A Journey Into Yiddish — and Into the Holocaust
by Ellen Cassedy
From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents
“Tayere talmidim!” she began. “Dear students!” I leaned forward to catch her words through the pattering of drops on my umbrella. The old woman’s name was Bluma, a flowery name that matched her flowered dress. She was a member of the all-but-vanished Jewish community in the city once known as the Jerusalem of the North.
“How fortunate I am,” she said in a quavering voice, “to have lived long enough to see people coming back to Vilnius to study Yiddish.”
As the rain continued to fall, I shivered. It was a very complicated place, this land of my ancestors — where Jewish culture had once flourished, and where Jews had been annihilated on a massive scale.
My grandfather, Yankl Levin, came to America from Lithuania in 1911, fleeing the Tsarist draft. (This is my Jewish grandfather, on my mother’s side. The other side has to do with England, Germany, and Ireland, which is where the name Cassedy comes from.)
When my mother was alive, I could count on her to keep hold of my grandfather and all those who came before. But when my mother died, my family past seemed to be slipping out of reach.
My mother had used Yiddish only sparingly, like a spice, but when she died I found I missed it.
And when I heard about the summer program in Yiddish at Vilnius University, I was eager to go.
AT THAT POINT, TEN YEARS AGO, I barely knew where Lithuania was. I had to get out an atlas to learn that it is the most southern of the three Baltic nations, with Latvia and Estonia on top. One thing I did know, however, was that Lithuania had a notorious Holocaust history.
I knew that the Jews of Lithuania were massacred in 1941 with a swiftness and thoroughness that was unusual even for that time. Hundreds of Lithuanian towns have their pit in the forest, not far from the market square, where Jews were assembled, shot, and buried in a mass grave. I knew that in most cases it was the German Nazi invaders who issued the orders, but in most cases it was Lithuanians who pulled the triggers. In fact, the killing of Jews began even before the Germans took over.
I knew that during the war, in the three major Lithuanian cities, tens of thousands of Jews were confined in ghettos.
To say I was apprehensive as I went off to Lithuania would be an understatement. Lithuania is a haunted terrain. And what began as a Jewish roots journey expanded into a historical and a moral exploration. Before long I was deeply engaged in investigating how Lithuania and Lithuanians today are encountering the Jewish past, especially the Holocaust.
Mornings at the Yiddish institute, we studied Yiddish language and literature in all its glory, which was a mekhaye, a great pleasure. We began at the beginning, with the alphabet, just like in the old days, when little Jewish boys used to start their lessons at the age of 3. On their first day, the letters in their primers would be sprinkled with sugar, to show that learning was sweet.
In the afternoons, the last Yiddish speakers of Vilna, now in their eighties, walked us through the streets of their beautiful city. They told us that Jews had arrived in Lithuania in the 13th or 14th century at the invitation of two grand dukes. By the 18th century, the area had become a preeminent center of religious and cultural Judaism. They told us about the rise of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, in the 19th century, and of Zionism and the Bundist movement in the 20th. Throughout these centuries, we learned, Jews and non-Jews lived side by side in relative peace. Relations between the Jewish and the non-Jewish culture were never particularly warm, but pogroms were rare. On the brink of World War II, Jews made up a third of the population in the cities and about a half in small towns — and tensions that had been simmering for many years began to increase. Nazi sympathies began to rise.
IN 1940, SOVIET TANKS ROLLED INTO LITHUANIA in a futile attempt to prevent a German invasion. In 1941, just weeks before the German army did invade, Soviet authorities arrested thousands of Lithuanians and Jews and deported them to Siberia.
Then the Germans rolled in, and a multicultural place became a place of ghettos and mass murder. During the Nazi occupation, the political and religious leaders of Lithuania either collaborated with the Nazi regime or, at the very least, failed to oppose it effectively. Some Lithuanians risked their lives to help Jews. Others moved into the Jews’ empty houses and took their property. Most did nothing — either they were too scared, or they couldn’t figure out how to help, or they were glad that the Jews were going.
The end of World War II did not bring peace to Lithuania. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were incorporated into the USSR, and it was not an easy transition: There were more executions, deportations, and emigrations. For a population of less than 3 million, the years between the start of World War II and Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 brought a massive disruption to society and inflicted deep social scars.
During the Soviet era, expressions of Jewish culture were severely restricted. Lithuania’s Jewish history, and the specifically anti-Jewish reality of the Holocaust, went underground. When emigration opened up, beginning in the 1970s, most Jews who lived in Lithuania relocated to Israel or the West. Today, only 4,000 Jews live in Lithuania.
But in the late 1980s, as Lithuania moved toward independence from the USSR, some brave people, Jews and non-Jews, began working in an often hostile environment to create a new public discourse. In the words of Markas Zingeris, head of the Tolerance Center in Vilnius, there came an “awakening from… a long slumber of mind, spirit and conscience.” The facts of the Holocaust began to emerge. Challenging questions came to the fore: How does a country scarred by genocide take an honest look at its past? Can people honor their diverse heritages, and remember their dead, without perpetuating their fears and hatreds? What do we gain, and what do we lose, when we seek to overcome mutual suspicions and reach out to “the Other”?
I MADE IT MY BUSINESS between classes at the Yiddish institute, to seek out educators and activists who were leading the effort to face the past. Irena Veisaite, a survivor of the Kaunas ghetto (Kovno in Yiddish), told me that remembering Lithuania’s Jewish past “is not simply a Jewish project. It is important equally for Jews and for Lithuanians, because as long as you are hiding the truth, as long as you fail to come to terms with your past, you cannot build your future.”
