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Ways of remembering Lithuania's Jews

Ledų pardavėjas Laisvės alėjoje. Kaunas, 4 deš.
S.Bajeras, Lietuvos centrinis valstybės archyvas / Ice cream salesman in Laisvės Avenue, Kaunas, in the 1930s.
Šaltinis: 15min
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When it comes to Lithuania's Jews, there are usually two points to be made: that Lithuania was once home to a thriving Litvak – as Lithuanian Jews are known – culture; and that the community was destroyed during World War Two, with a regrettable participation of the local population. The latter point is stressed often enough, while the former, researchers say, still requires work in order to be properly incorporated into the country's national narrative.

For many present-day Lithuanians, Jews seem like a mystic nation that suffered an enormous tragedy but that had little to do with them and their own history, says Jurgita Verbickienė of the Vilnius-based Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews. The us-them divide persists and prevents from realizing the full extent of the loss that the Holocaust meant for Lithuania and its society as a whole.

In an effort to at least start redressing the balance, the Centre has recently arranged fourteen exhibitions in twelve regional museums throughout the country, presenting the history of local Jewish communities. “Our purpose was to integrate the Jewish expositions into the existing historical displays [in these museums], so that you do not get a separate history of the town X, and a separate history of Jews,” says Dovilė Troskovaitė, acting director of the Centre.

The exhibitions turned into full-blown community events, she rejoices, complete with concerts and workshops and attended by school students as well as elderly people who shared their first-hand memories about Jewish neighbours or stories they had heard from their parents.

“Museums were very eager [to host Jewish exhibitions], but the problem is that they have little idea of how to present the material,” according to Verbickienė. “During consultations, they would ask us questions like 'Can we use this colour?'” Again, there is a fossilized convention of how to speak about Jews: black-rimmed stands minutely listing numbers of Holocaust victims in each town. While such statistics is important, Verbickienė says, it fails to engage imagination and make people fully grasp the meaning of what happened.

Besides, the martyrological approach makes the entire history of Jews in Lithuania seem like a gradual move towards the Holocaust – which is, at the very least, inaccurate. Troskovaitė and Verbickienė spoke with 15min about the history of Lithuania's Jews and how this history is being remembered.

What are ways in which we should talk about the Holocaust?

Jurgita Verbickienė: What happens to the history of Lithuania's Jews when it comes to the Holocaust – and that's also a problem we now face in our education system – is that pupils know well how to kill Jews, but very little about what a Jew is in the first place. They do not understand the Jewish tradition, since Jews for them is not a normal people, but rather some strange nation that lived who-knows-how, had who-knows-what names, and were who-knows-how related to us. Just some extraordinary tragedy.

So the idea is to try and understand the Jewish community as such, the place it occupied in Lithuania's society, see it as part of the society – and then the Holocaust will appear in a sharper light, as a tragedy that befell the Lithuanian society.

There are many ways to tackle the issue, but the main problem, particularly while talking to students, is that they have no clue what Judaism is. Another problem is skewed perceptions. People do not always realize that things that interwar Lithuanians – someone's grandmother or grandfather – could have known about Jews, might not necessarily be true. That this is but Lithuanian reflections on an alien community – reflections that might not be accurate.

Dovilė Troskovaitė: And these perceptions often border on folklore. It's a classic instance of narratives that tell us more about the narrators than about those narrated about.

JV: At one point, when the Jewish studies just started, there appeared volumes of works – some of which were celebrated and showered with prizes – that were based on stories about Jews by Lithuanians. We got a completely distorted picture. Everyone soon realized that this approach was inadequate. That there must be an attempt to capture Jewish life as it was, not as it was seen by Lithuanians.

Another important goal is to see the cultural value of this community that identified itself with Lithuania. What it has given to Lithuania might not be straightforward exchange or dividends, but a valuable culture and a number of great personalities who, after all, contributed to making Lithuania known in the world and whom we now know very little about.

How separate were the Jewish and the Lithuanian communities before World War Two?

JV: What we are talking about is a slightly different type of man who lived until the middle of the 20th century. And a traditional society where religiosity and religious thinking were, if not dominating, than decisive, on both sides. So the way these communities perceived each other was in one way or another influenced by theological imagination and interpretation. But there were quite many people who managed to transcend these perceptions.

When it comes to the period between the two world wars, no one would dare to call these communities completely sealed off. True, there were Jews who had nothing to do with Lithuanians and conservative Lithuanians who did not want to interact with Jews. But I do not like to speak about communities in general – they are groups of people and people are different. So it wouldn't be true to say that all Jews were alienated from Lithuanians and vice versa.

Certain strata were indeed quite closed. There was a linguistic divide. The situation of Jews was even more complicated, since many spoke Russian – something that came from the 19th century. And interwar Lithuanians did not like the Russian language. On the other hand, there were Jews who went to university and spoke Lithuanian without any accent – it would have been difficult to tell them apart.

Imagine a town were all shops are owned by Jews – it would be unrealistic to claim that Lithuanians did not go and buy biscuits there. Perhaps the contact was not very deep – people would not go to each other's home, since different food cultures were an important divide between the communities and did not offer a pretext for closer communication. But some communication there was – for instance, Lithuanian servants would work in Jewish houses.

