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The Lega­cy of the Holo­caust in Lithuania

There are sev­er­al ways that an author comes to a sto­ry. You might read some­thing that ignites your imag­i­na­tion; or you might hear a sto­ry from a friend, or learn a par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing seg­ment of your own fam­i­ly his­to­ry. But wher­ev­er the sto­ry comes from, there has to be some­thing about it that touch­es you deeply and push­es you to engage. There has to be psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral com­plex­i­ty and, best of all, sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters worth know­ing who pull at your heart­strings — whether because of the sit­u­a­tion in which they find them­selves, or sim­ply because you iden­ti­fy with their flaws and strengths — because they are, for bet­ter or worse, just like you.

The sto­ry of Mil­ia Gottstein-Lasker and Dar­ius Vidas in my new nov­el, The Ene­my Beside Me, came to me while I was in the mid­dle of a desert­ed Jerusalem street dur­ing Covid. There I was, tak­ing a walk and mind­ing my own busi­ness, when who should I see com­ing towards me but an old friend — Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the esteemed Nazi-hunter from the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter. My hus­band and I had known Dr. Zuroff for decades. (In fact, his father had been the prin­ci­pal of my husband’s reli­gious high school in Brooklyn.)

We hadn’t run into each oth­er for quite some time, due to Covid restric­tions and our busy sched­ules. But here he was, in front of me.

“How are you?” I asked.

His reply piqued my imag­i­na­tion, and it touched, hor­ri­fied, and fas­ci­nat­ed me in equal mea­sure. I knew imme­di­ate­ly it would make a pow­er­ful plot for a novel.

This is what Dr. Zuroff told me: He had been invit­ed to give a lec­ture in Lithua­nia about the Holo­caust. It is the coun­try where his name­sake had been mur­dered by Lithuan­ian par­ti­sans, a group that fought against Sovi­et forces. Nine­ty-six per­cent of Lithuan­ian Jews were mur­dered, the largest per­cent­age of any coun­try in Europe. The mur­ders had begun even before the first Nazis set foot over the bor­der, with non-Jews killing the Jew­ish neigh­bors who had lived peace­ful­ly beside them for six hun­dred years.

Dr. Zuroff’s efforts to get Lithuan­ian lead­ers to admit these sim­ple his­tor­i­cal facts had so far proved impos­si­ble: the country’s muse­ums, edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions, and polit­i­cal lead­er­ship con­tin­ued to fal­si­fy and dis­tort the hor­rif­ic events that had tak­en place in their country.

Dr. Zuroff encoun­tered all kinds of excus­es. For exam­ple, ​“We suf­fered just as much under the Com­mu­nists, as the Jews did under Hitler.” As they point­ed out, many Jews were, con­ve­nient­ly, Com­mu­nists. Known as the dou­ble geno­cide the­o­ry, this infu­ri­at­ing fal­si­fi­ca­tion of his­to­ry seeks to equate the Sovi­et takeover of Lithuan­ian busi­ness­es and farms, and the depor­ta­tions and hard­ships suf­fered by the Lithuan­ian peo­ple under Stal­in, with the mass mur­ders and indus­tri­al­ized death machin­ery inflict­ed on the Jews under Hitler — the ulti­mate goal exem­pli­fied by this the­o­ry being the era­sure of the Holo­caust com­plete­ly from the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. These nar­ra­tives threat­en to destroy sev­en­ty years of Holo­caust edu­ca­tion in Europe.

For his efforts to fight this mise­d­u­ca­tion and bring Lithuan­ian crim­i­nals to jus­tice, Dr. Zuroff was dis­liked by many. He was sur­prised, there­fore, to have received an invi­ta­tion from a best­selling Lithuan­ian nov­el­ist to be a keynote speak­er at a con­fer­ence focused on the Holo­caust. This writer had braved the estab­lish­ment in reach­ing out to him.

Despite his mis­giv­ings, he’d decid­ed to go.

