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Lituanie Juive 1918-1940 by Yves Plasseraud and Henri Minczeles

Editors Yves Plasseraud and Henri Minczeles devoted themselves to restore an almost forgotten and nearly perished culture to its full historical glory, through its survivors' memories and reflections: the culture of Litvakia.
By Joost van Beek, March 2000

LITUANIE JUIVE 1918-1940. Message d’un monde englouti.
Dirigé par Yves Plasseraud et Henri Minczeles,
1996, Éditions Autrement (Collection Mémoires no 44), Paris
286 pp. Photographs, bibliography, and glossary.
130 FF. ISBN 2-86260-617-0

Editors Yves Plasseraud and Henri Minczeles assigned themselves an admirable but exhaustive mission when they started to compile Lituanie Juive 1918-1940. They devoted themselves to restore, for one more time, an almost forgotten and nearly perished culture to its full historical glory, through its survivors memories and reflections: the culture of Litvakia.

Now Litvakia, of course, is a country which has never appeared on any map. In fact, it’s never been a country in any accepted sense of the word. It is, or rather was, a cultural realm. The name designates the world in which the Jews of Vilnius, of Kaunas, of Grodno, Bialystok, Riga, and Minsk lived and worked, during the centuries they constituted an important minority in the region. Although there are still a few Jews living in Vilnius now, the Litvak centuries lasted essentially from about 1300 to the time of the Holocaust. That dramatic annihilation of a people and a culture de facto ended the era of Jewish influence in the region and scattered the survivors over many continents.

The above-mentioned notion of Litvakia, of a cultural specificity and unity of the Jews of this region,constitutes the basic premise of the book. Borders shifted and authorities imposed themselves, but this community of Jews had, in all its paradoxes and antagonisms, a certain sense of common identity and destiny. In fact, Henri Minczeles goes so far as to suggest the Litvaks were - in their way - a kind of nation: "Litvakia - that is a collective soul, a profound desire to be who one is, to have wrought great things together and to achieve new ones, a bit in the way Ernest Renan expressed it when he spoke of peoples and nations." (p.269).

Whether or not the Jews of this domain - roughly that of the historical Lithuanian Grand Duchy’s heartland - constituted in any arguable way a nation or not - their culture was in any case a characteristic one - and a flourishing one.

Vilnius, present capitol of Lithuania, was celebrated,before the Second World War, as the Jerusalem of the North. As the main focus of Litvak culture it was all but wiped out in the Holocaust, and its realities can now be evocated only through the (auto)biographies of those who lived in and with it - and many such impressions can be found in this book.

The Message of a Submerged Past

Lituanie Juive appeared in 1996, and was published in the Collection M’moires of a respected Parisian publishing house. The topic it presents may seem rather academic. What is the relevance of researching a culture whose main representatives are largely forgotten now, and which, to all appearances, has left very few discernible traces of its existence in the present time? Why present its case? The editors and authors, in any case, were obviously inspired by different, more or less unconnected,motivations. In the first place, the editors make the case that Litvak culture was a significant part of European cultural development, that its contribution to European civilisation was an essential one, and that many of its representatives and achievements are still of fundamental interest to the present world. This argument is sometimes somewhat laborious - the writers, painters and thinkers that were Vilnius’ pride in 1910 or 1930 are commemorated vividly enough to provoke the readers’ interest; but no more so than those of other realms could have been and with no specific urgent relevancy for today’s dilemmas.

In the second place, the book is, of course, a sentimental journey. It obviously targets a readership of exiles and survivors and their offspring, people who will revel in the evocative memories and photographs presented here, and who will be comforted and flattered by the appreciation bestowed on their culture in the book. This aspect of the book,although the editors have expressly tried to avoid the effect, sometimes adds a dilettantist flavour to the book,but it also enriches it with a personal touch of real life experience.

Thirdly, the book is of some interest to today’s historians,sociologists, and anthropologists when they do research on the Baltics or even on Central Europe. It will give them some idea of not just the luggage of history today’s inhabitants carry with them, but will also present them with the flavour of ethno-cultural variety, the intertwinedness of personal destinies, and the almost physical presence of an oppressive History, that so determine societal life in Central and Eastern Europe. I honestly believe that one cannot understand today’s Lithuania if one doesn’t know about the Jews who used to live there in such large numbers, as I think many Balts’ preoccupation with the subject reconfirms - just like one cannot truly understand today’s England when unaware of the Empire over which it used to preside.

But, perhaps, most importantly - it is important to invoke the Litvak culture exactly because it no longer exists. Only by acquiring some awareness of what cultural richness was lost can one fully appreciate the destruction wrought by the Holocaust (and, one should add, by the subsequent almost complete eradication of whatever was still left by Soviet power).

The book sets about this four-dimensional task in five parts. To indicate here what they are essentially about before detailing to some greater length the main arguments they respectively present, the book, necessarily, begins with the end: World War Two and the Holocaust. In "The Catastrophe," Yves Plasseraud describes its prologue, the terrors of genocide, and their aftermath. A later chapter expounds on the problems of interpretation and perspective when dealing with what happened. Interestingly, there’s not only a rift between Jewish and Lithuanian historians and witnesses, but among Jews themselves as well. Both when defining the ethnic Lithuanians’ responsibility and when reviewing the Soviet legacy in the matter, the positions taken by the Jews who remained in the Soviet Union and the survivors who opted for a new life in Israel or the West diverge widely.

