This year, the first comprehensive collection of South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s nonfiction works will be published. Consistent with a more pervasive silence of her generation, it is unlikely to include more than scant reference to her father’s Lithuanian background.
A younger generation of Jewish South African artists of Lithuanian descent, including textile designer Yda Walt and artist Cheryl Rumbak, is starting to fill in the gaps in memory and consciousness.
Exhibitors in Kaunas’s 2009 Textile Biennial, these artists attended the Kaunas Jewish community’s annual Holocaust memorial ceremony at the notorious Ninth Fort. The date specifically commemorates the Aktzion on October 28, 1941, when a third of the Kovno ghetto’s 30,000 Jewish residents were selected for death at the fort.
Standing between them at the ceremony, Fruma Vitkin Kucinskiene told Walt and Rumbak that she was a child witness of the selection, which left no family untouched. Only their emigration from Lithuania and relocation to South Africa in 1928 spared Rumbak’s grandparents and aunts, born in Kovno (as Kaunas was known to Jews), the same fate. Like Walt’s grandparents (and Gordimer’s father), they were among the 40,000 Litvak (Lithuanian) Jewish immigrants into South Africa between 1880 and 1920, with a further trickle arriving in the ’30s. Predominantly Litvak, South Africa’s Jewish community is uniquely homogenous in its Lithuanian origins. Largely erased in Lithuania, prewar Litvak culture was preserved in South Africa.
Vitkin Kucinskiene attended the opening of Where Is Kovno? the South Africans’ exhibition that explores the repressed memory of Kaunas’s Jewish life. The exhibition was born when Walt, part of a community of artists newly reflecting Johannesburg as a vibrant post-apartheid African city, accompanied her other work, which was included in a South African exhibition at Kaunas’s 2007 Biennial.
Unlike many South African Jewish visitors to Lithuania since the demise of the Soviet Union and apartheid, Walt was uninterested in “the rootsy thing.” The “emotional response” and “weird sense of discomfort and connection” she felt in Kaunas were unexpected.
Spending nights in her hotel room, Googling the city’s Jewish history, she learned that 40,000 of 240,000 Jews in Lithuania before the 1941 Nazi invasion had lived in Kovno, and that by 1945, only 4% of this community survived.
“I felt the community’s absence. I want to shout, where are the Jews?” she told fellow artists who encouraged her to bring related work to the next biennial.
Later, with a guide, she explored Kaunas’s previously Jewish buildings. “I felt angry: Why are none of these buildings marked?” she said.
Through its presidential historical commission assessing the legacy of the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Lithuania has officially acknowledged its devastating history. Freed from Soviet historical distortion, historians largely agree on the events of the Lithuanian Holocaust. “Integration of Lithuanian culture into that of the West is possible only through acknowledgement of the extent of the Holocaust,” said Emanuelis Zingeris, commission chair. But reshaping public memory is difficult. “On some very basic level, the history is totally unacknowledged,” Walt said.
In collaboration with Rumbak and composer Philip Miller, Walt submitted a proposal to the 2009 Biennial.
A decade after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s rewriting of apartheid history, the artists used their experience in Kaunas “to trigger memory” of prewar Jewish history in the city’s residents. They did so in collaboration with Goda Volbikaite, a Lithuanian doctoral student of Yiddish literature who was introduced to them by the biennial organizers.
At university, Volbikaite had chanced on a novel by the Russian-Jewish Grigorii Kanovich, representing Jewish life in Yanove. “He described a town I thought I knew,” said Volbikaite, who spent holidays visiting her grandparents there. She asked herself the Lithuanian version of Walt’s question: “Why do I know nothing about this? Where are the signs?”
Consulting with Simon Davidovich, Sugihara Museum director and Jewish tour guide, Volbikaite produced a map of Kovno’s Jewish buildings for visitors to the biennial.
In workshops with university art and music students, the South Africans used “Rewind,” Miller’s cantata on the TRC, which included recordings of apartheid victims’ testimonies, to discuss the artist’s role in facing difficult histories and representing traumatic histories.
The project’s heart, in the biennial’s main gallery, was the “Kaddish” installation, “a space to mourn [and] respect the murdered Jewish community of Kaunas and Lithuania.”
A black-and-white photograph of forest trees covered the back wall. Miller’s sound score, his recordings in forests where massacres occurred, transformed wind and forest sounds into an accompanying memorial of Jewish absence.
