O P I N I O N / E Y E W I T N E S S A C C O U N T
by Emily Sheinbaum
On a rainy London evening, Thursday the 7th of March, six protesters met at University College London (UCL), for Cassedy had come to town. Her public talk initially scheduled to take place in the Garwood lecture theatre was unexpectedly changed to the Medawar Lankester lecture theatre two days prior. People on the Hebrew department’s Institute of Jewish Studies email list were notified of the change in venue but the details were, curiously enough, not updated on UCL’s website.
Nevertheless, despite such last-minute logistical alterations, protesters against Cassedy’s book tour that is underway “in association” with the Lithuanian government met at 6:30 PM in the narrow corridor leading to the Lankester theatre. By a small table they strategically positioned themselves ready to warmly greet the 45 odd attendees who politely walked past and eagerly took handouts concerning the Lithuanian government’s recent actions since 2006, Ms. Cassedy’s association with the government, petitions, letters and book reviews.
Nervous and horrified at the welcome committee, Cassedy and Professor Berkowitz (a lecturer at UCL and coorganizer with the Lithuanian Embassy in London of the scandalous “No Simple Stories” Part Two conference in December 2012) took a leaflet and swiftly walked past. In total 63 leaflets were handed out and 40 rather large press packs, each approximately 20 pages long, and with the full text of the book reviews by Allan Nadler, Dovid Katz, Olga Zabludoff and Efraim Zuroff.
At seven sharp, handouts on desks, pens to the ready, Cassedy’s talk commenced. A talk supposedly meant to cover her journey back to Lithuania to retrace her Lithuanian roots. An eclectic mix of memories conveyed in a Mills and Boon style, coupled with a smattering of (very Americanized, vaudeville parody sort of) Yiddish, a few photos and recollections of conversations with Lithuanians she had serendipitously met in the Lithuanian woods, cloaked in Hollywoodesque sentiment were presented. The only thing the Lithuanian man’s yellow cottage with marigolds around it did not have was a yellow brick road leading to it and a rainbow. However, I forget that rainbow colored balloons were shown after pictures of current day Nazi marches in the center of Vilnius.
One thing that was particularly striking about the talk was not only its lack of historical knowledge but the inordinate amount of time that Ms. Cassedy devoted to not talking about her actual personal journey to Lithuania but addressing all the various issues campaigners have been asking the Lithuanian government to address in recent years. As if PR for the government is the underlying purpose, as some reviewers had felt was the case with parts of her book. Photos of the Tuskulėnai Peace Park were shown and she admitted that it was a “sad place” for there lay the bones of many people, “difficult to identify who,” not mentioning once though that the Tuskulėnai Peace Park had had, only last year, thousands of dollars pumped into it by the Lithuanian government to glorify hundreds of Jew shooters. Pictures of Nazi marches on Independence Day were shown and swiftly afterwards photos of “wacky” people carrying brightly colored balloons at a tolerance march. What were they tolerating? The neo-Nazi marches?
The reburial of Juozas Ambrazevičius Brazaitis by the Lithuanian government little over half a year ago? This was actually mentioned by Cassedy. Ambrazevičius Brazaitis was the puppet prime minister who was responsible for signing the order the Germans gave for Jews of his city, Kaunas (Kovno) to be sent to a concentration camp (it was actually a torture and murder camp), and a few weeks later signed another ordering all of Kovno’s Jews to be locked up in the ghetto within four weeks.
However, in the same breath Cassedy spoke of all the kind people who are involved in admirable initiatives today. They apparently ask Lithuanians important questions, they ask them to engage with their Jewish past and in so doing hope to create an “active civil society” that is intolerant of “intolerance of tolerance … and stops future genocides.” But perhaps the most interesting admission was that concerning the Lithuanian government’s criminalization of Holocaust survivors. Not easy to justify something like that but Cassedy attempted to find a way. Apparently it was “not good” that they had been criminalized and it “was good” that campaigners (who?) had placed pressure on the government and apparently all was “well now” and no worries about the permanent defamation of heroic individuals and distortion of history on the internet, and in books and journals?
Question time arrived and in the interest of free speech the six protesters allowed others to ask questions first. At the fourth question, Irena Fick diplomatically asked Cassedy what she thought of Holocaust survivors such as Yitzhak Arad, the former director of Yad Vashem and Joseph Melamed, head of the major survivor organization of Lithuanian Jewry, two survivors who like Margolis and Brantsovsky were effectively criminalized by the Lithuanian government’s “pre-trial investigations” (Arad in 2006, Melamed in 2011; the campaign against Brantsovsky and Margolis started in 2008).
True to form, Cassedy bemoaned the fact that this had happened, and concluded that despite this having occurred all was now terrific. At this juncture Monica Lowenberg contradicted the speaker: “That is not true, Ms. Cassedy, that truly is not the case, no public apologies have been given, these elderly people are still defamed as war criminals at home and on the web.” Ms. Lowenberg, as fate would have it, was prevented by Dr. Berkowitz from reading out her international petition, signed also by a number of Holocaust survivors, for a five-minute slot at the December conference. But now poetic justice had come into things, and suddenly, anxious to let the sounds of silence reign, Berkowitz abruptly concluded the evening and question time was no more.
Throughout the 50 minute talk many of the attendees read with great interest the handouts, some from cover to cover.
On reflection perhaps the only genuine statement uttered throughout the entire talk would be Cassedy’s admission that her uncle had been part of the Jewish police in the Shavl (Šiauliai) ghetto. Cassedy was correct in stating that one should not judge him, his position as a Jew at such a time must have been terrible and the man over the years had kept his integrity by never denying his role, never diminishing it, never justifying it, simply accepting that that had been the case. How tragic that his niece had not learnt anything from his example. Unable to cope with the realities that the Holocaust inflicted on the individual then and now, Cassedy opts for a supposedly postmodern world where in the spirit of “tolerance” one is asked to not judge but ask questions, ask questions to a degree where Hollywood meets history. Questions become answers and the lines of reality blur to the point where wishful thinking becomes reality and fact fiction.
No longer is there a divide between perpetrators and victims and collaborators are demoted to being mere “bystanders.” In this red-brown fog which is supposedly meant to help Lithuanians forge a brighter future for themselves, a fog (and a future) based on gross historical inaccuracies and deception, all I could think of by the end of the talk was a song (melody follows Gene Pitney’s “Liberty Valance”). For when in Hollywood…
- A rainy evening in London Town
- T’was when Cassedy came around
- Had me low and had me down
- I viewed the morning with alarm
- UCL had lost its charm
- How long, I wondered, could this thing last?
- But the age of miracles hadn’t passed,
- For, suddenly, I saw that all the handouts had gone
- Cassedy had sold three books and she was done
- And through rainy London Town
- The moon shone everywhere.
Perhaps a competition will now be launched for the best Yiddish translation and music?
The six protesters at UCL on March 7th were: Sarah Cochrane, Irena Fick, Nicole Forbes, Monica Lowenberg, Ian Marshall, and Emma Stock.