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 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.

Friday, August 21, 2009

More Stories

Yesterday we saw a very moving film called “Surviving History.” The documentary presented the interviews of seven Lithuanian survivors. It was a wrenching film to watch as it told once again the horrors we have heard about over this past month through the eyes of those who lived them. Two of those interviewed were people we have met and spoken with in Vilnius.

One woman talked about how her husband left the ghetto and was presumed to be ambushed as he never arrived at his destination. He had asked that she go with a second group leaving the ghetto, but it would have required her to leave her son behind with his grandparents. She had moments to decide whether to stay or go. She ultimately left and eight days later the ghetto was liquidated. When asked what she would do if she had to do it over again she replied that she would have stayed as her decision has tortured her all of her life.

An elderly blind man living alone noted that his happiest years were driving a taxi and interacting with other people. Now he has too much time and is burdened by sad and negative thoughts. He recounted horrible memories about how Jews were forced to build a pit after constructing a warehouse for the Germans and then buried alive in it. He spends his days at the synagogue where he “goes because he must.” We were especially touched by the images of the men praying in the synagogue as we had just visited there the previous day.

Another recounted how her father went to the attic to act as a lookout sending the rest of the family to the basement. Her mother remained upstairs in fear that her cough would betray their hiding position. From the basement she heard the Germans searching the home and killing her parents. In each case memories continued to torment these survivors only intensifying in the solitude of old age. It was explained that these elderly people have stayed in Vilnius be close to and honor those they had lost so long ago.

The interviews with these survivors were juxtaposed with a Neo-Nazi march in Vilnius that occurred in March 2009. It was chilling to watch young people shouting “No Jews” and “Lithuania for Lithuanians” knowing the historical context. We later heard that the Minister of the Interior described them as patriots expressing their love for Lithuania. This resulted in an outcry from the Jewish community and some backpedaling by the Minister when the Lithuanian President was pressured to react to his remarks. The film ended with an interview with Fania, the former partisan who has led many of the Yiddish tours. It spoke of her experience as a partisan, an appropriate segue for our next experience, a tour of the partisan bunkers in the forest. You can find information on the film at

Following the film we met up with Fania who accompanied us on an hour bus ride to an area 40 kilometers out of Vilnius. After she escaped from the ghetto, she covered this distance on foot over two days accompanied by another woman. This occurred just days before the ghetto was liquidated. She recounted how they lost their way and went to a village where a woman gave them milk and led them to the village which they were seeking. A Pole asked where they were going and they replied they were going to dig potatoes at an aunt’s home. He then told them that a partisan girl had been shot the day before. They replied, “What does this have to do with us? We are just going to dig potatoes.” He took them to a place to stay and the next day showed them where to find the partisans. They were very afraid as they didn’t know if they could trust this stranger. In the morning he came with milk and black bread as well as long sticks to support them as they had to walk through a very swampy area. He led them on a branch way built by Napoleon’s army in 1812. After clearing a checkpoint they were brought to the commander of the partisans. It was at this time that they learned that the ghetto had been liquidated. In this unit of the partisans there were 107 people of which all but 10 were Jewish.

She described how they lived in structures built of tree branches (Sukkot) in warmer weather and underground bunkers when it got colder. We were able to observe several of the bunkers that still remain. Many of them were reinforced by concrete that was later added by the Soviets. They were only constructed with wood when they were there.

The Soviets dropped weapons to the partisan group by parachute and they used the parachutes to make clothing. All of the clothing was white as that was the color of the parachutes. There was one tailor there who did all the sewing and according to Fania he fit them quite well. They boiled their clothes to avoid lice.

She described an incident when they went to an area where they thought guns were being dropped by parachute. When they arrived in the area they realized that what they thought was a parachute was actually the moon. Another time they went to an area expecting to find guns and they found cookies which they promptly ate. They later learned that each cookie was a part of a code they were supposed to read.

They had an old gramophone with two scratched records. Those returning from their missions had the privilege of listening first. One record was Blue Rhapsody. Three weeks after arriving in the partisan camp, Fania went on her first mission with twelve men and two women. Their mission was to cut German telephone connections between their bases. Other missions involved blowing up the railroad tracks.

