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[Pages 7-9]


by Sara Weiss-Slep

Translated by Sara and Shlomo Guberman

I myself am not from Dusiat. I was born in Haifa (Eretz Yisrael - Palestine). My interest in Dusiat began during my childhood from the stories my father would tell about his shtetl, about family members who remained there, about the snow, the lake and the Goyim. I loved listening to those stories time and again. While growing up, I did get to know some of the Dusiater (Jews of Dusiat) when they held their reunions where emotions would bubble up like springs, and recollections of mischievous childhood would mingle with tears of deep sorrow and mourning. I would observe it all from the side with wonder.

My mother's family came from Galicia. Most of them immigrated to Eretz Yisrael during the 1920s and 1930s. In those days, I was one of few of my age group with grandparents, uncles and aunts living in Eretz Yisrael. Still, just a small number of my father's relatives lived here, and I only became acquainted with my relatives living overseas through photographs. My father would trace the outline of my small palm on the letters he sent “home" to members of his family, on which he helped me write "warm kisses".

During World War II we were all very anxious about the safety of the family who had remained in the Diaspora. I vividly remember the siren that announced the end of the war and, like everyone, hoped that the day was drawing near when we would be reunited with all our relatives. I would go with my parents to see the survivors who had arrived in Eretz Yisrael after they were brought to the immigrant camp in Kiryat Shmuel. Through the wire fence, my father would approach them and ask: "Perhaps, my fellow Jew, you have heard of so and so from Lithuania? From Dusiat?” giving the names of his relatives.

The first piece of news from “there” came in July 1945 from Tzipora, from the Bergen-Belsen death camp. She wrote about her contact with Micha, my uncle, and how they had hoped to meet again once the war ended, at the "home of Avraham Slep (my father), Rehov Dalet #9, Kiryat Chaim” - an address that would be forever engraved in her heart. It was from her that we heard in detail about the Vilna Ghetto, the concentration camps, the horrific killings and the hunger… When she arrived in Eretz Yisrael, we welcomed her to our home which rapidly served as accommodation for her friends, all new immigrants, each with his or her own tale of suffering. We listened, and it seemed to me that we were not yet able to comprehend that all this had really happened.

At the end of 1946 we received Avraham Levitt's letter from Ponevez. He wrote about the last time he had seen Yehuda and Henia, my father's brother and sister, and that none of the family was still alive. It was then that I saw my father cry. The questions tormented me: Why had they not come to Eretz Yisrael before? Why had they not escaped? Why had they not survived?

When helping his grandchildren with their project "Our Grandparents' Heritage", my father dedicated to them the story of his Hachshara (training) and Aliya (immigration to Eretz Yisrael) as a Chalutz (pioneer). At the core of it all was the love of Eretz Yisrael [1] . When Yitzchak Porat (Poritz) reviewed my father's memoirs, he expressed a desire to put the story of the shtetl down in writing. "We can do this together when I retire," Yitzchak promised, but unfortunately he did not live to accomplish this.

Amalia Arnov, my aunt's granddaughter on my mother's side, elaborated on my father's story as part of her studies, and added my uncle Yosef's and aunt Miryam's [2] recollections of the shtetl to the memoirs. I presented this memoir to Dusiater Rivka Levitt with the encouragement of my mother Esther (Orgel), who had learned about the shtetl from the Dusiater whom she greatly admired. It was as if this renewed Rivka's strength, and from her sickbed she related her own memories. It was she who referred me to Malka Feldman, a Holocaust survivor: "Go and see her, she will tell you the story of the last days of our shtetl … “

Malka began her story with the life in the shtetl, and proceeded with how the Lithuanians, at the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, had ambushed the Jews on the roads. She told me about fleeing eastwards, and about the devastated shtetl. At the end of her story, she handed me a letter that had arrived from Russia in 1966, written by the Dusiater [Gershon Slep]. In beautifully handwritten Hebrew it stated: "Generation after generation will pass, all will be torn apart, and no one will remain to remember us and our forefathers …"

Malka referred me to other survivors, and influenced by the letter, I began visiting Dusiater, pioneers and survivors, visits that eventually turned into a journey to the Zionist shtetl in Lithuania …

There is not enough space to tell of the experiences I shared with the people from Dusiat, some I had only just heard about for the first time. When I met with them, I immediately felt at home, as with family. Now I share their memories and their secrets as a full-fledged member of the shtetl. I wanted to understand the key to their fluent Hebrew, and how they ended up in Eretz Yisrael of all places. “Where else? Go from one Diaspora to another?” they would reply. My questions sparked off a flood of associations and instead of answering directly they would expand on other areas.

