Professor Robert van Voren, of Vytautas Magnus University, argues for a more nuanced approach to wartime accounts of the American-Lithuanian avantgarde filmmaker Jonas Mekas.
Several days ago, I watched a virtual presentation of the book Forgotten Evil by the Dutch filmmaker Peter Delpeut. Delpeut had been a great fan of the Lithuanian filmmaker Jonas Mekas, until he read a 2018 article in the New York Review of Books by the American historian Michael Casper, in which the latter accused Mekas of having ”forgotten” the murder of 2,400 Jews in Biržai, close to where Mekas lived in 1941.
The whole basis of Casper’s accusation is not that Mekas directly participated in killings, but that he was involved in anti-Semitic publications and, without having written anything anti-Semitic himself, that he distorted his memories in order to come out as a victim of Soviet and Nazi occupations, and “preferred to forget” the rest. The article by Casper destroyed Delpeut’s adoration of Mekas, and this is the core issue of his own book.
The presentation was to me another example of how reflecting on a distant past without sufficiently understanding the context, both historically and geographically, can be a flawed enterprise, and also how risky it is to pass any judgement afterwards, when the course of history is already known and it is quite easy to discern good from bad decisions.
The basic premise of Casper’s article in the New York Review of Books is that Mekas, who lived in a hamlet 26 kilometers away from Biržai, which had then a population of not more than two dozen inhabitants, must have known that a third of the town population of Biržai was murdered, and so why did he not mention this in his own reflections on the past? On top of that, after the Nazis arrived, he became an editor of the local publication Naujosios Biržų žinios, which was a publication of the anti-Semite Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), and later of a similarly anti-Semitic publication in Panevėžys. Thus, Caster asserts, he must have known about the campaign against the Jews and, as the editor, he might have edited anti-Semitic articles.
And although Casper acknowledges that there is no evidence that Mekas was in any way involved in the massacre, and he himself did not write any anti-Semitic texts, he is guilty because he doesn’t remember, distorts his own memory, or refuses to remember what happened at a time when he was nineteen years of age. In other words: his guilt is compliance.
The young adult Mekas lived in extremely turbulent and upsetting times, when his country was occupied by Soviet troops, subsequently incorporated into the USSR, and, a year later, only a week after the first wave of deportations to Siberia in which some of his friends seem to have disappeared, the country was “liberated” by the Nazis.
Indeed, the Nazis were initially seen as liberators, and many Lithuanians, including the LAF, thought that by buttering up to the Nazis the latter would grant them independence. The sad fact was that all this was totally useless: Lithuanians were not considered Aryans and were bound to be deported East, as Lithuania was supposed to be part of the Lebensraum and would become German lands.
The incredible speed with which the Lithuanian Jews were exterminated (by the end of 1941, about 60 percent of the Lithuanian Jews had already been killed, while Jews in Amsterdam were not yet forced to wear a Yellow Star) can only be explained by a lethal combination of factors, including the unheroic loss of independence to the Soviets in 1940 and the deportations a week before the German invasion, the successful propaganda of the LAF, the cultural and spiritual separation of the Lithuanian and Jewish Lithuanian communities and the shrewd tactics of the Germans, by which they organised the killings but let most of the killing itself be done by local Lithuanians while they themselves oversaw the events from a distance.
For a young man, barely an adult, this period must have been fundamentally traumatic, especially if he witnessed the mass murder of the Jewish population of Biržai. If that was the case, indeed the most natural method of surviving and remaining sane would be to forget – to such an extent that the memory would indeed be gone as if it never happened.
There are several instances in Mekas’ work that indicate that this “survivalist forgetting” might be the real state of affairs. In I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas mentions that he is afraid to go to a certain pond in the German woods: “The slightest movement on the dark surface of the pond, the rotten, putrid, black leaves on the bottom. Everything is calling me back, wakening up memories of Astravas and Biržai.”
And in an entry from 1955, he writes that he is staring across a “quiet New England lake”, adding, “I suddenly had a feeling that my past had caught up with my present... I was sitting there and trembling with memory”.
Both entries could refer to the fact that he did see the mass grave near the large Biržai lake, where the blood-soaked earth must have kept moving for quite a while because of the decomposing bodies of 2,400 victims.
What I find the most disturbing about Caspar’s article is that he judges Mekas afterwards, and even though there is not a shred of proof that Mekas did anything other than be compliant, which in most cases 95 percent of the population would do, he still accuses Mekas and leaves sufficient room for doubt. He ignores the fact that if Mekas knew what happened to the Jews, which is quite likely, or saw the results of the massacre or, who knows, the massacre itself, he does not take the possibility into account that the young adult Mekas was going through such a turbulent whirlwind of emotions that certain deeply emotional and impressive events were repressed in order to be able to live on and remain sane.
In other words: it is easy to judge a person while sitting in your comfortable chair at a research centre in the United States instead of being a living witness to occupation, turmoil, murder and the total disintegration of any structured reality.
The presentation of the book by Delpeut was a continuation of this discrepancy. Based on an article by this American scholar, whether well-informed or not but clearly rather judgmental, the judgement is extended by both the author of the book, Peter Delpeut, and the others invited to join the panel. In the end, only one impression remains – Mekas is guilty not because he didn’t do anything, but because he chose not to remember, deliberately or unconsciously distorted his memory or was so hurt by what happened that his mind blocked the bad memories in order to be able to live on and be productive. Considering the fact that he was an artist and probably a very sensitive person, the latter seems the most realistic – and the filmmaker Paul Delpeut should have known. But then – who am I to judge?
Professor Robert van Voren is the director of the Andrei Sakharov Research Centre for Democratic Development at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.