Extract > Darkness and Company and the Holocaust in Lithuania
The following fact is more important than the remainder of the text – and, in fact, more important than all the discussions that have taken place around this issue in Lithuania: between 1941 and 1944, under the occupying Nazi regime, roughly 196,000 of the Jews living in Lithuania – that is, 95 per cent of the Lithuanian Jewish population – were annihilated.
Although the Holocaust was conceived, initiated and organized by the Nazis, several thousand local inhabitants, mostly ethnic Lithuanians, were involved in implementing the mass killings. Lithuania was especially awash with blood in the summer and autumn of 1941, when, during a period of less than six months, 80 per cent of Lithuania’s Jews were killed. In villages and small towns, homes became vacant in the blink of an eye – over a month, a week, a day. It would have been impossible not to see the tragedy that was taking place. They were led along main streets, held in temporary ghettos and then – in a manner different from how the Holocaust unfolded in Western Europe, where Jews were transported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland to be exterminated – they were executed close to their birthplaces, sometimes right in front of other local inhabitants. People living in larger cities such as Vilnius and Kaunas had a different experience; here the Jews were driven into long-term ghettos, and the massacres took place at some remove, so that urban non-Jews experienced the Holocaust not as the sudden, incomprehensible disappearance of specific faces but as a slow, strangely steady death-process that other residents could avoid witnessing directly.
It is impossible to know how these two experiences of the Holocaust are related, but it is significant that, in recent years, the question of memory and the Jewish Catastrophe in Lithuania has primarily been raised by authors originally from small towns. Born in the village of Obeliai, Sigitas Parulskis has described how, on a visit to the imperial War Museum in London, he came across a diagram indicating the locations across Europe where Jews were exterminated during the second World War and how he found the statistics for his own town – ‘1,160 Jews were killed there by the Nazis and local collaborators’ – leading him to the realization that he had avoided and been afraid of acknowledging those facts his whole life.
What are the reasons for that forgetting, ignorance and avoidance on the part of the children and grandchildren raised by the inhabitants of those small towns – people who could not have been unaware that their neighbours had been driven from their homes and brutally murdered?
Throughout Europe, reflection on the Holocaust has been a complicated process; in each society it has taken place in a different way, uniquely, painfully and with unavoidable disputes and accusations. But, after the war, in the Soviet Union and the countries it occupied, including Lithuania, such reflection was generally impossible until the collapse of the Soviet regime in the late 1980s. With their strict control of public discourse and memory, the Soviets prohibited any differentiation and commemoration of the Jewish Catastrophe as the tragedy of a specific nation. The Jews, as a description and as a people, had to dissolve into the mass of Soviet citizens and the Holocaust itself become just one more of Hitler’s crimes. as it worked on establishing an international Soviet people, the regime did not want to highlight the suffering of any individual group, perhaps in an effort to hide the fact that the tragedy of the Jews mattered to them only in terms of how it helped the USSR emphasize the ‘evils of fascism’ and its victory over it, no more than that. As a result, if the sites of executions of Jews that were scattered across occupied Lithuania were marked at all, it was only as places where ‘soviet citizens had fallen as a result of Hitler’s crimes’.
During this era of enforced silence about the Holocaust, memories of the killings flickered in the minds of people who had witnessed them or were passed on in private conversations, often transformed into stereotypical and historically erroneous accounts along the lines of ‘they say that Lithuanians participated in the killings as vengeance against the Jews for their role in the Sovietization of Lithuania during the first Soviet occupation of 1939–40’ or ‘the Lithuanians have suffered so much themselves that they should not also have to think about the Jews’ misfortunes’.
With the restoration of the country’s independence in 1990, Lithuanian society had to begin unravelling the tightly wound skein of pain, guilt, shame, indifference, nightmares, stereotypes and lies around the memory of the Holocaust. But at first the newly restored Lithuanian state seemed to promote Holocaust remembrance as if from a safe distance – in order to not disrupt fragile romantic national ideals nor to minimize the suffering of the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians who were deported or killed by the soviets. It is probably for that reason, as historian Hektoras Vitkus has noted, that the memory of the Holocaust was more often sanctified than critically examined in a way that would promote the analysis and debate of sensitive and uncomfortable questions. Whenever such questions arose, sparks would immediately begin to fly and the smell of burning would spread, along with the noxious fumes of conflict, blame, fear, complexes, conspiracies, anger and anti-Semitism. Keeping consideration of the Holocaust at a safe distance was a more convenient strategy, but the formality and cautiousness of this position prevented deeper discussions from reaching people and, more importantly, from helping Lithuanians understand the Holocaust as their tragedy – as the tragedy of Lithuania’s Jews. Here again, distortions of memory were fuelled by forgetting, ignorance and witnesses’ reluctance to tell their children and grandchildren what they had seen. If the topic arose, it could cause middle-aged men to blush like six-year-old boys.
For ten or fifteen years a small group of Lithuanian historians applied themselves to researching issues around the Holocaust, reconstructing events and examining awkward questions in order to attempt to explain how the killing of Jews was organized and implemented, how many Lithuanians were involved and why, thus countering the myths and stereotypes that were circulating in the country’s collective memory. But society as a whole took little notice of the historians’ efforts. Although their findings were incorporated into educational reforms and other initiatives contributing to the education of new generations, it would require a stronger, bolder and more effective impulse to disrupt Lithuanians’ Holocaust memory. Although no single action, initiative or artefact would be able to do this single-handedly, if one had to identify a moment from which a distinctly new, deeper and more open – if not always consistently effective – rethinking of the Jewish Catastrophe began, it would have to be the publication of Sigitas Parulskis’s Tamsa ir partneriai (Darkness and Company) in 2012.
