O P I N I O N / B O O K S
by Geoff Vasil
This small book, brought out in three separate editions (English, Lithuanian, Russian) by the state-supported Genocide Center, looks more like a brochure than anything else. The cover features the author’s name, in small type, above all else, then a larger Kaunas Ghetto, then a line with the years 1941-1944, against a backdrop of a computerized dark blue sky above a “tasteful” black-and-white picture of Jews lined up in columns inside Kaunas ghetto. The computerized dark blue wraps around the spine to the back cover where some vague lines comprise a hand-drawn map of the streets making up Kaunas ghetto, an ISBN number in white above UPC Bookland barcode featuring the same number again, and then a web address, www.genocid.lt. I found myself staring at the internet address and wondering what language that was supposed to be. Lithuanian is always “genocidas” and “genocid” isn’t possible as any permutation or declension of the noun, and of course English is “genocide.” Perhaps it’s Russian in Latin-letter transcription? But that would contradict the nationalist and ethnic bias of the publisher, the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Lithuanian Residents where Arūnas Bubnys is a leading figure. Perhaps “genocid” is someone’s notion of a non-English and yet international form of the word, formed by reducing it from the Lithuanian nominative case ending -as? I checked my favorite search engine, and of course the Lithuanian organization’s webpage came up first, but was soon followed by a wikipedia and wiktionary entry for the Croatian word.
As you might be able to guess from what I’ve just said, I didn’t come to this book without any preconceptions. In fact I sat through a very tedious “book presentation” Dr. Bubnys made at the Lithuanian Jewish Community last fall. That’s where I acquired the brochure-book for a considerable price, from a woman from the Center for the Study etc. who was peddling them on a book stand outside the hall and who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak any language besides Lithuanian and presumably Russian. I was rather shocked Bubnys had been invited to sell his ideas at the Jewish Community headquarters, knowing his words and deeds in the past. He has engaged in a sort of trench-warfare, as documented on DefendingHistory in correspondence in which Evaldas Balčiūnas engaged him on the issues of specific Holocaust perpetrators being honored by the Lithuanian state as heroes and for whom Bubnys’s organization vouched. When one trench is overrun, Bubnys retreats to a fall-back position, but keeps obfuscating.
On a personal level I found it macabre and disgusting Bubnys was treated as an honored guest at the community and allowed to speak for an extended period as some sort of authority on the Holocaust, the Kaunas ghetto and Lithuanian Jews. The roots of my disgust go back to seeing him featured as the, THE main speaker at an event to raise money to resurrect and rebuild a Nazi war memorial in Obeliai or Abel, Lithuania. I also witnessed him speak at a love-fest held in the Kaunas city hall for Lithuanian quisling and self-declared prime minister Brazaitis-Ambrazevičius when the latter was ceremoniously disinterred from his tomb in Connecticut, flown to Lithuania and reburied with full honors at a Catholic church (read: in hallowed ground) in Kaunas at state expense several years ago. This love-fest was attended by a whole spectrum of Nazi apologists and public Lithuanian figures, including a Catholic bishop. I was personally assaulted physically by a woman there for refusing to stand for the Lithuanian anthem which they trotted out at the end, which my conscience would not allow to be used to dignify what turned out to be hours and hours of speakers attempting to explain away Brazaitis’s Nazi affiliation and ethos.
True, Bubnys said nothing controversial there in Kaunas that day. That’s what annoyed me. He did not speak out. He was fully able to do so, he presumably has command of the facts in the case, and yet he said nothing at all. He said his nothing in a nice way, and was humble and self-effacing as usual, but it still amounted to nothing.
Bubnys’s organization is funded by the state, and therefore Bubnys is a state-sponsored historian. Fellow historians and academics rarely find fault with his work in and of itself, he is a respected historian in Lithuania and has not always shied away from topics which other historians might spurn for professional reasons, including deeper research into the Lithuanian Holocaust, for which he deserves some credit, even if his practice and effect has been ultimately to obfuscate the issue. The night is yet young, as they say, and hopefully Bubnys will come around in the end. That has always been my hope, anyway.