On the opposite wall hung a textile map of more than 200 Lithuanian sites of mass murder. Inspired by African textiles, Walt and Rumbak joined together five black-and-cream Xhosa blankets, traditionally used for funerals, to produce their template. Alluding to South Africa and also the Jewish tradition, it resembled the tallit, the prayer shawl in which Jewish men are traditionally buried.
Marking murder sites, buttons hand-dyed in colors that Walt imagined to be found in forests in summer provided the installation’s only color.
“I thought about red and orange flowers in the summertime. Those became the colors for the biggest graves,” Walt said. Red signified 5,000 to 10,000 Jewish victims, orange 10,000 to 25,000. In broken English, a woman survivor indicated where her parents were murdered. “My mutter there…”; “my vater there….”
Pinned beneath the installation were drawings of domestic and Jewish objects (combs, keys, candlesticks, tefillin). Some were exhibits at Kedeiania’s Old Synagogue and the Sugihara Museum (the heroic Japanese diplomat’s telephone and typewriter); others had been exhumed from mass graves. “House keys were among people’s last possessions — they thought they were going home,” Walt said.
The floor and remaining walls were covered with pages from Lithuania’s 1939 telephone directory, used by Davidovich to help his (often South African) clients locate people and places of origin.
Highlighting Jewish names, the pages confronted viewers with Kaunas’s strongly Jewish past. Triggering memory, the installation also reinforced nationalist denial: One viewer told Volbikaite that the directory was fabricated.
Dividing the room, a white curtain, the Kaddish prayer for the dead printed in white on white, signified ruptured domesticity, windows emptied of occupants.
Nine yizkor memorial candles burned along both walls, a total of 18 candles — representing and commemorating chai, 18 in Hebrew, life itself. Standing in the “Kaddish” space after the Holocaust commemoration, a survivor told Walt that he felt immersed in a world he didn’t want to leave.
The installation flowed between South Africa and Lithuania. Miller layered recordings of Lithuanian students singing “Afn Pripetshik,” the popular Yiddish song, with South African Litvaks, their voices now poignantly “connected back to Lithuania through their families.”
The poignancy relates to the generational silences not just in Miller’s family (“My parents wanted nothing to do with their parents’ history,” he said), but also, until recently, in the emigrant community more widely.
Miller’s primary collaboration has been with William Kentridge, composing the scores for the videos of this pre-eminent South African artist. Kentridge descends directly from a family of cantors in Lithuania’s town of Utian (Cantorowitch/Kentridge) before his great-grandfather’s immigration to South Africa. His otherwise intellectually acute body of work devoid of reference to this history, he questioned Miller’s involvement in the Kovno project: “Why are you writing music for a tablecloth?”
Alice Kentridge, William’s daughter, countered this dismissive relation to the Eastern European legacy of South African Jewry when she accompanied the team to Lithuania, documenting the project. (William Kentridge’s subsequent promotion of the project to a potential funder helped to secure half the team’s budget).
Building on the biennial’s receptivity, the South Africans intervened powerfully in Lithuanian history. By inserting survivors into a public space that triggered Lithuanian memory, rather than a specifically Jewish one, they bore witness to the survivors’ trauma and experiences in a different way. New Lithuanian historical consciousness converges in the exhibition with the vicissitudes of post-apartheid, post-TRC South African Jewish memory.
Walt, Rumbak and Miller know, however, that the installation is only the beginning of a broader project to join the dots between Lithuania and South Africa. They have glimpsed an answer to their question: Kovno’s culturally, spiritually and ethically rich Jewish life and consciousness endure in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
When Claudia Braude was in Kovno to cover the Biennial she conducted a transcontinental interview with the South African artists and local Jewish specialists. With Braude in the Sugihara Museum in Kovno were Goda Volbikaite, a Lithuanian student of Yiddish literature and Simon Davidovich, the museum director. She also speaks with rtists Yda Walt and Philip Miller, who are were in the studio in Johannesburg, Braude’s report from Lithuania was broadcast on Johannesburg radio on November 15 and is reproduced here courtesy of Moshe Chaim Wegener, station manager of ChaiFM.
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Claudia B. Braude is an independent scholar based in Johannesburg. She has published on topics relating to memory and history in post-apartheid South Africa, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
This story "Back to Kovno" was written by Claudia B. Braude.