‘The Enemy Beside Me’: Can the Truth of Lithuania Holocaust History Be Told in Lithuania to Lithuanians and By Lithuanians?

May 2, 2024

Only once in my professional career did I assign a work of fiction to my syllabus for a history course. The story-teller was the incomparable Philip Roth and the book was “The Plot Against America,” Roth’s fictional account of what might have happened had Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost the Presidency to the antisemitic, isolationist aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, who might have allied the US with Hitler and come after the Jews. No book of history that I could have assigned could quite convey the ethos of the 1930s and the turmoil of America. In fact, Roth’s work was so compelling that the first time I read it, I turned to the ending just to make sure that I was remembering history correctly.

While Israeli-American author Naomi Ragen might rightfully be thrilled to be compared to Philip Roth – she is not quite there yet, but few are – she has written a novel that reveals the truth of two historical moments, the Holocaust in Lithuania and the struggles in Lithuania to come to terms with that history. Recall that two out of three Jews murdered in Lithuania during the Holocaust were killed by Lithuanians, not by Germans and several of these Lithuanians murderers are now honored in some quarters as nationalist heroes who helped achieve Lithuanian independence.

There have been multiple books in recent years covering this historical ground. Ruta Vanagaite and Efraim Zuroff’s “Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust” tells the story of the granddaughter of a Lithuanian perpetrator and the nephew and namesake of a Lithuanian Jewish victim, who took a 40-day journey to the sites of destruction to learn of the past and to confront the present. Silvia Foti, an American of ardent ethnic Lithuanian roots, set out to fill in the story of her heroic grandfather only to discover that contrary to the legends she was told, he had murdered Jews and was anything but a hero. Telling the truthful story of this imagined past sent ripples through her family and community, but she could only tell the truth. 

Ragen has read these books and includes them in her novel. She has studied the many writings of Los Angeles’ own Grant Gochin, who has confronted Lithuanian historians and political leaders and insisted on a truthful history of the past. She has created two imaginary heroes, the second-generation Israeli Nazi hunter Milia Gottstein-Lasker, who inherited the mantle from her father and Dr. Darius Vidas, a Lithuanian scholar who has the audacity to invite her, considered public enemy number one in Lithuania, to speak at a conference on the Holocaust in Lithuania.

What follows is an academic political intrigue. Can Gottstein-Lasker give her speech, will it be heard, or will she be scorned? And can Vidas withstand the political and personal pressure to either cancel the event or censor the speech? Gottstein-Lasker’s marriage to a prominent Haifa physician is on the rocks as in his mid-life crisis he had an affair with their close friend and moved in with her. So as she visits Lithuania, she is uncertain of herself and her future both personally and professionally.

And the more Vidas and Gottstein-Lasker explore Lithuanian history the more they are drawn together by the obstacles and dangers they must confront, the more so by the history they share and the passion that drives their respective work. The reader wonders will their romance be acknowledged? Will it be consummated?

In between, Ragen does an admirable job of presenting the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania from the sites they visit, the documents they read, the false histories they correct, and the falsifiers they face.

As an academic, I can attest to the fact that she gets the politics of academia just right both in Lithuania and in Israel: the intrigues, the petty rivalries, the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures.

No need for a spoiler alert in this review—I leave to Ragen to tell and the reader to appreciate that the passion for a common task, respect for maintaining one’s integrity despite the immense costs, joy of self-discovery, and bond of facing mutual danger can overcome the differences between Jew and Lithuanian. The story is riveting. As an academic I can attest to the fact that she gets the politics of academia just right both in Lithuania and in Israel: the intrigues, the petty rivalries, the subtle and no so subtle pressures.

But as we draw close to Yom Hashoah, it is important to detail the important facts of the Holocaust by Bullets in Lithuania. Ragen instructs us so gently that we may not know how much we are learning.

Independent Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union and then annexed as a Soviet Socialist Republic precisely as attention was focused on the German invasion of Western Europe in 1940. The Soviet regime demanded collaboration and when the Germans invaded in June 1941, those who collaborated with the Soviets needed to demonstrate their allegiance to their Nazi occupiers. The false promise of independence gave rise to militant nationalists displaying their fidelity to the Germans by murdering the Jews for them and with them, all the while inheriting Jewish property, apartments, businesses and land. During Communist times, this history was suppressed, and the Jewish dimension of the slaughter silenced. When the Iron Curtain fell, for a time, for the first time, a true history could be written. But soon, all too soon, Lithuanian nationalism traced its roots back to the very nationalistic leaders whose hands were soaked in Jewish blood. Only the courageous few could challenge the nationalistic narrative and the honors the nation has bestowed on these leaders. 

And yet, there is a high price to pay for telling an unpleasant truth not only for the Ragen’s fictional heroes but also for Vanagaite and Fiti and even for Zuroff and Gochin, whose work has been done outside of Lithuania. Ragen has captured their integrity and their anguish. Her fictional depiction rings so very true.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

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