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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

24 April 2017
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Letter from a Lost Shtetl

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GRANT ARTHUR GOCHIN WITH LITHUANIAN
PRIME MINISTER ALGIRDAS BUTKEVICIUS

By Grant Arthur Gochin
California, USA

Lithuania is changing. Clearly, my Grandfather would be proud to be here. Samuelis Gochinas, born in Lithuania and deported to Ukraine during World War I, only wanted to come home. He was a Jew. He was also a Lithuanian. Lithuania was his home, as it had been for generations of his forefathers.

Nothing stays the same. Lithuania is experiencing a defined period of rediscovering its roots as an open and tolerant society. However, there is still a long way to go.

As I write on this crisp autumn morning, standing in the gentle sunlight, amongst recently restored Jewish tombstones of a lost shtetl in Northern Lithuania called Seduva, I am struck by the societal changes I see evolving.

While Samuel Gochin’s family faced death from starvation in Ukraine, his right to return home after the war, was repeatedly questioned by the then government of the newly independent Lithuania, It took three years for him to establish his right to come home. He returned to a country that while tolerant, viewed Litvaks as an alien intrusion into the nationalist vision of a culturally homogeneous state. However, throughout its long and storied history, Lithuania had never actually known homogeneity. Sadly for him and all Litvak’s, Lithuania of the 1920s had become a place where he no longer felt comfortable. Like thousands of other Litvaks, he left for South Africa. My father and I were born in South Africa. An estimated 90% of South African Jews have Lithuanian heritage, the largest intact Litvak community in the world.

We all know nationalism can be a powerful force for survival and advancement. On this point, Jews and Lithuanians are extremely clear. However, when nationalism becomes exclusionary and self-destructive, when it fails to take into account and respect diversity, it has reached the limits of its usefulness and becomes pernicious. Nationalism turned deadly in 1941, when the majority of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered. By then, it had become the norm to cast Litvaks as resident aliens, even traitors. Lithuanians should have rather considered Litvaks as brothers and sisters who needed protection from the coming Holocaust. Ethnic Lithuanians assisted the Nazis (and often time began ahead of the Nazi’s) to murder well over 200,000 Lithuanian Jews, 96.4% of the Jews on Lithuanian territory. It was safer to be a Jew in Nazi Germany, then it was to be a Jew inside Lithuania.

By sheer luck, my ancestors avoided the fate of those that remained behind. I harbor great respect for Litvak heritage, and in many ways, I also sought to “come home”, to become a Litvak citizen of Lithuania, as my grandfather had been. Lithuania’s Migration Department and Courts created extremely petty, dishonest and incomprehensible obstacles, (including questioning the identity of my own grandfather), to recognizing my citizenship. After years of efforts and litigation (a combination of persistence and indignation on my part), Lithuania’s Supreme Administrative Court finally ruled in favor of truth. I detailed the insulting and embittering experience in my book Murder, Malice and Manipulation: One Man’s Quest for Truth. Lithuania proudly proclaims itself a European country, however, when it comes to acknowledging the basic rights of its Litvak citizens and their descendants (not to mention historical truth), Lithuania clings to dishonesty, myths and prejudice. This dishonesty is also based upon finances. Lithuanian Law precluded restitution of stolen property unless the claimant was a Lithuanian citizen, therefore, it became necessary for Lithuania to deny Jewish citizenship applicants in case of the possibility of a property restitution claim. Restitution now no longer being possible, has encouraged the Lithuanian Government to become more truthful in current applications, which no longer present them any financial threat.

During my travails I have been privileged to meet dozens of honest Lithuanians, including, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, academics and academic leaders, civil society activists, businesspeople, religious leaders and indeed ordinary concerned citizens, who are working to restore and protect Lithuania’s Litvak heritage and identity. Many who have become both friends and colleagues. I join with them and lend my support to the struggle for an inclusive Lithuania.

I serve as Chair of an organization called Maceva, whose mission is to preserve the remnants of Jewish culture in Lithuania. My Maceva colleagues and I are working to make the Seduva Lost Shtetl project a reality. Together with the generous support of a South African Litvak family, originally from Seduva, we are restoring the graves of our ancestors and erecting monuments to those whom perished at mass murder sites. In the same manner that our ancestors contributed to their Lithuanian communities, we continue to do so, by renovating municipal buildings and donating medical equipment to our fellow Lithuanians. Now we begin the arduous and exciting task of planning and building the Lost Shtetl Museum of Jewish Lithuanian Life. The museum will stand as a reminder for all of us of the substantial role we played...and what has been taken.

