Correcting the Record: Michael Casper on Jonas Mekas
A Yale University historian took a fresh look at Jonas Mekas’s wartime years in Lithuania – the time before Mekas came to New York and became a key figure in the American avant-garde film scene. It’s “an addition to our understanding of his life and art,” argues Michael Casper.
Not everyone agrees with him. Saulius Sužiedėlis, professor emeritus of history at Millersville University, recently wrote that Casper “appear[s] to tarnish Mekas’s legacy.” And Mekas himself, in an interview seven months before his death in 2019, described Casper’s essay on him as “dirty.” Meanwhile, Richard Brody, a film critic from The New Yorker magazine, called Casper’s findings “cogent and troubling.” J Hoberman, an American film critic and a friend of Mekas, described them as a “bombshell”.
What exactly is in Casper’s findings? He presents a case that during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania in 1941–1944, Mekas wrote for and edited anti-Jewish newspapers Naujosios Biržų žinios and Panevėžio apygardos balsas. Even though there is no evidence of Mekas writing antisemitic articles himself, the press at the time helped to create a climate that led to the mass killing of Lithuania’s Jews. According to the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania, 2,400 Jews were killed near Biržai alone. This is in stark contrast, Casper argues, to the way Mekas later presented his life during wartime Lithuania, both in interviews and in his films.
Casper laid out his findings – newspaper articles, excerpts from Mekas’s books and films, and interviews he conducted with Mekas himself – in a 2018 essay published in The New York Review of Books and a 2022 essay for Jewish Currents. The latter was published as a reaction to the Mekas exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York last year.
Casper, or Maiklas, as his friends know him in Lithuania, is well-positioned to do such research. An American who speaks Lithuanian, he was a Fulbright Scholar affiliated with the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University from 2006 to 2007. His 2019 dissertation at UCLA covered the Jewish political culture in interwar Lithuania. Although Casper has Jewish roots in Lithuania, he says he approaches Lithuanian history as a scholar, not from a personal perspective. Currently based in New York City, he is a co-author of A Fortress in Brooklyn, a book about the New York Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg. The book won a National Jewish Book Award in 2021.
For many people, myself included, Casper's writings about Mekas are tough to engage with. Mekas is a titan of an artist and curator. He built an institution – Anthology Film Archives – that is a landmark in New York’s film scene to this day. A friend of Andy Warhol, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he is an example of someone who “made it” in the greatest city in the world, coming from a village in Lithuania. Mekas’s personality and his art are powerful and aspirational. His memory is precious, and you want to keep it that way.
This case is also personal. The interview with Mekas in 2019 in London is one of the most cherished memories of my journalistic work. The people who tirelessly work on bringing Mekas’s art to the public are my friends and colleagues. I follow their work and I trust their values. Saulius Sužiedėlis, who I interviewed this summer, is an invaluable source on the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Part of me, naturally, wants to take “their side.”
But another person who I call a friend and whose work I follow and trust is Michael Casper. I got to know Maiklas as someone who genuinely cares about Lithuania’s society and its people and is using his field of expertise – history – to do his part. At the same time, as a historian, he keeps his distance, which allows him to go to places where other people don’t go. The newspapers he refers to in his essays are available for every journalist and historian in Lithuania. But, to my knowledge, he is the first to critically look at them in regard to Mekas’s biography.
Casper’s essays, of course, sparked tensions. And yet, most of the conversations stayed private. I was surprised to see the absence of public debate among Lithuanian cultural circles regarding Casper’s writings – as if they didn’t exist. This interview is an attempt to engage in the conversation and move it forward. This is the first time I have had an opportunity to follow up and publicly talk with Maiklas about his research and address the criticism from Sužiedėlis and Mekas himself, thus helping the readers make their own conclusions.
This interview was conducted by email in November and December 2022. While doing it, I realized that, at its core, it's not a story about Mekas – he is more of a case study here. It’s a story of how we, as Lithuanians, cope with the memory of the Holocaust. Where do we draw the line of personal responsibility?
