Vanished Lands

Memory and Postmemory in North American Lithuanian Diaspora Literature

by Laima Vincė (Author)
©2023 Monographs XLII, 536 Pages
Series: Exile Studies, Volume 21


«Dr. Laima Vincė Sruoginis, an established author, academic, and life-long part of the North American Lithuanian diaspora, courageously faces Lithuania’s difficult historical legacy in her ground-breaking book. She researched her community’s refugee ancestors, drawing both from personal interviews and dusty academic sources, confronting uncomfortable truths.»
(Philip S. Shapiro, President, Remembering Litvaks, Inc.)
As World War II ended, refugees fled Soviet-occupied Lithuania, finding shelter in the displaced persons camps of Europe. By 1949, most had emigrated to North America. They brought with them opposing narratives about the Nazi occupation (1941–1944) when 95 percent of Lithuania’s Jewish community was annihilated. Trauma narratives were passed down to the second and third generations through collective memory. Through postmemory, cultural memory, and trauma theory, Vanished Lands analyzes literary works by North American Jewish and Lithuanian writers who speak over the silence of decades, seeking answers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: A Historian’s Look at Memory and Its Discontents by Dr. Saulius Sužiedėlis
  • Foreword: Towards a Common Understanding by Dr. Dalia Leinartė
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • IntroductionAn Ocean Away and a Century in the Past
  • Chapter 1 The Literary Works and Theoretical Framework
  • Chapter 2 The Holocaust by Bullets in Lithuania
  • Chapter 3 Lithuania’s Anti-Soviet Armed Resistance
  • Chapter 4 Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Migration from Lithuania to North America
  • Chapter 5 The Role of Lithuanian Émigré Writers in Shaping the Next Generation
  • Chapter 6 Two Interpretations—Two Continents: Algirdas Landsbergis, Five Posts in a Market Place
  • Chapter 7 Expressions of Cultural Memory in Two Lithuanian Diaspora Memoirs: Antanas Sileika, The Barefoot Bingo Caller and Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep
  • Chapter 8 Catharsis Through Memory: Samuel Bak, Painted in Words—A Memoir
  • Chapter 9 Postmemory as Historical Reckoning: Rita Gabis, A Guest at the Shooters’ Banquet and Julija Šukys, Siberian Exile
  • Chapter 10 Yiddish as Postmemory Portal: Ellen Cassedy, We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust
  • Chapter 11 Postmemory and Historical Accuracy
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix
  • Index

Foreword: A Historian’s Look at Memory and Its Discontents

←xx | xxi→Saulius Sužiedėlis

Laima Vincė has written a compelling study of war and exile as reflected in Lithuanian diaspora literature. The writers in question found themselves in Canada and the United States either as refugees, or as children of parents displaced by the Second World War. This book is not a wartime history of the homeland which the migrants had left behind, but rather an inquiry into the trauma rooted in the collective memories and postmemories of a violent past. The author examines the different ways in which the writers faced their displaced lives. Two of the writers in this study represent a generation whose memories stemmed from the lived experience of exile. The renowned artist and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak (1933–), the imprisoned child artist, held his first exhibition in the foyer of the Vilna ghetto theater in April 1943. In that year, the playwright Algirdas Landsbergis (1924–2004) was studying literature in Kaunas. As refugees and Displaced Persons (D.P.s), they inhabited the same geographic and temporal space as other countless thousands, who had left their homeland during the final months of the war. Yet, their experiences and memories were poles apart. Theirs was not a shared past.

Historian Robert Gellately has fittingly designated the post-1914 period of Europe’s multiple crises as the “age of social catastrophe,”1 a cataclysm which Lithuania entered in June 1940 when the Soviet Union occupied the country. During the ensuing decade, foreign occupiers murdered nearly a quarter of a million citizens of the once-independent state. The Nazi-led Holocaust, the most violent event in the nation’s history, incomparable in scale, accounted for about four-fifths of the victims. This ←xxi | xxii→ultimate horror, which rightfully occupies much of Laima Vincė’s study, had a timetable. Before the first week of August 1941, an estimated 90 per cent of Lithuania’s Jews were still alive. Less than three months later, almost three-fourths were dead. This unprecedented bloodbath stuns the imagination: in Lithuania, more Jews were killed in a single week in 1941 than in all anti-Jewish attacks over the preceding (and, one should note, markedly turbulent) three centuries of the country. Less than 10 per cent of Lithuanian Jews survived. According to official Lithuanian estimates, between 190,000 and 206,000 Lithuanian Jews died in the Holocaust, including most of Samuel Bak’s family. Aside from the government officials and police who organized persecution from their desks, at least several thousand indigenous collaborators took a direct part in the murders. The Lithuanian perpetrators, a minority of the population to be sure, were not a tiny rabble of misfits and lowlifes, but represented a different strata of society. This history is well known and is accepted by mainstream academics as well as by Lithuanians willing to own an unvarnished past. The rhetorical conflict over the responsibility for crimes committed during the Nazi occupation continues to agitate Lithuanians and has become a significant factor in the society’s ongoing cultural and political struggles. The fact that Lithuania has the second highest ratio of rescuers (after the Netherlands) to the general population on the list of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Gentiles cannot cloak the dreadful reality.