There was a dentist from Vilna who provided care to nearby villages. He also stopped at the partisan base to care for them as well. A third year medical student acted as the doctor. Fania recounted how she had an operation while she was in the forest when she became quite ill. They didn’t have a lot of vitamins so they made tea from pine needles which provided vitamin C. They ate cornmeal mixed into a paste. The older women did the cooking over bonfires.

They returned to Vilna shortly before the end of the war. By the river they saw Germans fleeing. They observed people stealing shoes from the feet of dead German and Russian soldiers.

We learned that there had been a museum on this site after the war. While the Soviets memorialized the partisans they framed it as “Soviet resistance,” not Jewish partisans. After Independence the museum was dismantled; there is no memorial on this site today. Farmers have taken much of the wood to burn and evidence of people drinking inside the bunkers was evident. This was a remarkable visit which gave us a much more accurate sense of what partisan life was like; however, as the site continues to deteriorate one wonders how much longer it will be identifiable and honored.


Storytelling has been a constant theme of our travels here in Lithuania. We read stories in our Yiddish classes, we hear stories from survivors and we share stories with our classmates of visits to family shtetls. This morning we eagerly awaited the report from one of our new friends about her visit the prior day to Vaskai (Vashky), her family shtetl. We got our first rendition in our Yiddish class where our teacher encourages us to report in Yiddish about our previous day’s activities. While I grasped the broad outline I caught up with our friend after class to ask for the more understandable English version.

She had been accompanied by a guide who facilitated interviews with older residents of the village. She told us of how they had spoken with an old woman who said she remembered the Jews. She pointed out homes where they used to live. The Jews were shopkeepers so had homes with windows that faced the street.

The woman described how during World War II the Jewish men were taken to the cemetery and shot. She heard their screams. She said she was sad about this because they were their neighbors. The women, children and elderly were later locked in a barn for three days prior to being shot as well.

They also spoke with a young priest, around 30 years old. They asked him about the Holocaust and he replied “that was a long time ago and we don’t think about it.” The older people who we have spoken with in former shtetls seem very forthcoming as if they want to talk about their memories. For the younger people it has no relevance.

Tonight for dinner we went back to a nearby restaurant where we have enjoyed several meals. A friend of ours had an intriguing discussion with the owner and we were interested in learning more. After dinner the owner sat down at our table and visited with us.

We spoke about the history of this area in which she had a particular interest. As a non-Lithuanian European she seemed more curious and open to exploring the historical events that occurred here. This contrasted with the continual denial or indifference that we have observed among many native Lithuanians. She recounted that in her discussions with friends many of them say they didn’t know about what had happened here to the Jews. Their new knowledge has prompted many complicated political discussions.

She then related a poignant story of a very elderly man who stood outside staring at the restaurant. When he entered, he asked if he could sit down in one of the rooms. As he sat there he looked quite distressed. Out of concern she asked if he was all right. He responded that this was once his bedroom. He had lived there with his mother and siblings during the time of the ghetto. When he left he said that he would not be back again.

She then related that there had been a network of catacomb tunnels prior to the Jews living there. Along with those tunnels, the Jews created additional ones during the time of the ghetto. These were used as escape routes and most probably to bring in supplies into the ghetto.

When they were renovating the building they discovered a tunnel that ran under it. She had been told that there had been a tunnel from the synagogue which was behind her building leading to the perimeter of the ghetto gates. It is believed that the tunnel under her restaurant, although boarded up a short distance away, does in fact tie to the tunnel out of the ghetto. They discovered a chute to a lower level. They later learned that this was used as a way for children to access a lower level where they were hidden for safety. When we finished our meal, she invited us to see the area of the tunnel. We walked through and outside the kitchen to an area behind the restaurant. This had once been the site of the biggest synagogue where churches loomed above. We wondered what ghetto atrocities the church clergy had observed as bystanders from these vantage points.

