B O O K S
by Geoff Vasil
Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart: Stories of Women Who Survived Hitler and Stalin by Laima Vince. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: 2012.
The first problem the reader comes across is in the introduction, where the author asserts two waves of Jewish immigration into Lithuania in the 8th and 11th centuries. Much later in the book she says, twice, Jews settled in Lithuania in the 16th century, a claim that leaves the informed reader wondering for whom the grand duke Vytautas (Witold) issued his famous charters on the rights of Jews in the 14th century.
The introduction also presents the events of 1940 and 1941 in Lithuania in a manner calculated to make the reader think the Lithuanian Provisional Government of 1941 and the Lithuanian Activist Front were two altogether separate entities.
A misordering of chronological events continues throughout the 28 chapters making up the book, most of which are presented as long monologues with selected women, with infrequent questions from the author during her interviews. The people she interviewed either mixed up the events in such a way as to misinform readers, or, more likely, the author rearranged sections of their narratives in order to conform to the desired-at-the-outset version of Lithuanian history. This is exacerbated by the author’s unwillingness to state her own biases up front.
The punctuation is insufferable, making the entire work appear as a rough first draft. The author here places double quotes nested within double quotes, there single quotes within doubles, then again dispensing with quotation marks closing remarks from her interviewees off from her own statements. Colons, hyphens, commas and semi-colons—all are abused in colorful new ways.
Some of the mistakes can be put down to haste: “purist” in place of “purest.” In the worst passages the reader is left uncertain of the author’s intended meaning. Numerous lines are garbled with extraneous repetitions of words and orphan phrases presumably left over from previous redactions, which is odd, because the overall effect is that no one, including the author, bothered to proof-read the manuscript.
If the problems with the form of the text are the product of language interference—the author describes herself as a Lithuanian-to-English translator—the interference appears to be operating in both directions, because a good portion of her Lithuanian inclusions in the text are also flawed.
Dwelling on punctuation and grammar might seem supercilious, except that grammar is the baseline logic through which we are enabled to communicate ideas. Carelessness with grammar and punctuation in the text is complemented by the careless disregard for the chronology that underlies the discipline of history. Of course we all make mistakes and Laima Vince’s English and Lithuanian aren’t a lot worse than what can be found all over the internet nowadays.
Much more frightening is the genre that Vince and others are nowadays attempting to pioneer: recombinated nationalist history.
The author is partisan, in the modern sense of being politically biased, but tries to pretend she isn’t. Her real affiliations only come clear midway and near the end of the book, and then only circumstantially. The figure of Veronika, for example, someone Vince said she befriended before Lithuanian independence and who does her many favors and accompanies her on her travels, turns out to be an employee of the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, which has spearheaded the campaign to bring in Lithuanian Double Genocide Holocaust obfuscation “at the European level,” meaning, they plan to enforce throughout all EU countries a law making it illegal to deny or question what they call the genocide perpetrated by the Soviets against the Lithuanian people.
Much later in the book it turns out Vince’s father was the pre-World War II Lithuanian consul in New York City who maintained the consular office throughout the Cold War as independent Lithuanian territory. Those graying Lithuanians with their 1940s era offices are legendary in diplomatic circles and an interesting topic in their own right, but Vince mentions it almost in passing. She doesn’t disclose her family’s opinions and beliefs about the Holocaust in Lithuania.
Nameless figures from the Center for Genocide Research, the main engine in Double Genocide hyperbole and propaganda, arrive unannounced throughout the narrative, calling on Vince for favors and offering to introduce her to people who figure in her book. The impression given is she is a fellow traveller with the (Fake) Genocide Research Center, a state-funded activist body that employs neo-Nazi fascist youth leader Ričardas Čekutis as a “chief specialist.” Perhaps that explains Vince’s decision not to assign even first names to the men from this organization.
Occasionally throughout the narrative Vince mentions her students. Sometimes these are defined as ninth-grade creative writing students, sometimes as students from the American School in Vilnius. One particularly troubling chapter is Chapter 13, titled Post-Soviet Tourism: Gawking or Mourning. Vince is leading a group of students, part of the Summer Literary Seminars program in Vilnius, through the Genocide Center’s centerpiece, the Museum of Genocide. Here is an excerpt:
“Neevie let out a wail, interrupting our tour guide’s monotone explanation. It was a wail, and not a cry: A wail of despair that rose spontaneously and uncontrolled from her throat. The wail echoed loud and unrestrained in the closed underground chamber, reverberated against the thick stone walls, and rang in our ears. Tears poured down Neevie’s beautiful high cheekbones. She did nothing to hold them back. Neevie was an Inuit student from Greenland. Her response was utterly appropriate.”
