Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Paintings: I Speak for Them and Tombstone Braille

I’ve been slowly working my way through my follow-up on my travels in Eastern Europe. Travel is never an isolated event for me. Rather it gives birth to a number of expressions in writing, artwork, lectures, media and now web design. Each expression of my experience, enriches and deepens what I take away from it.

I just proofed an article I wrote for Avotaynu, an international Jewish genealogy journal. It will be published in their upcoming issue and talks of my trip preparation, doing research in the archives, visiting Dunilovichi and some of the cemetery research that I’ve addressed in this blog.

Over the past few months I learned how to build websites and out of that designed and created a ShtetLink for Jewishgen.org, the major Jewish genealogy website. A ShtetLink is basically a website for a former shtetl or Jewish community in Europe. My initial focus was Dunilovichi in Belarus, the town from which one branch of my ancestors came and which I visited this summer. Learning to build the website was one aspect, but then I needed to develop the content. That meant making use of some of my research, but also contacting other researchers of that town to gather material. You can find the site at http://www.shtetlinks.jewishgen.org/Dunilovichi. Now that I’ve mastered my initial site, I’ve moved on to one for Radom, Poland, birthplace of one of my grandfathers and the next place I’d like to visit in my travels. I’m finding that developing a ShtetLink is a great way to connect with others who are researching the same town whose research may inform my own.

In the past few months I’ve also done several genealogy lectures and a radio interview, often weaving in my family history artwork. My photos unfortunately are languishing at the bottom of the priority list with periodic half-hearted attempts to organize them. In fits and starts, I am working on my painting series. I’ve been slowed a bit by the demands of some consulting work, but will be able to resume my painting full throttle in late January.

One of my recent paintings is called “Tombstone Braille”.
It is of our wonderful guide Regina who accompanied us to shtetls in Lithuania. There she read the worn letters on tombstones by closing her eyes and tracing the letters with her finger. It was a very strange thing to observe, a communing with something spiritual. One could almost feel the energy, a spark, bridging worlds as she deciphered the text.

The other painting I’ve been struggling with is of Fania, our guide to much of Vilnius. Fania is now in her late 80s, but as a young woman she escaped from the ghetto the day it was liquidated and her family murdered. She went to the forest, a two day walk from Vilnius, where she joined the partisans. One of the visits she took us on was to Ponar, the forest where the Jews of Vilnius, 45% of the city, were murdered. Her family lies buried in the pits. One of the people in our group asked her how she could come there and tell the story knowing her family was murdered there. Her reply was “I speak for them because they cannot speak for themselves. I speak Yiddish because that was their language”.

The name of the painting is “I speak for them”. It is of Fania in the forest telling her story. I first did a portrait of her and then darkened most of it so the focus is on her face and hands. Behind her are trees between which are the Yiddish letters spelling out her statement. The letters are embossed into gel medium and unfortunately this textural component doesn’t show up well in a photograph. I may add additional layers and deepen the embossing. The roots of the trees, also embossed and with a golden cast, fill the lower half of the painting, partly wrapping around her as she was rooted to that area by her family who lies buried there. The painting has gone through quite a few iterations and may have a few more to go.

I’ve just begun a painting called “The Jews Liked Blue”. Not yet ready to show, but hopefully will be in a later blog entry. It will be more abstract, but with writing. When we first arrived at our apartment in Vilnius, our landlady took us through it. As we were admiring her husband's wonderful artwork, we noted that there were some rectangles on the wall with mottled browns and blues. She told us that as they were scraping down the walls they came upon these surfaces and with their artistic sensibilities decided to keep them. It is a common practice in the city to retain a section of exterior walls as they once were when they redo a building, but this was the first time we had observed it indoors. She told us that Jews used to live in the apartment which is in the corner of the small ghetto. Commenting on the dominant color in the preserved section, she noted that “the Jews liked blue”. We studied the wall and were sure we saw Hebrew letters.

Thus the inspiration for my current painting which will be layers of browns and blues with Hebrew letters spelling out “The Jews Liked Blue” and then scraped away and obscured. It will symbolize the ghosts who shared that space with us during our month in Vilnius.

(And a reminder for those who are readers, but haven’t signed up on my Facebook page. If you sign up on my page you will be notified of new blog entries.)

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Finding My British Family

I am often as fascinated with the process of solving a puzzle as the resolution itself. I love the way it evolves over time and the way each new piece of information moves me along a path of discovery.

For many years I have been exploring a link to British relatives. A cousin of my father’s spoke of family by the name of Kodish and recalled receiving boxing gloves from them for a holiday gift. My parents went to England many years ago and copied down the Kodish names from the phonebook. Not quite sure what to do with the list, they held onto it until I started my genealogy research years later.

A few years ago my father’s cousin died. Without children or a spouse, there was no one to take responsibility for his photos so I was “bequeathed” them in my role as family historian. I went through them with my mother and identified many. Others remain a mystery, fodder for future artworks as they are interesting photos even if unknown subjects. One photo stood out however, for on the back of it was signed, “Your cousin, Louis Kodish”.





I still wasn’t sure if the Kodish family was related to my side of the family, but decided to see what I could find. Over time I stumbled across an immigration record for Louis Kodish and his wife Katherine. They immigrated in 1929 to Louis’s cousin Abraham Singer in New York. Through my research in Dunilovichi, Belarus, I now knew that Abraham Singer was related to me. In genealogy speak he is a first cousin twice removed which means my grandparents were cousins to him and I’m two generations removed.


My father recalled his cousin saying something about Louis working on a ship and in fact he immigrated before Katherine and worked as a waiter on the ship. He was born in London, but lived in Glasgow prior to immigrating. His father’s name was given as Marks Kodish, along with his address in Glasgow. One other detail that may prove helpful; Louis had a visa issued in Glasgow, for which I can try to find the file from the US Citizen and Immigration Services. I had previously gotten a copy of the visa file for my great-grandmother and it was quite extensive including a birth record with parents’ names. My longer-term objective is to tie Louis back to Dunilovichi through his parents’ records so this may help me do so.

Katherine followed Louis to his cousin’s address in Brooklyn. By 1930 they had made their way to Chicago where I found them in the US Census. Louis' parents were noted as being from Russia although he was born in England. Here he worked as an insurance salesman, but I would guess that the Depression didn’t treat them kindly as they returned to Glasgow in 1934.

On a recent visit to the Family History Library I was able to access the 1911 British Census which was newly released. The library offers access to many pay databases for free so I made use of findmypast.com. Here I found a Marks and Chai Kaddish from Russia who would have been born around 1866, but no son listed named Louis. A few Kodishes were listed as being from Vilna which sounded promising as my grandmother referred to being from Vilna even though she was actually from the nearby shtetl of Dunilovichi. The larger area was known as Vilna so these families likely came from the same region. Unfortunately there was no tidy solution to my puzzle. My hoped for discovery of a listing for a son named Louis and a father named Marks from Vilna didn’t prove out….yet.

I decided to check one more avenue called the B-M-D index. This references birth, marriage and death records by each quarter of a year. Here I enlarged my search to include another mystery traveler from England. Annie Singer, niece to Abraham Singer, came over from London via Palestine in early 1929 to stay with him. I was never quite sure what happened to her after immigration, possibly she married and without her new name I lost the trail, the perennial difficulty in tracing women. In looking at birth records, I found one Lewis Kodish in 1903 and several Annie Singers in the expected timeframe. For a small cost I can order the birth records from which I will likely identify the parents’ names.

While I was in the B-M-D Index, I decided to take a look at the Kodishes who might have immigrated from Russia. As I wanted to locate an earlier generation, I pulled up the death records for each year from 1904 to 2005. From these records, I also have the birth date and in some cases the mother’s name. Just as with my Radom database, I don’t know what they tell me yet, but as I get more information they may click into sharper focus.

So what was my process? It began with oral histories which revealed the existence of a Louis Kodish as well as his experience working on a ship. It further solidified with a photo. Immigration records for both Louis and Annie tied them to relatives of mine who originated in Dunilovichi and gave me an estimated birth date. It then lead me to my next step of ordering visa records which should tie to their parents and hopefully back to Dunilovichi. Along the way I had some dead ends and collected information which may prove meaningful as I learn more. I also had to wait several years before I could seek the visa for Annie Singer. The Office of US Citizen and Immigration Services will only release records if the person's birth date is over 100 years ago. An appreciation for the process is what keeps me on the trail.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Genealogist Personality

In talking with my fellow genealogists, I realize that it takes a certain personality type to savor a week of research. Twelve hour days at a microfilm reader are unlikely to appeal to most people. Many of us bring a professional background such as finance, law or psychology that translates well into this pursuit. The common element is an inquisitive mind that enjoys the process of solving puzzles. One had better enjoy the process as there is often a lengthy period of research between discoveries. My financial background lends itself well to genealogy as I use spreadsheet analysis in my approach. I started building databases of information so I could recognize patterns that linked information. Before long I was using analysis tools to manipulate the spreadsheets to help them spill their secrets. In Utah I often do impromptu workshops for others on my approach and out of that taught a course on this topic at the international conference.

