The Kaunas Requiem born of ghost haunting

  • 2016-09-07
  • Lowfield Heath

An ambitious and distinctly unusual arts event in Lithuania to mark the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust opens in Kaunas on Sept. 17. The Baltic Times’ occasional Arts correspondent Lowfield Heath visited Lithuania to talk to the Kaunas-based English photographer Richard Schofield about The Kaunas Requiem, a hugely ambitious experimental project due to be launched in the city next month under the auspices of his singularly unusual NGO, the International Centre for Litvak Photography. It’s a lazy afternoon in the old town, and Richard and myself are drinking cups of tea close to the mildew-wafting carcase of Kaunas’ former Jewish Hospital.

Tell me if you can just exactly what it is you’re doing.
That’s an easy one. Less than 80 years ago there were over 200,000 Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) in Lithuania whose loyalties to the country stretched back centuries. They’re not here now, the majority of them having been forced to dig holes in quiet forest floors all over the country before being shot and buried in them. I’m haunted by these ghosts and refuse to rest until their memory is properly respected. As a photographer who understands the power of images, it seemed like a good idea to set up the International Centre for Litvak Photography, the organisers of a wide range of events including The Kaunas Requiem.

The Kaunas Requiem?
Indeed, The Kaunas Requiem. It’s a long story, but basically three years ago I discovered a collection of over 100 family photographs that once belonged to a Litvak family from Kaunas. The story was that someone from the family, someone at the time unknown, managed to smuggle the photographs out of the Kaunas Ghetto where they were incarcerated before vanishing in the flames of the Holocaust. I realised the photographs were important in some way and started a campaign to digitise them and to start the long process of identifying the family. Using the magic of social media and the generous support of a wide range of volunteers, we not only managed to identify the family but also discovered they have famous living relatives in the United States. We also discovered that the mother of the family, Anna Varsavskiene, was a professional singer. These and other related facts led me to commission a 75-year-long piece of music, which, along with copies of the photographs and some large projections, will start inside the abandoned New Sanciai Synagogue in Kaunas next Saturday evening (Sept. 17). The synagogue belongs to the Lithuanian state incidentally, and our NGO is currently in the early stages of trying to buy it for 1 euro and bring it back to life as a cultural centre for the city.

One euro?!
Aha. It’s quite a lot of money isn’t it? I mean, we really should get it for free, but that’s capitalism for you. It’s a stunningly beautiful building constructed during the interwar period. Because of its historical and cultural importance, the Cultural Heritage Department ensures that the building is well maintained. On paper, this sounds like a good thing, but in reality what’s really going on is that the average Lithuanian tax payer (myself included) contributes money every month to stop an empty building from falling down. There’s quite a lot of ridiculous nonsense going on in Kaunas at the moment, but this is probably the stupidest example of them all. What we’re doing is offering to take away this unnecessary burden from the state and to breathe life back into the building.

Ridiculous nonsense?
Ridiculous nonsense! The Kaunas street named after one of the architects of the Holocaust in Lithuania. The mass murder site in the middle of the city that organises children’s parties. The unmarked synagogue where you can get your car serviced. Would you like me to continue?

No, that’s quite enough thank you.
There are two schools of thought on this issue. On the one hand there are the angry people — many Jews among them incidentally ― whose only purpose in life appears to be to stand on the sideline and pour scorn on Lithuania in general and generalise the Lithuanians as all being Jew killers. This is a political strategy that’s about as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot in my opinion, and does nothing to help solve these issues. On the contrary in fact. And then there’s a growing number of individuals who realise that the problem is ignorance, a great deal of it originating in schools and newspapers (and, increasingly, on social media). A lot of Lithuanians I meet simply don’t know the full history of their country and therefore end up believing all sorts of stupid things. This was highlighted by the Lithuanian playwright
Marius Ivaskevicius’ recent article translated into English in which he described his own personal Road to Damascus moment when the mask fell and he realised the Holocaust in Lithuania is a Lithuanian issue, not a strictly Jewish one. More and more people are realising this, and realising too that it’s ok for your country to have some pretty dark moments in history. As an Englishman I know this better than most. Our national cuisine is Indian, a direct result of the British Empire, but this is no reason to celebrate the British Empire or to even make excuses for it. It was a brutal regime and I for one am glad it no longer exists.

So you think things are getting better in Lithuania?
I know things are getting better in Lithuania. The Kaunas Requiem is almost entirely down to the hard work of a disparate group of Lithuanians of all ages and backgrounds. This would never have a happened five years ago. Come and visit us during the event and see for yourself. The Kaunas Requiem, with music by the Ukrainian composer Anton Degtiariov, runs from Sept. 17 to 23. Look it up on #kaunasrequiem