April 21, 2022

World War II Revisionism at the Jewish Museum

A new exhibition about Jonas Mekas was an opportunity to confront his wartime record. Instead, it tells a familiar story.

Courtesy of the Estate of Jonas Mekas.

Temporary foreign passport of Jonas Mekas, issued by the German Third Reich, circa 1944.

Discussed in this essay: Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, The Jewish Museum, New York, February 18-June 5, 2022.

Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, edited by Inesa Brašiškė, Lukas Brasiskis, and Kelly Taxter. Yale University Press, 2022. 256 pages.

On June 16th, 2019, the ashes of filmmaker Jonas Mekas were buried under a traditionally carved wooden cross in a small Calvinist cemetery near the northern Lithuanian village where he was born in 1922. The same day as that secret ceremony, and just a few miles down the road, thousands of people from across Lithuania and around the world gathered for the public unveiling of a new memorial for the Jews murdered in Biržai, the small city where Mekas lived for several years during World War II. Under some light summer rain, attendees, including myself, walked silently along the path that over 2,000 Jews took in the summer of 1941, four kilometers from the site of the city’s wartime ghetto to the woods where they met a brutal end at the hands of German soldiers and local Lithuanians.

It was a striking juxtaposition. Mekas was often vague about the nature of his apparent proximity to the atrocities of mass murder, which he referenced several times and even said unfolded “before my eyes”—part of a larger pattern of obscuring and misrepresenting his experience of World War II that I had documented a year prior in the New York Review of Books. Best known as a central figure in the creation of independent cinema in the United States, Mekas was also a prolific poet, writer, diarist, and producer of experimental films that examined his life in fine-grained detail. After arriving in New York in 1949 with his brother Adolfas, he became a fixture of the downtown art scene, co-founding Film Culture magazine (1954), the New American Cinema Group and Film-Makers’ Coop (1961), and Anthology Film Archives (1970). Mekas was a pioneer of the “diary film” genre, and his iconic productions, such as Walden: Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1969), Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), and Lost, Lost, Lost (1976), trace his life story from the Lithuanian countryside to postwar displacement in epic collages of narrated fragments. These works, for all their impressionistic beauty, are just as remarkable for what they leave out: Mekas’s participation in an underground movement in Biržai that supported the 1941 Nazi invasion of Soviet Lithuania and, when the movement went above ground, his role in running two ultranationalist and Nazi propaganda newspapers, until he fled Lithuania in 1944.

These omissions are especially noteworthy because Mekas often has been upheld as a moral voice and witness of the war. As critic Amy Taubin wrote in 2017 in a piece for documenta, the German art fair founded in 1955 as a way to move past Nazi aesthetics, Mekas’s work was significant because of “his desire to bear witness—to record daily life, not only so that he would remember but so that history would take notice.” The art world at large remains deeply invested in the story of Mekas the anti-Nazi. After my article came out in 2018, “the wagons started circling immediately to protect a sacred figure of the avant-garde,” as Film Quarterly editor B. Ruby Rich put it in an editorial. Art critic Barry Schwabsky likened me to “an operative of Trump’s ICE” while a similarly dyspeptic Lithuanian podcaster suggested I was an agent of the Kremlin. Mekas, a Trump supporter, called it “fake news.” And despite the availability of a record that troubles Mekas’s own telling of his history, over the past few years, numerous museums, galleries, magazines, festivals, and cinemas across the world (including a gallery in Tel Aviv) have featured his films alongside highly sanitized versions of his life story, usually with sponsorship from the Lithuanian government and the permission of his family-run estate, which affords the access to Mekas’s materials. In these tellings, a contradiction takes shape: Mekas’s wartime experience is glossed over even as it is presented as the source of his authority.

In these tellings, a contradiction takes shape: Mekas’s wartime experience is glossed over even as it is presented as the source of his authority.

