We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust
By Ellen Cassedy
University of Nebraska Press, 288 pages, $19.95
This past May, the remains of the Nazi-quisling head of Lithuania’s wartime Provisional Government (PG), Juozas Brazaitis, were ceremoniously disinterred from Putnam, Conn., where he was buried in 1974, and reinterred a few days later in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city and pre-war capital. The PG, which Brazaitas led from June of 1941 until it was dismantled in August of the same year, was formed by members of the Lithuanian Activist Front, a fascist organization notorious for the torture, rape and murder of thousands of Jews before the Nazis ever established ghettos in Lithuania. En route to his final resting place, Brazaitis was honored at a public ceremony in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, and feted at a full-day conference at Kaunas’s Vytautas Magnus University.
Regrettably, Lithuania’s bestowing extraordinary public honors upon a notorious Nazi collaborator was not terribly out of the ordinary. Rather, the ceremony was consistent with similarly outrageous events of recent years. Most offensive were the Lithuanian prosecutor general’s repugnant legal proceedings against a handful of Jewish Holocaust survivors and anti-Nazi partisans, among them Yitzhak Arad, director of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum from 1972 to 1993; Joseph Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, and Fania Brantsovsky, the librarian of the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. The prosecution of Jewish partisans as war criminals was a vile but logical consequence of the most virulent version of the “double-genocide” thesis, according to which Lithuanian gentiles were victims of Soviet atrocities no less than Jews had been victims of the Nazis, and Jewish Communists were most responsible for the suffering of the Lithuanian nation.
In “We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust,” a memoir of the summer she spent at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in 2004, playwright and newspaper columnist Ellen Cassedy struggles to remain impartial in assessing the troubled relationship between Jews and Lithuanians. Having heard about the efforts of “a brave cadre of leaders” to confront their history, she was inspired to add to her original mission of learning the Yiddish language the goal of learning about these righteous gentiles. “They were being asked to imagine themselves into someone else’s heritage while keeping hold of their own,” she reflects. “I wonder how that mission could ever succeed.”
The book, whose title refers to the refrain of the “Partizaner Lid,” the Jewish partisan fighters’ anthem, operates on two distinct planes. The first is a record of Cassedy’s immersion in Yiddish studies, artfully peppered with citations from Yiddish poetry. Parallel to these whimsical memoirs of linguistic and literary discovery are grimmer accounts of visits with numerous Jewish and gentile Lithuanians, from politicians to peasants, sophisticated scholars to simple survivors. While Cassedy writes compellingly about her attraction to all things Yiddish, her interpretations of the testimonies she heard from Jewish survivors of, and gentile witnesses to, the extermination of almost 95% of Lithuania’s Jews remain stubbornly sophomoric.
The fundamental flaw that plagues Cassedy’s effort is evident in the very titles she assigns to the book’s three sections: “Mir Zaynen Do” (Yiddish for “We Are Here”), “Mes Dar Esame” (Lithuanian for the same) and “We Are All Here.” These titles betray Cassedy’s determination to accentuate perceived parallels in the hardships that befell Jews and Lithuanians, an approach devised well before she arrived in Vilnius.
Shortly before her departure from the U.S., Cassedy was shocked to learn that the sole survivor of her maternal Lithuanian ancestors, her beloved Uncle Will, was a Jewish policeman in the Ghetto of Siaulai (Shavel, in Yiddish). This unwelcome revelation leads her, over and again, to draw sloppy parallels between uniformed but totally powerless Jewish kapos, slave-policemen who were forced by the Nazis to do their filthiest bidding, and armed Lithuanian fascists who killed many more Jews than the Germans did in the forests and fortresses of Lithuania.