The owner indicated that four small market streets had previously existed in the courtyard behind the synagogue. She then pointed out where the tunnel began and where it led. As we walked back into the building she told us that she and her husband had done much of the renovation themselves. Many nights they were there quite late and strange things happened. They would see shadows of people that she thought were children. We didn’t find this hard to believe after living for a month with the ghosts of the city. As we said good night we told her that if she sees the ghosts she should say, “Shalom Aleichem” which means “Peace be upon you.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Further Explorations

As we near the end of our time in Vilnius we are trying to squeeze in the remaining things we hoped to see. This morning we skipped one of our classes in order to see the synagogue which closes at 2:00. Early in our visit to Vilnius we saw it from the outside on a walking tour, but had not yet seen the inside.

The synagogue is behind a locked gate so we had to ring a bell to gain entrance. We thought we would just be looking around on our own, but were fortunate to have the assistance of a young woman who works at the synagogue. She happily told us the story of the synagogue. It had survived the war as it was used for storage for the former Jewish hospital across the street which had been converted to a German military facility. She pointed out the hospital and the windows which were in the shape of the tablets of the ten commandments, a common feature in Jewish buildings.

She talked about how some people went to Russia before WWII as they anticipated that their young daughters would be conscripted for forced labor. By taking this precaution, they survived the war and they subsequently returned to Vilnius. After the war the synagogue became a gathering point as survivors connected with each other to find out if family and friends had also survived. When they celebrated the High Holy Days the crowd overflowed into the streets and the police cordoned off the street. During the Soviet times they had a clandestine matzo bakery and a shochet (kosher butcher) hidden within the synagogue. We were able to peer into a closed off curtained area which contained the remnants of the matzo bakery. When the Soviets loosened up immigration, many families immigrated to other countries around the world.

The synagogue was quite striking in a Moorish style with dominant colors of blue and white. A large Star of David was at the top of the domed ceiling surrounded by clouds against a blue background. As an orthodox synagogue it had a separate area above for the women to sit.

This is the Choral Synagogue and has an area, now closed off, where the men and boys' choir once sang. We learned that this Friday, our last day in Vilnius, a noted cantor will be participating in the service which we plan to attend. We also observed that the Hebrew prayer book was translated into Russian.

They hold daily morning services as well as on Shabbat. They are able to obtain a minyan (10 men required in order to conduct services), but there is concern that as members age it will become increasingly difficult and services may become more infrequent.

While this is a concern for the Jewish community, we were encouraged to see signs of a younger generation’s involvement in Jewish life. Children's drawings were posted on a wall and on the way out of the synagogue we saw a young woman with a very young toddler wearing a yarmulke. There is also a thriving Jewish school as well as summer camps for the children in the community.

After our visit to the synagogue we walked to the market which is housed in a large building with an adjacent outdoor area. They sold a wide variety of products, including food, clothing and toiletries. We noted that some of the merchants were elderly women selling their meager produce to eke out a living.

We found a local restaurant that was out of the main tourist area. The menu was handwritten on a chalkboard, all in Lithuanian. We asked a waitress to translate each item and we ordered more typical Lithuanian fare. Everything we have eaten has been excellent, even this little café.

From there we headed to the train station to purchase our insurance for our trip to Belarus. We had to provide our passports and they checked to verify that we had visas before issuing the insurance.

On the way back, I stopped at the Tolerance Center to see the exhibits. While we had gone to the opening of the Bulgarian Jewish exhibit, we had not seen the rest of the museum’s offering. The Tolerance Center is impressive and had a large exhibit of drawings from Gerardas Badgonavicius, a Lithuanian artist who lived from 1901-1986. His drawings were of the synagogues and people prior to WWII and as such represented a historical view of communities prior to their destruction. Also contained in the Tolerance Center are some important artifacts from the Great Synagogue of Vilnius including the doors of the Aron Kodesh and a cartouche with the Ten Commandments. There was a sizeable art exhibit which included drawings by two artists who created artwork in the Vilna and Kovno ghettos.

We ended our day at one of our usual haunts for dinner. The restaurant began to fill up with college students as they are beginning to return for the start of a new school year. It feels a bit like a changing of the guard as we prepare to leave our program even as they begin anew.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Today we felt unburdened for the first time in weeks. We have been immersed in Holocaust history, hearing stories and visiting sites that evoke a wide range of emotions. This was one of the first days we breathed fresh air without the weight of history on our shoulders. We walked more freely and realized that we know our way around the city. There is a familiarity to it. As we wander through the city we find classmates and recognize places we’ve visited. We have less than a week left in this program and are already thinking how strange it will feel to leave our new routines and the camaraderie that has developed with our friends.

