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 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.