Karolis Vyšniauskas: What motivated you to choose Mekas’s life as a historical topic? What were you expecting before starting the research?
Michael Casper: I had been interested in Mekas for some time. I had lived in Lithuania, and so I knew of his significance there, while a friend of mine in the US had studied film with his brother, Adolfas, and introduced me to the world of Anthology Film Archives. I had even made a pilgrimage to Semeniškiai, Mekas's childhood village, with some Lithuanian friends. Around 2015, Mekas began to have a major revival and I became newly curious about his war years, which were never discussed in depth by him or others. When I learned that he was in Biržai in 1941, had alluded to the mass murder of the city’s Jews and worked for two wartime ultranationalist and Nazi propaganda newspapers, I thought it would be important for him to discuss this history in greater detail. I also thought it would be of interest to the general public, especially after his memoir-diary, I Had Nowhere to Go, was published in a new edition in 2017.
Through his films and writings, Mekas was one of the premier interpreters of Lithuanian history, and I care about how that history is told. As far as expectations when I began researching, I was prepared to give Mekas the benefit of the doubt.
Did anything surprise you in the process regarding what you found, and how people reacted to it? What do you find in Mekas’s story to captivate you to this day?
I was surprised to learn the extent to which Mekas misrepresented his life in Lithuania during the war, and the resulting large amount of incorrect information that writers and other observers circulated about him for decades.
But the reaction to my writing has been even more surprising. I expected pushback from Lithuanian circles, which I’ve received to some extent, but I didn’t expect the forceful response from some elements in the art world who doubled down on embracing Mekas’s half-truths. At the same time, I’ve received a good amount of positive feedback about my writings on Mekas. I think Mekas’s story is an exemplary one to tell twentieth-century Lithuanian history in all of its complexities. Understanding his life properly is also key to making sense of his influential views on filmmaking and, by extension, the trajectory of postwar American art.
You say that Mekas misrepresented his life in Lithuania during the war. Can you elaborate on what you have in mind?
Mekas typically depicted his wartime experience as one of victimhood at the hands of Nazis and Soviets, making it sound like he spent the war in some kind of anti-Nazi resistance movement that forced him to flee the Nazis, and also in a concentration camp. The structure of I Had Nowhere to Go, which begins with his exit from Lithuania and details the depravations of his forced labor at a factory and residence in displaced persons camps, strongly directed readers’ attention away from the years he spent in Lithuania during the war.
In his film, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972), Mekas said that he spent the war in the “slave camps of Nazi Germany,” which blends the displaced persons camps with the forced labor, and conjures up an image of a concentration camp. In fact, Mekas spent the years 1941 to 1944 working for Nazi propaganda newspapers in Lithuania and fled the approaching Soviets at the last possible moment. His brief reference to this, in the first lines of I Had Nowhere to Go, describes the newspapers as “a provincial weekly” and a “national semi-literary weekly,” which is wholly insufficient and, yes, misleading.
“Mekas’s story is an exemplary one to tell twentieth-century Lithuanian history in all of its complexities”
You met Mekas himself and had a chance to ask him questions directly, in person and by email. What was that process like?
I thought it was important to talk to Mekas directly about these issues and to ask the questions and follow-ups that other interviewers, as far as I could tell, had failed to pose. We met several times at his loft in Brooklyn. I got to see firsthand how mentally sharp he was, and even how physically agile he was, despite his advanced age.
In the interview for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Mekas called your The New York Review of Books article “a dirty paper.” But in the end, he added that he is “grateful” to you because your questions “forced (him) to think, try to figure out” what was happening in the war years. Mekas died seven months after your publication. Do you feel that you could get closer to the truth, had he lived longer? Do you believe there was room for a resolution to your relationship?
I feel like my relationship with Mekas, such as there was one, was resolved. I wasn’t looking to be his friend or adversary. I wanted him to speak in greater detail about his war years, which he did. He seemed to have said his piece to me, and I’m not sure that anything would have changed had he lived longer.