Other skill sets prove equally valuable. My friend Fran is a therapist and has an innate curiosity that serves her well in her search. Her questioning mind and gregarious nature help her unlock genealogical puzzles. I’ve learned to be more gregarious in my research as part of the process is connecting with others to gather information. Fran tells me she is contemplating using some of the database tools to which I’ve introduced her.

Before I left on my trip I obtained a missing piece to one of my longstanding puzzles. If you’ve read about my research in Dunilovichi, Belarus you know that I located a sister to my great-grandfather as well as my great-great grandfather’s tombstone (Pesach Mordechai). Both are residing in the Dunilovichi cemetery. My latest missing piece came in the mail in the form of tombstone pictures I had ordered from New York. The tombstones revealed that my great-grandfather has another sibling, a brother, buried in the United States.

The process of genealogy can often unfold over several years. In this case I was first tipped off by my father’s late cousin that my grandmother’s family name was originally Reichel. When my great-grandfather came to the US in 1904 he followed the lead of a Brooklyn relative who had changed his name to Rothchild. They had heard it was a prominent name and could help them do better in the Golden Medina. That piece of information unlocked the Ellis Island immigration records where the original name was necessary to find them. I later found the name change confirmed in the naturalization records where they have to state the name under which they immigrated.

Some years later I made a discovery in the Ellis Island records. In 1923 Awsaj Reichel, born in Dunilowicz, was going to his son Morris Rothchild. Aha! This must be the lynchpin that proved the transition from Reichel to Rothchild. Despite extensive searching I never was able to find a record of Awsaj after that date. By the 1930 census he was not listed with his son. Years went by as I continued to research Morris Rothchild and his family. A year ago I went to the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Chicago. There I located the obituary for Morris Rothchild in a database that was available to attendees. I filed it away in my records and it was yet another year until it dawned on me that the obituary said where he was buried. Perhaps his father would be buried there as well. As it was a cemetery that had an on-line database, I plugged in the names and up popped Israel Rothchild who died in 1927. That would explain why he never showed up in the 1930 census. Before I left on my trip to Lithuania, I sent off to the cemetery for photos of the tombstones. Several months later I received them in the mail.

Genealogists form hypotheses and then collect data to test them. In this case, my hypothesis was that this was a sibling to my great-grandfather. He was the right age and based on the report of my father’s cousin, Awsaj’s son Morris was a cousin. Jewish tombstones always have the father’s name so that would either prove or disprove my theory. Upon ripping open the envelope, I was able to quickly confirm that Pesach Mordechai was clearly carved into the tombstone.

I turned my attention to the name Awsaj. The on-line database gave the name Israel. His tombstone spelled out his name in English as Osias. The Hebrew translated to Isaiah. But a new puzzle soon arose. One would expect to see this same name as the father on Morris Rothchild’s tombstone, but here the name translated to Joshua. In researching the two names I learned that they are derived from the same Hebrew root. They both literally mean “Jehovah saves”. One uses the full form of Jehovah, while the other uses a contracted form. Given the immigration record and the fact that he is buried in the family plot, I think I am safe to assume we are talking about the father of Morris.

Genealogy research unfolds, often over many years. It requires patience and an appreciation of the process. It is very much a process of pattern recognition. That means that we may have the information, but have not yet recognized the pattern. For this reason it is always valuable to review past research as old information may make sense as new information develops. Clues can be lurking in our data that a fresh set of eyes will recognize. As in life, it helps to develop a broad range of skills that build on our natural skill set, but sometimes go against type. Thus introverts learn to be gregarious and the gregarious learn to use databases.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Using the Utah Family History Library

I’ve spent this week in Utah doing research at the Family History Library with a group of Jewish genealogists. En route to Salt Lake City, I spent a few days in Nevada with my brother. He owns a group of radio stations there and before departing I did a radio interview about my travels in Lithuania and my genealogy research.

In Utah I was reunited with Fran, my traveling companion from Lithuania. We originally had met in Utah and became good enough friends to brave six weeks of travel together, appreciate our differences and still enjoy each other’s company. My trip to the Family History Library is an annual event and an opportunity to meet others who share this same passion as well as do much more intensive research than is easily available elsewhere.

The Family History Library is run by the Mormons and actually ties to their belief system. By baptizing ancestors posthumously they believe they buy them access to the “Celestial Kingdom”. Thus their research has a very different objective than my own. Because this is so central to their beliefs they go around the world copying records that are maintained at the library. Some areas are well covered, while others are much less so. I’ve had a great deal of success in Polish records which are recorded from around 1810 through the 1870s, but far less success in the Ukraine and Belarus.

The library has filmed in 110 countries and territories and includes records from the United States, Canada, the British Isles, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It is the largest library of its kind anywhere in the world. The library is open to everyone and frequented by groups studying their specific ancestry. They offer a variety of lectures on different topics free of charge. If you look up your local church of the Latter Day Saints you will find that it may have microfilm readers and library resources. They will order records from the library for you to review locally. Typically they have limited hours as they are staffed by volunteers. Their equipment is usually far less sophisticated also so while they can be helpful, they certainly don’t replace the benefits of a trip to the Utah library.

While in Utah we stay at the Plaza hotel which offers comfortable accommodations in addition to its proximity, literally next door to the library. The library opens at 8AM and closes at 9PM (except for Mondays when it closes at 5PM and Sunday when it is closed). That means I usually put in a 12 hour day. During the year I keep a computer file called Library Preparation in which I record information that I want to search for while I am there.

The library has a catalog which is on-line so one can determine what information is likely there. You can find the library at http://www.familysearch.org/. Click through the headings to find the catalog where you can search by a variety of methods. I find that place and keyword are often good starting points. If you enter New York City it will come up with the different boroughs of New York. If you click on a selection you will find subtopics related to that area. You then click on the desired topic and in the upper right hand corner click on Film Notes and it will bring up the related films.

Often you first need to use a film with indexes before you find the film with the record. I find that many of the index films are no longer necessary as there are sites such as stevemorse.org which search multiple sites which have indexed records for New York in particular. His site is also quite helpful in researching immigration records by a variety of elements such as the town they are from. He keeps adding search tools so it is worth exploring what is available at his site. When you identify the film that you want, you go to the files and find it and return it when you are finished.

This year the library had a new feature. The old copiers were gone and in their stead were scanners where one could print directly or scan onto a memory stick. There was an enhanced ability to clean up the film to make it more legible. While I was there I scanned records with family names from 1820 through 1865 in Radom, Poland. Over the years I have built a database for Radom and Sienno, Poland from where family came. In it I’ve recorded all the family names, the associated records and data that I was able to decipher. Because I began doing this a few years ago when I knew far less, I decided to go through and clean up my database. I was amazed at how much I learned over the years as records seemed so much more decipherable. It brought me back to those early days when I dove into the Polish/Russian records before I even did the US records. Not the wisest thing to do perhaps, but I couldn’t wait to get to the European records. In addition to reviewing the information for accuracy, I also was reformatting the database so I could better use some of the analysis approaches I’ve developed since I began.

My database has already proved fruitful. Some months back I ordered information from the Polish archives in Radom. I had requested copies of the death certificates for my great-great grandparents. To my surprise I learned that my great-great grandmother had died at 92 in 1904, not an age many get to today, let alone in the 1800s.

My great-great grandfather’s death certificate provided another piece of data that I didn’t know, the names of his parents, Berek and Chaia. This took me back five generations. Hmm, now I could test out the utility of my database. I did a search for a Berek Rubinsztajn and discovered I had a record for one who died in 1839. It noted that he left a wife and three adult children. I then searched for records where Berek and Chaia Rubinsztajn were parents and discovered marriage records for two of their daughters in my database complete with hard copies. Together with my great-great grandfather that would make three children. I had these records all this time; I just needed the information to connect the dots.

