MEMORY ON JEWISH PEOPLE AND THEIR LIFE TO BE REVIVED IN LITHUANIA
By Dr Inna Rogatchi ©
People on the Field
The landscape in the Central and Northern Lithuania is practically endlessly serene. Especially on a hot sunny day of a premature summer. The idyll of our journey has been suddenly interrupted by a short siren while few black limos were outrunning us sharply. “The Prime-Minister”, – said somebody on the bus. Our diver had a special smile on his face rushing his white bus in the same direction, for the same event. He felt belonging. Then another siren, and another mini-cortege, and yet another one. “Looks like the Speaker ( of the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament), – said another member of our group, – “ and the Foreign Minister, too” – mentioned someone else.
Entering the town of Seduva, we saw an idyll which one can rarely see nowadays in the centre of Europe: a family of quite Chagallian goats was laying serenely just next to the road; a bunch of pretty happy lambs walking nearby, and gorgeous black cow sitting like a queen with such intelligence expression on her face that we were expecting her to open her mouth and to speak any minute. The streets were empty. Everybody was just outside the town, where on a very green field a few dozens of people have gathered. I bet that Seduva never saw such number of black limos with state flags of 15 countries on them, including the USA, France, UK, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden and many others.
We all have gathered at the inviting open field on a May day when the greenery on trees branches is still young but has progressed enough. The branches around us and in the skies were gentle and pretty. It was quite windy, and normally you would be able to withstand such wind for just a few minutes. But we did not care. Nobody of us did, not entire political leadership of the country and many senior politicians, nor all the Ambassadors, not the creme a la creme of the Lithuanian intellectual and cultural elite including the director of the state Museum of Tolerance Markas Zingeris, great film director Saulius Berzinis, or quite many Lithuanian people, both elderly and young ones. There was no hierarchy on the day and the place. All those who came were standing together, shoulder to shoulder, almost literally. The security personnel was very tactful and almost unnoticeable.
The foreign guests who did come specifically for the occasion did not care either: famous Finnish architect professor Rainer Mahlamäki, senior philanthropists from Australia, top- engineer from Switzerland, senior official from Brussels. We all, almost, wore a sun glasses which happened to be quite useful, and not because of sun or wind. It was the one of those rare occasions when you could note a tough security officer wiping his tearful eyes, despite all his efforts not to make it visible.
Emanation of Love
We were all staying next to a rarely beautiful cemetery. When you live long enough, you start to realise the importance and the role of the cemeteries in a different, very personal way. Especially the Jewish ones, those ones from them that had not disappeared, or got demolished. Especially those in Europe. Especially those ones which suffered, in many ways, during the WWI and aftermath of it; the aftermath that went on for decades, in certain respects.
This Jewish cemetery in Seduva had been lovingly restored by the Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund just a few years ago. There are few such noble things in life to be done as to restore the place of the last rest of people of any faith. In our case, in case of Jews, given the history of the XX century, it is a super-mitzvah, consciously carried on good deed of fighting not only natural oblivion, but resisting and overcoming the screaming crimes carried against helpless people so enthusiastically. And even if my friend, poet and writer Sergey Kanovich, son of prominent Jewish writer Grigory Kanovich, would stop his activities in Seduva after completing this task back in 2015, I would feel deeply indebted to him. On my own behalf. On behalf of my family. On behalf of Sergey and mine enlarged, brutally, mercilessly destroyed family of our brethren.
It was a very painful process, the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Seduva. When completed after a three years of hard work, the memorial site of the people who were populated the area in a over 60% proportion, and where there is not a single Jewish person lives for 77 years by now, the cemetery in Seduva had been immediately recognised by receiving Special Mention of the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage a year ago, in May 2017. The experts would tell you that there are not too many, to put it mildly, sites of the Jewish heritage that had received the international recognition in this century. The Seduva one is rather exception, sadly. And it is very important statement, too. Especially in the country like Lithuania, with that boundlessly terrible history of the Holocaust there.
No picture, not even impressive ones taken by a drone, would give you the impression of this place unless you visit it. Here we were, in the middle of green plains of the geographical centre of Lithuania, Jews, Lithuanians, Finns, Americans, Germans, Swedes, French, British; men and women, of all possible ages between 15 and 85; powerful leaders and simple pensioners, artists, architects, and writers, and military officers, film-makers and diplomats, philosophers and IT engineers, businessmen and public figures. We all visited that cemetery on our own, nobody organised it. Our feet moved us all there as if on their own, but it fact, it was the other organ that carried us on there. And everyone who went to the cemetery, was doing it on their own way: professor Mahlamäki was staying on his own, trying to measure some other perspectives than a visual ones; the Speaker of the Seimas, Viktoras Pranckietis who is from this very place, and for whom it was profoundly personal, was washing his hands entering the Jewish cemetery in full accordance with Jewish tradition, simply, without any pomp.
