What makes a Litvak? I’m at the annual book fair in Vilnius, and the poet, Sergey Kanovich, is struggling to explain why he thinks the word is so often misused.
It’s very trendy to say you’re a Litvak at the moment, he says, and the word is often used very loosely to refer to anything to do with Lithuanian Jewry. But “Litvak’” is more than a place and a culture. It’s to do with your character he explains. “Stubborness,” he says eventually. “That’s a clear thing.”
Kanovich, son of the novelist Grigory Kanovich, whose Shtetl Love Story has been recently published in English, has shown his own brand of Litvak determination in his work to create a museum which will recreate one of the 200 village shetls which were, in his words, “wiped out” in the first months of the Second World War. They had been there for hundreds of years.
Building work starts on the museum very soon, and will capture the history of the shtetl of Seduva, where Jews lived from the end of the 16th century, a history recreated in part by interviews with descendants of people who lived in the village, now in Israel, England, New Zealand and South Africa — particularly the latter, where many Lithuanian Jews went. “They care about their old country. They try to preserve the memories,” he says.
The museum is due to open in 2020 and there are already memorials at the sites nearby where 700 people were killed in the forest. “It is not possible to expect one to comprehend and understand what has been lost,” he says. “The museum will show the life of the shtetl and how it was lost. Who, how and when.”
Many non-Jewish inhabitants of Seduva have been willing to be interviewed. They are “very open,” he says, telling me how one woman “begged and cried” asking the museum to accept a clock which they believe belonged to a Jewish family. “It’s a dialogue, a process, not easy, very time-consuming,” he says. “It’s very difficult to look into the history of the people of your country and say ‘that was wrong’.”
Just how difficult, I realise more fully when I meet Sigitas Parulskis, a Lithuanian author whose novel, Darkness and Company, is published by Peter Owen in English in May. Set in 1941, it tells the story of Vincentas, a photographer who makes a Faustian pact with an SS officer. In exchange for his safety and that of his Jewish lover, Judita, he will photograph the mass killing of Jews in the villages and forests. When Judita learns of this she is disgusted and surrenders to the ghetto, leaving Vincentas alone.
Before meeting Parulski and his translator, Karla Gruodis, I read an essay he had written, where he describes playing as a child in a Jewish cemetery. “The words ‘Jewish cemetery’ sounded very mysterious, almost like the words ‘pirates’ or ‘treasure’, because there had been no Jews in our small town for a long time. They were never mentioned — not at school, not at home. It was as if that cemetery was from the times of the Pyramids or the Acropolis.” Visiting the Imperial War Museum, he discovered that more than 1,000 Jews from his hometown were killed in the forest by Nazis and local collaborators. “I suddenly felt unmasked. For 45 years of my life I had taken no interest in this subject, I had avoided it, evaded it, because, most probably, I had been afraid of the truth.”
Meeting him after the book fair, he’s tired, but talks about how years under Soviet rule contributed to the Lithuanian people’s denial. “We didn’t believe in the Soviet narrative, but we had nothing to replace it with. Parents didn’t talk to their children because the children would have got into trouble.” Religion also played a part, with many Lithuanians believing that Jews deserved punishment as Christ killers. With that in mind, Darkness and Company, has a religious theme, with the killers given the names of the apostles, the photographer’s plight compared to Jesus, nailed to the cross, observing everything.
That the book is available in English is in part due to the perseverance of his translator, the daughter of Lithuanian emigres to Canada.
“I felt very strongly that this book should be translated,” she tells me, “because antisemitism has been so clearly ignored.” With the support of the Lithuanian Culture Institute (who have brought me and other journalists to Lithuania) she was able to translate the book in order to find it an English publisher. At the Vilnius Book fair, and also this week at London’s own Book Fair, which this year has a special focus on the Baltic states, the hope is to interest publishers from other countries.
Our last day in Vilnius is spent away from the book fair, exploring the city. It’s extremely cold — minus 23 degrees — and the pavements are covered in ice, like a city-wide skating rink. We admire churches and civic buildings, and drive through the ghetto. “Very sad,” says our guide, explaining that 94 per cent of Lithuania’s Jews died in the Holocaust.
Our last stop is the city’s Museum of Genocide Victims. But this is not about the genocide of the Jews; instead it is the former KGB headquarters, preserved to tell the story of the considerable sufferings of the Lithuanian people in the Soviet years.
There are pictures of dead partisans, killed for their attempts at resistance, and we end up in the killing cells where prisoners were dispatched with a pistol to the skull, their blood washed away before the next execution. The story of the country’s Jews is told in one small cell — the perfect metaphor for the story of denial, guilt and obliterated memories Parulskis described.
In recent years there have been calls for the museum to be renamed, as a way of recognising that the genocide in Lithuania was that of the Jews, however terrible - and they were terrible - the Soviet atrocities. Will it happen, we ask our guide? “Yes,” he says. “I think it will soon.”
Darkness and Company will be published by Peter Owen in May
Find out more about the Lost Shtetl project here.