Those relating their personal stories spoke of memories of their traditional family homes with deep longing, of Hashomer Hatzair (Youth Movement), and of their struggle to make their way to Eretz Yisrael. With great joy, humor, and uplifted spirits, they told of their Hachshara, and the pioneering days in Eretz Yisrael. Persuading the survivors to speak out was by no means an easy task. The transition from childhood memories to wartime was too abrupt, and they had difficulty searching for words to describe the horrors.

When they returned to Dusiat they found their homes inhabited by Goyim and the shtetl empty of Jews; our beloved ones had all been buried alive in the slaughter pits!

The question haunts us unrelentingly: Why did this all happen?

With the utmost care I wrote down every word that, one by one, together with letters and photographs, merged into a complete mosaic of the shtetl. Dusiat was revealed before my eyes, especially after Micha Barron sketched the plan of the shtetl and Shayke Glick "populated" it with the names and occupations of the inhabitants. The branches of the family trees reveal that most of the Dusiater were related to each other either by blood or marriage.

In the summer of 1982 at Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters' House), Zvi Shner gave a speech at a memorial service to the Dusiat community: "It is important to have a Yad Vashem (memorial) for the shtetl that once existed and is no more." He encouraged us to use the memoirs that had been compiled and to write a book that would serve as an eternal memorial.

About The Editing

We lacked the necessary resources for professional editing, and the vast amount of material will probably hinder a continuous flow in the reading. "The book is packed with details. However, I understand the difficulty of omitting details," Professor Dov Levin said to me. “Omitting something is like destroying it,” warned Professor Dov Sadan, who likened the collection of stories to Kaddish.

The devoted reader will "journey" back and forth over the pages to the shtetl. The decision not to edit the book in chronological order was a difficult one, but was made to avoid breaking up stories that spread over different periods of time, and to present them almost in their entirety, in much the same way "a story is told by a grandfather to his grandchildren". For this reason the language of the narrators has for the most part been left unchanged.

The first stories are those of the Slep siblings: Yosef, Avraham and Miryam, stories that sent me on "my journey" to the shtetl, and to which I chose to add the memoirs of Henia Sneh (Blacher). Both sets of stories reflect the life in the shtetl and the vision of its pioneers.

Some parts of the book, especially Life in the Shtetl and The Annihilation of the Shtetl, are told as if the narrators are gathered together and, in much the same way as in the old days, are sharing memories with one another, adding and intertwining their words with those of others. With this form of presentation, I wanted to create for the reader the feeling that the people are here with us, that we can imagine hearing the sounds of their laughter and, in contrast, the vibrations of their voices and pain. In these conversations, [in the Hebrew version] the narrators are identified by their first names and by the first letter of their family names. “Interjections” are indented.

In the chapter Chalutzim Go to Eretz Yisrael , the personal stories of the pioneers are presented according to the date of their immigration to Eretz Yisrael, in most cases corresponding with their age, commencing with Chaim Levitt (who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael on December 1, 1920). I tried to present the stories of the Dusiater who live in the Diaspora in order of the date of their emigration from Lithuania. They maintain a close and continuous relationship with Eretz Yisrael, and I believe that their stories are a continued history of the shtetl that no longer exists.

Letters sent from the shtetl between 1935 and 1939 are compiled and presented in a special chapter. Their spirit manifests a yearning for Eretz Yisrael and a concern for the destiny of its people.

The condensed version of Dovid-Leib's [Aires] [3] terrible story is told in a chapter on the history of the Soviet period.

The stories of the survivors, those who fled eastwards, have also been compiled in a special chapter. The story of Rachel Rabinowitz (Slovo), a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto and Stutthof concentration camp, is told in a separate chapter, together with the stories of three Holocaust survivors who were not born in Dusiat, but whose families come from Dusiat. They are the ones who told me about the last time they met up with my family.