With that sort of personal bias and prejudice derived from the book launch event and knowledge of his prior activities, I read his brochure-book, trying to forget how much I paid for it, while it was distributed for free the day following his book presentation, and then left for all visitors to a high-falutin’ event in the Lithuanian parliament building, ostensibly in memory of the victims of the Kovno ghetto.
The first thing that grabbed my eye was in the foreword. The foreword is not attributed to anyone, so the assumption would be Bubnys himself wrote it. Actually there were several things there that caused me to wonder. The first was the last line in the first paragraph, “It’s paradoxical, but we still have no general academic monograph-overview of the Kaunas ghetto analogous to the one we have about the Vilnius ghetto, Israeli professor Yitzhak Arad’s monograph.” He goes on to complain in the first sentence of the next paragraph to say most of the literature, including survivor testimonies, about the Kaunas ghetto by Israeli historians is in Hebrew and is therefore inaccessible to most foreign scholars. His work, therefore, will be based on Lithuanian, German, Russian, English and Polish published sources, he says. And what about, by the way, all the books on the Kaunas ghetto (Kóvner géto) in Yiddish?
Let’s back up here for a second. First, Yitzhak Arad is a major researcher, but he’s also a survivor of the Holocaust in Lithuania, and a former longtime director of the Yad Vashem commemorative authority in Israel. He was also accused of war crimes by Lithuanian busy-bodies and the idiot-lackey prosecutors who follow their work, and then resigned from the panel started and funded by the Lithuanian state and politicians to investigate both Nazi and Soviet crimes in Lithuania, a panel which has included Dr. Bubnys over the years. None of Bubnys’s organizations nor Bubnys the man himself made any protest at the time the Israeli academic and Lithuanian Holocaust survivor was effectively barred from participating in the Lithuanian research through the mechanism of legal harassment and threats. Beyond the question of linguistic accessibility there is this glaring omission and lack of backbone on the part of Lithuanian academia leading to the loss of physical access to and by one of the world’s leading authorities on the Holocaust, Yad Vashem director emeritus Yitzhak Arad.
It’s fairly rich for Bubnys to call Hebrew inaccessible to scholars of the Holocaust internationally, while, in the same breath, he proposes the allegedly much more widely understood Lithuanian sources. The way he structures his footnotes and cites his sources, which I’ll touch upon briefly in a minute, is hardly conducive to access or even comprehension by anyone not thoroughly ensconced and entrenched in specifically Lithuanian and actually just Vilnius academia. But we’ll leave the question of accessibility aside for the moment, because the thing which really stands out in Bubnys’s foreword to the brochure he presented at the Jewish Community is contained in the following few lines, which I’ve taken the liberty of translating (all excerpts from the Bubnys pamphlet-book here are translated by me from the Lithuanian edition). This is a paragraph where he discusses the non-Hebrew sources by survivors which he did use (and Tory is his main informant, it seems, to the exclusion of almost all other non-Lithuanian and non-Hebrew sources). Bubnys writes:
“…Therefore we can characterize the Tory diary as a chronicle of the Kaunas ghetto which is an especially rich work of this sort of genre and an exotic monument to the dead Kaunas Jewish community. Of the works published abroad [not in Israel? not in Lithuania?] on the Kaunas ghetto, those worth mentioning include the books by William Mishell, Alex Faitelson and Ephraim Oshry. Faitelson, based on a voluminous historical memoir literature and documents from archives of Lithuania and foreign countries, described extensively the history of the Kaunas ghetto and especially the activities of the ghetto’s antifascist underground, adding new facts to the historiography. The value of Faitelson’s work, however, is reduced on the one hand by his unfounded exaltation of his own role, and the enlargement of the role of Lithuanian institutions and separate individuals, for example, Kaunas military commandant Jurgis Bobelis, in the Holocaust, and, on the other hand, by reducing the role played by German institutions (operational groups, Gestapo).“
Compare that “exaltation of his own role” to a few lines only a page or two distant within the same foreword:
