Two New Books

The fraught subject of the Holocaust in Lithuania is addressed and broadened by two new books from The University of Nebraska Press, a house that specializes in nonfiction and whose books are available in Canada.

The first is Epistolophilia, the second biography by Montreal writer Julija Sukys. The book traces the life of an uneasy heroine, Ona Simaite (1894-1970), a Vilnius librarian who gained access to the Jewish ghetto while claiming she was going in to retrieve overdue books. On at least one occasion, she smuggled a girl out of the ghetto in a book bag. On other occasions, she brought in food and medications.

Simaite was caught by the Germans, tortured, and imprisoned in a concentration camp, but managed to survive and lived the rest of her life in France as a stateless person, corresponding with a wide range of intellectuals. She never seemed bien dans sa peau, but her uneasiness led to a wealth of musings on books and life.

If the life of Simaite is incredible in itself, the writing in this book is exceptional as well. I first found chapters of it published in the Baltic journal, Lituanus, and was so taken by the quality and intelligence of the prose that I looked up the author to find out when the biography was coming out, and have been waiting expectantly ever since.

My own enthusiasm is echoed in Publisher’s Weekly, which gave the book a coveted starred review.

While looking through the catalogue of the press, I stumbled across another exceptional new book called We Are Here, Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, by Ellen Cassedy.

She is an American writer of mixed Jewish and gentile origins who went to Lithuania to study Yiddish and recover the history of her mother’s life, as well as that of an uncle who had been a Jewish policeman in the ghetto in Siauliai.

What’s so remarkable about Cassedy is that she is something of a detective, interviewing everyone she can about what happened to the Jews and to the Lithuanians as well. She meets an old man in Rokiskis, who feels a need to unburden himself by describing the murder of Jews, which he witnessed decades before, and she speaks to surviving Jews as well.

But she doesn’t stop there. She digs through archives herself and hires others to do so too. She explores the idea of the bystander, the Lithuanians’ grief of their losses under the Soviet period and above all the great tragedy of the Holocaust with a fine sifting of history, circumstance, ambiguous morals and selective forgetting.

What’s so satisfying about this book is that it declines to argue from a fixed position. If I can polarize the extremes of the discussions on the Holocaust in Lithuania (discussions, often heated, that I have had in Vilnius streets, bars, and restaurants), on the one hand I hear accusation against Lithuania as a criminal nation which refuses to acknowledge fully the crimes of its people in the Holocaust and to compensate justly, insofar as possible, those who suffered at the hands of Lithuanian murderers. On the other hand, the argument goes that nobody knows about Lithuania and what it went through in the Soviet period and Stalin’s crimes were as great as those of Hitler (the double genocide debate, which remains a fiery topic).

Ellen Cassedy keeps on asking questions of the past and of those who choose to remember it in a certain way. To summarize her point of view would do an injustice to a book that probes the uneasy subject of moral action in impossible situations.

As an aside, I should add that neither of these books bears directly on my next novel, set in Lithuania in the twenties, but that project is moving slowly while I prepare for a creative writing conference in Toronto in May, and so in snippets of time, I read about the place, and when I am lucky, I come upon books such as these.

Thinking the Twentieth Century – Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder

This transcript of ruminations on the twentieth century by a pair of first-rate minds is not only a fascinating read but also a poignant document because Tony Judt was dying of ALS during the book’s composition and he was looking back on his life and ideas – it’s a kind of summing up by one brilliant and thorny historian as spurred into existence by another, younger one.

Tony Judt became prominent in the public mind for Postwar, a overview of that period after WW2. He subsequently became controversial for an article about Israel in the New York Review of Books. Timothy Snyder has become increasingly prominent over several books, and developed into a bestseller and game changer for Bloodlands, a history of the lands occupied by both Stalin and Hitler.

While there is much to say about each historian, my particular interest lies in their focus on central and Eastern Europe. I became interested in Judt because he wrote that Paris 1968 seemed to him to be the most important event of its time, and he only later came to realize it happened at the same time as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which flew under the radar for most pubic intellectuals. The multilingual Timothy Snyder, of course, has focused on Central and Eastern Europe for a long time.

The book is courageous in many ways because it takes on topics that I never considered before, such as the ideas of fascist intellectuals. Fascism is so discredited (and rightly so), it barely occurred to me that were “intellectuals” in the camp. Who would dare to discuss Fascist intellectuals in Canada?

For that matter, who in Canada would come out swinging as much as Judt does, taking swipes at others such as Norman Davies, himself a great specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, for undue insistence on the importance of Poland in European history, and Michael Ignatieff, among others,  for his support of the Iraq war?

Part of the reader’s pleasure of reading this text is the pleasure Judt himself takes in attacking not only individuals but trends as well. He is particularly sharp on the practice of teaching history through focusing on discrete moments because the method creates students who have lost their grasp of basic content. There’s nothing like watching a good scrap.

