A Difficult Trip

by Linas Vildžiūnas

Rūta Vanagaitė’s [book] “Mūsiškiai” [“Our Own”] differs from other books about the Holocaust in Lithuania in that it was conceived and written as a best seller. As an appeal by the popular author who has a good understanding of public relations to the contemporary Lithuanian public, posing to them the most painful and urgent–although deeply repressed in the subconscious–problem of historical responsibility. The author doesn’t try to make it impersonal (and it would probably be impossible to do so anyway, because the issue involves personal attitudes and personal responsibility), and even sharpens the edges, using a macabre black humor, and also has a certain aplomb and a sense of heralding progress. The latter can be annoying, but the author has sufficient basis to do so. All of this could be perceived as an additional measure to create an effect in aiming for the top ten (or straight for the jugular), and her aim is true because it reached its mark.

Rūta Vanagaitė’s companion in her “journey into darkness” was Efraim Zuroff, whom the author emphatically calls “the enemy,” and this is how she describes the quality of the book which is still being written: “… You told me almost everything about the Holocaust has been written by almost none of it has been read. That’s why this book is so important. It will make the truth revealed by historians understandable to many people, because it will be a book for average people. About average people…” (page 283). It’s probably inappropriate to include this sort of “internal review” right in the middle of the text itself, but it does lay out to whom the book is addressed. Vanagaitė is writing for those whom she calls “good Lithuanians” in whose “families absolutely nobody was involved and didn’t even know any Jews,” neither did they steal their property, those who were born after the Holocaust, and so have nothing in common and want to have nothing in common with it, although someone (the Jews, of course) keeps trying to accuse them of something. The uproarious reaction on the internet and the now four editions published show it was and will be read.

Perhaps over the entire period of independence the discussion of the Holocaust was missing this sort of direct popular appeal. The discussion happened, but in academia (and so it wasn’t read), but it was far too polite in public (and so insufficiently effective, or, if you prefer, somewhat conformist). It did not oppose the government, which only simulated Holocaust commemoration, but in fact approved of its silence, and created a new ethnic mythology while not even attempting to encourage society to come clean. This discussion also failed to condemn publicly anti-Semitic campaigns inspired by the tabloid press and carried out by institutions of government (such as attempting to charge Jewish partisans for war crimes). This is not the same sort of fear of speaking about which Vanagaitė writes and which until now plagues eyewitnesses to the events. It’s more like a kind of weariness and sense of disappointment. All public initiatives were coopted by the state, formalized and in the end strangled.

This is an excerpt from issue no. 18, May 6, 2016, of Spetynios menų dienos [Seven Days of Art]. The full text in Lithuanian is available here.