“Holocaust studies intensified in Lithuania after the restoration of independence more or less beginning in 1998. Valuable books have been published as have academic and popular articles on this subject. Even so, we still lack a general academic history-survey of the Holocaust in Lithuania, one which would contain a multi-sided analysis of the most important aspects of the Holocaust [Bubnys never capitalizes the word Holocaust once in his entire brochure-pamphlet, except when it accidentally beings a new sentence, which isn’t often]. Of the work published in Lithuania during the independence period which in different ways treat the Kaunas Jewish community and the history of the ghetto, worth mentioning are books and articles by Alfonsas Eidintas, Solomonas Atamukas, Valentinas Brandišauskas, Arūnas Bubnys, Saliamonas Vaintraubas, A. Faitelsonas, Judelis Beilesas, Dmitrijus Gelpernas, Stasys Knezys and Alfredas Rukšėnas. [emphasis added. The footnote to this claim includes the titles of various books and articles by these people, including Bubnys’s own Vokiečių okupuota Lietuva (1941-1944) [Lithuania Occupied by the Germans 1941-1944], Vilnius, 1998. The sad fact must be stated that Lithuanian historians have still not written any scholarly monographs about the Kaunas ghetto. Studies of the Vilnius Jewish community and ghetto have received much greater attention from researchers. This might partially be explained by the fact that the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum operates actively in Vilnius, while there is no such institution in Kaunas.“
Bubnys is faulting Holocaust survivor and leader of the great escape from the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, Alex Faitelson, for exalting his own role in his historical narratives and accounts of the Holocaust in Lithuania, following which accusation Bubnys then places his own name (there is no attribution to any other writer of the foreword, so this is Bubnys writing this) in the list of important sources for Kaunas Holocaust history published after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether he is in the same general class of scholarship as Alfonas Eidintas or Solomonas Atamukas, I really don’t know, I harbor serious doubts. The point is, Bubnys is perfectly willing to exalt and perhaps exaggerate or at least praise his own academic role in almost the same breath as he derides the real role of a Holocaust survivor in saving himself and others, and living to tell the tale. This whole reduction/exaggeration panascope is part and parcel of what Bubnys’s and affiliated state-sponsored Lithuanian “research” organizations do: diminish the scope of mass murder by ethnic Lithuanians, exaggerate the role of rescuers, diminish the number of victims, exaggerate the role played by Germans, Nazis, Gestapo, even Russian collaborators, so long as they aren’t ethnically Lithuanian. Bubnys’s own first venture into the field of Holocaust research/distortion was his monograph from 1998 listed above. Therefore Bubnys is telling his readers all post-Soviet Holocaust research in Lithuania began when he first picked up his pen and began to write about it.
Bubnys in his foreword goes on to discuss the sources he used for his confused little pamphlet, and claims the main source was the Lithuanian State Central Archive in Vilnius. His footnotes are full of notations, essentially Sumerian to any outside scholar, of the collection, drawer, folio, folder and page of numerous case-files held by this archive, but the main source of information for his weird book is obviously Tory, whom he only grasps in certain moments of lucidity, and generally misunderstands as a rule, despite his ready accessibility by scholars in English.
Also, notice how he throws a bone to Vilna Gaon Museum people, who presumably helped him immensely in getting right what little he did get right about the Kovno ghetto. Some passages in his circular seem lifted in whole from the cloth of Vilna Gaon exhibits, books and authors, without attribution, of course, which is the favored method Dr. Bubnys employs. His footnotes are rather random, used more to conceal than to reveal, and missing from the passages where they might actually shed some light. None of his footnotes contain any additional information by him, so far as I could tell, and only point to sources, most of them in the super-accessible Lithuanian Central State Archive notation, so that the millions of American, European and Russian (but presumably not Hebrew-speaking Israeli) scholars may access the handwritten war-time notes in ungrammatical Lithuanian (and sometimes with Russian and/or Polish mixed in) easily. When Bubnys ALMOST engages in history, that is, in piecing the facts together to make a conclusion about what really happened, he does so without footnotes and without explanation, saying, in effect, “those three people killed then and there were probably so and so, so and so and so and so.” Why he thinks so, we are left to guess. If a bin number, folio, quatro and page number in Sumerian are given, when we make the effort to get past the guard at the archive (we needed a specially issued laminated identity card and permission at the Special AKA “KGB” Archive until only a few years ago, the archive in charge of which Bubnys was placed before he was reassigned as director of Center for the Study of the Genocide etc.) and after much searching find the handwritten, coffee-and-or-blood-stained torn fac-simile copy of the torn document in question, will we be rewarded with enlightenment? Probably not, judging from the sources Bubnys listed which I was able to check against books at hand. Further complicating matters, documents from the Lithuanian State Special aka “KGB” Archive use a slightly different filing system, apparently Dewey-decimal in Akkadian characters. And he said learning Hebrew was difficult.
