O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
Saulius Beržinis is an astounding filmmaker. Somehow the Lithuanian director of documentaries has a knack for drawing out frank admissions on camera, even from collaborators who recount how they murdered Jews.
Beržinis has a great reputation in Holocaust studies around the world, but, as the saying goes, a prophet is often unrecognized in his native land, and the cloak of invisibility around the Lithuanian Holocaust cast by the activists in the Double Genocide industry has marginalized the documentary maker at home, where his “The Happy Faces of the Murderers” is basically unknown.
Instead of recognition, awards ceremonies and politicians pinning medals on his chest, Beržinis has quietly gone on filming eye-witnesses, contemporaries and survivors of the Holocaust, with fellow filmmaker Ona Biveinienė. Together they direct an NGO called Filmu Kopa, Lithuanian for “sand dune of films” or “congregation of films,” depending on which syllable is stressed in Kopa. Besides their own projects, the pair have produced in recent years short documentaries for museums in Lithuania, including for the Holocaust Exhibit of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum.
Beržinis, and to a lesser extent Biveinienė, briefly gained notoriety in the national press just before Easter/Passover of 2012.
Erika Baronaitė of Lietuvos Rytas newspaper wrote of the controversy (translation here) surround the pair’s most recent production, commissioned by the Jurbarkas (town and district in SW Lithuania) Regional Museum for inclusion in the Lithuanian parliament’s resolution to declare 2011 the Year for Commemorating Holocaust Victims. Controversy erupted now, in 2012, because the film took longer to finish than initially anticipated. As readers of DefendingHistory.com will recall, the Lithuanian parliament declared 2011 the year for commemorating both the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust, in two separate resolutions adopted days apart with equally long, Kafkaesque-sounding titles.
Filmu Kopa was commissioned to produce a film about the life of Jurbarkas’s Jewish community, according to Baronaitė in her article. After delays the film NGO screened unfinished excerpts of the film now known as “When Jurbarkas Was Spoken of in Yiddish” for Jurbarkas Regional Museum employees last autumn. Following that screening, the Jurbarkas regional administration learned from museum staff the film contains the names of local mass murderers. The Jurbarkas regional administration went into huddle and came up with a list of changes which they either demanded or proposed Beržinis make to the film in its final edit, according to Daura Giedraitienė, director of the Culture Department of the Jurbarkas regional administration.
At this point the reporting becomes confused as to whether museum staff were upset, or local administration bureaucrats and politicians. The reporter Baronaitė initially says museum workers were upset after the first screening and apologized to the audience, whose composition is not explained. The quotes by museum staff following this statement in the Lietuvos Rytas newspaper article indicate they weren’t dissatisfied with the content of Beržinis’s film excerpts, but did find it necessary to defend the film in the face of criticism by unnamed parties. Baronaitė then quotes director of the Culture Department Giedraitienė as saying museum staff were angered by attempts by the regional administration to demand or propose changes be made to the film.
There are other hints in the Lietuvos Rytas article that the real situation is being misrepresented, and that the conflict began between Jurbarkas Regional Museum workers and local regional administration bureaucrats who took upon themselves the burden of deciding for the public the veracity of Beržinis’s film.
For example, Baronaitė quotes the director of another local museum—whose Lithuanian father was shot together with the Jews of Jurbarkas—defending the film and saying it will ensure future generations learn the truth of what happened. Also, to the newspaper’s credit, they included a short statement by Ona Biveinienė at the end of the article, which directly contradicts Baronaitė’s statement the Jurbarkas Regional Administration had a hand in financing the film. Baronaitė wrote “The Jurbarkas municipality … contributed 1,800 litas to the project…” Biveinienė flatly states: “The attempt by the Jurbarkas Regional Administration, which is not a partner in this project, to censor the creation of the film is offensive and appalling.”
What seems to have triggered off the allergic response by regional administration bureaucrats is that the film 1) contains the full names of local Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators, 2) claims the Lithuanians began rounding up and killing Jews before the Nazis got there and 3) presents Jurbarkas and Lithuania in a poor light, does not encourage tourism and fails to cover up the bloody details with the usual and accustomed Double Genocide industry feints and ruses.
Culture Department director Giedraitienė claims Beržinis and Biveinienė refused to even consider the regional administration’s suggestions, while Biveinienė in her brief addendum to the article notes they travelled to Yad Vashem in order to film the names of Lithuanian rescuers of Jews recorded there, and included this footage in their film—one of the regional administration’s proposed changes.
However poor Lietuvos Rytas’s reporting on the controversy is, it stands head-and-shoulders above the article in the local Jurbarkas newspaper, Jurbarko Sviesa (“Light of Jurbarkas,” translation available here). While the local newspaper included more detail, it quickly devolved to calling all of the people in the film and the filmmakers themselves agents of the Kremlin out to besmirch Lithuania’s international reputation as a fair, equitable, tolerant country under the rule of law.
In that newspaper, Daiva Bartikienė’s article starts out with the assertion that the project was commissioned by the Jurbarkas Cultural Center, whatever that is (my guess is that Giedraitienė is probably director of that, too). One poignant detail left out by Lietuvos Rytas but included in the Jurbarko Sviesa article is that Beržinis included in the final cut of the film parts of a telephone conversation between him and Giedraitienė:
“Director Beržinis himself interrupts the tragic music accompanied by the barking of dogs and the echo of gunshots, having decided to add to the film an interview with the director of regional administration’s Cultural Department, Giedraitienė. On the telephone Beržinis demands the bureaucrat explain why she told Sviesa that an anti-state film was being made and why she hadn’t retracted that statement. …
“‘Really, because… I don’t know, I have to consult with my government. Because this isn’t my position alone, our mayor watched copies and our opinion was exactly the same, unified, but even so we needed with you to, a little… There were parts there, because the position of the government remains the same,’ Giedraitienė says in the film ‘When Jurbarkas Was Spoken of in Yiddish.’
“The conversation fades out and is replaced by retellings by contemporaries about how greedily Jurbarkas residents divided up the property of murdered Jewish families: Andrikis says the farmers who arrived pushed, shoved and even fought over it, while Aldona Ogorodnikienė explains the police and the white armbanders who served them brought Jewish goods to the Sukurys shop. …”
After allowing Beržinis to defend his position in print—he tells those involved to read the history and tell him who shot the Jews, if it wasn’t Lithuanians—the local newspaper descends into the most immature kind of polemic, smearing and slandering the film makers and those who testify in the film as supposedly being—Communist agitators. One of those smeared does get the final word, however: A. Meizeraitienė, defamed in the preceding paragraph as a card-carrying member of the Communist Youth and later the Lithuanian Communist Party, but now an employee at the Jurbarkas Regional Museum, says
“We signed the paperwork for accepting the film, the film is good, it’s very beautiful. The version the museum has isn’t the one in the interview with Giedraitienė, and we don’t need that one. Since the film is good, we will be able to use it at educational events on differences in ethnic culture, old architecture and other subjects. And we simply won’t show those portions where the Jurbarkas residents who shot Jews are named.”
Again, while the museum worker’s position appears cowering and morally dubious, her statement demonstrates that it wasn’t museum staff who were upset by the “beautiful” film, but local bureaucrats.
Light and darkness don’t mix, and politicians and “Lithuanian activist” bureaucrats who don’t know the history of the Lithuanian Holocaust are not qualified to make decisions on how the ugly truth should be presented to the largely ignorant public, in order to save face for the perpetrators and their families, and to pretend “the Germans did it.”