Respectable Memoir, Some Shrewd Manipulation by an East European Government ― or Both?

July 18, 2012 2:42 pm 8 comments

Cover of "We Are Here. Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust". Photo: www.ellencassedy.com.

Review of We Are Here. Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. By Ellen Cassedy. University of Nebraska Press, 273 pp. Paperback $19.95.

What do you do if you spent an inspiring summer back in 2004 studying Yiddish in Vilnius, Lithuania, and researching a painful mystery in your own family, while naively becoming a pawn of a government-sponsored effort to downgrade and confuse the country’s World War II history? Unhappy with the country’s murder rate of the Jewish population (at around 95% among the highest in Europe, because of massive local collaboration), some of the country’s politicians, academics and media folks have invested heavily in “fixing” this unwanted history.

If, like Ellen Cassedy, you are a talented memoirist, you write a readable memoir of that summer, skillfully tying in the antecedent and subsequent threads. But what if ― here the plot thickens ― things have changed markedly over in Lithuania concerning the very people, institutions and issues you wrote about, undermining your conclusions? For example, if two elderly women Holocaust survivors you recall with fondness, Fania Brantsovsky (born May 1922) and Dr. Rachel (Rokhl) Margolis (born October 1921), both escapees from the Vilna Ghetto and anti-Nazi resistance heroes, have in the meantime (incredibly and ridiculously) been accused of being war criminals in a deeply antisemitic state-sponsored effort to rewrite history? After all, an event on this scale, an attempt to turn the tables by “blaming the victims,” as the Economist put it in 2008, has not taken place in any other country. Great Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown has stood up for Dr. Margolis with infinitely more backbone than the American Jewish author of the book under review.

Or, if a state-sponsored commission on both Nazi and Soviet crimes that so impressed you back then has since been scandalized because its only Holocaust survivor member, Dr. Yitzhak Arad, was himself also accused of war crimes (in 2006)? As a result, international scholars including Sir Martin Gilbert (London), Prof. Gershon Greenberg, Prof. Konrad Kwiet (Sydney) and Prof. Dov Levin (Jerusalem) all resigned from the Commission and its associated committees.

Or, if a Yiddish institute you grew to love is now free of Yiddish (and Jewish academic staff) for eleven months a year, and has effectively been turned into a purged government PR unit, whose non-Yiddish-speaking leaders are regularly dispatched by the government to Astana (Kazakhstan), Jerusalem, London and further afield to spread the government’s gospel?

If in 2008, neo-Nazi parades started getting the government’s green light for the center of the capital city on the nation’s independence day, growing markedly in 2011 and 2012?

If in 2010, public swastikas were legalized and shortly thereafter the “Jewish” view of the Holocaust actually criminalized? If right up to today, the actual local murderers who unleashed the Lithuanian Holocaust in 1941, the “white armbanders,” have been increasingly honored by the state as “freedom fighters”?

In fact, a number of local Holocaust collaborators were rehabilitated and posthumously honored by the former Lithuanian president, Valdas Adamkus, who was chosen (!) to provide one of the three blurbs adorning the back cover of Cassedy’s book. In May of 2012, Adamkus actually attended and defended the reburial of a major Holocaust collaborator, the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister of Lithuania who personally signed orders for a concentration camp for Jews (it was actually a torture and mass murder site) and for all of Kovno’s Jewish population to be incarcerated in a ghetto within four weeks.

◊◊◊

Something is amiss.

The author’s solution to the whole lot was to leave intact the good old days of 2004, and now, upon the book’s publication, to publicize it as a subservient spokesperson for Lithuanian government apologetics regarding the Holocaust. She has even gone so far, recently, in the course of promoting her book, as to tell a Vilnius publication: “I went to Lithuania, hoping to decide who was right and who was wrong; to put people in a column, who was a victim, who was a killer. And then those lines began to blur.” The antisemitic far right in Eastern Europe could not hope for better luck than an American Jewish author who can be so readily persuaded to “blur the lines” between perpetrators and victims, confusing it all into precisely their own kind of “Double Genocide” goulash.