I did not know what and whom I was watching more at the moment: the cemetery which has returned dignity to my people whose sons and daughters had been wiped off life there; or the people who were visiting it on that sunny day in May 2018 with palpable respect and empathy. I thought that I could stay on that piercing wind indefinitely, without being cold for a moment. And those who visited that big enough cemetery were not in rush to leave it, quite in disaccord with a protocol. It was not the day for protocols, anyway.
The Sense of Place
We all came to the cemetery after just finished ceremony that had brought us all together on May 4th, 2018 in Seduva. It was ground-breaking ceremony for the forthcoming museum and memorial complex of an unique concept, The Lost Shtetl. In parallel with the work of restoring the cemetery, the same group of people led by the same man, Sergey Kanovich, has come to the idea to build a museum in that serene, on the first glance, place and to make it a memorial for the people who were annihilated there – and everywhere in Lithuania. The idea is very simple, actually. When Sergey and I were discussing the things around The Lost Shtetl, I have asked him what about the film in making in conjunction with the project is going to be. My friend replied quickly: “About the same what is the museum to be about: it is about a life destroyed”.
And it is that vision that had defined the location for The Lost Shtetl – two hour drive from the Lithuanian capital, at the place which has no other special attractions; among the fields of the Lithuanian plain. There are those who did not get the thought behind this location: “Who needs a museum in a middle of nowhere? A museum must be in Vilnius”, – Sergey have heard from some foreign diplomats whose imagination quite clearly did not lead far. But Sergey, his team, the sponsors of the project, and its creators from Finland and the US all knew that the current location is fundamental feature of the concept. That concept can be described quite simply: everything in The Lost Shtetl project has to be authentic. The creators do not allow themselves a luxury of pretension.
According to the incomplete data, there had been 283 shtetls like Seduva in Lithuania before the Second World War. And, as we all know, there are just 3000 Jews are in the country today, in a shocking contrast with 250 000, a quarter of a million people who were forming 10% of the Lithuanian population in 1941. Should this life which had been so thriving and which is an integral part of Jewish heritage, and more generally, human tradition, be left abandoned? If we will succumb to such lenience of mind and soul, what does it tell on us, those who live today and who are descendants of the people who were living in those places in such density and such intense life? The people like Sergey Kanovich who have got the idea of restoring the Shtetl lost, the people like the private sponsors of the project who has put not only their resources, but their very souls into the process of its creation, deserve a huge gratitude. Clearly, there are many projects of a virtual memory on the subject in our technologically advanced time. Those are good for studies and research. But for the memory to become living, it should be materialised. There is no way around it. This is how a human perception works.
I would never forget the first impression that the one of the few similar projects of publishing the map of the Jewish Lithuania in a pre-WWII period has left on me and my husband: deep sorrow of the life, talent and human spirit erased. I still remember that feeling today although there are years passed since we were presented with the first publication of such map. It felt like a scar on a soul that is not going anywhere.
In a contrast, I also remember the first impression when I have heard about and saw the project of The Lost Shtetl Museum: a wave of a warm gratitude over the reassuring understanding that the destroyed life would be restored now; that the Lost Shtetl to be found.
It is no coincidence that the description on the Yad Vashem entrance contains the words from Isaiah pointing On the Name and the Place. In the magnanimity of the destroyed lives, so many of them at the places unknown, the very meaning, or rather the sense of the place has a prophetic importance. Additionally, a place is crucial because it still bears energy of events and human presence there sometimes even throughout centuries. Those are the places where your emotional memory associates itself with your people, and you are becoming to feel your roots.
With on as many as 283 places in Lithuania for the memorial to its exceptionally talented, versatile, in many senses special Jewry, Litvaks, defining the place for the memorial was a challenge for the project team, I can imagine. Among many other factors, you should also think about the attitude of the local authorities, and of the local population, too. The positive and open stand from their behalf is not necessarily goes automatically in Lithuania, after the unspeaking crimes committed so efficiently and following total neglect for decades after that. In the case of Seduva, the Sergey Kanovich team did meet the people whose heart is in the right place. They have become a devoted partners in The Lost Shtetl endeavour.
