Lithuanians and Jews: What's changed and what hasn't over the last 40 years?

Tomas Venclova, a prominent Lithuanian author, poet, translator and professor of literature at Yale University, delivered the following remarks at a conference on Holocaust education held at Vilnius City Hall on April 17, 2015, the final event in the Being a Jew project.
Lithuanians and Jews: What's changed and what hasn't over the last 40 years?
© DELFI (M.Ažušilio nuotr.)

Exactly 40 years ago I wrote an article called "Jews and Lithuanians." It first appeared in the Jewish underground press, later in Israel, and still later it was translated and published by Lithuanian immigrants. The article caused a bit of a stir in the émigré communities. Vytautas Kavolis, Liūtas Mockūnas, Algirdas Julius Greimas and several others told me they agreed with what I wrote, but there were responses from the opposite side as well, although they were mostly anonymous or pseudonymous. I was still in Lithuania then, and left two years later.

Feliksas Dektoras, a translator from Lithuanian to Russian and then an editor in the Jewish underground press, asked me to write the article. He was publishing reminiscences of the Kaunas ghetto and wanted a Lithuanian to say something on the topic, but obviously not a Soviet Lithuanian, and at that time I was an anti-Soviet Lithuanian already.

The text was dedicated to my daughter Marija, or Marytė as we call her, who was two then. Marija is Jewish on her mother's side. Her mother, incidentally, is also Jewish on her mother's side. On my side Marija is Lithuanian, as I am, and I thought that when she grew up it might be important to her to understand what happened between her two peoples.

So, what has changed over 40 years, and what has not?

I'll begin with Marija. She's now 42, she's a mother herself now, and she considers herself an American and a Lithuanian. She's visited Lithuania several times and has now submitted an application to receive Lithuanian citizenship. She has never been to Israel, but knows a fair deal about the Holocaust, as do many Americans. I never asked her whether my article meant anything to her, and we never discussed it at all.

Feliksas Dektoras is still alive and well, and divides his time between Israel and Russia, publishing books, most recently "The Black Book" and selected writings of Zeev Jabotinsky.

Tomas Venclova
Tomas Venclova
© DELFI (T.Vinicko nuotr.)

If we go to the heart of the matter in the article, what really stands out is that Lithuanians then, including me, knew practically nothing about Jewish history in Lithuania. The history textbooks of independent Lithuania between the two world wars dedicated at most a half page to Jews. The authors were only concerned with ethnic Lithuanians; well, also with Poles, but Poles were, according to the official view, either Lithuanians who had lost their ethnic identity, or treacherous enemies, or both the one and the other simultaneously.

Soviet textbooks didn't mention Jews at all, the word itself seemed profane somehow and it was avoided. There was writing about the mass murders during the war, but suppressing or attempting to suppress the fact the victims were mainly Jews. On the other hand, Lithuanians interpreted Soviet propaganda contrarily: if the regime and especially the KGB said something, the truth was the diametrically exact opposite of that. If "bourgeois nationalists" were being denounced and accused, then that meant all of them down to each and every individual were heroes and freedom fighters. It was only the very rare person who understood that this made you dependent upon the KGB, the KGB was determining your conception of history, if only in a roundabout and perverse manner.

You see, although it is painful to admit it, even the most horrible organizations and the most horrible forces sometimes also tell the truth, partially. Not all among those attacked by the Soviets were genuine heroes and freedom fighters.

Within families, of course, the children heard things, but those overheard things were probably insufficient as well: there was everyday domestic anti-Semitism in the stories told by grandparents and parents, and the desire to push out of mind memories burdening the conscience, and all sorts of other things.

An apologetic approach to 1941 dominated, with certain small exceptions, in the émigré community, which was broadcast back to Lithuania, and Jews were considered "strangers" par excellence.

Now: not only do we have rather detailed information on Jewish topics in general Lithuanian history studies, but there are also a large number of rather fundamental books on the legacy and past of Lithuanian Jews, and the great stratum of Litvak culture is no longer alien. If it hasn't been integrated into Lithuanian culture, I believe the foundation for doing so has already been laid.