By contrast, the vast majority of ethnic Lithuanians who died violently in the twentieth century perished at the hands of the Stalinists during the five years following the Allied victory over Germany (May 1945). In May 1953, Lavrenti Beria, the notorious Soviet secret police chief, reported to the Party leadership that over a quarter million people had “suffered repression” in post-war Lithuania (126,000 deportees, 20,000 anti-Soviet partisan deaths, 130,000 arrests). His account did not include some 25,000 unarmed civilians murdered during the same period, nor specify the deaths resulting from arrests and deportations. Not surprisingly, Lithuanians who lived this post-1945 reality do not remember it as a liberation. In popular Lithuanian idiom, these years are known as the pokaris, the “afterwar,” a word understood as carnage rather than peace. Some Lithuanians tend to adopt the pokaris as their own Holocaust, which it was not.

←xxii | xxiii→Unfortunately, the post-war experience tended to deflect attention away from what had happened to the Jews, an all-too-human failing which compounds a harsh reality: in effect, Lithuanian Jews and their Gentile neighbors inhabited different worlds of mass violence in the 1940s and, thus, acquired divergent, even contentious, collective memories. These issues can evoke strong emotions among the “defenders of history,” for whom only one of the above narratives/memories is the most important or correct. The work of Samuel Bak and Algirdas Landsbergis’s play Five Posts in a Market, deal with different realities in the same land.

The other writers in the study, Antanas Sileika, Daiva Markelis, Rita Gabis, Julija Šukys, Ellen Cassedy, and Silvia Foti, were too young to have observed first-hand the horrors of foreign occupations and post-war violence. We are dealing here with a postmemory of historical trauma. Much of the younger Lithuanian generation born outside the homeland experienced two psychological jolts: the “culture shock” of their parents’ forced migration, and, for some, the subsequent discovery of brutal truths, in which the victims of one foreign occupier appear as perpetrators in the service of another. One should note here an important generational divide, which afflicted many, if not most, refugee families. The American narratives of World War II, steeped in stories of the “Greatest Generation” and recounted in Steven Spielberg’s gripping films, were not wrong; however, they were largely irrelevant to the wartime experiences of older ethnic Lithuanian D.P.s. As a member of the cohort who emigrated from the D.P. camps as small children, I can recall my parents’ fierce attachment to their narrative. Inevitably, my own understanding of the past was informed by what I learned in American schools or read in historical novels. As a fifteen-year-old, I loved Otto Preminger’s blockbuster film Exodus, and then recoiled from the shock of reading about Lithuanian perpetrators in Leon Uris’s bestselling novel of the same title.

Vincė’s work confronts the historian with the dilemma inherent in the relationship of history and memory. One cannot exist without the other, but because they capture the past in different ways, the link between the two is rarely straightforward. To be sure, memory is indispensable to both collective and personal identity. Amnesiacs do not know who they are because they cannot recall who they were. Common sense tells us to ←xxiii | xxiv→believe that the memory of what has been directly experienced takes precedence in establishing the truth: the shouted, “I was there, and you were not,” effectively ends many an argument. However, this assumes that the memories of the past, that is, much of what constitutes a person, are inherently reliable. Social scientists have proven time and again that this is not the case.2 The relationship of history as an academic discipline, and memory, both collective and personal, can be difficult, even contentious.

Historians search for answers in the specific conditions of time and place. They privilege evidence closely linked, in time, to historical events, such as contemporary documents and diaries. They often analyze the social and political context of the traumatic events of the past century. Unfortunately, such an approach can create, even if unintentionally, the impression of a tragedy wreaked on society by impersonal forces. The “age of social catastrophe” was not a natural disaster. Historic circumstances may have set the stage; however, it should go without saying that the mass murders of that period were, above all, premeditated crimes of staggering scale, the results of decisions involving moral agency. During the Holocaust, a myriad of moral choices faced the non-Jewish populace. Some became killers, looted Jewish property, and/or turned over Jews in hiding; others were indifferent. Many people reached out a helping hand, if only for a moment. Hundreds of brave souls attempted rescue. It is precisely the moral response which the arts and literature can best portray to the reader, revealing the criminals’ “heart of darkness,” as well as the pain forever imprinted on the minds of those who suffered the unimaginable. Memoirs and vivid depictions in literary nonfiction can bring to life valuable lessons about perpetrators and victims. This is essential wisdom, even if gained by methods, which differ from the craft practiced by the historical profession. Truth is not merely a collection of facts.