Part one proper then tackles the definition of the Litvak "espace de civilisation." It was in the early days of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy (1251-1772) that the Jews came to these parts, and that the parameters of their social position were established. Lithuania’s then-ruling families had a special relationship with the Jewish community and the (relatively) safe haven they created has shaped the preconditions for the later flowering of Jewish community life. Ugn’ Karvelis, presently Lithuanian ambassador to UNESCO, predictably (but probably rightly) provides the overall favorable overview. Concentrating on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Plasseraud and Odile Suganas then in the two subsequent chapters attempt a global impression of what daily life in the cities and shtetls was like for the Jews, and what aspects specifically characterized Litvak Judaism.

In part two the editors meet up with some respected community leaders who stayed behind in Lithuania and converse with them about their memories of youth, war, and Soviet rule ("Keys to a Shattered Mosaic"). Part three ("Litvak Utopias and Realities") focuses on the different strands of thought that marked Jewish society in the first half of this century: socialism, Zionism, folkism - each having its own schools and institutions, each basically in modernist opposition to the majoritarian traditionalism. In "A Desperate Fight" former partisan Dov Levin recounts the active resistance many Jews put up to Nazi rule.

Lastly, part four ("The Litvak Heritage") reviews the importance of such contrasting Litvaks as the Gaon of Vilna, Emmanuel L’vinas, Mo’she Kulbak, and the poets of Yung Vilne, and (often ultimately Paris-bound) artists like Lipchitz, Pen, Zadkine, El Lissitsky, and, notably, Chagall. (And lets not forget that Israeli president Chaim Weizmann and former prime minister Shimon Peres as well as the late South African communist leader Joe Slovo also all hail from this particular background). It also attempts to define what exactly constitutes Litvakia’s cultural heritage at present, what influence it has wielded, and how it is felt in the many places of the Diaspora.

The Origins of the Jewish "Status Aparte"

The twenty contributions reflect a broad gamut of approaches. In fact, the only thing awkwardly missing is some kind of statistical annex, noting the demographic details through the ages. But two distinct general perspectives can be identified. The one perspective depicts the life and times of the Jewish community as something wholly autonomous from the goings-on in the societies that surrounded it. The other, on the other hand, illustrates Jewish cultural developments through their cultural-political contexts, emphasizing their dependence on the political transformations taking place and the decisive influences of the surrounding cultural-intellectual trends.

To a large extent, the Jewish community was indeed an autonomous one, the quite far-reaching self-government granted to it by the Lithuanian authorities of yore having been upheld to a certain degree by successive governments. It was definitely largely socially self-supporting,especially in cities, where contacts with Gentiles were mainly restricted to the market place. "The paradoxical and incredible resided in the fact that Jews and Gentiles cohabited, but did not interact," writes Odile Suganas (p.80). As anti-Semitism rose, the Jews had little to expect from the Gentile communities, and also seemed to desire little from it. Thus,in the local dimension, it was a rather introspective community.

That point is not uncontested though. The historians among the authors differentiate in this respect between the various timespans, noting various degrees of community interaction through the ages. Thus Ugn’ Karvelis describes how in the times of the grand duchy, the economic spheres to which Jewish enterprise was limited expanded or shrinked in rather volatile ways, depending on the whims of the sovereign and the actual power balance, and how thus interethnic interaction fluctuated equally widely.

In fact, in the early years of the Jews settlement in the grand duchy of Lithuania, they were a relatively privileged group, compared to Jews elsewhere and even, in some respects, to the locals. In a modernisation drive aimed to introduce commerce and craftmanship to the then largely agricultural country, both grand duke Gediminas (1316-1341) and Vytautas (the Great) (1392-1430) had started to lure foreigners by offering them extensive tax breaks. The Jews who had started settling in the region during that time were, moreover, allowed to purchase and cultivate land (unlike Poles), and they enjoyed the personal protection of the grand duke. Jews fell outside the jurisdiction of the usually hostile local courts, being under the authority of the grand dukes governors instead. It was expressly forbidden to accuse a Jew of committing ritual crimes - the accusation being a chief provocation of anti-Jewish aggression. The community was accorded complete autonomy regarding internal affairs, and over the years a system of self-government with appropriate judicial, religious and social authorities developed.

Of course all this was not done out of charity: Vytautas considered the Jews, as well as other city dwellers, as allies against the noblemen in his Peter the Great-like aspiration to economically develop and politically centralise his country. Yet the privileges accorded by him set the basic conditions for Jewish life for as long as the grand duchy existed, although conditions became more difficult after the Union of Lublin (1569), when Polish demands were to be met. Before that time, in a country where the Catholic Church had had little chance to take root, the Jews had profited also from the absence of clerical anti-Semitism, and from the great social mobility in an essentially non-feudal society. In fact, most of the perils the grand ducal protection warded off arose from the tensions between the Jews and the other, non-Lithuanian, city dwellers - Germans, Russians and Poles.

The administrative autonomy proved to be the more lasting of the Vytautas-era achievements. Freedom of commerce and even freedom of movement however were often retracted. Sometimes the Jews were limited to life in ghettos and to the trades that Christians did not exercise. An absolute low had ensued in 1495, when grand duke Alexander expelled the entire community from the country. This exile lasted only seven years but demonstrated the disadvantages of relying wholly on the sovereign’s authority. Another low ensued in 1655, when Chmielnicki’s Cossacks massacred Vilnius’ Jews. The conditions might have been relatively favorable, but the Jews safety was always precarious.