Speaking of Neevie (the actual name is likely Nive), the author explains that her English is broken through by the rhythms of her native “Inuttitut.” Inuktitut, which can be spelt Inuttitut in special circumstances, is the Inuit dialect of the Inuit of Labrador, in Canada, not of Greenland. Although there are speakers in the extreme northwest of Greenland whose dialect is close to Labrador, their language is designated Inuktun in English. The vast majority of Greenlanders speak Western Kalaallisut, the dialect around the capital Nuuk and the southwest area of Greenland. Why did Vince go to the trouble of naming an Inuit dialect when it’s perfectly acceptable, and probably more acceptable, to use the traditional English word for their language, “Greenlandic”? If she intended the broader Inuit area as a single language with multiple dialects, “Inuit” would have served admirably. Why go to the trouble, and having gone to the trouble, why, then, should she get it wrong?
It’s because Vince isn’t really concerned with the subtleties and nuances of other cultures outside her Lithuanian-American milieu. And that’s what’s really wrong with Chapter 13, which needs a bit more elaboration.
Vince becomes upset with the guide in the Genocide Museum because 1) she’s wearing a floral-print blouse, which Vince feels is in bad taste; 2) she is just giving the basic facts—and getting some wrong—in poor English; and 3) she doesn’t seem to care about the victims and evinces a “surprising pro-Soviet” stance, according to Vince.
At this point Vince presents a flashback to her visit to Auschwitz, where a wonderful guide gave a moving performance. Vince concludes: “I knew then that the time had come for me to begin talking with survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania.” There is a disturbing subtext to this statement for Lithuanian readers of English: the Jews are getting their story out much better than we Lithuanians, even at our beloved Genocide Museum, and we must improve our performance(s). The technical term applicable here is Holocaust Envy.
Near the front of the book Vince does have a sort of introductory article, not a chapter as such, called “The Holocaust in Lithuania,” which is largely an apology for why Lithuanians welcomed the Nazis in 1941. Consider this passage:
“The majority of Jews in Lithuania were killed by October and about 175,000 by the end of the year. The majority of Jews were not required to live in ghettos nor sent to the Nazi concentration camps, which by then were just in the preliminary stages of operation. Instead, they were shot in pits near their places of residence with the most infamous mass murders taking place in the Ninth Fort near Kaunas and the Paneriai (Ponary) Forest outside of Vilnius.”
Everything is passive: “were killed,” “taking place.” There are no agents. The events are so encapsulated and abbreviated than someone who doesn’t know anything about the Holocaust in Lithuania would have to conclude that the majority of Jews in Lithuania lived in Ponar and around the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. This goes beyond conciseness to the point of deception by omission. The vast majority of Lithuanian Jews were murdered by ethnic Lithuanians in the first six months of the Nazi occupation. Those not initially murdered were sent to ghettos set up in Vilnius (Vilna), Kaunas (Kovno), Šiauliai (Shavl) and Panevėžys (Pónevezh), where they were systematically exterminated mainly by ethnic Lithuanians over the ensuing years of World War II. She does get around to saying Lithuanians participated, but in stilted and historically distortionist sentences such as this:
“Local Lithuanian auxiliaries of the Nazi occupation regime carried out logistics for the preparation and execution of the murders under Nazi direction.”
She gets around to mentioning it in the main text as well, via some of the statements by Lithuanian partisans and a Jewish victim whose stories are completely atypical of the experience of the majority of Lithuanian Jews and ethnic Lithuanian partisans. She devotes the majority of the book and almost her entire sympathy to ethnic Lithuanian victims and heroes, drowning out the few Jewish voices included, voices selected on the basis of political considerations.
The first of these is Paulina Zingerienė, mother of the only Lithuanian Jew to sign the (2008) Prague Declaration in favor of forced Double Genocide history across the EU. It’s impossible to tell whether Vince mangled Zingerienė’s testimony to the point of incomprehensibility, or whether it was delivered to her in that way. The final message seems to be: it’s all very complicated and you’ll never sort it all out, who did what to whom during the war.
Another of her token Jewish informants doesn’t seem to identify herself as Jewish: her assimilated Jewish father had her Protestant German mother convert so they could get married abroad, outside Germany, because the Nuremberg race laws forbade their marriage. Their daughter was persecuted by the Nazis for being Jewish and then by the Soviets for being German. This was a very rare circumstance in Lithuania which had a small German population and probably only a handful of German Jews. Oddly, because Juliana Zarchi seems to be the most educated of Vince’s informants, Vince quotes her making a strong anti-intellectual statement: “I hate ideas. I hate idealism. Where there are ideas, there is no space for the human, for the individual.”
Vince’s final token Jew is Alexander Gringauz, rescued as a child from the Kovno Ghetto and raised in hiding by a Lithuanian Catholic woman. Gringauz hints he is being used to further the Lithuanian Holocaust Obfuscation agenda but Vince doesn’t seem to pick up on it, although she records his words:
“Alex paused meditatively. ‘After my generation dies off,’ he said, ‘the Holocaust deniers will have a heyday.’
“‘Why don’t you publish the comments as a book,’ I suggested, ‘for shock value?’
