Irena Veisaitė

During the Soviet years, I could not speak about my own values in public [but] my mind was always free.

Interview by Melanie Henke

Born in Kaunas in 1928, literary scholar and theatre critic Irena Veisaitė was one of the few Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Despite the pain inflicted on her family by the Nazis, Veisaitė’s love for German culture and literature led her pursue German studies in Moscow and later complete a doctoral degree in Leningrad in 1963 with a dissertation on the poetry of Heinrich Heine. In her own words: “Reading Schiller’s ballad [at a forbidden school in the ghetto] made me realize for the rest of my life that there was no need to equate the German culture with the Nazis”. During her adult life in Soviet-occupied Lithuania she was a lecturer at the teacher’s college, later Educational University, in Vilnius. Irena Veisaitė was also involved in many important cultural institutions, including as the head of the Thomas Mann Cultural Centre in Nida. In the 1990s she was one of the founders and later the President of the Open Society in Lithuania Foundation.

Irena Veisaitė has been awarded numerous national and international awards for her advocacy of cross-border reconciliation and dialogue, including in 2019 the title “Borderlander” of the year by the Polish Borderland Foundation in Sejny, Poland, and in 2020 the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Das Große Verdienstkreuz).

Irena Veisaitė passed away on 11 December 2020 in Vilnius at the age of 92.

In her conversation with Melanie Henke in summer 2019 Irena Veisaitė spoke about her fascinating life and lifelong commitment to European reconciliation, as well as the strong values and principles that guided her: “I always wanted to know the truth. I wanted to understand. I wanted to act”.

Irena Veisaitė was interviewed by Melanie Henke in 2019. Melanie Henke is a cultural scholar by background and currently works as a German teacher in Lyon.

Interview Highlights

On childhood

Henke:What associations do you have with the place you grew up in? What does Kaunas mean to you?

Veisaitė: Nazi occupation, we were all deported to the ghetto. My Mother and my uncle were already killed in the first days of the war. My grandmother died in the ghetto and my grandfather was killed during the Children and Old People’s Action in the beginning of 1944 [where Germans raided Kovno ghetto in search of old people and children, they assumed had not been found yet by previous raids] . I was saved, but very few Jews survived in Lithuania, so for me, in a sense, Kaunas is a city of shadows. When the war ended it would have been difficult for me to go back to Kaunas. When I escaped from the ghetto on the 7 November 1943, my friends immediately took me to Vilnius, because they were afraid somebody might recognize me in Kaunas. I looked like a Jewish girl. Vilnius was more of a multi-ethnic city. So, as of 8 November, 1943, I was living in Vilnius. But clearly, Kaunas is in my blood. I know the city, I love it. I would like Kaunas to prosper. I am very happy that it was elected to be the Capital of Culture in 2022. But I haven’t lived in Kaunas since after the war.

On the dangers of nationalism

After World War I, nationalism may have played a useful role in establishing independent states like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and many other eastern European countries especially. But this must not overshadow the idea of European unity, the idea of peace, the idea of tolerance. And I am, of course, very, very supportive of the European Union. And I am very worried that we are facing a crisis right now — that populists, nationalists are emerging. The European Union will not take away our nationality. If anyone takes away our nationality, it will be us, if we betray our values, our language, etc. [….] 

The greatest danger lies in nationalism, in hatred, in thinking that you are the only one who is right. There is a Jewish parable – where God took all the worries from all the dead spirits, put those worries in separate bags and hung them on a string. And some bags were big, others were middle-sized, others were huge. And then God told all the spirits to go to their own bag. And all of them went to the biggest bag because they thought their suffering was the greatest. You cannot compare suffering. That is immoral.

On freedom

I can quote Don Quixote. When Don Quixote and Sancho Panza leave the house of the Duke and Duchess, they were well received but also mocked, of course. Perhaps they did not understand everything. Then Don Quixote tells Sancho Panza– and perhaps I am misquoting here, but the meaning is roughly the same – that freedom is the greatest gift heaven gave to men, and it is a value one should sacrifice one’s life for. Meanwhile, favours, accepted from various powerful people in the world, place you under an obligation. I think this is Chapter 47, Part II. I really like Cervantes; Don Quixote is one of my favourite characters. His words about freedom are very important to me. You must be free, even in prison. And do you know what Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich says about the Gulag? It says that the protagonist felt freer in the Gulag than in Soviet society, because there he was a prisoner, but could at least say and think what he wanted.

On feeling foreign

Henke: Did you ever feel foreign?

Veisaitė: I have had moments. There was a Nazi period when we were completely without rights, we were ostracised and we were threatened with death every day. It is well known what the Nazi occupation meant to the Jewish people. There is no need for me to explain it. The second Soviet occupation started in summer 1944. My second mother, Ms Ladigienė, was deported to a Gulag in 1946. The NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the interior ministry of the Soviet Union] tried to recruit me as their informant but I refused; they were persecuting me and I was advised by friends that it would be better for me to leave Vilnius. My father was abroad, he survived the Holocaust in Belgium as a Lithuanian citizen, since foreign passports did not indicate nationality or religion. Nobody turned him in and he survived. The fact that my father was abroad was a great sin in the eyes of the Soviets. They did not trust anybody who maintained contact with people abroad. […..]  I was admitted to Vilnius University and after one year of successful studies I was warned by a friend that I could be expelled from the University because of my father living abroad and my second mother’s arrest. In 1948 I left for Moscow where my father’s relatives lived, and eventually was admitted to complete German studies at Lomonosov University, from which I graduated in 1953.

On her first visit to the United States

Henke: Behind the Iron Curtain, how were you able to discover interesting works of art, music, movies and literature?

Veisaitė: Some things I was able to discover, some things I could not. But then I went to the United States in 1968 [to visit her father after 30 years of separation] and saw many cultural things there. And travelling all over Europe really opened my eyes. There were three places in America where I cried. One was at the dentist’s, because they used anaesthetics and the drills were much more advanced, so I was feeling sorry when thinking about how painful having dental work done in Soviet Lithuania was. Then at a shoe store, because there was such a choice of wonderful shoes and I felt sorry for myself and my family and friends who suffered from wearing uncomfortable shoes in the Soviet Union. But the main one was at the bookstore. I realized that I had been robbed, that there were so many things I didn’t know. I brought back a lot of books.

On religion

Henke: Do you think that Europe has Jewish and Christian roots?

Veisaitė: I do not think, I know that Christianity has dominated in Europe for over 2,000 years, but I think that not many Christians are true Christians because horrible things have happened throughout history. Catholics killed Protestants, and vice versa, religious battles occurred and the Eastern Orthodox Church broke away. Or when the Crusaders went to baptize people by shedding blood, etc. But since John Paul II’s time, Christianity has changed and become really Christian. But not all members of the Church follow him. Some of them still live with hatred and intolerance. And this is well-illustrated by their relationship with Pope Francis, who is indeed a very bright person.

The views expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewers and interviewees and do not necessarily reflect those of Arbeit and Europa.

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