Lithuanian-American historian Saulius Sužiedėlis published a criticism of your articles in his e-flux magazine piece. He says that your work “appear[s] to tarnish Mekas’s legacy” and that the narrative you created about Mekas turned him into something “he was not.” For readers, it’s a rare opportunity to learn about the same topic from two historians who care about Lithuania’s history but who end up with two very different conclusions. What do you make of Sužiedėlis’s argumentation?
I never intended to “tarnish” Mekas. On the contrary, as I have written before, I sought to illuminate his highly personal art by adding detail and texture to his life story. You have to remember that when I published my article, in 2018, it was common for people to think that Mekas had spent the entirety of the war in a concentration camp and was a longtime participant in anti-Nazi resistance, or even that he was Jewish. These misunderstandings were repeated by museums, cinemas, film festivals and publications such as Artforum and The New York Times.
Mekas’s misleading descriptions of his own life inspired these errors, and he never sought to correct the record. Sužiedėlis is right that I suggest “that Mekas was evasive and dishonest about his wartime activities.” But there are numerous problems with his e-flux article, from factual errors to superficial distractions to selective use of evidence and unfair imputations against me.
I’ll give just one example from among Sužiedėlis’s main arguments. In your interview with him this summer, Sužiedėlis said that everything Mekas wrote in the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) and Nazi propaganda newspapers was “apolitical or non-political,” and he repeats that assertion here. Well, any reader of e-flux will see that Sužiedėlis immediately contradicts himself by noting that the first poem Mekas published under his own name is called “The March of the Don Quixotes (the Bolsheviks).” This parody of Stalinism was Mekas’s entry in a series of similar political poems stemming from the newspaper’s first issue, which ran “The March of the Partisans,” referring to the Lithuanian paramilitary groups that helped the Nazis push the Soviets out of Lithuania.
Its publication wasn’t some fluke to be dismissed, as Sužiedėlis proposes, but possibly the most consequential event in Mekas’s life: in one of the more believable explanations for his exit from Lithuania, Mekas writes in I Had Nowhere to Go, “I had written an anti-Stalin poem and I knew I was a marked man.” Mekas also published poems such as “For Lithuania” that comport with the highly politicized romantic nationalism of the period.
In fact, I’m not sure how Sužiedėlis can believe that anything written or published during that time would be “apolitical or non-political.” I would also say that it is significant that he chose to publish in e-flux, which styles itself after the Fluxus movement in which Mekas participated, and whose associate curator of video and film was a coeditor of the problematic exhibition catalog for the Jewish Museum’s Mekas show.
You say that Sužiedėlis’s piece has “factual errors”, “superficial distractions” and “selective use of evidence and unfair imputations” against you. Can you give more details on these points? I agree that Mekas’s writing at that time was inherently political, even though he wasn’t writing directly about politics.
Sužiedėlis’s work, especially his edited collections of sources, have been very useful for my research. He has done much to raise awareness of the significance of the Holocaust in Lithuanian and Lithuanian American settings. I also know him, as much as one can get to know a colleague one encounters in professional settings. We have met in academic contexts in the United States and Lithuania, shared a car ride and discussed my work on Mekas without any apparent confrontation. I interviewed Sužiedėlis, as the foremost expert on the subject of Lithuanian emigration in 1944, for my 2018 article on Mekas, and quoted his important conclusion that we should understand Mekas to have fled the Soviets, not the Nazis (a position he quietly revised for the e-flux audience). Even Sužiedėlis’s wife, whom I met at Santara-Šviesa (a conference established by Lithuanian-American intellectuals – Ed.), in Lithuania, in 2019, thanked me for writing my piece on Mekas and gave me a memorable fist-bump. So, I was surprised to see the appearance of his article, with its decidedly not collegial invective.
