Ear­li­er this week, Ken­neth Bon­ert, author of the nov­el The Lion Seek­er (Houghton Mif­flin Har­court), shared some notes from the first part of his con­ver­sa­tion with Dovid Katz about Lithuan­ian and the Holo­caust. Today, he con­tin­ues the con­ver­sa­tion. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In part one, I recount­ed the back­ground of Yid­dish lin­guist Dovid Katz, who has been report­ing on trou­bling man­i­fes­ta­tions of neo-fas­cism in Lithua­nia today. In my talk with him via Skype from Vil­nius, I began to bet­ter grasp that the key to the under­stand­ing of the Shoah in Lithua­nia lay in the year-long Sovi­et occu­pa­tion that pre­ced­ed it, in 1940 – 41.

Essen­tial­ly the geno­cide of Lithuania’s Jews was pow­ered by an explo­sion of nation­al­ist anti-Semi­tism that fatal­ly con­flat­ed all Jews with the hat­ed com­mu­nists. The killing began as soon as the Sovi­ets with­drew, when hun­dreds of bru­tal pogroms broke out. Lithuan­ian mili­tia units, wear­ing white arm­bands, also start­ed to round up and mas­sacre the Jews, to enact anti-Jew­ish edicts on behalf of the new Lithuan­ian author­i­ty that quick­ly took con­trol. As Tim­o­n­thy Sny­der, his­to­ry pro­fes­sor at Yale, put it, in 2012 New York Review of Books arti­cle, A pro­vi­sion­al Lithuan­ian gov­ern­ment, com­posed of the Lithuan­ian extreme right, intro­duced its own anti-Semit­ic leg­is­la­tion and car­ried out its own poli­cies of mur­der­ing Jews, explain­ing to Lithua­ni­ans that Bol­she­vik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroy­ing them would restore Lithuan­ian authority.” 

The Nazis were pop­u­lar­ly wel­comed as res­cuers, often with flow­ers; with­in weeks they had dis­solved the Lithuanian’s pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment and tak­en full con­trol. Under Ger­man author­i­ty, Lithuan­ian vol­un­teers con­tin­ued to car­ry out the geno­cide. The Ger­mans were so impressed with the enthu­si­asm of their Lithuan­ian killers that they used some of them to mur­der Jews in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. 

It must be said there were also hun­dreds of hero­ic indi­vid­ual Lithua­ni­ans who risked their lives to save Jews; but in gen­er­al, Lithua­nia was about as bad a place as it could pos­si­bly get for a Jew in the lat­ter half of 1941

Since the accu­sa­tion that the Jews” sided with the Sovi­et occu­piers in 1940 and some­how deserved their fate still sur­faces when wad­ing into the his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, it’s worth point­ing out that the major­i­ty of Lithuan­ian Jews were in fact not com­mu­nists, and that they too suf­fered, even dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly so, under the Sovi­ets. In any case, if Sovi­et crimes were the real issue, than those indi­vid­ual Lithuan­ian cit­i­zens who col­lab­o­rat­ed in them, Jew­ish or oth­er­wise, could have been arrest­ed for tri­al by the pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment. But that was obvi­ous­ly not the intent ­– the dis­pos­ses­sion and elim­i­na­tion of an entire eth­nic minor­i­ty, long viewed with sus­pi­cion, clear­ly was, with prob­a­bly a quar­ter of the vic­tims being children.

What Katz has drawn my atten­tion to, is how post-com­mu­nist Lithuan­ian gov­ern­ments have not only failed to seri­ous­ly pros­e­cute their own war crim­i­nals, but have in some cas­es heaped hon­ours on the very men respon­si­ble for the slaugh­ter. Their names grace streets and parks and mon­u­ments; these days the white arm­ban­ders are often lion­ized as fight­ers for Lithuan­ian inde­pen­dence. In mid-2012 the then-gov­ern­ment even flew the remains of the pro­vi­sion­al government’s leader – a rabid anti-Semi­te whose sig­na­ture helped lay the ground­work for the geno­cide – back to Lithua­nia, to give him a state funer­al, com­plete with hon­our guard and arch­bish­op in tow.

The rea­son behind this, as Katz sees it, is the nation’s need for sym­bols of resis­tance, espe­cial­ly to the Rus­sians. The fact these so-called heroes who fought for inde­pen­dence also have hands drip­ping with inno­cent Jew­ish blood is an incon­ve­nience that needs to be glossed over.

On the web­site he edits, Katz has steadi­ly doc­u­ment­ed this move to white­wash the ugly side of the country’s past. I regard this work to be sacred,” he said. I believe, maybe naive­ly, not as a Don Quixote, but in a very seri­ous way that … these guys should not get away with rewrit­ing his­to­ry with­out opposition.” 

For me, the influ­ence of his­to­ry is often an uncom­fort­able one. It brings the bur­den of old hatreds, of an upwelling of pro­found sad­ness. But for Katz, his­to­ry is a kind of life force for which he is the con­duit. His father was a Yid­dish poet. At fifty-six now, he has spent his life work­ing to keep the Yid­dish lan­guage alive. In a way this new task of what he calls defend­ing his­to­ry, is the same process: he is speak­ing up for those who have no mouths, for the heaped skulls buried in the silent forests. Don’t let them for­get what hap­pened to us. Doing what he can to make sure there is a place in the record for the ghosts of the mur­dered to have their say, no mat­ter how tiny and breath­less their faint cries may be now to our dis­tant liv­ing ears.

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.

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.