In response to: Revisionism and Resurrection from 4/2013 issue
(June 16, 2015) To the Editors:
Peter Jukes’s review of my work of literary nonfiction, Journey Into the Backwaters of the Heart, titled “Revisionism and Resurrection,” published in Aspen Review, opens with a personal attack, claiming that I have no conscience. The review continues to read as a diatribe, culminating with a particularly virulent attack on the postwar Lithuanian resistance leader, Juozas Lukša, which is not based on any actual evidence. Jukes discredits the body of my work based on the claims he makes against Lukša, who died more than half a century ago.
Jukes loses credibility from the very first sentence of his review by writing the title of my book incorrectly. He then reduces my four years of work during the time I was a Fulbright scholar, researching and writing Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart, to “random encounters.” Jukes claims that I present people’s personal stories as historical fact. This is not true. My goal was to write down the stories of the voiceless, the disenfranchised, the victims of two foreign occupations, the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and the Nazi occupation. I state my intentions clearly. I do not claim to be a historian weaving historical theory based on interviews conducted with people in their twilight years on events that took place in their youth. My work is ethnography and oral history. I record the experiences of survivors, but do not twist their words in order to reinterpret historical events. By claiming that my book is not carefully researched and written, Jukes is arrogantly dismissive of my work. He continues to take this polemic tone throughout the review without offering any concrete evidence or sources to back up his statements.
Jukes contends that Holocaust survivors, like Paulina Zingeriene, who have found peace and reconciliation despite their suffering, and who refuse to perceive themselves as victims, are Holocaust deniers. When I interview a person, I do not have any preconceived ideas about what they will say, or should say, in the interview. Certainly, I do not influence them to espouse a particular position. To insinuate that I had an agenda by interviewing a Holocaust survivor who believes in reconciliation based on her personal experience is an attack on my honor and the honor of the subjects of my interviews.
My intentions conducting interviews for Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart were not divisive, and certainly were not to twist facts in order to deny the Holocaust, as Peter Jukes boldly claims. It was my intention to present the experiences of many different groups of people in Lithuania who lived through both occupations, and to open up the dialogue of a nation’s shared suffering. Jukes makes the deeply cynical claim: “But how accurate are the wider claims. How many of these self-sustaining narratives have become self-serving since independence?” The people interviewed in Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart are not vocal activists in the Lithuanian press. They are simple people living quiet lives who rarely speak of their past, but who agreed to speak with me and trusted me to tell their stories accurately.
Jukes writes: “Lukša was undeniably an active member of the Lithuanian Action Front, which instigated pogroms and mass killings of Jews.” Jukes discredits the validity of my book based on a claim that the resistance leader Juozas Lukša was one of the instigators of the Lietukas Garage affair. He does not provide any evidence to back his claim. The following letter, written by the widow of Juozas Lukša, Nijole Brazenaite-Luksiene-Paronetto, to Mr. Efraim Zuroff, Director of Simon Wiesenthal Center in February 2008, which remains unanswered, sheds some light on the accusations against Juozas Lukša that Jukes is referring to.
“Recently, I was informed of the existence in the web site of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, a long list of names listed as murderers of Lithuanian Jews. To my horror and disbelief the name of Juozas Lukša, my late husband, who was killed by the Soviets on September 4, 1951, was present among others and described in the following manner: “A cruel sadist. At the right: (photograph of a man standing with an iron bar in his hands and several bodies lying on the ground). The murderer as “Hero” of the Massacre of 68 innocent people at the garage of “Lietukis” in Kaunas on June 27, 1941. At the left: (photograph of Juozas Lukša holding a rifle) eight* years later after participating in the slaughter of thousands of Jews in Kaunas and elsewhere. Was killed in 1951.” (*Eight years later, in 1949, Juozas Lukša was in the West, and this photograph was more likely taken approximately five or six years later, not eight.) The man standing with an iron bar in his hands has not even a remote resemblance to the man pictured on the left. This is an obvious case of mistaken identity. The real Juozas Lukša was totally different in appearance from the man with the iron bar, and had nothing to do with the horrific acts of massacre at “Lietukis” garage nor elsewhere. It is documented in the archives of the KGB that the real killer connected with the killing of Jews in the “Lietukis” garage, the man with the iron bar, was Algirdas Antanas Pavalkis, who was an agent of Gestapo, codename “Anton” and also an agent of the MGB, codename “Petras.”
Juozas Lukša was known as one of the most prominent post World War II resistance leaders in Soviet occupied Lithuania. During the first occupation by the Soviet Union in 1940–41 he was a student of Architecture at the University of Vytautas the Great in Kaunas. For his suspected underground activity he was caught and imprisoned in April, 1941. He and other political prisoners, just before Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania, broke out of the prison on July 24, 1941. Completely physically exhausted, he was met at the prison by his brother Antanas and Juozas’ classmate, who accompanied him to their home in the village of Juodbudis where his worried family was waiting for him. He never stepped into the “Lietukis” garage, nor did he participate in any other murderous incidents elsewhere. Soon after, he joined the anti-German resistance.
