by Peter Jukes
The following review of Laima Vince’s Journeys through the Backwaters of the Heart originally appeared in Aspen Review (Dec. 2013). The review is now republished here by permission of Peter Jukes, whose latest book is The Fall of the House of Murdoch.
Ms. Vince’s Journeys was also reviewed in Defending History by Geoff Vasil.
While filming a re-enactment of a battle between Lithuanian nationalists and their Soviet- backed NKVD persecutors, Jonas Kadzionis (a survivor of the “Forest Brothers” partisans) warned the author Laima Vince: “Don’t get lost in the forest, and don’t lose your conscience.”
Unfortunately, in her book Journeys through the Backwaters of the Heart Vince has managed to do both.
There are few more treacherous journeys in history than through the forests and cities that Tim Snyder charted in his book Bloodlands: that triangle of land from Eastern Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states which was multiply ravaged by Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany from the mid-thirties to the early fifties, during which at least fourteen million civilians died.
With initially admirable intentions and some affecting narratives, Vince tries to navigate a personal path through wartime Lithuania, concentrating on the “stories of women who survived Hitler and Stalin”. In her apparently random encounters, it’s the emotional connections and recommendations that form of the bulk of the historiography.
But are the voices representative? And though poignant and heartfelt, are the fading recollections of those in their 80s and 90s the same as historical facts?
In at least one instance, the book ends up romanticizing a Lithuanian resistance leader who has been accused of participating in one of the most notorious pogroms in Kaunas in June 1941, when thousands of Jewish civilians were killed by Lithuanian nationalists in the days before the Germans had set up their administration.
Much of the book is uncontentious, and serves as a well-timed reminder of what happened to individual Lithuanians who suffered three rapid invasions: the USSR’s annexation of the country in June 1940 as a Soviet republic; the German invasion of 1941 to free them from “Bolshevik bondage”; and then the return of the Soviets in 1944. By then, around 96 per cent of Lithuania’s long-established Jewish population had been annihilated, the highest percentage of any European country during the Holocaust.
Though Lithuania ended up being enlarged as result of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (the city of Vilnius was transferred from Polish control) the Stalinist terror played out with terrible but familiar logic. As with the Katyn massacres, Stalin was determined to liquidate senior Lithuanian officials, intellectuals or professionals who could lead some kind of opposition. Vince claims that at least a quarter of those executed and deported in 1939 were Jewish (though this probably relates to Vilnius) and maintains that, during the next decade or so, a third of Lithuania’s population would be killed, imprisoned, dispossessed or deported. These are hard numbers to verify, unless they include all the victims of farm collectivization. But there’s little doubt that Lithuanian society suffered in Stalin’s attempt to create a “Homo Sovieticus,” shot through with a Russian-centric form of “ethnic cleansing”: the widespread terror and dislocation being the main reason Hitler’s invading troops were welcomed at the outset of Barbarossa.
An early target of the NKVD were elementary and high schoolteachers who defiantly sang the national anthem during the first Lithuanian Soviet Teachers’ congress in 1940. Within days, teachers and their families were arrested and sent – in summer clothes and no supplies – to exile in the remote Artic wastes around the Laptev Sea where a large number perished. Ryte Merkyte was a child of this mass deportation. Though her father died of starvation, Ryte refuses to cling to resentment or a victim mentality. “Your body can barely hold on,” Ryte told Vince: “so you gather all your strength and focus on one thing – to live. You throw away all the negative emotions, all the anger, the hurt, the jealousy.”
That women figure largely in Vince’s narrative is partly because, as partisan Jonas Kadzionis observed “When times are hard, women are stronger.” Like Anna Akhmatova outside prison in her poem Requiem, women had the duty to care, bear witness, and survive. Whether hiding anti-Soviet partisans, or acting as emissaries and message bearers, Lithuanian women suffered torture, deportation, and up to 25 years hard labor in the Gulag, but they were also less likely than the men to be shot in the forest, and buried in some unmarked grave.
Many of the stories Vince has collected are compelling and vivid. Eleonara who spent six months with her Green Partisan husband Bronius before he was killed (“After that time, we only spoke in dreams”), she was arrested, and tortured for months – on one occasion by being locked in a tiny cubicle with hundreds of hungry white rats. Or Grazina, who saw her father disappear into the forest, and still dreams he will emerge from the trees one day, although she knows he was buried in the swamps. Or Konstancija, who was rewarded for rescuing two Jewish children from the Shoah by being deported to a gulag, we are told, on the principle: “If you resisted the Germans, you will resist us too.” Or the cardiologist Laima, who was deported to Siberia twice, and then targeted in a KGB “romeo trap” by her lover, Ayas, who betrayed and denounced, and literally broke her heart.
With these memorable personal accounts of resistance and survival, there’s little doubt that these women kept alive stories of national pride and personal independence long after the military struggle for Lithuanian autonomy had collapsed. But how accurate are the wider claims? How many of these self-sustaining narratives have become self-serving since independence? And has history become the ultimate victim of the myth of national sacrifice?