The contrast between history and literature should not be reduced to simple notions of supposed differences in the “objective” vs. “subjective” modes of knowledge. This does not mean, however, that literary nonfiction ←xxiv | xxv→in particular should be exempt from respect for the historical record and honest attempts at historical accuracy. The generations which emerged from the D.P. experience in the U.S. and Canada will recognize Antanas Sileika’s and Daiva Markelis’s depictions of the diaspora’s continuing adjustments between tradition and assimilation. Rita Gabis’s work employs numerous interviews with specialists and archival documents, which undergird the emotional indictment of her collaborationist grandfather’s role in the destruction of the Jews of Švenčionys, but which also reveal the multiple nuances and contradictions of Jewish and Lithuanian interactions during the occupation. Was this perhaps a counterpoint to her own blended, but conflicted Lithuanian-Jewish family? Professor Julija Šukys’s experience in teaching creative nonfiction and her research on the important aspects of foreign occupations inform her own “granddaughter’s reckoning,” as equally wrenching as that of Gabis. From a historian’s point of view, Ellen Cassedy’s journey into the past through the Yiddish “portal” is different. The Jewish ghetto police, of which her uncle was a member, were in a uniquely dreadful circumstance: the only indigenous security force which the Nazis targeted for annihilation. Therefore, any comparison of their situation with that of other native collaborators would be simplistic and unfair.

Unfortunately, an adherence to the historical record is less evident in Silva Foti’s account of her grandfather, Jonas Noreika, the district chief of Šiauliai during the German occupation. The evidence that Noreika carried out orders to ghettoize the Jews of the region is beyond doubt. According to Foti, whether he committed murders himself, is unknown. The Germans arrested Noreika in 1943 and sent him to the Stutthof camp. As the author points out, Foti’s speculation that Himmler softened the treatment of Noreika and other Lithuanian inmates because of their mistreatment of Jews is far-fetched. Moreover, that these prisoners must have engaged in the rape of Jewish women at the camp, as one of Foti’s colleagues asserts, is baseless speculation sliding into slander. The past informs the present; however, the reverse, sometimes derided by historians as “presentism,” is not necessarily helpful in the understanding of the past.

As historian Peter Hayes has pointed out, there is, increasingly, “a gap between what specialists know and what much of the public believes about the Holocaust,” or as Paul Levine has noted, a growing divide ←xxv | xxvi→between scholarship and public memory, a “veritable clash between ‘town’ and ‘gown’.”3 Other important historical issues, which involve memories and postmemories of trauma reflect the same problem, as in the case of the current American culture wars over slavery, race, the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In May 2001, Samuel Bak returned to Vilnius/Vilna after more than a half-century after his departure, the first of three visits to the Lithuanian capital. He visited Paneriai/Ponar where five members of his immediate family perished. Bak returned to America, “filled with fresh memories, old and new impressions, and feelings of impossible contradictions.” Bak was grateful for the “warmth and generosity” of the Lithuanians who welcomed him, but acknowledged the “very dark shadows…[which] mar the mythical landscape of my luminous childhood.”4 The memories of trauma endure, even as historians busily produce more troubling texts.

Saulius Sužiedėlis, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University

1 Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (New York: Vintage Books, 2008).

2 See the study by Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), which are: transience, absent-mindedness, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence.

3 Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (New York: Norton), p. 317.

4 As cited by Samuel Bak, “Memoir: Wilno, Vilna, Vilnius: The City I Come From,” in Lawrence L. Langer, Return to Vilna in the Art of Samuel Bak (Boston: Pucker Art Publications, 2007), p. 109.

Dalia Leinartė

Foreword: Towards a Common Understanding

In her introduction to Vanished Lands: Memory and Postmemory in North American Lithuanian Diaspora Literature, Laima Vincė claims: My life has been a process of searching for identity, attempting to understand from the distance of time and geography, an inheritance that is not mine as a birthright, but has come to me through the echoes of Lithuania’s collective trauma and family stories.” Her search for identity led her—and many other second and third generation North American Lithuanians—to the most painful historical events experienced by their parents and grandparents in Lithuania: Soviet occupations, deportations, the resistance, and the Holocaust. However, while some of these historical events became the subject of endless conversations in Lithuanian diaspora families, the Holocaust, and the émigrés’ role in the Holocaust, were left out of the discussion.