But I wasn’t quite finished. With the names of both husband and wife to match, I decided to tackle the patronymic records. Patronymics records are those which preceded Jews taking last names. Similar to the Johnsons or Carlsons which are so prevalent here in Minnesota, they merely add an ending to the father’s name which means “son of”. The patronymic records are found prior to the 1820s in Poland and are included in the Catholic records. In the 1820s the Jewish records were split out and maintained by the Jewish community. These records are fairly easy to separate from the Catholic records as the names are quite distinctive; Malkas and Bajlas, Dawids and Yaakovs as opposed to Jans, Stanislaws and Paulinas.

In 1811 I found the birth of a son Israel to Berek Herskowicz and his wife Chaia Herskow Berkowiczowna. The child died a few months later in 1812. This was the only record for a Berek and Chaia in this time period and fell right in the middle of their child bearing years. It also gave me another piece of information. The fathers of both Berek and Chaia were named Hersk taking me back six generations. Berek would have been born around 1770 based on his death record. Presumably both Hersks (fathers of Berek and Chaia) would have been born around 1750. What makes me so sure that this couple without a surname is the same Berek and Chaia who later took the name Rubinsztajn? Remember that Berek died in 1839. Ashkenazic Jews typically name a child after a deceased grandparent or great-grandparent. In 1842 my great-great grandfather had his first son after three daughters. He named that son Hersz Berek, an honored name as he was named after both his grandfather and great-grandfather.

On this visit I scanned the records that I’ve identified. I also figured that if Herszk, my fourth great grandfather, was born around 1750 than it was possible that his death record could be in the period around 1810-1830. Using my database as a guide, I scanned the Herszeks in the patronymics. My hope of course is that a record will indicate that a Herszk of the right age range died leaving a survivor named Berek or Chaia so that I could connect him to the names I already know. I’ve not found anything as of yet, but with the scans I can spend some time studying the records at home. As the library has no records prior to 1810 for these towns, I am nearing a time where I will need to visit Poland to see if there is anything else which I can access.

Monday, October 12, 2009

1939 in Moorhead, Minnesota

It is snowing here in Minnesota, two to three inches are coating our trees which have not yet lost their leaves. Good weather for hibernating. Sunday it will be 59 degrees and we will savor the few days of fall we are allotted, appreciating the reprieve as we’ve been reminded of the long winter that awaits us.

In addition to painting, I’ve been doing some genealogy consulting for others. One of the projects on which I am working is for a client who has family in Moorhead, Minnesota. I’m searching in the Moorhead Daily News in 1939 and I find myself subtracting time from my billing as I often get side tracked by the headlines which interest me. This was a time when there were frequent reports of Hitler threatening and ultimately taking control of a succession of countries, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France one by one fall to the Nazis. The US had not yet entered the war, but as the year progresses and Britain comes under attack the headlines are filled with war news. It is strange to read it in real time, through the eyes of readers who didn’t know the subsequent events. I find myself wondering what was known at that time. I read with interest articles about what was happening to the Jews in Europe.

In January I read of the former chief rabbi of Lower Austria who wept as he arrived in NY with his wife and children. He said he could scarcely believe he was in the US where he could speak freely with no fear of reprisal. Just a hint that life was constrained in Europe.

In January Felix Frankfurter was appointed to the Supreme Court. Hitler expressed his disapproval of a Jewish justice. An article (1/9/39) reports on Frankfurter’s 80 year old uncle Dr. Salmon Franfurter learning of the news from a radio broadcast. It goes on to relate that Dr Franfurter was once an honored Austrian government official and director of the Vienna University library. Now he was a Nazi prisoner.

In June (6/6/39) an article was headlined Cuba Bars Jews. A ship of refugees was seeking shelter from the impending doom in Europe, but could not find a place that would accept them. I later learned that after two months at sea they found a haven in Belgium. It didn’t serve as a haven for long unfortunately as Hitler expanded his reach.

August 1939 was an active month. First I read of a refugee mother from Czechoslovakia who leaped to her death with her two small sons. Her husband had been a prosperous textile manufacturer who sold his business and had only a small amount of funds left. They had been admitted to the US on a six month visitor permit which was soon to expire and were seeking admittance to Canada or Bolivia. The woman despaired over her losses and grieved for her relatives who couldn’t get away. They authorities attributed it to “temporary insanity due to persecution”.

Later in August I read of the “Gildmeester Action” where they were trying to prepare a settlement for Jewish emigrants in Ethiopia in cooperation with Italian authorities. There were 15,000 German Jews residing in Italy who would soon be placed in “homestead camps” in Italy to prepare them for colonization in Africa. Did this occur or was it a scam? I can find no further information.

In the same month I read about Jews completing paying 20% of their fortunes towards a $400MM fine for the murder in Paris of the embassy secretary by Polish Jews. Mind you that was in 1939 dollars. If that money earned just 5% it would have been worth $12 Billion in today’s dollars.

Later that month I read that Danzig Jews were following the European situation with grave apprehension. They believed if war broke out many would be sent to concentration camps, but this was at a time when this was thought to mean work camps.

In October the German Bund reported that the KKK and other anti-Semitic organizations were working with the Nazi organization.

Also this month Franklin Roosevelt called for a plan to find homes for the 10 to 20 million who may become war refugees. At the same time FDR received a petition with 238,199 signatures of congressmen, governors, mayors and others urging “prime consideration” of Palestine as a sanctuary for these individuals.

“The American Jewish Congress …appealed to the international executive committee on refugees to consider the plight of 5 million Jews in eastern and central Europe, including those made homeless in the German-Soviet partition of Poland.” The AJC also asked that the term “refugee” be redefined to include the thousands who were imprisoned by central European countries. They contended that they were “equally real refugees from oppression”.

As the year progressed, these articles became overshadowed by headlines of bombings of Britain, war on the French border and a US ship being taken. The war was very present in the newspapers of the Upper Midwest, but there was little mention of what occurred within the countries which were taken.

As I read this I am struck with the theme of refugees with nowhere to go. And the clock ran out. The existence of Israel assures that this will never occur again.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Painting at Last!

It has been a little over a month since my return from Lithuania and a lot has happened since my return. A week after I came home, my long-term partner and I married. At the beginning of the week, I had no idea that would be occurring. I spent three days planning and took advantage of the lovely September weather we were having in Minnesota to enjoy a beautiful outdoor wedding. Shortly after that we took off on another overseas flight to spend a week in Paris for our honeymoon. With the experience of Lithuania fresh in my mind, I looked at Paris through new eyes and will share some of those observations in this blog.

In between I was able to begin some of my paintings from my trip. I was sketching ideas on the plane to Paris. My blog gives me considerable material from which to glean visual imagery. One of the images that stuck in my memory was that of the trees overlooking Ponar, the killing site of Vilnius in which most of the Jews were murdered. They bore silent testimony to the horrors that occurred there. While I usually paint people, I felt compelled to try to capture the imagery of the trees overlooking the burial pits. Below I wanted something that suggested the bodies buried in the pits and decided to go with metaphor and use the letters of the Yiddish alphabet to represent bodies.(see closeup) Lying on their sides they provide a figural suggestion and unfortunately an accurate representation in that the future of Yiddish was largely buried in the pits with its speakers. Bands of upright letters spell out “Gedenken” which means “Remember” in Yiddish. As I neared the bottom of the pit I increased the size of these bands until the letters become clearly apparent. The vantage point of the viewer is from the pits looking upward, perhaps the last view of its many victims. The painting is 24" x 72".

Since my return I’ve read the book “The Ponar Diary 1941-1943 by Kazimierz Sakowicz. This book was written by a Polish journalist who lived in Ponar during the time of the murders. He observed them daily from his attic and wrote about what he witnessed, burying each page in a bottle. I was especially struck by his dispassionate tone in which he would talk about the beautiful day in the same breath as the murders. I wanted the painting to reflect that juxtaposition as well. I’m not sure if I’ve completed this painting or if I will paint out the lower section and rework it, but here’s the image thus far. Its name of course is Gedenken/Remember.

Another painting which I’ve been working on is based on the stories told in the blog entry “Storytelling”. As you may recall we visited a restaurant in Vilnius under which there is a tunnel that ran from the old synagogue behind the restaurant to outside of what was once the ghetto gates. The proprietor of the restaurant showed us the gate to the tunnel. As we stood under the starry night sky we could almost imagine the synagogue that once stood there. She also shared with us a story about an elderly man who came to the restaurant one day. He stood in front of the restaurant for a long time and then came in and asked if he could sit in a particular room, one where one wall is filled with a rack of wine bottles. He looked distressed as he sat there and she asked if she could get him some coffee. He turned to her and said, “This used to be my bedroom”. He had lived in that building when it was part of the ghetto with his mother and sisters. When he stood up to leave he said, “I won’t be back again”. Yet another story she shared with us was about when they were renovating the space late at night. They often felt and saw a presence which she felt was benign, as if it were children. She had learned that the coal chute was often a hiding place for children during the ghetto when hiding successfully meant another day of life. As we left we had told her that if she felt the presence again she should say, “Shalom Aleichem” which means “Peace be with you”.

