Friday, August 23, 2013

Deeper into Vilnius

            I shall take a spade and walk off to seek you,
          I shall plow up fields, dig up graves.
          I shall ask the grass, I shall taste the thorns.
          And feel your shadow on my arms.
          And if I cannot reach out to you,
          I shall dig into words and spade into sound.
          Until I shall free the beautiful roses
          Of the dark land where they went down.

                                                      — Abraham Sutzkever, Vilna Ghetto, October 1942

These lines from holocaust survivor and acclaimed poet Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) came to me by way of Deborah Schwartz, from an online album of her Vilnius photos. A writer who teaches at Boston College, Deborah was a fellow participant in Ariana Reines' workshop (see my previous post). Another SLS participant, Ester Bloom, wrote this piece, "Here on Purpose," about her Vilnius sojourn. As you see from Ester's photo, she befriended Vilna Gaon, the person commemorated by this bust (below) in the former Jewish quarter — near the site of the former Great Synagogue of Vilnius, a block behind where I stayed, corner of Stikliu and Didzioji (di-joy, stress on joy), a rental condo above the Amatininkų restaurant, where the baked halibut topped with chopped mushrooms is memorable. 
"Vilna Gaon" meaning, basically, genius of Vilnius, is an honorific accorded to Elijah Ben Solomon  (1720-1797), regarded as the greatest Talmudic scholar of the past few hundred years. 

I don't believe in ghosts but am, in this case, deeply affected by the one-two punch of knowledge & experience: what I've learned about the history of Vilnius and the physicality of being here. The following from the Yad Vashem website speaks to what's been lost with more authority than I can muster:

On the eve of the Shoah the Jewish community of Vilna was the spiritual centre of Eastern European Jewry, the centre of enlightenment and Jewish political life, of Jewish creativity and the experience of daily Jewish life, a community bursting with cultural and religious life, movements and parties, educational institutions, libraries and theatres; a community of rabbis and gifted Talmudic scholars, intellectuals, poets, authors, artists, craftspeople and educators.

"The center of the Jewish world for five or six hundred years was here," says Menachem Kaiser. A writer from Brooklyn, Menachem led the SLS "Jewish Lithuania" seminar, with spirited discussion, walking tours & field trips most of the afternoons I spent in Vilnius. He came here initially as a Fulbright scholar in 2010, and since then launched a remarkable project of historical scholarship, reVilna, a virtual map that rebuilds lost history of the Vilnius ghetto. Please take a look. 

Again, with authority that I can't bring, here's a summary of what happened to Jews in Vilnius after June 22, 1941, when the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia, and occupied Vilnius two days later, as the Soviets withdrew. This is from Menachem's review & commentary (in The Los Angeles Review of Books) on Bloodlands, by Tim Snyder (which I referred to in my earlier post):

The Germans were efficient: Lithuania . . . lost 95 percent of its Jewish population, more than 190,000 people. Most of these were shot in Ponar, a forest about 10 km outside of Vilnius, or deported east to camps, usually in Estonia or Latvia, where they were gassed or shot.

One of the killing pits at Ponar, in the forest outside Vilnius, where the Germans and collaborators murdered 100,000 people, the great majority Jews.
The manpower to pull off such a logistically-impressive cleansing was largely supplied by Lithuanians. There is no question that Lithuanians murdered Jews, both as German subordinates — the Nazis commandeered the police force and mobilized volunteer units — and on their own volition: more than 24,000 Jews were killed by locals in hundreds of pogroms, some of them occurring even before the Nazi invasion. 

Menachem goes on to discuss how there's still, nearly 75 years later, precious little commemoration and public acknowledgment of these events among Lithuanians. It's difficult to address without stirring feelings still close to the surface. Many Lithuanian non-Jews (as well as many Jews) suffered grievously under Soviet rule before and after the Nazi occupation. Many Lithuanians, perhaps especially upper middle-class (since Soviets tended to target their repression at aristocrats and professionals), regarded the Nazis, at least initially, as liberators. This history is painful, complicated and bloody. Tim Snyder's book is well named. 

I could end this post on that. But it would leave out what I feel. These things happened, I've read about them, seen photos & video. I saw the pits in the woods. I listened to scholars telling the story. The awfulness of it is stunning. It happened here. Having been to Vilnius for the SLS program, that's what I feel. I've walked these neighborhoods. I'm a little more wary of the world. Perhaps less inclined to ebullience. I'm older, not only because I'm a grandpa.

It's impossible, I think, to account for these things. Impossible to assimilate into a way of being that makes sense. I've grown up with awareness of Nazi crimes, never understanding it. I have memory of TV programs about Hitler. My father and grandfather both served in WW II & sometimes talked about Hitler. At least once I asked my mother why he wanted to kill all these people. I don't clearly remember what she said, but it was about how he & other Germans hated Jews. I didn't know what a Jew was, but they were people. How could they be hated like that? To murder six million? Hitler was crazy — the closest I came to an answer I could understand, but of course that's not an answer. It's a way to brush off the question.

Why would Germans allow a crazy man to lead their country? One question leads to another, and I think there are no answers, ultimately, that can satisfactorily quiet the questioning mind & heart on this topic.

A couple weeks ago Julie (my girlfriend) and I saw "Hannah Arendt," the movie (very good) about the brilliant woman who, among other things, wrote controversially about the Eichmann trial, coining the phrase "the banality of evil." It's become a cliché that people can say when the topic of the Holocaust comes up in conversation, if it does — which is hardly ever, because we have small tolerance for buzzkill. 

Here's the nut of it. Maybe this is obvious. I want to feel that if I were a young German in 1939 I would have been able to figure out that it wasn't my duty to serve in the Wehrmacht, or to be complicit in any way with the Third Reich. That I would've understood, though many didn't (or chose not to), that monstrous evil was afoot.  I think I would've done the best I could under awful circumstances, that defeated many good people, not to be an accomplice in that. Geezus. I think I need to let go of this. (Insert smiley face here.) Thank you.    


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