The Precedent of the Binkis Family

New book entitled Price of Concord/Memoirs;Portraits of Artists; Interactions of Cultures by prof. Markas Petuchauskas („Versus aureus“ Publishers, 2015;; is available to the readers.

Please find the extracts about prominent Litvak artists from the book.

I had already written a review about the play Dress Rehearsal by Kazys Binkis. It was stage director Henrikas Vancevičius who for the first time dared to save that play from complete forgetfulness by staging it. By publishing my article in the newspaper Tiesa, run by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, I wanted to support Binkis’ European level play, which was a new word in our dramaturgy. That was the play which, unused, had been lying in the drawer for a very long time, and which had given lots of doubts to our men in power.

When I proof-read the text, prepared by the publishing house, I felt sick. The main emphases of the review had been changed for another text, underlining the professional limitations of the play and of its production as well. The emphasis was laid on Binkis’ inability to differentiate between the right kind of wars and the wrong ones. All of that had been flavoured with usual Soviet phraseology. I was enraged, and I told them I was retrieving my article, because the present text was reversing my review and was putting it from head to foot.

I was explained that the article had been corrected by the editor-in-chief himself. Genrikas Zimanas desired to speak with me. Following a long and difficult conversation, the editor finally agreed that I might restore my main statements and lay the main accents in the already proof-read text. He promised that the article would be printed the way I had wished it to appear. Next morning, though, I saw the text in the newspaper. The text verbatim repeated what the editor had set down in writing. I, as a critic, experienced one of my most disgusting days.

In the morning Sofija Binkienė, the writer’s widow, phoned me. As I had mentioned it before, we had known each other for years. She could not understand how I could have behaved in that odious manner. Sofija, as a profound-minded human being, still possessing a rare quality of decency, believed my disturbing explanations. Our relationship was not dimmed by any shadows.

That event made my life very bitter, though. I suffered the feeling of guilt towards the family of the Binkiai as well as to Kaunas’ theatre, which had been fighting for possibility of staging the play. I understood that under such circumstances nobody would dare to publish my opinion about the Dress Rehearsal after review in the party-run paper. Not in the nearest future at least. Instead I wrote an article in Russian. In that article I set forth all the ideas which had been deleted or distorted by Tiesa. Very demonstratively I sent the review to the prestigious magazine Theatre in Moscow. I hoped that the trust in my qualifications and a good taste displayed by the theatre researchers contributing to that magazine would work in my favour. I was not deceived. In half a year’s time, an article entitled Dress Rehearsal was published in that magazine. This time, the article was not `castrated`. Tiesa had no alternative but to keep mute. I tried that method even later, when I wanted to support a performance disturbing the sleep of our vigilant functionaries.

I had mentioned it before that a very similar thing had happened regarding Grušas’ work staged by Miltinis’ theatre. Following my article Let We Defend Beatrice published by the newspaper Literatūra ir Menas in January of 1969, the passions about that production continued to seethe. Those passions were being instigated by functionaries and also by some representatives of the theatre. My article The Tenacity of Beatrice, published by the central newspaper in Moscow, managed to calm down the most ardent opponents of the performance in Panevėžys.

Speaking in general terms, the first published review used to determine the future fate of a new performance. In those days, the cult of one opinion prevailed. It was not accidental that the first sounds produced by a theatrical `tuning fork` were extremely important if one wished to support the performance, able to raise the doubts of `cultural orchestra conductors`. Certainly, the reverse could also happen, when the first article excited an even higher turmoil of discontent. All of that determined the character of the daily work of theatre researchers.

When Sofija Binkienė was preparing her book about the saviours of the Jews during the times of the Holocaust, I, requested by her, wrote the article The Unforgettable Lithuanians. Though many more brave Lithuanians had been saving my mother and myself, I chose to write about the family of the Ruzgiai. I tried to support them. By that time a journalist and a literarian Jonas Ruzgys had already returned from the Stalinist Gulag, but he had not been rehabilitated yet, and nobody wanted to publish his works.

I intensified my efforts for Ruzgys to be rehabilitated, and even incorporated into the Writers’ Union. I addressed the people I knew who were working in the secretariat of the Writers’ Union. Following all sorts of co-ordinations, the requisite papers were prepared. However, everything was turned upside down when the papers were placed on the table of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party Antanas Sniečkus. It turned out that, following the coup of 1926, the arrested social democrat Ruzgys had found himself in the same cell with Sniečkus. Both of them had ample time to argue which ideas – social democrat or communist – were superior. The way Ruzgys remembered it, the heated arguments used to become very furious sometimes. On reading the surname of Ruzgys, Sniečkus seemed not to have forgotten his unbending opponent and, the way I had been told by the people who had witnessed the scene, Sniečkus banged the table with his fist: “Never! He is not our kind…” That was how Ruzgys’ rehabilitation ended.

