In the year since her book, “We are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust” (University of Nebraska), came out, Ellen Cassedy has traveled around the country to speak about the summer she spent studying Yiddish in Lithuania and what she learned about how Lithuanians are trying to come to grips with what happened to their Jewish citizens during World War II.
“It’s been quite an adventure,” says the author. “I’ve been so moved by people who have opened themselves up to this material. Just reading about the Holocaust is hard and painful.”
Cassedy will speak in the Seattle area twice next week. On Mon., Feb. 11, she will appear at a gathering of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State. On Feb. 12, she speaks at the University Bookstore.
Cassedy journeyed to Lithuania, where her family had its roots, to take an intensive course in Yiddish. Just before she left, her uncle made a startling revelation to her about his time in the ghetto, which changed her perspective on the Holocaust.
Living in Vilna, once known as “Jerusalem of the north,” she began to ask Lithuanians about their perspectives on what happened during the war. She learned that moral definitions are not always drawn as clearly as most of us believe.
“My book asks people to look with respect at people who a lot of us in the Jewish community in the United States have thought of as being on the other side,” she said.
The author continued her language studies, and her often-humorous attempts to master the extremely complicated grammar of Yiddish are laid out side by side with her conversations with Lithuanians, including an elderly man who wanted to talk to a Jew before he died.
Complicating the issue is that many Lithuanians see themselves as victims, too — both of the Nazis and the Soviets. Many are completely ignorant of what happened to the Jewish population, a testament to how isolated the cultures were from one another. There is much denial, and there were many righteous gentiles.
Cassedy explores the moral gray area of what gentile Lithuanians did and did not do during the war.
“If it’s a choice between protecting your own family versus reaching out across a cultural divide to stand up for another part of a population,” observed Cassedy, we are naïve if we think we would automatically rescue someone else at our own risk.
“It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves,” she said.
By writing this book and speaking about it, she said “what I do today is make sure I don’t have to make that decision.” She said she hopes for a world “where people can stand up in the face of injustice without jeopardizing ourselves.”
Cassedy doesn’t challenge Lithuanians. She asks some gentle questions and observes “some brave souls” — a minority of Lithuanians who pose these questions “to their fellow Lithuanians.” In that country, currently dominated by right-wing nationalist politics, Cassedy feels it’s important to talk to those who are engaged in what she called “good-hearted…fragile initiatives” of getting their society to talk about the Holocaust.
Her message to genealogy groups is not different than her message to the general public, said the author.
“I talk about how my own genealogy journey morphed … in this larger exploration and I draw ties to what we’re after as genealogists and what I discovered,” she said. It “gives you respect of the lives of ordinary people.”
For some, “the enormity of the Holocaust and the right-wing nationalism that you find in Lithuania today…is overwhelming,” Cassedy said, and she respects those who speak out about the issue. However, she prefers to “shine a spotlight on the good things that are happening there,” she said, and “ask people to be sophisticated enough to see that things are complicated.”
Cassedy has really thrown herself into the book-promotion process, the burden of which falls on almost all authors today. As a founder of the working women’s organization 9to5, organizing is “in my bones,” she says. She’s also continued her Yiddish studies and meets monthly with her Yiddish group to discuss Yiddish literature.
There’s more information at www.ellencassedy.com.