At a conference in the memory of Holocaust survivor, Irena Veisaitė, Lithuania's Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė made a bold call for Lithuanians to embrace the past.
"I tend to believe that the maturity of society is also measurable as to whether it can accept from historians truth, which can at times be awkward or which can call for revisiting or rethinking of what has already been established, or it wants that the historians weave one or another collective narrative or mythology, where our side involves only heroes, victims or observers, at worst, but, God forbid, certainly not executioners or collaborators. History is nothing like an old Soviet television showing only ‘black and white’. To be able to discern the colours or the shades to that matter, we must, in the first place, get rid of the interpretive schemes of history imposed by totalitarian regimes, where an individual had no value unless he was part of one or another collective entity: a class, nation or race."
These were powerful words from a leader that aims to take Lithuania into a new era of reconciliation and prosperity.
"The maturity of society is also evidenced by our ability to listen and embrace different perspectives," said Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, who has taken the helm on Lithuania's top deck, together with Aušrinė Armonaitė and Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen.
The Prime Minister's words and new found blueprint for Lithuania's future is expected to face resistance. Her challenge will be to win allies and take on the dogma of Soviet styled-thinking, which still lies hidden in the political cracks of Lithuania's old machinery.
Ironically, the recent human rights crisis in Belarus, will help her in this cause, As with all politicians, the Prime Minister will be judged by what she does, more than what she says.
Chairman of the Save Vilna coalition, Mr. Dov Fried expressed optimism by the content of the Prime Minister's speech. However, he said that he would like to see some concrete steps before calling it "monumentous."
Full Text of Speech by Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė
Conference „A Divisive Past: The Soviet-German War and Narratives of Mass Violence in East Central Europe”
June 4, 2021, Vilnius
‘What helped me keep moving forward after I managed to miraculously survive the war, was my resolute desire to tell the world what really happened. However, it seemed that no one was willing to hear about the horrific experience that I and other people had to go through. And thus bringing up the subject was completely pointless’, said survivor of the Holocaust, Professor Irena Veisaitė, in whose memory this conference is dedicated, in a book co-authored with historian Aurimas Švedas.
Irena Veisaitė had given herself selflessly to the cause of a democratic, open and tolerant state of Lithuania. Lithuania, where dialogue would triumph against confrontation, where there would be no first-class and second-class citizens, where no one would be allowed to monopolise speaking on behalf of the nation, as a nation devoid of polylogues or heated debates is indeed doomed to tread instead of the path of democracy the path of authoritarianism, where a part of society is recommended to stay low and raise no questions. Lithuania, which would, along its aspirations to foster its identity, be mindful of the world around it and use the best it has to offer, and which would not only capriciously demand attention and satisfaction of its interests from the international community, but, looking back on its difficult history marked by violence of totalitarian regimes, reach out to those countries and people who find themselves today on the front lines of the fight for freedom and human rights. The Professor would always say that her mind is a perfect home to the three identities: Jewish, Lithuanian and European. These are the three elements that complement each other, rather than the opposite. It is particularly true today, when national populist movements emerging in different countries seek to impose a mythology of a besieged fortress whose defensive walls must be strengthened to protect them from all alleged foreign and domestic enemies. It is also particularly true of a country that had lost much of its Jewish population during the Holocaust, where anti-Semitism resurfaces under the guise of new masks. The example of Irena Veisaitė testifies to the importance of the efforts of each individual not only of the public authorities in confronting these challenges through empathy, listening and respect for human rights and freedoms, rather than through hostility.
Professor’s words quoted in the beginning point out to a poignant truth: those relentlessly persecuted by the totalitarian regimes of communism and Nazism were inevitably in for yet another blow: during the occupation, they were unable to share the historical truth about what they had gone through. It is deeply traumatic, so it is particularly important today to professionally look at this complicated past which will only then settle into history from the still painful trauma when there is nothing pending that has been selectively omitted or bypassed, and when no one is left unheard or ignored, when historians can proceed peacefully with their work without being passionately reproached for seeking truth supported by facts and documents.
I tend to believe that the maturity of society is also measurable as to whether it can accept from historians truth, which can at times be awkward or which can call for revisiting or rethinking of what has already been established, or it wants that the historians weave one or another collective narrative or mythology, where our side involves only heroes, victims or observers, at worst, but, God forbid, certainly not executioners or collaborators. History is nothing like an old Soviet television showing only ‘black and white’. To be able to discern the colours or the shades to that matter, we must, in the first place, get rid of the interpretive schemes of history imposed by totalitarian regimes, where an individual had no value unless he was part of one or another collective entity: a class, nation or race. Belonging to the ‘wrong’ race or class or group was often seen as a crime, while belonging to the ‘right’ side, on the other hand, would easily wash off the most heinous crimes against humanity. Isn’t it still true today that we see cases with some people justified just because of belonging to the group of our own? Isn’t it still true today that we have cases where the suffering of others deserves less compassion and their voice remains unheard just because they are strangers so to speak?
