Israeli-based Naomi Ragen’s thirteenth novel (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2023) delves into the painful history of Lithuania’s refusal to accept its own role in murdering nearly 97 percent of its Jews during the Nazi occupation. It is loosely based on a true story of a romance between an unlikely couple that developed between Efraim Zuroff and Rūta Vanagaitė as they collaborated on Our People, released in 2016, when they visited 40 cities in Lithuania and interviewed anyone who was old enough to witness what really happened during the Shoah.
It is also based on the present-day true events of Lithuania’s official organizations failing to recognize Lithuania’s widespread role in the Holocaust through its eager collaboration with the Nazis to kill every single Jew in its country.
I highly recommend this hard-to-put-down book because it takes a difficult and charged subject that is close to my heart and reveals it in an emotionally cathartic manner that is only possible through the power of fiction. I was so taken by this book that I reached out to the author and interviewed her about her background, her inspiration to write the novel, and how she researched it. Below are her responses.
Who is Naomi Ragen?
I’ve written thirteen novels and a play, Women’s Minyan, which premiered in 2000 in Israel’s National Theatre and was a huge success. Last year it actually began running again. In it, I tell the true story of an ultra Orthodox mother of 10 who is forcibly separated from her children following a divorce from their adulterous father. All of my work has something to do with religious Jewish women, Jewish society, Israel, or Jewish history. At their core, what I explore is women seeking justice. Please visit my website for more information www.naomiragen.com.
I myself am an Orthodox woman, born in Brooklyn, to a Ukrainian-born Jewish father and a second-generation Jewish mother who was born in New York from Lithuanian parents who immigrated in 1905. I attended an Orthodox Hebrew Day school from first grade through high school in Queens before moving to Israel when I was twenty-one and newly married to the son of Holocaust survivors. Both of us were religious Jews, and after I’d read While Six Million Died about American apathy and complicity in the Holocaust, I was eager to help build a Jewish country.
I had already earned a degree in English with a concentration in writing from Brooklyn College, cum laude, and would go on to earn a Master’s Degree in English from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, under a full honors grant. I had won awards for writing in high school and college, and that was clearly what I was planning to do. This wasn’t easy. We lived an Orthodox life in an Ultra-orthodox community in Jerusalem, very far from the literary world of which I dreamed of being a part. I worked as a free-lance writer for newspapers like The Jerusalem Post and Hadassah Magazine, and in various government offices producing English publications until in my late 30s and after four children decided to finally take a year off and write a novel.
My first three novels, Jephte’s Daughter, Sotah, and The Sacrifice of Tamar, were based on the lives of the women I lived amongst whose stories had never been told. They were stories that delved into taboo subject matter like domestic abuse, rape, and adultery in the ultra-orthodox world. These books became international best sellers, which was amazing for a young writer living in Israel. But along with the praise I received for being a pioneer in revealing truths about this closed community, there was also fierce criticism from those eager to deny the unflattering truths I revealed.
Plagiarism rap beaten in Supreme Court
In 2007, I was sued by members of the Orthodox community alleging copyright infringement and demanding my books be taken off the shelves. Their claims did not involve character, or plot, or even whole sentences—their own books were non-fiction. Mostly their claims involved carefully chosen sentence fragments, and even single words like “hair covering” or “perfect little angels”. I think because I was in Israel in a Hebrew-speaking court, with a judge who admitted he’d never read any of the English books involved, I had to go as far as the Supreme Court. Eventually, financially drained, I even agreed to the absurd demand to remove some of “their” words from one of my books.
While they succeeded in dragging me through the courts for seven years, and filling the internet with false, planted articles which will probably follow me until I die, they never succeeded in having my books taken off the shelves. Not only have these novels been in print for over 30 years, becoming classics (Jephte’s Daughter was listed among the 100 most important Jewish books of all time) but they have encouraged numerous other religious women to write their own stories, including the book on which the Netflix series Unorthodox is based.
My other books include The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, about a magnificent Jewish Renaissance businesswoman who defied the Inquisition; The Saturday Wife, a satire about the unraveling of a Rabbi’s wife with a demanding and contentious congregation, and The Covenant, about a Hamas kidnapping of a father and his young daughter in Israel which included three characters who survived Auschwitz.
