Still Thinking About Eastern Europe After the Holocaust

There continue to be problems between elements of world Jewry and officials of some European countries formerly under the control of, or allied with, Nazi Germany.  I am most familiar with issues that continue to arise in Lithuania, where over 90 percent of the Jewish community (a community with just under 200,000 members) were wiped out in the years of, and the years surrounding, World War II.  Today’s Jewish population is very small, well under 5,000, and very few of those individuals were pre-war Lithuanian residents.  After World War II, the Jewish community in Lithuania did grow, but it was not because former Lithuanian Jews (or Litvaks) returned to their old homes, but because Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union (remember Lithuania in effect became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent republic of the USSR, after the war and remained so for approximately 45 years) moved, or were sent, into the area.  Non-Jewish Lithuanians who grew up during the Soviet period may have met, and interacted, with Jews, but these Jews were by and large not themselves Lithuanian natives, did not speak the Lithuanian accent, and often spoke Russian with an accent which betrayed them as strangers to the Lithuanian lands.

Not only this, but those who grew up in Soviet Lithuania were taught a very distorted history that left a lot of things out.  It certainly left out any problems caused by the Soviet entry into Lithuania (which happened at the start of World War II, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was still in effect with the result that central and eastern Europe were divided up by agreement of the two treaty powers, leaving Lithuania under Soviet influence.  During this period of time, tens of thousands of Lithuanians (intellectuals, capitalists, land owners, military leaders – Jewish and non-Jewish) were exiled to Siberia; this was never spoken of.

Also, the Holocaust itself was not mentioned.  Young Lithuanians were not taught that their country had had an extensive Jewish population for hundreds of years, and that it was wiped out not through the transport of Jews to death camps in Poland, but rather through cold blooded murder, with most being shot either where they lived or worked, in town squares, or in specially selected sites in the forests surrounding the cities and towns.  And they certainly weren’t told that the murderers of their Jewish co-citizens included large numbers of Lithuanian nationals, sometimes acting under the orders of, or in collaboration with, the Germans, but often acting on their own.

Obviously, every Lithuanian was not involved in these atrocities.  Hundreds of Lithuanians have been recognized as “righteous Gentiles” by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, as individuals who gave aid to, or hid, Jews during the war years.  But many Lithuanians were involved.

The countries of the Holocaust (what Yale professor Timothy Snyder terms the countries of the “Bloodlands”) have dealt with their war time experiences in different ways.  Lithuania has not dealt with them very well.

There have been a number of problems.  Individual anti-Semitic incidences continue to occur, leaving current Jewish Lithuanians feeling vulnerable.  There is a strong far-right political movement.  Its newspapers print anti-Semitic articles; it stages neo-Nazi rallies and parades.  The country was very slow to appropriate any reparations for Holocaust survivors or the Jewish community.   Some Jewish “partisans” who fled the ghettos into the woods and joined the Soviets in battling the Nazis have been determined to be traitors to the Lithuanian republic.  The leader of the collaborationist Lithuanian government has been reburied in the country with great fanfare.

On the other hand, the country finally did appropriate compensatory payments, although it is not clear how quickly these payments can be made, or whether they will go people or places who are in need of support.  There are many Holocaust memorials across the country, there is an annual day of remembrance, there is a fair amount of Holocaust education now being provided (with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum staff offering assistance).  There are stated policies against anti-Semitism.  There are Jews in the Lithuanian government, and certain Jewish tourists (including “roots tourists”) are more than welcome.  Lithuania was one of the minority of states who voted against expanding Palestinian representation in the United Nations.  Lithuanian-Israeli relations are extensive.

Certainly, more could be (and should be) done.  But Lithuania is a full fledged democratic republic, and like our own has the equivalent of “red” and “blue” politicians and voters.  So, it’s a process, and often a frustrating one.

And there is another issue.  The non-Jewish Lithuanians have a lot to complain about concerning the years of Soviet occupation.  Not only were there the 1930 exiles to Siberia, followed by years of warfare and deprivation, but there were additional exiles which occurred after 1945, when the Soviets came in for what seemed to be a permanent occupation.  And of course large numbers of exiles never returned, dead on the way to Siberia or dead in Siberia.  The position of many central and east Europeans is that there were two parallel Holocausts – the Nazi Holocaust and the Communist Holocaust, one targeting Jews, the other targeting everyone.  (I am ignoring those who deny there was a Nazi Holocaust – they do not seem to play a role here.)  The concept of a double Holocaust drives some Jews and Jewish organizations crazy – they claim that there is only one Holocaust and anyone who tries to equate what the Communists did to what the Russians did are simply anti-Semites.