All of those stories are reflected in my painting titled “Shalom Aleichem”. In this painting an old man is the central figure. I based the painting on an elder Lithuanian man who was attending the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Behind him are circles within circles signifying the wine rack which gradually melts into a starry night sky. Above him is the gate to the tunnel with the tunnel leading from its lower left corner in the direction of the ghetto gates. A chute with the suggestion of a child flows into it, perhaps a recollection of the old man, perhaps a ghost-like presence.

The third painting I’ve been working on is a language painting based on one of the few buildings left in Vilnius with Yiddish writing. Below the storefront is a window on which visitors have written in Yiddish in the dust. The Yiddish was translated as “You were not killed, the nation of Israel lives”. The painting contains part of the script over the door as well as the handwritten Yiddish for “the nation of Israel lives”. In the corner is a pile of stones such as those left on tombstones to show one has visited the grave. There are images embossed into the painting that are drawn from the synagogue memorial in Riga. Unfortunately they don't show up well in a photograph.

I don't know that I would consider any of these paintings finished yet. That is always a hard call as I often am tempted to change them even when they are hanging in a show. If you are interested in seeing what I am currently working on or past work, you are always welcome to stop by studio 409 in the California Building, 2205 California St. NE, Minneapolis, MN. We are usually open from 12-5 on the second Saturday of each month along with other studios in the building.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Personal Reflections

The Baltic States in which we traveled can be experienced on many levels. There is purely the tourist level on which one finds quaint streets within well-preserved Old Towns, inexpensive high quality meals, a vibrant café life, open air concerts and many English speakers. There is yet another level that may be experienced by a traveler who has some interest in Jewish cultural sites and seeks them out. Then there is the level on which we traveled which expands on the experience of a traveler with an interest in Jewish culture by bringing them into contact with survivors of the ghetto and the Holocaust who tell their story. It amplifies their experience by linking it with the Yiddish language which embodies much of the Eastern European Jewish culture and heritage. Once you experience the latter, it is very difficult to travel in these regions purely as a tourist. There are too many reminders.

This has been an extraordinary trip. It has forced a personal reflection on the values that I hold and how I act on them. I was raised as a Reform Jew. I learned about the Holocaust in the course of my Jewish education, but in hindsight it felt somewhat remote to me from the safety of American soil. My family history search began to bring me back to my Jewish roots and with that the disturbing history of the Holocaust. I learned of the many people in my family who perished. I got to know them through documents; identity papers, birth and marriage records and Books of Residents. It was not until this trip; however, that their death in the Holocaust became truly real in all its excruciating detail. When I heard from survivors about their experiences in the ghetto, when I learned the language that they spoke, when I visited the sites where family perished, I could no longer hold it at a safe distance. And yet I often reminded myself that the constant barrage of horrors experienced in the retelling was nothing compared to the actual experience.

Most disturbing today is the silence about what had occurred, the attempts to equate it with the Soviet occupation, the lack of knowledge about it and the current rise of neo-Nazis. This coupled with fewer survivors to bear witness to these events means it becomes easier to rewrite history into a palatable version, lifting responsibility from the shoulders of those who most need to confront their role. Is this too much focus on an event which is now almost 70 years old? After my travels, I am more aware than ever of the validity of the quote “He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

I came away from my travels realizing how much history matters, how much we need to heed our past to shape our future. I realized that many of the values in my personal belief system derive from the experience of the Holocaust. I was taught that one speaks up when something is wrong, that we have a responsibility for other people, that human rights must be preserved and that the diminishing of the rights of any group must be actively protested. I saw very clearly in the course of this trip how those actions are necessary to prevent future genocide.

We live in a far more global world and that increases our personal responsibility to speak up even when such actions don’t occur on American soil. Genocide did not stop with the Holocaust. I struggle with finding the best way to do that.

This trip also underscored for me the importance of Israel to the Jewish people. Even prior to the Nazis, in city after city, Jews were evicted and restrictions place on how they lived. Time after time we heard their nationality described as Jewish, not Lithuanian, Latvia, Estonian or Belarusian. This despite the fact that they and their families often had lived there for hundreds of years. This separatism seemed strange to us as Americans who are accustom to diversity. It would never occur to us to respond “Jewish” when asked our nationality and yet that distinction is still made in the regions in which we traveled. When a group is isolated in that fashion it makes them ripe for exclusion and bigotry. They become the “other”, held responsible for a multiple of sins even when they represent an insubstantial portion of the population. The existence of Jews in these societies was always fraught with danger. Danger that culminated in the Holocaust, but which continues to be felt in a different way today. As I traveled in the Baltic regions I was struck with the fact that Hitler largely succeeded in making that part of the world “Judenfrei” (free of a Jewish presence). When Jewish existence is threatened and in fact largely annihilated, Israel assumes a role of great importance.

In the course of our travels we spoke with many who told us of growing anti-Semitism and who expressed concerns about the reluctance of many Lithuanians to acknowledge the high level of local complicity with the Nazis. It was with an abundance of caution that I wrote about such issues, not attributing them to specific speakers for fear that it would cause them difficulties in the country in which they live. That too felt foreign to me as an American. I am not used to looking over my shoulder.

And so I’m left with many issues upon which to reflect. It has been a very satisfying trip which fed a number of my passions; family history, artwork, language and travel all have been and will be significant threads in this journey. I’ve also enjoyed writing about this trip and my responses to it. I don’t think I began this blog with the expectation that I would be writing about such weighty topics, but I sought to write about what I learned and experienced and that took me down some unexpected roads. As a private person it has been interesting to write for a broader audience than myself. I thank you for being my audience.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rewriting History

Note: In the course of our trip we were confronted with some challenging issues about how modern day Lithuania deals with the Holocaust and particularly the fact that many of its citizens collaborated with the Nazis. This wasn't quite what I anticipated addressing in this blog, but felt that I would be remiss not to paint a full picture of what we learned and experienced. Just as this blog is titled "Layers of the Onion", this issue is multi-layered. Hopefully I've peeled back a few of them. If you would like to learn more you will find a number of links to the right of this post.


“History is written by the victors” Winston Churchill

Or in the case of Lithuania, the last ones left standing. One of the things we struggled with in our Vilnius visit was the constant reframing of history. We first noticed this in the language at monuments commemorating the death of Jews by the Nazis. Or were they Jews? Under the Soviet regime the language frequently only referred to them as “Soviet citizens”. In one of the shtetls we visited we found one of the old Soviet plaques that read, “In this place in August 1941, Hitler’s Fascist and Lithuanian Bourgeois Nationalists ferociously killed 1000 people”. Our guide was surprised that the language was still there as most traces of the Soviet regime have been eradicated.

Upon Independence in 1990 a new debate took place. Lithuania and the other Baltic states were noted for the complicity of many with the Nazis. Many Jews were murdered by locals before the Nazis took control. Yet we understood that it was the subject of much debate to include language to that effect in memorials. The language at Ponar, the mass killing site outside of Vilnius, now refers to “the Germans and their local helpers”.

While we were in Vilnius we went to the Genocide Museum. Housed in a building which was once the Gestapo headquarters and then the KGB headquarters, it was an apt place for a museum of that name.
Much to our surprise; however, the museum was focused solely on the repressive Soviet regime. Apparently the murder of 45% of the population didn’t count as noteworthy genocide. I believe that the labeling of Jews as a nationality distinct from Lithuanian contributes to their exclusion from what is termed “genocide against Lithuanians”.

The term “partisan” is another word which is used in an often confusing fashion. The Jews who became partisans escaped the ghetto and certain annihilation. They went to the forest where they lived in underground bunkers as they carried out missions against the Nazis. The main opponent of the Nazis was the Soviet Union so Jews had no choice but to fight alongside Soviet-supported partisan groups. A group of students at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute organized a trip to the forest where the Jewish partisans lived. We were accompanied by Fania, a former Jewish partisan. Here we learned of how the Soviets provided guns and support to the Jewish partisans in their fight against the Nazis even while the Germans provided guns to the Lithuanians.