Another Tolerance Center leader, Linas Vildziunas, wrote that “confronting the reality of the Holocaust is a most serious test of the moral values and civic maturity of modern-day Lithuanian society.” Vildziunas created a project called “The House of Memory” to help schoolchildren talk to their elderly family members about the lost Jewish world. As the old people began to remember and to talk, he found, both generations began to question and to change.
The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes, established by Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in 1998, has been controversial. Critics charge that lumping together the Nazi and Soviet eras lends credence to the notion that Lithuanian suffering under the Soviets was fully equal to Jewish suffering under the Nazis — the so-called “double genocide” or “red equals brown” theory.
Commission staffers told me that to shape their future, Lithuanians need to examine what happened in both eras — and that unless people feel that their own grievances are being heard, they can find it difficult to attend to the grievances of others. The aim, staffers said, is to help people say “Yes, you have grievances, you were wronged. And I have grievances, too, I suffered” — in order to create a compassionate, open frame of mind, rather than a closed, competitive frame of mind.
It has been a difficult balance, however, and the commission’s history has been rocky. From the beginning, the commission brought together eminent historians, including Holocaust survivor Yitzhak Arad, a former director of Yad Vashem in Israel. In 2005, however, the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office moved to investigate Arad and several other Jewish former anti-Nazi partisans, alleging they had committed war crimes in their struggles to survive and fight against German and Lithuanian fascist paramilitaries during World War II.
Arad resigned from the commission, and for several years the commission’s Holocaust section was shuttered. [You can find more articles about these investigations here. See especially Geoff Vassil’s essay, “Analyzing Lithuanian Anti-Semitism”. —Editor]
Recently, an agreement was reached and the Commission was reconstituted with the participation of Yad Vashem, the American Jewish Committee, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The proclamation reopening the commission explicitly emphasized the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
THERE IS NO DOUBT that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Lithuania today. The Lithuanian government has failed to bring former Nazi collaborators to justice, and recently, with full honors, reinterred the bones of a World War II era Lithuanian leader with a bad record with regard to Jews. Hate speech flares on internet portals. Every spring, neo-Nazis parade down the main boulevards in Vilnius and Kaunas. The call for increased recognition of Stalin’s crimes has sometimes seemed bound up with an attempt to deny, diminish, or distort Hitler’s crimes.
I’m glad to say that people have stood up, both outside and inside Lithuania, to protest anti-Semitism and historical distortions. In part because of that pressure, the Lithuanian government announced the allocation of $50 million in restitution funds to compensate Lithuania’s small Jewish community. The initiative is symbolic, underscoring Lithuania’s moral burden, and also practical, as it will actually support Jewish life in Lithuania. It’s one step on a difficult road Lithuanians must walk to come to terms with the past.
As that long walk continues, a new generation of activists and educators are engaging in the project of Jewish remembrance. Last year, upon publication of a Lithuanian translation of my book, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, I visited the country again and met some of them.
Laima Ardaviciene, a teacher in the city of Kedainiai, walked me through the corridors of her high school to show me the schoolwide curriculum on the Holocaust she was leading. Throughout Lithuania, I learned, the International Commission supports a network of tolerance centers in high schools like this one.
In Vilnius, Audra Cepkauskaite told me how she and fellow activists had taken home-made yellow stars like those that Jews were forced to wear during the Nazi occupation — to the halls of Lithuania’s parliament. Elected Members were encouraged to wear the stars in an act of remembrance and solidarity. Many did.
Valdas Balciunas, a young businessman from the town of Zagare, one of Lithuania’s oldest Jewish communities, talked to me about his successful effort to install a plaque honoring the murdered Jewish population in the center of town. “I do not want my children to grow up in a world of lies,” he said. The plaque is “a small step forward to explain the truth to local residents.”
WHAT IS OUR CONNECTION TO LITHUANIA and similar places that carry profound meaning for Jewish culture? There are Jews who believe that the most important thing we can do is to call attention to the ugly things that happen in such places. There are others who don’t want to get anywhere near the Lithuania of today. Then there are still others who do find it possible, and desirable, to come closer, to reach out across cultural boundaries, to try to find those voices of tolerance and join with them.
I believe that there’s room for all these responses, and that it’s up to each of us to decide where we choose to put ourselves in relation to a place like this. I do know that many people in Lithuania abhor the neo-Nazi creed. They believe, as I do, that the attempt we make to listen and to understand one another is where the hope for the future lies.
At the end of my time at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, two tiny Jewish women in their eighties who were survivors of the Vilna Ghetto led us in singing “The Partisan Hymn,” composed by young Hirsh Glik in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943.
The song’s refrain, “mir zaynen do!” — Yiddish for “we are here!” — expresses a spirit of defiance and hope. Yet so many people who sang that song in the ghettos of Europe died, and so few survived. “We are not here” would seem more accurate.
When I hear that song, however, I see the faces of the people I met in Lithuania — Jews and non-Jews — who are searching for a way forward out of the past. For me, the song seems to ask all of us to connect ourselves to one another, and to appeal to one another as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice. We are here. We can remember, and we can do our part to create the kind of societies — throughout the world — where people can stand up and speak up.
Ellen Cassedy is the author of the prize-winning We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Her play, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, based on the diary of an elderly woman, was adapted into a short film that qualified for an Academy Award nomination. She lives and works near Washington, DC.