Anyone who is not a historian will find the range of references hard to follow at times. But reading the book is like having two of the smartest people you know over to dinner, and listening with delight as their minds range across the century. You might want to take notes for names to look up later or you might just want to sit back and let the whole thing wash over you. One thing is certain – you will yourself be more intelligent after you finish the book than you were before you read it.  And even if that’s not really possible, at least you will be better informed.

Dramatic Biographies Part Four – Jonas Zemaitis

Partisan Leader Posthumously Named Lithuania’s Fourth President

Postage Stamp Commemorating Jonas Zemaitis

If the generation of Americans who fought in WW2 is considered the “The Greatest Generation” for its sense of sacrifice and courage, the same can be said out east, on the far side of Europe, where the suffering was far broader than it ever was in the west. In the west some died and others returned to the developing suburban dream, but in the east, some died, some kept on fighting, and the rest were hammered into dust for the mortar used to build the house of Communism.

One of Lithuania’s most famous members of this generation is Jonas Zemaitis, an anti-Soviet partisan fighter from 1944 to his execution in Moscow in ten years later. Zemaitis and many of his generation stayed behind when the Soviets returned for a new round of terror. Some were simply unlucky, a few may have been collaborators, but most were like Zemaitis – patriots who refused to leave their homes. Astonishingly, Moscow seemed on the verge of naming this underground opponent the new leader of Soviet Lithuania in 1953.

Son of a happy-go-lucky father in independent Lithuania, Jonas Zemaitis sought structure and stability by entering the Kaunas officers’ academy in 1926. He was a solid student who trained in the artillery, working his way up to the rank of captain and eventually being talented enough to be sent to France in the late thirties.

Zemaitis remained behind in Lithuania when the Soviets returned in 1944. The anti-Soviet partisan movement was glad to have him because many officers had been taken in the first wave of Soviet deportations and most of those who remained fled before the second Soviet occupation. The resistance needed men who knew military tactics, and they found their champion in Zemaitis.

Early partisan resistance was military in a traditional sense – the partisans took land and defended it. Zemaitis fought in pitched battles from fortified positions with dozens of partisans in the early stages of the fight in 1944 and 1945. But this was a losing proposition against vastly larger forces, and it became worse when the Soviets defeated Germany and could turn back to concentrate on pacifying their captured territories.

Zemaitis was lucky for a time, escaping in close calls again and again –  even his wife managed to escape from captivity by the NKVD.

But luck was not enough against superior forces. By1948, the country had tired of resistance and partisan numbers were down dramatically, from 30,000 at the beginning to perhaps 2,000. Increasingly, locals were betraying the partisans and occasionally feeding them sleeping mixtures or poisons. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the partisans united themselves under a single command with Zemaitis as their leader.

In 1950 they were still managing to produce an underground press and even received modest funding of a few hundred dollars from the Americans through Juozas Luksa, a partisan who had made it out to the west and returned.

The end of the game was clearly in sight when in 1951, Zemaitis suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed him. Allies were few and resources stretched thin. He could not shelter in a hospital or even a house, so he spent over a year in a bunker being served and nursed by women sympathetic to the partisan cause. But by then the whole movement had been compromised. Too many captured partisans gave in either to torture or pressure against their families or arguments about the inevitable socialist future, and these men infiltrated their former bands. Such was the case with Zemaitis, whose bunker location was revealed in 1953 by his right-hand man soon after his capture.

Zemaitis and the others were taken alive when the bunker was filled with sleeping gas.

So far, this is a story that is broadly the same as hundreds of others in that place and time. Where it changes is at the end.

In 1953, the murderous and paranoid Joseph Stalin died and his right-hand man, Lavrenty Beria, took over the Soviet Union. Today, Beria has a reputation as the most heartless of Stalin’s henchmen, and some believe he would have continued Stalin’s style of terror had he survived. Yet his actions at this juncture hint at the opposite. Beria was looking for accommodation with nationalist forces in both Lithuania and Ukraine. There are some hints that he even intended to put the partisan leaders in positions of power and discard the old Central Committee leaders who had ruled under Stalin’s regime in Lithuania and Ukraine.

After his capture in1953, Zemaitis was interrogated in Vilnius, but not tortured. This fact was a novelty under Beria’s new rules. Then Zemaitis was flown to Moscow where he met in person with Beria for an hour.

What did they say to one another? What was supposed to happen next? We’ll never know. Beria was arrested the next day and executed before the end of the year.

Whatever good this meant for the Soviet Union (Beria was known as a hard liner and his elimination eventually led to a thaw), it meant the opposite, a return to the old ways in Soviet Lithuania. Antanas Snieckus, the head of the Communist Party in Lithuania, was now secure in his place as he had been under Stalin. Zemaitis was returned to Lithuania by train and interrogated, again, without torture. Under interrogation, he sketched out the entire system of partisan resistance in Lithuania, which had crumbled by then.  At least one historian believes he did so to ensure a record of the resistance survived in KGB archives.

In is final statement, Zemaitis insisted that he believed his resistance to be lawful and the Lithuanian Soviet regime the product of an invading force. He said he regretted nothing. Sentenced to death, he was returned to Moscow where the verdict was carried out in 1954.