In addition to our friends we also recognize certain characters around town, Michael, the wandering Russian panhandler, the two lanky bleached blonde hookers and the young flower girl. In addition we have become regulars at several cafes to the point where the waiters know our order without any communication. Recently two of us were frequenting our favorite spot and the waiter came up and said, “Red wine, cappuccino” and then looked puzzled because “Fanta” hadn’t arrived yet. We enjoy trying new restaurants, sampling new foods and sharing our discoveries with our friends. They in turn introduce us to their favorites.

Despite the heaviness of these past weeks we have had some lighter moments in our classes. Our teacher has introduced us to several Yiddish songs. The most recent one is titled “Rent” (Dira Gelt). As we reread it, we realize that it sounds rather heavy, but it captures typical Jewish humor which makes light of a serious situation and has a lilting melody. The 1912 song translates to “Rent, my God, we have to pay the rent! The landlord comes with his cane: If we don’t pay the rent, he takes away our beds. The janitor comes and doffs his hat: If we don’t pay the rent, he hangs out an eviction notice. Why should we pay you rent, when the stove is broken and we have nothing to cook on?”

In addition to songs, we have read Goldahairela (Goldilocks) in Yiddish and learned such entertaining words as a schnei-mensche which is a snowman. We’ve continued the saga of Berela and Sarala and been introduced to Manny, Benny and Denny. These 1947 scenarios never fail to bring a smile to our face. As we’ve learned vocabulary we’ve stumbled across familiar words such as shlep (en), nosh (en), shmooz (en), tchokes and noodnik. For Fran the familiarity of the words conjures up warm memories of her family sitting around the kitchen table conversing with each other in Yiddish. While I grew up with less exposure to Yiddish, I too have some flashback moments when a familiar word takes me by surprise and triggers a memory.

In addition to the more serious content, our guides often offer us little gems. When we went to Kaunas, our guide told us of the “gefilte fish line” between Lithuanian and Polish Jews. Lithuanians like it salty and Poles like it sweet. She proceeded to tell us her recipe for preparing it using pike or carp and then adding onions, matzo meal, sliced carrots and red beets to the pot.

After three weeks we have learned a lot, but are still struggling to integrate the mechanics of this language. We by no means have achieved proficiency, but have a good grounding on which to build.

In getting to know our classmates better we have learned that everyone has come here for a different reason. Many are working on doctoral degrees with varying areas of focus such as research, literature and history. Others of us have more personal objectives such as artwork or creative writing, At the same time we are all finding that it expands our cultural awareness and for those of us who are Jewish, it brings us closer to our heritage. The one common element is that everyone here is a learner.

As our day ended we visited the train station to purchase our tickets for the next leg of our journey, our trip to my family shtetls in Belarus. The staff at the Institute wrote out our request in Lithuanian to assure we would get the correct tickets to Oshmyony, a small town west of Minsk and close to the shtetls. All went well except for the fact that we arrived after 6:00 PM, too late to purchase the required travel insurance to enter Belarus.
Despite having travel insurance from the States, Belarus requires its own insurance prior to letting anyone into the country. We were told by our guide that she knew of someone who didn’t have the insurance who was ejected from the train. We plan another trek to the train station later this week as being evicted from the train is an adventure we hope not to experience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Killing Fields

On the various walks and discussions about the ghetto we’ve frequently heard of Ponar (also known as Paneriai), the location where the Vilnius Jews had been taken to be murdered. Knowing that was our destination today was coupled with a sense of trepidation. There is a heaviness that we are experiencing because of the cumulative effect of both seeing and hearing details of unthinkable atrocities that occurred to Jewish people. We knew today we would see the place where these horrors occurred. As we write this and try to convey our feelings we looked around our apartment and realized that the very people who lived here were probably wrenched from this home and taken to the Ponar forest and killed. While it is difficult to write this and to realize that others may find this difficult to read, we feel a responsibility to communicate the facts of what occurred. We have met several amazing people here who routinely tell the story of the Jews of Vilna. They are all in their 80s and we often wonder how these stories will survive without their voices. We feel that our small part is to tell the story.