Now the Jewish Museum in New York has mounted a major solo show, Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, and published an extensive catalog with the same title. These new engagements with Mekas’s life and work presented an opportunity to move beyond the superficial and frequently inaccurate depictions that have characterized the artist’s legacy. The exhibition comes at a time when increasing numbers of Lithuanians are opening up to the truth about their country’s wartime history. New research on the Nazi collaboration of national heroes like General Jonas Noreika, and changing attitudes toward others, such as founder of the fascist Lithuanian Activist Front, Kazys Škirpa, are coupled with a renewed local interest in, and respect for, the 700 years of Jewish history in Lithuania. A renaissance of Jewish Studies has inspired young Lithuanians to study Yiddish, take care of dilapidated Jewish cemeteries, and produce fresh interpretations of their past. And yet, the treatment of Mekas—perhaps because of his unique international stature—seems to be a holdover from an earlier era in which official narratives about national heroes insist these figures’ histories are uncomplicated or not worth addressing. One document on Mekas published by the Lithuanian government this year is titled “Biographical Facts” and skips the war years entirely.

Surely the Jewish Museum would address the essential question of Mekas’s activities during World War II and his life’s intersections with Jewish history in Lithuania, one of the most important centers of modern Jewish culture and one devastated by the Holocaust. If not there, where? Yet the Jewish Museum perpetuates the dominant narrative about Mekas. In so doing, the curator introduces dozens of factual errors and misleading interpretations, contributing not only to the revisionism surrounding this single artist, but mobilizing a sentimental attachment to Mekas in a way that erodes the integrity of the broader historical record, and the Jewish history that the museum should be committed to honoring.

The problem with Mekas’s biography
was not just his wartime activities but the way he misconstrued them later. He blurred the timing of the Soviet and German occupations, making it seem like he held an anti-Nazi stance from the beginning of the war. He proudly recalled the newspapers he worked for, even on the first page of his memoir-diary, I Had Nowhere to Go, but left out their far right politics, saying only that he worked as “editor-in-chief of a provincial weekly” and at “a national semi-literary weekly.” He also claimed to have fled the Nazis, rather than the Soviets, in 1944, and let the months he spent doing forced labor in Germany toward the war’s end come to stand in for the entirety of his experience during World War II. This gave the impression, repeated frequently by writers and institutions, that Mekas spent the war in some kind of resistance movement and, as a result, was sent to a concentration camp. In January, an article about a new collection of Mekas’s letters in the art journal AnOther Magazine stated that he arrived in New York “following eight years in slave labour camps in Nazi Germany.”

This last biographical point is at the root of much of the confusion around Mekas’s identity. Artforum once announced that Adolfas—with whom Jonas came to the United States— “immigrated to the New York [sic] in 1949 after surviving the Holocaust.” Mekas himself flirted with the notion that he should be seen as Jewish, setting scenes of Lithuanian displaced persons to the music of cantor Yossele Rosenblatt in Lost, Lost, Lost; writing in I Had Nowhere to Go, “I am the eternal Jew. I am a D.P.”; and frequently recalling an apparent attempt to emigrate to Israel. The Camera Was Always Running similarly plays up Mekas’s proximity to the Jewish experience. The wall text mentions that he is not Jewish but the exhibition page on the museum’s website does not. While the implicit justification for the show is that Mekas did some film programming at the museum from 1968 to 1969, according to the wall text in the museum (or from 1968 to 1970, according to the exhibition catalog), the show opens with a consideration of his World War II experience, reiterating the familiar position of Mekas as moral witness. The exhibition wall text begins by saying that Mekas was “like many émigrés after World War II,” inviting a comparison to Holocaust survivors, and a timeline of Mekas’s life in the catalog is padded with Jewish content such as the 1942 Vilna Ghetto “Paper Brigade,” a clandestine and dangerous operation by ghetto prisoners to save Jewish books that had no bearing on Mekas’s life. If you squint, Mekas begins to look Jewish.

If you squint, Mekas begins to look Jewish.