It is to my sorrow that, when the book is published, many of those who shared in its creation will not have the fortune of ever holding it in their hands. It is a small comfort however that almost everyone did have a chance to review the compiled material for the book, and was able to attend the meetings held at Beit Lohamei Haghetaot and at the home of Leibele and Sonya Slovo. The first meeting was recorded on video.

While the material for the book was being compiled and edited, three important books were published: Yahadut Lita, Volume 4; Hayu Chalutzim Be'Lita; and on Hashomer Hatzair in Lithuania, Me'reshit Ad Acharit. I went back and reviewed these books, as well as the other Litvak books that preceded them, particularly the Yizkor Book of Rakishok and Environs. I feel that I identify with them just as a native Litvak would.

On the cover of the memoir commemorating Rivka Shoham (Melamed), her daughter Nili wrote: "To Sara! May you have the strength to finish what you have started with such momentum, and may we be privileged to learn about our mother's roots through you …" [4]

Other people of her generation have expressed that wish to me as well.

Let it be!

In Gratitude

To Ruti Richter (Yitzchaki), my childhood friend from Kiryat Chaim, the first to read the collection of stories, and who recommended that I show them to the wonderful man Zvi Shner, the director of Beit Lohamei Haghetaot until he passed away. His door was always open to me for assistance and guidance.

To Sara Neshamit-Shner (Beit Lohamei Haghetaot), Professor Dov Levin (Hamachon L'Yahadut Zmanenu [Institute for Contemporary Judaism]) and Yitzchak Alperowitz (Yad Vashem) who devoted so much of their time to me and whose assistance and remarks were so very helpful.

To Daniel Ben-Nahum, veteran activist of Hashomer Hatzair and member of Kibbutz Beit Zera who, from the very first stages of writing the book, responded sympathetically to my badgering. He encouraged me through his numerous letters not to give up, even in difficult times, reviewed my manuscripts from beginning to end and also wrote the foreword to the book.

To Shmuel Segal of S. Segal & Co. Printing Press, without whose support this book undoubtedly would not have been published, and to members of his staff who showed such interest in the writings and who did wonderful work.

Worthy of special gratitude are my family and friends for their patience when, for such a long period of time, my home was “filled with Dusiat".

And last but not least, the Dusiater who helped finance the publishing of the book, and who opened their homes and hearts to me. Through the reflection of their memories I have discovered the source of their love for Eretz Yisrael, for the Hebrew language and for the shtetl.

Together in this way we have founded a memorial to the shtetl in Lithuania that was annihilated during the Holocaust.

Sara Weiss-Slep

Footnotes :

  1. Slep, Avraham. Personal story dedicated to his grandchildren, 1967 (later referred to as: “The Slep Story”). Return
  2. Arnov, Amalia. Story of a Pioneer, Haifa, 1978. Return
  3. Aires, Dovid-Leib. Exile in the Far North (two booklets in Yiddish, later referred to as: “Aires in Exile”). Return
  4. Shoham-Melamed, Rivka. In Memoriam booklet, Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, 1960 (later referred to as: “Rivka's Memoriam”). Return

[Pages 10-12]

Lithuanian Jewry in Miniature

by Daniel Ben-Nahum

Translated by Sara and Shlomo Guberman

During the period of independence between the two world wars, Lithuania was a small country covering only a small part of the territory it had ruled during its time of historical greatness. Many Jews who were born and grew up in the area that would be later defined as "Independent Lithuania" had left due to poverty and distress, immigrating to other countries and regions, principally to Britain, America and South Africa. During World War I the government of the Czar expelled many more, who were never able to return to their homeland. From the glorious Jewish community that had been called “Litvak” for its unique cultural heritage, the roots of which went back to earlier times when Lithuanian Jewry enjoyed a cultural renaissance, only a small minority of about 150,000 remained in independent Lithuania. During this period while the Jews flourished culturally, their basis for material existence became more and more restricted, and the possibility of immigrating to places on the other side of the ocean became increasingly limited. At the end of the 1920s and during the 1930s, Eretz Yisrael remained not only the most yearned for and desired destination, but was also the only real choice, the only practical way out from the strangling grip that tightened around Europe's Jewry, a grip that during World War II became a death trap. Many were able to reach Eretz Yisrael, but many more, whose way there was barred, were less fortunate. And there were those who were drawn to other destinations …

Between the two World Wars, some 12,000-13,000 Lithuanian Jews managed to reach Eretz Yisrael, a small number compared to the tens of thousands knocking at its gates.