The 2012 “author’s note” added at the end of the book contains two lame paragraphs on some of these matters which, for the sake of the artificial symmetry, equally cite some long-ago solved internal Jewish disputes and the government’s alleged generosity on other matters. As if nothing can be written about without “equal time,” as if there is no right or wrong, truth or falsehood in the bigger picture of Lithuanian Jewry and its calamitous and utterly non-symmetrical end. A calamitous end, incidentally, that must not obscure the more than six centuries of usually peaceful coexistence that for centuries was often a paragon of tolerance and multiculturalism in the spirit of the originally pagan medieval Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a coexistence that continued in numerous respects right up to the Second World War.

The Holocaust and the Soviet crimes against the peoples of Eastern Europe were never equal but a number of East European countries have invested a lot of funds, even in difficult economic times, to get the European Union (and the rest of the West) to say that they were. The motives are simple, especially in the case of the Baltic states’ nationalist elites: to obfuscate their own ignominious Holocaust-collaborationist history; to blacken the name of the Jewish resistance fighters by Soviet associations (in fact there were no American or British troops they could have turned to in those parts ― it was the USSR fighting Hitler then and there); and to be able to use Holocaust-style claims for reparations claims against today’s Russia and as geopolitical stick in contemporary east-west politics.

The “red-equals-brown” movement reached a peak with the signing of the “Prague Declaration” in June 2008, to the dismay of the Holocaust survivor community. The only Jew in Europe to have signed it is one of the “court Jews” featured in Ms. Cassedy’s book, a right-wing member of the Lithuanian parliament.

It is moreover disturbing that events to launch the book’s publication in 2012 were held under the auspices of the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington DC and groups closely manipulated by the embassy. Lithuanian nationalists are quite thrilled to have naive American Jewish spokespeople who can be dazzled by diplomatic glitter.

◊◊◊

But these flaws, which are irrevocably fatal to history and justice, and display a gross lack of loyalty to and empathy with the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, do not take away from a well-crafted memoir of the summer of 2004. Moreover, had the history of Lithuanian-Jewish relations taken a different turn in the ensuing eight years, the same book would have had a very different ring to it now. But that is reminiscent of the Yiddish expression used in response to such “ifs”: If your grandmother had wheels, she would have been a trolley car.

Still, once the propaganda element (which does not in general overburden the good prose) is isolated out, we are left with the only book-length memoir to date of the Vilnius summer program, combining the author’s (unmanipulated) summer of 2004 immersion in Yiddish with an (unmanipulated) personal search for answers to a vexing family puzzle along with the (manipulated) (mis)representation of East European Holocaust politics.

Some of Cassedy’s finest descriptions are of the two major Yiddish talents in Vilnius that summer: master Yiddish language teacher Yitskhok Niborski of Paris (originally of Buenos Aires), and the uniquely authentic Yiddish culture educator Mendy Cahan of Tel Aviv (originally from Antwerp). The extraordinary synthesis of knowledge, charisma and passionate Yiddishism of both these Yiddish educators is described by Cassedy more successfully perhaps than by anyone else to date. It is also a comment on the electric energy of intensive short immersion courses for language and culture, sometimes equaling rather more than the sum of the hours. It is a long overdue testament to two of the most successful Yiddish educators of our times.

Turning to the descriptions of local Jewish specialists, Cassed‎y’s portrayals of the celebrated family-roots and Jewish-sites guide Regina Kopilevich are likewise exemplary.

For Yiddish enthusiasts, the juxtapositions of well-chosen snippets from the poems and stories being studied, with the living experience of the cohesive summer course group and Cassedy’s ongoing personal family quest will be poignant and delightful (perhaps a tad too much for non-Yiddishists, but then again this is on one level a book about a Yiddish summer course).

◊◊◊

The non-fiction plot line, so to speak, is cleverly shoehorned into a convenient symmetry which is, however, also directly connected with the book’s central weakness. This is the author’s attempt to play Holocaust scholar. It results in unintended exposure of the way she had been stage-managed by those close to the Lithuanian government to espouse, to some degree, the East European far right’s theory of  Double Genocide which postulates that Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes resulted in human suffering so parallel that recognition by each side of the other’s suffering as “equal” is singularly crucial to reconciliation. One of the strings is the locally understood implication that Jews were in general responsible for Communism, a notion that might come as a shock to unsuspecting foreigners. A number of macabre elements of the tale, including the “Olympics of suffering” competition and the phenomenon called Holocaust Envy have yet to be studied in depth.

