E Y E W I T N E S S R E P O R T / O P I N I O N / B O O K S
by Geoff Vasil (Vilnius)
A few friends asked me if I could attend a book presentation in Kaunas, since they couldn’t make it. The book is called Undigested Past: The Holocaust in Lithuania by Robert van Voren. It was published in English first as part of a series by the Rodopi publishing house on Eastern Europe. I’d never heard of van Voren, but people told me he was known for his books on psychiatric abuses in the Soviet Union. The poster for the event proclaimed boldly in Lithuanian that the conference’s official language would be English, which made me smirk, but an English-language version of the poster became available on the morning of the event.
Unfortunately I was late. I arrived in Kaunas probably five minutes into the event and by the time I found my way there, van Voren was showing his last two slides. The venue struck me as odd, it was held at the Great Auditorium of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, which is detached from the rest of the university and in a different part of town. When the taxi pulled up, the sign said Vytautas Magnus Catholic Theology Faculty, or something like that. The buildings were inside a wall, looked medieval and were sunken into the ground so you had to descend to enter, but with glass-and-aluminum construction in the back. There was a door person who pointed me in the right direction with a smile and didn’t ask for any identification. Upstairs there were hors-d’ouvres set on a table so it was obvious the conference was behind the doors there.
Inside there were high-backed cushioned wooden chairs and a lot of people dressed up. At the front van Voren spoke and pointed at a screen as several people sat at a central table. One of the people sitting there was Sarunas Liekis. I found it ironic that van Voren had him on his panel, because van Voren is known for work on psychiatric abuses in the Soviet Union, and Leikis was part of a whisper campaign to impugn the sanity and appropriateness for employment of those whose jobs he rushed to take for himself at his now Yiddish-less Yiddish institute. In other words, Liekis and others are still practicing the techniques van Voren described in his On Dissidents and Madness From the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev to the Soviet Union of Vladimir Putin. The mere presence of Liekis, the head of a Yiddish language institute who doesn’t speak Yiddish and whose father is an apologist for Lithuanian Nazis (and does not experience the mildest public disagreement from his son the ersatz Yiddish professor) — assured me van Voren was either insincere about human rights or uninformed about the company he keeps.
Van Voren wrapped up his talk about his book newly translated in Lithuanian by talking about the need to get beyond guilt, to discuss the facts without resorting to entrenched positions and calling for recognizing the common factors that led to the Holocaust throughout Europe.
It wasn’t enough information for me to pass judgment on his position. I thought he looked arrogant and smirking, which seemed odd in a discussion supposedly about the Holocaust. He was followed by the others sitting at the table. A rather boyish young man was introduced as Yaron Oppenheimer, charge d’affaires of the embassy of the Netherlands to Lithuania. He said he was surprised to learn from van Voren about the actual level of collaboration with the Nazis in Dutch society and said something about how the Holocaust had been the same in the Netherlands and Lithuania.
Leonidas Donskis, a professor from Vytautas Magnus and also a member of the European Parliament who has spoken out in the past, basically praised von Voren’s book up and down and didn’t offer a word of criticism. Later I realized he had written the introduction to van Voren’s book, and is a major figure in the same Rodopi series of books about Eastern Europe.
Liekis’s speech was strange, in my view. He seemed to be trying to make eye contact with members of the audience and also seemed to be attempting to practice some form of mesmerism. His words were measured, in that they seemed to follow a certain pattern of pauses used by practitioners of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to compel. The content of his speech was puerile, a series of cliches about moving on, abandoning guilt and so on. The overall effect was a sort of cheap imitation of Bela Lugosi.
A young man who has appeared on television with historians from Vytautas Magnus served as a kind of moderator/translator. He has a sort of nervous, intermittent speech pattern, and when he asked the audience if there were any comments or questions, it probably seemed wiser to most not to provoke his nervous condition. The “discussion” was limited to what seemed to be a rather convoluted observation by a Vytautas Magnus professor of philosophy on some opposition in Kant’s philosophy between reason and good will. He managed to formulate it into a question about whether what was needed in Lithuania in regards to Holocaust recognition were good will or reason, or rather, which should be the starting point.
The nervous moderator historian translated his comment/question, which had been issued in the conference’s “official language” English, as something about the need for education, in response to an audience member saying she didn’t understand the philosophy professor’s comment. And that was all. Oh, there was an awkward pause when one of the panelists was following a whole series of cliches and said “…and that this will lead to mutual understanding between these two peoples, the Lithuanians and….”
