Extract > Sigitas Parulskis
‘What, in truth, can literature do to remind us, to resurrect memories, to connect those memories with the feelings of human beings today, to revive the relationship with the past, with suffering, with repentance?’
The very first word that comes to my mind when thinking about the subject of my novel Tamsa ir partneriai (Darkness and Company) is ‘obscenity’.
In J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello there is an episode in which the eponymous writer is reading Paul West’s novel The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. Described in it is the execution of the officers who had wanted to kill Adolf Hitler. Coetzee’s protagonist is so disgusted by the naturalistic descriptions that she pronounces the book ‘obscene’. Obscene, because such things, generally speaking, cannot happen, and, if they do, they cannot be made public, they must be kept hidden, as has happened in all the slaughterhouses of the world.
To write about the massacres of Jews in Lithuania is also obscene. When Darkness and Company was first published, I found out that it was even considered vulgar. And, alas, not for the same reasons that J.M. Coetzee was talking about through the words of Elizabeth Costello. Why did I need to write such a book?
I was born in northern Lithuania, on the outskirts of a small town,* to be more exact, on the lands of a former manorial estate in one of the old estate-workers’ cottages, which still have their old-fashioned shingle roofs. Perhaps ten families of peasants, workers and servants had lived there. To the south there was a lake; to the north, on a hill, there stood a windmill; to the east, through the tops of the trees, one could see the twin-towered old neo-Gothic church; and to the west the brewery – a spirit distillery – built in 1907 by Jan Pszedecki, the former lord of the manor.
Even further to the north, beyond the windmill, which had long ago ceased to catch any wind, among the bushes and the grass, there was an old cemetery. Headstones decorated with large, incomprehensible, angular marks stood there, crooked, frozen in a variety of poses. We, the children living on the manorial estate, would often play war games there. The adults called it ‘the Jewish cemetery’, and these words sounded most mysterious to us children, almost like the words ‘pirates’ or ‘treasure’, because there had been no Jews in our small town for a long time. The Jews of our town were never mentioned, not at school, not at home. It was as if that cemetery dated from the days of the Egyptian pyramids or the Acropolis.
In 2010 I was visiting relatives in London. My second cousin Ernestas and his wife Daiva, working at that time as cultural attaché at the Lithuanian embassy in the UK, kindly suggested I come to stay with them and take a look around the city, which I had never before visited. One day we visited the Imperial War Museum, and I came across something there that shocked, distressed and shamed me. In the section on the Holocaust there is a diagram showing where and how many Jews had been killed in Europe during the Second World War, and on that diagram I also found my own unfortunate small town in the north of Lithuania marked with only the numbers and the bare facts: 1,160 Jews were killed there by the Nazis and local collaborators. I don’t know how to explain it, but I suddenly felt unmasked. For forty-five years I had taken no interest in this subject, I had avoided it, evaded it, because, most probably, I had been afraid of the truth. And now this truth was formulated and presented in the form of dry facts. I myself now find it strange how that could have happened in the way it did. After 1990, when Lithuania regained its independence, I had already read about the participation of Lithuanians in the mass murder of the country’s Jews, had discussed it, had argued about it, but, all the same, I spoke about it as if it were just my own private, personal matter. As if it were only up to me to confirm or otherwise the participation of Lithuanians in that slaughter. But what I had been thinking about had already been formulated and put on a wall in a museum a long time ago.
It could not have been clearer; it was public knowledge, and it was shameful. It came as a shock to me. Something clicked in my head. And the worst thing was the shame. The shame that I, like most Lithuanians, had in all manner of ways tried to avoid the simple truth.
In the autumn of 2010 I spent a couple of months as a writer in residence in Salzburg. During a conversation a local writer asked me if anything had been written in Lithuania on the Holocaust. I could call to mind a couple of writers who had, but their books had been written a long time before. In present-day independent Lithuania, however, I could not think of any such works. Historians had already been working on this subject for some time, but writers, for whatever reason, had avoided it. That same evening I found a piece on the internet by the Lithuanian historian Arūnas Bubnys in which he writes about the mass killings of Jews in the Lithuanian countryside. In discussing the Holocaust in Lithuania, the massacres of Vilnius and Kaunas were always mentioned, and it had been the Nazis who had murdered the Jews. I, like most Lithuanians, knew very little about the slaughter that had taken place in the countryside and the fact that, while there were a few Germans in the special squads that perpetrated these crimes, mostly they were Lithuanians. And only because we did not want to know. I did not want to know. And convenient conditions were created for our wish not to know. The vast majority of Lithuanians are still reluctant to speak about this subject, and, if they do, more often than not they fall back on the same arguments: the Jews were shot by the German Nazis and a few Lithuanian degenerates, who perhaps were not even really Lithuanians; the majority of Jews were Communists and NKVD agents, and so their destruction under the prevailing conditions of war could be justified; when, in 1940, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet army, it was the Jews who met the Soviet tanks with flowers and then took a very active part in the government structures of the occupying authorities; they were Soviet agitators and political leaders, and they were the ones who also played a part in the deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia; and so on.