It’s never a good sign when someone has to append a “disclaimer” to his assessment of the Holocaust. But here Sužiedėlis offers a “disclaimer” and “caveat that is personal,” namely that he himself was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after his parents fled Lithuania in 1944. His father, he writes, served in the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences under the Soviets “and continued in the position for some time after the German invasion.” I give Sužiedėlis credit for questioning “whether this background enhances or undermines” his arguments but he uses his partiality to set up a false dichotomy with what he imputes to be a bias on my part. He writes:
Among the postwar [Lithuanian] freedom fighters were a number of perpetrators who had served in German-organized police battalions, so that many Jews find it difficult to embrace the heroic memory of the anti-Soviet guerrillas, affectionally known as the “forest brothers.” The harsh reality is that Jews and Lithuanians inhabited different worlds of wartime and postwar experience and, as a result, acquired sharply contrasting collective memories. What might encourage further misunderstandings is the fact that the Western narratives of the war, particularly those of Americans steeped in Spielberg films and stories of the “Greatest Generation,” remain largely irrelevant to the experience of many peoples who suffered the war on the Eastern Front.
This section is problematic on several levels. What “Jews” is he referring to here? Jews in general? Holocaust survivors? Lithuanian Jews? American Jews? I – and I know others – read this alongside the rest of the paragraph to mean that he believes that American Jews have a bias that prevents them from properly understanding World War II in Lithuania.
It is alarming that, in 2022, an American historian can write, “many Jews find it difficult to embrace the heroic memory” of those he just acknowledged included in their ranks murderous Nazi collaborators. All the more so that Sužiedėlis’s response to my writing about Mekas’s distorted claims about his wartime activities is to suggest that Jews are insufficiently deferential to a narrative that valorizes these collaborators. At the same time that Sužiedėlis wants to hold Jews responsible for their supposed “misunderstandings” of “the harsh reality,” he handles Nazi collaboration with kid gloves, explaining that the Holocaust is “largely irrelevant” to Lithuanians. Criticizing Jews’ reluctance to glorify “guerrillas, affectionally known as the ‘forest brothers’” is like saying, “the French find it difficult to embrace the heroic memory of the guillotine, affectionately known as ‘La Dame.’”
I have never seen Schindler’s List but it’s worth mentioning that Steven Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which is one of the most important resources for video interviews with Holocaust survivors. And if Sužiedėlis thought his quip about Spielberg would win him points with the experimental film crowd, he should know that Spielberg’s son, Sawyer, is on the board of advisors at Anthology Film Archives.
Sužiedėlis made at least two other claims that must be addressed. He writes, “Mekas insisted that Soviet censorship in cultural matters had been far more intrusive than the restrictions under Nazi rule. Any reader of the period’s Soviet Lithuanian newspapers can easily see that Mekas was right.” This type of oversimplified comparison between Soviets and Nazis ignores how LAF, Lithuanian Nationalist Party and other Nazi occupation-era newspapers dehumanized Lithuanian Jews and prepared the way for their separation from society and mass murder. Relatedly, Sužiedėlis argues, “While Mekas and other apolitical authors avoided explicit support for the occupiers, there remains the question of how readers responded to the front-page and editorial content of their newspapers.” Setting aside the fact the Mekas wasn’t “apolitical,” and that his circle certainly expressed explicit support for the Nazis, I must reiterate, unfortunately, that some Lithuanians responded to the antisemitic tirades published in Naujosios Biržų žinios and other LAF newspapers by committing genocide against their Jewish neighbors. Even Lithuania’s state-sponsored Genocide and Resistance Research Center, which takes a highly conservative approach to historical memory vis-à-vis Lithuanian collaboration, stated in a note to the Lithuanian parliament, “the anti-Jewish attitudes of the LAF press impelled some Lithuanians to participate in the Jewish Holocaust.” Lithuanian historian Algimantas Kasparavičius has also argued, “These publications justified and even encouraged the Lithuanian murderers who collaborated with the Nazis and paralyzed efforts to help the suffering Jews who were being killed.”
