Past shame

by Sigitas Parulskis

Une Grande Nation (Issue IV/2017)

My father was a passionate and intractable drinker. When I was 12 years old, my mother left him. Later on, when I went to study, she went back to him because, as we all know, loneliness can be tiring. I didn’t communicate with my father very much as a child. Most of the time, he wasn’t really on the same planet anyway. Later, a few years before he died, we were able to talk sometimes. Unfortunately he died before I really started to take an interest in his past, and that of my family and also of my country.

In the Soviet Union, drinking alcohol was just a normal part of the culture. People didn’t just drink to cure their spiritual woes. Alcohol was a real social ritual in both large and small groups: It disrupted a conflict-prone atmosphere, then there was a transition period during which there was general disillusionment and then there came the beginning of a new phase in these social relationships – that is, everybody getting together to go to work the next morning. Apart from this, alcohol also gave everyone the opportunity to put aside the masks that the regime forced upon them and really be themselves for a little while.

My father was a shaman of these alcoholic rituals. And it was a ritual that was part of his everyday life. This is what I discovered as I searched for a reason for his abiding passion: My grandfather, Stanislovas, was a farmer and a member of the local militias in Lithuania. In 1940, the Soviets occupied Lithuania and then just one year later, they were replaced by the next occupiers – the Nazis.

I don’t know exactly what my grandfather Stanislovas did in the war; my father told me he had given out ration cards for a while. But after the war, my grandfather was suspected of being a Nazi collaborator and was forced to flee from Samogitia, in north-western Lithuania, to the other end of the country, where he lived until the 1960s under a false name. He was eventually discovered but ended up not going to jail because a Jewish woman, whose life he had saved during the war, found him.

At the time the Germans were carrying out mass arrests of Jews in the country, this woman – a small girl at the time – jumped out of the window. Just at that moment, my grandfather was standing there. He told the girl to run and in doing so, saved her life. That favour was returned by the Jewish woman years later when, in court, she acted as a witness, testifying that my grandfather was not completely a Nazi swine and that there must still have been some humanity in his heart.

I still don’t know what is real about that story and what is made up. Our lives are always a mixture of what really happened and how we remember things. During the time that my grandfather was hiding from the Soviets, my father lived with my grandfather’s brother. After the war his son, Antanas, who had studied at a Communist academy, became a party functionary. He was able to allocate his father a piece of land. This was a piece of land that had formerly belonged to somebody the Soviets deported to Siberia.

And so it came about that one night in 1948, anti-Communist, Lithuanian partisans turned up and shot my grandfather’s brother, along with his wife. They murdered the couple because their son was a party functionary. My father, 14 years old at the time and only half grown, saw it all but the partisans let him live. That left my father all alone – his own father, my grandfather, couldn’t admit this was his son because he would have exposed himself. So my father stayed with various people and did all kinds of work and, in order not to be too sad, consumed a lot of different alcoholic drinks.

Later on, when my father had started his own family, had a good job and had become a member of the Communist party himself, my grandfather suddenly re-emerged: A Nazi collaborator. My father was kicked out of the Communist party as a result. And his situation became utterly shitty.

There are many family histories like mine in Lithuania. And when I try to understand why my people have had it so hard, then it seems to me that an indisputable part of that has to do with our complicated history. Both the Russians and the Germans behaved unscrupulously here and the results of those occupations live on to this day. Victims and executioners, Nazi collaborators and Communists, the deportees and the party functionaries, partisans and Jew killers – all of these are woven together in families, friendship circles and society in general.

And all this has corroded our society from the inside. I tried to work with this history in my 2008 novel, Murmanti siena (in English, The Murmuring Wall). The story it tells is about four generations of one family that toil their way through the 20th century. The centre point of the book is a small city and its inhabitants. And as I finished the book, there was one episode I couldn’t stop thinking about: The shooting of Jews in this town, something I only managed to write one line about. As though it was just incidental. I think I did this because I was frightened of tackling the topic.

Being aware is not just about knowledge or information. The priority should be to know about something, to understand it and to be able to think it through. In the Soviet Union people were supposed to know as little as possible and think about it as much as possible.

There are three main zones of remembrance for Lithuanians since the country recovered its independence: The fight of the Lithuanian partisans, those who were deported to Siberia and the killing of the Jews. Around 30,000 people died during partisan fighting against the Soviet occupation. Between 1940 and 1953, 131,600 people were deported from Lithuania and an additional 156,000 were imprisoned. During the Second World War in Lithuania, around 195,000 Jews were killed here. 