The Union of Lublin seemed to introduce a Polish-style institutionalized anti-Semitism to the country, even when most of the anti-Semitic laws introduced in subsequent years remained "dead letters" in the Lithuanian lands. When discriminatory legislation made life particularly hard for the Jews in the eighteenth century, many moved "to the countryside, where the environment was less hostile" (p.51)- which might be read as to suggest a certain harmony and interaction between Jews and Lithuanian peasants. Paradoxically, modernisation ended up stimulating Lithuanian anti-Semitism. Urbanisation involved many Lithuanians setting up shop in town - in professions previously ethnicized. The different ethnic groups thus became rivals (p.62, 86). Modernity also instigated the rise of a national awareness among the Lithuanians and with it a resentment of the Germans, Jews, and Russians populating the main cities.With the growing interdependence of the different groups in society, and especially with the advent of independence and a degree of formal democracy in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland after 1918, the Jews also became much more visible,and therefore, vulnerable.

Modernity and Pluriformity

Another way the Jewish community became more visible was through the transformations it was undergoing itself. It was growing: by 1897, 40% of the urban population (350,000 in number) of the North West Region comprising Lithuania and Byelorussia was Jewish. But it was also changing. Halfway through the nineteenth century a certain cultural assimilation started to make itself felt. Under the influence of the Haskala movement, a Jewish movement promoting the cause of modernisation and Enlightenment, "tradition started to weigh upon the young, who dreamt of emancipation" (p.65). Some of the restive young emigrated, of course, but the Haskala did change the intellectual framework, and a plurality of ideologies and movements started to compete in an increasingly vivid cultural-political arena come the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. In fact, it was only with this modernisation that the Jews started to seriously involve themselves with politics. The traditional ways of the community were increasingly on the defense as Zionists,Bundists and Folkists successfully organized themselves.

The development of the Jewish school system showcased the intellectual trends of the community. The traditional Jewish education was that of the Heder. The teacher, also headmaster, taught small groups of children at his own home.Strict discipline was upheld: "fear of the teacher was taught as symbolically preceding the fear of God" (p.134). The emerging secular movements challenged this system by setting up their own educational institutions. The Bund, the Jewish socialist movement, more or less sponsored the Tsentrale Yiddishe Shul Organisatsie (or CYSZO), while a rivalling school system was set up by a Zionist organisation, the Tarbut. Both offered modern education,with professional teachers, from kindergarten to higher education. The CYSZO schools in particular led the way in introducing modern pedagogical insights, where physical punishment was forbidden, parents’ councils were set up,schools had their own libraries and pupils their own newspapers. Whereas in these schools instruction was in Yiddish, the Tarbut schools opted for a mix of modern Hebrew and Polish.

The traditional Jews, united in the Agudes Yisroel party,considered Jewishness to be a religious issue, and were both anti-Zionist and anti-socialist. The Bundists preferred to perceive being Jewish as a cultural thing, and thus encouraged the revival of a East-European Yiddish-language culture. Championing the Palestinian cause, the Zionists considered, on the other hand, modern Hebrew to be the language that would unite world Jewry. Tarbut schools also often had their own plots of land, so as to prepare the pupils for the agricultural life of Palestine. Zionism was particularly strong in both Poland and Lithuania - there were nine times as many organised Zionists in Lithuania as in Hungary. Litvak Zionism had its focus in Bialystok, while Vilnius was the centre of Yiddish culture. In the interbellum period both Tarbut and CYSZO schools attracted about a quarter of the local pupils, but most of the cities’ poor still went to the traditional schools. These had themselves now been forced to modernise, and a completely new system of traditional education for girls was set up,adopting some of the modern pedagogical notions.

With even the choice of education determined by ideology,the different currents of thought in the Jewish community actually seemed to create separate, almost family-like,subcommunities. The CYSZO, for example, even organized holiday colonies for the poor children. Politics had suddenly become all-encompassing, which definitely contributed to the vibrancy and volatility of the intellectual life of the time, a volatility increased by the emergence of a revolutionary movement on the left.

Since the 1870s the revolutionary left had lost much of its influence, but World War One and the Bolshevik take-over of power in Russia changed the context dramatically. While the Bund gradually became the foremost political force, winning the 1939 Vilnius local elections, the neighbouring Soviet power, although it had immediately repressed Jewish socialist politics in its own country, inspired groups on the left fringe to mobilize. These Bolsheviks and others increasingly profited from the growing impoverishment among the Jewish workers and artisans. They differed sharply from the other parties not just by their revolutionary politics but also because they actually preached full assimilation - in the future worker’s state. Unnerved by the left’s militancy, the Polish and Lithuanian authorities preferred,on the whole, to deal with the conservative community leaders of Agudes Yisroel.

Thus the detrimental stereotypes of the Jewish minority gained a curious duality. To the traditional contempt of the Jewish community as backward and uncivilized - a contempt to some extent comparable to today’s aversion of Roma - was added a fear of the radical, modern Jew who was organizing and conspiring to betray the country. That was just one way in which the Jewish modernisation/integration drive actually often worked against the Jews when Jewish-Lithuanian relations are considered. Due to the circumstances, it had after all rarely been Lithuanian national culture they had integrated with.

