Topics: Main Topic: Holocaust and Memorial, Holocaust Survivors, Oral History and Biography, Ethnography, Ageing and the Elderly, Memory, Artefacts and Material Culture
Abstract: Once regarded as a vibrant centre of intellectual, cultural and spiritual Jewish life, Lithuania was home to 240,000 Jews prior to the Nazi invasion of 1941. By war's end, less than 20,000 remained. Today, 4,000 Jews reside there, among them 108 survivors from the camps and ghettos and a further 70 from the Partisans and Red Army. Against a backdrop of ongoing Holocaust denial and a recent surge in anti-Semitic sentiment, this thesis presents the history and experiences of a group of elderly survivors in modern-day Vilnius through the lens of their stories and memories, their special places and their biographical objects. Incorporating interdisciplinary elements of cultural anthropology, social geography, psychology, narrative and sensory ethnography, it is informed, at its core, by an overtly spiritual approach. Drawing on the essentially Hasidic belief that everything in the material world is imbued with sacred essence and that we, as human beings, have the capacity through our actions to release that essence, it explores the points of intersection where the individual and the collective collide, illuminating how history is lived from the inside. Glimpses of the personal, typically absent from the historical record, are afforded prominence here: a bottle of perfume tucked into a pocket before fleeing the ghetto, a silent promise made beside a mass grave, a pair of shoes fashioned from parachute material in the forest. By tapping the material for meaning, a more embodied, emplaced, experiential level of knowing, deeper and richer than that achieved through traditional life history (oral testimony and written documents) methods, can emerge. In moving beyond words and gathering a bricolage of story, legend, artefact, document, monument and landscape, this research suggests a multidimensional historiography that is of particular relevance in grasping the lived reality of survivors in Lithuania where only the faintest traces of a once thriving Jewish heritage now remain.