Mekas’s convolutions are not only political, but also aesthetic. A pioneer of the postmodern, non-chronological gaze, his work blends a documentarian’s attentiveness with a highly stylized, disjointed structure, narrated in evocative, gnomic phrases. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, declares the title of his nearly five-hour-long film from 2000, excerpted in the exhibition, but he also applied this use of “glimpses” to the past. He even said his diary should be read as a novel. The exhibition, curated by Kelly Taxter, who left the Jewish Museum in May 2021, attempts to capture the spirit of Mekas’s innovative and influential technique. It consists of three dimly lit rooms, the first of which displays ephemera, including photographs, posters, and personal documents that Mekas saved over decades. Here we see the open pages of a small graph paper poetry notebook dated to 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, alongside yellowed identity cards from his late-war and postwar years in Germany, and programs from films he attended in Mainz while living in a displaced persons camp. In the main, central space of the exhibition, portions of 11 films made between 1962 and 2019 are projected across several walls in, as the wall text puts it, “a nonlinear simultaneous fashion” which “acknowledges the logic of Jonas Mekas’s films.” Here, black-and-white scenes from Mekas’s early film experiments in Williamsburg overlap with colorful footage from his 1971 trip to Soviet Lithuania and later videos showcasing the daily life of a working artist in New York. While a defining feature of Mekas’s form is the monumental quality of his films, which sometimes run to several hours, here they are divided into snippets of just a few minutes, heightening the fragmentation.

This aesthetic of fracture and simultaneity makes room for more than one image of the artist to surface. In addition to the moral witness we see throughout the exhibition, the Mekas that emerges from this collection of extracts and ephemera—the Mekas the Jewish Museum and Mekas’s peers often elect to remember—is the carefree bon vivant. Mekas was the life of the party, the center of a New York scene he filmed, hobnobbing with the likes of John Lennon, Jackie O., and other cultural icons in films like Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol (1990), which is featured in the exhibition. The viewer is treated to selections from the romp A Letter from Greenpoint (2004), a film in which Mekas declares, “Past is past, all past is bloody. There is nothing much to learn from it,” a celebration of forgetting, not bearing witness. This folksy version of Mekas has become popular beyond the film world. “Keep dancing, keep singing, have a good drink and do not get too serious!” Mekas once declared in a handwritten broadside, an image of which has circulated widely on social media since his death, and which has been emblazoned on everything from tote bags to designer t-shirts to a limited-edition bottle of 2012 California Cabernet Sauvignon.

Installation view from Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running at The Jewish Museum.

Dario Lasagni

Regarding Mekas’s wartime past, texts by the curators tend to be poorly reasoned and riddled with errors large and small. The show’s online materials set the tone early, claiming that “during the final moments of World War II in 1944, Mekas was forced to flee his native Lithuania,” when every schoolchild knows the war ended in 1945. Was Lithuania “a home he permanently left behind in 1944” or a place “he was unable to return [to] until 1971”? The same text offers both versions. We are told that Mekas was “largely self-taught” but also that he attended secondary school, tested into a gymnasium high school, and “took classes toward a degree at the University of Mainz while living in the D.P. camps.”

This confusion is enlarged in the exhibition catalog, which Taxter co-edited with the curators of a sister exhibition at the Lithuanian National Gallery of Art, Lukas Brasiskis, a Lithuanian PhD candidate in Cinema Studies at NYU, and Inesa Brašiškė, an art historian and curator based in Vilnius. Published by Yale University Press, the catalog features four essays, a timeline of Mekas’s life, and hundreds of full-color images of film stills and ephemera, some of which appear in the exhibition itself. The essays on Mekas’s craft that follow the curatorial statement are carefully researched and well worth reading. Ed Halter, the founder of the Brooklyn cinema Light Industry, gives a participant-observer’s perspective on Mekas’s work (and mixed reception) as a film programmer. Andrew Uroskie’s contribution looks at how Mekas viewed and used performance, with particular attention to his award-winning film The Brig (1964). An essay by Cash (Melissa) Ragona explores Mekas’s innovative use of sound and silence, detailing his connections to John Cage, Lou Reed, and Lithuanian folk music. But two important pieces—the catalog’s introduction and the opening essay by curator Kelly Taxter on Mekas’s life—lack the rigor and originality of the essays that follow, instead offering a version of Mekas’s biography that obscures rather than illuminates.