He’s incorrect, technically, about Kaunas not having a Holocaust museum as well. The Ninth Fort is both a massive Holocaust memorial with an oversized Soviet-style monument, and a museum. The entire area is museum land. The upper part, in the fort proper, the narrow and windy passages in the hill, is an authentic Holocaust museum. The lower part, the large structure intended to house a massive Holocaust exhibit, has long ago succumbed to the virus of Double Genocide, or its administrators have, and houses a bunch of exhibits about BOTH the Lithuanian and Jewish genocides, the Lithuanian one meaning under the Soviets, when the population of ethnic Lithuanians rapidly increased and serious research on the Lithuanian language began. The system of forts in Kaunas are a Russian relic in any case, they were built to protect the city, part of the Russian empire and the capital of the Kovno guberniya, from foreign invaders. The weird main museum edifice at the base of the Ninth Fort does contain real artifacts from the Holocaust. It is, by its own claims, a Holocaust museum. That it is “no such institution” as Vilna Gaon is down to decades of Double Genocide obfuscation promoted by otherwise seemingly rational people and professional historians, including Bubnys. Also, the Vilna Gaon Museum in Vilnius has done and continues to dedicate much work to the Kaunas ghetto, has never excluded Kaunas in any way from their bailiwick and would presumably resent the insinuation they had ignored Kaunas. So Bubnys gets it wrong on all counts here.
The structure of the pamphlet-brochure is a foreword, then a chapterlette devoted to denying Jews were murdered before the Germans arrived, meaning, by the Lithuanian Activist Front idiots and criminals who controlled the streets and murdered Jews before the Germans took control, which everyone knows. He goes on to say Klimaitis did all the pogroms at the Germans’ behest and was not under the command of the LAF or the Nazi puppet regime called the Provisional Government which was the command organ of the LAF. Did Klimaitis even exist? Every time a Lithuanian hears anything about the horrible and rabid pogrom in Slobodka which lasted for several days, during which ethnic Lithuanians used pick-axes, crowbars, hand saws and other implements to essentially turn the entire Jewish neighborhood into a scene from a Charles Manson-family escapade, they begin to chirp like birds: “Klimaitis, Klimaitis, Klimaitis, Klimaitis wanna cracker?” It’s one of the unquestioned axiomata of the Lithuanian obfuscationist/relativist approach to defending the national honor against charges of blood-libel: Klimaitis the journalist was acting under German command. But no one has any facts, there are no photographs of this alleged Klimaitis, it’s sort of an oral tradition passed down through the generations or something. Needless to say, Bubnys doesn’t explore that issue at all. In his blanket-denial chapter, the first and likely to be the most-read part of the midget book, Bubnys goes on to touch upon the Lietūkis garage massacre, saying nothing at all basically except some Jews were murdered and the self-declared quisling Provisional Government distanced themselves from the perpetrators. He then talks again of the pogroms “incited by the Gestapo, after which,” note the use of a passive construction here, “Jews began to be shot regularly at the Kaunas forts.” Now, Lithuanian employs the passive much more frequently than English, although not as much as Finnish or Kalaallisut of course, but Bubnys takes it all to a new level, even for drier academic speech. “Were regularly shot” without saying by WHOM. This is followed by a brief mention of Jurgis Bobelis, who here only formed some sort of Lithuanian military battalion in his capacity as Kaunas military commandant. Bubnys here doesn’t mention Bobelis went to the quisling Provisional Government with the suggestion of setting up a concentration camp for Jews in Kaunas, nor that the PG talked him down to having him set up a ghetto instead, in the conveniently now-depopulated district of Slobodka. Later on in the book, Bubnys will quote at length from Canadian author and Lithuanian Holocaust survivor and partisan Sarah Ginaitė-Rubinson (whom he claims lives in Israel now although I think she’s still permanently residing in Canada where her children and grandchildren live), and apparently without her permission, an author who was also briefly sought for questioning by Lithuanian lackeys in connection with alleged war crimes, about which, of course, Bubnys in his official role as state historian said nothing. The intent is to exonerate Jurgis Bobelis from all his crimes during the Holocaust by pointing out he allowed a certain number of Lithuanian Jewish military veterans to be released from the Kaunas forts where they were being held and would be murdered, in consideration of their service to the early Lithuanian state in the 1918-1919 period. Bubnys just throws that out there, a long passage from what appears to be his political enemy without permission, but never follows up: how many of those veterans were released only to be rounded up and murdered in subsequent weeks and months. If memory serves, and I’m not a professional historian, that would 100% of those “Lithuanian volunteer soldier veterans.”