Another very strange, but perhaps no less relevant argument, which I would sometimes hear from my mother, was that the Jews crucified Jesus Christ and that is why such a terrible punishment was visited upon them. In reading the documents and memoirs about the torture, humiliation and murder of Jews in Lithuania, I came across this argument several times. In some paradoxical way, in the thinking of a Lithuanian, Jesus Christ was not even a Jew. Perhaps it was this idea that prompted me in the novel to give the members of the killing squad the names of Christ’s disciples and why they refer to themselves as ‘the apostles’. Of course, this is literature, but I needed a form, a certain religious context, because in Lithuania in the mid-twentieth century Christianity was a very powerful force. Even during the Soviet period, religion for Lithuanians was one of the principal ways of expressing identity, national consciousness and resisting the occupation. Even more important in this regard was the Lithuanian language and literature. With the founding of Sąjūdis, the Lithuanian independence movement, in its attempt to liberate Lithuania from the Soviet empire, poetry and folk songs were more important than weapons. At the Sąjūdis rallies talks were given by poets and writers, that is to say, by those who knew the Lithuanian language best and who wrote in it. Of course, the reputation of literature and those who create it is not the same today as it once was, but it seemed to me to be an important act of consciousness to write a book in Lithuanian about Lithuanians who took part in the massacres of Jews. And not just for me but for all our people.
So this was the genesis of Darkness and Company. Why did I decide to write such a novel? In the West it would seem the subject has been covered comprehensively in books, in many films and in countless memoirs. The victims and their executioners are now lying under the ground. The first thing that made my head spin was the opportunity to talk about something that in Lithuania was almost taboo. To write on a subject that carries risk, which is unpleasant, and with which one has to grapple like Jacob wrestling with the angel. And even before beginning to write, one already knows that one will at the very least be left bruised and certainly without any blessing.
What should one do about mass murder, about which both the executioners and the victims have something to say? How should one deal with the obscenity referred to by J.M. Coetzee? Do we really learn anything from the mistakes of the past, and, if we do, do we become better human beings as a result, or do the scum become even smarter and harder to bring to justice? Unfortunately, I was rebuked not for describing the executions but because I had taken on the subject of the murderers in the first place.
I received all manner of criticism – that the Jews had paid me, that I was defaming my motherland – and perhaps because of that one of the epigraphs I chose was a line from Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot: ‘The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.’
The book caused great controversy. On the one hand I was awarded the title of Person of Tolerance, 2012, but on the other I was called a traitor. It was suggested that the subject I had chosen was sensationalist, and I was just courting cheap publicity. I was admonished for not writing about the members of the Lithuanian resistance who had been murdered by the Soviets, for not writing about the Jewish members of the NKVD, etc. The biggest complaint, which I received from a serious literary critic, was that there was no repentance in my novel and for that reason it was not written sincerely and I was little more than a representative of the Holocaust industry. To tell the truth, I find unacceptable the point of view that literature has to do something, to repent, condemn, judge, that it has to be ideologically committed. At any rate, I became convinced that there exists in Lithuania the premise that if one writes about the mass murder of the Jews, one is after something shameful: money, attention, undeserved popularity. (Just for the record, in my view, for a writer to seek popularity and to be recompensed for his or her work is not a sin.) It is a simple fact that in Lithuania there is a very strong tendency to believe that it is better not to take on the subject of the Jews, and if one does, one is guilty, no matter what.
Repentance is a complicated matter. A person who repents publically, strenuously, will always be regarded with suspicion, because repentance is a very internal, subtle feeling. Like shame. From the time that I saw that diagram in that museum in London, when I saw the numbers, I was accompanied by a feeling of shame.
My favourite Polish writer is Witold Gombrowicz, who spent part of his life in exile. He said that it doesn’t matter what complexes a writer has, what’s important is whether he is able to transform them into a fact of culture. I do not know if I was successful in turning my guilt into a fact of culture of any quality. Some people turn guilt and shame into aggression; others, spurred on by such experiences, take the path of awareness. I really cannot say if my book is just one more statistical achievement or rather a sign of awareness, of a more real relationship with existence. I don’t know.
As regards repentance, I read a lot of documentary material, interviews with Lithuanians who had directly participated in the mass killings, and I was surprised that I found no repentance there. By way of example, here is an extract from the interview of one such:
In the first group of Jews that had been brought here there were about thirty persons. We shot at them from a distance of twenty metres. Our group at that time shot about 300 people, mainly men. We took the things belonging to the dead Jews. I took two suitcases, in which there were two suits and an overcoat. Chrome-tanned boots, women’s dresses, men’s over- and underclothes, some strips of material for women’s overcoats, two watches – a wristwatch and a pocket-watch – and other things, which I took home with me.