There had been three Jewish cemeteries in Vilnius, but two were destroyed during Soviet times. Today we visited the one remaining cemetery. We began our visit with a stop at the memorial tombstones for the Jewish partisans. The cemetery had tombstones written in both Russian and Hebrew text. Often both were on the same tombstone. Fania, our guide, showed us the memorials for the doctors and teachers who died in the ghetto. These people in particular played an important role in the life of the ghetto. The tomb of the Vilna Gaon, the famous rabbi of Vilna, was moved to this cemetery to a mausoleum. People from around the world come to this gravesite to pay tribute to his memory. In each of the six niches were piles of stones left by visitors to honor his memory.As we stood before it, a man approached and began to chant a prayer for the dead. As I listened to the beauty of the prayer, I was overwhelmed by emotion and tears welled up in my eyes.

The cemetery appeared to be very active. Many of the graves appeared well tended. People were coming to visit the cemetery carrying flowers while others were planting at the gravesites. We were surprised at the number of graves for those who had died post-war and even very recently.

We continued on to the outer wall of the cemetery where our guide pointed out a memorial that marked the spot of a mass burial site of 400 children. She proceeded to tell us how the Nazis had drained the blood from these children to use for their soldiers. Afterwards they threw the children’s bodies over the wall into the cemetery. This was ironic in two respects. The Nazis didn’t believe in mixing of Jews with Germans, yet used the Jewish blood to sustain their soldiers. It was also puzzling that they threw the bodies into the cemetery as so many had no burial place. We couldn’t conceive of human beings acting so inhumanely, especially to innocent children. A rabbi who is part of our group sang a prayer, El Malei Rachamim. Together we all recited the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Afterward we all stood silently absorbing the enormity of what happened in this spot.

Ponar still loomed ahead. A short drive outside of the city we arrived at a wooded area with a stone memorial. Upon entering we were once again presented with the controversy over how these events are described. A monument was built for the Jews in 1945 and was in Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. The Soviets didn’t like it and destroyed it in 1952, rebuilding it to read that 100,000 Soviet citizens were killed by Fascists. The denial of their Jewishness as the reason for their murder felt like a second annihilation of the Jews. The Lithuanians had a different issue. Many Lithuanians were supportive of the Nazis and participated in the murders. After a fight, the language was amended to read “the Germans and their local helpers” around 1990. History is easily rewritten if there are no voices left to tell the true story.

People who were brought to Ponar were told that they were being taken to work in Kovno. Some brought sewing machines anticipating work. At first the people in the ghetto didn’t know what happened here. Finally a woman escaped and returned to the ghetto. When she told her story, people thought she was crazy until other people who had escaped corroborated what she told.

As we entered the forest we went by a grove of younger trees. Fania told us that after Independence in 1990, Jewish people from Vilnius began to move to Israel. When they left they planted a tree here.

We were then taken to the pit in which children were murdered. They identified it as such as they found children’s shoes, socks and toys. Usually children weren’t shot, but were thrown in. Newborn babies were also thrown in as women were not allowed to give birth in the ghetto.

People were undressed prior to their murder and their clothing sold. When the German’s were trying to cover their tracks they had a detail of Jews who were responsible for burning the bodies of the dead and crushing their bones. They first had to look for gold teeth or rings. One of the workers who burned bodies found his own mother, wife and children. He wrote notes about what he found and those are now in the museum. The workers used spoons and metal plates to dig a tunnel and escaped. Because the stench was horrible from what they were doing, they hid in manure in the fields so the dogs couldn’t follow their trail. The Germans offered a reward to anyone who found them and said they were dangerous criminals. Two of the men survived and gave testimony after the war. After the escape, no more bodies were burnt and the remaining bodies were found after the war.