The maturity of society is also evidenced by our ability to listen and embrace different perspectives. It is only natural that following our regained independence, we rushed to voice our thoughts after so many years of living in a lie, so the tongue often worked more effectively than our ears. We were often sceptical of other narratives or treated them at times with hostility lest they overshadow our voice, or in some way deny or challenge what we were trying to assert. We have been living in freedom for three decades now and we are strong enough not to treat every awkward question, every doubt expressed and every different perspective as a threat. At this point it is notable that the host of this conference - Vilnius itself is a city where Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish and Belarusian stories meet. To hear and understand them, we don’t necessarily have to agree on everything. We are invited to focus on what unites rather than divides us. And the strongest link can be the one based on values. In other words, we can ask not only what we are telling but what values our historical narrative and its assessment is based on, what our mistakes are, what lessons we have learnt, and what story we see today as an inspiration to continue building our future? Although asked in different tongues, all these questions can bring us closer to the common language of the heart.
When telling a story, tensions often rise between the so-called grand narrative and personal memory. Our actions and attitudes speak volumes of the maturity of our society. Do we tend to silence and hide voices that are in dissonance, or do we indeed have the courage and humility to leave room for a different voice that is also seeking truth? This, as a matter of fact, was also testified by talented poet Matilda Olkinaitė, who wrote the following words before her eighteenth birthday in May 1940: ‘I see you, oh suffering soul’. A little over a year later, she was killed together with her loved ones by white-arm-banders, Nazi collaborators. Matilda’s words remain our guidance today.
Following her - means having no fear of the Kremlin and its hybrid aggression, with history, among its other targets. False information coming from the Kremlin seeks division, polarisation, disruption in the social fabric and undermined mutual trust among the population. False information aims to discredit states in the eyes of international partners. It is important to note that it often targets unanswered, bypassed or hidden questions, or which are, conversely, escalated in support of certain myth rather than in search of truth. Hence, historical research and its quality and our own openness to dialogue that bridges the divide, is not only about the past but also about today’s challenges: social solidarity, resilience and public security, which call for more than military build-up.
The doom of the 1941 lied in the fact that some were waiting in horror for the approaching Nazis, while others in the meantime hoped that the Nazi-Soviet conflict might open up an opportunity for Lithuania to regain what had been lost without a single bullet in the 1940s. Today’s rushed world, where, according to one sociologist invoking Alice in Wonderland, we have to ‘run as fast as we can, just to stay in place’, often pushes us to make hasty assessments without the required in-depth analysis or without trying to look at the matter not from the nowadays perspective, when we already know the outcome, but from the perspective of those who were trapped between the hammer and the anvil or between one or another totalitarian regime. This is how history may serve a stage for the demonstration of pride and self-righteousness and may suffer impoverishment to the point of labelling. It is my belief and wish that this conference, which has brought together prominent experts in their fields, will place an important emphasis on the common duty for us all to take time to understand and delve in the matter instead of rushing out our assessments.
Finally, I will recall Irena Veisaitė’s words from her preface to Matilda Olkinaitė’s diary and poetry book: ‘I have no idea how people could have been persuaded to even kill children. Until then, everyone had lived in peace. My grandfather who lived in Babtai before the war got along well with others, he was loved and respected by his neighbours, and I had never heard any bad word about Lithuanians from him. Why did he have to be killed? It’s beyond my understanding. It was true however that cruelty spread at that time as a universal phenomenon all across Europe, and it would be wrong therefore to blame one nation or another. After all, a nation can never be guilty because there are different people in every nation, there are murderers and rescuers. And I am afraid that it might happen again. I have deep concerns about the modern world.’ The Professor’s words testify to the fact that in the face of the most brutal epochs in history, we are powerless to answer some of the questions that have shaken our very faith in human being and humanity. We will hardly ever be able to put a full stop in terms of the answers sought, saying that what was covered is now revealed. However, this does not relieve us of our duty to seek and delve into the matter while feeling responsibility for those who are no more, those who live today and those who are yet to come into this world that will be passed on to them as our co-created legacy.
After all, to feel concern about today’s world - to put it in Irena Veisaitė’s words - means to take responsibility for it, so that the words ‘never again’ are not a mere ritual repeated once or twice a year but a personal commitment to do everything within my might to make change happen.