As I understand the main point of Sužiedėlis is that you paint Mekas as more influential than he actually was. Sužiedėlis suggests that Mekas was very young and that his influence in the newspapers was small. He writes that Mekas’s name wasn’t in the credits neither of Naujosios Biržų žinios, nor Panevėžio apygardos balsas. As Sužiedėlis writes about your assessment of Mekas, “describing the posting of anti-Soviet wall posters and youthful literary creations as “deep political activism” in support of Nazism is grossly misleading.” He also says that you put on Mekas a “guilt by association.” In other words, Mekas may have been close to people who were Nazi supporters, but that doesn’t make him guilty himself. Do you agree with such a position?
The words “deep political activism,” which Sužiedėlis attributes to me and calls “grossly misleading,” are in fact a paraphrase of something I wrote in response to a letter to the editor of the New York Review of Books. It’s revealing that Sužiedėlis has to search for a rather buried phrase of mine to hold up as “the most damning of [my] assertions.” I said there that Mekas was “deeply involved in political activism,” which is abundantly clear from his writing, memories, the stories of the Six (a secret anti- Soviet group – Ed.) and other sources.
In one of the first lines of I Had Nowhere to Go, Mekas writes that, during the war, he “was, obviously, quite involved in the life around me.” In one dangerous situation, he was caught with anti-Soviet literature at his high school by a Soviet functionary, who mercifully let him go. It is also true that Mekas was close to people who directly supported the Nazis, for example the poet Leonardas Matuzevičius, which is not “guilt by association” but providing the proper context in which to understand his prewar and wartime circles, and rather complicates the popular narrative of his life.
Sužiedėlis writes, “To call such outbursts an underground movement seems strange.” And yet that is just how Mekas remembered these activities, becoming very defensive when we spoke about Matuzevičius, exclaiming “He was in the underground!” when I brought up his antisemitic writings. For Sužiedėlis, Mekas was too young at the time and too old by the time I interviewed him. I don’t see it that way. Young men, especially in wartime, do a lot of damage. One of the only survivors of the mass murder of the Jews of Biržai testified in 1946 that students from the Biržai gymnasium were among the killers.
“Mekas was one of the premier interpreters of Lithuanian history, and I care about how that history is told.”
As for the mastheads of the newspapers, this wasn’t Condé Nast. The people listed as lead editors, Mekas told me, were only figureheads, while he and his friends did most of the work. Mekas spent decades talking and writing about how he had edited these newspapers, and Adolfas discussed his brother’s role there in his own wartime diaries. I Had Nowhere to Go begins, “I was a young man of some reputation. For over a year I had worked as editor-in-chief of a provincial weekly paper. I had worked as the technical editor of a national semi-weekly for another year.” Even if Mekas’s influence at the newspapers were small, it would present a shift in how the general public should understand his war years.
Mekas’s anti-Nazi claim comes from his story that Nazis found his typewriter with which he wrote BBC translations to Lithuanian. And that is why he needed to leave Lithuania quickly. He writes about it in I Had Nowhere to Go and talks in the Holocaust Memorial Museum interview. He also mentions how, earlier, he had escaped the draft to the Nazi army dressed as a woman and hiding in the fields. That doesn’t sound like the actions of someone who is a Nazi sympathizer. Mekas’s memories of the war years suggest that he was both anti-Soviet and anti-Nazi; a young man who happened to live in a country where the war had started but who didn’t want to take part in it. The view that Lithuanians were both anti-Soviet and anti-Nazi, and just wanted their independent country back, is common in today’s understanding of the war years, especially among Lithuanians themselves. Do you agree with such a view? And do you see Mekas as an example of it?
You have to keep in mind that Lithuanians’ attitudes towards the Nazi occupation changed over the course of the war. Mekas himself acknowledged to me that Lithuanians supported the Nazis at first, as they saw them as liberators from the Soviets, and later turned against them – after most of the Holocaust was carried out in the summer of 1941 – when they realized they wouldn’t gain independence. I do think that Mekas, perhaps like most Lithuanians, supported the idea of an independent Lithuania above all. But for him to simply say that he was anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet during the war blurred very important details.