There was also meaningful geographical factor in choosing Seduva for the Memorial. After the ground-breaking ceremony, Viktoras Prankievicius, the Speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament, Seimas, was speaking to Rainer Mahlamäki, the Finnish master architect who has designed the building. “Did you realise that this complex will be staying right in the centre of Lithuania, exactly, literally in the geographical centre of our country? It is so very important for us!”, – the Speaker said. It is, indeed. The Lost Shtetl would extrapolate all those 283 disappeared shtetls all over Lithuania. Both intellectually and spiritually, it would speak for all of them. That’s why we all have had such a good use of our sun-glasses in the windy day in Seduva.
How to Build the Life Disappeared?
The Finnish maestro of architecture Rainer Mahlamäki also has quite strong point of feeling the space – especially so with regard to museums, and further on, in particular,regarding the museums dealing with history. “ I believe , and I feel, that any museum of history would not succeed as a building out of the context of the space, – says professor Mahlamäki. – I have had that experience with POLIN ( the Museum of History of Polish Jews in Warsaw), and it is fundamental that the building is a part, continuation and reflection, all at the same time, of the place where it stays. Every time when I am coming to POLIN, and I do it regularly and quite often, the sensation of the fact that the museum stands in the very heart of the Warsaw Ghetto, makes me feel special. Now, with POLIN staying there, it is a dialogue of that so utterly tragic – and heroic – place with the reflections that we are having at the place today”.
Professor Mahlamäki is quite right. POLIN is visited by 2 million people from all over the world annually, and all those reflections indeed are connected to the place of where POLIN stays.
Recently, in the debate ignited by the outrageous law in Poland which aims to censor the narrative of Holocaust, well-known Polish artist and intellectual Dr Patricia Dolowy have written: “All my life I am living in Muratow, and after the war, there was no life there, just huge, overwhelming, haunting emptiness. Until the moment when the POLIN building had been erected there. The life, the sense, the feelings, all of it that has been whipped away so cruelly and so finally, had returned to us”.
I am thinking about this essence, the very sense of making the museum, of erecting the building also in Seduva, by the same architect who related his heart to his creations, in his customary under-stated manner.The design for The Lost Shtetl complex of building is stunning. It is as if it is coming from a dream. “How else one can relate the main message for this project? – tells the architect, – the one on the life gone, disappeared, the life that had been so vibrant and full”. Mahlamäki is saying that after being invited to design The Lost Shtetl, he was facing a serious challenge. “How do you create the building, a complex of buildings that would be telling, visually so too, on something that existed in a full measure, to be whipped from the face of the earth in no time and with such cruelty? It must be a dream, and there must be a light, I thought. Actually, the landscape of Seduva has defined a lot for me in the project. That landscape with its plain serenity and greenery is quite similar to the Finnish landscape that I feel in detail. Light has been crucial for me as for the artist in all my buildings; but for the project like that, light has become an essential element of the design” – shares the author of The Lost Shtetl.
What Rainer Mahlamäki has created as the result of his intense search for the right outcome for The Lost Shtetl is a complex of buildings that reminds Fellini’s images in his immortal films: it is the reality which is born from a dream, and which embodies a dream. It is gentle and loving, and it is very harmonious. It is like one remembers one’s family from a distance of years: the further on, the more gentle these memories are.
I saw all five Mahlamäki’s projects on memorial architectures, three of them on the Jewish history and Holocaust, one on the Siege of Leningrad and another one on the embodiment of evil, the Documentation Centre-Museum of the Nazional-Socialism in Munich. Every time, I was deeply impressed by the degree of tact which the master has put into his projects. In the case of the project for The Lost Sthetl, never boasting about it, Rainer Mahlamäki was scrupulously attentive to the detail of his building from the point of view of its closeness to the Jewish authenticity and tradition. I would not even know about it at this stage of the project unless I would read some professional description of the project: “… such and such details are resolved in this way in reminding of the traditional Jewish way of cover roofs of buildings in shtetls”. Not only the architect produces the shape of his buildings in respect and commemorating the tradition of the people that had been whipped away in the mostly cruel way; but he is not boasting about it. It tells you about the person’s character, his depth and his attitude to life. In the case of Rainer Mahlamäki, it truly is a rare phenomenon.
