I’m Not Jewish

by Marius Ivaškevičius

That’s what I want to tell everyone who the last three months have tactfully asked this of my friends and relatives. I am not Jewish at all, I don’t have a drop of Jewish blood. So why is he casting his lot with those Jews, what wild insect bit him? That’s another question heard often.

I can answer it almost by rote: I was bitten by a tick. Three years ago I filmed one scene at the old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw and it sucked my blood there. Furthermore, I got Lyme disease. And it so happened, or perhaps it was decided beforehand by that treacherous Jewish tick, that when I was taking antibiotics I became interested in the Jews in my town, their fate in my native Molėtai. And my hair stood on end and I got goose-bumps when I realized I had been living for 40 years in complete ignorance, on the margins of a gigantic tragedy without even sensing it existed. I knew there had been Jews, they had lived here, because their old cemetery still exists in Molėtai, as does their old “red bricks,” a long building, the oldest in the town, of connected shops, a sort of shopping mall of the period. I knew some unknown number of them had been killed, since, as I thought, some of them had been involved in Communist activities.

But where did the others vanish? No, I probably never posed this question to myself. They left, they emigrated to their Israel. It was war, people fled, saved themselves to the extent of their abilities… And suddenly, the tick, Lyme, and the realization they hadn’t gone anywhere, they hadn’t fled, they were laid in a pit right here and shot, others, living, were placed on them and they too were shot, and later others, mothers and children, on top of their just-shot husbands and grandparents… And it wasn’t “some unknown number” but several thousands of people, two-thirds of my town disappeared in a single day, the bloodiest day in Molėtai’s history, August 29, 1941. And the pit is still there. And they have been lying there since then, for seventy-five years now. They lie without hope, without definite sincere memory, because those who should have remembered them, who should have continued their lives, are also lying there together with them. They didn’t simply die or perish, their history was interrupted, it ended. They went extinct.

This summer when we were visiting the Ponar Memorial in Vilnius, my daughter asked me a childish question: how many more times people were killed here compared to Molėtai? The math is simple: a hundred thousand died here, two thousand there. So why does Molėtai disturb me more? I didn’t know what to tell her. Maybe because somehow I managed to understand those two thousand, but not one hundred thousand, not yet. A hundred thousand people is around ten Siemens Arenas in Vilnius full of people. That’s more than the entire Maracanã Stadium in Brazil, where I’ve never been. It takes time to comprehend it, I can’t suddenly throw off that mantle of naiveté and doubt which I’ve been wearing for forty years.

And I didn’t go to Ponar right away. I “warmed up” to it. I visited Ukmergė where ten thousand people lie in a trench, and Utena, where eight thousand lie buried next to a swamp, and the barracks in Švenčionėliai with the same number of victims. And there’s also that tree there, a pine, where they smashed the heads of children and babies. It’s so crooked, so broken and unnatural looking, screaming out its difference from the rest of the forest, which was planted later, after the war. Back then it stood alone, and so it received all the blows, all those babies’ skulls were cracked upon it. How many death blows was it, a hundred, a thousand? I don’t know. But the next day I felt very poorly, exhausted, weak, although there was no reason for it. Only that pine tree, like a nightmare, stuck in my memory, sending branches out and into my brain.

I’m not Jewish, but I am a person whose uncle, my mother’s eldest brother, died in the north of Russia, unable to bear the conditions of exile. He died as a baby, barely one, and lies buried there. That’s why I am extraordinarily sensitive when I see an expedition of young Lithuanians going to Siberia to tend the graves of our tragic dead there. But that would take on much more significance and sincerity if we as one honored the Jews who lie buried next to our homes as well. Let’s not force our dead any longer to fight among themselves just because they fell due to different ideologies, two totalitarian regimes of death, who initially embraced in dividing up the world, then later struck one another. In both cases this was a terrible extermination of unarmed, innocent civilians, absolute evil, it doesn’t matter whether it was red or brown.

I’m not Jewish, but it shakes me when I still hear someone saying, “People don’t get killed for no reason, there must have been a reason for it.” There was. It was thought up why they had to die and a powerful propaganda machine was unleashed proclaiming Jews are not people. They are ticks, lice sucking our blood. And they were murdered, by the hands of their own neighbors. But probably even the Nazis never would have imagined that this propaganda, this bloody lie and slander would become so lodged in the consciousness of some of us, that it would endure three generations and now seventy-five years later people here would rebroadcast it, as a sort of dark prayer, repeating: “All Jews were Communists, under the Soviets they deported and tortured Lithuanians, so they got what they deserved.”

I don’t want to argue with people who think that way, I don’t want to prove anything to them, and I know there aren’t that many of them and they’re disappearing. The majority are simply too little informed and therefore are apathetic, blindly believing the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania is a problem the Jews themselves are creating. After all, there was a war, and it killed everyone equally: Lithuanians, Russians, Poles, Germans… But not equally. Very unequally, if we speak of numbers. And about the manner of killing, it’s also not equal. Our Jews were simply butchered. Brutally. All of them without selection [sic]. Only those who had the courage and understanding to leave everything behind here and flee survived. And those “fortunate” people whom the Soviets herded onto train cars and deported to Siberia. That which is for Lithuanians the greatest tragedy was salvation for those Jews of Lithuania. Not for everyone. On August 29 an old Jewish woman is coming to Molėtai whose family was deported from “fabled” (her own words) Molėtai just before the war. Her father died in a camp in Krasnoyarsk. The remaining family members survived and returned after Stalin’s death. But they didn’t find “fabled” Molėtai, only a pit into which it had descended.