The latter was not a forbidden topic during the Soviet times but it was not a popular one. This may well be because the subject is connected to other uncomfortable ideas for the occupiers, such as an independent Lithuania, the Siberian deportees and the partisans. It was a vicious circle.

Today, as we are free to dust off and organise our own history, we like to identify ourselves with the partisans and the deportees. But we still don’t like to talk about killing the Jews. I cannot honestly say that the topic has been ignored. Books, essays and articles have been published about this. Yet there is still some discomfort about it all. Why? Is it shame or is it antisemitism? Probably both – and the cure for this illness is not an easy one.

Not long ago, in the town where I grew up, a memorial to participants in the June 1941 insurgency, wrecked by the Soviets, was resurrected. The memorial had been put up in the autumn of 1941 and in the 1960s, when it no longer fit with the ideology of the times, it was taken away again. Today it once again honours the eight people who fell during their insurgency against the Red Army.

At the same time there is no single sign in our town that before the Second World War, there were 1,000 people living here, who were murdered on August 25, 1941. That is 1,160 people living here, in a town that had around 2,000 residents at the time. What was the scene in this town on the morning of August 26, when half of the residents were dead? It’s a horrible thing to contemplate. Despite this there is still not a street nor a park, or any other sign that we might think about these Jewish people.

When we talk about the Holocaust in Lithuania, we mainly discuss the ghettos in Vilnius and Kaunas, and about the Nazis who killed those Jews. But the slaughter in the provinces and the special units involved in those bloodbaths, made up of a few Germans and dozens of Lithuanians, is something that myself and many other Lithuanians know almost nothing about.

After the Second World War, the Soviet occupation made it impossible to contemplate the wounds left by the war or to try and heal them. Certain sectors of the population still don’t like to talk about these things and if they do, then they trot out the same old arguments: The Jews were murdered by the Nazis and just a handful of Lithuanian evildoers – who may not even have been genuine Lithuanians. Or: most of the Jews were Communists and KGB agents and their deaths can be justified by conditions in wartime…

I wonder why, when we talk about the Jews,  that we Lithuanians are immediately brought to either offending one another or donning sackcloth and ashes and acting so pathetic, that it’s almost kitsch. Perhaps it is because the Holocaust and the relationship between Jewish people and Lithuanian people was always characterised in a political way when instead, we should really be talking about the human beings, about the mass murder of human beings, who once lived here among us. And that is the only thing we should be talking about.

And if you don’t feel some sense of empathy or shame about that, then there is something wrong with you. Something is not right – that’s what I have felt for a long time but like many others, I was also a subconscious anti-Semite. It was only when I was 45 that I began to fight against this condition, against this lazy and comfortable way of being.

I wrote my 2012 book, Tamsa ir Partneriai (in English, Darkness and Company) about the murder of the Jews in the Lithuanian provinces during the summer of 1941. It is not a history book but more metaphorical – it’s mostly about a Lithuanian photographer who works for the Nazis and compares himself to Jesus Christ. Just like Jesus he can only observe the evil raging all around him but can do nothing against it. Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross; the photographer is forced to hold his camera in his hands.

I don’t know what kind of impact this book had in Lithuania but I do know that it had an impact on me: I became more conscious. Perhaps I should not just be asking myself if I feel shame. Rather I should be asking what shameful things we couldn’t get rid of in the Soviet concentration camps. Or which shameful things we did not learn about in the concentration camps. What did we miss?

The greatest damage that the Soviet times left us with is the deformation of our identity. Soviet Lithuania was like a simulacrum of reality that, in certain aspects, didn’t have much in common with actual reality. And as much as we may not like the idea, we cannot have today without yesterday. And the Soviet era either erased our yesterday or distorted it.

As I wrote my book about the murder of the Jews, I got both acknowledgments and accusations. One day I received a call from a man from my hometown who had fled to Russia with his family during the war, and therefore survived. He wished me strength and told me a memorable story. As the Jews were being forced toward their assassinations, they threw their jewellery and any other valuables they had into a lake.

Today this lake is heavily silted, covered in reeds and very marshy. The lake is almost completely grown over. The lake is like a human memory that has degenerated into a marsh of indifference. If we want to clean up that lake, how should we do it and which values would we be searching for under the watery surface? 

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