What hap­pened dur­ing Dr. Zuroff’s con­fer­ence tru­ly required over four hun­dred pages to explain. The encounter with ​“the ene­my” turned into a com­plex jour­ney that led the nov­el­ist and Dr. Zuroff to co-author an amaz­ing book set­ting the record straight on the Holo­caust years in Lithua­nia. This project also helped the two to cre­ate a close rela­tion­ship that blos­somed into love, romance.

How had such a thing been possible?

Dr. Zuroff’s sto­ry touched on so many pro­found issues: What should our moral stance be toward the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of per­pe­tra­tors? Could we, born after the war, hold them, also born after the war, account­able for things that had hap­pened before they were born? On the oth­er hand, how could we for­give and for­get what had been done to our peo­ple? What guide­lines were we to follow?

As the daugh­ter-in-law of peo­ple who sur­vived Auschwitz and Hun­gar­i­an slave labor bat­tal­ions, I’ve often felt ambiva­lent about pur­chas­ing Ger­man prod­ucts. Not for me a Volk­swa­gen or a Miele, a Bosch or a Siemens. Recent­ly I came across a new­ly pub­lished Eng­lish trans­la­tion of a book of first per­son tes­ti­monies gath­ered from the few sur­vivors of the Lithuan­ian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty right after the war. Their words and sto­ries were worse than any­thing I had yet encoun­tered. And I had encoun­tered quite a bit, not only through read­ing but also in lis­ten­ing to my family.

And here was Dr. Zuroff — a major fig­ure in the move­ment to seek jus­tice for Holo­caust vic­tims — falling in love with a Lithuan­ian. How had that been pos­si­ble? And what did it mean for me and the oth­ers who strug­gle to come to terms with our respon­si­bil­i­ties to hon­or our dead with­out let­ting the injus­tice of hatred destroy our moral character?

All these issues were float­ing in my mind as I cre­at­ed the Israeli Nazi hunter, Mil­ia, and the Lithuan­ian pro­fes­sor, Dar­ius, whose brief sojourn togeth­er in the book became my own jour­ney. Slow­ly, I came to real­ize that we should not base our atti­tude today on past crimes, but on the crimes that con­tin­ue to be com­mit­ted. The Ene­my Beside Me is not a book of his­to­ry, but a book about the present and our place in it, as chil­dren of sur­vivors liv­ing along­side the descen­dants of perpetrators.

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5 comments on “The Lega­cy of the Holo­caust in Lithuania”

  1. Sandy

    As Mandi asked…I would also like to know the title of the book you read of first person testimonies. My father, a survivor, was born in Kovno.

    • Mandi Abrahams

      Naomi says the first person testimonies are referenced in the acknowledgements (in Enemy Beside Me, I think) which I haven’t seen as yet being in the UK. The most powerful book of this type I ever read is Avraham Tory’s Surviving the Holcaust: the Kovno Ghetto Diary, (Pimlico, 1991) and of course Masha Greenbaum’s The Jews of Lithuania 1316 – 1945, (Gefen, 1995, 2nd edn 2018). My people were also from Kovno region (Finkelstein). There were Shapiro cousins related to the famous Rabbi Shapiro. In England, the Shapiros changed their name to Sayliss and were based in Sheffield. The Finkelsteins all came to Scotland. My gran received a package from Kovno on the occasion of her marriage in 1933 which has always fascinated me as the family left very early. They were in Oban in the 1860s then in Glasgow. Remembrance keeps our people alive. G-d bless.

  2. Ellen Poor

    I read your latest book during Yom Kippur down times and the days after. I had no idea about the Lithuanian Jews. It was extremely upsetting and I thank you for writing it. It is another wonderful book that you’ve written. Thank you.

  3. Mandi Abrahams

    Could you give the details for the English translation of first person testimony which you mention? I have always been so grateful that my folks had the wisdom to leave Lithuania and Northern Poland while they still had the chance, we cannot imagine what that must have been like, to leave a stable long-standing community that was however becoming ever more tense and frightening.

  4. Dora Matz

    I am reading your book and learning so much about what hapoened in Lituania during the war years. It breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes. I can not stop reading. Great like all your previous books which I have read all. Thank you to bring this story to us, your people.

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