B O O K S
by Olga Zabludoff
Review of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust by Ellen Cassedy. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Had this title been billed as a simple memoir of Cassedy’s trip to Lithuania in the summer of 2004, my criticism of her book would be tempered. She had gone to the land of her ancestors to study Yiddish at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and to connect with her Jewish roots. The professors and mentors she encounters at the Yiddish Institute come alive, as do the various Lithuanians and Jews with whom she connects. Cassedy is a good writer who captures physical details well. But even at that, this reviewer found the memoir to be superficial.
The major problem is that Cassedy’s book is being promoted as the Bible of the Lithuanian Holocaust by advocates for the current Lithuanian government and elite establishment which aspire to paint for the outside world a distorted version of the Holocaust. A version defined in shades of gray and the confusion they generate. A version that incorporates the mythology of equivalency between crimes committed by the Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes.
SEE ALSO THE REVIEWS BY
Dovid Katz in the Algemeiner Journal
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The publisher’s text on the back cover indicates that the author “has explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years.” There is no evidence in the book of Cassedy’s ten-year study of the Lithuanian Holocaust. In reality it is a shallow treatment peppered with clichés and rhetorical questions: “How does a nation — how do successor generations, moral beings — overcome a bloody past? How do we judge the bystanders, collaborators, perpetrators, rescuers — and ourselves?” How indeed! Some things in life and death are black and white. There are circumstances when shades of gray do not figure into the equation.
Consider these questions which torment Cassedy as she explores the “moral dilemmas” of the Holocaust:
“Where should my sympathies lie in this place where some had killed, some had resisted, and many had suffered? Could I honor my heritage without perpetuating the fears and hatreds of those who came before?” (p. 10)
What is she talking about?
Imagine for one moment the reaction of a survivor to such insensitive questions. The trouble is that Cassedy’s sympathies lie in the wrong place. Hers is not a mentality of objectivity. It is a one-sided mentality induced by the agenda of the Lithuanian government to foster the Double-Genocide notion of thought and education.
Cassedy’s research on the Lithuanian Holocaust focuses on one theme — the role of the Jewish police in the Šiauliai (Shavl) and Kaunas (Kovno) ghettos. Why does Cassedy embrace with such urgency the subject of the Jewish police in the Šiauliai Ghetto? Because she learns that her great-uncle Will had served as a policeman in Šiauliai. Uncle Will, whom Cassedy visits in preparation for her trip, is a survivor who at almost 90 years old is living with his wife in New York. His disclosure about his function in the Šiauliai Ghetto is seized by Cassedy as an opportunity to embrace the gray zones of good and evil, to do an autopsy on the Lithuanian Holocaust that trashes its true history. Her target begins to sharpen into focus: the distinction between perpetrators and victims begins to blur.
Are the (forced-by-the-Germans) Jewish policemen any better than the (volunteer enthusiast) Lithuanian guards? Cassedy ponders. Are they less brutal or more brutal than the Nazis as they beat their victims — their fellow Jews — with rubber truncheons? “Did they play a beneficial role, or did they facilitate the slaughter? Were they collaborators or victims?” (p. 52)
Cassedy continues: “Emil [her Lithuanian researcher] was heading for the archives. What he found there would shed light on how the Jewish police had behaved in my uncle’s ghetto. This, in turn, would help me step back and consider the moral dimensions of Jewish officials in general during the Holocaust, and even more broadly, to think about what should be expected of human beings under conditions of terror.” (p. 62)
In scrambling roles and behavior, Cassedy compares incomparables. A Jewish policeman, assuming the role under compulsion and threat of death, while he may have exercised wrongful power over Jewish prisoners, was also at the mercy of the Lithuanian guards, who volunteered their services for the high-prestige role. The Jewish policeman compelled to perform the role cannot be judged on the same scale as the all-powerful enthusiastic Nazi guards. But Cassedy becomes so entrenched in self-induced confusion that she seems to lose all equilibrium. Her recipe appears to consist of blending black and white into gray until all distinctions are permanently lost.
“Cassedy becomes so entrenched in self-induced confusion that she seems to lose all equilibrium. Her recipe appears to consist of blending black and white into gray until all distinctions are permanently lost.”
In the early days of promoting her book the author told her interviewer at VilNews: “I went to Lithuania hoping to decide who was right and who was wrong; to put people in a column, who was a victim, who was a killer. And then those lines began to blur.”
Currently her language has acquired more political polish: “I went to Lithuania wanting to judge. But the more I looked into it, the more I realized it is more important to understand than to judge.” (From Cassedy’s interview published in the Baltimore Jewish Times, 22 Oct. 2012)
Her political mission becomes more apparent as she continues: “I was forced to rethink my assumptions about victims and bystanders. In a sense . . . We are all bystanders. And it’s not enough to say that everyone who didn’t save Jews were uncaring. I gained so much by opening my eyes a little bit and trying to understand the context in which everything occurred. Too often people sit on one side and study the Holocaust and another side studying the Soviet occupations. It is better for us to study together. It was so much more complicated than I ever imagined.”
To an audience uninformed or naive about the current agenda of the Lithuanian government, these words may sound like a genuine effort toward reconciliation. They are, rather, the message of a woman who has been manipulated and brain-washed by Lithuanian government officials to advocate for their policies of deception about the Holocaust. What better emissary for the Double-Genocide School of Thought than an American Jew who is hyped up as a pioneer of scholarship and dialogue on the Lithuanian Holocaust? Cassedy’s credentials fall short for the mission with which she has charged herself: “I feel a responsibility to help a post-Holocaust country [Lithuania] to build a more tolerant future in what’s often hostile terrain. . .”