In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, the editors promise that Mekas’s work will be “contextualized in a timeline that sketches the interwar political history of Lithuania, offering insight into the conditions under which Jonas and Adolfas were compelled to flee their home.” Turning to the timeline, careful readers might notice a couple of items missing under 1941. In fact, all that appears under 1941—that all-important year in Lithuanian history when the Nazis entered and oversaw the mass murder of most of the large Jewish community—are two events in June: German émigré Hans Richter taking charge of the Institute for Film Techniques in New York, and the mass deportations, by the Soviets, of Lithuanians to Siberia shortly before the Nazi invasion. Events not listed include: the June Uprising led by the antisemitic Lithuanian Activist Front, the Nazi invasion, the beginning of the Holocaust, and Mekas’s first labors at an Activist Front newspaper. Instead, the reader finds them incorrectly tallied across the page, under 1942. By scrambling the order of these events and only referring to Mekas’s newspapers by their prewar names and not those they used during the German occupation, the editors effectively extricate Mekas from his far-right entanglements. This is not an innocent mistake but a mode of prevarication that Mekas himself practiced in interviews and memoiristic pieces as a way to obscure his true wartime activities.

The opening essay by Kelly Taxter—who, the catalog tells us, had “advocated for a Mekas survey” since she joined the Jewish Museum in 2013—is a masterclass in revisionism whose treatment of World War II would not be out of place on the most right-wing Lithuanian websites and historical commissions. Taxter’s piece is a hodgepodge of inflated statistics of victims who suffered at the hands of the Soviets (she cites two million Lithuanian displaced persons compared with the more accurate 100,000), facile comparisons between the Nazis and Soviets, equivocating clauses about Nazi censorship, and a conveniently reshuffled narrative of events. Moreover, she follows Mekas’s own method of strategically collapsing distinctions between the Nazis and Soviets, writing, for example, “Soviet- and then Nazi-controlled newspapers in which Mekas published his poetry contained antisemitic propaganda.” It’s a tactic with a fraught history in Lithuania, where the same state-sponsored commission investigates “crimes of the Soviet and Nazi occupation regimes,” flattening the historical distinctions between the regimes. (I’ve found no evidence of Mekas having published during the 1940-1941 Soviet period, nor of antisemitic propaganda published in Lithuanian newspapers from that time. Papers published under the Nazis are, by contrast, and as one would expect, full of antisemitism.) Taxter then doubles down on the misleading conflations: “Regardless, there had not been a free press since 1939, when the Soviets seized the country under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.” The characteristic sloppiness with dates aside—a quick glance at her own book’s (admittedly unreliable) timeline would show that Lithuania was invaded by the Soviets in 1940—Mekas himself told me in an interview that during the Nazi occupation only the first pages of the newspapers were dictated by the Germans and that he and his friends exercised total editorial control over the rest. Perhaps worst of all, in addressing the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against Lithuanian Jews, Taxter writes, “Many Lithuanians were willing collaborators in this brutal mass extermination; under the Soviet occupation they deeply resented Jews, who were able to open businesses and hold public office with the support of the oppressor.” This all-too-neat explanation for the Holocaust, with its false claim that Jews received preferential treatment under the Soviets, is an egregious example of victim-blaming; it also unquestioningly reproduces the rightwing stereotype of the Judeo-Bolshevik, which presented Jews as the natural enemy of Lithuanians.

Taxter’s attempts to position Mekas as a moral authority by trumpeting his “resistance to the Nazis” also merit scrutiny. For example, Taxter’s essay states—and the exhibition wall text repeats—that Mekas’s “clandestine resistance activities made him an enemy of both [the Nazi and the Soviet] regimes.” Mekas recounted how under the Soviet occupation he disseminated anti-Soviet pamphlets, but he did so as part of a group that would later take over the town newspaper under the aegis of the ultranationalist Lithuanian Activist Front, which aided the Nazi occupation. After working at this and another newspaper founded by the fascist Lithuanian Nationalist Party for the subsequent three years, Mekas has said that he once again participated in underground activism, this time against the Nazis. Let’s accept, for the sake of argument, Mekas’s claim, reproduced by the Jewish Museum in the exhibition catalog timeline, that in July 1944, as the Germans were losing on the Eastern Front, he served as a “typist for a resistance group that publishe[d] a weekly bulletin featuring transcripts of BBC and other news broadcasts.” Since Mekas fled Lithuania in mid-July—retreating deeper into the Third Reich at the last possible moment before the Soviets entered—that would mean that, as the tide turned in the war, he typed what could only have been one or two issues of this “weekly” bulletin. Until that point, he had ascended through the ranks of the collaborationist Lithuanian literary world and, like many Lithuanians, he welcomed the Germans in 1941. Mekas frequently conflated the timing and nature of his underground activism in writings and interviews, and Taxter likewise presents a mixed-up version: “While in high school, he began distributing pamphlets that contained transcripts of BBC broadcasts,” she writes. “The pamphlets were passed among intellectuals and played an essential role in organizing the resistance.”

