LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 49, No.3 - Fall 2003
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2003 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Alfonsas Eidintas, Žydai, lietuviai ir holokaustas. Vaga, 2002. pp. 477, hardcover, photographs, appendices, selected bibliography, index of personal names, no price given.
This study, translated into English as Jews, Lithuanians and the Holocaust, was written by Alfonsas Eidintas, a well-established diplomat and scholar-historian. He has written more than twelve monographs on Lithuanian political and diplomatic history in the twentieth century, including biographies of the presidents Antanas Smetona, Kazys Grinius, and Aleksandras Stulginskis, and early diplomats of the First Republic: Petras Klimas and Juozas Gabrys.
In 1993, he was tapped over Stasys Lozoraitis for the position of the first Lithuanian ambassador in Washington by the incumbent President Algirdas Brazauskas. Lozoraitis was the favored candidate of the Lithuanian post World War II émigré community, centered in Chicago, for both the presidency and later the ambassadorship. The choice of Eidintas, nevertheless, worked out for the best in the long run. It allowed him to concentrate on his primary duties as chief of mission, rather than involve himself in the somewhat murky waters of émigré politics. Following his tenure in Washington, D.C., he was assigned to Ottawa, Canada, from 1997 to 1999. He returned home to Lithuania in January 2001, where he busied himself as Ambassador at Large for "Special Missions" at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry. What would ordinarily be seen as a quiet hiatus between assignments was very important to the appearance of this book as well as a study published in 2001 entitled Lietuvos žydų žudynių byla, (The Case of the Massacre of the Lithuanian Jews). Special missions often meant Jewish affairs in the Diaspora, outside of the State of Israel, including a period of research at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. His appointment to the post of Lithuanian ambassador to the State of Israel in January 2002 was but a natural progression.
Eidintas's first book was exceptionally well interpreted in English at the conclusion of the monograph by Alfred Erich Senn of the University of Wisconsin. The book was revisited by the same author in this journal, Vol. 47.4 Winter 2001, in a review entitled, "Reflections on the Holocaust in Lithuania: A New Book by Alfonsas Eidintas, Lietuvos zydų žudynių byla."
As Senn tells us, Eidintas is a Lithuanian writing in Lithuanian for a Lithuanian readership in a Lithuanian context. Žydai, lietuviai ir holokaustas, on the other hand, though intended for the same audience, moves through and eventually out of a US Holocaust-Museum-inspired environment, from the past into the present, with at least some hope for a future.
Žydai, lietuviai ir holokaustas is divided into three major parts. The first, "Mūsų žydeliai," is devoted to the history of "our Jews" using a Lithuanian diminutive, the full meaning of which is difficult to translate into English. He traces the evolution of images of Jewry in the minds of an overwhelmingly agrarian rural Lithuanian population as it evolved during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Both communities underwent significant social changes. The manorial society of generations began to unravel, which Eidintas amply describes. The Haskala or Enlightenment challenged the overwhelmingly Orthodox Jewish community in Lithuania. Auszra (Dawn) appeared on the Lithuanian horizon, leading to social, political and economic emancipation, and eventually to a largely homogeneous Lithuanian national state. Clashes between entrepreneurs in both communities were inevitable in a largely agricultural free-market economy.
Part II deals with the Holocaust, or holokaustas in Lithuanian, a departure from skerdynės, translated as "massacre" in his first book, Lietuvos zydų žudynių byla. Holokaustas is not a Lithuanian word, but an international word now specifically applied to the massacre of Jews during World War II. Both the word and the concept are foreign to most Lithuanians, particularly in the homeland. During the Soviet period, as Eidintas mentions in Part III, no differentiation based on nationality or religion was made among the twenty-eight million Soviet citizens who perished at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. Assigning a specific name to the suffering of Jews alone, which seems to exclude everyone else, is not readily accepted among East Europeans, especially Poles, who view occupied Poland as one huge Nazi concentration camp, or by Lithuanians, caught between two evils, the Nazis and the Soviets. Eidintas attempts to bring home to his countrymen what some would view as a strictly non-Lithuanian perception of events.