Mekas’s stories of “anti-Nazi” activism have some holes, to say the least. The story of the typewriter may have happened but is unverifiable and, as I suggested in my 2018 article, among other points on this subject, it is unlikely that a typewriter would arouse the Nazis’ interest in July 1944. Even Sužiedėlis admits in e-flux that the Germans’ repressions of Lithuanians “became moot as the Wehrmacht retreated in the summer of 1944.” Perhaps Mekas did, as he claimed, transcribe some BBC broadcasts for a week or two in July 1944 as an act of anti-Nazi resistance. But this should not come to stand for the entirety of Mekas’s wartime politics, and I am doubtful that this is what led to his exit from Lithuania. Also, in another version of his story of how he avoided joining the Wehrmacht, Mekas said that his uncle bribed a Nazi officer with a bottle of wine.
I listened to Mekas's account at The US Holocaust Memorial Museum interview a couple of times, trying to understand his own telling of the war years. I am curious about what you make of it. Let me go through different claims that he made. First of all, Mekas says that the man who inspired him to write poetry was a Jewish man whom he would meet in the post office in Papilys. He never spoke with him, but as a teenager, he was fascinated by him and remembered him to this day. Mekas also mentions that he had a Jewish classmate in the sixth grade who Adolfas had a crush on; he says that she was very smart. Judging from these two examples, his memories of Jewish life in Lithuania before the Holocaust come with respect and admiration. Do you believe that it is an honest recollection?
Sure, I believe that he had this interaction with a Jewish man, and that Adolfas had a crush on his Jewish classmate. Mekas also writes of the same person in the introduction to I Had Nowhere to Go, and Adolfas includes his own anecdote in his film, Going Home, and elsewhere. But I’m inclined to see them as a cynical smokescreen, especially in I Had Nowhere to Go, where they are deployed along with several other anecdotes suggesting warm relations with Jews, to distract from his much more complicated wartime history. In the Lithuanian version of I Had Nowhere to Go, but not the English one, Mekas also remembered a Jewish shopkeeper in Biržai by using the harsh ethnic slur, “dirty little Jew” (murzinas žydelis). This is hardly a respectful memory.
In the interview, Mekas said that in his village, people didn't know that the Nazi-aligned Lithuanian provisional government existed. When the interviewer mentioned Lithuanian Activist Front, he asked her “what is that.” When she asked him if there were any baltaraiščiai (the white-armbands, local Nazi collaborators) in his village, Mekas said he didn't know what that word meant. Several times he mentioned that he was “in a shell” because of his illness and his interest in literature. “I was in a completely different world,” he said. Do you believe that?
No. As I mentioned, Mekas also said he was “quite involved in the life around me.” To tell the interviewer that he first heard about the LAF when I mentioned it to him defies credulity. He worked for a newspaper founded by the LAF, and the Lithuanian edition of I Had Nowhere to Go includes a photo Mekas took of Antanas Maceina, a cofounder of the LAF and leader of its ideological program. In one of my interviews with Mekas, he demonstrated familiarity with the history of the LAF-led provisional government, emphasizing that some of its members had been sent to Stutthof in 1943. Because of this and other problems, people should take this interview with a grain of salt and not approach it like other Holocaust testimonies conducted by the museum.
At first, Mekas said that he was only a proofreader at the LAF newspapers, though later, he wrote a series of articles on poets of the Biržai area. He denounced the claim that he was an editor, and called it “bragging”. What was Mekas' role in these newspapers, according to your research?
Mekas told me, about editing the newspapers, that it was “obviously a bragging of a variety that a young person put in his or her job application.” But his self-description as “editor-in-chief” appeared in the introductory essay to the English version of I Had Nowhere to Go, which was published in 1991, when he was nearly seventy years old. I would say that it wasn’t at all obvious that he was only bragging there or in the many references over the decades, in his work and Adolfas’s, to his having worked at the newspapers in an editorial capacity. There’s plenty of evidence that Mekas had an editorial role in these newspapers, and not just a role as a frequent contributor. I referred to several key points in my 2018 article, which Sužiedėlis remarkably leaves out of what he wrote in e-flux.