The shutting of the gates to Eretz Yisrael, and the drastic reduction in immigration quotas, sealed the personal fates of the majority who are the "unsung heroes" of this book.

This dark reality is told in the words of those who experienced it first-hand, sealed in the souls of the few who succeeded in escaping the Valley of Death just in time. It is sad that the book can only in a minute fashion express the feelings of our fathers' and mothers' generation, as most of their bones are buried in the mass graves of the Holocaust.

Perusal of "Dusiat Reflected in Reminiscences", the writings and testimonies, the pen sketches and flowery lines, the pictures of cultures and customs, unconsciously revives an entire world that has passed away and no longer exists, forever lost in the abyss of bloodshed. The book does not omit any detail or symbol, material or spiritual, of holidays and secular days, of joy and grief. Conversations seasoned with small talk, with wit and humor, casual talk that flows freely without restraint, all contribute to the all-important details of life, enhancing the book with graceful and artistic lines.

Suddenly I saw the shtetl Dusiat before my eyes, as it was back then in my youth, hidden amidst forests and lakes, with its peaceful houses and streets, and endless dusty roads stretching to the neighboring towns, roads that brought many of its sons and daughters here …

The beautiful and heartwarming aspect of this book is that it tells the story of an ordinary shtetl that, apart from having several unique characteristics, was not distinguished by any exceptional achievements, just like so many other shtetls. After all, every Jewish shtetl in Lithuania was blessed with its rabbis, scholars and writers. Precisely for this reason, without having to sacrifice a hint of its individuality and unique character, Dusiat may serve as a typical model, a "prototype" for dozens of similar Jewish shtetls that continued weaving their life stories until their horrific end. Its stories cover those difficult concerns of existence and livelihood that were never properly resolved, the bitter poverty that led to hungry babies amongst the “needy”, those evil afflictions brought on both by men and the heavens, pogroms and fires, decrees of war and expulsions followed by painstaking rebuilding of the destroyed “nest”. They describe the fabric of relationships with the peasant farming community surrounding the shtetl on all sides; the apparently routine and decent neighborly relations that were paired with a constant fear of re-inflaming a dimmed hatred and a one-sided dependence when negotiating each market day's "takings" with them. They describe the yearning for, and flocking to, the big cities and the emigration overseas and expectations of help “from there".

In the midst of such a narrow, limited and poor exterior, it is astonishing to see the existence of such a rich and diversified internal spiritual world, both amongst the older generation of the Cheder and the Yeshiva with its Torah teachings, Jewish traditions and customs, as well as amongst the younger generation who moved on in so many respects, and who brought new songs and a new spirit to the remote shtetl. This was the generation that established the Jewish elementary schools, and revived the spoken Hebrew language, which breathed life from new literature. This was the generation that planted the first seeds of Hechalutz followed by Hashomer Hatzair that inspired every youngster to make Eretz Yisrael, kibbutz and a life of manual labor the object of desire and contemplation.

These developments took place during a time of tremendous change in the wider world, changes which reached even the small shtetl. However, the changes also followed from internal values whose roots were in the warm atmosphere of the family home, the Jewish environment and the many layers of Jewish traditions that were part of their fabric. Here, as well, there was certainly no shortage of contrasts between the generations: the traditional religious way of life of the Jewish community with its institutions as established and handed down through the generations, and movements and streams that called for revolutionizing the Jewish entity and viewed the struggle with the old order as necessary to pave the way for new avenues. However, these dichotomies did not create a rift in the continuity of life, or a "breaking of contact", which became the typical tragic pattern of so many other Jewish communities. The young generation viewed itself as both continuing and paving the way of their fathers, some of whom also felt the ground shaking beneath their feet. The often tense and stormy arguments between the generations were confined to the family domain, and neither shook nor weakened the mutual affinity and the internal completeness.

The Dusiater were not all made from the same mold. The book describes their personalities, either extensively or in limited sketches, each with his or her own portrait, identity and way of life, each with his or her home, occupation and character, each family with its share of twists and turns of fate. It describes the fabric of relationships between people, between generations, between man and woman, as well as friendships, love and even rivalry and competition, as is the way of the world.

