Interview from the Pits of Paneriai, or, We Are Weighing Death


by Sergejus Kanovičius

Very recently I looked at the webpage and could barely hold back the tears watching one of the episodes of Mission Siberia ( which aired this year, an interview with Lithuanians who have lived [in Siberia] eight decades now, unable to speak Lithuanian and explaining why they who have lived their entire lives in Siberia see no sense nor opportunity to return to Lithuania…I was saddened because of the tragedy of their lives, but at the same time I was glad that they are alive and healthy.

I remember how one of my best friends, the poet Liudvikas Jakimavicius, used to tell me during long evenings at his farm about the oppressions his family experienced, how his parents shared one cattle wagon with a Jewish boy named Harry, whom everyone called Garik. How Joske who spent the years of exile together with Liudvikas’s family, always used to send packages from far-off Israel with instant coffee and other items unavailable in the dying Soviet empire.

I told Liudvikas about my almost completely butchered family. It was painful for both of us, we empathized with one another and tried to understand the other’s pain and shared our grief until his pain and heartbreak became my pain, and the suffering he and his family experienced became mine as well. If not for Liudvikas, I probably never would have written:

  • Amber by the Laptev Sea
  • There far far far away
  • Not seen from here
  • Over mountains over seas
  • A lonely man laments
  • A lonely seeker of truth
  • Dug for what he hadn’t discarded
  • Found what he hadn’t sought
  • The cold sea laps
  • eternal eternal ice
  • frightened dreams of childhood
  • give me some bread
  • and some warmth
  • and a little bit of motherland
  • frozen to eternity sea
  • returns to a son
  • the blue scarf of his mother
  • and father’s ice frozen boots
  • when polar night is over
  • the generous Laptev
  • on eternal snow
  • washes down to his feet
  • mama’s amber beads

When I was in sixth grade, I, with hundreds of other boys of Lithuania, went through a selection and was chosen for inclusion in one of the best musical ensembles during the Soviet period, the Azuoliukas choir.

Many years would pass until I found out that when singing famous “Kregzdutes, Kregzdutes” by Balys Dvarionas (who spoke Yiddish perfectly with my dad)   will be conducted by that boy from the cattle wagon, who became from Garik to Harold Perelstein.

And again I’m watching that interview from Mission: Siberia. I pose a macabre question to myself and fate: well, why, why is it better sometimes to be assaulted, raped, with destiny destroyed, but alive? Maybe because a living person is like a flower, [it] reaches towards sun and life, tries to blossom under any conditions, even the most inhuman, and tries to stay a human being. Because even when everything is taken away—country, property and a life that took hundreds of years to build—there is that something which remains, but what was taken from the rest of Garik’s family forever: life.

How I wish, how I lust to travel to Paneriai, to hundreds of Lithuanian towns, villages and churchyard settlements and  mass graves hidden in their woods with friends, with people who think the same way, with a microphone and a video camera, to knock on the moss and get interviews from all of them.

Red equals brown. A little. Somewhat. Not much. Just a bit. There were two genocides. It is horrifying, an authoress wrote, at the Genocide Museum, at Tuskulenai  where there …. murdered… innocent people… This desire to have “a genocide of one’s own” seems foolish to me. Just “borrow” some of the one that left my father with no relatives. So many people who count the murdered place them like weights on a balance. They weigh them. And still so many of my Lithuanian brothers today when they hear the word Holocaust beat their chests and say: Not us, not our responsibility.

Look at that that, I read, these unkosher Lithuanians, they are “freedom of thought police,” “intellectual taliban,” “leftists actively expressing themselves in the public space,” what do they think they’re doing, they dare say the simple truth, that brown does not equal red. Those who on the pyramid of ethnic patriotism vociferously demand “their own” cannot and will not accept this axiom. It would be interesting to watch two lawyers who try to convince one another that rape and homicide are crimes of a single cloth, and so must be judged and punished with the same punishments…

I am always reading: crucify them, crucify—either openly or with a little more reserve—but crucify.

And on the scales where on one side all my butchered family lies, they place on the other side what, Lucas (as if his opinion is the final unassailable word with opportunity for appeal and not to be criticized), Rubin, Stankeras, someone else, even using families who witnessed the terrors of Soviet crimes, eyes are counted and NKVD victims are placed [on the scales]. As if the scales would balance because of that pain and one could say, woohoo, now we, we too have OUR OWN genocide like you, so stop trying to interfere with your pain and suffering.

We, sorry, do not interfere. We, Jews, in general demand nothing in this sense and count nothing, we don’t write articles with horrifying examples of those of us who were rescued or did the rescuing in singles, because that would be nothing more than speculation [in the negative economic sense]. We were born AFTER THAT—with a wound that will not heal. And all we would like is that, out of politeness at least if not out of elementary human sympathy and compassion, they stop disturbing our victims and their memory and stop putting them on the scales. True, they will also put the Museum of Genocide Victims on the scales. The one where to our pain because of political reasons space was not found [for the Holocaust]. The only thing this building still needs is a sign: “600 meters to Jewish genocide” [reference to the only Holocaust museum in Lithuania, the Green House, hidden not far from the so-called Genocide Museum].