The essential flaw is evident from the book’s title, We are Here, the translation of the final line of the Vilna-origin Jewish partisan hymn authored by Hirsh Glik. Finding that a similar Lithuanian phrase, Mes dar esame (literally “We are still here” or “We are still alive”) was used by Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans in the forests, after World War II, Cassedy ends her book in a triumphant  finale proclaiming equalization in all three languages: “Mir záynen do. Mes dar esame. We are here.”

The problem is that it’s not true. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Lithuania was a state of millions of sophisticated Europeans ready in relatively short order to join NATO and the European Union. For all its problems, the Lithuanian people, and their remarkable language and proud culture really are still here and thankfully have a radiant future. The country’s population actually grew under Soviet misrule.

But Lithuanian Jewry, and its Litvak Yiddish dialect and lore, have been reduced to a tiny remnant, now rapidly approaching statistical zero in the ancestral homeland.

If you travel up and down the country, you will happily find Lithuanians of every age, size and shape. Of the roughly 255 Jewish communities in the country, some 250 (all but the major cities) are now Judenrein, with only mass graves, remains of old cemeteries and assorted architectural traces. The triumphant finale of the book, beyond being offensive to Holocaust survivors and their families, is morally untenable and empirically unsustainable.

A second reason for taking offense is that some of the most celebrated postwar “Forest Brothers” were recycled fascists who had murdered their country’s Jewish citizens during the Holocaust. Moreover, their own primary targets for murder were civilians. Not a very appropriate symmetry partner for the handful of Jewish escapees from certain death who rose up against the Nazis.

In fact ― there is no symmetry at all.

◊◊◊

Nevertheless, tackling a family conundrum enables the author’s memoiristic talent to shine forth unimpeded. She wants to know the truth about her great-uncle Will who she understood had been a member of the Jewish police in the Shavl (Šiauliai) Ghetto. Her recounting of internal weighing and measuring, of argument and counterargument, about what her uncle did or didn’t do, for good or not for good, led her to serious family research in archives in Lithuania  and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. These are among the book’s best passages.

But the concocted symmetry is not held in abeyance for long. There is the perceived need to “match” even this deep family quest with one about a Lithuanian resident of her great-uncle’s hometown, Rákeshik (now Rokiškes). From the structural point of view in a non-fiction narrative, it is done rather well. Before the trip to Lithuania, the need to explore the truth about great-uncle Will is “symmetrized” by a letter from a town official in Rokiškes reporting that an old Lithuanian man, Steponas, wanted to speak with a Jew before he died. When we eventually make the much-hyped trip to the ancestral shtetl, however, Steponas basically shows her where the Jews were killed and makes some typical claims about his family having tried to help the victims a little here and there. This is an experience seasoned travelers to the region have encountered in just about every former shtetl.

The real point, that there is a thriving Lithuanian community in today’s Rokiškes, and not a single native Jew in what was called in Yiddish Rákeshik, says it all (the descriptions of a single Jewish-heritage person who happened to move there for work is unconvincingly held up as some sort of symmetry).

That is because there was only one genocide, one Holocaust, and all the Soviet crimes perpetrated against Lithuania (and there were many and they were brutal) can never approach the annihilation of an entire people on the basis of their racial or ethnic or religious identity. There is no symmetry, there was no double genocide, and even an “American Jewish book” cannot will it into existence to make Baltic nationalists happy. (The Lithuanian edition is being rushed to press.)

◊◊◊

Nevertheless, the historic fallacies of the book turn this into an honest memoir in a rather different sense. We learn exactly which Jewish and non-Jewish people the author met in Vilnius in the summer of 2004 and for anyone who knows these people, the descriptions are both authentic and heartwarming. They are all “professionals” in the field of Jewish life and culture who understandably have a highly developed sense of political correctness in discourse with visitors, a skill absolutely necessary to their being able to continue their important work in Lithuania.