The Holocaust and Lithuanian participation in the killings of Jews was shrouded in silence in Lithuania as well. However, unlike in Soviet-occupied Lithuania and later in independent Lithuania, after World War II, Holocaust studies were initiated in the West along with programs to educate the society as a means of preventing genocide in the future, and to memorialize those who had died. In Western societies, including the Lithuanian diaspora, scholarly work on the Holocaust was then initiated, educational programs and study centers were launched, literature was written along with other methods of employing the arts and pedagogy to formulate a universal code that taught each individual to bear responsibility towards victims of genocide. These initiatives led the second and third generations of the diaspora to take a close look at the most painful events in Lithuanian history. The experience engendered a sense of shame mixed with anger, repentance towards the murdered Jewish communities, along with disbelief over their parents’ and/or grandparents’ long silence on the subject. Laima Vincė reflects: “Most shared in their interviews with me that they experienced a sense of outrage when they first realized that the first generation had omitted the tragedy of the Holocaust in Lithuania from the diaspora’s cultural memory narrative.” A universal western moral responsibility for the victims of the Holocaust made the Lithuanian diaspora reevaluate their parents’ and grandparents’ unconditional romanticized view of the far-away homeland and its history. This emotional journey for most diaspora Lithuanians uncovered trauma, led to post-traumatic growth, and helped form a productive, creative, and authentic historical and cultural memory surrounding the most painful events in Lithuania’s history. In the Lithuanian diaspora, postmemory plays an essential role, just like it has in other world cultures: “According to Hirsch, postmemory describes the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the trauma of those who came before to experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. Postmemory, thus, may be considered the memory of another’s memory, so much so that the memory of another’s memory become memories in their own right, creating a deep personal connection of memory, notwithstanding generational distance.”

As Laima Vincė explains, after the end of the Soviet regime and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, two separated halves of the nation, one in Lithuania and the other in the west, built a bridge of connection: “The two halves of a divided generation—those who lived through the Soviet occupation of Lithuania and those who fled, seeking shelter in the democracies of the West—were separated by the Iron Curtain for half a century and were brought back together when Lithuania reinstated independence in 1991, thus bound by the political and the social.” Nonetheless, one of the most painful events in history—the Holocaust—up until now has not yet evolved into a shared historical narrative between Lithuania and the North American diaspora.

Historical events and political and social cultural phenomenon of the past are better understood when their interpretation is based on several sources—archival documents, memoirs, epistolary documents, eye-witness accounts, and interviews. Reflection on traumatic experiences and on the results of trauma cannot be adequately completed without one more source—postmemory, when the second or third generation relives and considers the events that they did not live through themselves, and often did not even suspect had occurred in their parents’ or grandparents’ lives. It is interesting that in Lithuania and in the North American Lithuanian diaspora, the discussion on Holocaust memory was influenced (and continues to be influenced) by different sources. In the Lithuanian scholarly community and in the popular media, without a doubt, archival documents are used as the basis for studying the Jewish genocide and to construct its narrative. Meanwhile, the diaspora’s understanding about the Holocaust as it played out in Lithuania, and the participation of Lithuanians in the killings, is formed by several layers of sources, including postmemory, which takes on special importance, and which to date practically does not exist within the Lithuanian context.

The entirety of sources—archival facts, subject witness accounts, postmemory—shape individual, familial, and collective memory and also form an ideologically unified national narrative. Eliminate one of these sources and the historiography that is formed is incomplete and the historical narrative becomes fragmented.

For these reasons, it is of the utmost importance to emphasize that Laima Vincė’s book, Vanished Lands, is the first academic monograph to find a common space between the Lithuanian diaspora and Lithuania and lays the groundwork for discussion of the different interpretations of the historiography of the extermination of the Jewish community and the role that Lithuanians played in those killings. By doing this work, this book creates a unified history and collective national memory regarding the Holocaust in Lithuania.

Dalia Leinartė

UN CEDAW member and former Chair

Fellow Commoner at University of Cambridge, Lucy Cavendish College

Professor of History at Vytautas Magnus University


XLII, 536
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2024 (January)
Litvaks Lithuanian American Diaspora Lithuanian Émigré Literature Samuel Bak Holocaust by bullets Holocaust in Lithuania Nazi occupation of Lithuania postwar anti-Soviet resistance Vanished Lands Laima Vincė
Oxford, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, New York, 2023. XLII, 536 pp., 10 fig. col., 60 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Laima Vincė (Author)

Dr. Laima Vincė Sruoginis earned a PhD in Humanities from Vilnius University, an MFA in Writing from Columbia University, an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire, and a BA in English and German Literature from Rutgers University. She is the recipient of two Fulbright grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in Literature, a PEN Translation Fund grant, an Academy of American Poets Award, and Association of the Advancement of Baltic Studies book and dissertation awards, among other honors. Writing under the name Laima Vincė, she has published over twenty books in the United States, Europe, and the United Kingdom. She teaches in the English Department at the University of Southern Maine.


Title: Vanished Lands