In the interview, Mekas said that without the governmental information pages (he didn’t mention they were deeply antisemitic), he couldn't publish anything. He thought his and his colleagues’ contribution to promoting local culture in the time of occupation should be credited and recognized. That they “outsmarted” the Nazis (he says “Germans”) and managed to publish independent articles during the years of occupation. He also said that he managed to convince the editors not to print some political articles – because they were “boring”. According to Mekas, the other option would be not to publish at all. So he is happy, even proud that he did what he did. What do you make of such a position?
Well, if what he says is true, it would be a major recasting of his wartime experience. His fans should then know that he says he spent three years of the war working with Nazi censors and that his “resistance” amounted to publishing a subversive article here and there. If he is so proud of this work, why did he never discuss it in his voluminous oeuvre? And doesn’t this story contradict his other claim, made towards the end of his life, that he had no editorial role at the newspapers? And wouldn’t it also challenge the idea that he was “apolitical”?
“It’s okay to take a critical approach to one’s own history, especially in the service of refining it.”
I am interested in what you said earlier, about the art world’s reaction to your writing. Can you share more about what happened?
Mekas was very influential in the worlds of film and art, especially in New York, and people close to him have reacted with a sort of sneering condescension and commitment to Mekas’s self-presentation, most notably in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2022. The most recent example of this is Fragments of Paradise (2022), a new film about Mekas that won the award for Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and a Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC. Directed by KD Davison and executive-produced by Mekas’s children, Fragments of Paradise addresses the war years almost only to suggest that Mekas was a Holocaust survivor. In the film, Gregory R. Smulewicz-Zucker, a graduate student in political science at Rutgers who has edited collections of Mekas’s writings and interviews, and whose mother sits on the board of Anthology Film Archives, says, “One thing that people always forget about Jonas is that he’s a survivor of one of the worst mass slaughters in human history.” He speaks these words over black-and-white images of dead people labeled, “Political prisoners, Panevėžys, Lithuania, 1941.” The photographs are not explained, and I can only speculate on their provenance. But Mekas was not yet in Panevėžys in 1941, nor was he a political prisoner during the war, nor did he survive the Holocaust, which was perpetrated in Lithuania largely in 1941. Over 8,000 Jews were shot over the course of a few days in Panevėžys in August 1941. When Mekas worked for the city’s newspaper, Panevėžio apygardos balsas, a couple of years later, it published a bulletin asking the public for help identifying and turning in a few Jews who had survived and remained in hiding in the city. In a 2020 article, Smulewicz-Zucker lamented “a cultural and political environment where adherence to basic standards of truth, evidence, reasoned argument and agreement have all but collapsed.” But here the film engages in an insidious deception. To broadcast that Mekas is a “survivor of one of the worst mass slaughters in human history,” i.e., the Holocaust, is an insult to the memory of the Jewish victims of fascism in Lithuania.
“Understanding [Mekas’s] life properly is also key to understanding his influential views on filmmaking and, by extension, the trajectory of postwar American art” – that’s a powerful claim you made earlier. What do you have in mind?
You need to have accurate information about Mekas’s life to understand his highly personal art. The same goes for his aesthetic philosophy, which he spread through manifestos, articles and other cultural activism. His extreme subjectivity, negation of history and romanticism of the rural village have roots in his intellectual formation in Europe. I explore this in greater depth in the book I am currently writing about Mekas.
Your articles have affected the idyllic atmosphere that has been surrounding Mekas’s films and his personality. There is a feeling of loss – not only of a man himself but also a memory of him. How did your own interaction with Mekas’s work change? What do you expect his viewers to do? Should they continue consuming Mekas's art and be inspired by it? Or should he get "canceled"?