Unfortunately, this is not balanced by even a single description of any meeting with an everyday Jewish person in Vilnius or anywhere else. Their views would be (and are) very different from those she reports from most of the “professional Jews.” It doesn’t compute that a memoirist of her ability would have failed to talk to some of them, at the synagogue or Jewish community center and at various of the events described. Perhaps she didn’t want to include thoughts that detract from “reconciliation at any price” and are rooted in the experience and actual views of the tiny remnant of Lithuanian Jewry still to be found on their native soil? It is these people who actually live in admirable everyday harmony with their friendly Lithuanian neighbors, a harmony that is not undermined by their espousing the internationally accepted history of the Holocaust which is currently being revised by nationalist East European politicians, media folks and elites.

The book’s dedication to “reconciliation” suffers from the author having been overly influenced by the version of reconciliation propounded by the government and its “court Jews” and, as they are now called in Litvak circles, “Quisling Litvaks.” Shallow and short-lived reconciliation insists that  Jews and Lithuanians pretend that each people caused the other roughly equal grief (Jews by virtue of some of them being Communists or pro-Communist), and recognizing both peoples’ tragedies as “equal as a matter of principle.”

The second naive fallacy which the author swallowed hook, line and sinker, is that it’s somehow anti-reconciliation to criticize the Lithuanian government’s shameful ongoing record in tolerating front pages of mass circulation newspapers that look as if they’ve popped out of 1930s Germany; city-center Nazi marches with legal permits and participation of members of parliament; state adulation of Holocaust perpetrators; defamation of survivors who resisted; legalization of swastikas; and criminalization of the view that the Holocaust was the only genocide in Lithuania’s twentieth century history.

That is not to say that the author is wrong to pursue reconciliation. It is a noble goal, and it is being pursued every day by people of diverse backgrounds living in Lithuania. It has been progressing all along, not least because many courageous Lithuanians who have nothing to do with the country’s government have come out with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in the same spirit so many had earlier done in Germany and elsewhere. These bold citizens, who often suffer for their views, especially in career advancement and income, have nothing to do with the government. Cassedy seems never to have met a single one of them. That is a pity.

The result is a fine memoir of a summer in Eastern Europe devoted to family roots and the study of Yiddish, that is unwittingly also the story of an author who has been manipulated rather successfully by forces committed to obfuscating the Holocaust.

—————————————————————————————————

Dovid Katz, who was professor of Yiddish Studies at Vilnius University from 1999 to 2010, is the editor of www.DefendingHistory.com. His personal website is www.dovidkatz.net.

8 Comments

  • Curiously, I met such a “court Jew” in Krakow, Jews who was in a high position at a Jewish center there. His attitude towards my Polish-Jewish poet friend, Adam Szyper, who had offered to read his poetry there, during a time when he had published prize-winning translations, was less than zero. It seemed that that “court Jew” knew which side his bread was buttered on, too. What I know about what happened to the Jews in Lithuania is second hand, but the attempt to criminalize the last surviving Jewish partisans by turning history upside down for their having killed Lithuanians, yes Lithuanians who were compacting with the Nazis in rounding up and murdering Jews, Lithuanians who raped and pillaged and directly murdered Jewish babies without scintilla of human feeling. Lithuania’s record in the history of the Holocaust is definitely the worst, for its citizens who gleefully joined with Nazis, even before they came to Lithuanian soil
    in the worst case of mass murder of Jews. Unfortunately, that PAST has become PRESENT and bodes ill for the future by this attempt at merging the crimes of the USSR (and crimes they were, indeed) with genocide; crimes but not genocidal, as far as the Jews and the Gypsies were concerned. Now with the rise of Neo-Naziism given free rein in today’s Lithuania and the parody of justice by turning two old lady Jewish partisans into criminals under
    Lithuanian law, Lithuanian once again has clarified its ignominious history during the darkest period in the history of Humanity. True reconciliation exists in the admission of one’s guilt and the attempt to sin no more.