At the Genocide Museum we encountered the term “partisan” in a very different context. Enough so that it prompted me to seek out a definition. A partisan is defined as “a member of an irregular military force formed to oppose control of an area by a foreign power or by an army of occupation”. The Jewish partisans allied with the Soviets to fight the Nazis. At the Genocide Museum we read about how members of the Lithuanian Freedom Army (LLA) were sent to German intelligence schools with the expectation of being prepared for guerilla warfare. They used the interests of the German military leadership in order to obtain weapons. After the war ended in 1945 with the Soviet occupation, those who had fought in Lithuanian units on the German side joined the ranks of the partisans fighting against the Soviets. We found this terminology quite confusing as up until that point we had only used the term in conjunction with the Jewish partisans. Suddenly it took on a new meaning, especially because many of these “partisans” had fought with the Nazis.

In 1945 there were 30,000 of these partisans in the forests. The Lithuanians consider these partisans to be heros as they fought for freedom from the Soviet regime. The fact that many of these same partisans were often engaged in actions against the Jews through their earlier alliance with the Nazis results in an uncomfortable schism in how they are perceived and reluctance to prosecute them for war crimes. Despite a documented history of collaboration, Lithuania has not punished a single war criminal.

There has been no such reluctance evidenced relative to the Jewish partisans who were fighting for their lives during WWII. In recent years there has been an attempt to prosecute Holocaust survivors who served as partisans. Jewish partisan memoirs have been combed for any possible grounds for prosecution and unsubstantiated charges have been brought (and subsequently dropped although investigation continues). Often these charges appear to be retaliatory for actions which publicized the collaboration of Lithuanians with the Nazis. Three Jewish former partisans, now in their 80s, either had charges filed against them or were sought for questioning.

The publication of Ponary Diary, 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of a Mass Murder was edited by Yitzhak Arad, Yad Vashem Chairman emeritus. Dr. Rachel Margolis pieced the diary together and aided in its first publishing in Polish. The diary was originally written on loose sheets of paper which were placed in empty bottles and buried in the ground. The author, Kazimierez Sakowicz, was a Polish journalist who lived in Ponary. There he was a witness to the murders which occurred. This document clearly indicted Lithuanian locals as active participants in the murders, an unpopular view in Lithuania. Interestingly Yitzhak Arad and Rachel Margolis were among those targeted by the Lithuanian prosecutors.

One of the other partisans who was targeted was Fania Brantsovsky, our guide to many of the Jewish sites within Vilnius. At 87 Fania serves as the librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Her family lies in the pit at Ponar. We marveled at her ability to take groups to such places where she has such a deep and personal sorrow, but realized that she does this as her act of testimony against the horrors she witnessed.

In August 2008, US Congressmen Hodes, Wexler and Berman issued an appeal to the prime minister of Lithuania in which they expressed their concern at the “persecution of Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi partisan resistance to survive”. The letter goes on to state:

“We are particularly concerned about Lithuanian legal authorities’ repeated inquiries with Rachel Margolis, allegedly as part of an investigation into the wartime conduct of Soviet partisans. As you may be aware, Ms. Margolis recently published her memoirs recounting her experiences as a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and heroic efforts as a fighter in the Lithuanian anti-Nazi resistance movement. After the war, Ms. Margolis helped to found Vilnius’ Green House, whose mission is to educate about Lithuania’s history during the Holocaust. [...] She moved to Israel, but continued to return to Lithuania to give tours of the Green House museum during the summer, when international tourism is at its peak. Unfortunately this summer, Ms. Margolis will not be traveling to Lithuania, because she fears that she will be the object of harassment and intimidation, and of continued defamation by the Lithuanian media. It is our understanding that on May 5 [....] police initiated a search for Mrs. Margolis, as part of an investigation into alleged war crimes. This is truly an unfortunate turn of events, given that Ms. Margolis was honored by the former Prime Minister of Lithuania in 2005 for her heroism fighting in the anti-Nazi resistance. Today, Ms. Margolis’ autobiographical works are unconscionably being used to build a case against her and other partisans. Disturbingly, certain Lithuania media outlets have referred to Ms. Margolis and other prominent former anti-Nazi resistance heroes Fania Brantsovsky and Yitzhak Arad as terrorists and murderers, giving rise to serious concerns about anti-Jewish sentiment in national media. [...] Ms. Margolis and other partisans should not have to live in fear from reprisals, media defamation or harassment from authorities. We further request your assistance in helping us understand the sudden energetic pursuit of investigations into the activities of Jewish partisans, in contrast to the failure of Lithuanian prosecutors to develop cases against Nazi collaborators since Lithuania’s independence in 1991."

On the one hand there are attempts to discredit Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis as a way to divert attention from the serious collaboration of Lithuanians with the Nazis. In addition there is a move to equate the Soviet occupation with the Nazi Holocaust by labeling both as genocide, thus sidestepping the need to address the Holocaust and the collaboration which was a part of it. Embedded in this argument is the belief that Jews were unpatriotic to Lithuania, thus allowing the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Thus the Holocaust and local collaboration is viewed as retribution for Soviet “genocide”.

So what constitutes genocide? Leonidas Donskis, a Lithuanian philosopher, speaks to the devaluation of the term by its application to circumstances for which it is not applicable. Per Donskis genocide designates “the doctrine of deliberate extermination of national, religious or ethnic groups…(a genocide) is the annihilation en bloc of a people or of a race, irrespective of class divisions, dominant ideology and internal social and cultural differences.,, You are guilty at birth, and this fatal error of having been born – this original sin – can be corrected only by your extermination.” The years of Soviet control, while horrific for many, do not rise to the level of genocide.

That doesn’t present a problem for the Lithuania's legislature which has drafted a law for debate which would make it a crime to deny that a genocide against the Lithuanian people was conducted by the Soviets. Thus any discussion of whether genocide has been conducted against the Lithuanians by the Soviets is effectively silenced allowing it to be equated to the genocide of the Nazis against the Jews. This conflating of the Holocaust with the Soviet Occupation obscures the impact of the Holocaust. Through the provision of a sentence of 3 years imprisonment to anyone who denies the state version of genocide the law creates an atmosphere of fear which effectively quashes dissent. The most disturbing part of this law is the portion which forbids the slander of the Lithuanian citizens, members of the Movement of Struggle for Freedom of Lithuania or volunteer soldiers who were fighting the Soviet occupation with arms in 1944-1953. Keep in mind that many of the actual Holocaust killers went on to become “anti-Soviet partisans. Through this slight of hand they silence discussion of collaboration and obscure the magnitude of the Holocaust in an effort to remove a national stain.

The effort to equate the two has moved beyond mere rhetoric. Currently the European Parliament is discussing the Prague Declaration which states that Soviet Communism and Hitler’s Fascism are “equal” and demands new laws such as “fixing” textbooks to conform to this argument. The Baltic States are key drivers of this effort commonly known as “Red-equals-Brown”. In January 2008 the “Common-Europe-Common History” group of the European Parliament issued a press release complaining that “Never Again” is unfairly monopolized by Holocaust survivors. John Mann, a member of the British Parliament told the Commons that this “is just a traditional form of prejudice, rewritten in a modern context. In essence, it is trying to equate communism and Judaism as one conspiracy and rewrite history from a nationalist point of view.” Lithuania and the other Baltic States do not deny the Holocaust, they just distort the facts to the point that people throw up their hands in confusion.

The harassment of Holocaust survivors who served as partisans, the equating of Soviet Communism with the Holocaust and the quashing of discussion of Lithuanian collaboration all takes place against a larger backdrop of growing anti-Semitism in the press. In 2004 the editor of the daily Respublika published editorials mocking Jews and gays and described them as powerful interest groups that rule the world. The editorials were accompanied by a cartoon characterizing the stereotypic Jew and gay with imagery which could have come straight from the Nazis.
This cartoon was republished earlier this year in conjunction with an article about the recent neo-Nazi march in Vilnius. The article which accompanied it speaks of the marchers who chanted “Lithuania for Lithuanians” and “Jews out”. It claims “they are our future. Instead of choosing emigration or drugs, they carry the tricolor flags and declare that they love their home, their Homeland.” A frightening future indeed.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Touring in Tallinn

After our travels in Belarus, we prepared for the last leg of our journey, a flight to the magical city of Tallinn, Estonia. Thus far on this trip we have been in the roles of student, genealogist and explorer of Jewish heritage. In Estonia we anticipated being more relaxed and unburdened from the responsibilities we have had in the past weeks, no more homework and no more living in the shadow of the Holocaust. We were tourists!

Tallinn is a beautiful city with many buildings that date back as far as the 1400s. We meandered through the cobblestone streets taking pictures of the many interesting architectural features and street activity. After two days which had started at 4AM, we had the luxury of sleeping a few extra hours. It dawned on us that we had been in four different countries in 24 hours. Our plan for the day was to meet our friend Judy, from the Vilnius program, who was arriving from Helsinki by ferry. We caught a taxi to the ferry building only to discover her ferry had arrived at another terminal a twenty minute walk away.