The language used was that of a statement, with facts set out with indifference. Indifference, that is the most terrible thing. Complete indifference. That is how I wanted to portray the killers.
The director Peter Brook conducted an interesting experiment in the 1960s. He gave a student an extract from Peter Weiss’s play Die Ermittlung (The Investigation) about Auschwitz. In the extract there is a section about the bodies of people who had just been killed. The student read the piece with feeling, and his distress was felt and understood by the audience. He asked another student to read an extract on the Battle of Agincourt from Henry V, in which the English and the French who died are named. The student made the mistakes typical of an amateur. He read the piece in an elevated tone, with pathos, putting the emphasis in all the wrong places. The audience did not know what to make of it. Then the director asked that the impressions raised by the Auschwitz victims be used to imagine the dead at the Battle of Agincourt, to realize that they were not just figures from literature but living human beings, as alive as the victims of Auschwitz, like us. When the student read Shakespeare’s text again, the audience became attentive, because the reader, now feeling an emotional connection with the characters in the play, read the piece in a simple and appropriate manner. Following this experiment Peter Brook formulated some important questions. How much time has to pass before a corpse becomes a historical corpse? After how many years does mass killing become romantic?
What, in truth, can literature do to remind us, to resurrect memories, to connect those memories with the feelings of human beings today, to revive the relationship with the past, with suffering, with repentance? So that those memories are not obscene and a writer does not fall under the suspicion of wishing to profit from a tragedy? In truth, is not the whole of our lives a continual profiting from the dead. We are parasites living off the bones of our ancestors, and there is nothing we can do to change that. Human beings today, in all manner of ways, try to avoid suffering. I do not know if suffering has a cleansing, healing power. Let us take Russia as an example, where people suffered so much during the Second World War. But it does not seem that they understand what a misfortune it is to suffer continually – today they rattle their sabres and threaten anyone who dares not to go along with their policies of aggression. You would imagine that the person who has suffered greatly should be more understanding, more aware, better able to comprehend the suffering of his neighbour, but the opposite can be true. A person who has suffered a lot can become even more terrible, more cruel; he can become vengeful and resentful.
During the presentation of my novel at the Centre for Tolerance in Vilnius I was asked if I had any Jewish friends. I wasn’t able to answer the question. I don’t have any Jewish friends, but I couldn’t come up with an answer. Why? It was only later that I understood. They had all died. On 25 August 1941 all my potential Jewish friends had been shot and buried in pits not far from a small town in the north of Lithuania. On the other side of the small town there are only the dilapidated headstones of the graves of their ancestors.
Frances A. Yates in her book The Art of Memory writes about a mnemonic device. It’s quite simple. A person wishing to remember information puts images into places he knows well, and then, walking through those places in his thoughts, he can quite easily reproduce large amounts of information. Where a person is born and grows up is often the place he or she knows best. Let’s agree that the small town of Obeliai is just such a place in my memory, a place I know well, but, alas, images are missing, over a thousand Jews are missing, Jews who were erased from the life of that small town, but they have not disappeared from my memory nor, as a consequence, from the map of existence.
To tell the truth, after everything I’ve written here I have a bad taste in my mouth. As if I’ve turned myself inside out to trying to appear sincere, but I don’t believe in the sincerity of writers. A writer is very rarely sincere, he can’t really be sincere, particularly if he wants to be a good writer. He only exploits that sincerity, he doesn’t give in to it. He uses sincerity as a stylistic device. But there is one unpleasant and strange thing I can grasp – perhaps it’s just a feeling – that the impetus behind this text of mine coming into being – and, I repeat, it’s only a feeling – are the embers of anti-Semitism deep inside me and the fear and the shame of admitting it.
My mother still lives on the edge of that small town, on the former manorial estate. She’ll soon be eighty, she attends church diligently, likes to watch soap operas on television, sympathizes with all the poor souls and unfortunates of the world. I recently visited her and the subject of streets came up – she doesn’t like the name of a street close by her house. I said to her what if we changed the name to Jewish Street? After all, the Jewish cemetery isn’t far away, and, besides that, so many of them lived here before the war. My mother looked at me as if I’d said the most foolish thing imaginable. What are you talking about, she said with a wave of her hand. And, truthfully, what am I talking about?
Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka
*Obeliai, in the Rokiškis district municipality of Panevėžys County in north-eastern Lithuania. The population in 2017 was 885. Besides being the birthplace of Sigitas Parulskis, Joe Slovo, the South African anti-apartheid activist, was also born there. (R.K.)
Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis is part of our Baltic World Series.