The first “denial chapter,” for want of a better appellation at this point, is followed by a mix of chapters with words in their names, such as Geto vidaus administracija (“savivalda”) [Internal Ghetto Administration (“Self-Rule”)] but with massively oversized YEARS as first words in the first paragraph so that it LOOKS as if this chapter is called “1941.” The final two mini-chapters do not have these years in their first lines and deal with the minutiae of Kovna ghetto becoming a concentration camp and the anti-fascist resistance movement in the ghetto. The chapter named above, Geto vidaus etc. aka 1941, is by far the largest accounting for the “bulk” of the pamphlet. Oddly enough, Bubnys is most fascinated by the bureaucratic aspects of the Jewish ghetto administration demanded by the Nazis. He goes on at length about this or that department, but almost entirely foregoing any human aspects, or even interesting stories that arose in or around those departments. Instead he focuses on government structure, of all things. He apparently read Dina Porat’s study of the legal system in Kovna ghetto and this receives the greatest treatment, again, from the structuralist perspective, rather than from any human perspective.
Here it should be noted that when Bubnys engages in his textual fugues of passive mass murders, obscure avenues of legal redress and appeal for ghetto suspects in ghetto courts and councils, and the rights of the allegedly hated Kovna ghetto police officers, he frequently repeats almost verbatim things he has just said. This is not the formal statement, expansion, recapitulation we are accustomed to in works, say, from French scholars. It is pure unabashed confusion, with recapitulations following in the next sentence, or carried over to the next or two paragraphs forward. It appears almost as if Bubnys were cramming for a Kovna Ghetto test the next morning, and was trying to come to terms with the bare facts of the case, the bare bones, the basic skeleton of the Kovna ghetto, and so kept going over the same material in a hurried manner. In places he openly contradicts himself and what he has just said. One of the more memorable examples, but perhaps a poor example because it might have been intentional, concerns the burning-down of the clinic in Kovna ghetto on October 4, 1941. In his first take, on page 32, Dr. Bubnys alleges all patients were removed from the Surgery and Therapy Division of the ghetto hospital and taken away to the Ninth Fort, which means, they were to be murdered there. By page 69 Dr. Bubnys has read a little further in Oshry, presumably, and now says a Surgery and Infectious Diseases Hospital was burnt to the ground along with all its personnel and patients, and according to Bubnys “all its expensive equipment.” Even if, somehow, this were one of two hospitals in the Kovna ghetto, which I don’t believe is the case here at all, shouldn’t his first take of the events of October 4, 1941, have included at least a mention of doctors, nurses and patients being burned alive in the ghetto?
The entire thing seems sloppy. Even if Bubnys got this fact wrong, that one right, and a third is disputable, the main problem isn’t that bare-bones skeleton of facts. He has -semi-exhumed the skeleton, but has failed to perceive it was once a living breathing human. The confused narrative isn’t a narrative at all, it’s a hodge-podge from different sources, random facts thrown in here, random statistics there. There is no OVERVIEW, something Bubnys tellingly decries at least twice in his own text, he fails to perceive the real story for all his attempts at deciphering Oshry. If someone didn’t know anything about Kovna ghetto, and got a hold of Bubnys’s pamphlet-book and read it, and then read Tory, Oshry and Mishell, they would not think Bubnys is talking about the same time, place and groups of people. There ise some coincidence of fact between the real narratives and Bubnys’s, but that’s all, it doesn’t go much beyond that at all.
