(Page 2 of 2)
The same problem is on display in Cassedy’s descriptions of visits to Lithuanian institutions, among them the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius, ground zero for the propagation of the double-genocide theory. Though she was initially troubled by the blatant way the museum’s exhibits and pamphlets equate the Holocaust with Communist political repression, she ends up rejecting her gut feelings as too partisan, even tribal. Cassedy ends the chapter with a passage that reflects the essence of her relativistic approach:
Mir zaynen do, the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto had sung. We are here. A decade later, the anti-Soviet partisans in the forests had distributed leaflets in the forest expressing the same message: Mer dar esame. We are here. Was Lithuania making progress toward Donskis’ goal of “not rejecting or isolating the Other, but… attempting to understand?” And… could I live up to that goal myself?
The reference to the Lithuanian scholar and public intellectual Leonidas Donskis, whom Cassedy interviewed, is particularly jarring in this context, as he has been one of the most outspoken, morally clear and courageous opponents of the double-genocide theorem. Cassedy’s evocation of his call for mutual understanding, harnessed to support her morally relativistic posture, is terribly deceptive.
In the end, Cassedy’s book is little more than a confusing collage of wide-eyed postcards from a distant land whose history she struggles, and mostly fails, to decipher. It is also filled with far too many, and at times absurdly petty, anecdotes of her every personal experience, from the weather and her daily lunch menus to recalling at length her daughter’s bat mitzvah in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, even as she tours the forested killing fields near her mother’s northern Lithuanian hometown of Rokiskis. The result is a self-absorbed, naive and disorderly disquisition.
One of Cassedy’s more moving encounters involves her visit to Vilnius’s Jewish museum, where she spends time with Ruta Puisyte, the sympathetic young gentile director of the museum’s “Tolerance Centre,” whose purpose is to provide instruction to Lithuanians about the history of the Jews of their country. Cassedy, ever resolved to find impossibly happy resolutions to horrors that defy the “closure” she seeks, is at her best when recalling tender moments, such as this vignette of her taking leave of Puisyte:
The museum was closing for the day. Downstairs as we paused at the doorway, I could see tears on Puisyte’s cheeks. I put down my bag and gave her a hug. “Thank you for what you do,” I said. [Rachel] Konstanian, the [museum’s] deputy director, escorted me out of the museum. Before we parted, she lifted her face into the late afternoon sun and asked what I thought of her city.
I looked around me at the light glinting on the curved iron balconies. It was beautiful, I said.
“Beautiful” she agreed, “and sad.”
It is sad. But when it comes to the deepening decrepitude that dominates Lithuania’s attitudes to her Jews, odious, I would argue, is the more fitting description.
Allan Nadler, professor of Religious Studies and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University, is currently Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University and interim rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal.