Wednesday 20 January 2021

Provisionally Yours and The Last Million: Book Notes

 Recently I read Provisionally Yours by Antanas Sileika (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2019).  Provisionally Yours is a novel set in in Lithuania just after World War I.  Actually, it’s a bit of a stretch to say it is set in Lithuania, as the country as such was still in a very “provisional” state at the time. Previously part of the Russian Empire, it benefitted from the post-war sentiment to let different ethnic groups form new nations. This was part of a general trend toward the idea of “self-determination,” when the Czarist, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires had all been destroyed. 

.Sileika, a Canadian of Lithuanian descent, portrays a world of ethno-castes. By that I mean ethnic groups arranged in a caste-like hierarchy. Until very recently, the (Czarist) Russian Empire was Lithuania’s overlord, but landowners tended to be Polish. Peasants were Lithuanian, and Jews were urban businessmen and professionals. Now ethnic Lithuanians are in charge and are trying to establish an ethnically-homogenous Lithuanian state. The protagonist of the novel, Justas Adamonis, has just returned from service in the Russian army, and is now charged with setting up a counter-intelligence service in Lithuania.

I learned a lot from this novel about early 20th-century Lithuania. It also made me think about the problems of new states more generally. In an Afterword, Sileika informs the reader that he based the novel on real political events that occurred in Lithuania at the time. One of Adamonis’ assignments is to track down a ring of officials who are smuggling cocaine into the new Soviet Union. This reminds me of the problem of narco-states in the less developed world today. It also reminds me of the difficulties of establishing--and paying—an efficient administrative class in an ethnically-disparate society. At another point, an ethnically Russian general who led the Lithuanian army in its war of independence is assassinated. There are still many such cases, in which members of ethnic minorities who attempt to serve the new “nation”-state are marginalized or even assassinated by the ethnic group in power.  

Jews don’t figure in Provisionally Yours; they are just “there,” irrelevant to the formation of this new nation-state. Unfortunately, they are very much “there” in historian David Nasaw’s The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War (New York, Penguin Press, 2020).

One tends to think that the last million displaced persons would have been almost entirely Jewish, but such was far from the case. Most of the Jewish survivors were people who had fled from Poland to the Soviet Union during the war. After the war, Stalin permitted them to return to Poland, but they did so only to discover that there was still fierce anti-Semitism in that country. Indeed, some Jews were given letters giving them three days to get out, or else. The last pogrom occurred in the city of Kielce in 1946, after the war’s end. About 200-250,000 Polish Jews who had survived the war in the Soviet Union ended up in the American zone of occupation in Germany, awaiting permission to migrate elsewhere.

Other members of the last million were refugees from various countries taken over by the Soviet Union. Among these were “Balts,” people from Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia who fled into Germany after the war and were able to make their way to the American zone of occupation. 

By this point, very few Jews were left in the Baltic states. Indeed, many Balts co-operated with the Nazis in murdering their Jewish co-nationals. Among the last million were known members of the Nazi Waffen-SS, identifiable by the blood-type tattoos under their left armpits.  Nevertheless, both Britain and the United States considered Baltic men, often tall, blond, and blue-eyed, to be superior immigrants. They were “clean” as opposed to the “dirty” Jewish survivors.

 At one point miners in the UK went on strike when they discovered that they were working with immigrants against whom they’d so recently fought. British authorities told the Baltic miners not to take their shirts off in the mines, so the British miners would not notice their SS tattoos.

The Lutheran and Catholic establishments in the US pressured their post-war government to admit Balts (Lutherans) and Poles and Ukrainians (Catholics) in equal numbers to Jewish immigrants, if not more. And President Truman pressured the British to open up then Palestine to Jewish immigration so that the US would not have to admit the Jews.  

If you are a reader who enjoys historical novels, I highly recommend Provisionally Yours, to give you a sense of a place about which, like me, you might not know anything at all.  And if you like reading history, Nasaw is a Pulitzer-Prize winner who knows how to tell a compelling, if discouraging, story.