“The journalist gave me a look as though he was not sure if I was joking or hopelessly naïve. He sighed and said, ‘That would only give them too much satisfaction.’”
Whatever Gringauz meant, Vince went to lengths to visit him in the United States, as she did with an informant in Latvia, so geographical limits on the available sample of testimonies is not a viable excuse for ignoring the Holocaust experience of the vast majority of Lithuanian Jews.
Vince tries to limit the book’s remit to women, but is once again forced to turn to a male witness in the case of a recently-deceased female partisan whose husband provides the poetic relief and his view that “Jew-shooters” of 1941 were excluded from and despised by post-war partisan groups. He and his wife spent most of their time alone in a bunker with little contact with other partisan groups in a very rural location, so those views might reflect at least his family’s and that of his immediate neighbors, and he does say Lithuanians murdered Jews, and even names some of the perpetrators. The other male is Alexander Gringauz, whose testimony seems intended by the author to show readers that Lithuanians saved Jews as much as they murdered them.
Vince seems more interested in romantic love stories between male and female partisans, none of which really rise to the point of being compelling or very interesting. After visiting with Veronika of the Foreign Ministry an elderly partisan courier living in rural northern Lithuania, the two women on their way home wonder how women dealt with menstruation in partisan camps. Vince says that’s something no one has ever written about, which is untrue: if she’d read very much at all about the real heroines of World War II, the Lithuanian Jewish partisans, she would have found some discussion of that, too, among a great many other matters that would have lifted her book out of the realm of the provincial and of ethnic/nationalistic self-service for a wider audience.
Any hopes of a feminist analysis are dashed in one of the first chapters, dedicated to how she retrieved her automobile shipped from America from Lithuanian customs in Klaipeda. Vince alternately laughs at and exploits the gallantry of a male customs official who decided to help her as a woman in distress. This chapter is good and does accurately portray at least a little of the daily frustrations of bureaucracy which afflict Lithuanians even now, 21 years after independence from the Soviet Union. None of the love stories in the book are anything other than standard male plus female couples encumbered by extreme circumstances, except for the “bad husband” chapter about a deportee to Tajikistan whose husband takes up with younger Tajik girls and fritters away the family’s few possessions as gifts to his lovers.
Still, the entire book is interesting because of the strong narratives of the people interviewed. The major flaw, the one no amount of editing and correction could alleviate, is Vince’s underlying lack of forthrightness about her own motivations, her refusal to consider the real and very unpleasant and unflattering and discouraging history of the Holocaust in Lithuania, and her use of selected testimonies to paint a picture of “different shades of gray,” as the Baltic proponents of moral relativism vis-à-vis the Holocaust like to say.
The penultimate chapter of the book concerns a project to recreate partisan history on film involving her brother. This is clearly a family affair. There is a final selection of appropriately grayscale photographs, including one of Laima Vince holding a rifle and playing partisan in the forest. The text in that chapter has her claiming to have always been squeamish and even snobby about guns in the United States, “coming from gun-crazy America,” but feeling “a sense of empowerment” holding the rifle in her hands.
The final chapter is her and UW visiting academic “Amanda’s” trip to a Soviet reality theme park in an underground tunnel system somewhere in the Lithuanian countryside. Vince wonders if she wouldn’t have submitted to the Soviet system after all, if she hadn’t been born in America and able to withdraw at any point.
“Amanda and I had similar Cold War era histories. She also had smuggled bibles into Lithuania while taking various Intourist tours during the Soviet years. […] As an American citizen for me the Soviet Union was just one big reality show and I could always get out if I had to.”
It would have been more intriguing if Laima Vince had asked herself how far her Lithuanian activism could have gone in June of 1941. Would she have been suckered into believing, as many apparently were, that the Lithuanian Activist Front was not purely a Nazi puppet organization, as she later was suckered into believing the paper-thin plausible deniability separating the LAF from the Provisional Government? Would she have felt empowered holding a rifle and pointing it at “enemies of the state” in 1941? Would she write later: “I felt strong. In control.”? Can she imagine herself swallowing the double-think that made Jewish infants dangerous enemy agents subject to summary execution?
She hasn’t asked herself any really difficult questions in this book. If I had to speculate, I’d guess the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry or another Double Genocide agency one way or another encouraged her to write this, and she delivered a commensurate product: a shoddy text full of all kinds of errors. But of course nationalist activists engage in this sort of misguided propaganda for free, for love of country. Back in November 2009, Ms. Vince featured prominently in an event at the Lithuanian parliament in honor of the publication of an English translation of the memoirs of a Lithuanian “forest brother,” Juozas Lukša, an alleged Holocaust perpetrator implicated in the early atrocities against the Jews of Kaunas in June of 1941. The French, German, Irish and Norwegian embassies in Vilnius were among those that refused to attend on principle.
The stories in Journey into the Backwaters are worth reading, even though the quality of the translation from Lithuanian and German remains a mystery. But the basic framework is flawed, from start to almost-finished.