OPINION | MUSEUMS | SHEDUVA | POLITICS OF MEMORY | SHTETL COMMEMORATIONS | HUMOR (OF SORTS)
by Evaldas Balčiūnas
Evaldas Balčiūnas informed the English speaking world of a series of state honors for alleged Holocaust collaborators, starting with Jonas Noreika back in 2012. He paid a hefty personal price for it (scroll down his DH section to 2014).
The Lost Shtetl is a massive, holistic project to reclaim the Lithuanian Jewish heritage of Šeduva (Shádeve, older Shádev). Plans include a multimillion euro state-of-the-art museum complex scheduled to open in 2020 that is slated to become an international tourist attraction. Now is an excellent time for public comment and observers’ contemplation.
“The Lost Shtetl” will not be a generic community of faceless Litvaks. It will make tangible the lives of real individuals. But will we learn about the real individuals from the town and its region who destroyed them? Their names and faces? Or will we simply tuck them away into the phrase: “The Nazis and their local collaborators murdered 664 Šeduva Jews in Liaudiškiai forest”?
That is The Lost Truth that many would avoid having to get into. How can The Lost Truth be presented so that it would not be turned away, left to shiver outside, as it wanders from door to door among the ghosts of the town? Can the truth be heard if life is absurd? I have taken pity on the truth, and dressed it in the genre of a micro play, so that we all might stay seated in our comfort zones. Please imagine that you are in a theatre. Turn off your cell phones, and pretend that what follows is fiction. The curtain rises to an absurdist micro drama.
Somewhere in Lithuania is the Lost Shtetl of Šeduva, which was recognized as a city from the year 1542. For four hundred years. Until the autumn of 1941. At which time the peasants from the neighboring villages “did the rational thing” as reported by the newspaper of the day, the Lithuanian nationalist pro-Nazi Liberated Native of Panevėžys. On August 26, the annihilation of Šeduva’s Jews was complete, and as of November 1, 1941, Šeduva was once again a village. (You can read here and here about the 1941 demise of the city of Šeduva.) What is rational here is not too clear. Even the Šiauliai Gebeitskomissar Gewecke resented that Jaeger took from Captain Senulis all of the Šeduva Jews’ valuables and left nothing for the Gebeitskomissar.
Afterwards, for seven decades Šeduva lived the life of a village or that of a dying town. It might have lived that way for longer, but in 2012 a dashing businessman in the ink industry, from Brussels (a city in northwestern Europe a thousand kilometers or so from Šeduva), decided to transform Šeduva into the Lost Shtetl and announced he had found Secret Donors to make it happen. He was soon awarded a medal from the president of Lithuania for his future museum. The team has already “rebuilt” the cemetery and has next to it begun to build the museum. But everything here is mystical and hard to comprehend. This place wreaks a higher spiritual havoc that sucks in its various characters.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
♦ Z.: A director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Has personal roots in the Lost Shtetl
♦ N.: Prime Minister of Israel. Has personal roots in the Lost Shtetl.
♦ Leaders of the Republic of Lithuania: The names keep changing, the policies don’t.
♦ Lithuanian historians: Top specialists who can reliably execute any order from the Leaders of the Republic of Lithuania.
♦ Jews who used to live in the Lost Shtetl: Conveniently silent and buried far off in the forest.
♦ Izidorius Pucevičius, a.k.a. Radvila: At some point did some things in the Lost Shtetl. And: Posthumously awarded the title of Mayor, a State Medal, and an Order of Honor by the Leaders of the Republic of Lithuania.
♦ Inconvenient Witness: Accused of taking part in a massacre of Jews in the Lost Shtetl. Put on trial and shot by Soviet authorities after the war.
AT SUNRISE: The action is hazy and hard to understand.
Z. (Hears of N.’s visit to Lithuania and starts writing). Writes something.
N. (Comes to the Jerusalem of Lithuania, visits the Paneriai Memorial at the mass graves of Ponár outside Vilnius, gives a speech at the Vilnius Choral Synagogue. The visit is an exciting moment, just like this one).
JEWS WHO USED TO LIVE IN THE LOST SHTETL: (They continue lying in huge, horrible pits. Perhaps they say something. But N. and the Leaders of the Republic of Lithuania don’t hear them.)
N. (Immersed in the worries of the state of Israel.)
LEADERS OF THE REPUBLIC OF LITHUANIA (They solemnly commemorate IZIDORIUS PUCEVIČIUS-RADVILA.)
LITHUANIAN HISTORIANS (They try to prove that PUCEVIČIUS didn’t harm any Jews, and what’s more, he even took part in trying to save them.)