Applied Memory: To Reject or To Embrace?
If somebody would tell me 10-15 years ago that there would be the people who would not be moved by restoration of memory, I simply would not believe it. Such thing was incomprehensible to me. But with my deep involvement into the sector of the post-Holocaust studies and activities, I am observing sustainable reality of rejection of the new commemorations.
There is two aspects in this pain-caused phenomenon, philosophical and practical ones. Philosophically, there are some people who do believe that there is no way back to the life destroyed. And because of that, there is no need in efforts to reconstruct it. It seems to be artificial to them. To me, such disposition although it contains certain logic in itself, does have a principal flaw. In my view, the more remembrance, the better. What else can we do for those whose lives had been taken so barbarically, except to remember them?.. I disagree with this intellectual claim as too intellectual, to me. Too distant from life.
And life it should be when thinking on memory. Back in 2013, my husband Michael was invited to create the exhibition for the IV World Litvak Congress, in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the extermination of the Vilna Ghetto. His was the only personal exhibition for the event. The responsibility was huge. To surprise of many, there was not a single gloom picture in that collection whose title was Jewish Melody. Michael, the grandson of Sofia Litowska, did explain his thought behind his creation that has been dedicated to his family: “When I was creating these works depicting a lullaby, loyfer, in an Yiddish family, Kletzmer musicians, gentle Jewish accordionist under two white doves, a Jewish girl playing her cello, maestro Jewish violinist who plays staying on a cloud, I was thinking on all of them alive, not dead. I was thinking on them in their finest moments. I was as if hearing their melodies. My point is that even if all of those people did not survive the Night, their melodies certainly are. Our Jewish melody is. Our memory is. It is singing, playing and smiling. I would like to remember those people, among whom there were also the members of my and wife’s families, alive. I would like us to remember their melody, not their torment. I would like their melody to live”. I was impressed to see the people’s perception of that commemorative series. They were overwhelmed. They were grateful. They were smiling. They called it “cosmos of memory”. They understood.
Since then, my husband’s metaphor for living memory had been proved right many times, for different projects and aspects of what I call as applied memory. Working in this field intensively, I can see that acceptance of the concept of reviving memory is not that universal, as one would expect it, on a purely humanistic ground.
There is also another aspect of the same rejection phenomenon which is disturbing. There is a strange tendency of rejection a priory of anything done in the memory of people annihilated during the Holocaust if that anything is happening in the non-Western European countries. Some of those rejecting people are hostile to anything positive what is happening in the countries in which the SS veterans are still marching with honours and where the streets are re-named after the glorious Nazi collaborators. I do understand their indignation over those outrageous activities in a full measure.
I am personally engaged into the fight against those marches from the day that disgust had been started. I honestly am at loss of the civilised world’s position and its closed eyes towards it. I also am monitoring and fighting publicly all and every tendencies of the Holocaust diminishing and its revisionism, anywhere where it is happening.
But what it has to do with rejecting the good things that are happening in those countries? In my view, the appearance of new museums, new projects, new commemorations are the best and the most important things that could happen in the countries in which societies are leaving in prejudice and half-truth. The more just things will be implemented in those countries, the healthier their societies could become. To create such project as The Lost Shtetl it is to seed one more seed of good. I just cannot see why and what for it should be rejected and criticised.
There also another side of this snobbish outright rejection of projects of applied memory. I call it a laziness of mind. Disputing the subject with the one of the critics of the restoration of memory in Lithuania, I have asked this person on how many times he was in Lithuania during the past 30 years. I tried to understand on how familiar my opponent was with the realities there. The answer has stunned me. “What you are talking about? – he said with clear low-key’ indignation. – We-are-not-travelling-there. Not to Lithuania, nor to Poland, and not to Ukraine. Our family did not set its foot on the ground of those places since our relatives did manage to escape from there just before it all started, in July 1941”. It was a clear pride in his voice.
“Well, – I told back – members of our families somehow did not manage to escape. Not from Lithuania, nor from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, Hungary, or Austria, for this matter. And those who did not, had been murdered there or deported to be murdered. But with my husband and with our Foundation, we never thought not to go to the places where our families once lived. Quite the contrary, we were very interested and very motivated to go there, especially to those of the places that had been awakening from their half-of-a century communist-implemented amnesia towards the Jewish people, to support that awakening, to participate in the acts of an applied memory to the best we could while fighting anti-Semitism, Holocaust revisionism, and glorifying the Nazi collaborators. It is only now, unfortunately, that we are unable to visit the graves of our family in Ukraine because we won’t be able to walk on Bandera avenues, or observe the non-stop marches of the neo-Nazis there. And it is only now when the anti-Semitism in Poland has become not only wide-spread-as-usual, but it has become the official policy of the country run by the lunatic ultra-nationalists from the PiS party that we have refused to come there until that government will stay in power there”.