I understand that Mekas is a Lithuanian national hero and an example of someone from a small country whom people can be proud of for “making it” in New York. I feel bad, in a way; I know that even some Lithuanian friends of mine have mixed feelings about my writings on him. But I see the dissemination of knowledge about Mekas’s wartime life, and its incongruence with how he presented himself, as an addition to our understanding of his life and art, not a subtraction. I never intended to “cancel” Mekas, and I absolutely don’t think his films should be struck from screenings and syllabi. (Not that that has happened; on the contrary, he’s experienced a wide resurgence in popularity since 2018.) Mekas remains an incredibly significant artist and cultural activist whose influence is still felt in the worlds of film and art, especially in New York. Mekas also represents Lithuania to the world, as I said, so it is important to understand his life story.
Mekas lived a creatively rich and inspiring life, yet he almost never talked about the Holocaust and his memories from that time. Do you think he owed a responsibility to the Jewish community and his viewers, considering that he came from a place where so many Jews were killed? Even though, according to him, he didn’t know it was happening? I feel that, at its heart, this story is about personal responsibility. Mekas seem to take none of it. You seem to want him to take it, but he didn’t do it. Do you agree with such an assessment?
Mekas did, occasionally, and sometimes cryptically, reference the Holocaust. It became clear through my interviews with Mekas that he did know what was happening around him in 1941 and all the other years of the war. I think that, in the United States, he could not fully address the Holocaust given his position during the war. Mekas’s appropriation of the status of a Holocaust survivor was condemnable, especially given his wartime activities, and I suppose I did think that Mekas owed it to his many fans, most of all, to give a clearer picture of the war years. I also thought that he could simply provide more detail and insight into the specifically Lithuanian aspects of his life, such as his relations with little-remembered literary figures, that were of particular interest to me.
Why do you think you are the first person to research Mekas’s wartime years and talk about them in public? The archive of newspapers for whom he worked is publicly available – now it’s even digitized. The fact that he grew up next to Biržai was well known, he reflected on it himself in his interviews, books and films. Yet even when I met Mekas and was preparing for the interview, it didn’t occur to me to connect the dots and ask him about the war years and the Holocaust. To me, it suggests that for many non-Jewish Lithuanians, myself included, the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania too often is not seen as part of Lithuania’s history interconnecting with the lives of non-Jewish Lithuanians. It is almost as if there are two histories – “The Lithuanian history” and “The Jewish history.” What would be your answer, having in mind that you lived in Lithuania and spoke with many people – both non-Jewish and Jewish – from here?
It’s hard for me to answer that question about myself. It may be because I was exposed to both Lithuanian Jewish history and to Mekas and the art world.
In Lithuania, the histories of Lithuanians and Jews are more intertwined than many people realize. In my dissertation, I highlighted how, in the interwar period especially, Jews and Lithuanians – and Jews among themselves – debated how the two groups should relate politically and culturally. Many Jews and Lithuanians made great efforts to integrate the Jewish community and Jewish history into the Lithuanian national project, and many Jews even demonstrated loyalty to the authoritarian president, Antanas Smetona. The Lithuanian-Jewish relationship was not without its missteps and let-downs, but we should not project back into history our contemporary ideas about Jews and Lithuanians, nor those forged in the especially fraught late 1930s and carried on in collective memory.
How could we improve the understanding of Lithuania’s history? What could we all gain from it?
It’s important to know the history of Lithuanian historiography. Historian Gintarė Malinauskaitė has written about how Lithuania, after regaining independence, adopted a version of its history pioneered by LAF leaders who came to the United States after World War II. These figures, including Kazys Škirpa, Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, Stasys Raštikis and Bronys Raila, wrote voluminous memoirs and histories that minimized their involvement in the Holocaust. Mekas’s own revisions of the war years – albeit done more artistically than most, and often for a different type of audience – must be seen as part of this broader phenomenon.
I encourage people to read these memoirs for themselves, read wartime and interwar sources (many of which are being digitized), and come to their own conclusions. People shouldn’t be satisfied with sclerotic talking points. It’s important to work outside of all national narratives and be independent. I realize that Lithuania is a small nation, and that comes with a certain defensiveness, but it’s okay to take a critical approach to one’s own history, especially in the service of refining it. There’s a certain pride in doing so, even. With this approach, I think we will all gain a new appreciation of Lithuania’s history.