By Keith Morgan
It seems minister for Europe David Lidington and I had something in common when we left school - a deficit in our knowledge of the horrific slaughter that took place in the Baltics during World War Two.
I can think of no other reason why he refused to back loud opposition to the recent marches in Lithuania and Latvia that honoured Nazi collaborators. You may recall the widespread publication of his letter responding to criticism, saying it was "a matter for the respective governments".
When I left Blackpool grammar school back in the 1970s, I knew about 'the great victory of the Allies over evil incarnate', which was how my history teacher described the outcome of the war. I also knew about the six million Jews that perished at hands of Hitler and his henchmen.
I hadn't a clue about the 200,000 Lithuanian Jews that had been executed by the end of the war – 95% of the tiny Baltic State's pre-war Jewish population. Thousands were murdered by their own neighbours-turned-executioners.
Lidington was educated at the renowned independent Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School in Elstree and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he took an honours degree in History and a doctorate for research on Elizabethan history. According to his Wikipedia entry, "his passion for history is shared by his brother, Peter 'Lidders' Lidington, who is a history teacher at Clifton College in Bristol".
Really, so what's his excuse?
I learned the extent of the collaboration in the Baltics, and more specifically in Lithuania, from my dear departed friend Ruth Kron Sigal. She spent her later years warning the young people in her adopted hometown of Vancouver, Canada, not to be complacent but speak out against Nazism and fascism in all its forms.
My history lesson truly began at the turn of the century, when I travelled with Ruth back to her birthplace, Siauliai (Shavl in Yiddish), in northern Lithuania. There I met a frail octogenarian called Ona Ragauskas and her husband Antanas, who risked the lives of their family by rescuing young Ruth, or Ruta as she was then known. On November 3rd, 1943, the SS led a motley band of collaborators into the ghetto and snatched 725 children in what was termed a Kinderaktion. They put them on a train to Auschwitz where they were all gassed. Seven-year-old Ruth was miraculously spared; her four-year-old sister Tamara was not.
"It was just the right thing to do," the humble senior told me, when asked why she had provided a safe haven for Ruth.
We toured the sites of mass executions that are found – if you look hard enough – on the edge of most Lithuanian towns. When we returned home we read of fresh desecration of Jewish cemeteries and other disgusting acts of anti-Semitism.
"You have to tell of what you have seen, Keith," Ruth said. "We survivors won't be around forever. It could happen again."
By good fortune, I was introduced to Sir Martin Gilbert, the most published Holocaust historian and Churchill's official biographer. He was familiar with Ruth's story and her work because of his long association with Canada.
I remember him fixing my eyes in his study, telling me I must use my journalistic skills to aim the story at a mass market. He said the Baltics role in the Shoah was often discussed and written about by academics but unknown to most ordinary folks. "They should know," he said.
He made clear why he was so keen I write the book in the foreword he penned for Ruta's Closet. Sir Martin wrote: "On a recent trip to Lithuania, I was shocked by the unpleasant resurgence of anti-Semitism that belittled the Jewish suffering, and denials of the direct participation of Lithuanians in the mass murder have become quite rampant."
Contrast that with Lidington's recent letter. "While I understand that this is an emotive issue for all those involved, the history of these events is complex and one which historians are best placed to fully to understand. When I have visited the Baltic States, ministers there have told me how their countries are still coming to terms with an appalling period of their history in which their countries were invaded and fought over by both Soviet and the Nazi tyrannies."
Lidington, the truth is Lithuanians collectively are not coming to terms with the role of their forebears in the murder of their own neighbours. At every opportunity, the government of this country, which shares the table at the European Union and Nato, promotes the spurious claim that its people suffered a double genocide of equal proportion under the Nazis and Soviets.
The Council of Europe, the body responsible for the European Declaration of Human Rights, has called for a ban on these marches. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) recently published an alarming report, which listed some sickening examples of anti-Semitism and criticised the Lithuanian authorities' inept responses.
ECRI noted public anti-Semitic statements by elected representatives, anti-Semitic articles in mass circulation publications, anti-Semitic leaflets, the desecration of Jewish graves and memorial monuments.
Consider these examples: Swastika-wearing (now legal again in Lithuania) demonstrators shouting "Lithuania for Lithuanian"s, anti-Semitic articles in the national publications of Respublika and Vakaro Zinios. The former carried a cartoon featuring an obviously stereotypical representation of a Jew on one side holding up a globe flanked by a stereotypical gay with the caption: "Who Runs the World?"
Sir, you have been sucked in big time, as we say in the colonies.
Ona Ragauskas and Ruth Kron Sigal would surely say: "Do the right thing."
As an ex-pat I say: stand up and demand that the Baltic states put their houses in order and in doing so you will uphold the United Kingdom's noble past of not tolerating fascism.
Keith Morgan is a British-born Canadian daily newspaper journalist. His book, Ruta's Closet, tells the story of the Lithuanian Holocaust through the eyes of one Jewish family. It is published in the UK by Unity 1 Press, an imprint of Unicorn Press.
The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.