Nazi hunter falls in love with child of perpetrators
I came to the story of Milia and Darius in The Enemy Beside Me when I ran into Efraim Zuroff on a deserted Jerusalem street during COVID. He and I had known each other for many years. His father was principal of my husband’s high school. When I asked him how he was doing, he told me a remarkable story about a book he had written together with a bestselling Lithuanian author named Ruta Vanagaite, and how during their journey through Lithuania to pursue the truth about what had happened between Lithuania and its Jews, they had fallen in love.
The idea of a Nazi hunter falling in love with a Lithuanian, a child of perpetrators, was so unlikely and intriguing, I couldn’t get it out of my head. That is usually how all my novels begin. The story chooses me and won’t let me go.
When I decided, with Efraim’s permission, to turn his story into a novel, I made the decision early on that the Nazi hunter would be an Israeli woman, and the Lithuanian a male professor, distancing myself from the story Efraim had told me, which is necessary for any novelist. What really interested me was the idea of reconciliation and forgiveness in Efraim’s story. How could we, children of victims and children of perpetrators, all born long after these events took place, find some way to put the past behind us? What would it take? What could we do that wouldn’t demean the memory of the victims?
Research into Holocaust distortion
Even though I was writing fiction, I knew that if I was going to tell the true story of the Lithuanian murder of its Jews, and the subsequent cover up, I was obligated to do meticulous research to get this very important story right. These, after all, were serious accusations.
I wasn’t daunted. I’d spent five years researching the Spanish Inquisition before I wrote a single word of The Ghost of Hannah Mendes. Also, as a journalist for many years, I knew I had to be careful to get my facts straight because there would be powerful forces out there eager to discredit what I had to reveal.
I wasn’t starting from scratch. I’d begun researching the Holocaust twenty years before when I decided to write a novel based on the experiences of my mother- in- law, a survivor of Auschwitz, and my father-in -law, who survived Hungarian slave labor but lost a wife a two children in Auschwitz. For years, I heard their first-person testimony, as well as those of their friends and relatives. Eventually, I abandoned that book–it was too painful and I was missing too many facts about their particular experiences. But I still had all my research, my books and my notes.
Obviously, the Lithuanian Holocaust required extensive additional research specific to that country. Books on Lithuanian history, and numerous books about the Holocaust that detailed Lithuanian participation. I read them all. But one of the most useful books turned out to be a book recently translated from the Yiddish into English: Leyb Korniuchowsky’s remarkable collection of first person, notarized interviews with Lithuanian Holocaust survivors: The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews, which provided a heartbreaking and unforgettable addition to my knowledge. With permission of the publisher, I based three of my book’s Holocaust narratives on eye witness testimonies included in the book. They are shattering.
Heartbroken by Lithuania’s mass graves
Luckily, I had toured Lithuania some years before while researching a totally different book about the first Hebrew novelist, a Lithuanian woman named Sarah Foner. This book was published in Hebrew only entitled: A Longing for Eden. The revised American version took out this material and was called The Sisters Weiss, which now in the process of being turned into a television series.
During that visit, I found Vilnius a charming city, but understood almost nothing about its history until we were taken out to Ponary. There I stood flabbergasted and heartbroken by the vastness of the unending view of mass graves that seemed to go on forever.
That memory stayed with me the entire time I attempted to write this book.
Descendants of victims and perpetrators fall in love
The romance between Milia and Darius was inspired by Efraim and Ruta. But as the characters evolved, and because I had switched the sexes, there was nothing left of the original models but the idea of descendants of victims and perpetrators overcoming their initial suspicion and antagonism and finding a human path towards sincere connection.
Milia is like me. She lives in my house in Zichron Yaakov, which I describe. She loves her work. She and I are both deeply religious and observant Jews, and she feels a profound responsibility towards her own people, both past and present, as do I.
I think she isn’t the kind of woman that worries about manicures and pedicures and hair styling like her love rival. She isn’t easy to live with, and her work is definitely her lover, the third person in her relationship with any partner. But she has much to give of value to a man who is willing to put up with that and support her.
I myself have been married for over 50 years to a supportive partner who has shared my life and encouraged and supported me in my work. I always say, I would have been a writer. It was my destiny. But the wonderful man who became my husband made it possible for me to be a married writer with children, grandchildren, and now a great-grandchild.
Darius was modeled on all those brave Lithuanians like yourself and like Rūta who were willing to forge ahead with such courage against the formidable forces in that country opposed to exposing the truth of Lithuanian collaboration with the Nazis. I saw him as a man with a conscience and moral balance, unwilling to compromise. A man of strength, and really a great Lithuanian patriot who wants what is best for his country, which he deeply loves. There is no question that Lithuania and her people have suffered tremendously. When the war in Europe was ending it was only beginning in the Baltics under the Soviets cruel reign. Nevertheless, independence gave all those countries the opportunity to set the record straight and re-educate their children, take responsibility for the crimes committed before they were born, and made amends to the descendants of the victims. Just look at what Germany has been able to achieve.
