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Wide-Eyed Postcards From Lithuania

Silent Trees: Some 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were murdered in Ponary forest by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Image by wikimedia commons

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.

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.

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