I looked around and didn’t see a single Jew I recognized (which doesn’t mean there weren’t any)—“and… … Jews. …” Where were the representatives and members of the Vilnius and Kaunas Jewish communities or is it now a firmly established principle that they are to be excluded from any “high culture” events on the Holocaust as has become the norm in recent years? Heaven forfend, they might have a point of view that differs from the new holy grails of the Holocaust Obfuscation movement and the tragically increasing number of fine scholars and people who eventually go along with such Jew-less Jewish events on the Holocaust and enjoy the glory of embassy receptions and largess. The fact is that any elderly survivor in Lithuania would, to put it mildly, rapidly challenge the idea that Dutch and Lithuanian ethnic-majority citizens treated their Jewish neighbors the same way during the Holocaust. But if survivors and their progeny, community and allies are systematically excluded from such cooked events, the intellectual debate is replaced by a shoddy PR exercise on behalf of current Baltic obfuscationism. It is somewhat of a shock that Donskis, for years a champion of resistance to obfuscation, went along on this occasion with a one-sided intellectual event that pretends to be a Western grade symposium offering the actual spectrum of views that are out there.
Usually, for Jewish music events, real klezmorim are wheeled out, no danger of the truth about the Lithuanian Holocaust and its distortion coming out there. But not here. At the entertainment that followed, one young woman delivered a plaintive monologue from a play about Anne Frank, in Lithuanian. This was followed by two songs in Hebrew by a female vocalist, accompanied by a piano player. The second song wasn’t bad, but the singer seemed to be struggling to understand the acoustics of the hall.
Two days earlier the US embassy to Lithuania had sponsored a Jewish song event in the exact same auditorium, so presumably some of the audience had also attended this earlier event, billed as part of Lithuania’s declaration of 2011 as the Year for the Commemoration of Lithuanian Residents Who Fell Victim to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany, or whatever the Orwellian official name is.
This was supposed to be followed by informal conversation with the panel and author, but the presence of Liekis, who has called Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust survivors and Jewish Holocaust scholars “Taliban” for opposing the official Lithuanian obfuscationist party line on the Holocaust left me without much of an appetite for salami and crackers on toothpicks, or for book purchases. I left. Outside a man in a black minivan with green diplomatic plates looked like he was waiting impatiently, presumably for the young Dutch diplomat, in the small parking lot inside the wall of the Catholic Theology redoubt set on a hill in Kaunas.
It seemed unfair to write anything about the event, since I missed most of it, and didn’t like what I saw. To me it amounted to a sort of elite academic gathering of people involved in fake Lithuanian Holocaust studies. I wouldn’t include Leonidas Donskis in that group of fake scholarship, but there he was. When the panelists were speaking it became clear von Voren was granted Lithuanian citizenship, and I couldn’t help but think he had received it in exchange for (perhaps among many other things) his contributions to Holocaust obfuscation.
So I read van Voren’s book.
As I said, the introduction is by Leonidas Donskis. He praises the book and the language van Voren uses. Unfortunately, van Voren’s English is really screwed up. There are lower-level annoyances such as excessively used commas in the wrong place, foreign syntax and vocabulary that doesn’t mean what the author thinks it means. There are factual errors (van Voren puts Telsiai in parentheses after Tilsit, the former being Yiddish Telz and the latter a town in East Prussia sometimes rendered in Lithuanian as Tilze). Van Voren says Algirdas Brazauskas addressed the Israeli Knesset in 2001 and apologized for Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust, whereas I remember that as happening in 1995, etc.).
There are places where van Voren introduces an idea, speculates upon it, then, without further argument, takes it for granted that the reader now accepts that idea as axiomatic, as when he talks about the possibility that it wasn’t rabid antisemitism that drove Lithuanians to murder their Jewish neighbors, but that same old apathy known from Genesis as “Am I my brother’s keeper?” applied ethnically, a sort of ambivalence to ethnic otherness rather than xenophobia. Then van Voren backtracks and references rabid antisemitism as the motivation later on in his account. The unfortunate thing is that he has a really strong point about uncaring vs. hatred in regards to the traditional ethnic Lithuanian attitude toward other nationalities and minorities, but he doesn’t even begin to demonstrate the point to the reader.
The first two-thirds of the book is a more-or-less accurate portrayal of the Holocaust in Lithuania, although von Voren vacillates on certain points, for example, on whether the pogroms in June, 1941, were initiated by Lithuanians or Germans. His footnotes include a number of Lithuanian scholars who more or less conform to the obfuscationist party line (but also Yitzhak Arad and Dovid Katz), so it is no surprise that he isn’t completely certain whom to believe.
