Opinion: We are all here

“Mir zaynen do!”  The Yiddish song, composed in the Vilna ghetto during World War II, is defiant.  “We are here!” it thunders.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 19, I recall this stirring anthem from the land of my Jewish forebears, and I remember with sorrow that very few who sang it back then survived. When the German army invaded Lithuania, Jews were massacred with a swiftness and thoroughness that was unusual even for that time. By the end of the war, only 6 percent of the Jewish population of 240,000 remained alive.

When I visited the country of my Jewish roots, I was seeking a connection to people long gone — those who are not here. 

Lithuania is where my great-grandmother Asne managed a dairy farm, my great-grandfather Dovid-Mikhl studied the Torah, and my grandfather Yankl was a yeshiva student before fleeing to America to escape the draft. It is the land where my great-uncle Will was confined in a ghetto before being shoved into a boxcar bound for Dachau, and the land where my great-uncle Aaron was sentenced to Siberian exile for daring to publish a Hebrew-language newspaper. 

Yet in Lithuania, to my surprise, I found not only a connection to the past but also hope for the future. 

I met with educators, officials and ordinary citizens — Jews and non-Jews — who believe that if Lithuania is to grow into a mature society, Lithuanians must closely examine their past. These brave people are encouraging their fellow citizens to reach beyond age-old stereotypes, to extend the bounds of empathy, to step through doorways. 

On Yom HaShoah, I remember them.

I met with two women who were employed by the Lithuanian government to design Holocaust curricula for public schools.  They stressed to me that the Holocaust was not only a tragedy for the Jews but also for all Lithuanians. “Our goal,” they said, “is to transform ourselves from a society of bystanders into an active civil society.” If we are to prevent future genocides, they told me, all hands are needed in the project of understanding and repair.

I spoke with a leader of the House of Memory, an organization that mobilizes students to interview old-timers, including their own elderly relatives, about the lost Jewish world. The students comb through old newspapers. They take photographs of the bakery that was once a synagogue, the warehouse that used to be a Jewish school.

As the old Jewish world becomes vivid to them, they begin to question and to change.

I talked to a young woman who was writing a teacher’s guide for use in Lithuanian high schools. Among the searing questions she was posing were these: 

Have you ever been in a situation where someone needed your help and you didn’t provide it?

If so, why did you behave like others, rather than following your conscience?

Is there a connection between your answers and the behavior of people during the war?

The way forward is not easy. The end of World War II did not bring peace to Lithuania. As the country was incorporated into the Soviet Union, there was a guerrilla struggle and tens of thousands of deportations to Siberia. By 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, half a century under two regimes had turned Lithuania into a cauldron seething with competing martyrdoms, hatreds and resentments. 

There is no question that anti-Semitism is present in Lithuania today. I saw swastikas spray-painted on Jewish gravestones. I heard more than one person repeat the morally repugnant calculation that only 1 percent of Lithuanians had killed Jews, but another 1 percent had helped Jews, and so the score was even. There have been neo-Nazi marches in the capital city of Vilnius. The government has failed to prosecute elderly Lithuanians who were Nazi war criminals, yet has pointed the finger at several elderly Jews who fought as partisans against the Nazis. The accusation of Holocaust dismissal or distortion has been justly applied to some.

Yet in this sometimes hostile environment, some are working toward a more tolerant tomorrow. Inspired by their example, I feel myself challenged to question the black-and-white categories I grew up with, to expand my sympathies beyond the boundaries I was taught as a child. 

Can we, the descendants of the victims of the Nazi era, honor the memory of the Holocaust without perpetuating the hatreds of the past? Can we forge a connection with those who now live in the places where Jewish culture was annihilated? Survivors of the most terrible times may find it difficult or impossible — or even inappropriate — to move on beyond hatred.  But for people like me, members of the later generations after the Holocaust, I see a different role — an opportunity to reach beyond old divisions. 

The attempt we make to open our minds and our hearts, to listen and to comprehend — this, I believe, is where hope for the future lies, for Lithuania, for Eastern Europe, for other countries struggling to emerge from conflict, for all of us.

Before I visited Lithuania, the defiant refrain of the ghetto anthem — “We are here!” — struck me as unbearably sad. Now, for me, the song embodies a new meaning. It still evokes the absence of all those who are not here. But I also hear a bid for all of us who will shape the future to stand together, as fellow beings with the capacity for moral choice.

“Mir zaynen do!” We are all here.

She will be speaking in the Los Angeles area on June 18 at the Jewish Genealogy Society of L.A. (http://jgsla.org/) and on June 19 at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (http://www.pjtc.net).

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.