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[Page 168]



A South African Returns
to the Lithuanian Shtetl

by Mendel Kaplan

My father was born in Johannesburg in 1906, but lost both his parents at a very early age. His mother, who was Rose Karabelnik from Krakinovo, died in 1913 when my father was 6 years old; and his father, Menachem Mendel (Max), who was born in Shadove, died in 1923. My mother's father, Isaac Bloch from Riteve, died in 1919 and only my mother's mother, Rochel, born Groll, also from Riteve, survived to become the link between her grandchildren and her shtetl. So, while we knew vaguely of Shadove through cousins of my grandfather, and even more vaguely of Krakinovo, we had learnt a great deal about Riteve.

My grandmother had spoken of the ‘blotte’ or mud streets and of the Porilz in whose fields she collected chestnuts; and of the Beit Midrash or school to which she could not go because only males studied – she paid her brother to teach her his lessons. She told the story, related in this book, of the Poritz Oginski, father of the Poritz she knew. Offended by some Jews, he had removed all the holy objects from the Beit Midrash and had ordercc pigs to be driven into it. afterwards turning it into a dwelling for his tenants. Some years later, in 1859, he had fomented rebellion against the Russian government. Knowing he was going to be arrested, he committed suicide. It so happened that this event took place on the eve of Purim. The Jews regarded this as G–d's will and, thereafter, celebrated not only the death of Haman at Purim, but that of the Poritz Oginski, too. My grandmother did point out, however, that his son permitted the building of a new Beit Midrash on a different site from the one his father had desecrated.

So Riteve was part of our memory and, in fact, my grandmother and her large family all came to South Africa and all lived in the little village ol Parow. My grandmother's father, Israel Groll, after whom I have my middle name, was born in 1845 outside Riteve on a farm in Pastravinska, and died in Cape Town in 1922. I think

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Outside the synagogue of Vilna


that, by the mid–1930s when I was born, there was nobody left in Riteve whom my grandmother had known personally. Even before that, my mother did not remember any letters passing to and from Riteve. She could not recall that her mother mourned for any family members who died in the Holocaust. The people that the family in South Africa should have mourned were probably not born by the time my grandmother left Riteve. She did not even know who they were. And to me, growing up in Parow in my own environment, Riteve was like a world chat existed in another universe.

The return to a Lithuanian shtetl by a South African Jew, not only bom in South Africa, but whose parents were bom there too, was inconceivable over most of my lifetime. For one reason, there was no relationship between South Africa and most East European countries. For another, there was a long distance in time, culture and history between the Lithuanian shtetl of my great–grandfather and today's industrial environment.

Then, during the 1980s. Jewish communal commitments enabled my family and me to visit Eastern Europe on a regular basis for some five years on behalf of the World Jewish Congress and Jewish Agency. I remember a visit in 1983 to Tichocin, on the border between Poland and Lithuania – because of its situation it gave me a feel of what Lithuania must have been like. I thought to myself that this was the sort of countryside that my grandmother had come from; the horses pulling ploughs in the fields and the wonderful old synagogue. I had no hope then of going there, but this made me determined to do so.

The World Jewish Congress was able to organise the first Jewish meeting in

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The Forest of Ponery (Ponar). Young trees grow where 80,000 Jews were killed in 1941
This was one of a number of Holocaust sites visited


Eastern Europe in Budapest in 1987 and further contacts were cemented when its offices for the Jewish Agency for Eastern Europe were opened in the same city in 1988. These meetings created a personal relationship with the prime minister and members of the government of Hungary and an increased willingness on their part to act as a bridge between East and West.

