The past does not enlighten us – but still, it attempts
to say something. Perhaps the crow knows more about us
and about history's dirt than we do ourselves.
These lines from Tomas Venclova's poem 'In the Lake Region' often came to my mind as I read Magnetic North, a series of conversations between Ellen Hinsey and Venclova, in which the Lithuanian poet, essayist and scholar remembers his life.
Born in 1937, he grew up in a country annexed by the USSR in 1940, occupied by the Nazis between 1941 and 1944, and then retaken by the Soviets. While studying at Vilnius University in the 1950s, he began his 'private war' with the system, publishing samizdat literature and joining dissident circles. In 1976, a year after the Helsinki Accords were signed, he co-founded the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, one of several human rights initiatives whose aim was to make sure the USSR observed the agreement. Allowed to go to the US in 1977, Venclova was soon stripped of Soviet citizenship; he stayed in America, taught at Yale and remained politically active; a notable dissident in the Soviet days, he has been a respected public figure in Lithuania since it regained independence in 1991. I met him at the Vilnius Book Fair, where we were guests of the Lithuanian Culture Institute.
‘Poetry is highly concentrated language,’ Venclova told me, ‘language squared or even cubed. I believe that poetry, unlike essays, is about individuality: in particular linguistic and, consequently, ethnic individuality.' Most of his fellow dissidents in Soviet Lithuania were nationalists. 'The majority of them believed that the worst thing about Communism was its intention to destroy national identity,' he said, 'whereas I thought the worst thing about it was its intention to destroy human identity.' I asked him about the national myth portraying Lithuania as a freedom-loving country that unanimously fought both the Nazi and the Soviet occupiers. Why do so many still believe in it? ‘Any other, more complex explanations are seen as something invented by our enemies in an attempt to complicate simple things for us.’
Venclova’s 1975 essay 'Jews and Lithuanians' was the first publication by a Lithuanian writer to talk about collaboration between his fellow countrymen and the Nazis. ‘Officially it is agreed that the Holocaust is a great evil,’ he said at a conference in Vilnius in April 2015, ‘but at the same time there is the official attempt to justify and even canonise people who were complicit in the Holocaust.' Rūta Vanagaitė, one of the organisers, told the conference that she had recently discovered evidence of her family's involvement in wartime atrocities against Jews. She said that Lithuanians should stop thinking of the Holocaust as a 'foreign tragedy' and look objectively at their own history.
In 2016, Vanagaitė published Mūsiškiai (‘Our People’), a book about the mass murder of Lithuania's Jews in 1941-44. The massacres – in which nearly 200,000 people, 94 per cent of the country's Jewish population, were killed – were carried out with the active participation of locals. The book became a bestseller. Last October, launching her autobiography, Vanagaitė told an interviewer that Adolfas Ramanauskas, a partisan lauded for fighting the Soviets and named person of the year 2018 by the Lithuanian parliament, was 'no hero'. According to her sources, he was recruited by the KGB and wasn't shot after being brutally tortured, but committed suicide.
A wave of attacks followed: she was called a traitor, told to go and find herself a Judas tree (that came from the prominent politician Vytautas Landsbergis), and threatened with legal action for slander (the case was later dropped). Vanagaitė apologised for her 'hasty and arrogant public comments'. PEN America criticised her publisher's decision to pulp her books; when I approached Alma Littera at the fair, they said they had terminated Vanagaitė’s contract – 'our values are different' – giving her all the remaining copies.
In 2010 Lithuania passed a law against genocide denial. I asked Venclova if it worked. 'The notion of genocide in Lithuania has been devalued, and that's very unhelpful,’ he said. ‘As for the law, I don't know how well it works. For instance, I deny the genocide of Lithuanians: I think the Soviet crimes should be called “stratocide”; I've said that in public, and I haven't been charged with anything yet.' A guide at the Museum of Genocide Victims, housed in a former KGB prison, told me there were plans to rename it the Museum of Resistance.
One of the museum's rooms is dedicated to the Vilna Ghetto. Walking through the area where the Ghetto once was, I found a plaque in memory of Yitskhok Rudashevski, who kept a diary until his death in a mass execution, at the age of 15. It was recently translated from Yiddish into Lithuanian and published as a bilingual edition.
Most of the people I spoke to in Vilnius said that Mūsiškiai is a much needed book, that they condemn the abuse Vanagaitė experienced but find her remarks sensationalist at best. Sigitas Parulskis, whose novel Darkness and Company describes massacres perpetrated by Lithuanians during the war, says in the preface that, as he discovered, to write about the Holocaust in his country is considered obscene. When I asked him why, he blamed the lack of information. Talking about Vanagaitė's sources, a historian mentioned that since the KGB was notorious for faking documents, archival work is best left to specialists.
Alvydas Šlepikas’s novel My Name is Marytė explores another subject that Lithuanians rarely mentioned until recently: children from East Prussia who at the end of the Second World War fled to Lithuania. Šlepikas told me that, after researching the book for more than a decade, he included in it only what had been confirmed by several independent sources. 'The Soviets saw the “wolf children” as an enemy,' he said, 'and the people who took them in tried to keep them invisible.' I was reminded of another of Venclova's poems: 'I know evil never disappears,/but one can at least strive to dispel blindness.'