Indre Cuplinskas in the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania, where she ponders her ancestral past and how she would have dealt with Nazi and Soviet atrocities. Photo/Courtesy of Marc Cels

Coming to terms with Holocaust and homeland

By  Indre Cuplinskas, Catholic Register Special
  • August 7, 2016

Dear Mr. Eisen, I have been asked to write a review of your book, By Chance Alone. I took this on with trepidation. After all, what can I say?

I can express my horror, my disbelief, my despair — all emotions that I felt reading your book. Even before picking it up I could imagine, more or less, how things would unfold — what you experienced and how it would end.

Yet it is important to read your story. Your editor spurs us on: “His story is now yours.” It began in Czechoslovakia, a Hungarian-speaking Jewish family in 1929. Your early years were ones we can relate to — a lively household, life lessons from grandparents, beloved aunts, schoolboy antics. But in 1939 your village came under Hungarian rule and as a Jew you were pushed to the peripheries of your world.

The men in your family were forced into labour battalions. In 1942 you, your siblings and mother were deported. By sheer chance you were not killed. It looked like you might survive the war. But in 1944, the fascist Hungarian government deported its Jews. Your entire household was rounded up. You describe Auschwitz through the eyes of a 15-year old boy. You survived not just the concentration camp. You survived the winter death march from Auschwitz, Poland, to Ebensee, Austria; the trek back to your hometown after liberation in May of 1945; and communist incarceration, escaping communist Czechoslovakia in 1948. Yes, by chance alone.

It is important that we hear your story. We need to put faces to the Holocaust. Six million is not really a number most of us can comprehend. But we can imagine your family and their experiences, suffering and anguish.

“His story is now yours.” How do I make your story my own? I, a historian of Catholicism, a daughter of Lithuanian war refugees, a Christian. Perhaps I should start with my family, because the Holocaust is not a story far from my own. My family were present where the Holocaust started.

Seventy-five years ago, a brutal summer began in Lithuania. This country was not an enviable place to be during the Second World War. There were three invasions, and each forced people to make decisions. The Soviets invaded in June of 1940. They left almost a year later with the Nazis on their heels. Still, the Soviets and local communist collaborators managed to deport about 17,500 people.

The Nazis did not wait to take murderous action. Within weeks of their arrival, with the help of Lithuanian auxiliaries, they began rounding up Jews. Mass shootings commenced shortly thereafter. By the end of the four-year Nazi occupation, 95 per cent of Lithuania’s 250,000 Jews had been murdered.

But the bloodletting did not stop there. The Soviets returned in the summer of 1944. It took them almost another decade to subdue Lithuania’s citizens, battling guerilla fighters and deporting more of the local population.

As a daughter of Lithuanian displaced persons who made it to Canada after the Second World War, I grew up with the Stalin side of the story — the deportations, the labour camps, the famines. I am still weaving the Hitler side into my personal history. The complete picture is important.

I read your account in an apartment in the winding streets of the historic Jewish Quarter of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. Jews had been living in Vilnius for close to half a millennium. The city was even referred to as the Jerusalem of the North because of its vibrant Jewish religious and intellectual life.

This same apartment was also part of the Small Ghetto, which under the Nazis housed Jews who could not perform useful labour. The Small Ghetto was liquidated by the fall of 1941.

I have been contemplating the Holocaust this past year as I walk the same streets as the Jews who were marched to the outskirts of Vilnius and shot in forest pits. It was in part the messiness of these shootings that the Nazis rethought their strategy and built much more efficient methods of mass murder.

This is a painful and complicated history to own. Most Lithuanians still struggle with how to make the history of the Holocaust their own. It is still surprising how many people from Vilnius do not know about the execution pits outside the city. The heart of the problem, I think, is culpability. How do people relate to those who participated in the annihilation of Lithuania’s Jews, especially if the participants were parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbours of some of today’s Lithuanians? Were they degenerates, as some in Lithuania like to say, or were they like us?

This brings us to the dilemma most face when we ponder the Holocaust. If we label the perpetrators monsters, we are safe. We cannot then imagine ourselves participating in such horror. And yet, there were too many perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders. Participants were not so unlike us.

Mr. Eisen, I ask where would I be in your story? I would hope I might be your old neighbour who looked after you when you returned from Auschwitz. Perhaps one of those on overpasses throwing bread down to deportees in the trains below. But I secretly fear I might have been a villager happy not to have to pay my debts to your grandfather once he was taken away, or worse, one of those who spat on my Jewish neighbours as you were marched through the village streets to train stations for deportation. I hope I would have sided with the persecuted but, in truth, I cannot be sure.

How do I approach all of this as a historian of Catholicism? All of this slaughter happened in Christian, often decidedly Catholic, territory. I seek to acknowledge what has happened in the past, to account for it and not to make excuses. I must name the evil and how people have participated in it — perpetrators, collaborators, enablers, bystanders.

Catholic faith does not shelter us from evil or from committing evil. Rather it should constantly be viewed as a challenge, a voice of conscience pushing us to be vigilant about our priorities and cautious, even fearful, when nation, race, profit, our own well-being all seem perfectly rational reasons to lessen or deny the dignity of other human beings.

At its core Christianity is not an idea, but a personal relationship with God and neighbour. Perhaps, when we are at a loss as to how to proceed in our world in which an angry tone and hatred grow shriller, we should turn to relationships. We should challenge ourselves to befriend those whom we fear. Because, Mr. Eisen, it was those who were willing to see you as a human being, those who befriended you who helped you to survive.

Perhaps I can find a vantage point from which to contemplate what happened in the Jewish Ghetto and beyond that will help me embrace hope and life rather than be paralysed by the despair and horror of the past.

After all, Mr. Eisen, you have recounted your experiences not for us to sink into desolation, but for us to take hold of a hope that will help us fashion a more dignified future.

(Čuplinskas teaches historical theology at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.)

By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz, by Max Eisen (HarperCollins Publishers, paperback, 304 pages, $22.99).

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