After the return of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania in 1944, he joined the underground movement against the Soviets, which later developed into the armed resistance. In 1947 and 1948 he was sent by the Lithuanian resistance movement to the West with a special mission—to let the free world know about the existence of armed resistance forces in Lithuania against the Soviet occupation, and about the cruel life under the yoke of her oppressors. I met him when he was in the West, and we were married July 23, 1950. Soon after he accomplished his mission he was parachuted back into Lithuania with the help of the American CIA to rejoin the barely surviving ranks of the Lithuanian freedom fighters. Upon his return he was intensively pursued by the Soviets and finally was lured into a trap and killed on September 4, 1951.
My mother, Konstancija Braženiene, and my twin sister knew Juozas and his brothers as students living in the neighborhood of our home as young men with high morals, hardworking and studious. In 1943, when the Kaunas ghetto was slated to be closed and all the Jews were transferred to concentration camps by the German regime to be exterminated, my mother and my brother Mindaugas Brazenas saved two Jewish children: five-year old, Sarah Shilingovsky (Capelovitch), and nine-year old, Alex Gringauz, and kept them hidden in our home in Aleksotas. She also helped Dina Baronaite-Steinberg and others, risking her own life and that of her family members. Sarah lives in Israel; Alex in USA; Dina died in Israel. Both children later created happy families, and became professionals with PhD degrees. We remained in a close and loving relationship. For unselfishly saving the lives of these children and helping others my mother was awarded the Yad Vashem Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations and the Certificate of Honor. A description of her deeds appeared in the book HANDS BRINGING LIFE AND BREAD published by the Jewish Museum of Gaon in Vilnius, 1997, Vol. 1, pages 1619. The President of the Republic of Lithuania awarded her and her son Mindaugas the Life Savior’s Cross.
My late husband Juozas Lukša, in this instance is a victim of a totally unjust accusation based on a complete misidentification. What kind of reason or purpose does it serve to accuse a completely innocent person who was killed by the communists 58 years ago and cannot raise himself from the dead to defend himself? I understand your determination to bring to justice everyone who was involved in these horrific acts against humanity; however, I cannot accept that such an accusation is made against the innocent persons who gave their lives fighting for the freedom of Lithuania and cannot defend themselves.
In the name of my mother and the mother-in-law of Juozas Lukša, who risked her own life and that of her family by saving those innocent Jewish children from extinction, and also helped other Jews during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, I demand that the name of my late husband Juozas Lukša be removed from your list.”
When referring to the chapter on Lukša in Journey into the Backwaters of the Heart, Jukes gets his facts wrong. He writes: “The couple escaped from the Russian reinvasion before Lukša was smuggled back into Lithuania as part of a CIA plan to discover Soviet plans for attack.” If he had read the chapter, he would have read that Lukša and Nijole met in Paris in 1949 after Lukša broke through the Soviet border to Poland, from there making his way to the West. Clearly, Jukes is not qualified to comment on Soviet history because he writes that Lukša wrote to Nijole from the Soviet Union while conducting his CIA mission there. This type of correspondence would simply not have been possible at that time because of stringent Soviet censorship.
In summary, Peter Jukes’s “review” of my work is not based on research, evidence, or knowledge of the region. It appears that Jukes has used Aspen Review as his proverbial soap box to espouse his agenda, which is not actually related to any objective evaluation of my work. It is also noteworthy that since Jukes’s review was published in Aspen Review it has been republished by Jukes in a number of Internet sites that espouse extreme views.
Laima Vince Does Us Both an Injustice
She does me an injustice by assuming I had any agenda while reading her book which, as I explained in the review, I enjoyed as a work of “ethnography and oral history.” It was only after I finished the book that I did some fact checking on some of its central figures. I was frankly shocked and bewildered to discover that Juozas Lukša had been named by three prominent British parliamentarians from all three main political parties as a perpetrator of atrocities during the Holocaust in 2011 (see http://www. parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/2161).
As Ms Vince’s response shows, she does herself an injustice by claiming she has no interest in historical facts, only personal reminiscence. She must have been aware of the controversy around Lukša. His widow, Nijole Brazenaite-Luksiene- Paronetto, is a central figure in the book. She clearly knew about the claims around the pogrom at the Lietukas Garage as her citation of the letter above shows, and must have known about this before she began writing. To exclude any discussion of this from Backwaters of the Heart is either an oversight of mind-numbing ignorance, or a deliberate attempt to erase history.
Others can now read the background on Lukša and make their own judgements. But impugning my personal motives, or writing retaliatory reviews of my books on Amazon. com as Ms Vince has since done, is really not appropriate to a subject so historically grave and now politically important.
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