Taxter offers a fanciful reimagining of Mekas as a kindred spirit of Edward Said’s, writing, “[Said] was, like Mekas, firmly antinationalist, believing that true culture was pluralistic and diverse.”

These inaccuracies, along with the highly selective narrative of Mekas’s life, serve to recast his political affiliations. Taxter offers a fanciful reimagining of Mekas as a kindred spirit of Edward Said’s, writing, “[Said] was, like Mekas, firmly antinationalist, believing that true culture was pluralistic and diverse.” In reality, Mekas was more politically complex—a fact that Halter acknowledges in his essay, arguing “Though generally on the left, Mekas had no particularly consistent politics.” But he maintained a strong Lithuanian nationalist streak his entire life and never condemned the wartime activities and allegiances of his circle. Film critic J. Hoberman, who has written extensively on both experimental cinema and Jewish history, even noted that Mekas showed a disturbing “lack of empathy” about the Holocaust. In 1974, Mekas penned a bitter “Anti-Workers Manifesto” and, according to Halter, “was often at loggerheads with unions, particularly those for projectionists . . . This attitude led to personal clashes with Annette Michelson when she was in the midst of unionizing professors at New York University.” (Jewish Museum employees are in a unionization drive at this very moment, and Anthology Film Archives employees, seeking their first union contract, went on strike for a living wage on March 31st.)

Mekas’s seemingly idiosyncratic politics make more sense when we apprehend the nature of his wartime experience: He and his young friends risked—and sometimes gave—their lives for the cause of a free Lithuania, as brutal as that was, and this spirit of insurrectionism pervaded his later work with various implications. Mekas’s 1997 film about the underground cinema movement, with its rabble-rousing critique of Hollywood during the McCarthy years, was called Birth of a Nation and featured a Wagner soundtrack. When an interviewer accused him of “siding with the racists” by using this title, Mekas replied, “Yes! Because we were unjust, as unjust as the whites during that period. Now, years later, we respect some of the Hollywood films of the period […] but we attacked them.” Mekas also made some unjust comments explicitly about Jews, for example in I Had Nowhere to Go, where he says that on Rosh Hashanah Jews sit at home “thinking about money.” Even more troubling is a remark he makes in the text’s Lithuanian version, which he omitted from the English translation. Reminiscing about Biržai before the war, Mekas recalls: “I used to go, then, somewhere in a little alley, behind the firehouse, to the place of a dirty little Jew, and would drink milk with round biscuits.”

There’s an old Yiddish saying: When a peacock looks at its feathers, it swells with pride, but when it looks at its feet, it cries. If only Mekas and his art world supporters had the peacock’s capability for honest reflection.

In many ways, Mekas’s story is not remarkable at all. It is no secret that thousands of Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans who had once supported the Nazis came to the United States after the war. Like Mekas, they arrived thanks to the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, which was designed by conservative senators to favor Christians and exclude Jewish Holocaust survivors, for example by giving preference to those who could reliably say that they had been farmers before the war. Many Lithuanians with this background—who, by and large, were fervently anti-Communist—went to work for the US government at the height of the Cold War; among them was the Activist Front’s Kazys Škirpa, whose group’s newspaper gave Mekas his first taste of cultural activism, and who later worked in a military research division of the Library of Congress. Others integrated into urban cultural life. It was in Jewish Currents, in 1963, that the journalist Charles Allen, Jr. published a landmark investigation into the cases of nine high-ranking alleged Lithuanian Nazi collaborators then living in New York, Philadelphia, and other American cities. Juozas Kazickas, whose New York-based foundation is one of the sponsors of The Camera Was Always Running, worked for the Vilnius municipality during the Nazi occupation and was a close friend of Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, the prime minister of the 1941 Nazi-collaborationist Lithuanian government; Kazickas made Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis the godfather of his son.