On reading the manuscript of my article about the Ruzgiai, the sensitive Binkienė felt it to be her duty to ring me up and to warn me that I had better think before presenting that article for publication. In her opinion, acting as a theatre researcher and a member of the Academy of Sciences, I could expect a great opposition on account of similar articles. That was what Sofija Binkienė was like.

Thanks to that brave humanist, the book Unarmed Fighters appeared in 1967. In Soviet times, that was a unique and the only publication of the kind. In those days, nobody even mentioned the Holocaust. Soviet propaganda wrote only about the killings of Soviet people during the times of the Nazi occupation. Binkienė’s book broke the cover of the pharisaic propaganda. The book became a monument to a number of the unknown brave people who had resisted the genocide of the Jews in Lithuania. The book became the monument to Sofija Binkienė herself.

The book was published in proper time. The start of the war in the Near East as well as the opposition, extended by the Soviet Union against the state of Israel, alongside with the defeat, suffered by all the instructors and advisers sent by the Soviets to the region, called for a response which incited another wave of anti-Semitism. In Moscow, another artificial anti-Zionist committee was brought into being. The invasion into Czechoslovakia, with the aim of suppressing the Prague Spring, began. It is very doubtful that Binkienė’s book could have appeared under the latter circumstances.

The home of Sofija Binkienė (1902–1984), or the home of `Aunt Zosė`, the way the saved people called Binkienė’s abode, presented the whole epopee of the struggle for human life. In fact, the place run by Sofija Binkienė set forth the headquarters of the opposition to the Nazis.

Similar headquarters were linked with the name of another brave Lithuanian woman Ona Šimaitė, a journalist and a librarian. Her `home` was the library of Vilnius University.

In memory of Binkienė the fourth book Hands Bringing Life and Bread was published in 2009. The compiler of the book Danutė Selčinskaja collected lots of new material about that unique woman, who bravely defended the honour of her nation during the gruesome years of the power wielded by the Nazis.

In the above mentioned book, some of the saved people remembered: “Up to now we could not understand how Sofija Binkienė could feed so many hungry and rejected people. Her income was less than meager. Once we found her sleeping on the floor, because she had given her own bed to the woman who on that very day had escaped from the ghetto.”

When listening to Binkienė’s narrative, I could not understand how she could accommodate all the people who were asking for her help, though her flat had been overcrowded even before that. Once I asked her unwittingly: “Was your flat in Kaunas made out of rubber?”

In Soviet times, when travelling with a tourist group across Poland, I got acquainted with Vladas Varčikas, who was Sofija Binkienė’s daughter’s Lilijana’s ex-husband. Our group visited the death camp in Oświęcim. We all were deeply shaken. Under the influence of those impressions, Varčikas started talking about the events in Kaunas during the occupation.

I had heard about the breathtakingly brave Varčikas’ `trips` to Kaunas Ghetto before. As he was darkish looking by birth and resembled a Jew in that manner, he used to hang a yellow star onto his chest and, having entered the column of the people returning from work, he would enter the ghetto. He used to instigate the Jews to save themselves, that is, to flee from the ghetto. Varčikas promised to help them.

During the tourist trip we became very close. Later we communicated in a very friendly fashion for years.

I remember that once, on meeting me in Vilnius, Varčikas narrated the following story to me. He had addressed a very high-standing party functionary, asking him to procure some aid for a poor and sick man. The latter had saved a number of people during the Nazi occupation. The functionary responded in a very dignified manner and stated that the savior of the Jews was not a fighter against Nazism, and that was why that man could not aspire to be granted any support by the Soviet state.

Throughout his life, Varčikas was taking care both of the saviors and of the survivors. He was a very sensitive and modest man. He also was a fearless fighter, especially when a human being had to be defended. That was what a violin player of Kaunas, Vladas Varčikas, was like.

I continue listing through Binkienė’s book Unarmed Fighters. The book seems to be relevant to our present times, as if it were written just today.

In front of my eyes a small house in Vydūno Alley arose. In that house, all the big family of the Binkiai found room. Indeed, the house seems to have been made out of rubber…

At that time the young daughter Irena was a teenager. She was a beauty who could pride herself on her wavy light coloured hair. She was merry, and she constantly exuded her young spirits. The second daughter was Lilijana. She was the future actress. The eldest daughter was Eleonora. There was also the son of poet Kazys Binkis, Gerardas. With the exception of Ge­rardas and the poet himself, I seemed to have been acquainted with all other members of the family.

Varčikas used to narrate to me the episodes of impressive rescuing of the people by poet Kazys Binkis and his wife Sofija Binkienė. Gita Judelevičiūtė described such rescuing events in greater detail in the aforementioned book.

