In remembrance of signatories of conscience
Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky’s observations on the eve of the 103rd celebration of February 16
We live in good times, incomparable to those which the Lithuanian Jewish community experiences eight decades ago. We live in a time of great achievements and at the same time there is still much to achieve. We live at a time when we still have to explain and defend ourselves, and we do this patiently but resolutely. We live at a time when society is crossing swords over ideas, attitudes and, most significantly, statues. Let this be the tale of two statues which don’t exist.
We are about to celebrate February 16, Lithuania Day, for the 103rd time. When we name the names of the signatories to the Lithuanian Act of Independence, this shows that the date for us is not just an historical day, but the triumph of the personal decision made by specific people whose result–a free and sovereign country–we all enjoy and take pride in. In the context of February 16, let’s also remember another group of people, a group I call signatories of conscience, the people whose decision resulted in hundreds of lives saved.
During the different Holocaust commemorations we often hear people taking pride that over 900 Lithuanians have been named Righteous Gentiles, but I don’t hear their names or their stories. I see the lack of context. And the context is very simple: the citizens of the first Republic of Lithuania, the same people who forged the young state, heard the Jews’ cry for help and responded. Do you think about the fact that generation which hid persecuted Jews on their farms, in their apartments and basements were the same people who created the first Lithuanian Republic? That they are the same generation whose achievements in art, learning and politics we take pride in today, whose deeds and lives we cite today as examples in the creation of the state? They include the family of February 16th signatory and engineer Steponas Kairys, and Lithuanian president Kazys Grinius, and the daughter of M. K. Čiurlionis, one of Lithuania’s greatest artists, Danutė Čiurlionytė abd her husband Vladimiras Zubovas, the family of Lithuanian writer Balys Sruoga, the family of writer Kazys Binkis, and professor Pranas Mažylis, the grandfather of Liudas Mažylis who rediscovered the original Lithuanian proclamation of independence German archives. They include Ona Jablonskytė, the daughter of the founder of the standard Lithuanian language Jonas Joblonskis, and his daughter-in-law advyga Jablonskienė. And not just presidents and professors, but simple village people were able to make the right choice. These are names which are inseparable from the history of Lithuania. Why don’t we want to erect a statues to these people, Lithuania’s signatories of conscience?
A statue would commemorate the symbolic bond between people who some now want to divide into separate camps or through the imposition of artificial categories. But history shows the signatories of conscience are above the categories we create. Righteous among the Nations Konstancija Bražėnienė, for example, who rescued Jews from the Holocaust and was later deported to Siberia, and who is the mother of Nijolė Bražėnaitė, the wife of legendary partisan Juozas Lukša-Daumantas. There is no monument to her deeds which might demonstrate the complex history of the Bražėnai family and of Lithuania as a whole, and there are many such families in Lithuania.
Each year rescuers are awarded the Life-Saver’s Cross, and in recent years their children and grandchildren who have received the award on their behalf, are proud of the story of their families and relatives. They are proud of Lithuania’s history where there was a place for courage, sacrifice, conscience, humanity and gratitude. We Jews who survived, the children and even grandchildren of survivors, feel gratitude towards the rescuers. But we have no place where we might visit and light a candle of commemoration and respect,. we have no place where we could tell the story of the miracle of our survival.
There is another monument which is missing from our society. That’s a memorial for Holocaust victims. Some people might say Lithuania is filled with such “monuments,” gravel pits and memorial stones next to them with inscriptions, often dedicated to “Soviet citizens.” A Holocaust memorial, however, isn’t intended for one specific place or one specific person, and there is no stone large enough to contain the names of 200,000 Jews murdered in Lithuania. No, this memorial is also a symbol, just as the Vytis or Mound or statue to Jonas Basanavičius are symbols. They stand on our streets and remind us that this person or event is important to us and worthy of remembrance. Not just personal memory, limited to family photo albums and recollections, but worthy of remembrance by society, something we all share and pass on.
There was the hope the Ponar Memorial Complex could fill this gap in public memory regarding the Holocaust. That location where all politicians and diplomatic delegations who come to Lithuania visit, the place where now the fourth generation of survivors visit to pay their respect to whole generations of Jews buried in the pits there, has more than enough power in and of itself to serve as this sort of monument. The plan to make it such, however, has become bogged down. To the passer-by who doesn’t know, Ponar continues to appear as just a few mounds overgrown by pine trees with a small building made of white bricks next to it. A memorial? There is even a lack of clear road signs and directions to this gigantic mass grave.
Therefore it’s not just the Jewish community, Litvaks and diplomats who need a national Holocaust memorial. Lithuania needs it. It needs it so public memory could embrace the history of the Holocaust and with it the history of the Jews of Lithuania. It needs it because in this country we like to erect statues to those who are important to us. And I would gladly take part in the discussion of what sort of monument to build, and even in the discussion of whether we need such a monument. We need it. So that once and for all we admit to ourselves there were horrific crimes and incredible miracles which took place in this land. And that there is an end to the tale of two statues.
Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman
Lithuanian Jewish Community