There, some activists say, you can find that, the other, theirs, not our genocide. But this is ours. Don’t touch it and don’t wave Jews around here. The heads of the Museum of Genocide Victims have even revealed that they came to an agreement with the Tolerance Center and Gaon Museum on novel new kinds of exchange: they don’t exhibit our genocide, we don’t exhibit theirs. Is that surprising? Is it surprising that such exchanges satisfy the leadership of the Tolerance Museum? And in some eyes, the scales again are balanced. Disgusting. Painful.

Later on the same scales they will place Rwanda, Cambodia (for some reason they’ve forgotten to mention this yet), Sudan, Katyn and ten other “examples” which while not doing so directly nonetheless say, your genocide is ‘sh…t.” Stankeras is not interesting as Stankeras. Stankeras is an expression of this red=brown and its logical product. He, like Azubalis on citizenship, said what many in this “I want my own genocide” hysteria truly think. Someone there, on the manor, [i.e., among the elite] decided that the nation and its patriotism needs to have “its own genocide.” So that without insulting anyone, without hiding historical facts, without meeting opposition from honest people, it is possible to expect Jews will accept this depreciation of their pain appropriately. Those Jews are inappropriate. Or maybe they’re appropriate. After all, if you think about it and admit it to yourself, it’s a miracle that they survived that meat grinder at all. They didn’t come back from Paneriaion trains, they didn’t rise up from the gas chambers and become living children again and didn’t live out what is called life, even if their destinies had been destroyed.

I don’t have objections how any people name their tragedies. I might not agree. But I have no moral right to tell them not to do that, to place their victims on scales and to become one of many who find it so much fun to take up the accounting of death.

I just want respect for murdered Jews. I want respect for the Lithuanians who rescued them. I don’t want any Lithuanian to beat his chest and publicly or privately declare “mea culpa.” Neither I nor you are to blame for what happened. You as I, as I and Liudvikas Jakimavicius, have only one duty: to judge what happened, thus taking responsibility not for crimes not committed by us, but responsibility so that our children and their children won’t have to write a multitude of articles and take up thankless work: weighing the pain of others. Lord, give eternal rest to the dead. We—Jews and Lithuanians—don’t need anything more than that.

And we don’t need to invite one another to the Museum of Genocide Victims, to Paneriai, or to Auschwitz; if we don’t have an inner need in ourselves to sympathize and forgive, no field trips will help. We are in the marketplace of the accountants of death where ever more often on the goods table of historical revisionism we hear the voice: “We had more!!! Our Self-Defense Battalions were great! Long live the heroes of the LAF!”

We can’t erase from history, no matter how paradoxical it is, the fact that a Lithuanian Jew on a cattle car on the way to Siberia and a Jew left in Lithuania did not have the same prospects and could not have had the same prospects.

One train with cattle cars travelled toward the vastnesses of Siberia in 1941. A few years later a train with Jewish children from Hungary moved out. One stopped at Ukhta. The other at Auschwitz. I tried to get an interview from those Hungarian children. Unfortunately, I was not able to.

I am extraordinarily thankful to fate that it didn’t leave Garik in Lithuania… The Azuoliukas [choir] sang so beautifully…

All attempts to discuss brown equal red with my butchered family seem to be totally senseless to me.

Mikhail Bulgakov said: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” In Lithuania’s case the Holocaust manuscript has not burned away, it is written in my large family’s blood.

So let there be two genocides if it helps Lithuania to overcome the deep national identity crisis. But if there are two genocides, two museums and two, rather than one pain and one, rather than two responsibilities for Lithuania of today and tomorrow, we will read new Stankerases, we will shrug our shoulders and we will wonder how in the world it is that we are so weak that even after twenty years of free thought and historical research what our uniform relationship is with the tragedy that took place in Lithuania which wiped off the map an entire ethnos—it is incredible that to the present day we are discussing this in [editorial opinion pieces]. I usually remain silent or silently pray at mass graves. Can’t we simply recognize that we are being dishonest to ourselves and others?

  • Ghetto
  • We came in the thousands
  • We left in thousands
  • Only single individuals returned
  • Everyone lamented
  • The Gesheft of centuries
  • Children and the Talmud
  • Were piled up at Paneriai
  • And we sighed for the last time
  • O beautiful my  motherland
  • Children of the Grand Duke
  • The next day read loudly
  • And Vilnius, and Vilnius
  • And Vilnius finally has a ghetto

This contribution is an authorized adapted translation from:

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