LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 48, No.4 - Winter 2002
Editors of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2002 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
A REVIEW ESSAY ON SOME HOLOCAUST LITERATURE
Sara Ginaitė-Robinsonienė, Atminimo knyga: Kauno žydų bendruomenė 1941-1944 metais (Book of Remembrance: Jewish Community in Kaunas, 1941-1944) (Vilnius: Margi raštai, 1999); Dalia Kuodytė and Rimantas Stankevičius, eds., Išgelbėję pasaulį... Žydų gelbėjimas Lietuvoje (1941-1944) (World Saviours... Saving of the Jews in Lithuania 1941-1944) (Vilnius: Lietuvos gyventojų genocido ir rezistencijos tyrimo centras, 2001); Alfonsas Eidintas, ed., Lietuvos žydų žudynių byla (The Case of the Massacre of the Lithuanian Jews) (Vilnius: Vaga, 2001); Samuel Bak, Painted in Words A Memoir (Indiana University Press, 2001).
This is a glimpse at two memoirs and a pair of anthologies that have added to the shelves of Holocaust writings related to Lithuania. Focusing on such a complex subject expectedly raises more questions than it uncovers answers. Accordingly, these volumes easily lend themselves to a host of reviews from different angles. The purpose here is to provide a beginner's, mainly descriptive, approach.
The Ginaitė narrative is an expansion of the author's earlier 42-page brochure, Žydų tautos tragedijos Lietuvoje pradžia (Beginning of the Tragedy of the Jewish Nation in Lithuania) (Vilnius: Misa, 1994). The ample version of 226 pages contains illustrations of photos and documents, and index of persons, a bibliography of 72 titles, and a four-page summary in English. Four major sections are: "Shattered Dreams," "A Dangerous Road Leads into the Unknown," "Ghetto Inmates Become Guerrilla Fighters," and "Destinies."
This work is a mixture of personal Holocaust experiences of a young Lithuanian Jew in her late adolescence and early adulthood, combined with information from both published and archival sources. Later in life, Professor Ginaitė taught economics at Vilnius University and social issues and the Holocaust at York University in Toronto, Canada. She devoted her later years to these memoirs.
One notes the Kaunas - born author's love for Lithuania as her homeland as she unfolds her genealogical roots (pp. 12-18). She relished Kaunas as a flourishing Jewish center (p. 26) and, as a Litvak, was no less a citizen of her native country than the Christian majority around her.
Painfully, Dr. Ginaitė notes how the new government of 1926 began to eclipse the rights and privileges of the Jewish minority up to World War II. When mass executions of Jews began in her beloved Kaunas, one can sense her immense grief at what was happening in her birthplace.
Ginaitė furnishes a first-hand account of life in the Kaunas ghetto (pp. 83-95) and tells of her daring and clandestine participation in the partisan underground movement to thwart the Nazis (pp. 138-166), especially to relate the part of women. Attempts to join Lithuanian insurgents sometimes proved arduous because of their reluctance to link up with ghetto fugitives (e.g., p. 115). For researchers reconstructing the life of Jewish freedom fighters, Ginaitė's recollections offer invaluable eyewitness testimony.
When the memoirist comments on parallel contemporary events, she footnotes her sources. In the long personal narratives, evidently she relied on memory and personal memos and diaries that are left undocumented.
The list of her family members who perished is staggeringtwenty-five in all (pp. 190-191). As one who has counseled bereaved parents over two decades, I strive to appreciate a single death. Multiple fatalities are unbearable and seemingly beyond comprehension. At this mark, a reader might invoke the horror of innumerable killings by the Soviets that paralyzed Lithuanian families. From my bereavement experience, I have learned that it is futile and counterproductive to compare pain. The bullets of a Lithuanian firing squad in Kaunas summon mournful awe no less than the Soviet-inflicted death by starvation in a boxcar destined for Siberia.
One notes Jadvyga Godunavičienė's straightforward, sympathetic review of this monograph in Draugas of October 23, 1999. Less flattering was Antanas Musteikis in his emotional assessment of May 16, 2000 in the same Lithuanian newspaper.
Meanwhile, it is the challenging task of historians to assess the precise responsibility for these executions. The experts are grappling with the exact role of the Provisional Lithuanian Government, the Lithuanian Activists' Front, and the Lithuanian police battalions in the Holocaust. What was their positiontheir influence, authority and initiative in relation to the occupying Nazi regime? At the same time, it is urgent, that evidence about Lithuanians who rescued Jews be acknowledged and recorded. Some evidence is offered in the other volumes under consideration here.
The Kuodytė and Stankevičius endeavor is a collection of material spanning five decades. The latter researcher gathered much data during a visit to the United States in 2000, chiefly letters and newspaper articles. There are 100 such entries, plus two supplements, the second of which lists 474 Lithuanian recipients (as of May 1, 2001) of the "Righteous Gentiles of the World" recognition by the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel. As an anthology, it is next to impossible to summarize the contents. Suffice it to say that the editors (pp. 5-33) furnish an invaluable background on the complex question of people who rescued Jews. At this writing, an effort is being made to translate this monograph into English. Note that the volume adds to the genre of publications of the National Jewish Gaon Museum in Vilnius that recount the testimony of rescued Jews.
The Eidintas collection is more than twice the size of the above 371-page volume. The onetime ambassador to the United States, Dr. Eidintas (past Ambassador to Israel) authored his own series of essays. His (Part I), 279 pages, could easily have been published by themselves. They constitute a provocative series of historical ruminations that are sure to win both adherents and dissenters. Part II gives the texts of five varied documents (pp. 281-351). The bulk of the volume lies in Part III, consisting of twenty-four articles (pp. 355-727). Part IV, entitled "Ideology," presents five substantial essays (pp. 729-794). Here is a source book rich in documentation. Prof. Alfred Erich Senn adds an insightful "Summary or Non-Traditional" review (pp. 795-806) in English. There is a name index, but no place index.
The Bak memoir relates the author's experience of being sheltered secretly in a former Benedictine convent in Vilnius. Together with his mother and a number of other Jews, young Samuel was the beneficiary of the courageous hearts of three noble figures: Fr. Juozas Stakauskas, Sister Maria Mikulskaa Polish nun, and Vladas Žemaitis. The trio were determined to save at least some victims of the Nazi terror. Bak, now a famous artist, even as a youngster showed a precocious bent. He frankly tells of his internal family affairs and their eventual fate. Bak achieved more attention in 1995 when he exhibited his paintings at the Jesuit Boston College after he had relocated from Israel to the United States. During his visit here in 2000, Rimantas Stankevičius traced Bak's whereabouts to Weston, a suburb of Boston and befriended him. Their subsequent friendship is related in the memoir. In the final chapter, "Closure," (pp. 487-500) one learns of the memoirist's nostalgic visit to Lithuania and the recovery of a childhood notebook that underwent a series of journeys of its own. One further reads with profound awe that the artist "explored [his] old hiding place in what had been a convent of Benedictine sisters" (p. 500).
Artwork of Vincas Kisarauskas