He quotes from the Jaeger Report and others to show that there was a hidden German hand behind the pogroms in Kaunas, but doesn’t consider the possibility Jaeger and Stahlecker would have had an interest in taking credit for inspiring Lithuanian violence against Jews even if they hadn’t been responsible. Even so, he doesn’t travel down that road to the bitter depths plumbed by certain Lithuanian scholars who seek to exonerate Lithuanian murderers as lackeys involved in a complex propaganda project within the Third Reich: he says they did it, they’re guilty. He also flirts with the obfuscationist position that it was the Voldemarists in East Prussia who carried out the massacres in Kaunas, instead of the Lithuanian Activist Front, but then returns to sobriety and common sense and places the blame at the foot of the LAF and the self-proclaimed non-elected Provisional Government whose only objection to the massacre of the Jews was that it took place during the day in public places.
Along the way he makes some digressions into somewhat strange areas: the African French soldiers in the occupied Rhineland after World War I, the early project to send German or all European Jews to Madagascar, and similar matters which seem to have little to do with the Lithuanian Holocaust.
After presenting the main points of the Holocaust in Lithuania more or less correctly, van Voren speaks to Lithuanian denial. His main point seems to be that Lithuanians suffer from a geopolitical inferiority complex and the desire to portray themselves as the victims of history. This is undoubtedly true. After living in Lithuania for almost 20 years (von Voren has allegedly lived here for 10), I can say I have come to this same conclusion, if later than von Voren, at least before his last published book.
But. This isn’t as simple as saying that Lithuanians suffer from “Holocaust envy”. It’s a little more complex than that. The reason the Lithuanian national ego responds so adversely to the truth about Lithuanians murdering Jews has to do with the idea of some alleged international law, nay justice, which protects smaller countries from the depredations of greater powers. Modern Lithuania was born by proclamation, modern Lithuania ended by proclamation. These are operations on paper. Recognition by other states was the main goal of the independence movement in the late 80s. The idea is that Lithuanians have a right to exist as a state, that that right was infringed upon by the Soviet Union—if not in 1940 then surely in 1944—and that there is some canon of international law to which Lithuanians can appeal to guarantee their right to statehood.
The Holocaust in Lithuania is stometimes taken internally as a potential direct contradiction to legitimacy (though there is no doubt about the legitimacy of any of the European states implicated in the Holocaust!). By killing off a people, Lithuanians have violated this imaginary canon of international law that guarantees their right to statehood. Therefore, in order for the state to exist, it never happened. Or, it sort of happened, but there were mitigating circumstances, besides which, the Nazis did it. The long and the short of it is, Lithuanians have never fought for independence. Sovereignty in Lithuania doesn’t depend on the power to defend it, but on an unspoken set of assumptions about morality, ethnicity and ethnic identity which are all violated by the facts of Lithuanians’ aggression against Jews in 1940-1944.
Van Voren notes that Jewish autonomy in inter-war Lithuania was more an exercise in propaganda than a fact, and that it quickly disappeared. Unlike the Lithuanian propagandists and boosters in the inter-war and post-war period who claimed the first Lithuanian Republic’s economy went from backward to Denmark’s in 30 years, van Voren rightly concedes that ethnic Lithuanian attempts to displace professional Jews were aimed at securing a piece of a shrinking economic pie.
After positing Lithuanian Holocaust envy, van Voren goes on to mouth the Lithuanian Holocaust obfuscationists’ lines about “no simple solutions” and “shades of gray”. He presents Dutch cases where Holocaust survivors were accused of Holocaust crimes. Victims can be perpetrators and perpetrators victims, he implies through rhetorical questions. Certainly in a totalitarian system it is possible to make the point that everyone is a victim to a greater or lesser degree, but morally that’s a little too easy if one group faces their own murder and another merely ostracism, imprisonment or something of a less than fatal nature. Even so, I thought the “Dutch” section of von Voren’s book was the most interesting, and think it is probably the most interesting part for most non-Lithuanian readers in general.
The author disparages the myth of Dutch fortitude and morality during Nazi occupation and points the finger at a number of institutions, including an order by the government-in-exile in the UK to Dutch civil servants to remain at their posts under Nazi occupation. There are damning anecdotes about Dutch families in possession of Jewish assets who become quite disappointed that “their” Jew happened to survive the Holocaust to reclaim his real estate. There is even information about how Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands was an SS officer, although it doesn’t go much beyond that, and van Voren fails to mention that Queen Beatrix, who gave him a medal of honor for his work in “human rights” regularly attends the Bilderberg conferences set up by her father Bernhard, secret conferences of the world’s heads of state which the two investigative journalists who have managed to penetrate report are of a pro-eugenics nature.
Van Voren begins to talk about Nazi sympathies in the British royal family as well, but stops short of mentioning Prince Philip, consort of Queen Elizabeth II, was also pro-Nazi and attended a Nazi school (and founded the World Wildlife Fund with SS officer Prince Berhanrd), besides speaking out publicly in later years in favor of eugenics and against “the lower races”.