Trends of Integration and Alienation

Different integration tendencies could be observed,depending on social status and place of residence. Apart from the few Jews who set their hopes on a future integration in Soviet society, integration tendencies among the proletariat were nipped in the bud as economic conditions worsened from the 1880s onwards. The impoverishment of the cities’ workers and artisans deepened after 1918, as nationalist economic boycotts weakened their position in an increasingly overcrowded market, and the closing off of the borders both between Poland and Lithuania, and between the Soviet Union and the rest, cut off access to essential markets. All this increased the isolation of the proletarian Jews in the respective nation-states, overburdening the well-established system of community care. Thus tendencies to integration and emancipation were mainly confined to the better-off.

In Bialystok, the local bourgeoisie set up Jewish schools which adopted the Polish school curriculum, in order to better their offspring’s prospects. In Vilnius, too, Polish was more likely to be a family’s second or third language than Lithuanian. One must realize that before the second world war the Lithuanians were only a negligible minority in the town. Usually, though, it wasn’t Polish but rather Russian that Litvak Jews turned to when they looked beyond the own community. For 120 years, it was Russian language and culture that seemed to offer the best opportunities for social mobility, even when those opportunities were, for Jews in the Russian Empire, by nature very small.

A classic example is how Yehuda Pen, the painter, resided illegally,as Jews were officially not allowed to, in St. Petersburg - to there succeed in gaining entry to the prestigious imperial art academy - just like Chagall would later. During those decades that the Litvak community changed so radically, it was provided with new ideas and notions by Petersburg intellectuals. Even the Haskala itself was introduced via the Russian Jews. Numerous therefore are the examples of Russified Litvak intellectuals: filmmaker Dziga Vertov and Lejzer Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, were two who simply declared themselves to be Russian. Apart from Russian, there was even a part of the population who preferred to learn French rather than Lithuanian, both because the Russian intelligentsia tended to speak French as well and because by the Thirties, there was a significant Litvak Diaspora in Paris, with which close ties were maintained (p.259). French newspapers were available in Vilnius and a number of Jewish families sent their children to study in Paris.

Compared to those alternatives, an orientation on Lithuanian culture seemed to offer few advantages. Before World War One the Lithuanians themselves were marginalized when it came to political or economical power, and their social status in the Russian Empire was as low as that of the Jewish community itself. After 1918, when the Lithuanian state was established, it didn’t include the city of Vilnius, center of Jewish culture, and many of the Jews who did find themselves in its confines decided to adopt a wait-and-see attitude, skeptical about how enduring this new political order would prove to be.

There were remarkable exceptions to this rule however. Even before the First World War, some Jews supported the Lithuanian drive for independence. Apzvalga, published by Lithuanian Jews targeting a Jewish readership, was a Lithuanian-language newspaper backing the cause of Lithuanian independence. And in Lituanie Juive Philo Bregstein recalls the fate of his uncle, Moshe Bregsteinas,who in 1918 became president of the Association of Jewish Fighters for Lithuania. In 1941 he was among the Lithuanians deported to the Gulag eight days before the German troops arrived, and survived nine years of the camps just to be restricted from returning to Lithuania afterwards.

Whether oriented on Russia, Poland or Lithuania, on the whole, however, the tendency to open up to the outside world in the first decades of this century was one more of intellectual influence than of social interaction. The elite had absorbed much of the literary and political developments, but had hardly socially integrated in the wider intellectual or artistic community, and, of course, considering the widespread anti-Semitism, had had little chance to. The masses of impoverished workers and artisans dwelling in the ghetto-like Jewish neighbourhoods of the big cities encountered little else than the Yiddish language of their peers.

The flourishing of Yiddish literature in the twenties and thirties, could, for example, in this way remain hardly noticed outside the own community. The lack of interest was more than reciprocal, of course - there was little incentive for non-Jewish intellectuals to get abreast of the developments that made Vilnius into the Jerusalem of the North. In the countryside, where smaller Jewish communities lived in modest settlements, the situation may paradoxically have been different. The hard-to-grasp contradictions of the ethnic interaction of the time is reflected in the description Ugn’ Karvelis offers: "Everything took place as if Wilno the Polish, Vilna the Jewish, and Vilnius the Lithuanian had lived side by side yet with the backs turned towards each other, in much the way Czeslaw Milosz confirms when he admits not having known a thing, in his youth, of the Jewish intellectuals and artists who convened in the caf’s neighbouring those he frequented with his student friends. On the other hand, though, one can discover strange phenomena of symbiosis; even today, the old people of Zydkaimis - "village of the Jews" of whom none survived -talk Yiddish among each other" (p.53).

The new political order established after World War One did seem, initially, to encourage further emancipation and integration. In the new Lithuania the Jews only numbered 7% of the population. All the same a special ministry for Jewish Affairs was established. Higher education was opened up to Jews as well and the Lithuanian state in general took on a more tolerant position than the neigbouring Polish one.The coup d’’tat in 1934 on the other hand again signified a turn for the worse.

Queried about it, Tsila Ziborkeni’, one of the survivors of Jewish Vilna, in the book maintains that Jews and Lithuanians had lived in peace together before WW2: "At the time, I never experienced anti-Semitism. Jewish and non-Jewish children played together. [..] In Kovno, [..] one couldn’t properly talk of a ghetto, or even of a Jewish quarter. In the Jewish "street" the variation between Jews and non-Jews was constant (p.115-118)." It remains the question however, to what extent such memories are entirely authentic or to what degree they could also be the expression of a personal dilemma: having to somehow understand and come to terms with the experience of the Holocaust as a sole Jewish survivor among the Lithuanians - in a (Soviet) state that didn’t allow any open discussion or explicit commemoration of the subject.