At the end of the tour, Fania was asked how she can keep coming here and talking about what happened. Virtually all of her family perished at Ponar. She replied that she does it for those who lie here, since they can’t stand up and tell what happened. She is happy to speak Yiddish here as that was the language of those who died here.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Escape from the Ninth Fort

Our day today was devoted to a trip to Kaunas (formerly Kovno). About a third of our group (20 people) joined together to take this trip to the second largest Lithuanian city and former capital. On the way, one of our French friends recounted various stories of how Jewish children, she among them, had survived the war. Years later the former children and their families were invited to attend the trial of the key Nazi perpetrators who murdered their families in France. Part of her story was explaining how Serge Klarsfeld compiled the names and transports of French Jews to places such as Kaunas. We started our trip by meeting our guide who was born and raised there. She confirmed our suspicions that the museums would be closed as it was a major national (Catholic) holiday.

We began our tour at the Ninth Fort which was built to protect the city. It was used as a prison by the Soviets and as an execution point by the Nazis. Even before we reached the site we noticed a large irregularly shaped structure, the size of a tall building. It appeared to be wooden, but on closer examination we observed that it was made of stone. We were told that it was designed to resemble the weathered wood that we see on the outside of traditional Lithuanian houses. It was composed of three parts, representing the victims of the Germans in three poses, standing, falling and lying on the ground. The three parts were positioned so there was a triangular area in the center representing the gateway to heaven.

The sculpture was surrounded by a spacious very green area where many Jews were executed. We followed a path from the sculpture past the museum to the fort. We approached the fort in disappointment assuming it was closed as was the museum. To our surprise we saw a man exiting the building. We entered the courtyard and our guide engaged in an animated Lithuanian conversation with him. It proceeded to get louder. She turned to us and told us that he said there were already Jews in there and would not allow us to enter. We were confused by the communication and found it strange that he would frame it in that way. Our guide turned to us and said she had told him that we aren’t Jews, we are Americans. He then wanted a lot of money to let us in. While this heated conversation continued, we observed various tourists entering and exiting the building. Finally several of us pushed past and entered the building. The voices of the man and our guide continued to escalate. The man smelled of alcohol and was quite verbally abusive towards our guide until she threatened that we would report him to the American Embassy. That resulted in a definite change in tone. "No problem, no problem," he repeated.

It felt like a time warp, as if we were back in the 1940s faced with the same prejudices and ignorance that the Jews encountered at that time. The fact that this encounter occurred in the very site where 50,000 Jews were murdered, made this even more disturbing.

The building was used as a temporary holding point prior to executions in adjacent killing fields. If the Nazis didn’t complete their murder in a normal workday they held the Jews to murder the following day. We later learned that the Jews were forcibly marched from the ghetto to the fort where they were killed.

We learned that the impetus for the exhibit on the Jewish experience was prompted in 1995 by the indignation of an Israeli Knesset member who came and saw nothing about the Jews. His threat to engage the mass media about this resulted in the creation of this exhibit.

In the fort we saw displays of the artifacts of the Jews that were found in the killing fields and the messages written on the walls prior to their deaths.
We also saw rooms devoted to the French and German Jews who were shipped into Kovno for execution. While most Jews were held for just a day or two, a small group had a more extended stay. This group of prisoners was responsible for digging up the bodies of the corpses and then burning them because the Germans were losing the war and wanted to hide the evidence of their deeds. These prisoners staged a successful escape on Christmas Eve when their guards were off celebrating. We felt as if we were escaping as well as we exited the building.

We stopped at a building that had been one of the three most significant yeshivas in Lithuania. The young men who studied there came from many countries across Europe because of its reputation. When stopping at the memorial at the entrance to the Kovno ghetto we learned that the yeshiva students and teachers lived in that area as it was close to their school.

Kovno is known for its especially brutal murders by Lithuanians, many of whom were university students. The students marched into the ghetto and murdered 1000 people prior to the Nazis assuming control. The nearby yeshiva students were the first victims. In another Aktion the hospital, staff and patients were burned together when the doors were barred shut.

Before making an extended stop at the Choral Synagogue we walked around the city and learned about the Jewish history of the area. One of the facts that we found interesting was that prior to WWII, 74% of the physicians in Lithuania were Jewish. Ironically they were banned from practicing medicine in the Lithuanian hospitals so worked in the Jewish hospitals. We stopped at the Chorale synagogue which was quite beautiful. Its name comes from the fact that it had a choir of boys and men. It had a very famous cantor who also sang opera. It was not damaged during the war as it was used as a storehouse by the Germans for the clothing of Jews who they killed.

