Lithuania is experiencing a defined period of rediscovering its roots as an open and tolerant society. However, there is still a long way to go.
As I write on this crisp autumn morning, standing amongst recently restored Jewish tombstones of a lost shtetl in Northern Lithuania called Seduva, I am struck by the societal changes I see evolving.
While Samuel Gochin’s family faced death from starvation in Ukraine, his right to return home after the war was repeatedly questioned by the then government of the newly independent Lithuania, It took three years for him to come home. He returned to a country that while tolerant, viewed Litvaks as an alien intrusion into the nationalist vision of a culturally homogeneous state. Sadly for him and all Litvak’s, Lithuania of the 1920s had become a place where he no longer felt comfortable. Like thousands of other Litvaks, he left for South Africa. My father and I were born in South Africa. An estimated 90% of South African Jews have Lithuanian heritage — it’s the largest intact Jewish Litvak community in the world.
Nationalism can be a powerful force. When nationalism becomes exclusionary and self-destructive, when it fails to respect diversity, it has reached the limits of its usefulness and becomes pernicious. Nationalism turned deadly in 1941, when the majority of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered. By then, it had become the norm to cast Litvaks as resident aliens, even traitors. Lithuanians should have rather considered Litvaks as brothers and sisters who needed protection from the coming Holocaust. Ethnic Lithuanians assisted the Nazis to murder well over 200,000 Lithuanian Jews, 96.4% of the Jews on Lithuanian territory. It was safer to be a Jew in Nazi Germany, then it was to be a Jew inside Lithuania.
By sheer luck, my ancestors avoided the fate of those that remained behind. I harbor great respect for Litvak heritage, and in many ways, I also sought to ‘come home’, to become a Litvak citizen of Lithuania, as my grandfather had been. After years of efforts and litigation, Lithuania’s Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled in favor of truth. I detailed the experience in my book Murder, Malice and Manipulation: One Man’s Quest for Truth. Lithuania proudly proclaims itself a European country, however, when it comes to acknowledging the basic rights of its Litvak citizens and their descendants, Lithuania clings to dishonesty, myths and prejudice. This is also based upon finances. Lithuanian Law precluded restitution of stolen property unless the claimant was a Lithuanian citizen, therefore, it became necessary for Lithuania to deny Jewish citizenship applicants in case of the possibility of a property restitution claim. Restitution is now no longer possible and this has encouraged the Lithuanian Government to become more truthful in current applications, which no longer present them any financial threat.
I have been privileged to meet dozens of honest Lithuanians including diplomats, politicians, civil servants, academics, civil society activists, businesspeople, religious leaders and indeed ordinary concerned citizens, who are working to restore and protect Lithuania’s Litvak heritage and identity. Many have become both friends and colleagues. I join with them and lend my support to the struggle for an inclusive Lithuania.
I serve as Chair of an organisation called Maceva, whose mission it is to preserve the remnants of Jewish culture in Lithuania. My Maceva colleagues and I are working to make the Seduva Lost Shtetl project a reality. Together with the generous support of a South African Litvak family, originally from Seduva, we are restoring the graves of our ancestors and erecting monuments to those who perished at mass murder sites. In the same manner that our ancestors contributed to their Lithuanian communities, we continue to do so, by renovating municipal buildings and donating medical equipment to our fellow Lithuanians. Now we begin the arduous and exciting task of planning and building the Lost Shtetl Museum of Jewish Lithuanian Life. The museum will stand as a reminder for all of us of the substantial role we played and what has been taken.
The attendance of Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, as well as other Lithuanian dignitaries, civic leaders and ordinary citizens at our dedication of the restored cemetery and monuments, is evidence of a changing society. Their words of remembrance, coupled with regret, and their promises of ‘never again’, illustrate a dawning appreciation for the memory and tragedy of our people.
I have proposed to the Lithuanian government that they make a large scale, genuine offer of reconciliation to all descendants of Litvaks. We want the message to be that they want us to come home and will grant us citizenship, swiftly, efficiently and joyously. With property restitution no longer possible, this act would cost Lithuania nothing, yet the benefits to Lithuania would be immeasurable.
Some Lithuanian leaders pursue remembrance, dialogue and reconciliation, others continue to support the canard that Nazi collaborators should be venerated by lionising them with memorials, monuments, schools and streets named in their honour. Simultaneously, conscientious civic, academic and political leaders, including the Mayor of Vilnius, the Kaunas division of the Cultural Heritage Department and the Rector of Vilnius University, are increasingly willing to speak out against such travesties. Let us hope that their voices will eventually prevail.
I am confident that my grandfather would have been proud of what we have been creating in Seduva. However, I wonder how long will it take for Lithuania to once again become a place where Litvaks might feel at home.