Nearly all Vince’s interviewees describe the pre-War Lithuanian state in tolerant terms, where there was no ethnic tension between the various Lithuanian, Polish, and Lithuanian, Jewish, Russian and German minorities. Paulina Zingeriene, who survived both the notorious Kovno (Kaunas) ghetto and the SS Death Marches says “I did not experience antisemitism personally before the war.” Juliana Zarchi, born to a German mother and a Jewish father, also managed to survive Kaunas ghetto, and rushed out to greet the incoming Soviet troops in April 1944 only to be deported to Kazakhstan as an “enemy of the state” even though she was only seven years old: “First I was hated for being a Jew, now I’m hated for being German.”
“I hate ideas,” Zarchi laments to Vince; “I hate idealism. Where there are ideas there is no space for the human, for the individual.” Zingeriene also finds the hatred inexplicable: “You can analyse the war for a million years,” she says “and you will never be able to make sense out of what happened to the Jews, to the Lithuanians, to the Russians.”
Herein lies the problem. Zingeriene’s equation of the persecution of Lithuanian’s and Jews – the Double Genocide premise – risks a glaring false equivalence. There are virtually no Jews left across the entire swathe of these Eastern borderlands, where abandoned synagogues and neglected graveyards show they were once very populous. And the attitude of mystification risks obfuscation. Just as the Former Yugoslavia in the nineties, portraying the carnage of the bloodlands as some irrational explosion of ancient ethnic rivalries obscures the real perpetrators: imperial powers with carefully prepared programs of expansion. But on this, the Soviets and Nazis differed. Stalin used mass killing as a means to subjugate and dominate the populations of Europe. For Hitler extermination was an end rather than a means. Following on from his final solution, he planned to destroy the Slavs through a “hunger plan” and thereby clear the bloodlands for German colonization.
Accuracy about this past is not just a historical question, but still relevant to judicial inquiries and criminal investigations (though not in Lithuania where war crimes trials have been few and far between). While modern day Germany has largely extirpated the psychopathology of national victimhood through the courts and documentary inquiry, the Lithuanian past – on the evidence of this book – still seems mired in sentiment, nostalgia and tragic myth.
Published by Amazon, Vince’s book has not been edited, and retains many typos. More worrying, it gets many key dates are patently wrong. Sloppy chronology might not matter in normal books of reminiscence, but on the contentious terrain of the bloodlands a lack of fact-checking can be fatal. At one point one of Vince’s interviewee’s claims that while 7,000 Lithuanians were involved in the killing of Jews during the war, another 7,000 ran to their rescue [The verified Yad Vashem number is 871 —Ed]. There’s no footnote or questioning of this assertion. A convenient statement is allowed to stand as an unquestioned truth.
And so we come to the most shocking misdirections of all — where emotion and affection leads to a form of Holocaust apology, if not outright denial.
One of the most lengthy interviews is with Nijole Brazenaire, who was married to the “resistance hero” Juozas Lukša. Photos of the handsome couple honeymooning in occupied Germany dominate the central part of her book. The couple escaped from the Russian re-invasion before Lukša was smuggled back into Lithuania as part of a CIA plan to discover Soviet plans for attack. From there Lukša writes long letters to Nijole in which he declares he loves her more than anything in the world — except his homeland. After hiding out in a bunker in the house of Eleonara (see above) Lukša is betrayed and shot by the NKVD in 1951. His grave has never been found. Sixty years his widow Nijole declares: “Every day when I awake my first thoughts are about him.”
It’s an affecting love story, especially as the book also follows a fruitless attempt to find the last resting place of this “national hero”.
It’s also a complete whitewash.
Lukša was undeniably an active member of the Lithuanian Action Front which instigated pogroms and mass killing of Jews in late June 1941, before the Nazi troops had arrived or taken control. He is accused of being one of the ring leaders of the Lietukis Garage massacre in Kaunas where, in front of a large cheering audience, dozens of Jews were beaten to death with irons bars, or had high pressure hoses inserted into their mouths or anuses until they died of a burst stomach or rectum. The well recorded atrocity was so shocking that several German soldiers present photographed it and complained to their senior officers. Lukša himself is accused, by the Society of Lithuanian Jews. of participating in the decapitation of Rabbi Zalmen Osovsky, whose head was placed in the shopfront window below.
For all the evocative telling, the other stories in this book are tarnished by association with this grievous oversight. If such a big allegation is omitted, what else are we missing? How reliable are those figures about Lithuanian non-collaboration with the Holocaust? How reliable are any of the other facts scattered throughout the book? The whole project becomes mired in uncertainty.
By putting sentiment above compassion, selective memory over communal record, Vince’s journey to the backwaters of the heart is soon bogged down in the morass of subjectivity, until it’s swamped by suspicions of revisionism and obfuscation.