The latest novel by Lithuania’s Sigitas Parulskis breaks new ground both for the author and for his readers. Tamsa ir partneriai (Darkness & Co., Alma Littera, 2012) is considered to be the first major novel by an ethnic Lithuanian that examines the Holocaust in that country. The book has inspired considerable controversy.
Parulskis is one of Lithuania’s most popular writers. The author of essays, poems, plays, opinion columns, reviews, and works of fiction, he has been honored with Lithuania’s highest literary awards and has been translated into a dozen languages.
More than 90 percent of Lithuania’s Jews perished during World War II, many of them marched into the forests, shot, and buried in mass graves. While it was usually German officers who gave the orders, in most cases it was Lithuanians who pulled the triggers. During the nearly half-century of Soviet rule that followed the war, this horrific history was not openly discussed. When independence came in 1991, however, the truths of the war years slowly began to emerge.
In the view of the Lithuanian social critic Leonidas Donskis, Parulskis’s novel and a new play about the Holocaust by Daiva Cepauskaite are “the best proof that the Holocaust is not sinking into oblivion in Lithuania.”
Ellen Cassedy: How do you describe the book?
Sigitas Parulskis: The story is told through the eyes of Vincentas, a Lithuanian photographer during World War II. A Nazi officer rescues him from death, and in return he is required to photograph executions of Jews.
My goal was to write from the point of view of a witness to the massacres of the Jews. Everything is seen through the eyes of Vincentas. There are drug scenes, hallucinations, and visions, and because Vincentas is religious, the visions and hallucinations are full of religious themes. There is also a love story. It’s a complex narrative.
EC: The topic of the Holocaust is new to you. What has been the reaction to the book?
SP: Readers were shocked. No one wants to talk about this subject in mainstream society. The only ones who talk about it are members of what I call “the conscious society.” I was honored as a Person of Tolerance, [an award that] asks Lithuanians to face the memory of the Holocaust. At the Tolerance Center [of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum in Vilnius], Markas Zingeris and others were among the first to read the book, and they liked it.
That evening at the Tolerance Center, I was asked, Do you have Jewish friends. Not close ones, I said, only acquaintances. Only later, after leaving, did I understand why. I had Russian friends, non-Lithuanian friends in my youth. I would have had Jewish friends. I would have grown up with them. But all my potential friends were shot in 1941.
The book was well-received by readers in Israel, too. But there were also angry responses – anonymous ones – on the Internet.
I’m pleased with the variety of responses to the book – some defensive, some aggressive. That’s a sign of a good book, a book that provokes.
EC: Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, the director of the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Institute, reviewed the book in the literary journal Knygos. He says that your book “is written so as to basically forgive the Lithuanian who stood by” as a passive onlooker while Jews were murdered.
He asks: “Can we call this the voice of a novel of conscience?….What sort of symbolic support does this novel offer to the new higher Lithuanian consciousness?”
Kvietkauskas suggests that you present your protagonist, Vincentas, as a victim. Vincentas is too innocent, he says.
SP: In what sense is Vincentas too good? In fact, I feel his indifference is horrible. There is a passage in the Bible about [Revelation: 3:15], in which Christ says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.”
Vincentas is punished. At the end of the book, he is losing his mind.
Lithuanians are incapable of shaking off the feeling of guilt about the Holocaust. It keeps them from talking about it. And yet without talking, they can’t manage that guilt.
EC: You have worked with Karla Gruodis, a translator, to begin translating the book into English; you’re hoping to find an English-language publisher. Part of Gruodis’s translation reads as follows:
He…will always feel guilty. Even if he did not kill. Yes, he is only a witness. Like him, the Other who hangs on his own cross and watches as villainy is committed in His name. It’s a good excuse – I would do something but my hands are nailed down. With the nails of guilt, onto the post of shame. Vincentas felt as though he was about to throw up.
E: Does Vincentas have choices? Does he have power?