How should the outside Jewish world react, and should it involve itself with pushing progress forward?  This is a big question, and one which itself has led to a lot of controversy.

Although I am far from expert on such matters, I know that there are many organizations which have been highly critical of Lithuania and highly dismissive of Lithuania’s attempts to show that it has attempted to counter anti-Semitism in the country.  One of the greatest critics has been an American born scholar, Dovid Katz, who spends about half his time in Vilnius attacking virtually everything the Lithuanian government does, or does not do, with regard to its Jewish population.  It would seem that nothing that Lithuania does pleases Katz in any way, and he certainly makes his presence felt, not only through his vitriolic pen (he writes a blog), but through his presumably well crafted persona – he is very overweight, and equally underdressed, he has a long, unkempt beard and looks like a caricature of an unpleasant Jewish activist.

There are other individuals and organizations who take a softer approach to dealing with the Lithuanian government.  They can be as frustrated by Katz as the Lithuanians.

My own position is that the Lithuanians suffered from the Russians – through loss of family members, economic privation, the rewriting of taught history, and the absence of freedoms which we take for granted. The Jews should not deny the Lithuanians there own victimhood.  The Jews should not  assume that members of other groups will (or should) admit that what was done to the Jews was worse than what was done to the millions of others who perished during or as a result of the two world wars.  It is a self-defeating position.

The fact is that the situation is much more complicated.  It is true (again sticking with Lithuania) that the Soviet occupation was in some ways friendlier to the Jews than to the non-Jews in the country.  Clearly the German occupation was more beneficial to the gentiles.  Circumstances set the Jews and the non-Jews against each other.  Recognizing this complexity (something that those on both sides of the debate too often fail to do) is, as I said, self-defeating.

Some people have tried to come to grips with this complexity.  One of the prime examples is Ellen Cassedy, Jewish resident of Washington, who traced her roots in Lithuania while studying Yiddish and Vilnius University, and wrote about her experience in her interesting memoir, “We are Here”.  While in the country, she met with any number of Lithuanians, some alive during World War II, and some not, and heard a variety of stories, many of which are very sympathetic.  Rather than be universally praised for her attempt to navigate through this complicated history and look for the best in people, Cassedy has been torn to pieces by some Jewish critics, who claim she has been duped, or that she is simply a tool of the Lithuanian government.  Having met Cassedy, and knowing many who know her, this is clearly ridiculous, but it is a pervasive criticism.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I attended a showing of a new documentary film, “Rewriting History”, which is primarily the story of Dovid Katz’s attempts to get the Lithuanian government to see everything his way, and his lack of success doing so (because, of course, of the intransigence and anti-Semitism of Lithuanian government officials).  The film was produced and directed by an Australian Jewish filmmaker and university teacher Danny Ben-Moshe.  It’s a very well made film, but I did chafe a bit at the one-sided nature of it – the film denied any complexity and assumed (or concluded) that all the Lithuanians with whom they came in contact were enemies of the Jewish people, plain and simple.  Following the showing, there was a panel discussion.  Ben-Moshe was present, along with a representative of the Lithuanian embassy,  a Jewish-American poet of Lithuanian descent who visits the country on a regular basis, and an American diplomat who has been heavily involved with post-Holocaust matters throughout central and eastern Europe.  Ben-Moshe was clearly out of step with the other panel members, and verbally assaulted the Lithuanian representative. It was embarrassing not only to me, but I think to others, including the moderator and host, Walter Reich, former director of the Holocaust Museum, who kindly balled out his guest.  Too bad, but educational in that it was indicative of the basic problem.

Because I have done so much reading about, and talking to others about, the situation in Lithuania, I had not given much thought to how parallel the issues are elsewhere in Europe.  For this reason, I am glad I just finished reading “Shtetl” by Eva Hoffman, published in 1997.  Hoffman, a well known writer about Jewish matters, went back to her mother’s home town of Bransk, in Poland.  She went through the long history of the Jews of Bransk and its surroundings, and naturally told the story of Bransk during the Holocaust.  The parallels during the years of German occupation were very strong, particularly with regard to the trap that the Jews and non-Jews found themselves in, and how many non-Jews risked everything to help some Jews, while others ( no matter what they might have wished that they did) felt forced to look the other way. And how difficult the war years were for so many Catholic Poles.

To get a basic feeling of what I am writing about, I suggest you read Cassedy’s book and Hoffman’s, and then (after you have a basic feeling for what went on), go to Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands” for a fuller understanding of the history of these lands during these years.

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