Emmanuel Lévinas (1906–1995) is one of the most striking figures of the 20th century in French philosophy, and in moral philosophy in general. Lévinas’ philosophy had a great influence on contemporary philosophical and theological thinking, for example, on Lithuanian poet Maironis. Such world-famous philosophers as Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Paul Ricœur, Gianni Vattimo, and others debated with Lévinas’ works.
Emmanuel Lévinas was born in Kaunas and lived on the street called Kalėjimo (Prison Street) back then (now – Spaustuvininkų (Printers) Street). He was the eldest of three brothers in a traditional, ordinary Jewish Kaunas family. Lévinas's father, Jehiel Lévinas, had a bookstore on Laisvės (Liberty) Avenue, where he sold fiction and other literature.
The philosopher has said that reading was appreciated and respected at home. His mother Deborah instilled the love of Russian classics for young Lévinas – of Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin. This passion for Russian literature persisted throughout his life. He later became interested in Vasily Grossman, whose novel Life and Fate had a profound effect on him.
During the First World War, the Lévinas family retreated from the front to Kharkiv in present-day Ukraine. After the war, they returned to Kaunas, which at that time became the capital of the newly formed Lithuanian state.
After graduating from the gymnasium in Kaunas, Lévinas went to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg in France. However, this did not break the ties with Kaunas – his family remained here: his parents, both brothers, other relatives. Lévinas returned home to Kaunas every summer.
One can guess that he was attracted not only by the longing of the household and the Homeland but also by more romantic reasons. 1930 Lévinas married his yard neighbor Raisa and left for Paris already with her because he had settled in this city after Strasbourg. Although his trips to Kaunas soon ended, the philosopher managed to publish an article written in Lithuanian "Understanding Spirituality in French and German Culture", which was published in the magazine Vairas in 1933.
Second World War and the Holocaust killed millions of people. Among them were Lévinas’ family, both parents, and brothers. Only his cousin, who was rescued by Ona Jablonskytė-Landsbergienė, survived the Holocaust. Lévinas managed to meet his cousin only after many years in Israel. The philosopher himself spent the Second World War at a labor camp for French prisoners of war in Germany, and his wife and daughter were hidden by monks in Orléans, France.
For the philosopher's family, Kaunas became a symbol of the tragic fate of their family – a kind of cemetery, because they remained unaware of the exact place of burial of their loved ones. However, later in his stories and interviews, Lévinas himself always responded warmly to both Kaunas and his childhood there.
The famous Polish philosopher Barbara Skarga says that in her memories of meeting Lévinas at a philosophy conference, he was extremely polite and discreet, but said with a joke: "And I will never forgive you for Zheligovsky."
Photo: Emmanuel Lévinas and his family in the yard of his house in Spaustuvininkų str. In Kaunas during his vacation.
A philosopher Viktoras Bachmetjevas
Emmanuel Lévinas (1906–1995) is one of the most striking figures of the 20th century in French philosophy, and in moral philosophy in general.