The Woman Transforming Old Hatred into New Empathy

As a girl in Lithuania, Irena Veisaite spent more than two years in the Kovno Ghetto. Separated from her parents—her father had fled the country and her mother was shot during the first weeks of the war—she suffered from cold, hunger, and fear of the murderous roundups that claimed the lives of thousands of inmates

Then, gentile friends provided her with forged documents. One morning at dawn she mingled with a work brigade and made her way past the ghetto gate. She soon found a home with a Lithuanian woman who had six other children, a woman she calls her “second mother.” With her, she survived the war.

Veisaite’s love for her two mothers molded her as a woman, and today, that double devotion shapes her as an influential leader of Lithuania’s effort to confront its 20th-century past, “I am a person with two identities,” she says. “1 am Jewish and I am Lithuanian, and I love my country.”

Veisaite, 76, is at the forefront of a complicated process of reconciliation that began when Lithuania gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Until 2002, she chaired the Open Society Fund-Lithuania, which seeks to build democratic institutions. She believes that in order to move forward Lithuania’s citizens must examine their past—together. “This is not a Jewish project,” she says. “It is a question for all of us in common.”

Lithuania’s past is complex, and facing it has not been easy.

From the window of her Vilnius flat, Veisaite can look down on the crisp spires and pink facades of the city formerly laiown as “the Jerusalem of the North.” Once, Jews were a third of the population here. The streets were alive with Jewish schools, synagogues, shops, libraries, theaters. During World War II, 90 percent of the nation’s Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Today, Lithuania’s entire Jewish community numbers only 4,500.

Nor did the end of the war bring peace to this tiny Baltic land. Lithuania became part of the USSR, a transition accompanied by bloody resistance, mass deportations, and a giant economic upheaval. A theory of “dual genocides,” etc.—which blames Jews for creating the conditions for Soviet oppression—is widely accepted among many Lithuanians. “Of course everyone sees his own suffering first of all,” Veisaite says. “This didn’t contribute to an easy dialogue.”

Nonetheless, Veisaite has worked vigorously to promote such dialogue. For the Jewish museum, she initiated an exhibit called “Jewish Life in Lithuania,” which has traveled to a dozen Lithuanian cities and towns. She worked with the House of Memory, which developed an essay contest entitled “Jews; Neighbors of Our Parents and Grandparents” that sends schoolchildren out into their communities to conduct interviews about the past.

At Vilnius University, she chaired the Stateless Cultures Centre, which draws scholars from all over the world to study at the Yiddish Instimte. These projects have won international acclaim, and hundreds of teachers from across Lithuania are now involved.

Veisaite appeals to gentiles and Jews alike to stop accusing one another and instead to listen. “Hatred destroys you,” she says. “You should not live with this feeling.” Among her mother’s last words to her, she recalls, were these: “Never take revenge.”

She tells of a Holocaust survivor lecturing at a Lithuanian high school. A young man of 17 or 18 came up to the old man in tears. “My grandfather was a killer of Jews,” the student said. “What should I do?” The survivor embraced and kissed him, saying, “You don’t have to do anything. It’s enough for you to understand.”

“This young man will remember that his grandfather was a killer,” Veisaite says, “but he will also remember the goodness of the survivor, and he will live up to that goodness in his own way,”

Veisaite sees signs of progress in Vilnius. Recently, after “an appalling series of anti- Semitic articles” appeared in the newspaper, there was an immediate public outcry. “Within two days, there were almost 200 organizations and individuals protesting. This is a very big achievement.”

In May, when Lithuania joined the European Union, Vcisaite represented her country at an outdoor ceremony in Berlin. Standing at the Brandenburg Gate, she reminded members of the crowd that they were gathered “not far from the Reichstag, where as a child I was condemned to die.” Against all odds, she survived, and so had her deep feeling for her native land. Slowly but surely, she feels, Lithuania is changing. “Today,” she said, “I speak proudly in the name of my country.”