Cassedy is neither a historian nor a political scientist nor a scholar. Her memoir is based on a relatively brief stay in Lithuania during the summer of 2004. She has not been there since. Her archival research, which focused on the Jewish police in the Šiauliai and Kaunas ghettos, is sparse. She spoke to Lithuanians and Jews during her visit, learning a bit here and there and gaining some impressions. If Cassedy has “explored the world of the Lithuanian Holocaust for ten years,” her memoir and her subsequent book launch talks do not demonstrate signs of a true knowledge of the subject.
Two “revelations” constitute the nucleus of the book: Cassedy’s discovery that her great-uncle Will had been a policeman in the Šiauliai Ghetto; and a request from an old man in her ancestral village to speak with a Jew before he dies. Both of these themes, which surface as Cassedy is preparing for her journey, are visited and revisited throughout the pages of the book and are implemented by the author to contrive drama and suspense. The result is neither. There is no mention of Uncle Will in the archival documents about the Jewish police in the ghetto; and Steponas, the old man in Rokiškis, turns out to be much like any elderly Lithuanian who still has memories of the Holocaust.
Steponas had been a 16-year-old when he would drive past the camp where the Rokiškis Jews had been imprisoned in 1941. “I drove my wagon loaded with carrots past the camp. I threw carrots over the fence to the Jews.” For that, he says, the guards had threatened to kill him. He sheds tears as he shows Cassedy where and how the Jews had been marched to their deaths. “They took all the people, marching. Even the children and the old people. It was all on my eyes. I was watching.” He describes the massacre and the heavy presence of the White Armbands, and he weeps as they drive to the killing site in the forest.
Heart-wrenching as this is, it is not an uncommon scenario. Elderly people in the villages of Lithuania often seem eager to speak to foreign Jews about their Holocaust memories. They may be haunted by what they witnessed, may feel guilt for having been a collaborator or even a bystander who benefitted materially from murdered Jews. The very process of confronting a Jew may relieve them of their burden of memory, much like a confession absolves the soul. They are in a sense asking for forgiveness. They often also tell how their parents, relatives or neighbors rescued Jews. Heard the first time it touches deeply, but when one realizes there would have been far more survivors had there been so many rescuers, one learns to distinguish fables from facts.
It is puzzling that Cassedy, considering her professed decade-long immersion in the history of the Lithuanian Holocaust, would ruminate repeatedly throughout the book about her rather ordinary meeting with Steponas. Any true scholar could certainly have found far more compelling material, both historical and personal, on which to build a book about the Holocaust in Lithuania. Either Cassedy is incredibly naive to have been so affected by Steponas, or she found it necessary to create a hero, a centerpiece, for her memoir.
“Did Uncle Will and Steponas belong in the column called bystander? Or collaborator? Rescuer? Or victim? Or would we perhaps do better to put these columns aside and dig for a deeper truth?” asks Cassedy (p. 258).
The author plans to return to Lithuania in February 2013 when We Are Here will be published in Lithuanian. When has the Lithuanian government supported the publication of any book dealing with the Lithuanian Holocaust — written in any language — into its own language? But when has an American Litvak (or any Litvak) written a book about the Lithuanian Holocaust that disseminates a message tailored to the wishes of a nationalist Lithuanian government? Never before.
“But when has an American Litvak (or any Litvak) written a book about the Lithuanian Holocaust that disseminates a message tailored to the wishes of a nationalist Lithuanian government? Never before.”
Cassedy rationalizes a horror of epic proportions into a no-fault equation. About 95% of Lithuanian Jewry was annihilated during the German occupation. Some 200,000 Jews were murdered largely by their fellow Lithuanian citizens. There had also been a small number of Lithuanians who had risked their lives to rescue Jews. Those are the stark facts. The road to reconciliation between Lithuania and world Jewry does not lie in an effort to justify those facts but rather to acknowledge them.
“When will the truth finally set us free?” asks Leonidas Donskis, Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, philosopher, and political commentator. “. . . The only thing possibly lacking is the will and courage to look the facts and the reality they reveal in the face.”
Had Cassedy geared her memoir toward the need for Lithuania “to develop the will and courage to look the facts and the reality they reveal in the face” instead of embarking on a course to justify and confuse with shades of gray, her book would have served a much nobler and more constructive purpose. One cannot say that she does not cite the real facts in her effort to appear “balanced” in her narrative, but her loyalty to the government party line is easy to detect. For all it attempts, We Are Here comes across as a one-sided reaction to the Lithuanian Holocaust to any reader with even modest knowledge of the subject. Is it any wonder that the powers-that-be in Lithuania have rewarded this memoir with honors for the author, promotion of the book, and now, translation into Lithuanian?
Reconciliation is the only way to proceed if Lithuania is to grow and prosper as a democratic nation in the European Community. But it must be a reconciliation based on truth and sincerity — not PR gimmicks or fake gestures that are more transparent than effective. The Foreign Ministry’s investment in the concept of a Double Genocide in Lithuania tarnishes the integrity and credibility of the nation’s educational system and regresses the future of the country into the dark alleys of its past. Professor Donskis’s question echoes the heart of the matter: “When will the truth finally set us free?”
“Reconciliation is the only way to proceed if Lithuania is to grow and prosper as a democratic nation in the European Community. But it must be a reconciliation based on truth and sincerity — not PR gimmicks or fake gestures that are more transparent than effective.”