Irena Veisaitė passed away 40 days ago, and Lithuania without her, for me, is not the same. In December 2020 the 92-year old became a victim of the pandemic, after she was transferred to a Vilnius-based hospital. I will not remember her related to COVID-19, but as brave, generous and wise Lithuanian voice.
Irena was special, because she included in her biography dimensions, which seem for many until today incompatible: her childhood in a Jewish-Lithuanian family, the experience of the Shoa, the survival and upbringing in a Catholic-Lithuanian family outside the Kaunas ghetto, the personal love and professional interest for German language and literature in post-war Soviet Lithuania, a clear political stance for the independence of Lithuania, and an active form of Lithuanian patriotism understood in Lithuania and beyond.
Is it possible, to embody Jewish and Catholic values and to be Lithuanian, European, open minded and patriotic at the same time? Yes, it is. In her everyday interpretation, Irena’s life was not a testimony of the Shoa, but rather a living proof of the possibility to overcome the atrocities brought to Lithuania by the German Reich, and by generous love, hard work and openness.
Her Jewish and Catholic parents gifted her with love, and until the end of her days she embodied love in a very Levinas way – as ongoing conversation with the other. At the same time, Irena Veisaitė was strict in her principles, asked very clear questions, and decided to make complicated decisions if she felt the necessity to do so. And so after a whole life spent in Lithuanian civic dialogue, she encouraged a new opening of the Foundation Open Lithuania.
When the historian Christoph Dieckmann and journalist Ruta Vanagaitė published a dialogue on the legacy of the Holocaust in Lithuania, Irena Veisaitė supported both of them in their attempt to make this conversion a public debate. She was very conscious about the limitations of what she had achieved in earlier decades, but never drew back or closed up in her flat at Basanavičiaus gatvė.
In fact, quite the opposite, and it remained an open house for those willing to have a critical conversation. With her personal links to Switzerland, the UK, Germany, Poland and other countries, her home was an informal Lithuanian embassy to the European Union, and beyond. Other contemporaries have to write dozens of letters and e-mails in order to achieve what Irena was able to do with few telephone calls.
Irena loved to spend the summer in her tiny house at Neringa, and when she came back to Vilnius, she brought stones with her. I was touched when she gave me such a stone. I will carry Irena´s stone with me and remember her always.
Felix Ackermann is research Fellow at the German Historical Institute Warsaw