by Ellen Cassedy
Waving at me from across Castle Street was Violeta, a middle-aged woman with a broad, fair face and blond hair, her solid body squeezed into a tight, fashionable jacket and matching skirt.
We sat down at a checkered tablecloth and ordered a decidedly un-Jewish meal of shrimp salad, then raised our wine glasses.
“L’chaim!” I said, offering the traditional Jewish toast. To life!
“I sveikata!” she responded in Lithuanian. To health!
I’d come to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, to study Yiddish and explore my Jewish family’s past. In so doing, I felt in some ways as if I was stepping into enemy territory. I knew that the Holocaust had been especially swift and thorough in this Baltic land. Some of my own family members were among those herded into ghettos or marched into the woods to be shot.
Growing up, I’d been taught to distrust–even hate–Lithuanians. “They were among the worst,” I was told.
A friend had connected me to Violeta, who was neither Jewish nor a professional history-confronter. Just an ordinary citizen. I’d written and asked if she’d talk to me about how her country was engaging with its 20th-century history, and she’d responded warmly, eager to help.
I took out my notebook. “Growing up in the Soviet era after the war,” I asked, “what did you learn about what happened to the Jews?”
She squeezed her eyes shut and furrowed her brow. “We knew about Auschwitz and Buchenwald,” she said. “We learned in school that many Jews died.”
“Did you learn about the pits in the forests where the Jews were shot and buried?” I asked. “The mass graves?”
Yes, she had learned about this, too. She looked away, then met my eyes. “But,” she said, “no one taught us in school how many Lithuanians were sent to Siberia by the Soviet power. Pregnant women and children–they died in Siberia!”
I knew something about the deportations Violeta was talking about. Before the German invasion, Red Army tanks rolled into Lithuania, and tens of thousands of people–Jews and non-Jews alike–were sent into exile. A knock at the door, and entire families–men, women and children–were ordered to pack what they could carry, herded onto freight trains and resettled in the east.
Violeta’s voice grew louder. “Many Jews were involved in the Soviet system,” she said heatedly. “The Jews were the ones who sent my people to Siberia!”
Now it was my turn to look away. At nearby tables, other city residents were talking and eating. No doubt some of them were also seething with such feelings.
I, too, was seething, I found. “The Jews” had sent her people to Siberia? How could she say that?
In the turbulent time before the German invasion, and again after the war–when Lithuania became a republic of the Soviet Union–a small but significant number of Soviet administrative posts were occupied by Jews, I knew. Although Jews were a small minority of government officials, and although only a small fraction of Jews were Communists, they stood out in the eyes of non-Jews.
I struggled to focus on what Violeta was saying. It was hard for me to listen to her as she placed the massacre of my people alongside the suffering of hers. It was hard for me to hold in my head the reality of non-Jewish suffering side by side with Jewish suffering. I hated hearing my people blamed for the suffering of hers.
This must be what people meant, I realized, when they said that half a century under two regimes had turned Lithuania into a cauldron, bubbling and boiling with competing martyrologies.
Now Violeta was slicing the air with her hand. “I want to say,” she declared, “that the Lithuanian people throughout history have loved other nationalities.” She paused. “That is, normal Lithuanian people loved others. The local men who helped round up Jews in 1941 were not normal people.
“But,” she said, “every nationality has some abnormal people. Lithuanians as a whole should not be blamed for the actions of a few.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, I’d heard, buried truths about both the Soviet era and the Nazi era were beginning to be exhumed. Educational initiatives were beginning to blossom. A new discourse had begun.
In fact, my conversation with Violeta was a part of that discourse. And if the conversation was not easy, I reflected, I was nonetheless glad to be having it.
To understand the land of my forebears, I had no choice but to open my ears. To do my part in preventing future genocides, I had to seek out ways to listen, to respond, to move forward from the fears and hatreds of the past.
So I turned back to Violeta. The dialogue was beginning.
Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust.