Beitar: Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Riga, Latvia.
Challah: a braided loaf of bread used for the Sabbath meal.
Chevra Kadisha: the Jewish burial society. (The Hebrew words mean Holy Society.)
Gordon/Gordonia: Zionist youth movement founded in 1923 in Galicia. Named for A. D. Gordon (1856-1922).
Goye: Yiddish word that means gentile woman.
Hachnasat Orchim: a charity shelter for homeless Jews.
Hashara: Zionist youth organization whose goal was to train Jews to work the land.
Komsomol: Communist youth organization.
Lithuanian activists: members of the infamous Front of the Lithuanian Activists, an organization whose goal was to free Lithuania of Communists and Russians. During Soviet rule in Lithuania in 1940-1941 the Front was an underground organization. In the early days of World War II, the activists organized operations and actions for the Germans. Later the Germans mobilized many activists into police. Special military units were formed from the activists whose sole purpose was to destroy Jews. White patches worn on their sleeves were the distinguishing marks of the activists.
Mitzvah: a Torah commandment. The term connotes any good deed or kind act.
Nekome: both a Yiddish and a Hebrew word that means revenge/vengeance.
Shaulists: members of a right-wing nationalist Lithuanian party which produced most of the murderers.
Shochet: Hebrew word for ritual slaughterer.
Shtetl (pl. shtetlach): a small market town or village in Eastern Europe which was almost entirely Jewish.
Smaugiks: members of special troops, much like storm troopers, formed from the activists. The Jews and many Lithuanians called them smaugiks, which in Russian means to take one by the throat and strangle him.
Smeton, Antanas: (1874-1944) first president of interwar independent Lithuania. When Lithuania was occupied by Soviet forces in June 1940, Smeton fled via Germany to the United States.
Stokit: Lithuanian word meaning stop!
Tatars: Turkic people who lived in the Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the Crimea, and parts of Asia.
|Yiddish Name||Lithuanian Name|
|Yiddish Name||Lithuanian Name|
Riva lives in Vilna, Lithuania, in a small apartment she shares with her sister, Tsila Lozansky-Sheinker. The two widows are among the last survivors of the shtetl Butrimantz. Of a Jewish population that had numbered two thousand before the war, only ten survived in Butrimantz. Five of those are still alive today.
Riva is fluent in six languages. She can switch from Yiddish to Hebrew, from Russian to Polish, from Lithuanian to German. While most survivors ran from Europe after the war, trying to escape their haunting memories and begin new lives, Riva remained in Lithuania.
Driven by a compulsion to avenge the murder of "our fallen ones," consumed by the responsibility to perpetuate their memory, Riva has committed her life to delivering a promise she has carried inside herself for more than half a century.
"I will do whatever is possible until my last breath," she says in a low voice. "Their last wish was that those who survive should not forget or forgive their murder. I was spared and carry the responsibility of their request."
That responsibility has been borne almost entirely by Riva. After the liberation, when she emerged from hiding in the forests, she found the mass graves of Butrimantz. "They were covered with very little dirt - only lime so that no evidence should remain. Dogs dragged away their bones, arms, legs and heads. Many had been buried alive."
She tried to get help from the government to make a proper grave for them, but the Soviets weren't interested in graves. They did not help. She tried to recruit the other
survivors, but the few remaining Jews were afraid of taking risks, of causing trouble. They knew that the Lithuanians did not want Jewish witnesses around who could testify against them. Jews were even being killed in their freedom.
"But God did not forsake me. A few Lithuanians did help me, and my husband Avraham helped. We made two proper graves: one for the 976 men and women, the other for the 265 children and elders. We fenced in the sites and placed headstones there. I had the inscriptions for the headstones made in Kovno. And I inscribed, 'Eternal shame on the murderers.' But this did not please someone, and the inscription was forbidden."
Riva's husband planted trees around the graves. From the outside, the circle of trees look as though they are hiding shame. But when you stand inside the circle, the trees rise up like eternal guards.
For fifty years Riva has hunted for and located dozens of Jewish mass graves throughout Lithuania, so that they could be identified and memorialized. But the targets of her most intense hunt have been the Nazi collaborators who, in the autumn of 1941, following the Germans' instructions and following their hearts, turned on the Jews of Lithuania. It is the spilling of Jewish blood by friends and neighbors - the local Lithuanians - that is Riva's greatest rage. She is the last voice of the ghosts of Butrimantz, the last echo of their cries in the forest.
Dvora Reznik lives in Kovno, Lithuania.
Victoria Golombewski lives in Vilna, Lithuania.
Tevie Sheinker died in Kovno on January 14, 1984.
That this work has
reached publication is in itself a story of survival and remembrance only
slightly less impressive than the testimony of the survivors. Each writer is
faithful to the past, each bears witness for the future. Not quite a history of
a village, If I Forget Thee
adds to our understanding of the relationship between Jews and Lithuanians as
well as the struggle to find places to hide in the most dangerous era of Jewish
Michael Berenbaum, President
Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
If I Forget Thee
is a valuable contribution for a better understanding of Jewish life in the
shtetls of Eastern Europe and of our destiny.
Moshe Sanbar, Chairman
Centre of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors
Front cover: The bridge to the killing fields
Image from a photo by Olga Zabludoff, 1992
|Printed in the USA||ISBN 0-9669349-0-3|
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Updated 20 Aug 2005 by LA