Visiting Vilna, the Jerusalem of Europe

            August 2012    
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Street in Vilnius, the former “Jerusalem of the North”

L’chaim in Lithuania

By Ellen Cassedy

Waving at me from an outdoor restaurant across Castle Street, in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was Violeta, a middle-aged woman with a broad, fair face and blond hair, her solid body squeezed into a tight, fashionable jacket and matching skirt.

We sat down at a checkered tablecloth and ordered a decidedly un-Jewish meal of shrimp salad, then raised our wine glasses.

L’chaim!” I said, offering the traditional Jewish toast. To life!

I sveikata!” she responded in Lithuanian. To health!

I’d come to Vilnius to study Yiddish and answer some questions about my Jewish family past. I also wanted to explore how Lithuania was engaging with its 20 th -Century history, especially with the Holocaust, which had been especially swift and thorough in this Baltic land. A friend had connected me to Violeta, who was neither Jewish nor a professional history-confronter .

I took out my notebook. “Growing up in the Soviet era,” I asked, “what did you learn about the Jews during the war?”

She squeezed her eyes shut and furrowed her brow. “We knew about Auschwitz and Buchenwald,” she said. “We learned in school that many Jews died.”

“ Did you learn about the pits in the forests where the Jews were shot and buried? The mass graves?”

Yes, she said, she had learned about this, too. “But….but,” she said, “no one taught us in school how many Lithuanians were sent to Siberia by the Soviet power. Pregnant women and children – they died in Siberia!”

I knew a little about this other history of suffering in the land of my forebears. Under Soviet rule, just before the German invasion and again in the postwar era, tens of thousands of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia.

Violeta’s voice grew louder. “Many Jews were involved in the Soviet system,” she said heatedly. “Many Jews worked in the KGB. The Jews were the ones who sent my people to Siberia.”

I’d been warned that I might run into such feelings. After half a century under two regimes, I’d been told, Lithuania was aboil with competing martyrologies. Now I looked around at the nearby tables where other city residents were talking and eating. No doubt some of them were also seething with such feelings. I, too, was seething, I found. I didn’t like hearing the massacre of my people placed side by side with the suffering of hers. I hated hearing my people blamed for the suffering of hers.

She sliced the air with her hand. “I want to say,” she declared, “that the Lithuanian people through all of history have loved other nationalities.” She paused. “That is, normal Lithuanian people loved others. The local men who helped round up Jews in 1941 were not normal people.

“But,” she said, “every nationality has some abnormal people. Lithuanians as a whole should not be blamed for the actions of a few.”

After a moment her face changed. “I would like you to meet my mother,” she said. “I will take you to see her in my childhood town of Kedainiai.”

Kedainiai was not far from Siauliai, where members of my family had been confined in the ghetto. “I had family near there,” I said. “In Siauliai.”

“You have?” Violeta asked. “You have family in Siauliai?”

“I did,” I said.

“They are there now?”

“No, they were there.”

“They are?”

“They were .” I repeated.

She looked confused. “But they are not there now.”

“No,” I said. Of course they aren’t there now, I wanted to say, or scream. They were Jews! The Jews were killed or sent to concentration camps! Don’t you understand?

Was it just a grammar problem? Past tense, present tense? Or was Violeta simply unaware of the sheer magnitude of the Jewish annihilation? Did she not know that only a tiny percentage of the prewar Jewish community had survived the war?

I looked at my watch and stood up. Violeta rose with me, and we shook hands.

“When we visit my mother,” she said, “she will tell you how my family rescued Jews during the war.”

My mouth opened in amazement.

As we parted, I realized that what had happened with Violeta was, in a way, exactly what I was hoping for. I wanted to allow disparate voices to swirl around me. To lose my balance. To gather information in bits and pieces without trying to decide right away what it all meant. To recognize that in this complex terrain, the path would be full of bumps and jolts.

I did go to meet Violeta's mother. And yes, I learned, she had indeed taken action to help her Jewish neighbors. I learned that she treasured those memories and that she was haunted by the enormity of the Shoah in her native country.

During my time in Lithuania, I found fears and hatreds – and reason for hope.

Ellen Cassedy’s new book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). Visit .


from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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