Of course, it is a matter of personal choice to where to visit and what to support. Still, it is hard for me to see how those people who are so active in the sport of rejecting can honour the memory of our past, so tragic one, so fragile one. Clearly, a person is free not to travel, not to know, not to recognise, but in the case of applied memory, it means simply not to remember. Still-born memory does not distinguish the people whose lives had been abrupt in so horrific way. Only living memory does; and the whole The Lost Shtetl project is just that: an effort to make our memory the living one. I do not know more noble purpose.
Contrast of Attitudes: Lithuania vs Poland
While being in Seduva in May 2018 for The Lost Shtetl ground-breaking ceremony, I cannot help but to think on the Lithuanian neighbour, Poland. Could anyone imagine the entire leadership of Poland to be present at the ceremony like we attended in Seduva? Could anyone project such unanimous support by the authorities, both the highest and the local ones provided in accord, with respect and decency, and remorse, as we all who did come to Seduva on the windy day of May 4th, 2018 witnessed there?
I was not the only one who was thinking that way. A very senior European diplomat told on her impressions from the ceremony: “What a contrast between the two neighbouring countries, Lithuania and Poland, on this so vital for both matter of our common history. What a striking contrast!” Another close friend who flew in just after attending official commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Poland just could not held his concern, returning to the subject time and again: “ Practically all speeches at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration , from the (Poland) president to the young activists, were inflamed with strong nationalistic sentiment. Nothing like that happened there during many years I am visiting the country. It is very disturbing; very, very disturbing”.
The world realises what the situation in Poland is today like, and does not have much illusion about it. With the unprecedented official anti-Semitic policy in Poland, the attitude of the authorities in Lithuania to the public restoration of the Jewish memory and respect to the Jewish people is quite different. I am not rosy-glassed on the subject. We know that this very matter is continuously difficult in Lithuania and the rest two of the Baltic states. It is difficult because of the burden of horror which has not been disclosed as it should in none of those countries.
And actually, for better or worse, the authorities’ motivation behind it is of a secondary importance. It is the outcome what matters to us today, in memory of those hundreds of thousands of the Jewish people all over Lithuania, its tailors and its professors, its musicians and its cobblers, its poets and its rabbis, its house-wives and its engineers, and all those children who had no chance to become any of them; those whose dead bodies in August 1941 were ploughed into the ground of the fields around Seduva and many other places in Lithuania. The outcome that would make possible for us and our children and grandchildren, and thousands of students of Lithuania would to come to remember them with love and affection to the white dream-like buildings of The Lost Shtetl, so their souls would have the place to be remembered, in the country where they were living for five hundred years before being exterminated there.
After the ceremony in Seduva, the Lithuanian young people, all between their 20s and 30s, had made another point: “When the museum will be built up and opened, this memorial complex will become so important for all the Europe – because where else one would be able to see the life as it was once all over here and in Europe, too, with all its features, its style and flavour?.. Creating such museum is important not for us only which it certainly is; but it is important in the pan-European context, in the way of how we today are seeing the story of the continent” ,- 30-year old Lithuanian journalist has told me on behalf of the group of his colleagues of the same age. This is the perspective of the Lithuanian people themselves, and it counts – if only because of the fundamental fact that Europe today has been formed as the direct result of the boundless tragedy of the WWII and Holocaust.
In re-assuring way, great architect Rainer Mahlamäki has said about his latest creation, the complex of The Lost Shtetl: “ I can assure you that this building will be staying in a perfect condition for one thousand years. I am making it this way”. I do not remember when I have heard the commitment to memory of the Jewish people made so elegantly and so whole-heartedly. The best of it, he meant it.
Dr Inna Rogatchi is writer, scholar and fllm-maker. She is co-founder and President of the Rogatchi Foundation – www.rogatchifoundation.org . Post-Holocaust is in the focus of her professional and public attention, including series of her Outreach to Humanity special cultural and educational projects. She is the author of forthcoming film and book about the professor Mahlamäki’s works on memorial architecture.