ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 59, No.1 - Spring 2013
Editor of this issue: Jurgita Staniðkytë

Book Review

Van Voren, Robert, Undigested Past: The Holocaust in Lithuania. New York: Rodopi, 2011. 195 pages. ISBN 978-90-420-3371-9. Paperback, $29.00.

In recent years, the theory of a double genocide has dominated politics, scholarly research, and Lithuanian-Jewish relations. Simply put, it states that Eastern Europeans suffered as much or more from the Soviets than the Jews did from the Nazis. In Lithuania’s case, it also justifies the participation and collaboration of native Lithuanians in the Holocaust. It even suggests that the killing of Jews was justified in part because they had worked with the Soviets in deporting Lithuanians to Siberia. It blames the victims for what happened. Robert van Voren’s book presents a balanced account of the Holocaust that explains, but also rejects the theory of the double genocide.

Undigested Past is a synthesis based on secondary works. Starting with a historical analysis of the origins of Jews in Lithuania, van Voren proceeds to anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis, and even an attempt to find an answer to why it happened. The author then contrasts Dutch and Lithuanian behavior during the Holocaust. Van Voren even examines the psychology of the perpetrators, who were “ordinary” men. A graduate of Amsterdam University in Sovietology, he obtained his Ph.D. at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, where he currently teaches Political Science. He also directs and teaches at the Center for Cold War Studies at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia.

In the chapter entitled “The Holocaust in Lithuania,” van Voren squarely blames Lithuanian perpetrators for the speed and savagery of the murder of Jews in Lithuania. “All over Lithuania, local gangs or units formed by the Lietuviø Aktyvistø Frontas (LAF) took things into their own hands and organized local shootings” (89) and “...two-thirds of the Lithuanian provincial Jews were killed by locals, without any Germans around” (78). Nevertheless van Voren states: “But all documents show that, in fact, it was the Germans who orchestrated most of the killings ...” (70) To be sure, assessing blame for what happened is thorny. The events of the Holocaust are still being debated today, and the debate is contentious. Some consider the LAF patriots trying to reestablish independence, whereas others see them as collaborators, currying favor with the Nazis by willingly killing Jews. During its very short existence, the LAF could not organize or control all the anti-Jewish vigilante groups that surfaced in Lithuania, but it is fairly clear that they knew of, or tacitly fostered, the murder of Jews. Among its many concerns, the LAF wanted the executions done quietly (82).

Although the chapter on Dutch compliance with Nazi directives presents a contrast to the Holocaust in Lithuania, other than presenting a transnational comparison of different Holocausts, this extraneous add-on does not explain anything about the Holocaust in Lithuania. The Dutch bureaucracy seems to have done its job delivering Jews to the Germans, whereas Lithuanian individuals went on a frenzied killing spree.

In seeking objectivity, van Voren’s intentions are in the right place, but this is otherwise a poorly written and unoriginal book, adding very little to the debate about the Holocaust. Out of a bibliography of over eighty books, he repeatedly refers to the same authors, often citing them consecutively over several pages. One would do better to seek out and read the works of historians such as Liudas Truska, Saulius Suþiedelis, Christoph Dieckmann, or Vygantas Vareikis.

Van Voren has written a harmless book. In Undigested Past, he stands on the correct side of history, but his stance is neither new nor remarkable. Anti-Semites will no doubt denounce this book. But herein lies the dilemma. When analyzing the moral dimensions of the Holocaust, the psychological makeup of the perpetrators should not be justified. Nor can there be dispassionate neutrality on the subject of the Holocaust. Currently, government officials and many Lithuanians in general say, “Let the historians do their job researching the subject and then assess any blame.” Unfortunately, even the best historians have the same foibles and prejudices as everyone else. Seeking neutrality on a subject like the Holocaust is either a naive goal or an impossible task.

There is a larger issue with the series On the Boundary of Two Worlds: Identity, Freedom, and Moral Imagination in the Baltic, of which this is volume thirty-one. The contributors to this series, published by Rodopi, are among some of the best, most important scholars in the Baltic States, but most of the authors are not native speakers of English. In spite of executive editor Leonidas Donskis’s endorsement that van Voren “tells an exciting story with a lively narrative” (xi), this volume, along with many others in this series, is rife with misspellings, odd word choices, grammatical mistakes, and substandard English, which in some cases make the narrative so confusing that the reader cannot even understand the intent of the author. There are too many spelling errors to cite. Sentences like, “One tot... wore a pair of oversized coarse woolen stockings whose feet were full of wholes,”(44) are found throughout.

A much better, more original, albeit polemical, collection coming from the same series is The Vanished World of Lithuanian Jews. Edited by Alvydas Nikþentaitis, Stefan Schreiner, and Darius Staliunas, and prepared as a follow-up to two conferences, this is a “balanced” book, with essays and articles from the best Israeli, American, British, German, Belarusian, and Lithuanian scholars. Van Voren’s synthesis pales in comparison. The English-speaking world needs a comprehensive historical synthesis of the Holocaust in Lithuania, but this book is a weak introduction to the subject. 

Virgil Kraupauskas