It is no simple task to plot Mekas’s tracks through the war years. His published diaries, which begin after his exit from Lithuania in July 1944, are different in the English and Lithuanian versions. Mekas said he destroyed the diaries he kept while in Lithuania during the war and threw out the originals of the ones he published. Still, on July 21st, 1944 he wrote a revealing entry: “Even after all these years of war, we haven’t really understood yet that THIS IS REALLY WAR.” Taxter quotes this line, which she takes to be evidence of Mekas’s poetic “detachment.” But Mekas himself explained to me that, for him and Adolfas, life had proceeded in Lithuania as if there had been no war. “Sometimes you forgot the Germans were even there,” he said. During World War II, Adolfas was active in a theater troupe while Jonas gained renown as a poet and literary agitator due to the sharp essays he published in his newspapers. The wall text emphasizes that the Mekas brothers were in a “Nazi forced-labor camp,” but Adolfas’s film Going Home (1972) shows him and Jonas returning after the war and hamming it up with their old German foreman—not exactly evidence of “the trauma of surviving” the Nazis that the exhibition handout suggests. If you want to know what it was like to be Jewish in Biržai during World War II, see the testimony of Sheyne Beder, one of only two known survivors of the mass murder that took place there. Recorded by Leyb Koniuchowsky in Epsenhausen Displaced Persons camp in 1946, and deftly translated from Yiddish into English by anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin, Beder tells of the humiliation and degradation she experienced, and the slaughter she witnessed, before escaping from beside the killing pit. In the words of another poet with roots in Lithuania and recently honored with a Jewish Museum solo show, Leonard Cohen: “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say that there isn’t.”

Mekas himself told me that, for him and Adolfas, life proceeded in Lithuania as if there had been no war. “Sometimes you forgot the Germans were even there,” he said.

The Camera Was Always Running was a chance to reject the hagiographic revisionism that has shaped the terms of Mekas’s legacy and to present a more nuanced artistic figure who demands an honest reckoning. Viewers could have learned about Mekas’s prolific wartime publishing, his conflicted feelings about Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators, his immersion in existentialism, his education in immediate postwar Germany, and his lifelong connections to Lithuanian political and cultural figures. Instead of offering real, substantial background into the formation of an artist whose life intersected in complex ways with Lithuanian Jewish history, World War II and, of course, New York, attendees are presented with misleading and incorrect information that makes a difficult history more palatable. The museum’s excellent online resource “Teaching the Holocaust through Works of Art” opens with these words: “To understand the significance of works of art and artifacts, it is important to understand their political, historical, and social context.” The catalog’s distorted timeline and baseless biographical revisions do not provide context; they only signify giving context, lending this version of Mekas’s story the imprimatur of a major Jewish institution. With the more complicated details obscured or rewritten, the curators are free to reinvent Mekas as they would have liked him to be, as an anti-fascist leftist humanist. Their lack of curiosity about Mekas’s wartime allegiances—or, worse, their willful ignorance and misrepresentation of it—is inexcusable.

In the end, the highbrow confusion of documentary and artifice that the Jewish Museum now celebrates and perpetuates may in fact be Mekas’s greatest legacy. The problem is, it is being mistaken for history. The New York Times review of the show stressed Mekas’s “fundamental honesty,” concluding, “It’s Mekas’s refusal to impose any single narrative on his work that gives it its truth.” This show is the culmination—maybe even the natural conclusion—of what the curators call “Mekas’s own structural logic.” One hopes that it is also its terminus.

Michael Casper is the Blaustein Postdoctoral Associate in Modern Jewish History at Yale University. He is the coauthor, with Nathaniel Deutsch, of A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg, which won a National Jewish Book Award.