We had the opportunity to walk through the city with one of our classmates who is from Kaunas. She pointed out the faded lettering from a Jewish orphanage and a former synagogue which was now an auto repair shop. We asked her when she became aware of the former Lithuanian Jews and the Holocaust. She told us that she did not learn of it until she was a university student. She read a book by a Lithuanian Jew about the town where her family came from and wanted to know more. She had been unaware that Jews had made up almost half of the population of her city. Interestingly she is now studying Yiddish literature. Before our return to the city we did a brief stop at the former home of the Japanese diplomat Sugihara. Sugihara saved the lives of 6000 Jews by issuing visas against the express orders of his government. He was quoted as saying,"I may have disobeyed my government, but if I didn't, I would be disobeying God."

Our return to Vilnius ended on a lighter note as we helped one of our friends celebrate her birthday. We are feeling a strong connection to many of our new friends. Being thrown together as we fumble with the language and grapple with some very emotional topics is definitely a bonding experience.

Read more about the Ninth Fort 
Read more about the Kovno Ghetto

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Chilling Past

As we approach our last week in Vilnius many of us are feeling a bit overwhelmed with the historical immersion into the Holocaust. I still find it difficult to watch a movie about the Holocaust and for many years hesitated to dive into genealogy as I knew I would have to confront the role of the Holocaust in my own family history. When I did finally tackle that subject I had to steel myself to read the horrors in the Yizkor Books of the shtetls from which my family came.

It is a subject that we typically absorb in small doses. Here it is ever present around us. We feel a ghostlike presence when we look at the well-worn steps in places that once were Jewish institutions. We also feel it deeply in the negative space, the failure to recognize the 200,000 deaths as murders of Jews. Frequently genocide is discussed solely in terms of the Soviet occupation despite the fact that almost half the town was murdered by the Nazis. That half is no longer here to protest so their history is easily forgotten.

One of the places that seeks to preserve that history is the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, also known as the Green House. Our visit to it yesterday was led by Rokhl Kostanian, its Deputy Director. She had also been our guide for the Vilna Ghetto Walk. We have also had some contact with the museum through an Austrian classmate who is working at the museum as part of the Gedenkdienst (Remembrance) Program, an important resource for the museum. In 1944-45 there was a Jewish Museum which was closed by the Soviets. It was started again in 1990. Announcements were put in newspapers to buy Jewish materials. All museums having Jewish articles were required to return them to the museum resulting in a collection of 6,000 artifacts.

The museum tells the history of the Jews in Vilna and the rich cultural community that existed prior to the war. It also tells the story of the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis as well as life within the ghetto. Note that the use of the term partisan is also used in a totally different context when talking about Lithuanian partisans. The museum has maps that show the killing sites that dot the entire map of Lithuania as well as the routes by which Jews from France, Germany, Latvia and Austria were sent to Lithuania because the Lithuanian population was more cooperative with the Nazis.

Our guide told us that in Berlin there are plaques between the rails at the train station that cite the number of Jews who were deported to such places as Kaunas and murdered.

What was most horrifying were the words of the Nazis captured in their internal memos and the complicity of many in the local population. In today’s blog these words will speak for themselves.

In a memo from Jager, SS Standartenfuhrer it states, “On my instructions and orders the following executions were conducted by Lithuanian partisans.”After listing a number of actions it then provides a lengthy list of actions that were conducted in cooperation with Lithuanian partisans. A typical entry in the list that follows provides the date, the city and records the number murdered broken down by Jews, Jewesses and Jewish children. Occasionally the list includes gypsies, Communists and the mentally ill. One entry caught our attention as it recorded the death of 2,007 Jews, 2,920 Jewesses and 4,273 Jewish children. In parenthesis it notes “mopping up ghetto of superfluous Jews.”

At the end of the memo it states “Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3. In Lithuania there are no more Jews, apart from Jewish workers and their families.

These total:
In Schaulen c. 4,500
In Kauen c. 15,000
In Wilna c. 15,000

I also intended to kill these Jewish workers plus their families but came against strong protests on the part of the civil administration (the Reichskommisar) and the Wehrmacht and instructions were issued that these Jews and their families were not to be executed.