Even in a small community there are differences between "enlightened" scholars of the Torah - "holy vessels" - and between the commoners, the industrious artisans, the hard-working people, differences between strong and well-built farmers and fishermen on the one hand, and “homeowners and businessmen” on the other. However, the contrasts between them were not as exaggerated as in the big city, and all consciously or subconsciously shared the feeling of a common Jewish destiny. The mutual assistance that was the custom of the shrinking shtetl and the "secret almsgiving" by the more fortunate greatly dulled the sharpness of social contrasts and diminished their severity. Differences emanating from social strata were also apparent amongst youngsters, even in young children in their games, tricks and mischief. However, it was school and later the youth movement that united everyone into a single cohesive unit.

The Holocaust unites everyone, all those who survived, in their deep grief over lost loved ones.

A typical element of life in the shtetl was the revival of the Hebrew language, which was taught in elementary school for just four to five years, and was not spoken in the home. This was undoubtedly the achievement of the Jewish elementary school teacher, for whom education was not just a means to an end, but a life's mission, into which he put his entire soul, despite his poor salary which was barely enough to make ends meet. He had to teach under the constant watchful eye of the Lithuanian superintendent, who was strict about teaching the language of the country. The teacher, of course, received help from the parents where, in the majority of cases, not only the father but also the mother understood the language. Nonetheless, it is a mystery how the ostracized Hebrew language was not forgotten even by the “few single stalks of wheat”, after decades of living in the Soviet environment.

One vividly feels the atmosphere of Eretz Yisrael that hovered over the shtetl, this corner of beauty lying in the north amidst lakes and woods, thousands of miles away from Eretz Yisrael, and yet so close to it in the spirit and soul of its sons and daughters. When the youngsters sailed their boats on the lake they imagined it to be the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). They pictured the dense forest lying behind the shtetl, which haunted them with its fears and shadows, to be the woods of the Negev or the Carmel forests. The Eretz Yisrael atmosphere also pervaded the activities, camps, sailing and songs of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair. This was not simply an ideological element, but above all provided the emotional and psychological background for the essence of life evolving in it. It was expressed through meetings in the modest Ken (“cell” – movement clubhouse), at the home of the Badchen (jester), in the innocent and emotional letters of adolescent girls who opened their hearts to each other. It was revealed by the identification with everything taking place in Eretz Yisrael, which strengthened during the years of adolescence and youth, and later bound personal plans together with an expected future in Eretz Yisrael, even at a time when the road was blocked and the gates were shut.

During this time, when the means of livelihood had to be taken care of, even if it became necessary to neglect Hachshara in order to assist the family in its distress, the communal Eretz Yisrael experience remained the dominant element in the daily lives of the youth movement members. This experience did not stop short at the doorstep of their homes; rather it suckled its strength thence and bound itself to a difficult reality. Many parents gave their blessing to the pioneering choice of their sons and daughters and hoped to meet them there, in the homeland.

This impression is formed from the agony and the searching documented in these records, memoirs and testimonies.

This is not an ordinary Yizkor book, where the past is seen through a veil of tears and is completely distilled, purified, sacred and noble, like a stage that has been raised above everyday life. Instead, everyday life with all its worries and annoying troubles, great struggles and burdensome anxieties, are all reflected in the many facets of the book. This is what makes this book different from the other important and large volumes written on the destroyed Lithuanian Jewry, books on generations of history, development and cultural achievements, centers of Torah and education, personalities and leaders, scholars and writers, artists and educators and on the great movements that determined and changed its image.

Since historical books center on general problems, it is impossible to include in them all the small but nonetheless real incidents of daily being that hold the secrets of life and its eternal flow. In this book, the aspect of Jewish reality is depicted in detail through reflections of reminiscences. The Jewish microcosm of a small community at the far end of Lithuania, a typical community that was destroyed, is described here studiously and with unparalleled devotion.

With great love and extreme care, the handwritten and oral testimonies were collected from the shtetl residents, pioneers and scattered survivors wherever they were to be found. This was all done without discrimination and in order not to lose any particle or even the smallest part of its memoirs of the past which could still be saved from oblivion.

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