There are many exhibits, for example, which touch upon Jewish Vilnius, and by no means are these exhibits exclusively by Jewish artists. It appears there is real and sincere interest in this, although it is often seen as some sort of exotic enclave. For me, at least, it's sad that there wasn't enough funding, or more likely it was a lack of sufficient will, to buy Chagall's painting of the Vilnius synagogue for the Lithuanian Museum.

The Vilna Gaon has become as inalienable a part of the multiethnic heritage of Vilnius as Gediminas or Adam Mickiewicz. The "Jerusalem of the North" concept has become part of the image of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

The late Icchokas Meras and the living Grigorijus Kanovičius have been recognized as creators of Lithuanian culture, and there are a number of usually successfully films and plays centered on the topic of the past and the fate of the Jews.

Many martyrological memoirs have been published, and the status of the Jews during the Nazi occupation is no longer hushed up, the attempt is being made to at least make it a part of public memory.

Neither are the actions of Lithuanian collaborators being kept quiet, although they are only discussed at a very abstract level; any accusation leveled at a specific person is still usually labeled slander and a KGB invention.

The Vilnius ghetto is being restored, there are memorial plaques and statues there. Of course it would be good, and I hold out hope that it will happen sooner or later, for the Great Synagogue to be rebuilt. In my article I wrote that the ghetto sections were being restored in such a way so that no one would remember they were Jewish, and that is our national shame: and now this is no longer true.

I would like to say that a large and good Jewish museum, such as the kind in Berlin and Warsaw, is really needed in Vilnius. I have hope as well this will happen, and I consider it my duty to make that proposal here.

In my article I wrote that Jews and Lithuanians for many long decades interacted as did the Martians and Earthlings, arrivals from Earth on Mars, in a story by Ray Bradbury. They lived in different spaces, and when they did meet, it was the consequence of rare and lucky coincidence. This is probably no longer true: Lithuanians and Jews are no longer separate worlds who never cross paths.

Interest in Judaism, its theological, philosophical and philological tradition, the tradition of argumentation, questioning and differing interpretations, the Judaic respect for knowledge—all of this has even become fashionable in certain Lithuanian circles.

The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue

Lithuanian novels have appeared which attempt to deal fairly with Lithuanian role in and relationship to the Holocaust. Catholic priests have stepped forward whose views of the Holocaust are beyond any criticism. Julius Sasnauskas is an example of the latter.

This is, however, more of an elite affair, and in general amnesia holds court, regarding not just the Jewish but also the Lithuanian past. And books no longer mean much, because our number of readers, of serious readers, has narrowed considerably.

In the article I wrote that we have lived together for 600 years, and that perhaps that time is drawing to a close. At such a moment we cannot be enemies, or unconcerned with one another.

Happily that period of living together has not drawn to a close: in Lithuania there are still living people who are exerting a significant influence, such as Irena Veisaitė and Leonidas Donskis, who, as with the late Aleksandras Štromas, are both Jews and Lithuanians, or simply Lithuanians of Jewish origin, incarnating in their persons the idea of civic Lithuanian-ness; at the same time this means Lithuania is moving into the ranks of normal states, because such people are an everyday occurrence in normal countries. On the other hand, there are still people who stress their loyalty to the Jewish, Judaic tradition, and it is a good thing there are such people.

In the article I wrote that we must understand the destruction of the Jews is our own destruction, the dehumanization of the Jews is our own dehumanization, and the liquidation of Jewish culture is an attempt on the life of our own culture.

Has this become an axiom which the majority of Lithuanians accept without reservation? I don't think so. Not only has anti-Semitism not disappeared—and its absolute disappearance, apparently, is an impossibility, since it seems to contain something inexplicable and metaphysical in its nature—anti-Semitism has not become fringe, it rather frequently erupts forth in central public spaces. Sociological studies show, of course, that the function of "scapegoat," the tradition of the least-liked group, has been assumed from the Jews by the Roma, or Gypsies, blacks, Muslims, homosexuals and people with mental disabilities, but this is truly cold comfort because latent hatred of "the other" still exists in Lithuania and appears from certain indications to be on gathering strength. In moments of crisis it may manifest itself as deed and, unfortunately, there is a possibility that those deeds will begin to follow the old pattern again. Historically Jews have become the most distinct and emblematic example of "the other."