Looking back, it now seems that only Parulskis could have done this, offered Lithuanian society a bold, even shocking novel about the events of the Holocaust in Lithuania, a novel that raises the key questions of why Lithuanians became involved in the killings and what their role was in that tragedy.
Parulskis arrived on the literary scene just as Lithuania regained independence, first as a poet and then very quickly also as a critic, social and political commentator, playwright and essayist. Solitary, overwhelmed by longing, communing with the dead and with death itself, rebellious, unpitying, presenting himself as an outsider, a stranger, and at the same time almost contradicting this image, he became a widely read, respected and influential author. The same themes kept recurring in his writing, and he developed a new, harsher, bleaker existentialism to suit the times: the solitude that lingers within all human relationships; a sometimes deeper, sometimes more vulgar psychological battle with a father; unquenchable, death-oriented desire; a complicated relationship with faith, with God; a very sceptical view of the Church as an institution but a sensitive aesthetic relationship with church architecture.
Parulskis’s 2002 novel Trys sekundės dangaus (Three Seconds of Heaven), about the violence and harshness of everyday life in the Soviet army, is a distillation of all these motifs. At the time it seemed that, even though a new millennium had just begun, its best Lithuanian novel had already been written. Older generations were affected by the work’s descriptions of the brutality, still vivid in their own memories, experienced by soviet military conscripts. For his own generation, which Parulskis described as one that the great political changes left mistrustful, indifferent, lazy and lacking enthusiasm, the novel reflected them and their fate. But perhaps most important was an even younger generation, the youngest readers, who may not have known Parulskis the poet or critic. For them, the Soviet past was but a vague childhood memory and of little concern, but they discovered and identified with Parulskian existentialism. This connection enabled different generations of readers, regardless of age or experience, to recognize that Parulskis spoke for them all.
Darkness and Company appeared a decade later, and Parulskis is again addressing difficult themes. The central motifs of his writing are even sharper, but this time, during the Nazi occupation of 1940–4, Lithuanians are the executioners rather than the victims. Hoping to save his Jewish lover Judita, the protagonist Vincentas succumbs to the will of a Nazi officer and agrees to photograph the executions of Jews. Travelling with a brigade made up of Lithuanian Nazi henchmen, he remains a passive, lethargic observer who finds himself caught between the executioners and the victims, unable or unwilling to take a clearer position or any firm stand regarding responsibility or moral dilemmas. Taking photographs at once involves and detaches him – Vincentas only has a whiff of the death and horror, of the chill of the deepest darkness about him. As if the brutal executions of Jews and the dumping of their bodies into pits were not enough, as if doubting whether that would cause enough of a chill, the author pulls in all of his characteristic symbolism – biblical motifs, overwhelming desire, perverse scenes of sadism – so that the edge of the precipice of shock would be reached but not stepped over, so that the chill would numb.
Other Lithuanian writers had written about the Holocaust and Lithuanian responsibility, but those works, in terms of time and atmosphere, in terms of their very language, were too distant from newly independent Lithuania’s audiences and were therefore incapable of moving them. For the memory of the Holocaust, sanctified and as though preserved under a glass case, to reach readers, an author was needed who would dare to desanctify the Jewish Catastrophe and thus make it current and present to contemporary readers.
‘I don’t know how people can read this book. But I read it,’ wrote one reviewer on a social-media site and gave Darkness and Company four stars. This accurately reflected most readers’ feelings – the ‘sex-and-God’ formula (as one critic put it) against the background of the massacre of the Jews was hard for many to stomach, but from public reactions it is clear that this is partly what helped the novel achieve its goal of initiating a new examination of, as well as an individual and collective reckoning with, this great tragedy in our past. The provocative style, the theme of the Holocaust, the depiction of Lithuanians as passive observers or executioners also had to evoke the familiar smell of burning. The author’s inbox was flooded with anti-Semitic emails, there were public and private laments that the novel would further diminish an already small and beleaguered nation, in anonymous comments and virtual discussions Parulskis was accused of betraying Lithuania and selling himself to the Jews, all of which suppressed the occasional more rational and well-founded discussions about the question of individual and collective responsibility, about the historical basis for the author’s interpretation of the historical origins of the Holocaust, about identification of the Lithuanian nation with the murderers and the significance of murderers’ national identities in general. But this only confirmed that in the early 2010s a new, deeper and more open reconsideration of the Jewish Catastrophe was just beginning in Lithuania. That ‘just beginning’ probably still applies today.
Darkness and Company caused passionate debates and discussions that can be seen as Lithuanian society learning to talk about the Holocaust, to shatter the glass case and discover how to speak when that protective cover is no longer there. The novel defiantly erased the safe distance Lithuania had maintained from the Holocaust and opened up an unfamiliar, and therefore risky, discourse. Parulskis understood this risk. In one meeting with readers he said that the path to memory, to the past, is like walking on thin ice, so we are scared to go there. Is that not why Darkness and Company has a feeling of numbing cold about it – so that this thin ice would grow thicker and that fear vanish?
Department of History, Vilnius University
Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis is part of our Baltic World Series.