One of the most telling aspects of Bubnys’s work—and this was partly pointed out by an astute gentleman at the book presentation last fall, before the book was generally available, although this man had read it before he arrived at the event—is his lack of attribution of photographs. His macabre and strange book presentation at the Lithuanian Jewish Community featured one of those endlessly-looped overhead projections of photographs in seriatim, period photographs of the Kovna ghetto. During the period allocated for questions and discussion afterward, one of the few people in the world at that point to have read Bubnys’s grand pamphlet stood up and pointed out the name of the photographer is well known, and said it, George Kadish, aka Hirsh Kadushin. This was one of three points the speaker made, all of them good, two of them now forgotten. Indeed, the name of the photographer IS well known to all scholars of the Kovna ghetto, because he was personally entrusted with the job by the Jewish council of elders there (called Ältestenrat “Council of Elders” in Kovna as opposed to Judenrat “Jewish Council” in Vilna). He was entrusted with the job of documenting the HISTORY of Kovna ghetto for posterity. It seems he was one of two people—TWO HISTORIANS AS IT WERE HIRED BY THE GHETTO GOVERNMENT—making up this agency charged with secretly collecting documents, information and photographs. Vilna ghetto had a similar sort of operation at times, although the non-official works and diaries of Kruk and others overshadowed this, and the materials were mostly lost, as I recall. I believe I read somewhere the Vilna ghetto HISTORIANS created a mock-up in three dimensions of the ghetto itself, a miniature ghetto to mirror the “microstate” term Bubnys uses for Kovna ghetto (a term he probably took from Kruk’s diary in any case). I find it interesting Bubnys ignores his one colleague, the professional state-hired historian, in the entire story. Is he afraid of sharing his fate? Is he afraid of being tainted? Is he above such things? Does he not wish to see himself as a state-sponsored historian?
The hodge-podge text written in what seems to be emulation of the book-by-commission style adopted by the Dieckmann-Sužiedelis stable is further marred, if that were even possible, by real problems with what we used to call layout, by which I mean punctuation and marks in this particular case. Almost every page in the entire affair contains lines which lack the required hyphenation marks. Just as the eye begins to accustom itself to this, hyphens appear from the mist and are interspersed with non-hyphenated yet broken words. Sometimes the foreign names and surnames are heavily Lithuanized, while in other places they are barely touched. There is no rule to how Yiddish names are rendered so we find numerous examples of Maushes, Moishes etc. living in close proximity to one another but living as strangers nonetheless. Finally there is the problem of passages which defy the generally horrible style, contain terse and grammatical descriptions in Lithuanian of events in a (seemingly feminine) voice (or voices) which is both sympathetic and knowledgeable and seem lifted whole from other sources, without attribution of course. These foreign arrivals only serve to break the general monotony and confusion in about three or four small passages, but they are so clearly foreign to Bubnys’s way of doing business that they should be attributed and set off from his general text somehow. The problem with that might be that the final passage, the summary of the book as it were, doesn’t seem to me at least to be written in the basic Bubnys style either, but perhaps he did become inspired to fluidity after all was said and done.
This sad little circular is supposed to be translated to English in the near future, according to Genocide Research Center people at the presentation. It will be interesting to see what’s changed and what’s left as-is in the text. Hopefully Dr. Bubnys is learning something through his trials and errors and will someday have a firm grasp of and be able to expound with authority upon subjects such as the Kovna ghetto. His acting as a default apologist for Lithuanian Nazi collaborators and as a fundraiser for Nazi war memorials—the memorial in Obeliai/Abel designed and built by a Nazi supporter to commemorate Nazi collaborators and designed and built during the Nazi occupation in the style of Nazi war memorials located throughout the Third Reich—and Lithuanian Nazi leaders ought to be such a public shame he would not dare attend any Lithuanian Jewish Community functions or events as anything other than just another member of the general public, and certainly not as some sort of self-proclaimed founder of modern Lithuanian Holocaust research.
(The release of this small book was sandwiched between the publication of the equally small Vilniaus getas [Vilnius/Vilna Ghetto] and Šiaulių getas [Šiauliai/Shavl Ghetto] by the same author, in 2013 and 2014, respectively. The Šiauliai Ghetto book was also presented to the public at the Vilnius headquarters of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, on January 26, 2015.)