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Culture

Goethe Medal for Lithuanian Holocaust survivor

She witnessed the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, but has dedicated herself to reconciliation. For her work, literature professor and critic Irena Veisaite is a recipient of this year's Goethe Medal.

She grew up with a love for Germany's language, culture and literature - a love that has stayed with her and directed her career path. Irena Veisaite was 13 years old when she learned Friedrich Schiller's ballads and read his famous words about faithfulness and friendship.

"Those words gave me courage at the time," she said. And Veisaite needed an extra dose of courage to survive: From 1941 to 1944, she lived in the Jewish ghetto in Kaunas and read the German classics in the underground school.

It wasn't really a proper school, said the 84-year-old in an interview with DW; lessons weren't held regularly. The children had to work for food as well, either on the other side of the barbed wire or within the ghetto, where the Nazis set up workshops starting in 1942.

Veisaite toiled at the city's airport until she literally collapsed with exhaustion. It wasn't until she fell critically ill that the 13-year-old was transferred to a workshop within the ghetto.

Irena Veisaite

Irena Veisaite enjoyed classic German literature from a young age

"It was a very, very bad time. I was in constant fear of being killed and was terribly hungry," remembered Veisaite. "Often, people were arrested or executed. If you were still alive at the end of the day, then that was good."

Last words

Veisaite's apartment exudes history, and when she speaks, time seems to stand still. "I always thought, I have to survive so I can tell the world what happened," she said.

After the Nazis invaded Lithuania in June 1941, the then 13-year-old was forced to move into the Kaunas ghetto together with her aunt and grandparents. Her father was working in western Europe at the time, and her mother had been arrested while in the hospital following a serious operation.

Veisaite was able to visit her mother one last time in the hospital. Her mother left her with three instructions: Be independent, live in truth, and never take revenge for personal reasons.

"I can remember her words very well, but it wasn't until much later than I understood what they meant," said Veisaite. Several days later, her mother was deported and murdered in one of the historic fortifications which surrounded the city and which would become a mass grave for thousands of Jews from all over Europe.

Adopted family

Friends of her parents found the young Veisaite in the ghetto and organized her escape. Soon she was living with counterfeit papers, allegedly as an orphan from the countryside, with a Lithuanian family in Vilnius. She spoke Lithuanian fluently, without the typical Jewish accent, but one false word could have had drastic consequences.

Children in an underground school in the Kaunas ghetto during the Holocaust

Veisaite attended an underground school like this one in the Kaunas ghetto

Soon it was time for her to find a new place to stay and she was taken in by the Ladigiene family as their seventh child. "Stefania Ladigiene became my second mother," said Veisaite. "I stayed there long after the war - I didn't have anyone else. I've since been added to their family tree and recognized as a family member."

In the summer of 1944, Nazi rule came to an end and the Soviets took over. "For me, it was emancipation when the Red Army came," she said. She was able to go to school again, but the feeling of freedom was illusory. A shadow had fallen over the small country, which became part of the Soviet Union after the war.

Veisaite's foster mother was arrested and deported to Siberia; she would return home 10 years later, critically ill. The second tragedy had begun for the Lithuanian Jews who'd survived the Holocaust. In the Soviet Republic, only Soviet victims of fascism were talked about, while the fate of the Jews was taboo.

Anti-Semitism showed its face once again under the Stalin regime. "The Soviets were very, very bad. Different from the Nazis, but not better," said Veisaite.

Two dictatorships

The Soviet secret service in Lithuania tried to pressure her into becoming an agent, but without success: "I stayed calm. I was certain that I was never going to become an informant for them and I was even prepared to be deported to Siberia for that." But she was lucky. The secret service ordered her to keep quiet and left her alone.

Wehrmacht soldiers in the fight for Moscow in October 1941

Lithuania went to the victor - first the Nazis, then the Soviets

She went to Moscow to study, where she got top grades - until her background was brought to light. As the daughter of a Jew and a "bourgeois" who had lived abroad in a capitalist country, she was suspicious. Her scholarship was revoked and her grades were lowered.

Still, Veisaite stuck it out and managed to earn a doctorate degree and even get a position at the university in Vilnius, where she would teach literature and theater history for many years.

When Lithuania gained its independence in 1990, Irena Veisaite was 62 years old and had survived two dictatorships. It took a long time until she was finally allowed to talk openly about her story and that of the many other persecuted Jews. It pains her that there is still conflict over her country's past; the collaboration of some Lithuanians with the Nazi occupiers has remained a touchy subject, and the suffering of the Jews has not received enough attention, despite efforts from the government, historians and museums.

Veisaite doesn't point fingers, but she feels strongly that people should know what happened so that the mistakes and crimes that were committed will not be repeated. Germany's approach to its dark past is a model for Veisaite.

"No one makes excuses anymore. People admit to everything. Those who suffered and lost everything are still receiving money. I highly respect that," she said.

Veisaite has already received numerous accolades in her home country; now she is being honored in Germany. On August 28, she will be presented with the Goethe Medal for her contribution to reconciliation and cultural dialogue with Germany, her independent spirit, her political courage, and her creativity.

"That's a great honor, an unexpected gift," she said with a smile.

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