No one, however, can doubt or argue away the massacres of Jews in Lithuania and elsewhere during World War II. The author thoroughly covers the events, including: Nazi tactics, the Soviet occupations, the struggle of each community against its own most threatening enemyJews against the Nazi Germans and Lithuanians against the Soviet Russiansfor survival, and how the Nazis and Soviets manipulated Lithuanians and Jews. There were those in each community who served the enemy of the other well, with subsequent ruinous consequences. The denial of this simple fact has led to a great deal of acrimony.
Part II of Žydai, lietuviai ir holokaustas is concerned with what is called "The Painful Question," (The Difficult Dialogue Between Lithuanians and Jews, pp. 212-423), including conclusions. Each page is especially worth reading because it reflects Eidintas's research and autobiographical reflections. Nazi Germany was defeated and occupied by the Great Powers: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and France. Lithuania was forcibly annexed by Soviet Russia and incorporated as a constituent republic, in reality a province of the USSR. Lithuania de facto ceased to exist as an independent state. Approximately 60,000 Lithuanians were swept into Displaced Persons ("DP") camps in West Germany, living under the fear of forced repatriation to the Soviet Union and certain death or deportation to Siberia. Jews migrated from Europe, mostly to the United States and Palestine.
In the United States these latter immigrants tended to go their own way. Before World War I, many Lithuanian Jews or Litvaks gathered together in organizations and around synagogues based on their town of origin in Lithuania. Hence the Telshe (Telšiai) synagogue in New York City and the Vilna (Vilnius) Synagogue in Boston. The Lithuanian immigrants settled around their parish church or national hall. In large cities, Lithuanians and Jews intermin-gled at work, at market or individually. Perhaps the only meaningful distinction was that the Jews were primarily identified by religion and Lithuanians by language.
After World War II, the situation did not change much until the arrival of the Lithuanian DPs. Their political interests were the liberation of Lithuania from the USSR and re-establishment of a Lithuanian state. The Jews, unlike the earlier Lithuanians, already had a well developed interest in American domestic politics, as well as in the continued existence of the newly established State of Israel. In the meantime, the United States was locked in the Cold War, with Communism, the Soviet Union, and Red China, and a not-so-cold war in Korea and Viet Nam. The Lithuanians and Jews were on the same side during this battle. While the United States was intent on the liberation of the Captive Nations, including Lithuania, in Central East Europe, the state of Israel became the chief American ally against Soviet encroachment in the Middle East.
The holocaust as such was not an issue. It became one between Jews and Lithuanians primarily through the intervention of the Soviets. Lithuanian émigrés were smeared as being Nazi collaborators in the massacre of Jews in Lithuania. American Jews were shaken by the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and Sokolowe trials. Information and misinformation was fed to the U.S. government and press by the Soviet KGB. Lithuanians were denigrated as "žydšaudžiai," (Jew shooters) and Jews as ardent Communists. Dissent centered around the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the media. Eidintas could possibly have enlightened his countrymen more on this aspect of the subject.
The book continues with the dramatic events leading up to and including the appointment of Eidintas as Lithuanian ambassador to the United States and his continuing role in the development of Lithuanian-Jewish dialogue. At first, there were many individual calls and letters from American Jews requesting information about their Litvak antecedents, genealogy and travel. Then, representatives of Jewish organizations, including Jewish religious, cultural and academic leaders requested meetings with the new ambassador and his staff. Many were openly pleased that Ambassador Eidintas personally, as well as his staff, was so welcoming. After his own visit to the Holocaust Museum, he made sure that a tour was scheduled for every official visitor from Lithuania, alone or in groups, accompanied by a particularly well-qualified embassy staff member. Guests included members of the Seimas and other governmental, educational, religious and private organizations. Many, who really had no idea about the Holocaust, returned home with a knowledge of the subject. The same could be said of Lithuanians abroad, because the topic is brought up to a new level of discussion. This monograph gives scholars as well as general readers much to ponder.
Thomas A. Michalski