RETURN OF THE LITVAK
August-September 2018 @DORF
Last spring, I visited Lithuania as part of a family heritage trip to see the villages and neighborhoods where my ancestors lived until the turn of the twentieth century. When I first arrived, I was waiting in a cafe for the rest of my family to arrive, and (living in Texas) was struck by the beauty of the dense forest. Over the next few days, touring the towns and cities, I learned the dark history of what happened in that forest after the Soviet Army pulled out ahead of the advancing Germans in World War II. Of the roughly 250,000 Jews living in Lithuania in 1941, approximately 206,000 were murdered by 1944, including some 70,000 at Ponary, along with up to 20,000 Poles, and 8,000 Russian POWs. Particularly striking, however, was that the murders were largely carried out not by the Germans but by Lithuanian collaborators with whom the Litvak (a non-pejorative term for Jews from the region) had lived in relative peace for centuries. Most of those killed were not sent to concentration camps but instead summarily shot in these beautiful woods. This incredible, dehumanizing act of organized violence spurred a train of thought: What was it that suddenly made the unthinkable acceptable? Was it something latent, waiting for an opportunity to manifest itself, or was it some sort of mass hysteria brought about by certain conditions and stimuli? What are the lessons to be learned and what are the parallels we see in today’s geopolitical climate? “Never forget”—but have we forgotten? This exhibition is the beginning of an exploration of these topics, with an aim towards awareness, understanding and, perhaps, solutions.