I am talking mainly to those people who live around here who say: “A procession, fine, let them march, but what do we have to do with it?” That means, they are Jews but we are Lithuanians, and this isn’t our grave, not our victims, not our business. And this contrasts so painfully with letters from people in Germany, Poland, Russia and Latvia, people who have nothing in common with Molėtai nor with Lithuania at all, but who write: “I don’t know, I can’t describe it in words why I need to do this, but I will be in Molėtai on August 29.” But it won’t be just them, and not just those fifty descendants of Jews from Molėtai from around the world who will take part in the procession. There will also be many foreign journalists, many cameras and one Israeli channel will broadcast the procession live.

Now it’s just the question of how many of us will be there, we who don’t need to fly so far and cross borders, we who only need to drive a few dozen kilometers or simply walk out of our homes nearby. This future local event has been noticed, incredibly, by the world, and I don’t understand why, completely, I don’t understand whose attention it has grabbed. It seems there is something common to humanity, something universally compelling in this procession, perhaps like the Baltic Way once upon a time [1988], maybe they are hoping to see a symbolic procession by all of Lithuania, our awakening from that continuing nightmare and our respect for our own citizens who lie in the mass grave and who are scattered around the entire world.

How much intellect and talent lies buried there, the people whose children and grandchildren would have worked to create with us a modern Lithuania. The modern world is simply bursting with the fame of notable Litvaks and their descendants. Those for whom fortune smiled, that is, those who were unsuccessful here and emigrated before the war. Bob Dylan, knocking at Heaven’s door; Philip Glass the composer whose works seem to be included in every third Hollywood film now; Scarlett Johansson with whom about a third of the men of Lithuania have secretly fallen in love; director Michel Hazanavicius whose “Artist” [2011] recently took the most important Oscar; Sasha Baron Cohen, or Borat; Harrison Ford; Pink; and J. D. Salinger–yes, the same Salinger who gave the world “Catcher in the Rye,” read by millions of thinking youths around the world. And these are only the contemporary artists whose names are impossible to ignore. And all those famous politicians, economists, Israeli prime ministers and mayors of New York City—they are all from that small portion of Litvaks who managed to get out, so we can only imagine what gigantic unfulfilled intellectual and artistic potential lies buried in our ground.

Leonard Cohen is also from here. You must surely have heard his love ballad, “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and perhaps you have even danced to this song. If not, give it a listen. It turns out it’s about our Jews from Eišiškės [Eyshishok, Ejszyszki] in detention waiting to be brought out and shot:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Excuse me for the bad translation, I’m not a translator [It’s OK, we found the lyrics on the internet–LJC]. I am not a poet. Excuse me for the imperfect organization of this event/procession to come, because those who initiated it are not event organizers. We are all professionals in our fields, but here we are dilettantes who have kicked each other in the asses and decided this is important. Over these three months several miracles have happened. The Molėtai town government has done what it can: they cleaned up the mass grave site and put up information signs about it. There are beautiful plans for the future, to tear down the industrial ruins nearby and plant a park there. There is to be a tree for every Jewish child of Molėtai who has been born anywhere in the wide world. Until the trees number the number of people in the mass grave and their dead ancestors. Now Molėtai is preparing to welcome perhaps the largest group of guests in its history. Logistics planning is under way, parking is being planned, plans for safety, ambulances are on call in case anyone takes ill. So if you come and you can’t find a parking space right away, don’t drive off, don’t dismiss it all, don’t curse the poor organization, because this is a volunteer event. And it won’t be a happy one. But it is extraordinarily important that you be there.

Four o’clock in the afternoon on August 29. I’m not Jewish, I’m Lithuanian, and I know that we can do this, we can show our power and unity. To admit our mistakes and even crimes is a symbol of strength, not weakness. So we must sometimes be places where it is not fun. I don’t know, perhaps I am naïve, but for some reason I believe our generation can end this nightmare without passing it on to our children, who at this point aren’t much concerned with it, but who, when they grow up, will ask with wonder, why didn’t you do this? We have lived in an independent Lithuania for twenty-five years, in freedom, without war: how is it that you didn’t find power within yourselves to come to terms with your past, with your Jews?

We do have a chance, truly, to do that, the opportunity to do this and look them in the eyes with a calm, or at least calmer, conscience. Perhaps not now, but in old age, when they are grown. Not to tell them anything, not to explain, but simply to take them to the graves, to the parks whose trees we will plant. To walk there where Jews lie buried, our citizens, buried with dignity. And let our children believe it had never been otherwise. Let them think it had always been that way. Because it wasn’t Lithuania who murdered our Jews, but gangs of murderers, aided and abetted by other criminals. Yes, they spoke our language, they made use of our symbols, they sang our national anthem, but this wasn’t the real Lithuania, this was a weakened Lithuania, divided by two foreign occupations which confused, deported and killed her minds, her authorities who might have, at least in words and thoughts, tried to oppose this bestiality. But time has passed, she has stood up again, restored herself, and found within the power to take responsibility for all those innocent victims, and to honor their memory.

I am speaking from the future, as if I were there already, but we simply don’t have any other way because darkness lies before us, and we must overcome it. Let’s take that path, it’s not easy, but it isn’t impossibly difficult. It is doable. Especially if we are many. That time in Molėtai. Four o’clock. August 29. We will go visit those who have been waiting for us three-quarters of a century. I believe that as they were doing, they nonetheless knew the day would come when Lithuania would turn back to them. And then they would return to her. Because Lithuania was their home. Their only home, they had no other.

Full text in Lithuanian here.