SP: Everyone has choices. Everyone has power. Yet witnessing the madness, Vincentas does nothing. He feels there is nothing he can do. Vincentas symbolizes the position or point of view of the majority of Lithuanians at that time. Most were witnesses, bystanders.
EC: Vincentas is a photographer. Is the photographer a metaphor?
SP: The photographer is a middleman, a lens between spaces, between spheres. And he is a type of killer.
EC: How will the reader judge Vincentas?
SP: I don’t know. If a protagonist has a gun, it’s clear he’s guilty. But this protagonist has no gun. He’s not directly a murderer. Still, by doing nothing, he’s a participant. The role of bystander is a role of horror.
I wanted the protagonist to be a typical resident of Lithuania – not very active. In the course of the book, however, Vincentas does evolve. What he has witnessed starts to affect his sanity.
Different individual readers will judge differently. It depends on who you are as a reader.
My goal is that readers will believe that my characters are real. We don’t have to love Vincentas, we just have to believe he is human.
EC: Growing up, were you aware of the history of the Holocaust? Were you involved with that history?
SP: No. On August 24, 1941, 1160 Jews were killed in Obeliai, the town where I grew up. This was general knowledge when I was growing up in the 1960’s and ‘70’s. The main streets in Obeliai were lined with Jewish shops and residences. The homes are still standing. Near where I grew up there was an old Jewish cemetery where Jews buried their dead before the war. But it was abandoned and overgrown. It was never spoken of as a trace of a society that had lived here.
In 1941, in Obeliai, a memorial was built for the uprising in June of 1941 against the Soviets. In Soviet times it was torn down. Now it has been rebuilt. But there is no plaque in the town that commemorates the 1160 Jews who lived there and were murdered there.
Also not spoken about were personal stories of exile to Siberia. Trauma was off limits.
There was a monument at the killing site during Soviet times. But it seemed like a mystical story, with no narrative, no details I could gather.
EC: Were you looking for details?
SP: Not really. Not as a child. I was afraid of the topic, because it’s really painful. We were all of us more or less anti-Semitic by tradition. We didn’t try to sort it out. Once I began trying to sort it out for myself, I understood, and there was an enormous sense of shame.
As a result of shame, many Lithuanians average folks, did not and do not want to discuss the Holocaust. People come up with all kinds of excuses and rationalizations to explain Lithuanian behavior during the war.
It was very difficult for me to cross the threshold and start writing about this. This is a taboo in Lithuania, an unacceptable topic. It was hard to write about this topic and to and overcome writing from a position of fear.
EC: What kind of research did you do? Is the book based on actual events?
SP: I read quite a few memoirs. During Soviet times, documents were released, including an encyclopedia containing depositions of people who had participated in the pogroms.
It was difficult to allow all the stories and narratives from the memoirs to sift through me and then to be able to write. If I’m using documentary sources, I have to feel at one with them and imagine I’ve lived what I’m writing about, to offer a personal variation on it.
I wasn’t as worried about researching the facts of the Holocaust itself as I was about the task of portraying the Lithuanian point of view of the events. There has been little written about this artistically.
The diaries of Witold Gombrowicz had a big effect on me. He was a Pole who immigrated to Argentina in 1939. He asks, What is a Pole? His view of himself as a Pole who has no pity for the Pole is one that I am very much drawn to. Because Lithuania and Poland were once joined, there’s plenty of overlap with questions about Lithuanian identity.
I learned from these diaries not to fear my own shame and weaknesses while writing – both as an individual and as a Lithuanian. Reading these Polish diaries, I learned how to avoid fearing my own fears.
Everyone has shame and fears. When you can turn those fears into strength, your work is truly worthy.
Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). She lives near Washington, D.C. Visit her website at www.ellencassedy.com. This interview has been edited for clarity. Thanks to Gint Aras for help with interpreting and Diana Vidutis for help with translating.