I’m normally not an anxious traveler but I’m experiencing some deep unresolved, existential anxiety. As I write this, I’m headed to Vilnius, Lithuania, for the first time in my life. Today, June 29, is the 70th anniversary of the massacre of all the remaining Jews in a village in Lithuania where my father was born. A strange and ironic day to choose for a return to “der heim” (Yiddish for “the homeland”.) Or, maybe, it’s exactly the right day.
For the next few days, Vilnius is hosting the Community of Democracies (CD). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, foreign ministers, presidents, and front line human rights and democratic activists from around the globe will be coming together to help new and fragile democracies. I will be representing USAID at this gathering and focusing my participation on CD’s newest initiative, the Democracy Partnership Challenge. This new initiative aims to encourage and support transparency and democratic reforms in countries that have had recent democratic breakthroughs. For me, my years of work culminating in this trip to Vilnius is a bridge to my family’s history back in Lithuania—what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as ” the arch of history bending toward justice.”
My father, Dr. Myer Mendelson, was born in December 1920. He and his parents left Lithuania for Canada in 1921. Twenty years after they left their village of Derbyan ethnic cleansing occurred. This was just one of hundreds of, or even thousands, of atrocities that happened in what was the bloodiest of neighborhoods. As it was told to me, June 29, 1941, was the day when those that stayed behind ceased to exist.
The Nazis roared into Soviet territory on June 22, 1941. They reached Derbyan on June 29, 1941, and separated the Jewish men from the Jewish women and children. It is a crime of absent memory on my part that I cannot now recall if they put the men in the synagogue, locked it, and burned it, and then drove the women and children into the forest and shot them or vice versa. Just as appalling, the non-Jewish neighbors joined in the killing. The village was “cleansed.”
How states and societies acknowledge or not violent episodes from the past is an under-researched aspect of development. It is a critical component of accountability and the rule of law. It is a subject I’ve researched and one I’m, along with other colleague, working to elevate at USAID.
At the individual level, it is about how families handle their histories, tragedies, and, in this case, safe passage away from the killing fields.
I’ve been traveling to this region for well over 20 years. I’ve been dozens and dozens of times to Russia and a few times to Estonia and Latvia. I’ve avoided my own family’s past with great success. I come now to Lithuania representing the U.S. Government, to a democracy, committing now to addressing its history through new legislation and compensation for victims of the Holocaust. It’s well time for me to “return” to “der heim” and a privilege to do so under during this historic event. It’s understandable that on this day I feel some anxiety but to travel to Lithuania in 2011 and recognize how far Lithuania has come from the tragic and sad history of its past is well worth it.
Sarah Mendelson is the Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.