December 14, 2023

VMU student from USA: “The Story of a Mysterious Book that Brought Me Here”

This interview is a vibrant story of Lisa Storer, a current PhD student at Vytautas Magnus University. It is a conversation about Lisa’s personal and professional path to Kaunas and Vytautas Magnus university, her passionate discovery of her research topic and her views on the university.

Lisa, you are from California. And now we are having a conversation over a cup of tea in Kaunas. Can you tell me your story? How did you end up here, in Lithuania?

I know; it’s really crazy. When I tell people, they ask me – “You are living where? Lithuania? What are you doing there?” I have to explain that the journey that led me to Kaunas began in 2015, when the Freie Universitat in Berlin sent a book to my mother’s home in Inverness, California. The book was from the library of my grandmother’s cousin, Dr. Paul Elkan Bernhardt. His library was confiscated by a Nazi named, Dr. Bilfinger, who designated both Dr. Bernhardt and his library as enemies of the Third Reich. Dr. Bernhardt committed suicide on July 25, 1942, and his entire library of hundreds of books was transferred on October 5, 1942, to the Reich Security Main Office to Department VII where Jewish-owned books were evaluated to find evidence as to why all Jews should be exterminated. When Germany created a system to return looted Jewish books, researchers looked for a book plate, an Ex Libris, to find the owners’ name. They identified Dr. Bernhardt as the owner of the book by his Ex Libris and then found his will that had survived in a Potsdam bank. It was Dr. Bernhardt’s will that led to my mother’s address in Inverness the U.S.

Now, I have to explain that my grandmother, after converting to Catholicism, married my grandfather, a German Catholic, in 1928 in Berlin. They emigrated to California in 1929. Although my grandmother denied that she was Jewish, we knew that she was because she had changed her name on my mother’s birth certificate from Hirschfeld to Hirtfelt. At one point, we asked her what happened to her family during the Holocaust and she explained that they had all emigrated to England, but it turned out that many had not. One of them was her cousin, Dr. Bernhardt.

In 2018, we received a letter stating that two more of Dr. Bernhardt’s books had been found. Curious as to who Dr. Bernhardt was, I wrote to the Freie Universitat that I would pick up the books personally and explained that I wanted to speak with someone about them. At the time, I was employed as a high school and college English teacher, working primarily with migrant students from Mexico and Central America, many of whom wanted vocational careers. By chance I stumbled upon a Fulbright program in Regensburg that was seeking high school teachers to visit German vocational secondary schools. I applied and was accepted. I arrived in Germany a week prior to the start of the program to pick up Dr. Bernhardt’s two books and to meet with an archivist. She gave me a copy of Dr. Bernhardt’s will and a copy of the forty-page list of his books that the Nazis had typed. As I read the list, I soon realized that I had a number of the same books in my own library, so I had to find out more about Dr. Bernhardt. Realizing that I would need to enroll in a university to gain access to materials, in 2019, I applied and was accepted into the University of Haifa’s Holocaust Studies Program to then enroll in a class on the Soviet Union to learn about the Baltic states which I knew nothing about. In the class, I read a manuscript that several anonymous Kovno ghetto Jewish policemen wrote collectively that pleaded for historians to study their work to understand what they were going through. I was haunted by their plea and soon discovered that Jewish ghetto policemen, in the literature, are collectively labeled as brutal and corrupt collaborators. This caused me to want to understand the lives of the individual men who wrote the manuscript in the Kovno ghetto.And their stories are really fascinating.

So interesting indeed! So tell me more about your journey to Kaunas.

I originally came to Kaunas from Haifa through the Erasmus+ program. A majority of my peers had planned to go to Germany through Erasmus and I had planned to go there as well, but after I read the manuscript written by Kovno ghetto Jewish policemen, I decided to go to Lithuania. My plan was to study the Lithuanian language in Vilnius for one semester while conducting research in the archives, and then to move to Kaunas where I had arranged an internship with the Ninth Fort Museum. I was hoping to learn Lithuanian, but I quickly realized that the Lithuanian language is incredibly challenging to learn. At that point, fate intervened and through the advice of Professor Audronė Janužytė and Professor Šarūnas Liekis, I transferred to Vytautas Magnus University’s Erasmus+ program, as the Kovno ghetto was the focus of my research.

I see, you came here as an Erasmus+ student and ended up as a PhD student at VMU. How did it actually happen?

After I moved from Vilnius to Kaunas, I asked the director of VMU’s Erasmus+ if I could stay enrolled at VMU for a full year, as I needed to take as many Lithuanian language classes as possible. Through the amazing help of the director, I was able to do so which I am so thankful for. I also realized that there was so much material in the archives about the men in my study. After one semester, I had only scratched the surface. I knew that if I was to actually learn about the lives of the men, I would need to apply to VMU’s PhD program, to have enough time in the archives. Dr. Linas Venclauskas, although he is extremely busy, as he teaches at the university and he is a curator at the Sugihara House Museum, worked with me for several months to help me revise my PhD proposal. To my amazement and joy, I was accepted as a PhD student at VMU in September 2023.

At first, my proposal to the university’s PhD program focused on the lives of 20 Jewish ghetto policemen who I identified as active members of the underground working in the guise of ghetto policemen. Dr. Venclauskas advised me to expand the criteria of my subject selection. I followed his advice and I am discovering information about the lives of Jewish policemen that I know I would not have otherwise. I also have realized that conducting my research in Lithuania is so important in terms of being able to fully understand the lives of the men who were born and raised here in Kaunas.

So what are your impressions of VMU?

My first semester at VMU, when I was taking in-person classes, there were so many Ukrainian students. They were so happy to continue their studies and the professors were so visibly supportive of them. I was in awe as to what Lithuania did right away – bringing Ukrainian students to the university, finding housing for them, supporting them. That was really impressive. And the VMU student body is so diverse. I have met so many interesting and determined international students. Also, so many people have been really helpful as I pursue my research – from the director of the Erasmus+ program to VMU history professors to VMU language teachers to VMU librarians to the Kaunas archivists – I feel able to conduct research here and move forward in terms of understanding. But one missing piece is to be able to speak Lithuanian, but thankfully, I will have four more years to learn.

Thank you so much, Lisa, for such an interesting, enriching conversation and sharing your story with all of us. Wishing you a meaningful journey here at VMU!

Interview by Laura Lapinskė