People often get the impression that Lithuanian-Jewish relations up until 1940 or 1941 were ideal. This was not the case. Perhaps they were somewhat better than in many neighboring countries, but they were still marked by estrangement and alienation.

There is no reason to hide—and I talked about this in the article—that our folklore and the classic writings, for example, of Valančius, Kudirka and Pietaris (but not Vaižgantas, not Krėvė and not Maironis), contain much anti-Semitism. Lithuanians do not differ from other nations in this regard. Dostoyevsky and Wagner were anti-Semites. This is of course disgusting, but it does not make these people into the enemies of humanity. I think that Wagner, Kudirka and especially Dostoyevsky would have been completely horrified by the Holocaust. On the other hand, one shouldn't forget that this contributed to creating the atmosphere in which the Holocaust became possible.

Rather strong anti-Semitic tendencies, although not as strong as, say, for example, in Poland, have defined the public discourse in pre-war years in Lithuania. This bad tradition is also being studied carefully and objectively now, and it's a good thing it is being studied.

The Lithuanian discourse as it concerns itself with the Holocaust, though, still has gaps, to put it mildly.

Despite efforts to establish a civic understanding of Lithuanian-ness, ethnic nationalism remains the entrenched paradigm of societal and state ideology. And this is unsurprising. Almost all figures in the Lithuanian XIX century movement created this paradigm, including all those for whom streets and squares are named and for whom statues are erected, including Daukantas, Basanavičius and Smetona. The still-popular history written by Šapoka is based on this paradigm. Post-war partisans and almost all émigrés adhered to it. During Soviet times ethnic nationalism was of a dual nature. It was in no way alien to many Communists and ideologues of the official persuasion, people such as the writer Justinas Marcinkevičius; on the other hand, it was quietly propagated in almost every family: people conformed and collaborated, but in the depths of their soul they were, as they believed themselves, "for Lithuanian-ness," and Justinas Marcinkevičius became a cult figure, because he was just like them. The Lithuanian independence movement Sąjūdis followed the same paradigm of nationalism, although for practical reasons they sought not to emphasize it.

According to this paradigm the ethnic Lithuanian—excluding certain traitors who shouldn't properly be called Lithuanians—may only be either an innocent victim, or a heroic fighter, and often both at the same time. The Lithuanian always has been and always will be surrounded by enemies whose passionate desire is to desecrate and destroy his ethnic identity, and usually him or her as well. All acts by ethnic Lithuanians are justified because they are necessary self-defense, and cannot be anything else.

© AFP/Scanpix

The multicultural perspective and multicultural policies arrived in Lithuania from outside after entering the European Union, and had virtually no local roots. For that reason many say with joy that policy has bankrupted Europe, although this sort of talk is clearly an exaggeration. Multiculturalism has entered into academia, if only because of ideational and financial support from the West, but has not entered into the masses, nor into the majority of those in power who represent the thinking of the masses. Globalization taken generally is considered evil, and even a treacherous conspiracy against ethnic identity.

This Lithuanian ideology is not too distant, for example, the ideology of Marine Le Pen in France. The difference is that almost all strong political forces in Lithuania support it; there is silent agreement among them, a consensus.

So officially it is agreed that the Holocaust is a great evil, a special day is allocated for remembering it, but at the same time there is the official attempt to justify and even canonize people who were complicit in the Holocaust. Commemorations and memorial plaques are also dedicated to them. So this should properly be called a form of national and state schizophrenia.

And this is what causes justified consternation and anger among Jews and more enlightened Lithuanians: from anti-Semitic emotions in the media, from aggressive anti-Semitism in internet comments to a very liberal and tolerant attitude towards radical right wing demonstrations which for some reason must take place during a time sacred to Lithuania—during independence holidays—and at the most important public spaces in Vilnius and Kaunas. In my opinion these demonstrations are an insult to Lithuanian independence, and can only be judged as such.