At the start of the Nazis occupation, writer Kazys Binkis (1893–1942) was gravely ill, and doctors’ forecasts were very pessimistic. That was why his wife Sofija as well as the other people in that house was trying to prevent the sick person from experiencing any disturbance. They did not speak about the rescuing of people. They were hiding even those who had been rescued. Judelevičiūtė remembered how she, still a young girl, was being hidden from the dying patient at the beginning, and what kind of warm relations developed with the poet later, when they were fated to meet accidentally.

Binkienė told me later that her husband had understood it immediately, that it was not a relative who was living in their flat, but a Jewish child.

“The murderers are going to confront their ruin. It cannot be otherwise. I shall not witness their end, because my health will not permit it. You will be a witness of their ruin.” Gita Judelevičiūtė remembered the words uttered by the writer. “When talking to my mother, who had come to visit him, Binkis spoke about his dream to organize special shelters in the forests of Lithuania, the whole net-work of those shelters, where hundreds or thousands of people could be saved from the fascists.”

The ex-wife of stage director Borisas Dauguvietis, Olga frequently visited the home of the Binkiai. That quiet and gentle woman seemed not to have been afraid to save a great number of people. She also was my old acquaintance. Olga Pavlovna Kuzmina was another luminary in our firmament.

Who knows how many people found sufficient room in that the Binkiai `rubber house`. There were the simple folk among them as well as famous musicians, theatre people and doctors.

“There used to be such evenings,” wrote Judelevičiūtė, “when we opened the doors to all sorts of people nearly every hour. The people used to travel along the same roads, following which the victims of Hitler’s regime were being saved.” Those were the roads laid down by Sofija Binkienė.

In the Soviet History of the Lithuanian Literature I had not discovered a single word referring to the activities of Kazys Binkis and of those of his wife in rescuing the Jews. Not even in the form which was permissible in those days, which was the phrase `saving Soviet citizens`. The authors of the academic edition, who were very famous researchers in literature and history, and who had minutely analyzed all the ideological `limitations` of the poet, did not feel any need even to mention Sofija Binkienė, though she even in Soviet times, that is in 1968, arrived in Jerusalem, and participated in her reward Righteous among the Nations ceremony organized by Yad Vashem Institute. She also planted a traditional tree of Remembrance in the Avenue of the Righteous.

In other Soviet encyclopedia, we would not be able to read even a word about well-known Binkis’ hatred for fascism, or about his participation in rescuing people either. Even his play the Dress Rehearsal was referred to as an anti-war play. Sofija Binkienė was not even mentioned anywhere. But the names of those `deserving` people who had merited their awards in the service of Soviet Lithuania made a very interesting reading, indeed.

In the General Lithuanian Encyclopedia, which had appeared already in the times of the Independence, we could not find much more information regarding the play the Dress Rehearsal: “that is a drama of the grotesque, which, by using a modern conditional form, emphasizes the absurdity of the war”. Did that General Encyclopedia, which appeared in our new European state, find the idea about the hatred for fascism and the occupation equally unacceptable?

The President of the Republic of Lithuania awarded Sofija Binkienė with the Life Saving Cross in 1999. Even now, when Binkienė’s name has been bringing fame to Lithuania all over the world, she was not mentioned in that encyclopedia. I discovered the only article, revealing the truth about the anti-Nazi activities carried out by the family of the Binkiai, in the free encyclopedia Wikipedia in the internet. Does it mean that is the only free encyclopedia?

The precedent of the Binkiai, about which I had intended to present an optimistic narrative, acquired a new meaning, which was quite unexpected even to myself. This new meaning turned out to be not quite optimistic. Shouldn’t it be taken as a warning sign on the road of our new life?

Anyway, the grateful human memory does not always depend on the honesty of encyclopedists, which is evidenced by numerous memoirs about rescuers in Lithuania abundant in Danutė Selčinskaja`s book. The book presents a significant continuation of Sofija Binkienė`s book Unarmed Fighters opening the gratitude of ones and the heroism of others ans a deep spiritual relationship between them. Such a spiritual connection is felt particularly strongly when reading memoirs of the people rescued by Sofija, the letters of their children and grandchildren.

I also feel this spiritual connection. Despite the fact that I was rescued by other people, Sofija Binkienė`s influence on the young journalist attempting to understand his place in life was immense, not only from the perspective of moral values. I admired her extraordinary intelligence, the ability to organize, in a calm manner, without empty words, and conscientiously, the daily activities of the Radio Studio for Children and Youth in the Soviet period, during the complex years of `formation of the Soviet person`.

I am very pleased that after Sofija’s passing away, my friendly links with her daughter Lilijana as well as with the grandchildren were not severed.