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.

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