Ken­neth Bon­ert’s fic­tion has appeared in McSweeney’s, Grain, and the Fid­dle­head, and his jour­nal­ism has appeared in the Globe and Mail and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. His nov­el, The Lion Seek­er (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court), is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging here this week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I first came across the writ­ings of Dovid Katz while research­ing what hap­pened to my rel­a­tives in Lithua­nia in the sum­mer of 1941. Though my nov­el The Lion Seek­er is set in South Africa, it tells the sto­ry of Jew­ish emi­grants from Lithua­nia, still bound to that blood-soaked land dur­ing the hor­rors of that time. I had learned the details of how, fol­low­ing the with­draw­al of Stalin’s forces, Lithua­ni­ans had turned on their Jew­ish neigh­bours in an orgy of mass mur­der that began weeks before the Ger­mans took con­trol, then con­tin­ued under Nazi direc­tion till over nine­ty-five per­cent of the coun­try’s ancient Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty was wiped out, most­ly in a mat­ter of months. In grainy black-and-white I saw the Lithuan­ian death squads with their white arm­bands; on Katz’s web­site I saw the same white arm­bands but in full colour, the pho­tos recent and sad­ly real.

Katz is an Amer­i­can lin­guist who taught at Oxford. In 1999 he took a posi­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vil­nius and began to trav­el all over the region, inter­view­ing the last sur­viv­ing Yid­dish speak­ers. Ten years lat­er he became aware of a change, some­thing trou­bling in the young democ­ra­cy. Fas­cists were again march­ing through the cen­tre of the Lithuan­ian cap­i­tal. It start­ed with skin­heads chant­i­ng the old cries of death to the Jews, but became larg­er and more diverse with each pass­ing year. Sit­ting mem­bers of par­lia­ment and ordi­nary mid­dle-class cit­i­zens have joined these parades, con­fer­ring authen­tic­i­ty. Oth­er groups are rou­tine­ly banned from march­ing, Katz says, but the neo-fas­cists always seem to get a per­mit, and have received police pro­tec­tion and cen­tre stage for Lithuania’s inde­pen­dence day cel­e­bra­tion. Above all, Katz says he’s seen lit­tle oppo­si­tion, no pop­u­lar out­cry against these march­es, even as they have spread to oth­er cities.

When I talked with Katz ear­li­er this year – an ani­mat­ed, amus­ing pres­ence through the vide­olink from Vil­nius, with a Rasputin-like beard and a per­sist­ing Brook­lyn melody to his accent – he began by insist­ing that today’s Lithua­nia is not an intrin­si­cal­ly anti-Semit­ic soci­ety. After liv­ing here hap­pi­ly all these years I don’t regard the Lithuan­ian peo­ple as anti-Semit­ic. The major­i­ty of peo­ple here, and espe­cial­ly the younger gen­er­a­tion, are open-mind­ed, non-prej­u­diced, inter­est­ed in a bet­ter life, in travelling.” 

Rather, he sees the bur­geon­ing ultra-nation­al­ism as the result of how Lithuan­ian insti­tu­tions are deal­ing with their his­to­ry, or fail­ing to. In Lithua­nia, unlike in, say, Ger­many, there has been lit­tle hon­est soul search­ing and pub­lic scruti­ny of the unusu­al­ly exten­sive role that Lithua­ni­ans them­selves played in the geno­cide of the 200,000-plus Jew­ish Lithuanians. 

Lithua­nia was pro­por­tion­ate­ly the worst coun­try for the Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust, with the low­est per­cent­age of sur­vivors out of any coun­try with a large Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. It was a high-speed geno­cide car­ried out in the open, most­ly. Peo­ple ­­­­­- chil­dren and infants, women — were shot en masse and dumped into pits. Lithuan­ian vol­un­teers did almost all the killing, Lithua­ni­ans round­ed up the Jews, who were usu­al­ly killed not far from their homes. A Lithuan­ian term zyd­saudys or Jew shoot­ers” still endures, tes­ta­ment to how com­mon­ly well-known the activ­i­ty was. The Jews screamed like geese,” as they were shot, said one par­tic­i­pant, Jonas Pukas, who died in New Zealand in 1994. Sur­vivor tes­ti­monies, like those in the recent­ly-pub­lished Kuni­u­chowsky archives, detail how the per­pe­tra­tors includ­ed Lithua­ni­ans from all stra­ta of soci­ety such as the cler­gy and intel­lec­tu­als. The writ­ings of var­i­ous his­to­ri­ans (like Tim­o­thy Sny­der, Alfred Senn, Alfon­sus Eid­in­tas, Solomonas Ata­mukas, Milan Cher­son­s­ki), all helped to out­line for me how wide­spread Lithuan­ian col­lab­o­ra­tion with, and approval for, the geno­cide was. Part of my research into my late grand­moth­er’s vil­lage also includ­ed watch­ing video clips of wit­ness tes­ti­mo­ny from elder­ly Lithua­ni­ans, and this too, for me, was con­fir­ma­tion on a micro lev­el of what had hap­pened more generally.

In short, if there was a polar oppo­site to Den­mark (where vir­tu­al­ly every Jew was saved by their fel­low cit­i­zens), then Lithua­nia unfor­tu­nate­ly stands out as prime can­di­date for that shame­ful distinction. 

In part two of my dis­cus­sion with Katz, we delve a lit­tle more into the rea­sons behind this.

Check back on Thurs­day for Ken­neth Bon­ert’s next post for the Vis­it­ing Scribe.

Ken­neth Bon­ert’s first nov­el, The Lion Seek­er, won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award, and the Cana­di­an Jew­ish Book Award. He was also a final­ist for the Sami Rohr Prize and the Gov­er­nor Gen­er­al’s Lit­er­ary Award. Born in South Africa, he now lives in Toron­to, Ontario.