  • Dovid Katz’s review is well written. Congratulations, Dr. Katz.
    I wish could say the same about Ellen Cassidy’s book but she appears to be just another American Jewish opportunist who seeks her good fortune by acting as an apologist for the Lithuanian Government and Lithuanians in general by selling out not only the memory of those innocent Jews murdered during the Holocaust but the survivors, including her uncle Will. My grandparents survived the Shavli Ghetto and could only say good things about the Jewish administrators and policemen of this Ghetto. However, my grandparents only had harsh words for the Lithuanians, stating that Lithuanians treated Jews worse than the Germans. And after reading Dr. Katz’s review and Dr. Nadler’s review (which appears in this week’s Forward), it appears that Ms. Cassedy was used by the Lithuanians but the question I have for Ms. Cassedy is: “do you realize that you have been manipulated by the Lithuanians?” I look forward to Ms. Cassedy’s response.

  • Wow, Russian agents of Influence, regularly working with anti-American RT, attempt to accuse others of conspiracy….

  • I read Cassedy’s book recently and Katz is right on the mark. It should be known that Cassedy published this book after the death of her half-great uncle William Levin, who was a Jewish policeman in the Shavli Ghetto (perhaps William Levin would have sued her if he read what Cassedy wrote.)Throughout this book, which I found very boring, Cassedy repeats lie after lie she is told by various Lithuanians. The fact is that out of a population of over 3 million in before the war, only 30,000 Lithuanians (including 7,500 Jews) were deported by the Soviets shortly before the war. This is less than 1% of the population and with the exception of individuals here and there, in the years 1945 – 1952 Lithuanian deported were mostly killers of Jews. However, Cassedy repeats lies that Lithuania lost a third of its population due to Soveit genocide. Perhaps Casssedy should look up what the word genocide means in a dictionary.

    It is sad that there are a few Jews in America who have allowed themselves to be used by Lithuania in order to get ahead. For Cassedy, Lithuanians have been promoting her book, helping her with her speaking tour and getting articles published in which she indicates that her Lithuanian Yiddish course was in recent years but actually 8 years ago and a lot has happened in worsing relations since then between Jews and Lithuanians. The bottom line, Ms. Cassedy, is that there are no more Jews in the Lithuanian countryside – meaning that they were killed in the Holocaust – the “Jewish genocide” while Lithuanians are plentiful – meaning that there was no genocide of Lithuanians. Ms. Cassedy – wake up and realize that you are just being used by the Lithuanians. You have gotten great publicly for your book and yourself but dishonoring the memory of William Levin who was most gracious in welcoming you into his home and effectively throwing all the Jews in Lithuanian under the bus – the 0Jews who were killed not by the hands of the Germans but by their Lithuanian neighbors – these same murderers who your friends running the Lithuanian Government, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister and the Amabassdor to Washington – have honored in the past, present and will in the future. By allowing yourself to be manipulated by the Lithuanians, you have in effect walked on the mass graves which are all over Lithuania of these murder Jews and you should be ashamed of yourself. It is one thing to attempt some sort of reconciliation but no one appointed you to this position and any moves in this direction are needed to come from the Lithuanian first – not only asking Jews for forgiveness but taking serious steps towards this, i.e., return of Jewish privately owned property and serious compensation for Holocaust survivors. Jews were victimized by their Lithuanian neighbors, not the other way around.

    • Dear Peter, You absolutely do not know the history of Lithuania. Soviet deported about 30.000 of Lithuania citizens about a week before the war (about 1500 small children was dead in the same year because of deportation), but it was not all. Communists started to shot and torture officers of Lithuanian army and police and other members of former Lithunian elite. Represions incresed dramatically just before nazi attack to USSR and only the war stopped them.
      In the period 1945-1952 communists killed about 80 000 – 100 000 people, deported and prisoned about 180 000 people. About 80 000 pleole emigrated. How most of this people can be “killers of jews”, than entire jew population in Lithunia was about 230 000 or so???

      • Vytenis -
        You agree with me with the number of people who were deported a week before the war started on June 22, 1941 so I must know something about Lithuanian history. But will you admit that the number in this deportation was disproportional Jewish? (Jews comprised over 25% of this number and as entire families were deported, a large number were children and many died as a result). However, Lithuanians have consistently blamed Jews for this deportation but how can this be true is so many Jews were included? Additionally, my dear friend Vytenis, the orders for this deportation were signed off by non-Jewish Lithuanians.

