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An Interview with Naomi Ragen

This interview was originally published in Military Press.

On the heels of the brutality of what Hamas did in Israel it is important to keep the Holocaust atrocities alive.

Based on real facts, The Enemy Beside Me by Naomi Ragen shows how some countries in Eastern Europe, specifically Lithuania, made their own horrible imprint on Holocaust history.  The Lithuanians brutally persecuted the Jews who were also their fellow citizens. The book makes the Holocaust come alive again through the characters’ journeys.

The story begins with Milia, an Israeli Jew, whose organization’s purpose is bringing Nazi war criminals to judgement. Darius, a professor at a college in Lithuania invites Milia to speak at a conference in Lithuania. Her speech tells the story of families tortured, raped, and killed by their former neighbors. The Lithuanians had the audacity to claim that they were providing aid to the Jews, subsequently becoming heroes, a complete untruth.

This book is a must read for those who need to remember what happened.  Ragen does a good job of showing through her characters the brutality.  But she also allows readers to understand the characters through their personal stories. As Milia and Darius begin their mission, shared experiences profoundly alter their relationship, replacing antagonism and suspicion with a growing intimacy.

Elise Cooper: The idea for the story?

Naomi Ragen:  This story came to me when I was walking down a street in Jerusalem, minding my own business during Covid.  I ran into an old friend, the head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, Efraim Zuroff.  He tells me about a story that flabbergasted me. He co-authored a book titled Our People with Lithuania’s famous author, Ruta Vanagaite. She invited him to be a keynote speaker in Lithuania about Nazi War Criminals.  This was the starting point for this story. I wrote a dialogue between the Nazi hunter, and the son of those living during World War II. This is a story about the here and now.

EC: The book is based on facts?

NR: Yes.  Ruta and Efraim traveled around Lithuania to gain eyewitness testimony.  Instead of her convincing him that Lithuania did not commit war crimes, the situation convinced her. They became very close on this trip and fell in love, just as in my book.  I never thought Ruta, a child of a preparator and Efraim, a Nazi hunter could get close.

EC: There are many details about Lithuania and the Holocaust?

NR: Lithuanians killed over 96% of the Jewish community.  It was neighbors, teachers, and doctors, self-appointed policemen who shot and murdered Jews. They killed as a percentage more of the Jewish community than any other country, including Germany. Today, they are one of the chief Holocaust distortionists. They are trying to falsify what happened to cover their tracks. They are attempting to use a Double Holocaust theory. They say everybody suffered, look at what Stalin did to us.

EC: The Lithuanian executioners were brutal?

NR: They killed with such sadism, ferocity, joy, and enthusiasm. They held public parties to give out the spoils after indiscriminately murdering men, women, and children. I based the facts from first person history and testimonies.

EC:  The story speaks of acknowledgement. Can you explain?

NR:  There can be reconciliation and forgiveness. But on what basis?  First, there must be a recognition of the truth. There must be respect for the mass graves that are being treated like garbage dumps. The mass graves have not been marked in any way. They must stop painting over Jewish cemeteries and building shopping malls. This story is not going away because there has not been any justice and a final meeting of minds.

EC:  Everyone has sympathy for what is going on in Ukraine.  Do you agree many do not know how the cruel the Ukrainians were to the Jews during WWII?

NR:  They joined mobile killing units. There were squads made up of Lithuanians and Ukrainians. I wrote the book now because people are being honored that were Holocaust perpetrators.  Just look at what just happened in Canada where they tried honoring a Ukrainian who was in the Waffen SS unit of Hitler.

EC:  How would you describe the hero, Dr. Darius Vidas?

NR:  Unpredictable, impulsive, organized, and a novelist. He is someone who wants to seek justice. He starts out thinking justice would clear the Lithuanians of the terrible things they were accused of doing. As time goes on, he realizes his country was involved in such savage brutality.  He becomes a true partner to the heroine, Milia, the Nazi hunter. He has guts as he became a true Lithuanian patriot. He has a lot to lose, everything he has accomplished, if he agrees with Milia.

EC:  How would you describe the heroine, Milia Gottstein-Lasker?

NR: She has a dark view of the world, a cynic, with an endless quest for justice.  She compartmentalizes because she is a Nazi hunter. She is based on my friend’s experiences, Efraim. She confronts the truth about what happened to her namesake.  To make her character whole I had her deal with a lot of things: a marriage breaking down and someone who questions her own self-worth as a woman.  She has a lot of insecurities and is losing her sense of purpose. She is trying to figure out where her life is going personally and professionally.

EC:  How would describe their relationship?

NR:  The two of them are in mid-life crisis. But more importantly, they are on a journey together. They want to accomplish something important in both their lives.  They start out as enemies because he wants to prove everything she has said about the Lithuanian atrocities is false. But then he realizes she is speaking the truth. They learned to respect each other and to have compassion.  They now trust each other.  Their relationship was a symbol for the rest of the world. Both are honest enough to accept the truth.

EC:  What do you want readers to get out of the book?

NR: I want them to understand what must be done to honor the victims and to expose all these bogus distortions by countries like Lithuania. They are putting forward Holocaust distortions to erase, cover-up, and rewrite history and silence the voices. I wrote this book quote, “It was not the Jews gripping the past, it was the past gripping the Jews. It will never let them go until there is some kind of reckoning.” This is exactly how I think and feel. These countries in Europe must tell what happened and return the spoils they took. The quote in the acknowledgement summarizes my feelings, “Milia and Darius are both fictional characters.  Their spirits are real and live in all people whose histories have made them enemies.  It is up to us, the living, to make peace with one another.” As Milia says in her speech, there are five things that must be done: mainly Lithuanians need to stop lying about their past, stop honoring the perpetrators, tell the truth to their children, compensate the victims, and make Holocaust education important.

EC:  Next book?

NR: One never knows. At this point, we will see what happens.

THANK YOU!!

This interview was originally published in Military Press.

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