LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2016 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 62, No.3 - Fall 2016
Editor of this issue: Almantas Samalavičius
Ellen Cassedy. We Are Here: Memories of The Lithuanian Holocaust. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
Arriving in Vilnius with a desire to learn Yiddish, her mameloshn (mother tongue), American journalist Ellen Cassedy traces her Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) roots in a journey of personal discovery. Like papers in an archive, Ellen Cassedy shuffles through the complicated pages of the history of Jews in Lithuania, inviting readers to travel with her as she uncovers her family’s past and a better understanding of contemporary Lithuania. We Are Here is not a history book, but it opens a window to a past that spent 50 years under the shroud of the Iron Curtain and the way that past is seen now.
Cassedy approaches the Holocaust in Lithuania through two angles: the story of her Uncle Will, a Jewish policeman in the Shavl (Điauliai) ghetto, and the story of Steponas, a Lithuanian who wants to “speak to a Jew” and was a resident of Rokiđkis during the liquidation of its Jewish population. Cassedy struggles to identify the roles these men played during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania (1941–1944). Uncle Will actively participated in the kinderaktsye (deportation of Jewish children) – but also attempted to save lives and suffered as an inmate in Dachau. Steponas risked German retaliation by throwing carrots to incarcerated Jews – but failed to prevent their death. Are these men bystanders, collaborators, rescuers, or victims (p. 258) – or a combination of the above?
Through tours and archives (facilitated by Lithuanians of both Jewish and gentile backgrounds), Cassedy travels back through time to address these questions and learn about the flourishing pre-war Vilnius community in what Napoleon dubbed the “Jerusalem of the North,” the boundaries of the ghettos, and the remaining Jewish populations in modern Lithuania. As she learns Yiddish, she uncovers the Jewish literary culture, and includes many translations of poetry in the volume. Cassedy herself contributes to her literary heritage, composing poetry of her own based on her discoveries of the past. The book itself is a compelling literary narrative that engrosses the reader.
We Are Here is a contribution to historical memory, but the book is not about Lithuania, it is specifically about Litvaks. Cassedy has not written a comprehensive examination of the Nazi and Soviet regimes in Lithuania – this focus does not diminish the value of her work, but readers of this book should not expect a historian’s objective analysis. Cassedy writes with an American perspective that has a narrow understanding of Soviet history. References to “national bourgeoisie” and the “Great Patriotic War” elude her (p. 113), and she struggles to understand why the Holocaust is not a main historical narrative in Lithuanian collective memory.
Stumbling through the multilayered history, Cassedy struggles not to judge Lithuanians. Still, through a series of interviews with “locals” and educators, she eventually grasps why understanding the Holocaust is approached differently in Lithuania. At first she bristles at voluntary seminars for teachers, but gradually comes to appreciate the intended pedagogical and societal purpose of those differences. Program educators “believed that Lithuanians should not be forced to accept responsibility for the misdeeds of the terrible years. … Instead they wanted to encourage people to feel their way into the darkness” (p. 197). Though a “less aggressive approach,” Cassedy says it “had opened my eyes and shown me a new way to carry the past” (p. 198).
A deep desire to understand the effects World War II on a significant population in Lithuania, compels Cassedy to investigate painful personal and societal questions. She gradually shifts from hostile defense to listening and comprehension, nevertheless she does not “cease to wonder” about the actions of Jews and Lithuanians during the time period (p. 222, 260). We Are Here is one woman’s journey to uncover a shrouded past that contributes to a discourse on Lithuanian and Jewish memory.