        With regard to your comments about those who were arrested, deported or given the death penalty by the Soviets in the years immediately after the war, the fact is that most of this group did participated in the Holocaust which took place in Lithuania. One doesn’t have to be the actual shooter to have been responsible for the murder of their Jewish neighbors; rather participation can take other forms such as assisting in forcing Jews out of their homes and into the Ghettos which were established by and with the instigation of Lithuanians, stealing from Jews, attacking, beating, raping Jews and eventually forcing them out of the Ghettos to nearby killing fields which these mass graves were voluntarily dug by Lithuanians. My dear friend Vytenis, this also includes the Lithuanian officials like the head of the six week provisional government (who was recently honored by the Lithuanian Government) who instituted the Kovno (Kaunas) Ghetto. I do dispute the large number you cite but even if this was correct – this is less than 10% of the total population – and it is reasonable to expect that 10% of the Lithuania population fits the description above in participation of the murder of over 200,000 Jews on Lithuanian soil.

        My dear friend Vytenis, a suggestion: Grow up and look yourself in the mirror and face the facts. Your country is solely responsible for the murder of 7.5 % of its population – its Jewish citizens during the years 1941 – 1944. If Denmark could protect their Jews, so could have any other country and this includes Lithuania. Lithuanians had a good time, it was like a national sport killing Jews – even the Lithuanian National Basketball Team participated at the Fourth Fort in Kaunas kiling Jews. I will admit that Lithuania did take some small steps in reconciliation their actions against the Jews until 2004, when it received membership in NATO and the EU. Since 2004, Lithuania has turned much more anti-Semitic, as if there many Jews left – Jews currently number about 4,000. If this anti-Semitic trend continues, perhaps Lithuanian’s membership in NATO and the EU – the mark of joining the civilized world – needs to be reviewed and then revoked.

        P.S. For the record, I have visited Lithuania regularly since 1991 and am well aware of the facts on the ground there. This is in contrast to that of author Cassedy who spent about a month in Vilnius studying Yiddish in 2004 who is clueless of the current situation. However, Cassedy knows which side her bread is butter and the Lithuanians are taking good care in promoting both her book and herself. In my opinion, Cassedy has sold out Litvaks world wide and her book as well as her speaking tour should be boycotted by all sane people.

        • Thank you for your answer!
          I would like to note, that I am not antisemit or so, I support Israel in conflict with palestinians and Iran, etc.
          But I have some remarks to your comment: no one in Lithuania, event radical nationalists, not blame jews for mass deportation in 1941m. (some jews are responsible for that directly, but their role were not crucial). The really huge problem is participation of jews in mass murders of Lithuanian people and in the sovietisation of Lithuania. In addition to that, a lot of jews (especially in Kaunas) were members of communist party. As a result, here were no other exempt part of Lithuania society, which was so associated with communism. In my opinion, jews had a chance to avoid being associated with communits, but Jewish community was more concerned about soviet reaction and did not care about Lithuanian interests and opinion (a very big PR mistake in these circumstances!).
          Some other facts about soviet deportation: no less than 1000 Lithunian jews perrished, but at the same time significant part of deported jews were realeased from camps in few months after deportation (as former citizens of Poland) and dit not saw the biggest horribles. In fact, I failed to find serious jewish research about soviet crimes againts Lithunian jews and it is a very strange fact, maybe politically motivated.
          And about post-war deportations. Most victims of these deportations are not relaited to Holocaust at all. The same statment with yours I find in memoirs or Nachman Dushansky, the former KGB officer, who responsible for mass torturing people, but it is absolutelly abovious lie. A big part of people, who responsible for Holocaust, retreated with nazis in 1944 to West or killed in the battles of the war. Rest were punished mostly in after Stalin era and were shot or at least prisonded, but not deportated. Other interesting fact: in area, the lived my grandparents, soviets deported few Lithunian families, who save jews during Holocaust, but not deported a person, who participated in mass killing of jews

          • and about comparing Lithuania and Denmark: Denmark were not occupied by soviets, so it is simply not fair comparing them only because of that fact (and the are lots of other very important arguments).
            What is your sources regarding basketball team?

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