Lithuanian crimes against humanity
In using the facts in a fictional narrative, I was always careful not to invent crimes. There are enough true things that Lithuania has done and is doing that I could cite. But when I described the heads of the different organizations invented by the Lithuanian government to mask the truth of the Holocaust, i.e.. The Genocide Museum, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, I obviously used fictionalized characters. But I used the truth about these organizations and their work.
I have been very touched by the wonderful responses to this book so far. It was chosen as one of the best books of 2023 by Dr. Ruth Wisse in Mosaic Magazine. Readers’ letters, and the reaction of Holocaust scholars like Dr. Zuroff and others as to the book’s accuracy and honesty made the difficult and draining work of meticulous research worthwhile. So far, I have not had any pushback from Lithuanian sources. That might be because they haven’t read it yet, or hopefully because they see that what I’m saying is true and that I sincerely hope that a change for the better will take place. As I wrote, it would not be very difficult to achieve real reconciliation. Jews love to forgive and forget if you give them half a chance.
Storm Door blog
Below is an excerpt of Darius and Milia visiting the mass grave of hundreds of Jews killed in Geruliai, practically hidden in the woods, as the outsized chapel to the 70 Lithuanian martyrs killed by Communists stood nearby on the road for all to see, demonstrating Lithuania’s emphasis on honoring Lithuanians killed by the Soviets and doing everything possible to ignore Jews killed by Lithuanians and their Nazi collaborators.
I chose this excerpt because it speaks to what many good Lithuanians feel about their ancestors’ dreadful role in this terrible and heartbreaking history.
[Darius] wanted to believe that even this befouled and desecreated earth, where the cries of the innocent still echoed through the silent forests with every wind-tossed branch, could be made right somehow. Such a thing, he knew, was beyond the power of human beings. Only God—if He existed—had such power. “Forgive me,” he finally said, closing his eyes. “Forgive my parents and grandparents, and everyone in this village. And if that forgiveness necessitated punishment, then punish us, and let our pain expiate what has been done here.”
The irony of asking for punishment did not escape him. But it was preferable, he thought, to the catastrophic idea that no one would ever pay for these terrible crimes. For if that were the case, how could one go on living and believing in the future? How could you bear to be part of a planet inhabited by creatures prone to such actions? It would almost be better for the earth to cease to exist altogether.
He rose, looking to where Milia still sat doubled over with grief. An inconsolable sorrow mingled with compassion and unconditional love flamed through him for this small woman named after a fourteen-year-old girl who had been tortured and murdered in this place, by his people. His people, he finally admitted to himself. He could not escape from that face. They had done it, to the Jews. Not the Germans, not a few “degenerates.” The whole nation ahd taken part, even if many, even most, had not committed the acts themselves. They had been bystanders: rejoicing and approving or weeping and disapproving. Whether in joy or sorrow—they had been equally useless to the victims, refusing to interfere. And in their lack of protest, they had joined hands, agreed, decided, and helped to carry out this death sentence without mercy. … The idea might have come from the Nazis, but they had eagerly volunteered to be willing executioners. They did it with enthusiasm, with a smile and patriotic songs. And now, all these years later, they still hid the truth from themselves and their children, as if no one would notice. As if it too, could be buried and forgotten like these killing pits where the bones of babies, young girls, and grandparents mingled in the earth beneath an indifferent sky.
In related news…
- I will be appearing with Grant Gochin and Michael Kretzmer in a panel discussion hosted by The Daffodil Project this Sunday, January 21, 2024: Courage and Conviction 2024 (ticketsignup.io)
- Baltic Truth will be shown in Los Angeles on January 28, hosted by the Latvian and Estonian honorary consulates, but pointedly not by the Lithuanians: Memorializing the Latvian and Estonian Holocaust Tickets, Sun, Jan 28, 2024 at 2:00 PM | Eventbrite
- J’Accuse will finally be shown in Chicago on January 31: J’accuse! (wayfarertheaters.com)
- I will be in Boston for a showing of Baltic Truth with director Eugene Levine on February 24.
Wishing you truth and peace in the storms of your life,
Silvia Foti, granddaughter of General Storm, Jonas Noreika