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.