One thing that does clearly emerge from the personal testimonies in the book is that the cross-cultural ties and loyalties that existed were generally much more complicated and inconsistent than any abstract analysis on the topic would suggest. What should we think, for example, of a communist Jew (Dalia Epstein’s father) who, out of internationalist conviction, refrained from any "Jewish education" of his children, yet, in exile, in Pere’aslavl, Soviet Union, during World War Two founded a Lithuanian song-and-dance troupe called "Lietuva," designing its national costumes himself? (p.95). Some improbable emotional alliances were forged. Dalia Epstein recounts how she only really became aware of her Jewishness when she was in Armenia at the time of the Six Day War, and heard the Armenians cheer when Israel won the war: they got the Russians now! More poignantly, how to categorize the Lithuanian doctor who, out of a professional solidarity, hid Margolis - being the daughter of his colleague -in the war - although "he was a great friend of the Nazis?" (p.102)

If, however, we accept as a more general rule, the thesis of coexisting but not interacting ethnic communities, that would at least explain the relative lack of concern of the Balts at the extermination of their Jewish countrymen. Little resistance to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism,and little solidarity with the Jewish neighbours, was, after all, observed. Unfortunately, though, the Baltic people’s involvement with the Holocaust goes a little deeper than simple passivity alone.

The Holocaust: a Baltic Specificity?

This, of course, is true for most of Europe’s peoples whose countries were occupied by Nazi Germany. Collaboration with the Germans was particularly frequent when it came to the German’s anti-Semitic policies. Yet Plasseraud notes a Baltic specificity in this respect. He notes how the involvement of Lithuanians in the execution of institutionalized anti-Semitism and the Holocaust itself was significantly greater than that of the Byelorussians for example, and remarks on this with a degree of surprise: was anti-Semitism in earlier eras not much more widespread among the Slavic peoples than among the Balts? Two chapters in the book consider the time of the Holocaust, one by Plasseraud, one by Dov Levin. They do not provide a general overview of everything that happened: the story is assumed to be familiar to the readers. Levin concentrates on the question of Jewish resistance. Plasseraud, although he, like Levin,recounts many examples of the various attitudes taken by the ethnic Lithuanians, focuses on explaining why such a Baltic specificity would have emerged.

Of the 250,000 Jews who lived in Lithuania before German occupation, only 25,000 survived it. Ninety percent of the Jews perished. Most of them were systematically killed by German soldiers and Lithuanian collaborators, at execution places like Kaunas Ninth Fort or the forests at Ponar (Paneriai),near Vilnius. To the latter, Jews were taken for mass executions from the early days of German occupation.Undressed, they were shot in the neck standing on the edge of a pit that slowly filled up with their bodies. Many others were killed in pogrom-like attacks in the first months of occupation, a great number of them even before the Germans had arrived, when the Soviet army had already withdrawn. Some died or were killed while trying to flee, hide or join the partisans. Some succeeded in fleeing to the Soviet Union, but fell victim to Stalinist repression.

Most of the descriptions of Lithuanian attitudes vis-’-vis this extermination are, on the whole, damning. Eyewitness accounts tell of cruelties committed by nationalist extremists, often under the approving eyes of both German soldiers and Lithuanian countrymen. That’s basically the description’s common denominator: the Germans themselves are said to be surprised at the ardour with which Lithuanian fascists molested the country’s Jews, but the fascist activists are noted to be only a small minority among the population, which, however, is also said to have, in majority, taken on a favorable attitude towards this minority. There are, of course, exceptions: there were Lithuanians, peasants, even nuns, who hid Jews, who saved them. Yaffa Sonenson Eliach, presently a professor of history and literature in the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY, for example, survived thanks to the Lithuanians who hid her (p.264). A special ceremony was organized in 1994, at which then-president Brazauzkas and the Israeli ambassador were present, to honour their courage.

The exceptions were few though. Plasseraud puts the number of active collaborators with the Germans at about 20,000,but also remarks: "This work of systematic extermination could not have succeeded in such a simultaneously massive and artisanal way [i.e. by executions rather than gassing], if not thanks to the passivity of the majority of the population" (p.27).

The focus in the description of collaboration and murder is on the first year of the occupation. It is that year which most clearly shows the presumed Baltic specificity, and which also might explain a little about its roots. In January 1942 only 34,000 Jews were still alive in Lithuania, and 3,500 in Latvia; whereas all of 400,000 Jews were still surviving in the Byalistok district and 420,000 in eastern Byelorussia (p25). How did this marked contrast come about?

"Even before the arrival of the first Germans [..],particularly in Kaunas, thousands of activists [..] had started to brutally murder thousands of people, communists,Jews, or presumed collaborators with the Soviet Union." (p. 22). Later, the Germans provided many with white armbands, symbols of authority - those wearing them were called baltaraisciai "and sometimes even, more explicitly, zydumiai (Jew-beaters)." In Kaunas, the Sicherheitsdienst or SD organised a detachment of "patriots" of 300 men under the responsibility of former journalist Jonas Klimaitis. This formation devoted itself to several pogroms, like that of the night of 25-26 June 1941 which made some 1,500 victims. Comparable fascist militias in Byelorussia (like the Belaruskaya Krayovaya Abarona) didn’t succeed in any comparable way. Of course, the occupation authorities were more systematic: already in February 1942,some 138,000 Jews had been executed at places like Ponar.