We soon found our friend and began to walk towards the Old Town. While we walked our friend shared her tales of her past few days in Finland. We had learned that there was a market near the docks and we decided to stop in to look for a few last gifts. It was comprised of stalls selling a variety of products, but especially clothing. As we wandered through the market we discovered a stall which contained memorabilia from WWII. The stall had Nazi and Russian uniforms, guns, helmets and medals. We saw a bottle of Fuhrerwein, wine with an image of Hitler, but what was most appalling was a T-shirt imprinted with the words “Adolf Hitler European Tour 1938-1945” as if he were a rock band. This was not a "collectible", but a newly manufactured good. When we took pictures, the stall owner became quite agitated. We saw these products at many stalls in this market. At one stall we saw armbands with yellow stars stitched on, these were worn by the Jews to isolate them and to identify them for extermination. We were sickened by this vivid reminder. Our plans to be just tourists were thrown awry as we we were forced to recall the horrors that occurred in this area. At one stall I asked why they sold such items, and was told because people purchase them, especially young men. We remembered that the neo-Nazi rally in Vilnius this past March was composed of such participants. What was distressing was that this area was seriously affected by the war and it was being treated like a joke. After this sobering moment we attempted to resume our tourist role, but it continued to come up in our discussions. Interestingly we did not see the Hitler t-shirts for sale in the many shops of the Old Town.

We found Estonia to be more costly than either Latvia or Lithuania as it was clearly a tourist region. By costly we mean a nice meal would cost at least the equivalent of $20 or more. In Vilnius and Riga such meals could cost half of that. Many of the buildings are quite old and the city has done a nice job of posting historical plaques for English speakers. The city has a well preserved old town where each street is worthy of a photograph. There are many shops with handcrafts as well as the linen and amber for which this area is known. There is also a city wall on which one can walk.

One of the highlights of our time in Tallinn was when we spotted a group of women who told us they were Moldovan.  They were wearing brightly colored and richly decorated native costumes.   They were all gathered around a telephone as one of them tried to determine if her daughter had given birth yet. When they spotted us taking photographs they asked us if we would like them to sing for us. We responded “absolutely” and were treated to a song and dance. Colorful skirts swirled as they moved and we enjoyed both the music and the visual spectacle.

The following morning we caught our bus to Riga which now felt like an old friend. We exited the bus station and saw our hotel in the distance. It was a beautiful sunny day for our last day of travel and we remembered how on our departure from Riga we had to drag our bags in the rain across the trolley tracks and to the bus station. Upon our arrival, Fran had the disconcerting discovery that her wallet was missing. After trying to verify if it had been discovered, we reported her credit cards lost before venturing out. Fortunately her passport remained with her.

We wanted to find the area of the city where the old synagogue had been housed and was set on fire by the Nazis with 300 people locked in. It stood in a run-down area of the city which was very Russian and had some very old wooden houses. We had been warned that it was not an area one would want to be after dark so we wanted to see it during the afternoon.

We walked through an underground tunnel where it felt as if we had entered another world. When we emerged we walked beneath an overpass lined with shops selling more war memorabilia. Fran began to take a picture of it and a hand suddenly appeared over her camera lens. Attached to it was a rather rough looking Russian man. Apparently those who sell these products prefer to operate under the radar. In one of the shops I found the deck of Russian cards I had been looking for with the Cyrillic Russian letter for the Queen, King and Jack. We proceeded down the street past a Russian Orthodox Church filled with paintings of icons against gold.

A little beyond it we found a memorial to the synagogue which resembled a ruin. We believe it may be the same footprint as the synagogue. The floor was composed of cracked red and white tiles and decorative elements were set into the walls. We both were thinking of the 300 Jews who were burned alive there as we walked on that floor. Flowers on the ground spoke to someone else who had paid their respects. Also on the site was a memorial to those who had saved Jews during the Holocaust. The old ghetto was in that area and we found one of the streets that bordered it. The street was lined with worn wooden houses now inhabited by the Russian community of Riga.

We walked through the streets until we arrived at the market. Part of it is open air and another part has been housed in converted Zeppelin hangars since 1930. As we walked towards our hotel a woman approached Fran as she took a photograph of the hangars. She proceeded to pantomime the attack by the “Deutshland Fascists” with sound effects and broad hand motions. She said “Bom, Bom, Bom” to describe bombs falling as well as imitating the sounds of machine gun fire while she held an imaginary machine gun. She then held her hand at a level to indicate the height she had been at that time. We didn’t understand her language, but her gestures told a vivid story. While young men purchase Nazi memorabilia, she remembers with horror what the Nazis did in Riga.

As our trip comes to an end, I want to do a special thank you to Fran, my traveling companion, co-editor and contributor. I’ve learned that writing a blog every day that deals with some very serious topics is a challenging and time consuming effort. I often felt as if I were writing on deadline as the activities of the day would quickly become old news as new activities eclipsed them. While the purported purpose of our trip was to learn a language, the cultural and historical components were an important part of the total experience. It greatly helped to be with someone who was sharing the same experiences so we could discuss, process and capture our responses. Fran also generously shared many of her wonderful photos, not to mention her spare camera, after mine was damaged.

So what now? I anticipate writing a few more entries to summarize what we took away from the trip. These were experiences which I will continue to process in the weeks ahead. I will also share my artistic efforts around the themes that emerged in this journey. In October I will meet up with Fran in Utah where we join a group of Jewish genealogists doing research at the Family History Library and will report on any discoveries and the search process itself. I welcome your comments on this blog and would be happy to share more specific information with anyone who is exploring such a trip. And finally, as I get photos organized I will put out some web albums with links in the blog and invite you to take a virtual trip along with us.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kaddish on the Kindle

We left Vilnius early Saturday morning. Before our landlady picked us up, I did a video of our apartment with my recorder. My initial attempt upon our arrival got great pictures of the floor before I mastered the intricacies of talking and focusing at the same time. As we drove through the quiet streets I videoed our final ride through the streets of Vilnius on our way to the train station.

The train station is not well designed for rolling bags and we struggled to get our bags up the steps to the platform and onto the train. A handicapped person would have a very difficult time functioning in this part of Europe. The little books that I had purchased during our trip, thinking they weighed very little individually, collectively had added up and made my bag much more unwieldy. There was no area to store luggage except for overhead, so we were fortunate that the train was not full and we could store our bags in an empty seat. As we approached the nearby border, the border control officers came onto the train. We had assumed they were from Belarus, but shortly gathered that they were Lithuanian when we stopped again for the very official looking Belarus border control officers. This was a definite contrast to our entrance to Lithuania by bus when we had not even known when we crossed the border.

The train ride to Oshmyany was about two hours and we were met at the train by Bella and our driver Ilya. Our transcriber Sima was waiting for us in the car. Bella told us a little about her background. Her parents had spoken Yiddish around her as a child, but she grew up at a time when the Soviets restricted religious activity. In 1989 when she was working as a translator she had the opportunity to translate for a group of Israelis at a Seder. She heard them speaking Yiddish and realized that she understood it. She was very moved as it brought back memories of her childhood and she felt that this was “her community, her people”. That experience inspired her to learn more and she now is part of the Jewish community in Minsk.

Bella told us half jokingly that they have five Jews and three congregations. Her synagogue typically has about 50 people. The Orthodox synagogue has a kosher kitchen so people go there first to eat. The Reform synagogue has dancing on Shabbat so people then go there to dance. There is also a Chabad which has a minyan evey day. She told us there were also young people involved with the Jewish community in Minsk. Minsk has about 2 million people and the Jewish community is between 10,000-20,000. It depends very much on how people identify themselves as there is much intermarriage and identifying oneself as Jewish is not always easy. If you wanted to be married, you had no choice but to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish.

While we drove towards Dunilovichi, Bella informed us that we were in the Vitebst Oblast. The area has a natural chain of lakes which made me think of my home in Minnesota. We were startled to see a gathering of ostriches as we drove. Bella told us that it was an ostrich farm which had been one of the farming ventures in the area.