It was only possible to achieve our objective of making Lithuania free of Jews by forming a raiding squad consisting of specially selected men led by SS-Obersturmfuhrer Hamann, who grasped my aims completely and understood the importance of ensuring cooperation with the Lithuanian partisans and the relevant civilian authorities.

The execution of such actions is first and foremost a matter of organization. The decision to clear each district of Jews systematically required a thorough preparation of each individual action and reconnaissance of the prevailing conditions in the district concerned. The Jews had to be assembled at one or several places. Depending on the number of Jews a place for graves had to be found and then the graves dug. The distance from the assembly point to the graves was on average 4 to 5 km. The Jews were transported in detachments of 500 to the execution area, with a distance of at least 2 km between them.

The following example, selected at random, demonstrates the difficulties and the acutely stressful nature of the work:

In Rokiskis 3,208 people had to be transported 4 ½ km before they could be liquidated. In order to get this work done within 24 hours, over 60 of the available Lithuanian partisans had to be detailed for cordon duty. The rest who had to be relieved constantly, carried out the work together with my men. Lorries are only very occasionally available for transporting the Jews. There were a number of escape attempts which were thwarted single-handedly by my men, whose own lives were at risk….The marching distance to and from each individual action totaled 160-200 km. It was only through the efficient use of time that it was possible to carry out up to five actions per week…

The actions in Kauen itself, where there was an adequate number of reasonably well-trained partisans available, were like parade ground shooting in comparison with the often enormous difficulties which had to be faced elsewhere. All the officers and men in my Kommando took an active part in the major actions in Kauen….

I consider the Jewish action more or less terminated as far as Einsatzkommando 3 is concerned. Those working Jews and Jewesses still available are needed urgently and I can envision that after winter this workforce will be required even more urgently. I am of the view that the sterilization programme of the male worker Jews should be started immediately so that reproduction is prevented. If despite sterilization a Jewess should become pregnant she will be liquidated.” Based on Ernest Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess, The Good Old Days-New York 1991 & the Mass Murders in Lithuania, Document Collection, vol 1 Vilnius, 1965.

Ever write a self-evaluation for a performance review? Essentially that is what this was.

The role of the Lithuanian partisans is noted above, but the effort to engage them is stated even more directly in a document from Franz Stahlecker, SS Brigadier General and Major General of the Police. He apparently did his job so effectively that he was made Chief Commander of the SS. Here he states the following:

“It was the task of the Security Police to set these self-cleansing movements going…It was no less important to establish as unshakeable and provable facts for the future that it was the liberated population itself which took the most severe measures, on its own initiative, against the Bolshevik and Jewish enemy, without any German instruction being evident.

In Lithuania this was achieved for the first time by activating the partisans in Kovno…the leader of the partisan group…succeeded in starting a pogrom with the aid of instructions given to him by a small advance detachment operating in Kovno, in such a way that no German orders or instructions could be observed by outsiders. In the course of the first pogrom during the night of June 25/26, the Lithuanian partisans eliminated more than 1,500 Jews…During the nights that followed, 2,300 Jews were eliminated in the same way. ..It was obvious that only the first days after the Occupation would offer the opportunity for carrying out pogroms. After the disarmament of the partisans the self-cleansing Aktionen necessarily ceased.

The document goes on to state that German special units were assisted by partisan groups in Lithuania and parties of the Latvian Auxilary Police in Latvia. It notes that a large part of skilled trades were in Jewish hands and those Jewish craftsmen were indispensible at that time. It notes the resistance of the Civil Administration to large-scale executions and states, “This (resistance) was confronted in every case by pointing out that it was a matter of carrying out orders (involving) a basic principle.”

The detachment and rationality of these memos about cold blooded murder is chilling. In conversations with my classmates, we can’t help but wonder what it is in the make-up of a human being that allows such inhumanity and degradation. The ability of these people to compartmentalize and rationalize their job of murder while continuing to live a normal family life is incomprehensible to us. And it doesn’t end. We are told that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in this region of the world. We are amazed that such hatred against so few can still exist. We look around the world and see this inhumanity continue to play out in different forms around the globe while the rest of the world allows it to happen.