Refocusing on the first weeks following the Soviet retreat, the authors emphasise the different perspectives one can take. Dov Levin recounts how Lithuanian nationalist activists of the LAF (Lietuviu Aktyvistu Frontas) had already organised themselves in Nazi Germany (p. 176). But Odile Suganas, while agreeing that the Front "would not have existed without the unofficial approval of the Reich authorities," describes also how, when they liberated Kaunas before the Germans had even arrived, more than 125,000 Lithuanians took part in the battle, and "4,000 of them died for their country" - something that did confer some authentic national character to the installation of a new government by Front-leader Prapolernis. She also adds that the Front in the end was dissolved by the German occupiers and Prapolernis arrested (p.87).

Plasseraud, meanwhile, calls the LAF "a nationalist Lithuanian organisation [which was] very philonazi," but adds: "(which, of course, the population didn’t know!)" (p.19). However the Lithuanians perceived the LAF though, anti-Semitic it definitely was, as one radio appeal, broadcast on 19/3/1941, for example, witnesses, "threatening traitors of the fatherland with death.. unless they could prove to have killed at least one Jew" (p19).

Reviewing the legacy of (passive) collaboration with the German Nazis in those first weeks, a sympathetic observer is tempted to make a distinction between how the Lithuanians welcomed any enemy of the Soviets - "the German troops were welcomed with flowers. It was the West that returned, the Soviet nightmare subsided." - and the eruption of anti-Semitic violence in Lithuania. Unfortunately, the two coincided, were intertwined, and thus are in practice impossible to separate.

The Myth of the Communist Jew

So why? Why was the understandable cheer over the end of Soviet occupation accompanied by so much anti-Jewish violence? Plasseraud mentions the rootedness of nationalist ideology. The ideal of a nation-state, that is: a state of ones own for (exclusively) ones own, was, even before independence was achieved after WW1, much more widespread in the Baltics than, say, among the Byelorussians. Plasseraud also recalls how (as described above) the Jewish minority had become more visible over the preceding decades - and that in times of great social upheaval and insecurity. Finally, one should realise that Soviet deportations the previous year had robbed the Lithuanian people of its natural elite, its intellectuals and opinion leaders. In such circumstances, it was easier for the extremist pseudo-elite to emerge as new national leaders, especially as they allied themselves, thus Plasseraud, with the Germans, "symbol of civilisation in the region, the archetypical Kulturvolk."

A motivation mentioned, by the Lithuanians themselves as well, more often, however, is the trauma of Soviet occupation. The recently established stereotype of the communist Jew had, over that year, evolved into a firm conviction about Jewish traitors.

Indeed, Tsila Ziborkeni’ recalls how "when the Russians arrived, we welcomed them with songs and flowers." She remembers "days of happiness, of manifestations of sympathy." But, significantly, she adds, almost casually, "of course, the Zionists and Yiddishists kept quiet" (p120). From what we can read in this book, there may be good reasons to consider the image of the Sovietist Jew a myth,one maintained, for obvious reasons, by both communists, whom it helped to argue they were liberators and saviors,and anti-communists, who could use it to label communism as an alien thing.

Both Zionism and (Bundist) Yiddishism were traditionally very strong in Vilnius. Their main ideological rival was Jewish orthodoxy, as expressed by the party Agudes Israel. None of these ideologies tolerate bolshevism well. Again, among the 35,000 Lithuanians deported by the Soviets 7,000 were Jewish - an overrepresentation if anything. On the other hand, in early 1941, 15% of the members of the Lithuanian Communist Party, was Jewish (p.18). This is also an overrepresentation, but considering there were only a few thousand members at the time, hardly one justifying any kind of pars pro toto argument.

In any case, "[the] very visible, although not very massive, presence of Jews among [..] notably the army and the political police (NKVD and NKGB) was considered as treason by the majority of the Balts. This episode contributes to explaining in part the brutal outburst of anti-Semitism in which they would partake in the subsequent period." When considering this, however, consider also, that at the same time "hardly installed, the Soviets hurried to suppress all Jewish institutions, whether religious [..], political or civil; the community leaders, the Zionists, the Bundists and many others were imprisoned or deported to outlying regions of the Soviet Union" (p.18).

The communist Jew is thus largely mythical. The majority of them can hardly have enjoyed the Soviet rule. But for one thing: it saved them from German rule. Most Jews were - perhaps contrary to most Lithuanians - well aware of the dangers Nazism posed to them. When the Soviet army retreated, many Jews opted to go with them. Some 15,000 Jews managed to flee to the Soviet Union in the days preceding the arrival of German troops. They may have fled into a dictatorial system that was largely hostile to them at the time - but it did save their life, as we now know.

Many of them returned as Red Army soldiers, in order to liberate their families and communities which they knew were in danger. Actually, it took some time before the first exiled Jews were even allowed to fight: Soviet authorities distrusted them and told volunteers the time was not ready yet. Jews who succeeded during the occupation to flee the ghettos and join the partisans in Byelorussia tell a similar story: initially the troops were quite reluctant to accept them. Only when they had served in the army, and when they brought a gun, were they accepted. Even then, they were spread among the various units as much as possible, among the Russians and Ukrainians, and they again often encountered anti-Semitism.

