The 1941 Lietukis garage massacre in Kaunas, Lithuania, was among the Holocaust’s most heavily photographed “aktions” against Jews, but many of the city’s current inhabitants have never heard of the atrocity.
On June 27, 1941, a group of pro-German Lithuanian nationalists tortured and murdered at least 50 Jews at the city’s Lietukis garage. During the massacre, a German soldier took photos of dozens of Lithuanians — including children — cheering while a man called “the death dealer” beat Jews to death with a crowbar.
Among the Jewish men murdered that day was British artist Jenny Kagan’s grandfather, Jurgis Stromas, who owned the “Pasika” (fairytale) cinema in town. At one point during the public slaughter, the “death dealer” climbed atop a mound of corpses and performed the Lithuanian national anthem with an accordion.
“They also used hose pipes to torture them, my mother told me they had hose pipes inserted into their mouths until they drowned from the inside,” Kagan told The Times of Israel.
As notorious as the slaughter was, “Enlightened, curious art professionals in their 30s and 40s who live in Kaunas today have never heard of what took place at the garage,” Kagan said. She was compelled to shed light on this ignorance.
Kagan’s interactive installation, “Out of Darkness,” has filled an abandoned building not far from the massacre site since August. As visitors make their way through sound-filled galleries, they learn the story of Kagan’s parents, Joseph Kagan and Margaret Shtrom, who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the ghetto.
Since 2017, the British-born lighting designer has traveled between England and Lithuania to create art related to Kaunas’s destroyed Jewish community. “Out of Darkness” was installed near sites connected to Kagan’s family, including her mother’s school, her grandfather’s house, and an abandoned synagogue she transformed for the Kaunas Biennial in 2017.
“It’s been a long-term relationship I’ve had with Kaunas,” said Kagan, whose latest installation is part of the city’s “Storytelling” festival.
The pre-war Jewish population of Lithuania numbered 160,000; 90% the community was murdered in the Holocaust. Some massacres were perpetrated by Lithuanians without instructions from the Nazis, including the slaughter at the Lietukis garage, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Today, Kaunas has a liberal-identified Jewish community of about 300 people, including one rabbi and a kosher butcher. In 2008, a plaque was placed at the site of the Lietukis garage massacre, “hidden under a tree, so you wouldn’t know it was there unless you went looking for it,” said Kagan.
‘Working with people is the monument’
While she was growing up, Kagan’s parents regularly spoke about their experiences during the Holocaust. In particular, the survival stories of her mother focused on the “celebration of humanity in people,” said Kagan.
“My father’s memories of the same experiences suited the purposes of his memory,” said Kagan. “And that was driven by his ability to survive adversity, whereas my mother’s interpretation and her memory was much warmer,” said the artist.
“I saw their determination not to push down their experiences,” said Kagan of listening to her parents.
Kagan first staged “Out of Darkness” six years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since then, research trips to Lithuania inspired her to make significant changes to the exhibition for its premiere in Kaunas, where the events depicted took place.
For example, the Kaunas installation has three versions of a “box” in which Kagan’s parents hid, an element not in the Halifax exhibition. The largest version of the hiding place is the size of a very small bedroom, inside of which a radio plays Joseph Kagan’s testimony.
“I am always trying to understand how to present [this history] in ways it can be received effectively and usefully,” said Kagan, who also co-created an “immersive musical experience” called “Kauno Kantata” for the city’s Zalgirio Arena at the end of September.
All of Kagan’s Holocaust-related projects are studies in memory, including the depiction of conflicting narratives and sometimes allowing viewers to fill in gaps for themselves, she said.
“My mom was obsessed by memory and how fallible it is and how vague it is and how it’s not a fixed entity,” said Kagan. The artist outfitted a living room-like “game room” for visitors to taste the powerful element of chance involved in survival.
Among the Kaunas artists and academics she’s worked with since 2017, Kagan said there is “a willingness to engage with and encounter” the city’s Jewish past, including the Holocaust. Importantly, said Kagan, “Out of Darkness” tells the story of Kaunas’s Jews at “a pace at which people are able to hear the story.”
For example, said Kagan, the exhibition opens with a subtle reference to the pogrom at the Lietukis garage, in the form of the noise of hosepipes rubbing against each other. The exhibition’s closing room features testimony about Jews being tortured in public, alongside the same hosepipe noises now put into context.
Kagan said her work in Kaunas is more about the process than a finished product. Collaborating with city officials to select the “Out of Darkness” building, for example, allowed Kagan to learn about the neighborhood and meet community members who’ve since visited the exhibition.
“Working with people is the monument, the object [or exhibition] is a tool,” said Kagan.
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