He then goes on to say that in terms of collaboration, compliance and conformity there was no difference between the Holocaust in Lithuania and the Netherlands. He further says that Lithuanians in the main know the facts about the Holocaust in Lithuania.
Both of these statements are dead wrong.
While the Dutch in the Middle Ages might have been capable of focusing their hatred and tearing apart a perceived enemy with their bare hands, the Dutch in 1940-1945 did not, by and large, sever the heads of their Jewish neighbors, did not attack Jewish infants with crowbars, bayonets, rocks and sticks, did not generally chop off the fingers and hands of Jewish maidens they had just raped and did not kill their neighbors in order to steal their furniture and dishes. It is possible to make the intellectual point that profiting from the death of Jewish neighbors and countrymen is morally equivalent, but the actual situation on the ground was different.
Lithuanians do not in the main know the facts of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Over the past few years DefendingHistory.com has looked over a number of “editorials” by even elderly Lithuanians (and by people of other ethnicities who consider themselves Lithuanians and defend the allergic Lithuanian position on the Holocaust) who should know the facts, but don’t. They speculate that it was impossible for “Lithuanians” or Lithuanian gangs or soldiers or secret service to murder Jews in Vilnius on June 23, 1941, because, they speculate, the city had long been under Polish control and the Lithuanian presence there was small after Stalin “gave it back” to Lithuania. Yet we know that it was Lithuanians in Vilnius who rounded up Jewish civilians and began shooting them almost immediately, before German troops arrived, at churchyards in Vilnius, at a bloody and continuing massacre at the park on Pylimo and Naugarduko streets and other places.
Supposition and speculation replaces eye-witness testimony which Lithuanians never see (although in the circles van Voren travels it is possible that the majority of scholars do know the facts) so that the obfuscationist narrative is constantly re-created by a new generation who argue from a position of belief that 1) it didn’t happen 2) if it did, other people did it, 3) if Lithuanians were involved, it was only a few bad apples 4) if more Lithuanians were involved, they were forced at the barrel of a Nazi gun.
Van Voren wittingly or unwittingly plays into this vacuum of knowledge which allows the obfuscationist narrative to maintain itself by stating that the Holocaust in Lithuania and the Netherlands were more or less the same. This is the message Lithuanians will take away from his work, not the facts he has taken pains to check and present on the actual Holocaust in Lithuania (even if he got a few of them slightly wrong).
Overall, I came away from van Voren’s book thinking he had started out sincerely trying to understand the Holocaust in Lithuania, that he had become sidetracked by the likes of Liekis, that he managed to get most of the truth despite these people, but that he then decided to either flirt with the obfuscationists by constructing a thesis to their liking — the Dutch and Lithuanian experience was the same, therefore Lithuania is nothing special when it comes to the Holocaust in Europe, nothing to see here — or that he decided to leave some issues open and unresolved in order to return to them later and perhaps build a career as have Liekis and others by towing the Lithuanian Government line on the Holocaust.
My impression is that he is disguising in semi-scholarly language a personal quest to understand the Holocaust in Lithuania. This has my complete sympathy. Is there a way to comprehend the incomprehenisible? Van Voren doesn’t resort to calling all Nazis beasts, he embraces them as human beings, as human as you or I. The Holocaust to me represents a kind of black hole. Some people, like Albert Einstein, managed to glimpse the horizon of the stellar abomination and flee for their lives. I have stared into the black sun of the Lithuanian Holocaust for several years now, and even imagine I can make out certain features that suffuse it. But I wasn’t there. I have spoken to a few survivors, and an eyewitness or two on the Lithuanian side. Just this local Lithuanian side of it represents a singularity I cannot understand, one that sucked in innumerable lives and made the lives of all the survivors the poorer. On a global scale the world has never recovered from the loss, we simply don’t know what we lost, so why should Lithuania be immune and recover from it upon proclamation of re-independence, or re-proclamation of independence, or whatever they call it? I can’t understand the scope and scale of the Holocaust, but I can see van Voren staring into the same black sun I am, and I think he has a moral choice to make, even if he wants to be disinterested and unbiased as an observer. He can either insist on the facts as we know them with his Lithuanian colleagues (he just got a PhD from Vytautas Magnus), or he can play their academic game of hide-and-seek in the best Soviet traditions of consensus reality, using the Holocaust as a stepping stone for career advancement.
Come to think of it, there were fantastic political abuses of psychiatry in the West, in the United States, Canada, Norway, involving some fairly well known personalities. I wonder if van Voren even wants to know about these cases, or whether it is simply too dangerous for his career. Or is this another member of the London/Washington “Beat Russia” gang out for blood in Eastern Europe and the Georgian Republic?
Is it science, or football?