We passed a number of charming homes, many painted yellow as we had seen in Lithuania. Whenever we asked why there were so many yellow homes the amused response was that was the only color in the paint store. The homes were wooden and had a cottage feeling with decorative trim. There were colorfully painted fences along the road, many in a mixture of blue and yellow. As we approached Dunilovichi we saw signs in Russian and I was pleased that I could easily read them at a glance with my very basic grasp of Russian. When we found the sign before the entrance to the town I stood by it as we got the classic picture of me by my shtetl sign. We entered Dunilovichi and were immediately struck by its charm. A horse-drawn hay wagon went by and we reached for our cameras. Bella assured us we would see many of them in the area. We pulled into what appeared to be the center of town with a church and a park like area in front. Surrounding it were homes, many of them painted yellow, with beautiful gardens. In front of one of them was the horse drawn hay wagon with several men working with the hay. Next to it stood an old woman with a babushka. We went off to explore, but soon saw our guide approaching with a man who we learned was the mayor of Dunilovichi. He had come to greet us and take us to the memorial for the Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. The mayor told us that on May 1st and May 9th the school children come to maintain the memorial site and bring flowers in tribute to the Jews who died there. He also mentioned that when they had fenced in the cemeteries, they also had fenced in the Jewish one to maintain the memory of the Jewish community which once lived there. The marker reported that 829 Jews were murdered at that site.

Our guide told us that Chaim Ruderman came back after the war. He had come from a large family of seven children. He found his brother’s body and brought it back to be buried in Dunilovichi. There was a monument built right after the war at the site of the mass murder, but Bella later told us that the grave site had been robbed by local people who were looking for gold teeth. They didn’t realize those had already been taken by the local police on behalf of the Nazis. The more recent monument resulted from the efforts of Ruderman to collect money from townspeople and other contributors.

We then went to the cemetery which was on a hill across from a Christian cemetery. It had a fence around it and was covered with tall grass that made it very difficult to walk through. I knew Jewish cemeteries were often overgrown as there was no one to tend them, but had not fully appreciated what that was like. It was beautiful and moody and felt like a mournful and mysterious place.

I had previously received a spreadsheet of the tombstones and the cemetery plan from a prior visitor, but even with that it would have been impossible to find the tombstones I had identified without a transcriber. Nothing was laid out in orderly rows and there were no markers to identify sections. Fortunately I had brought my laptop with the computer listing and photographs of each tombstone. On it I had highlighted the tombstones in which I was interested as well as the surrounding ones which would help to locate them. I handed my laptop to Sima, our transcriber. I was happy to hear that he worked as a computer programmer figuring he would be comfortable working with the computer as a resource. He went around laptop in hand and felt the lettering on the tombstones in order to read it as in many cases it was no longer very visible.

The first tombstone that we saw was Schneyder. It was a large tombstone with a lot of writing and in a very central location. Bella said he must have been an important man to have such a large tombstone. I knew others who shared my family name and had Schneiders in their family so I decided to try a tombstone rubbing of it. I brought out my interfacing, oil pastels, gloves and tape. My scissors were packed away, but Bella assured me they had a knife we could use. When they offered me a butter knife, I decided to unearth my scissors and was glad I had come prepared. They had brought a brush and shaving cream (which helps highlight the lettering), but had never seen anyone do a tombstone rubbing before. While Sima continued to look for my tombstones, I got to work on the Schneyder tombstone. As it was a flat tombstone, I obtained a good image of it.

Meanwhile Sima had found another tombstone in which I was interested, the great-great grandfather of the Singers. The Singers in the US are third cousins to me and I’ve linked up with them in the States. Nachum, son of Benjamin, had a son Benjamin Zinger who had married Eska, daughter of our shared great-great grandfather Pesach Mordechai. If you are interested in following the relationships refer to the early blog titled “Discoveries” which details how I’ve identified these relationships from cross referencing tombstones, immigration records and naming patterns. I again tried a tombstone rubbing, but met with poorer results. I was learning that unless a tombstone surface is smooth and relatively free of lichen, it results in a bumpy and often unreadable rubbing. I am beginning to think about how I will paint my impressions of our trip and the suggestion of letters, but ultimately unreadable surface, will find its way into my artwork. The snatches of Yiddish lettering in Vilnius together with the suggestion of Hebrew lettering on tombstones speaks to the vanishing Jewish community and hints at what once was a significant presence. From that vantage point, even a semi-readable rubbing may prove useful as I try to capture our experiences in artwork.

Sima had located the tombstone of Eska Zinger, sister to my great-grandfather and I noted with satisfaction that it was a flat tombstone which should result in a good rubbing. Then I noticed a large pile of sand in one corner. It was a huge anthill and ants were crawling over the tombstone. Ruefully I put away my rubbing materials and photographed it instead. Smushed ants where not going to result in a good image.

I got a good rubbing of one of the Rayhel tombstones. I don’t know how those Rayhel’s relate to the Raichels of my family, but was pleased to get a rubbing with my grandmother’s family name written on the tombstone. When I would pull each rubbing away, it would stick for a moment into the crevices of the tombstone and that point of connection felt very eerie to me. The hands that touched that tombstone were family members and the tombstone had likely gone untouched for 65 years until my visit.

At this point I heard a call from Sima who had found the tombstone of my great-great grandfather, Pesach Mordechai. I ran back to our car to get my Kindle to which I had transferred the Kaddish. I had earlier read the Kaddish at the gravesite for the Jews who were massacred in Dunilovichi. Now I would read it at the grave of my great-great grandfather who died in 1904. I doubt he ever imagined that his great-great granddaughter would be at his grave site 105 years later and I’m quite certain he never visualized me reading the Kaddish from my Kindle. The tombstone was up towards the top of the hill, a rather treacherous place to walk to through the thick grass. At the very top I spied the tombstone of the last Jew of Dunilovichi who died in 1950 and whose tombstone is in Russian rather than Hebrew.

I carefully made my way through the tall grass bracing myself against the slant of the hill. Sima and I were the only ones there as it was quite challenging to get to that point. There I recited the Kaddish as Sima chimed in with "amens". I then did one last gravestone rubbing, not a very clear one, but an amazing record of my visit to my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. I carried my rubbings like precious documents back to the car and we embarked on the next leg of our journey, a visit to an elderly man in Dunilovichi to hear his recollections of the Jewish community.

When we got to the home of the 90 year old man we learned that his daughter and granddaughter were visiting. They were doing some work on the interior of the home so they brought out chairs so we could sit in the yard and talk. The home was the ubiquitous peeling yellow paint with the lower portion painted a blue green. The man sat in a yellow wooden chair and wore a sweater that matched the blue green of the home. Fran and I are both avid photographers and we caught each other’s eye to acknowledge the beauty of the image. The man had a long gaunt face and his eyes were clouded over. His hands grasped his knees or gestured actively as he spoke to our guide who in turn translated for us. His daughter and granddaughter stood nearby, interested in what he was saying.

He told us that when he couldn’t sleep he used to write down the names of former Jewish residents that he remembered, thinking someday someone would come to town and want them. Nobody came for many years, but a few years ago someone named Yankel came to Dunilovichi and spoke with him and now we were there. We asked him if he had the list of names, but he told us when no one came his wife threw it away. I asked him if he remembered my family names, but he didn’t. Names he recalled were Gutman, Katz, Ruderman, Zuckerman, Mindel, Fishel, Barkin, Trotsky and Shapiro. Many were names that I recognized from the cemetery. He recalled that Trotsky was an attorney and Schneider rented two lakes from a landlord and was a fisherman. He also remembered there being 1500 Jews in the town. He told us that he was first in the partisans when the war broke out and in 1944 was taken into the regular army. He and his wife, a dentist, were both partisans. We asked if there were Jews in the partisans and he replied that there were not many. (Note: they often had separate units as it was dangerous for them to be a part of non-Jewish partisan brigades).

We asked him what he recalled about what happened to the Jewish community during the war. He told us that they organized a ghetto in Glebokie and took some people to Dunilovichi. Some people tried to escape and were captured and brought to Dunilovichi. There was a ghetto on the outskirts of Dunilovichi, but it was only there for about a year.

Prior to the war the Jews lived in the center of town and there were 17 Jewish shops. They were artisans, tailors and shoemakers. Many were wholesalers. They bought raw materials, grain, wool and flax from the peasants. He recalled that they took good care about everything. People trusted them because they gave a good product for good money. He also noted that they gave credit while the Poles did not. His recollection was that the Jews and the Christians lived well together, something we have heard from others and which makes us question whether history is rewritten in memory as that is not always what the historical record indicates. We later talked with our guide about how people saved “their Jews”, the ones they knew well.

There were three synagogues in town. He described the Orthodox Jews, gesturing to indicate the peyese (long ringlets in front of their ears) and the tefflin (little boxes covered with leather with prayers inside) they wore when they prayed. He recalled the holiday of Sukkot and the sukkot buildings of the Jews.