INCONVENIENT WITNESS reads Feliksas Švėgžda’s testimony from the Lithuanian Central State Archives, f. 3377, a. 55, b. 156, pages 153-154, on the expulsion of Šeduva’s Jews to the ghetto in 1941.
Those gathered were guarded by 20 to 25 armed people, including myself. Our leaders PUTEVIČIUS AND URBANAS directed us towards the airfield, where we drove the people.
Neither N., nor the LEADERS OF THE REPUBLIC OF LITHUANIA, nor LITHUANIAN HISTORIANS listen to the INCONVENIENT WITNESS. To be fair, they don’t listen to Z., either.
The Lost Shtetl is busy with the construction of a massive museum complex. It seems that there will be no spot for the INCONVENIENT WITNESS there. He’s lost, just like the Shtetl.
P.S. The drama is nothing but fiction. Although similar events–as our bosses used to say during Soviet times —”still do take place”.
June 25th 1941 — The Nazis occupy Šeduva.
July 22nd 1941 — Šeduva’s Jews are driven into the ghetto.
August 25th 1941 — The city’s 665 Jews are murdered in Liaudiškiai forest. But a few of the Jewish families of volunteers in the War of Independence in 1918 are “allowed” to live, under the condition that they abandon their Jewishness and get baptized. The residents of Šeduva and its vicinity observe the public baptism at the church. A couple of weeks later those baptized are driven to Panevėžys and also shot dead, like all their unbaptized brethren who were not “saved by baptism” for having volunteered over two decades earlier to fight in the nation’s War of Independence. The only one who survived was S. Nolienė, who was hidden by the priest M. Karosas.
The shooters shared amongst themselves the Jews’ property. In their testimony they don’t know the names of the Jews they shot, but they recall in exquisite detail the property they got for their work and which Jews had owned. The Germans actually bickered over the Jews’ valuables. On pages 517-518 is Šiauliai Gebeitskomissar Gewecke’s complaint “To the Reich Commissar for the Eastland” where he complains that “A Captain Stasys Senulis, residing in Schadow, Ponnewesch district, appeared today at the office of the Regional Commissariat in Schaulen, stating that he had been ordered by SS Colonel Jaeger to seize all silver and gold articles of Jewish ownership”.
On visiting Šeduva one finds “the old Jewish cemetery of Šeduva” with newly built tombstones and an enclosure, in the shape of the Star of David full of broken shards of monuments, a symbol that vandals once ravaged or perhaps still ravage. The museum complex is being built beside the cemetery. It’s unclear who will be let into that museum. Z. and the Inconvenient Witness? N.? Lithuanian Historians? Near Šeduva there still are the depressing pits where the Jews who lived here came to “rest”. Alongside them stand artistic monuments, which look pretty, but they don’t make that place any less horrendous. Death is impossible to adorn.
What the Lost Shtetl’s web page writes about itself does not add clarity. One can, however, see how the cemetery changed from 2013 to 2016. Thus Šeduva was lost, which Jews had made over hundreds over years. And Šeduva is what they made. However interesting and prominent the museum that is being built, may be, much will depend on the prominence accorded the voice of The Inconvenient Witness.
That which has already been done shows a great concern for remembrance, but there remains the anxiety over whether in all this concern something important has not been forgotten. It readily brings to mind state efforts ever “to rebuild” something which was lost many years ago.
There is this theory that nationalism constructs and changes reality through schools, museums and the national census. The questions remain open as to what have we learned from this story, what will we find in the museum, and whether we will discover signs of Jewish life in a future national census.
Remembering Elena Rimdžiūtė, the town’s last Yiddish speaker and her words about the Holocaust
Questions from the Editors:
Does the new Museum of the Lost Shtetl have a representative number of staff members from modern Lithuania’s living Jewish community? Three thousand people is a modest number for a national minority, but it is not zero.
Or, will it be akin to a Museum of African-American Heritage in Alabama without a single Afro-American staff member? A Museum of Apartheid in South Africa with no Black African staff members, just lily-whites?
Is there a fear of what Lithuanian Jewish staff members might tell visitors about the Holocaust in Sheduva and hundreds of other towns? About the violence before the first German soldiers arrived? About who killed the Jews of Sheduva (list of local perpetrators)? About the LAF Jew killers still being honored in local schools and museums as “heroes”? About the Double Genocide Holocaust revisionism taught and propagated? About other real Lithuanian-Jewish issues that Jews and Lithuanians are so splendidly able to discuss in person nowadays in a spirit of openness and friendship and reconciliation? Surely each of these difficult issues needs to be presented openly and prominently in any honest new museum on ground zero of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe.
Care must be taken to avert what is worse than just a museum of lost truth: a Judenrein Museum of the Lost Truth. . .