Later the Red Army changed its policies, once it realised the reservoir of strongly motivated fighters the refugee Jews constituted. They were regrouped in a largely Jewish division, and the propaganda was adapted to their personal motivations: appeals, in Yiddish, to liberate home and hearth, to avenge mothers and children. The motivation of these Red Army soldiers was strictly personal, not ideological, which is further borne out, for example, by the fact that two of the three Jewish soldiers who were decorated Hero of the Soviet Union and who survived, left for Israel after having liberated their home-towns.

It is no surprise that especially survivor Dov Levin pays a great deal of attention to these soldiers. One of the great Jewish dilemma’s in Holocaust historiography is the perceived passivity of the Jews while they were terrorized and murdered. Levin prefers to describe how this is not all true: there was resistance. In fact, there was even a resistance movement, numbering about 1,500 men, in the ghettos themselves. After the one action in the Vilnius ghetto it became clear though, that the Vilnius ghetto was, unlike the Warsaw one, too small to allow any further actions: they would have led to its destruction. This, too, is why many tried to join the Red Army across the front. Special, self-constructed, hiding places existed in the countryside, where refugees could hide for months. Still, only a few succeeded, as many were betrayed or attacked by local peasants. In fact, simply surviving was heroic enough - in whatever way.

Communism and After

After the war, many of the survivors went to Israel. There wasn’t much to stay for: in Lithuania proper, only 2,000 Jews had survived by hiding out or being hidden by Lithuanians. Only 8,000 Jews returned from the concentration camps. The remaining 15,000 survivors thanked their life to having fled to the Soviet Union in ’41, or, ironically, by having been deported in ’40-41, or by having joined partisan troops. None of them were encouraged to talk about their experiences. "In Soviet Lithuania, all expression of Judaism was systematically stifled, the memory obscured" (Bregstein, p.261). The renewed Soviet regime commemorated the Jewish victims only as part of the mass of (ethnically neutral) victims of Nazism. Whatever was left of the Jewish heritage was bulldozed away - the great synagogue of Vilnius, for example, was razed to the ground by the new authorities. The few Jewish institutions that were reestablished after the war, like a Jewish museum, a school and an orphanage, were dissolved again in 1949. And as the iron curtain was raised the few survivors left had no way of finding out who else had survived.

Philo Bregstein, in his chapter, recounts how Grisha Bregsteinas, deported to Siberia in ’41, when released from KGB surveillance in ’57, went on a trip to Moscow - and there encountered a group of Israeli tourists, among whom an old neighbour of his who had survived the war thanks to a Lithuanian who hid him. They arranged to meet each other the next day - but the neighbour never turned up, as he was warned not to leave his hotel if he wanted to avoid problems with the KGB. In the end, they only met up again thirty-eight years later, in Israel.

It must have been an alienating experience: to live on the cemetery of your people, and not to be allowed to mourn. Only convinced communists could force themselves to ignore it: "No, working day and night I didn’t really sense the changes. It’s true, more than 40% of the city was destroyed, the Jewish world had disappeared, but, me, I didn’t want to think of pre-war times, I resolutely looked to the future (Rachel Margolis, on p.106)." Here we can find the root of later disputes between the survivors who remained and those who left for Israel or the U.S.: the latter reproach the former for living among murderers and for choosing communism rather than Judaism.

The postcommunist experience brought, if anything, recognition. The Jewish museum was reestablished - with help from the government. Jewish cemeteries were restored. Commemorative plaques could be placed, to honor the Jewish Holocaust victims. A monument appeared in Ponar. Brazauzkas went to Israel, in 1995, and apologized for the horrors the Jews had had to experience in occupied Lithuania. (Brazauzkas and Landsbergis changed Lithuanian discourse by starting openly to evoke the fate of the Jewish Lithuanians and the collaboration of ethnic Lithuanians.) Even the synagogue was rebuilt.

What was perhaps more significant, was that Sajudis, the Lithuanian national movement, in its struggle for national independence, also actively championed the rights of the Jewish minority. The first Sajudis government coincided with the renewal of Jewish community life. A Jewish school was opened, where children are taught in Yiddish. Vilnius University reestablished the Jewish studies department. On the other hand, when the Lithuanian government rehabilitated those sentenced by Soviet post-war justice, it also rehabilitated acknowledged war criminals, and by taking on an a very defensive position when this was pointed out, it lost much of the newly-built trust among the remaining Jews. Yet the continuing exodus of the remaining Jews is more related to economics, and by the sheer freedom of travel itself, than by politics. In the mid-Eighties, there were still 14,000 Jews in Lithuania. Now there are only 4,000. Even the activist elite that asserted itself during the independence drive, is now leaving.

It’s a long history, the history of the Litvak Jews. The book is called Jewish Lithuania 1918-1940, but that title is misleading. The collection of bits and pieces, memories and analyses, it presents covers the entire range from Karates to Sajudis. It is not, however, a consistent,linear account of historical events in chronological sequence. It is a book of many voices, and although that means that some voices will contradict each other, that some are more interesting than others, and that any reader searching for the whole picture will have the feeling of solving a puzzle which has pieces missing, it lends the book a certain charm as well. It is this same charm of multivocality, of pluriformity, of disagreement and respect, of contradictions and paradoxes, that made the Lithuania described here such a fascinating place.

