was kidnapped on July 13, 1941, by a gang of 
Lithuanians “roaming the streets of the city looking for Jews with 
beards to arrest.” We also discussed the efforts of Lithuania and 
other countries to whitewash their role in the Holocaust. And a 
pretty bad role they had.

As the German army went deep into Soviet territory after the 
invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, special units went right 
behind them all along the front with the sole purpose of hunting 
down and killing every Jew in the numerous Jewish communities 
that lived there. As a result of their murderous work about 1.5 
million Jews were killed. The process was slow, bloody, and was 
affecting the morale of the Germans. Not because they felt pangs 
of conscience that killing thousands of Jews every day was immoral, 
but rather because even for these murderers getting splattered 
blood and pieces of brain all over their uniforms, and dealing 
with agonizing screams as they murdered Jews at close range all 
day long, day after day, was simply too unnerving. To make this 
easier, and to make it feasible to gather, control and murder so 
many people, the German killing squads recruited people from among 
the local populations. This allowed the German overlords to take 
a supervisory role as the local auxiliaries did the dirty work. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the role of the local 
populations of the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and other places 
is the underlying reasons of why they were so willing to 
participate in the extermination of the Jews. In those countries, 
as in other countries occupied by the Germans (or their proxies) 
such as Latvia, Belarus, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, France, etc., 
it was—for the most part—the local auxiliaries who willingly 
participated in denouncing their Jewish neighbors, helping 
Germans round them up, cordoning them off in the way to the 
murder site, bludgeoning them, jeering at them, and ultimately 
shooting them naked at the edge of a mass grave.

One needs to ask the question of why the locals were so willing 
to murder Jews, and why they showed such zeal. The reason why 
this is an important question is because, first, the claim that 
the Germans forced the locals to become auxiliaries in the 
extermination campaign is untrue, and second, because the local 
populations were not subjected to the relentless racial propaganda 
and brainwashing the German population had been exposed to. Thus, 
one needs to dig deeper into the psyche of these willing 
perpetrators to understand why they were so antisemitic. 
Actually, one needs to ask the question of what made these 
people antisemitic in the first place. Surely many hated Jews 
because they felt Jews were associated with the Bolsheviks, 
and surely some hated Jews because they felt they had too much 
money, and surely there were many other reasons. But why were 
the local Christian populations so ready to uncritically accept 
these and many other accusations against their Jewish neighbors? 
After all, it’s true some Jews were Bolsheviks, but so were some 
Christians. Some Jews were wealthy, but most were poor, even 
very poor.

The ancestors of these Ukrainians and Lithuanians taught their 
children that Jews were responsible for the social upheavals 
and revolutions of the 19th century. Their ancestors in turn 
told their children that the Jews were guilty of poisoning wells, 
of bringing the Black Plague, and of killing little Christian 
boys to extract their blood to make Passover bread. And their 
ancestors had told their children that Jews were Christ-killers, 
bent on defiling the Christian mind, of desecrating the host, 
of being minions of the devil, of usury, of blindness when 
faced with what they perceived to be the obvious theological 
truth, and on and on. These people asked themselves the 
question of what kind of person would reject Jesus, God, and 
what was to them self-evidently true Christian revelation. To 
European Christians, it was a simple Manichean dichotomy: 
either the Jews were wrong in their rejection of Jesus as the 
messiah, or Jesus was not the messiah. Clearly unable to 
accept the latter, they chose the former and realized that 
only an enemy of Jesus would be blind to him and his revelation. 
To Christians, the anti-Christ was associated with the Jews. 
From there, it should not be too surprising that European 
Christians syllogistically arrived at the conclusion that 
since only agents of Satan would fight Jesus, and the Jews 
were enemies of Jesus, then the Jews had to be agents of 
Satan. As preposterous as this may sound to us today, in the 
past Christians saw Jews as demons complete with horns and 
tails and that emitted a foul, hellish odor. Having demonized 
the Jews, European Christians then proceeded to dehumanize 
them, which of course was not hard to do at all given that 
Jews were thought of as demonic creatures, not human beings. 
Medieval Christians all across Europe conceived of Jews as 
poisonous serpents, vipers, hells-spawn and rats. Hitler simply 
had to update the lexicon and transformed the Jews into 
vampires, germs, bloodsuckers and parasites. When the Germans 
presented eastern Europeans with the opportunity to exterminate 
these “pests,” they eagerly complied.

It’s really not that difficult to understand why Eastern 
Europeans already deeply hated Jews at the beginning of 
WWII when one understands the previous 18 centuries of 
relentless vilification and persecution of Jews in Christian 
teachings. It’s really not that hard to understand why all 
those Ukrainians and Lithuanians signed up to kill their Jewish 
neighbors, and why they did it with gusto, all day long, day 
after day, when one understands that to these people those Jews 
were the killers of Christ, evil, demonic and allegedly 
responsible for all the ills of the world, concepts they heard 
all their lives from the New Testament to the writings of the 
Church Fathers going through popular folklore and priestly sermons. 
Moreover, no one should be too surprised that these people 
killed with a clean conscience, given that they never heard 
from their pope, bishops, or parish priests that murdering 
Jews and stealing their property was a crime and a mortal sin, 
and that participation in mass murder would condemn their souls 
to hell. Not receiving any instruction to the contrary, no one 
should be too surprised they continued to slaughter Jews given 
they thought that what they were doing was the right thing to do, 
while the leaders of the Lithuanian Catholic Church “forbade the 
priests to help Jews in any way whatsoever”<1> or priests in 
Poland were instructing the faithful in their sermons that 
“No trace of a Jew is to remain. We should erase them from the 
face of the earth.”<2>

Gabriel Wilensky

Author of Six Million Crucifixions:
How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust


1. Quoted in Daniel J. Goldhagen, "A Moral Reckoning," p. 67
2. Quoted in Yitzhak Arad, “The Christian Churches and the 
   Persecution of Jews in the Occupied Territories of the USSR,” 
   in "The Holocaust and the Christian World: Reflections on the 
   Past, Challenges for the Future," Carol Rittner, Stephen D. 
   Smith and Irena Steinfeldt, eds., London: Kuperard for the 
   Beth Shalom Holocaust Memorial Centre and the Yad Vashem 
   International School for Holocaust Studies, 2000, p. 110

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