Monday, March 18, 2013

On the Road with Ellen Cassedy!

From February 20 – March 6, PAS welcomed author and journalist Ellen Cassedy. Cassedy came to Lithuania to talk about her book “We are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust”, which was originally published in English and has recently been published in Lithuanian. She presented her book all across Lithuania at schools, libraries, and cultural centers. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to accompany her as she spoke across the country!

In her presentations, Ellen spoke not only about her book, but brought information about the Jewish history of Lithuania and explained her story of coming to Lithuania to explore her family history and the initiatives taking place here in civil society. The rich Jewish history of Lithuania was not something that I was very familiar with before having the opportunity to hear about it from Ellen and the many historians, leaders, students, and professionals that she met with. Ellen Cassedy is Jewish and Lithuanian on her mother’s side of the family. Her relatives were in Siauliai ghetto during World War II, eventually moving to the United States when the war concluded. “We are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust” looks at many components of Lithuanian society and history. It is a personal narrative, beginning with Cassedy’s journey to Lithuania to learn Yiddish at Vilnius University. During this exploration she discovered many things about her family history and the history of the Nazi and Soviet past in Lithuania. During the search for this information, Cassedy came across the leaders who work to explore the history, as well as work to create tolerance and understanding for the future of Lithuania. Her book describes not only her experience in Lithuania, but also these individual examples of action. In her book she writes about all of these experiences and people, looking to Lithuania’s past, present, and future.

During her presentations to students, Cassedy challenged them to think about the history of Lithuania and to consider how it can be used to create a more tolerant future; the same way that the leaders who inspired her on her first journey to Lithuania work to do. As a student myself, I was inspired by her presentations and by the work of the people who are really trying to make a difference and shape a positive future. Ellen presented information about the Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust, as well as the action and inaction of many knowing bystanders. Cassedy challenged students not to be bystanders and to form a society where speaking up and standing up is expected. Cassedy also had several meetings with individuals and leaders across Lithuania, learning about the different initiatives taking place. These leaders work in various areas, including tolerance, education, and the preservation of history and Jewish culture. Upon returning to the United States to continue her book tour, Cassedy will have new information and examples of people who are working in Lithuania to continue moving the country forward towards tolerance, rather than backwards to times like the genocide of the twentieth century. With these examples and experiences, Cassedy will return to the United States to speak about her book, as well as the future of Lithuania, with additional insight, understanding, and hope. It was an amazing experience to be able to see Ellen Cassedy in action. Accompanying her helped me learn a lot about Lithuania, Jewish culture, and Jewish history. I’ve just started to read her book myself and so far it is very good!