White Syn­a­gogue of Joniškis, Lithua­nia, 2011

Pho­to by Laima Gūtmane 

There are sev­er­al ways that an author comes to a sto­ry. You might read some­thing that ignites your imag­i­na­tion; or you might hear a sto­ry from a friend, or learn a par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing seg­ment of your own fam­i­ly his­to­ry. But wher­ev­er the sto­ry comes from, there has to be some­thing about it that touch­es you deeply and push­es you to engage. There has to be psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral com­plex­i­ty and, best of all, sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters worth know­ing who pull at your heart­strings — whether because of the sit­u­a­tion in which they find them­selves, or sim­ply because you iden­ti­fy with their flaws and strengths — because they are, for bet­ter or worse, just like you.

The sto­ry of Mil­ia Gottstein-Lasker and Dar­ius Vidas in my new nov­el, The Ene­my Beside Me, came to me while I was in the mid­dle of a desert­ed Jerusalem street dur­ing Covid. There I was, tak­ing a walk and mind­ing my own busi­ness, when who should I see com­ing towards me but an old friend — Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the esteemed Nazi-hunter from the Israel branch of the Simon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter. My hus­band and I had known Dr. Zuroff for decades. (In fact, his father had been the prin­ci­pal of my husband’s reli­gious high school in Brooklyn.) 

We hadn’t run into each oth­er for quite some time, due to Covid restric­tions and our busy sched­ules. But here he was, in front of me.

How are you?” I asked.

His reply piqued my imag­i­na­tion, and it touched, hor­ri­fied, and fas­ci­nat­ed me in equal mea­sure. I knew imme­di­ate­ly it would make a pow­er­ful plot for a novel.

This is what Dr. Zuroff told me: He had been invit­ed to give a lec­ture in Lithua­nia about the Holo­caust. It is the coun­try where his name­sake had been mur­dered by Lithuan­ian par­ti­sans, a group that fought against Sovi­et forces. Nine­ty-six per­cent of Lithuan­ian Jews were mur­dered, the largest per­cent­age of any coun­try in Europe. The mur­ders had begun even before the first Nazis set foot over the bor­der, with non-Jews killing the Jew­ish neigh­bors who had lived peace­ful­ly beside them for six hun­dred years. 

Dr. Zuroff’s efforts to get Lithuan­ian lead­ers to admit these sim­ple his­tor­i­cal facts had so far proved impos­si­ble: the country’s muse­ums, edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions, and polit­i­cal lead­er­ship con­tin­ued to fal­si­fy and dis­tort the hor­rif­ic events that had tak­en place in their country.

Dr. Zuroff encoun­tered all kinds of excus­es. For exam­ple, We suf­fered just as much under the Com­mu­nists, as the Jews did under Hitler.” As they point­ed out, many Jews were, con­ve­nient­ly, Com­mu­nists. Known as the dou­ble geno­cide the­o­ry, this infu­ri­at­ing fal­si­fi­ca­tion of his­to­ry seeks to equate the Sovi­et takeover of Lithuan­ian busi­ness­es and farms, and the depor­ta­tions and hard­ships suf­fered by the Lithuan­ian peo­ple under Stal­in, with the mass mur­ders and indus­tri­al­ized death machin­ery inflict­ed on the Jews under Hitler — the ulti­mate goal exem­pli­fied by this the­o­ry being the era­sure of the Holo­caust com­plete­ly from the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. These nar­ra­tives threat­en to destroy sev­en­ty years of Holo­caust edu­ca­tion in Europe. 

Slow­ly, I came to real­ize that we should not base our atti­tude today on past crimes, but on the crimes that con­tin­ue to be committed.

For his efforts to fight this mise­d­u­ca­tion and bring Lithuan­ian crim­i­nals to jus­tice, Dr. Zuroff was dis­liked by many. He was sur­prised, there­fore, to have received an invi­ta­tion from a best­selling Lithuan­ian nov­el­ist to be a keynote speak­er at a con­fer­ence focused on the Holo­caust. This writer had braved the estab­lish­ment in reach­ing out to him. 

Despite his mis­giv­ings, he’d decid­ed to go.

What hap­pened dur­ing Dr. Zuroff’s con­fer­ence tru­ly required over four hun­dred pages to explain. The encounter with the ene­my” turned into a com­plex jour­ney that led the nov­el­ist and Dr. Zuroff to co-author an amaz­ing book set­ting the record straight on the Holo­caust years in Lithua­nia. This project also helped the two to cre­ate a close rela­tion­ship that blos­somed into love, romance.

How had such a thing been possible? 

Dr. Zuroff’s sto­ry touched on so many pro­found issues: What should our moral stance be toward the chil­dren and grand­chil­dren of per­pe­tra­tors? Could we, born after the war, hold them, also born after the war, account­able for things that had hap­pened before they were born? On the oth­er hand, how could we for­give and for­get what had been done to our peo­ple? What guide­lines were we to follow? 

As the daugh­ter-in-law of peo­ple who sur­vived Auschwitz and Hun­gar­i­an slave labor bat­tal­ions, I’ve often felt ambiva­lent about pur­chas­ing Ger­man prod­ucts. Not for me a Volk­swa­gen or a Miele, a Bosch or a Siemens. Recent­ly I came across a new­ly pub­lished Eng­lish trans­la­tion of a book of first per­son tes­ti­monies gath­ered from the few sur­vivors of the Lithuan­ian Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty right after the war. Their words and sto­ries were worse than any­thing I had yet encoun­tered. And I had encoun­tered quite a bit, not only through read­ing but also in lis­ten­ing to my family. 

And here was Dr. Zuroff — a major fig­ure in the move­ment to seek jus­tice for Holo­caust vic­tims — falling in love with a Lithuan­ian. How had that been pos­si­ble? And what did it mean for me and the oth­ers who strug­gle to come to terms with our respon­si­bil­i­ties to hon­or our dead with­out let­ting the injus­tice of hatred destroy our moral character?

All these issues were float­ing in my mind as I cre­at­ed the Israeli Nazi hunter, Mil­ia, and the Lithuan­ian pro­fes­sor, Dar­ius, whose brief sojourn togeth­er in the book became my own jour­ney. Slow­ly, I came to real­ize that we should not base our atti­tude today on past crimes, but on the crimes that con­tin­ue to be com­mit­ted. The Ene­my Beside Me is not a book of his­to­ry, but a book about the present and our place in it, as chil­dren of sur­vivors liv­ing along­side the descen­dants of perpetrators. 

Nao­mi Ragen is an award-win­ning nov­el­ist, jour­nal­ist and play­wright. Her first book, Jephte’s Daugh­ter, was list­ed among the one-hun­dred most impor­tant Jew­ish books of all time. Her best­selling nov­els include Sotah, The Covenant, The Sis­ters Weiss, and Dev­il in Jerusalem. An out­spo­ken advo­cate for women’s rights, and an active com­bat­ant against anti-Israel and anti­se­mit­ic pro­pa­gan­da through her web­site, she has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. The Ene­my Beside Me is her four­teenth novel.