He told us that both Dunilovichi and Glebokie were famous for raising pigs. Before the war the Germans purchased pigs, ducks and geese from there. He recalled that they only purchased white male pigs. Fran and I exchanged bemused glances. The man told us that he made his living producing sausage and they were the best in the world.

At this juncture the old man’s wife came out steadying herself with a cane. We had assumed, given his advanced age, that she had already died, so were surprised to see this old woman emerge from the home. She joined him and Fran asked what the secret to a long happy marriage was. He replied that he didn’t drink or smoke and he always worked.

We spoke briefly with his daughter and granddaughter and learned that his granddaughter’s husband had gotten a green card to live in Chicago. His other granddaughter had married a Jew and lived in Israel. We chuckled at how global the world has become even affecting this small shtetl in Belarus.

He graciously kissed our hands as we said goodby and departed for Glebokie. Glebokie was a bigger town, but not nearly as charming as Dunilovichi. My great-grandmother had been born there and I had the names of her parents.

Bella told us that during the war the Judenrat was established in July 1941 and then the ghetto was created. In December 1941, 110 Jews were killed in the forest. In April 1942 another 800 were killed outside of town. In July 1942, 2500 Jews were killed in the forest and a month later the ghetto was set on fire and 5000 died. Of those who joined the partisans, 100 survived. Grim statistics, but consistent with what we have seen all through this region. I will never look at a forest without having this connection in my mind.

In Glebokie we went to the memorial in the forest where the 2500 Jews were killed. In both Dunilovichi and Glebokie the memorials clearly stated that the victims were Jewish, something we have not always seen in Lithuania.

We also stopped at the old Jewish cemetery which was fenced and overlooked a river. When we arrived there we tried the gate and found it locked. Tall spikes were on top of the fence, so we considered how to enter. We walked around its perimeter and found an area with a deeper impression under the fence. I was able to successfully slip under it and the young man who was our transcriber managed to climb over. I had been told there were about 50 tombstones which I thought I could easily photograph, but I soon discovered that there were more than 300. Those at the back of the cemetery near the water were frequently impossible to read, but quite beautiful with the reds, yellows and greens of the lichen and worn stones. Queen Anne’s lace cast beautiful shadows against the tombstones. Ravens flocked around the cemetery, perching on gravestones and giving the cemetery a very eerie feeling.

A portion of the cemetery was mowed and while we were there, a local businessman who is contracted to maintain the cemetery, arrived to check on his employee. The maintenance man got up from his resting place under a tree and began to trim the long grass in the back portion. We later learned that a group of German Jews as well as non-Jews pays to have the cemetery maintained. In the middle was a Star of David formation with smaller tombstones among the garden within it.

Sima told me that he saw only two surnames, everything else was patronymics (father’s first name). I was busily photographing any tombstone with semi-decipherable lettering as I hoped to build Shtetlinks (web sites for specific shtetls) for Jewishgen.com upon my return. While I had the given names of my great-great grandparents, the likelihood of finding them amongst the many tombstones seemed slim. In Dunilovichi, I knew of a related family which helped me to locate my great-great grandfather by his patronymic and the other family’s surname. I also had the good fortune to have a spreadsheet of the tombstones to analyze prior to my visit. With no such tool in Glebokie, I opted for capturing what I could and trying to make sense of it later. The tombstones in the front of the cemetery appeared to have white paint in the lettering which while it made them less charming, certainly helped to make them more legible.

I later learned from Fran that while I was busy photographing, Bella had noted that usually the cemetery key is left with a nearby home. She had asked at one house and they pointed her to the home where it was kept. They had then had the luxury of entering via the front gate. Fran also had the experience of using the woman’s facilities where she discovered an outhouse. It reminded us that much has remained unchanged from my great-grandmother's time.

When we departed the cemetery we located a few buildings that included former Jewish homes and a former prayer house and then began an unsuccessful search for a restaurant. Apparently most people in Belarus don’t eat out so nothing was open. We then began our two hour drive back to Minsk where we were spending the night prior to flying out to Tallinn, Estonia the following morning.

Minsk was an experience unto itself. We were exhausted and hungry when we arrived. Our guide pointed out the old part of the city and we planned to walk there. Upon checking in at the hotel, there was an ominous pause by the woman at the front desk, kind of like when the doctor says, ‘Hmmm”. Apparently the reservation which we had made months before and prepaid, hadn’t been made or couldn’t be located. Fortunately they had a room which we paid for directly and then were promised a refund from the firm which was to have booked it.

We went out to locate some food and soon found that the hotel was in a strip of casinos. The restaurant within our hotel turned into a strip club at night. None of the restaurants took visa cards and although we had hoped to avoid converting money for one evening we soon found we had no choice. We later found that Belarussian Rubles were only worth half their value when converted in Estonia, assuming they were even accepted.
We found a small café down the strip from our hotel where we ate and decided to return to our room to relax from a demanding day.

There had been so much build up to this trip, it felt strange to have it completed. I was very glad that Fran had accompanied me as she gathered information and photographs while I was focused on gravestone rubbings and photographing tombstones. Her skills as a therapist also made her very good at asking questions of other people when I was a feeling too overwhelmed to formulate any. Seeing the town where my grandmother was born and lived in her youth was fascinating to me and being able to go back four generations to stand at my great-great grandfather’s tombstone was a very special part of this journey.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Farewell Vilnius

Friday was our graduation from the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and our last day in Vilnius. We have grown attached to our friends, our apartment and the many cafes which we frequent as well as the wait staff whom we have gotten to know well. At one of the restaurants which we go to often, I was reading aloud to my companions from a book of Lithuanian folk tales. Our waitress listened in until she had to attend to other customers. The next time we were in she stopped by our table to see how the story ended. We learned a little of her story as well and Fran stopped back with a gift of a children’s book for her daughter. She was very surprised and touched and shared a picture of her daughter.

As yesterday was Shabbat we decided we should attend the synagogue before departing the city. We arrived at the synagogue where other congregants had gathered and greeted them with a Shabbat Shalom. They responded in Russian and Hebrew and that was the end of that conversation.

It is an orthodox synagogue where the women sit separately from the men. Women have two choices where they sit. There is an area on the ground floor cordoned off by curtains. Alternatively there is the balcony where one has a good view of the activities, but it feels very isolated from the proceedings below. It felt very exclusionary to both of us coming from a Reform Jewish background. We headed up the stairs to the balcony where we saw Ruta, the woman who had shown us around the synagogue earlier in the week. It felt like being greeted by a warm friend.

Once Shabbat starts you are not supposed to take photographs, but as we had arrived early, we had a short window for our usual picture taking. The cantor from the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York was the special guest. There is a Litvak conference beginning next week which is what brought him to Vilnius.

The service seemed somewhat incoherent to us. Several different people spoke or chanted, but with their back to the congregation most of the time. From the balcony I could easily count the number of people and saw 29 men and 14 women. I was curious as to what proportion of the men were elderly. My very scientific test determined that seventy percent of the men had grey hair. Finally the guest cantor went through the ritual of arranging his tallis. After the ritual prayer, he pulled it completely over his head, then he expertly flipped a portion on each side over his shoulder. It made me think of a bullfighter with his cape. He stood in the center of the synagogue facing the front and began to sing the prayers in a beautiful voice. Much of it seemed very foreign to us. I leafed through the prayer book with Russian on one side and Hebrew on the other. With my limited grasp of Russian I determined that the Hebrew was actually translated into Russian, not transliterated. Interestingly it was not in Lithuanian. I assume with an older congregation, Russian was their second language outside of Yiddish. I was pleased when I found the Sh’ma in the prayer book. Of the prayers, the only ones I recognized were the Sh’ma, the Kiddish and the Kaddish. There was no blessing of the Sabbath lights, most likely because a woman usually performs that ritual.

We had heard that the service would be about 45 minutes, leaving us time to attend the alternative Shabbat Tish ( a gathering at one of our classmate’s apartment). After about an hour, we decided to quietly exit and go on our way. I was grateful for the anonymity of being in the balcony to facilitate our departure. However, we were surprised to discover that the gate which was locked from the outside for security was also locked from the inside. Luckily the service soon concluded and we were released.

We found our friend’s location and joined the party in progress. We always find it interesting to see the apartments of other students. While smaller than ours it seemed more modern and very comfortable. It was a festive and friendly atmosphere and a little bit sad as we thought about how we would soon be leaving our friends. We had missed the lighting of the Shabbat candles, but a beautiful array had been created and was still burning brightly.

It was a very poignant ending to a wonderful experience. We hugged our friends goodbye with promises to stay connected and meet again in the future.
We walked down our familiar streets one last time and I took a picture of each of the five streets that radiate out from in front of our apartment.