Ellen Cassedy, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln and London, 2012; 273 pp.; 978-0-8032-3012-5, $19.95 (pbk)
A compelling memoir, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust is appropriately titled. Ellen Cassedy, a writer and translator, has written an account of her family’s past, and her quest to understand that past, that describes all those involved: her Jewish family members, their Lithuanian neighbors, her classmates in the summer Yiddish program of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, and the Lithuanian friends and acquaintances she met along the way. Cassedy’s willingness to listen to the stories of others makes this memoir unusually engaging. Her ability to tell the story of her own family with sensitivity and grace turns this tale of a researcher’s work into a model for the study of interethnic relations.
Cassedy, the daughter of a father with ties to Ireland, England, and Bavaria and a Jewish mother whose family had lived in Lithuania, came to the study of her roots later in life. She followed a passion to learn more about Yiddish, the language of her ancestors, and she eventually became a successful translator. The 2004 summer Yiddish program in Vilnius offered her the perfect opportunity to improve her skills and continue learning more about her family. Growing up in a secular Jewish family, she heard stories about her family’s past in the Lithuanian town of Rokiškis and of her great-uncle Will’s experiences in the Šiauliai (Shavl) ghetto. Shortly before she left for Vilnius, Cassedy learned a part of her uncle’s story she had not known before. Uncle Will was a Jewish policeman standing at the gates of the ghetto in Šiauliai as the deportations took place. Cassedy finds herself unexpectedly in the gray zone, trying to reconcile this new information with the story she had known, that her uncle had helped to save two young girls. While the story she tells here is limited to her experiences in Lithuania during the summer study program, she nonetheless offers the reader a review of the complex wartime history of the region, profiles of Lithuanians, Russians, and Jews, and an intimate look into her family’s past.
Cassedy made an effort to contact an official in Rokiškis before her trip to arrange a visit to the local museum. The official surprised her by asking if she would agree to meet with an elderly man in the city who wanted to speak with a Jew before he died (7). Cassedy agreed. This encounter with a Lithuanian man named Steponas serves as a counterpoint to her family’s own story; Cassedy’s efforts to understand Steponas’ actions as a bystander and her own uncle’s experiences are the core of the book. For Cassedy, going to the physical home of her ancestors was an indispensable part of her quest for understanding. She knew that she would find more information about her relatives’ experiences during and immediately after the war, but she also wanted to confront the neighbors with whom her family lived. Along the way, she sought out many who helped her with her questions about the Jewish experience in Lithuania and about the contemporary concerns of Holocaust education and interethnic relations. Cassedy offers portraits of many of the individuals she encounters, mostly acquaintances or friends of friends from the United States and new contacts she makes in Lithuania. She learns of the toll of the war on both Lithuanians and Russians and begins to see the wartime history in a different light. Her description of two young Lithuanian women working in Holocaust education is perhaps the best model of the bridge Cassedy builds to Lithuanian culture. It is these young women who teach her that Lithuanians studying and teaching about the Holocaust do not act simply out of altruism or guilt. Rather, one says, ‘Our goal is to transform ourselves from a society of bystanders into an active civil society.’ (145) In addition, Cassedy demonstrates a genuine empathy for opposing viewpoints throughout her descriptions of the people she meets. For example, when a classmate tells her that Lithuanians living in wooden houses on the site of the former ghetto in Kaunas (Kovno) had closed their shutters as their tour bus passed, Cassedy asks, ‘How would you feel if a tour bus pulled up in front of your house and everyone was staring at you?’ (167) Cassedy shows here that it is not always easy to interpret others’ behaviour; knowing this, her conclusions about the behaviour of individuals during the war are tentative and nuanced. Though she employed a Lithuanian researcher to learn more about Uncle Will’s role in the Shavl ghetto, she does not learn enough to answer all of her questions about what happened to her family and the responses of her family members. She learns of postwar trials and conflicting testimonies, and she comes to understand that those who experienced this trauma, whether as victims or bystanders, should not be forced to answer her questions. She realizes that Lithuanians, too, are trying to understand what happened and why.
Cassedy’s description of the summer program is an important contribution to our understanding of how American Jews encounter Eastern Europe and East European Jewish culture. She describes students less dedicated in their studies and those just as interested as she is. Her description of her classmates and their instructor Yitskhok Niborski allows her to depict the varying motivations of those interested in Yiddish language and literature. Cassedy’s journey is an educational one, and her story should appeal to students at all levels. Through this personal account Cassedy introduces the reader to some of the more complex questions surrounding the study of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, her tight focus does not lead her to address more than briefly the ongoing concerns about the Lithuanian government and its representation of the war and its aftermath. Still, the reader will learn much about how to approach questions of history, issues of identity, and concerns about the memory of the Holocaust among Jews and Lithuanians.
Western Reserve Historical Society