In my last blog post, I recounted the background of Yiddish linguist Dovid Katz, who has been reporting on troubling manifestations of neo-fascism in Lithuania today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vilnius, I began to better grasp that the key to the understanding of the Shoah in Lithuania lay in the year-long Soviet occupation that preceded it, in 1940-41.
Essentially the genocide of Lithuania’s Jews was powered by an explosion of nationalist anti-Semitism that fatally conflated all Jews with the hated communists. The killing began as soon as the Soviets withdrew, when hundreds of brutal pogroms broke out. Lithuanian militia units, wearing white armbands, also started to round up and massacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jewish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuanian authority that quickly took control. As Timonthy Snyder, history professor at Yale, put it, in a 2012 New York Review of Books article, “A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.”
The Nazis were popularly welcomed as rescuers, often with flowers; within weeks they had dissolved the Lithuanian’s provisional government and taken full control. Under German authority, Lithuanian volunteers continued to carry out the genocide. The Germans were so impressed with the enthusiasm of their Lithuanian killers that they used some of them to murder Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.
It must be said there were also hundreds of heroic individual Lithuanians who risked their lives to save Jews; but in general, Lithuania was about as bad a place as it could possibly get for a Jew in the latter half of 1941.
Since the accusation that “the Jews” sided with the Soviet occupiers in 1940 and somehow deserved their fate still surfaces when wading into the historical literature, it’s worth pointing out that the majority of Lithuanian Jews were in fact not communists, and that they too suffered, even disproportionately so, under the Soviets. In any case, if Soviet crimes were the real issue, than those individual Lithuanian citizens who collaborated in them, Jewish or otherwise, could have been arrested for trial by the provisional government. But that was obviously not the intent – the dispossession and elimination of an entire ethnic minority, long viewed with suspicion, clearly was, with probably a quarter of the victims being children.
What Katz has drawn my attention to, is how post-communist Lithuanian governments have not only failed to seriously prosecute their own war criminals, but have in some cases heaped honours on the very men responsible for the slaughter. Their names grace streets and parks and monuments; these days the white armbanders are often lionized as fighters for Lithuanian independence. In mid-2012 the then-government even flew the remains of the provisional government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semite whose signature helped lay the groundwork for the genocide – back to Lithuania, to give him a state funeral, complete with honour guard and archbishop in tow.
The reason behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for symbols of resistance, especially to the Russians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for independence also have hands dripping with innocent Jewish blood is an inconvenience that needs to be glossed over.
On the website he edits, Katz has steadily documented this move to whitewash the ugly side of the country’s past. “I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. “I believe, maybe naively, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very serious way that . . . these guys should not get away with rewriting history without opposition.”
For me, the influence of history is often an uncomfortable one. It brings the burden of old hatreds, of an upwelling of profound sadness. But for Katz, history is a kind of life force for which he is the conduit. His father was a Yiddish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life working to keep the Yiddish language alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defending history, is the same process: he is speaking up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them forget what happened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the murderers to have their say, no matter how tiny and breathless their faint cries may be now to our distant living ears.
I first came across the writings of Dovid Katz while researching what happened to my relatives in Lithuania in the summer of 1941. Though my novel The Lion Seeker is set in South Africa, it tells the story of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania, still bound to that blood-soaked land during the horrors of that time. I had learned the details of how, following the withdrawal of Stalin’s forces, Lithuanians had turned on their Jewish neighbours in an orgy of mass murder that began weeks before the Germans took control, then continued under Nazi direction till over ninety-five percent of the country’s ancient Jewish community was wiped out, mostly in a matter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuanian death squads with their white armbands; on Katz’s website I saw the same white armbands but in full colour, the photos recent and sadly real.
Katz is an American linguist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a position at the University of Vilnius and began to travel all over the region, interviewing the last surviving Yiddish speakers. Ten years later he became aware of a change, something troubling in the young democracy. Fascists were again marching through the centre of the Lithuanian capital. It started with skinheads chanting the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larger and more diverse with each passing year. Sitting members of parliament and ordinary middle-class citizens have joined these parades, conferring authenticity. Other groups are routinely banned from marching, Katz says, but the neo-fascists always seem to get a permit, and have received police protection and centre stage for Lithuania’s independence day celebration. Above all, Katz says he’s seen little opposition, no popular outcry against these marches, even as they have spread to other cities.
When I talked with Katz earlier this year – an animated, amusing presence through the videolink from Vilnius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a persisting Brooklyn melody to his accent – he began by insisting that today’s Lithuania is not an intrinsically anti-Semitic society. “After living here happily all these years I don’t regard the Lithuanian people as anti-Semitic. The majority of people here, and especially the younger generation, are open-minded, non-prejudiced, interested in a better life, in travelling.”
Rather, he sees the burgeoning ultra-nationalism as the result of how Lithuanian institutions are dealing with their history, or failing to. In Lithuania, unlike in, say, Germany, there has been little honest soul searching and public scrutiny of the unusually extensive role that Lithuanians themselves played in the genocide of the 200,000-plus Jewish Lithuanians.