A Legacy Enshrined

In the end, the book seems to have two underlying assumptions,or perhaps we should even say: missions. The first is to prove the value of Litvakia as a unique and important cultural space, and to show how it flowered in the first half of this century. The second is to allow certain thus far neglected perspectives on the topic to emerge: to find a third way between the well-established Western and Soviet historiographies on the issue. The idea here is to present a self-confident Jewish identity that was slighted in Soviet historiography, yet not to succumb to the one-dimensional image of Jews pitted against non-Jews that characterises Western writings, instead expressing the full ambiguity of both "sufferings and solidarities vis-’-vis the non-Jewish environment." As Yves Plasseraud writes, "One is faced with two Histories, one Soviet, the other Western, sometimes from a Zionist angle. And the third in between the two, that is trying to emerge, causes a little unease for everyone (p.91/92)."

You can sense how the authors struggle to find a perspective that pays homage to the Litvak Jews who survived hostile environments for so long yet which at the same time pays respect to the land they lived in, the peoples they lived with. Sometimes the result is a rather strained one: you feel they are making a conscious effort to attribute all anti-Semitism to outside forces or small minorities, so as to keep the innocence of the loved homeland intact. This is an effort they ironically share with the various Baltic nationalist apologetics.

Both underlying assumptions are in fact debatable. The idea of a flowering of Litvak culture in the interbellum period seems sometimes a difficult one. Yes, the freedoms that the old Lithuanian Grand Duchy granted to the Jews created a tradition of tolerance that favoured the Jewish minority for centuries. The traditional autonomy it enjoyed facilitated the emergence of a vivid community with schools, political parties, newspapers and journals, literary circles and theaters, a renowned library (the Strashun-library) and an even more famed scientific institution (the YIVO), of its own. Perhaps it was the relative peace the Litvak Jews enjoyed that created that specific rationalist, reflective character of the Litvak religious, philosophical, and political life. The enlightened tradition of rationalism can thus be perceived to lead all the way from the famous religious thinker, the Gaon of Vilna, who resolutely rejected the occultism and mysticism of Chassidism, to the secular politics of the Bund, which strove to uplift the people from ignorance and backwardness.

But, on the other hand, the tolerance they enjoyed was only a very relative one. The times of complete lawlessness may have been rare, but the Jew’s freedoms were always limited. They were always vulnerable, and again and again fell victim to a degree of spontaneous and institutionalized anti-Semitism; it’s just that degree seemed to be smaller than in neighbouring places.

Yes, the interbellum period witnessed a reviving literary and political life. But the writers portrayed in the book themselves would never have called their community flourishing: after all, to some extent they wrote out of rebellion against the backwardness they observed, lamenting the quickly growing poverty and the struggle to survive they saw being waged by so many around them. Moreover, it was a struggle to survive made all the more difficult by growing anti-Semitism and an increasingly repressive political regime.

The main glory now attributed to pre-war Litvakia, of course, is that of the lost. The book’s subtitle is not for no reason Message From A Perished World. It is the crime of annihilation that makes what is now lost seem so very special. There is nothing wrong with that perspective. As I pointed out already above: only by acquiring some awareness of what cultural richness was lost, can one fully appreciate the destruction wrought by the Holocaust.

The second assumption, that there is a valuable third way to perceive history struggling to express itself, is also challengeable, for how exactly to peg it down? In fact, the variety of perspectives presented here - one exposing the singular ferocity of Lithuanian collaboration in WW2, another sketching the long history of Lithuanian tolerance - and the range of forms in which they come - from literary representation to thorough case study - can hardly be defined as a whole at all.

What is true,however, is that in the western Jewish perception of Litvak history something might have been missing. Israelis,for obvious reasons, for a long time were reluctant to acknowledge the great value of a Yiddish culture as much East European as it was Jewish. The reappraisal of the Yiddish language and culture has been underway for a while now, and this book adds to that a certain emotional loyalty to the territory it was bound to.

That sense of emotional solidarity with the lands of Lithuania will indeed cause unease for everyone. For Lithuanian nationalists, on the one hand, because here suddenly is a group which claims Lithuania and its heritage to be spiritually as much theirs as it is the ethnic Lithuanians; and for Westerners, Jewish or not, as the degree in which the authors emotionally seem to identify with the Lithuanian land, state, and people contradicts the image of ethnic hatreds and inborn anti-Semitism that is so characterises western perceptions of the region.

"Vilna and the constellation of towns and settlements that were grouped around it have been extinguished forever. Their only traces: the words that were forged over the centuries of life on these lands, by the thinkers, the writers, and the poets; and the words with which the survivors, scattered, lonely, enshrined them after the extermination, in that "flickering spark" of a language that Sutzkever talked about. Separated by light-years from their source, they remain a "sect of grief," as the Glatstein verse has it, an indissoluble fraternity that, from town to town, from country to country, from continent to continent, sends out, like those returning from the other shore of the Acheron,messages, signals - their writings, their poems - in which sometimes the distant light of that beacon forever extinguished, Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, shines." (Ertel, p.234)

about the author
Joost van Beek

Joost van Beek This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is a student of Russia and Eastern Europe Studies at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. He is currently writing his master’s thesis, a comparative research on the political mobilisation of ethnic minorities in the postcommunist era, focusing primarily on the Turks in Bulgaria and the Poles and Russians in Lithuania. Earlier research covered the use of gender perceptions in nationalist and Balkanist discourses during the Yugoslav wars. He was a webmaster of the site of Balkan Sunflowers, an international volunteer network running community building and refugee relief projects in the south Balkans, and he also helped create the Multicultural Skyscraper, a website on minorities and the media in Europe.