In the Cauldron


by Christopher R. Browning
New York Review of Books
August 16, 2012

Ellen Cassedy, the daughter of a secular American Jewish mother, tried to recover her Jewish roots through intensive study of Yiddish in Vilnius. She pursued a double quest: What could she discover about the role of her great-uncle as a ghetto policeman in the Siauliai ghetto and how could she deal with the various ways in which present-day Lithuanians are coping with their forgotten, repressed, selectively remembered, haunted, or even defended role in the Holocaust as a difficult chapter in their own history of occupation and suffering? Cassedy resists Lithuanian attempts to place Jewish and Lithuanian suffering “side by side” – the so-called double genocide in which Nazi killing of Jews and Soviet killing of Lithuanians are equated, while the role of Lithuanians as Holocaust perpetrators is either denied or defended as a justified reaction to alleged Jewish complicity in the two eras of Soviet occupation and terror (1940-1941 and post-1944).

Chastened by her own difficulties in researching the role of the ghetto police in Lithuanian, she listens to all the voices and perspectives of the Lithuanians with whom she speaks. She attempts to know and comprehend rather than judge. In the tortured landscape of Lithuanian history – what she calls “a cauldron seething with competing martyrdoms, hatreds, and resentments” characterized by “seemingly unbridgeable divides” and “radically disparate views of history” – Cassedy ultimately sides with an aging Holocaust survivor who returned to his native country and spoke at a local high school. Confronted with a young man in tears who confessed that his grandfather had been a killer of Jews and asked what he should do, the survivor embraced him and replied, “It is enough for you to understand.”

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