Lithuania was proportionately the worst country for the Jews during the Holocaust, with the lowest percentage of survivors out of any country with a large Jewish community. It was a high-speed genocide carried out in the open, mostly. People - children and infants, women – were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuanian volunteers did almost all the killing, Lithuanians rounded up the Jews, who were usually killed not far from their homes. A Lithuanian term zydsaudys or “Jew shooters” still endures, testament to how commonly well-known the activity was. The Jews “screamed like geese,” as they were shot, said one participant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Survivor testimonies, like those in the recently-published Kuniuchowsky archives, detail how the perpetrators included Lithuanians from all strata of society such as the clergy and intellectuals. The writings of various historians (like Timothy Snyder, Alfred Senn, Alfonsus Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Milan Chersonski), all helped to outline for me how widespread Lithuanian collaboration with, and approval for, the genocide was. Part of my research into my late grandmother’s village also included watching video clips of witness testimony from elderly Lithuanians, and this too, for me, was confirmation on a micro level of what had happened more generally.
In short, if there was a polar opposite to Denmark (where virtually every Jew was saved by their fellow citizens), then Lithuania unfortunately stands out as prime candidate for that shameful distinction.
In part two of my discussion with Katz, we delve a little more into the reasons behind this.
There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages. There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.
“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”
Understand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vilnius is very good, especially the dark Baltic variety with its tincture of caramel. Well past my limit (of a single beer) I was inclined to presumption. Also, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the Lithuanian national identity crisis, having recently visited their Museum of Genocide Victims. This is the museum housed in the old KGB headquarters, a forbiddingly grim building where thousands of Lithuanian partisans were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Soviets. With its punishment cells and execution chamber, it’s a chilling monument to inhumanity, and there’s no question that the Lithuanians suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Russians. But I was more than a little uncomfortable with calling their particular tragedy a “genocide.” I reminded the poets that the Jews had constituted nearly half the population of Vilnius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the richest Jewish culture in Europe. I called the roll of Jewish geniuses from Vilna—the Gaon and the Chazon Ish, Moishe Kulbak and Chaim Grade, the scholar-rabbis, the Yiddish authors, actors, and artists—and suggested that, if the Lithuanians were so desperate for a narrative, they could do worse than to appropriate that of the Litvak Jews. After all, while the official identity of Vilnius had long been Russian, the public life was largely Polish, and the real flavor of the streets was distinctly Jewish. The scant native Lithuanian population was, at least until recently, negligible and ghostly.
I waited for my remarks to revive some atavistic form of anti-Semitism among my listeners, who merely registered then dismissed the suggestion; my reputation as a nudge had preceded me. Lithuania, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity. In the late 14th century, when the rest of the continent was building its high gothic cathedrals, the Lithuanians, it seemed, were still worshipping trees. In their zealous quest for identity many of the young were now looking back to the mist-shrouded pagan past. Shikkered from a second beer, I recalled an item of graffiti I’d seen on a crumbling wall earlier that day. It was a more or less stick figure with a protracted middle limb and a legend chalked above it reading in English: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in retrospect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuanian Stone Age, possibly the image of some trickster god. I presented my theory to the poets, supporting it with improvised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole borsht from the gods, lassoed a dragon with his schlong, etc. “And a little known fact,” I added as a postscript, “Long Dick Boy was circumcised.” I think the Lithuanians were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cherish the souvenir hangover I brought back from my time in Vilnius.
I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth—that was my default reply. Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.
It’s a beautiful city, Vilnius, a hard place in which to imagine the unimaginable. Especially when you’re strolling serpentine streets flanked by blue and yellow houses, some squat as toadstools, others narrow as the spines of books, most sprouting scrollworked balconies. The baroque churches look like pink cupcakes, the hidden courtyards beckon like grottos, and the women (Sabrina, I can look) are whip-thin and sleek as cats. It was a storybook milieu, complete with an argosy of hot air balloons overhead, and it dazzled me to the point where I forgot to miss what was missing. What was missing? Only about 1000 years of the most vibrant Jewish life to be found anywhere on the planet. It was here that the Vilna Gaon sprang from the womb reciting Talmud, and the poets of Yung Vilne kept the printing presses busy until the plates were melted into bullets for the resistance. Here the shelves of the YIVO archive and the Strashun Library groaned from the gathered weight of the Diaspora, and the cauldron of conflicting ideologie—Hasidim vs mitnagdim, bundists vs Zionists—boiled over in the streets. Here Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz plied their visionary trade within earshot of Jascha Heifetz’s violin. All that remained of that world, however, was a handful of memorial plaques, some busts and a couple of signs informing the tourist that history was once here but had since moved on. Not that I’d expected more; though I’ll confess to a romantic hope that, if I connected my passion for Yiddish culture to its source, sparks would fly and the streets swarm again with Jews. Instead there was only a sputtering of my good intentions before the impulse fritzed out and expired. Then it was easier to brood over what was absent than to try and recover what was lost.
So I abandoned my role of amateur Yiddishist in exchange for professional mourner. I gave a fiction reading in an old church outside of which the first Jewish victim of the Nazi occupation (a woman) was shot. “It’s wonderful to be here in a city where you can picture a Jew hanging from every lamppost,” I quipped, embarrassing everyone. The audience, comprised of Vilnius’s tiny Jewish community come to hear a concert of Yiddish music for which I was the opening act, sat in deadly silence. When I was done, a man like a steamer trunk in a tuxedo marched to the stage and, accompanied by a classical pianist, belted a medley of Yiddish folksongs that exorcised the chapel of my sarcasm. He ended with a Kaddish that rocked the foundation of the church. Chastised, I too dropped a tear into the overflowing bucket of Jewish grief and tried to hold that thought. But the music was truly cathartic, and afterwards, exhilarated, I went off with colleagues to drink too many beers in sidewalk cafes, in cafes tucked away in vaulted catacombs, in cafes with terraces overlooking the river, where I wallowed in guilty pleasure.