DT: Above all, children would mingle at school. Jewish kids could attend three types of schools, including Lithuania's public schools, where language of instruction was Lithuanian. Moreover, Lithuanian lessons were compulsory in all schools.

JV: The situation was similar to what they are now trying to introduce in national minority schools. In interwar Jewish schools, certain subjects – like Lithuanian, History, Geography, and military training – were taught in Lithuanian.

DT: That means that all children spoke Lithuanian, better or worse.

JV: Besides, one could not enter a university without speaking fluent Lithuanian. And there were certainly many Jews in universities. About half of all students in the Faculty of Medicine at Vytautas Magnus University were Jewish. They had to take a special entry language exam, but people would pass without much difficulty.

So people mixed in universities, at school, in markets, various cultural events. I've seen an advert for a charity event organized by the Jewish community to support a monument for Grand Duke Vytautas.

DT: We should also mention the press. One of the biggest newspapers in interwar Lithuania was a Lithuanian-language Review published by Jews. If it were aimed exclusively at Jewish readers, it would not have been in Lithuanian. And it had a rather big circulation.

JV: The Lithuanian press would often cite Jewish publications – the Echo of Lithuania (Lietuvos aidas) had a separate section summarizing Jewish press. So Lithuanians and Jews did not live in separate worlds. They would frequent same cafés, even if they would not sit at the same table. And in some cases they would.

Where did frictions come from then?

JV: Religion. Also, economic competition that has always existed, since the times of the Grand Duchy. Jew is traditionally an urban dweller, so when indigenous populations start moving to towns, they discover Jews who from that moment become prime competitors. The same was happening in the Grand Duchy, in the 19th century, and between the wars. There were even programmes of “re-lithuanization” of business, ideas about Lithuanians going into business and establishing themselves in the market which, after all, was limited and frictions inevitably arose from things as banal as business competition.

But there must have been other groups in Lithuania that were just as big business competitors as Jews.

DT: State borders changed between the wars. For instance, Vilnius region with a concentrated Polish population, was taken by Poland. What remained – the so-called Lithuania of Kaunas – was predominantly Lithuanian. There were Poles, Russians, Belarusians, Germans as well, but in very small numbers. So Jews were the biggest ethnic minority and, as such, highly visible.

JV: In general, it was not that big, 7 or 8 percent, but it was visible. Firstly, Jews were concentrated in several major towns and therefore naturally more conspicuous. Moreover, they formed a separate community with their own houses of prayer, institutions, their own holidays. Some even wore traditional costume and headdress.

How much anti-Semitism existed in Lithuania compared to other countries?

JV: No more, no less than elsewhere. Ever since the times of the Grand Duchy, the level of anti-Semitism was identical to the rest of Europe. Speaking of those times, one can say that hating Judaism – and not anti-Semitism per se – was a sign of a true Christian. If we want to claim that Lithuania joined the Western civilization by accepting Christianity, we must also acknowledge the drawbacks that came with it. The society of the Grand Duchy could not help being mistrustful of Jews, since that was one of the traits of that civilization.

DT: It has to do with the fact that Christianity is a messianic religion, i.e., it seeks to expand at the expense of other communities, whatever they are – Jews, atheists, etc. So that alone imposes a negative attitude towards Judaism.

JV: Social structure of the Grand Duchy was different from what we have now, it was pre-modern. A person had two defining attributes: religion and estate, that's it. Either you were with us – i.e., Christian – or you were an alien and therefore marginalised.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, had absolutely no significance in the Grand Duchy. The estate you belonged to determined what you could and could not do. In fact, neither of the non-Christian peoples – like Muslims – had a right to nobility. They were outside the estate system altogether. If you were not a Christian, the marginalisation was such that you were left outside common social structures, you were a social outsider. The same applied to societies everywhere, in both Western and Eastern Europe. The later copied social models from the former.

Fast-forwarding a little, what was the extent of ethnic Lithuanians' collaboration in the Holocaust?

JV: The issue has been extensively researched. The fact and the extent of Lithuanians' participation in the Holocaust are universally acknowledged and unquestionable. Comparing it to other countries, complicity of local communities depended on how modernized these societies were. On Jewish modernization too, but more so on local society's modernization – on the extent to which it had integrated Jews. In places where Jews were fully integrated, societies protested and were more supportive of Jews. Our society was still very traditionalist, with all the social divisions that entails. So when the Nazis came, they did not have to draw these lines anew.

DT: There is another important factor to consider – the course of the Holocaust in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe. Western European Jews were usually rounded up and taken to concentration camps outside their places of residence – these were initially labour camps, only later were they transformed into extermination camps.

Whereas in Eastern Europe, including in Lithuania, they were locked in city ghettoes and shot on site, without taking them away. That meant that Nazis positively needed more collaboration from local populations when they executed Jews than when they deported them.