When Dovid Katz and Efraim Zuroff bring attention to bear on these facts, a wave of discontent arises. But what's to be angry about here? Katz and Zuroff are essentially defending normal criteria accepted in the democratic world, whereas many of us think this is "unwelcome interference in Lithuania's affairs" and an insult to Lithuanian patriotism. This understanding of patriotism is anachronous and unintelligent, and that's still putting it mildly. One could say the views of Lithuanians and the world have parted ways: the world is not marching in lock-step, we are alone marching in lock-step with ourselves.

This doesn't contribute to Lithuania's standing in the world, it just detracts from it.

And none of this, as is often claimed, presents a "different Jewish and Lithuanian narrative," a contradiction between two ethnic views. No, this is a conflict between an honest and fair view, and a dishonest one. This is not a crossroads where Jews and Lithuanians part ways, it is a crossroads in the heart of Lithuanian society.

Cato used to end his orations with the sentence, "delenda est Carthago," or, "and Carthage must be destroyed." As usual I will end with two Carthages which should be destroyed. The first is the cult of the 1941 uprising and the Provisional Government. I wrote about this 40 years ago and since that time, having gained more information, my opinion of the Provisional Government of Škirpa and Ambrazevičius has only declined. Anti-Semitism was part of their program, there is no reason to hide this, and the tragic consequences of that absolutely annul anything this government supposedly achieved. It is said that they successfully recreated the Lithuanian administration, but that was primarily recreation of the police and similar services which were only too easily employed by the Nazis. If we call the events of June of 1941 the beginning of honorable resistance, as Vytautas Landsbergis and his influential political allies do, we place a large black blemish on all of it, including the justified post-war Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance. These events should not be given honor in the textbooks, it must be said clearly that from the very start, that the orientation to Hitler's Germany was a mistake and was unacceptable, and that at best the Lithuanian insurgents were naïve, at worst there were many criminals among them. The reburial of Ambrazevičius with state funds and with an honor guard was a huge moral error, which, fortunately, if belatedly was condemned by a considerable number of Lithuanian intellectuals, including the national hero Tomas Šernas. One hysterical politician who is no longer among the living called those people at that time "Quislings," although, of course, whether we like it or not, the typical Quisling was none other than Ambrazevičius, since he publicly proposed Lithuania’s alliance with Hitler.

The attempt is being made officially to sit on two different chairs at once: Škirpa and Ambrazevičius perhaps made some slight mistakes, but essentially worked for the good of the country, and therefore deserve respect. I will propose a very uncomfortable but nonetheless obvious and apt parallel, the official position of today's Russia regarding Stalin: he might have destroyed more people than he need have, but he worked for the good of his country, and therefore deserves the respect of Russians.

The attitude spreads among us without utterance: we mark the Holocaust because the international situation demands it, but we mark our Lithuanian heroes of 1941 because our national honor demands it. In my opinion this demonstrates the quite pathetic state of thinking in our society. To express regret over the Holocaust and to express honor and respect to the Provisional Government at the very same time is squaring the circle. There is no way to solve this antinomy, and it isn't fitting to maintain any illusions regarding this issue.

And the second Carthage: the theory of double or symmetric genocide, reflected in, among other things, calling the KGB museum in Vilnius the Museum of Genocide. To avoid senseless arguments and annoyance, the museum should be renamed the Museum of the Crimes of Communism.

As I understand it, there is a law in Lithuania which not only punishes those who deny or belittle the Holocaust—and incidentally, as I understand it, no one has ever been punished for that, although there are such deniers and belittlers—but also those who deny or belittle the Soviet genocide. So here I refuse to call the Soviet genocide a genocide and call it stratocide. If for that I must answer (it is easy to name my view a belittling of the Soviet genocide ) then so be it, I will gladly defend my position in any court.

Thank you for your consideration.

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