Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. In this interview, she speaks about discovering her Litvak heritage and her connection to the future of Lithuania.
“Hello?” I have an appointment for an interview with Ellen Cassedy, author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust, at 5:00 PM—well, it’s 8:00 PM for her. She is at her home on the east coast, and I am calling from San Francisco.
“Hello, Ellen? This is Jenn calling. Are you ready?” I put my phone on speaker.
Though Cassedy’s background has its roots in Lithuania, it is one I’m not very familiar with. I start by asking her to clarify the term Litvak for me. “In the Jewish geography there used to be an area called Lite, which doesn’t really appear on maps, but within the Jewish world, it encompassed Belarus and the Baltics. It has its own special pronunciation of Yiddish and special cooking. Someone who lives in that area is called a Litvak.”
Cassedy’s book is so new, it isn’t even available at my local bookseller yet. To prepare for “meeting” her, I read excerpts from each chapter online at Amazon, but only the beginnings—I have no idea how it turns out. It’s an incredibly strange way to read a book and my list of questions is heavily influenced by my desire to know what happens. I dive right in by asking her about the secret her uncle revealed on the eve of her first trip to Lithuania.
“In the book, I talk about my uncle revealing this secret, but I try not to give [it] away before people read the book,” she says.
Without ever telling me what the secret was she adds, “It upended my view of how some people were pure victims and some people were bystanders and some people were pure rescuers … it muddled my view of the Holocaust.”
She had been on her way to Vilnius on a Jewish heritage trip. Though she thought of herself as a Litvak, like most Americans, her heritage is mixed. Her name comes from her father’s Irish family. She’s also part German and part English, but her maternal grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1911 from Rokiškis to avoid the Tsarist draft. Her maternal grandmother’s family were Litvaks from Pinsk, Belarus.
Cassedy says she didn’t feel much of a connection to her father’s heritage. “My parents, even though it was a mixed marriage, they kind of ended up in the same place, which was a humanist place.”
Still, she grew up around people who had a strong Litvak Yiddish accent. She was close to her maternal grandparents, and her mother liked to sprinkle Yiddish words into her daily speech. “She would go to the window and look out at the rain and say, ‘Oh it’s a plucha,’ meaning a downpour; that sort of thing.”
There was also the food—good Jewish cooking. “I understand there are foods that go across faiths in Lithuania; there’s borscht, latkes—I don’t know if you eat gefiltefish. Tongue? Tongue was something.”
She says a love of learning and study was also something that definitely came out of her Litvak heritage. “The Litvak Jews are considered the intellectual, studious, severe ones, as opposed to the more fun-loving southern Jews, the people from Poland—you know they like their food sweet; they like to dance and sing—the Litvaks are the serious people.”
After her mother died, Cassedy began to feel that she was loosing touch with her Jewish roots. She decided she needed to reach out to her past; there had been very few artifacts that had been passed down in her family, a letter from an uncle, scattered whiffs of her grandfather’s childhood. She wanted to learn Yiddish, but not just anywhere; Cassedy wanted to see where her grandfather had come from, what it looked like.
She thought that if she could see the trees and the sky, the cows and houses, she would be able to imagine herself back in their lives. So, she enrolled at the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, but, she says, she had to look it up on a map to find out where it was.
“A loyalty to Lithuania itself was not part of my upbringing. It was in fact sometimes said to be Latvia that my grandfather came from, sometimes Lithuania, sometimes Russia—when he lived there it was part of Russia. So where exactly is Lithuania? That wasn’t really how I thought about it. I thought of Eastern Europe as a whole, and where was the exact spot, I didn’t know.”
Her grandfather had a very traditional upbringing with nine brothers and sisters. They lived on a farm near Rokiškis owned by an absentee Polish nobleman where his mother was the administrator and the workers were ethnic Lithuanians.
“[Jews] were forbidden to own land, and they didn’t work on the land by and large. They were more likely to serve in middle-man positions. Like my great-grandmother.” Her great-grandfather spent all his time in the house studying religious texts.