It would often be the case that Western Europeans faced much more lenient sanctions for helping Jews than Eastern Europeans. Germans saw themselves as Aryans – the people that was supposed to persist. Eastern European peoples had to be exterminated to make way for Aryans. So Jews were the first to go, but, according to Hitler's plan, Poles, Lithuanians, and everyone else were soon to follow the suit. Hence the more severe punishment for disobedience. People who helped Jews – and there were people like that in Lithuania – literally risked their own lives and lives of their families. Western Europeans, on the other hand, could hope to get away with fines, short imprisonment, or the like. They, too, sometimes risked being shot, but in much rarer cases than in Lithuania. This is the context to be taken into account when making judgements.

But if Western European Jews were taken away from the public sight, while in Eastern Europe they were shot in bright daylight, wouldn't that have caused greater reaction among people who saw their neighbours killed?

JV: But it did cause reaction. A post-Holocaust town was a great trauma for Lithuanians. There hasn't yet been much research done on how Lithuanians themselves experienced the Holocaust, but there are many testimonies showing that people were shell-shocked. Shocked by what they remembered, by what had happened, shocked by their inability to help, by the sight of their villages that had lost half or two-thirds of their populations. It is inconceivable that such an experience could leave no marks. We still haven't properly reflected on our own reactions to the Holocaust.

DT: The problem is that Holocaust narratives are quite one-sided – it is seen as a tragedy of Jews. But it is a tragedy of the entire society. In the narrow sense, too, there were mixed families where a husband or a wife followed their Jewish spouse to a ghetto. There were gentile Lithuanians who died in ghettoes. So the Holocaust experience is much broader than it has so far been discussed.

JV: We usually talk of the Jewish trauma, but there are in fact two traumatic experiences. This was trauma for the entire society. Of course, in one case, it was a physical extermination – doubtlessly an incomparably bigger trauma – while the other community was left mutilated. I've heard from my own grandparents how big a tragedy it was to lose neighbours, friends, acquaintances. My grandmother was taking sewing lessons from a Jewish woman, she tried to save her. There are numerous direct personal experiences like that related to the Holocaust, but old people are scared to talk about it, they still haven't recovered from the trauma.

How was it affected the subsequent Soviet occupation and deportations?

JV: There is the so-called double-genocide theory, which has long been refuted. It was put forward in the émigré community several decades after the war, in the 1960s and 1970s, when people – some of them historians who had not given a thought to Jews when they lived in interwar Lithuania – began wondering at what had happened, once they found themselves in emigration.

Emigration, the milieu where this theory appeared, also gave it a specific colouring. On the one hand, these people tried to understand what had happened to Lithuania, why the Soviets had come, why their state was gone; one the other hand, they reflected on the Jewish tragedy. They wanted to draw a link.

Jewish sympathies to the communist party is also a thing that hardly raises any doubt. A rather significant percentage of the Jewish community in interwar Lithuania were left-leaning. After all, they made up a significant share of the country's working class. Again, one must not overgeneralise – just like not all Lithuanians participated in the Holocaust, some Jews sympathised with communism while others categorically opposed it. But the former group was retrospectively linked to the coming of the Soviets – or at least to the ease with which they came. And we know well what that coming meant for Lithuanians: deportations, etc.

And here comes the double genocide theory, suggesting that one was a revenge for the other. Later, historians began thinking that it was not so. That these were two separate processes and they had nothing in common. Today no one even talks about the double genocide theory, it is seen as a sign of bad taste. As indeed it is – the two events are unrelated, and the Holocaust is certainly beyond compare. Drawing a link is, firstly, unethical and, then, a distortion of reality.

How adequate is Holocaust education in Lithuanian schools?

JV: First thing to say, it must exist. But it must contain an introduction on what the Jewish community is, what traditions it they hold, what is their religion, family customs, etc. To make it clear that Jews were a historical community that lived in our country for 600 years. What it achieved and why it is no more.

The curriculum should not concentrate exclusively on this one narrative, the Holocaust. It is an important, perhaps the most important topic. But talking about the death of the community without discussing what that community was before is wrong. Unfortunately, this approach used to dominate – seeing the entire Jewish history as incremental progress towards the Holocaust. Looking at the past through the angle of loss is something to be avoided.

DT: The way the material is presented at schools is faulty. The way we teach Lithuanian history gives an impression that the history moves forward independently and somewhere on the side there's a Jewish narrative. And not just Jewish – history of all ethnic minorities. All these narratives should be joined into one – as interwoven threads in the history of the nations that lived in the Lithuanian state, some threads being thicker and some finer. The Jewish narrative organically fits into the overall history of Lithuania, its religions, economy, cities. With a little effort, Jews should be made part of that history, so we don't have to discuss them in separate chapters.

What about other subjects, besides History?

JV: Things are somewhat better in Literature classes. Icchokas Meras is a compulsory reading for students. They also must read The Diary of Anne Frank.

DT: That latter, however, is not quite adequate as a representation of Lithuania's case. The Diary of Anne Frank is unquestionably a must-read, but things happened somewhat differently in Lithuania. So when teaching Anne Frank, teachers must give an extensive commentary so pupils understand that the situation of Anne Frank and her family was not the worst that could happen, that there was worse. Of course, I'm not an advocate of demonstrating atrocities, but the book needs a critical commentary.

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