November 17, 2022

Art of forgetting and remembering. On Lithuania's path to the commemoration of Holocaust victims

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Fort Nine Memorial in Kaunas, Lithuania

Picture by: International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

In Marina Abramovic’s modern art piece, The Onion, she painstakingly devours an onion - layer after layer.

While doing it, she looks up to the sky, mimicking Madonna’s suffering. The work symbolizes the treacherous and layered process of remembering and reliving the past. The onion is a metaphor for a multi-dimensional process of processing experience, which requires perseverance and determination to endure.

The audience is left with a strange discomfort of acknowledging that the most mundane features of the past can result in distress; they begin to engage in their memory flow.

Memory is by no means neutral, and the pain of it demands decision. To what extent should we remember at all? What does it mean to remember rightly? Is the idea of societal memory even possible?

My investigation into this issue began during a journey through Kaunas, the previous capital of my home country Lithuania, which in 2022 held the title of the European Capital of Culture. The city has a rich yet troubled past, wrestling with memories of violence and oppression under Soviet and Nazi occupation.

The diverse exhibitions displayed in this former Lithuanian capital appear to exist in agreement with one another in one respect: memory is fragile. As we awake from trauma, our vision of the past becomes distorted, suppressed, and re-shaped. Yet the matter is paradoxical: despite the fluidity of memory, it must be honoured.

Memory is an idea worth exploring through comparative analysis across countries with tainted pasts. Countries around the world have wrestled with their pasts in starkly different ways.

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  • The Onion, 1996

    Picture: Marina Abramovic

  • In South Africa, one might take inspiration from its quest to heal from apartheid. From 1948 to 1994, apartheid involved the oppression of Black South Africans, as the government enforced laws to limit their freedom and impose segregation.

    Nelson Mandela’s presidency focused on restoring harmony to a fragmented nation. His establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission enabled honest confrontations with the past mistakes; crimes were discussed openly with the criminals of apartheid.

    Mandela’s judgment was that the full acknowledgment of memories – the gathering of all information and the discussion of apartheid’s most intricate details – was the key to healing open wounds.

    Mantas Sesianas, a Holocaust expert, also stressed a crucial role of truth in the process of healing. According to him, the Kaunas’s Vilna Ga’on Tolerance Centre’s responsibility is to provide as much remembrance as possible. “Even of the most difficult memories, in order to prevent the repeating of our past mistakes,” he stated.

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    Belgium might be perceived as the opposite case. The country had long struggled to acknowledge its colonial history. Under king Leopold II, who ruled from 1865 to 1909, an estimated 5-10 million were killed in the Congo Free State. For many years in Belgium, that history all but vanished.

    Extraordinarily, a Belgian diplomat Jules Marchal, who had lived in Congo for many years, was so surprised at a description of these atrocities in a newspaper article published in the 1970s that he set out to disprove the claims. He was shocked to discover that the claims were validw. Marchal then devoted his life to resurrecting the memory of Belgium’s past.

    Other cases have been more complex. Germany’s Holocaust remembrance primary focus was preventing the possibility of the horror being repeated. However, this approach is not only not encourage the preservation of the complexity of history but also does not prevent the fact that the history of the Holocaust is declining. According to a survey conducted for the CNN in 2018, 37 per cent of Germans know very little or even nothing about the Holocaust.

    The case of Lithuania is unique in that respect that the country’s commitment to commemorating the plight of Jews during the Holocaust was interrupted by the country being incorporated into the Soviet Union. USSR’s historical policy omitted detailed information about the Holocaust, the Soviet propaganda framed the genocide as an attack on “peaceful Soviet citizens” who were rescued by Soviet “liberators”.

    The true nature of the Holocaust, that is as an attempt to exterminate the Jewish people as well as the Roma community, people with disabilities and homosexuals was sacrificed. Saule Valunaite, head of the Lithuanian Museum Identity and Culture, claimed even that there was “no history under the Soviet Union” because back then politicians defiled the truth by rewriting it to fit their political goals.

    For some, remembrance is revisiting the old streets of their home. The powerful landscapes of Samuel Bak encapsulate his Litvak heritage, and commemorate the atrocities that his father, grandparents, aunts and uncles lived through. This is evident because Bak chooses to draw Vilnius as a city of choice, discarding his visits to Paris, Rome and other places.

    His powerful landscapes of Vilnius depict a childhood cut short by oppression: oversized broken cups consume entire street passages, capturing how time inflated the mundane and ordinary features during his childhood (Study for “Where it ends”).

    His art has dream-like characteristics, often blurring the lines of reality, we can notice the point at which memory becomes distorted and too old to quite fully remember. But for Bak, Vilnius is the home which holds his memories.

    In contrast, we can note the brokenness of Vilnius that is present in his paintings – this is where the realistic aspects come into play, remembering the atrocities and the negative conflict at the time. His Adam and Eve and the Partial Repair depict the original story of disobedience with God. They are trying to fix their sins, but this could not be completed in the same way as Holocaust cannot be repaired as it is just a memory.

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  • The Ghetto (1976) by Samuel Bak

    Picture: Art Archive

  • In another exhibition, from a photographer Marilia Destot, an investigation into the artist’s family tree is displayed. Destot writes: “We’re made of stories we’ve been told, of places we’ve crossed, of memories we’ve been transmitted, and sometimes trauma or guilt passed in our DNA across the generations.”

    In one feature of the exhibit, she delicately pokes a contour of her ancestors through a picture set in nature. Perhaps, she tries to revisit her memory of them with aid from a melancholic setting. I cast my mind back to the time where I stopped in front of the Ninth Fort, which paid tribute to all of the lives lost in the extermination camp of Kaunas. It was overgrown with beautiful nature, but I was still able to notice the elements of destruction within the site as well as the dark aura that was present.

    Destot’s exhibition also featured a host of quotes, uniting many different perspectives on remembrance. Among them insight from the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel: “If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity”.

    William Kentridge, an acclaimed South African artist of Litvak heritage, focused his work on the nature of time and memory. Utilizing the theory of relativity in his famous “The Refusal of Time”, he composed an artwork consisting of four screens and an unknown voice to reflect how fluid time is. Through this he tries to show how human nature feels that time and memory are fixed phenomena even when science disprove it.

    This juxtaposition is notable in Kentridge’s art: the discomfort of recalling the oppression of his Jewish ancestors, next to the comfort of South Africa as his true home and a place where his family was able to feel safety. In fact, the artist was reluctant even in visiting Lithuania up until his first exhibition in Kaunas, strongly associating the place with the oppression and danger that his family faced.

    Remembering defines the politics, relationships and memory so it is essential to do it justly. Although, it is such a personal experience- thanks to these numerous artists’ work we can recognise the inner world of individuals which have foregone a battle with painful memories

    Written by:

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    Sophie Abromaviciute

    Politics & Society

    Kyiv, Ukraine / London, UK

    Born in 2005 in Kyiv, Ukraine, Sophie studies in the United Kingdom and plans to study international relations. For Harbingers’ Magazine, she writes about arts and politics, focusing on history, foreign affairs and the war in Ukraine. Sophie speaks Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Russian, French and English.

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