“People had very different roles. Jewish culture traditionally has put a huge focus on the written word … [and] pours a huge amount of resources into allowing the men to spend their entire lives sitting at a bench, reading the bible.”
But when her great-grandmother died, the children were parceled out among relatives, and her grandfather ended up sleeping in a stable. When he was old enough, he was sent to yeshiva, perhaps in Panevežys, until he left the country at nineteen. He had a much younger brother who moved to Šiauliai where he lived in the ghetto before being sent to Dachau, and later came to the United States.
Cassedy says a lot of the pictures in her head turned out to be wrong.
“When I went to Kaunas, to the site of the Kovno ghetto, somehow I pictured tall, narrow streets with tall buildings—dark, no sky—and in fact, it was very low-built. This is true when I visited my uncle’s ghetto in Šiauliai too—it was these really small cottages. These little wooden houses. And it was so close to the middle of town; I thought how can this be possible? Everything looked so normal, when so many abnormal things had happened.”
Her purpose began to change; it went from being a one-dimensional journey to connect to her Jewish past and turned into a mission to understand how Lithuania was engaging with its past. “Lithuania really went through hell in the middle of the 20th century. And that has left a lot of scars all over. Very deep resentments and hatreds all around. I think that it’s very moving to me to see how Lithuania, or some Lithuanians, are trying to move beyond that.”
In Rokiškis, she came across an elderly gentile man who wanted to speak to her about his war-time experiences, what he had witnessed during the Holocaust. She went back to Lithuania in 2004 to meet that man, make sense of her uncle’s secret, and seek out a whole range of people who were involved with Holocaust education and commemoration.
Cassedy has always been a writer. “I started out my adult life in labor organizing, especially working women, office workers, then I went on to be a speechwriter, then a journalist, then a speechwriter again. In my 50s—I started getting into creative [endeavors] … I started writing a play based on my great-aunt, delving into my family history … I was so fascinated by how an individual and a society—how those things vibrate against each other—and how a small life can illuminate a large situation. Some of those concerns are expressed in this book as well.”
While she was writing, she did have an audience in mind, “People like me … people who had been brought up with the slogan, Never Forget, which is a big thing in American Jewish life,” she says. But, she adds, through the process of writing, “I came to feel that holding on to hatred does not make sense. I met these really amazing people in Lithuania who helped me toward that change. My hope is that my readers will follow me that through that process, will come out the other end feeling the way I do now.”
How does she feel now? “I feel a real connection to the people who are going to shape the future of Lithuania, and I feel myself to be one of those people, in a way that I didn’t.”
While Lithuania will never truly be her country—she doesn’t live or vote there—she says, “I’m a sympathetic and interested observer.” A little distance may have helped her to complete her project, too. Her mixed heritage made it easier to go to Lithuania and be able to absorb both the Jewish and ethnic Lithuanian experiences.
“Judging is really not what it’s about for me. It’s about understanding.”
And, she adds, she couldn’t have written her book 20 years ago, because the scars were still too fresh. “In another 20 years things will be very different, and that will be a very interesting story to tell. I think this is going to take a long time.”
She says that Lithuania as a country has lost something significant with the near-vanishing of the Jewish culture. She cites the example that under the Tsar, Lithuanian parents were not allowed to teach their children to read and write in Lithuanian. The Jewish book peddlers helped to keep the language alive by carrying Lithuanian books from place to place along with their Yiddish and Hebrew books. Though there is an increasing level of understanding, there’s very little of the culture left. And it wasn’t only the Nazi era which caused it, the Soviet occupation did it’s part as well.
“My uncle Aaron, the reason he was sent to Siberia as far as we can tell, was his involvement in Jewish culture—he tried to publish a Hebrew language newspaper.”
Cassedy’s vision is of a proud Lithuania, open to multiculturalism, where people of different backgrounds could come together and share—and celebrate—their differences. “My hope is that [my book] will help people to be able to see each other, and listen to each other, across cultural boundaries.”