Lithuania is changing for the better. The attendance of Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, the Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as other Lithuanian dignitaries, civic leaders and ordinary citizens at our dedication of the restored cemetery and monuments, is evidence of a changing society. Their words of remembrance, coupled with regret, and their promises of “never again”, illustrate a dawning appreciation for the memory and tragedy of our people.

I have proposed to the Lithuanian government that they make a large scale, genuine offer of reconciliation to all descendants of Litvaks. We want the message to be that they want us to come home and will grant us citizenship, swiftly, efficiently and joyously. With property restitution no longer possible, this act would cost Lithuania nothing, yet the benefits to Lithuania would be immeasurable. This would follow the recent example set by Spain and Portugal, which turns good will and kind words into beneficial action.

There is work to be done. Some Lithuanian leaders pursue remembrance, dialog and reconciliation, others, continue to support the canard that Nazi collaborators such as Kazys Skirpa and Juozas Ambrazevicius Brazaitis, and Holocaust perpetrators such as Captain Jonas “Generolas Vetra” Noreika, Juozas Krikstaponis and others should be venerated by lionizing them with memorials, monuments, schools and streets named in their honor. Simultaneously, conscientious civic, academic and political leaders, including the Mayor of Vilnius, the Kaunas division of the Cultural Heritage Department and the Rector of Vilnius University, are increasingly willing to speak out against such travesties. Let us hope that their voices will eventually prevail.

I am confident that my grandfather would have been proud of what we have been creating in Seduva. However, I wonder how long will it take for Lithuania to once again become a place where Litvaks might feel at home.

Grant Gochin lives in Los Angeles. He is Chair of http://litvak-cemetery.info/en/ and may be reached at ggochin@gmail.com

Category : Front page / Litvak forum

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    March 14 2017
    CommentsLike
    • Henny Moëd Roth

      Thank you, Grant, for your very interesting article. As a Litvak descendant (Rietavas, Dorbian, Nayshtat, etc.), I am deeply interested in your work at re-establishing the Jewish presence in Lithuania. Henny Moëd Roth, JGSLA

      November 04 2015
      CommentsLike
      • Kestas Kazlauskas

        Puleeez…Lithuanians who are routinely characterized as Nazi collaborators and Holocaust perpetrators are tired of the stereotyping they get from Jewish revisionist historians and others who refuse to accept any complicity in their roles as administrators and cadres of the Lithuanian Holocaust during Stalin's occupation of Lithuania. "Coming home" to Lithuania implies there is some sort of nostalgic longing to return to the way things were before the Nazis, when in fact, most Litvaks generally spoke Russian, not Lithuanian and were not interested in becoming assimilated Lithuanians. Most of them welcomed the Soviet Army as it marched in to occupy Lithuania. Their involvement in the deaths of thousands of Lithuanians is neither myth nor canard. Mentioning the names of a few Nazi collaborators fails to tell the story about all of the Lithuanians who risked their lives saving Litvaks by feeding and sheltering them during their time of need. Declaring 800 or so Lithuanians as "Righteous Among Nations" while implying the other 3 million were evil monsters is just plain dishonest.

        November 01 2015
        CommentsLike
        • Leon Shoag

          Just read your nice piece. Thank you. Our father left Vilna in 1934 to come to the USA. At that time it was Polish territory. A recent book on the subject by Rita Gabis is A Guest at the Shooters Banquet. She has a Jewish father and a Lithuanian Catholic mother who's father was a policeman in Lithuania during the Nazi era. Full of pathos.

          Also, my cousin, was in Poland filming Polish youth recreating an early 1800's synagogue from scratch and Raise the Roof is now being shown at film festivals through out the world. I recommend both.

          October 31 2015
          CommentsLike
          • Harriet Zeitlin

            An interesting and informative article…kudos for Grant Gochin's efforts. Reading it made me remember that my mother and her family emigrated from Lithuania in the beginning of the 20th Century after deciding to come to the USA rather than go to South Africa. I had forgotten that bit of family history and am grateful that my grandfather made that decision.
            Harriet Zeitlin

            October 31 2015
            CommentsLike



            

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