In 2009, the Lithuanian government declared that he represented the lawful extension of independent Lithuania, and posthumously declared him as the fourth president of the country.

Dramatic Biographies Part Three – Kostas Kubilinskas

The story of Kostas Kubilinskas is something like an East European joke, and by that I mean it is a particularly gruesome story with tragicomic overtones.

Murderer and Children's Poet, Kostas Kubilinskas

Kostas Kulbilinskas died in 1962 and at the time he was one of the best-loved children’s writers in Lithuania. (I mentioned him in an earlier post about Lionginas Baliukevicius  – author of Diary of Partisan.) It turns out he is an excellent example of the type of writer described in Czeslaw Milosz’s Captive Mind, a writer who will do anything to get published. He was a man who became a murderer in order to earn the right to write children’s poetry.

Kubilinskas was born in 1923, one of four children in a poor family. Right from his youth he established himself as a poet of sorts by wining poetry prize at the age of fifteen. He was in high school during the first German occupation, and began to write satirical poems about Stalin and Jews (!). From the very first, it seems he tailored his writing to the current ruling regime. The problem would come when the regimes changed.

Kubilinskas had a knack for rhyme and wrote easily and quickly. Later in life, he was known as the kind of man who could compose rhymes at the printer’s if a magazine had an unexpected white space.

When the Soviets were approaching Lithuania for their second occupation, Kubilinskas decided to stay behind because he felt he was a poet above all and could not leave the land of his language. He imagined he might adapt to the regime by writing for its rulers.

At first this worked well. He joined the Communist Youth League and became one of the promising writers in the new writers’ union. But in 1946, he was identified as a German collaborator and removed from his post. He was unable to publish, and eventually ended up as a teacher in remote village in the south of Lithuania.

It must have felt like banishment to Kubilinskas, but it led to an interesting turn of events. Kubilinskas stood out as an intellectual in these surroundings, and intellectuals were rare and valuable in a land where one crop had been deported to Siberia, another died in the Holocaust, and a third fled before the invading Red Army in 1944. The local ant-Soviets could use a man like that because they lacked writers and intelligencia for their newspapers. Kubilinskas’s friend, Algirdas Skinkys, was in a similar position. Skinkys is almost a double of Kubilinskas, although a lesser double because less talented.

Kubilinskas had said to friends he would go to any lengths for the ability to publish poetry, and the contact with the partisans opened an opportunity for him to redeem himself. He wanted to leverage the partisan contact to gain bigger rewards than the resistance could offer him.

Not trusting the local MGB, Kubilinskas wrote to the chair of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Antanas Snieckus, and volunteered to infiltrate the anti-Soviet partisans. His file was handed over to a Vilnius MGB officer, and Kubilinskas was trained in firearms and deception.

His job was to find local partisan groups, infiltrate them, and assassinate the leaders or bring in troops to do the job if need be. Fearful for their safety, Kubilinskas and his friend Skinkys hesitated to commit murder until they were ordered to fulfill their tasks within the first weeks of 1949 or face the wrath of the MGB.

In a botch job that ended up turning out well for Kubilinskas, he and his friend shot a sleeping partisan in his bunker and then fled to Alytus, a provincial capital, where they summoned MGB soldiers to surround another bunker where several more partisans were killed in a firefight.

The botch occurred when Kubilinskas was identified while fleeing, and thus could no longer be used in other operations to infiltrate the partisans, who issued an execution order against him (which was never carried out).

The botch played to his advantage. Kubilinskas was free to publish as a poet, which he did, with great success. Although he never published much for adults, Kubilinskas became a roaring success as a children’s writer, producing many rhyming stories. He was the Doctor Seuss of Lithuania in the 1950’s.

But Kubilinskas was a drinker, whether because of a guilty conscience or natural tendency, and his alcoholism began to interfere with his work to such an extent that he was sent in 1962 to a sanitarium for alcoholics outside Moscow, where he died under mysterious circumstances, some say murdered by the KGB (the heir of the MGB) for being too talkative. He had lived only until the age of 39. His colleague in crime, Algirdas Skinkys, lived until 1970, reaching the age of 45. The latter, though, never achieved the fame of Kubilinskas.

It seems impossible to the modern western reader that a man so pliable to ruling regimes, and a murderer as well, should be capable of writing lasting poetry, all the less children’s poetry. Yet his choices reflect the reality of Eastern Europe where one had to select among bad choices. Kubilinskas made some of the worst of them.

This egotistical artist was the inspiration for the character called Rimantas in my novel, Underground, code-named Poe for his fondness for the American poet. I chose Poe as his code-name for the gruesome connotations we have for that writer.

What is the fate of the reputation of this murderer? For all his crimes, some readers in Lithuania continue to enjoy his children’s work. Public taste and public morality are two distinct realms, although there are few cases as extreme as that of Kostas Kubilinskas.

Eastern European jokes can be cruel indeed, and the life of Kostas Kubilinskas shows us a man who loved to write for children so very much that he helped murder to get the opportunity to do it.