A Baltic woman ahead of her time

  • 2016-03-23
  • Leonidas Donskis

As we know, some memoirs and biographies of 20th century Lithuanian Jews read like crime or horror stories, especially those of Holocaust survivors. Yet these were lives lived in a dramatic struggle for survival, which makes their stories more compelling and instructive than most.
Those who perished in the Holocaust fall into the category of crime and horror literature, and those who survived the end of the world may soothe and soften the pain of the world offering a pleasing and comforting narrative about the bright side of life best represented by the righteous gentiles and good neighbours who saved Jewish kids.  

Professor Irena Veisaite may prove this the case. A Holocaust survivor, she built her life and career as a Lithuanian theatre arts scholar, civic and cultural activist. Born on Jan. 9, 1928, Veisaite is a person through whose incredible life story we could write the history of the 20th century.

Like her cousin, Aleksandras Shtromas (Stromas, 1931 – 1999), a Lithuanian-born British-American political scientist and Soviet dissident, who was like a brother to her (and who would have turned 85 on April 4, 2016), Veisaite was born and brought up in independent pre-war Lithuania and then matured in another — Soviet and isolated — Lithuania.
They both survived the Holocaust in a miraculous way. Veisaite was saved by Lithuanian families, primarily by Juozas Strimaitis and Ona Bagdonaviciute-Strimaitiene, and then adopted by the Catholic widow Stefanija Paliulyte-Ladigiene, who was deeply committed to helping the suffering people, especially Jews. All in all, Veisaite survived by becoming a member of the Ladiga family.

It was a family deeply embedded in the political dramas of modern Lithuania, as Ladigiene’s late husband was General Kazys (elsewhere referred to as Kazimieras) Ladiga, a hero of Lithuanian independence and a staunch patriot of Lithuania, who was arrested in 1940 (when Lithuania and two other Baltic States lost their independence) and executed by the Soviets in 1941.

Shtromas lost his parents in the Holocaust as well. His father, Jurgis Stromas, a fervent patriot of Lithuania, served as a diplomat in Berlin and then as a major official in pre-war Kaunas, found his death as a Jew anyway — he was executed by mob in 1941 at the Lietukis garage. Shtromas’ mother, Eugenija Kozin, a Russian-speaking woman of Jewish background, spent years in the Stutthof concentration camp where she committed suicide just three weeks before the allies came to liberate the inmates.

Shtromas was rescued from the Kaunas ghetto, just like his cousin Veisaite. Then he was saved and hidden by the Catholic family of Antanas Macenavicius and Marija Macenaviciene. Unlike the Ladiga family, they were ordinary folks. After the war, Shtromas was sheltered and raised for several years by Antanas Snieckus, the first secretary of the Lithuanian Communist Party. Later, their paths would diverge due to the young man’s disenchantment with the Soviet regime.

Lovingly called Alik by his friends, Shtromas was to become a giant in the political science world, befriended by the greatest Russian dissidents and mentioned by Czeslaw Milosz as one of two political prophets who predicted the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Another one was the Russian writer and dissident Andrei Amalrik, the author of the acclaimed book “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?”

Veisaite and Shtromas’ story of survival and struggle reads as an exciting novel of adventure. Veisaite was married to Grigori Kromanov (1926–1984), an Estonian theatre and film director, who made, among other creations, much celebrated Estonian films such as “The Last Relic” and “Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel.” Kromanov and Arvo Part were friends, and this made it possible for Veisaite to join their club, which symbolically included her daughter.

Lithuanian experiences have occasioned the composition of Part’s brilliant piano piece “Fur Alina” (1976). This composition of enchanting beauty was written for a woman I was acquainted with: long-time London resident Alina Slavinsky, the daughter of Veisaite. “Fur Alina” was created by the tintinnabuli method invented by Part and allowing the pianist to evoke a special piano sound with sacred harmonies and rhythmicity.

Veisaite established herself as an emblematic person in 20th and 21st century Lithuania. She is truly a woman ahead of her time in terms of her great moral lessons set to modern Lithuanian society as a symbol of reconciliation, tolerance, and dialogue. The long-standing head of the governing board of the Open Society Fund-Lithuania, she was instrumental in fundamental changes in Lithuania brought about by George Soros’ support.

Named the Person of Tolerance by the Sugihara Foundation - Diplomats for Life, justly celebrated and renowned in Lithuania and Germany as a person of European peace and dialogue, Veisaite may be perceived as an embodiment of the antidote to simplistic memory politics, hatred, and also to the inability to stand in someone else’s shoes.
Yves Plasseraud, a French lawyer, scholar, and human rights defender, has written the book on her, “Irena Veisaite: Tolerance and Involvement” (Leiden | Boston: Brill | Rodopi, 2015). The book reads as an adventure story and gives justice to a great Baltic woman. Plasseraud is the author of several important books on minorities, human rights abuses, and the Litvaks. His wife Suzanne Pourchier-Plasseraud has published a landmark book on Latvia, “Arts and a Nation: The Role of Visual Arts and Artists in the Making of the Latvian Identity 1905–1940” (Leiden | Boston: Brill | Rodopi, 2015), that also deserves honourable mention.

This is how a Baltic woman ahead of her time comes to bridge Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and France.