The changes in Hungary, together with Glasnost in the Soviet Union, allowed Edgar Bronfman, Simcha Dinitz and myself to pay an official visit to Moscow in November 1988. This, together with other initiatives, led, and will lead, to a greater involvement of Israel and Diaspora Jewry with the Jews of the Soviet Union. It allowed a massive opportunity for ‘operation redemption’ in terms of the reconstruction of Soviet Jewish life and ‘operation exodus’ – the ability to persuade those who emigrate to live in Israel. In November 1988, the minister ol culture suggested that I could get permission to visit Lithuania. (I was not a Catholic, and it was Catholics who were giving the Soviet Union problems at that stage!) And so, in June 1989. apart from communal opportunities, the new era also allowed my wife, my elder son, David, and me to visit Lithuania – which we did the following month.

After receiving our visas in Budapest, we flew directly to Riga for a programme of four days in that city and four days in Vilna – with an opportunity to visit the shtetlakh meaningful to our family in between. It was not so much a geographical exploration, but more like peeling off layers from an onion as our journey became a sort of time machine. Layers of the more recent past had to be peeled away before

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we could perceive something of what we really yearned to see: the Lithuania of the shtetl and to walk in the footsteps of our antecedents and feel something of the life style they had experienced.

We wondered to what extent we could realise our dream. At the outset, we had no direct links with anybody in Lithuania or Latvia – other than with the leaders of the Latvian Jewish Cultural Society, whom we would meet in Riga, and their Lithuanian counterparts in Vilna. However, as I was leaving London for Budapest, my wife informed me that Abe Galaun, a relative in Zambia, had met a man of our family who had survived the Holocaust and was living close to Riteve. This man would be able to guide us in our search for the past. And, through a totally random incident, we met him: Alexander Judelis. It was through him that we became entwined in the world of our great–grandfathers. But first, to get to this world, we had to peel off three levels of time which kept interposing themselves between the shtetl ol the late 19th century and the world of the present 20th century.

I feel, therefore, that a true understanding of our experiences is best captured by looking at our journey in an attempt to work through the layers of time which separated us from the world of the shtetl. The layers we had to peel away were, firstly the Lithuania and Latvia of today; secondly the Holocaust which still overwhelms any Jewish experience; and thirdly, the high point of history of the Baltic States, which came between the two world wars – the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And only after we had peeled off these layers, we soon realised, would we grasp the life of the shtetl – if there was anything left to grasp.


Lithuania and Latvia of 1989

Any newspaper of today gives evidence of the major changes facing Eastern Europe. Those of us who have visited it since 1989 are amazed at the almost monthly changes taking place. This was reflected particularly, as early as 1989, in the openness of society, their questioning of their political and economic principles and a desire for immediate change and independence. The Baltic States led the demand for at least economic independence and greater regional freedoms. A symbol of the change in 1989 was the alteration in street names to those which were current before 1939. So in Vilna, despite the now sparse Jewish population, you today have Gaon Street and Jew Street as they used to be before the Soviet take–over. When we visited in 1989, Jews had recently been officially permitted to open a Latvian and a Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Society with its own board of directors and authority over Jewish matters.

I was met in Riga by three leaders of the Latvian Cultural Society who acted as guides and hosts during our visit. One of my hosts, Gregory, took me to a meeting of their board in Riga in the reclaimed Jewish Community Centre Building. It was built in 1913 by the Jewish community and had recently been given back to

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Outside the Jewish community Centre building in Riga, erected in 1913, with a group of the Jewish Cultural Society


them to use as offices and a meeting place. Changing conditions had already allowed Gregory to reidentify with his Jewish past. The Latvian Society was publishing a magazine in Russian with a distribution of 50,000, was doing research on the history of Latvian Jewry and, possibly most important of all, was busy try ing to establish the first Jewish day school to be allowed in the Soviet Union.

In Jurmala, a seaside resort near Riga, we visited 30 people who had come from all over the Soviet Union to spend their summer vacation learning Hebrew and studying our religious sources. Everybody at the ‘diboor’, as they called this gathering, was enthused with a desire to learn Hebrew and his or her religion. And this was in a world where one could not get kosher food and where religious practice was almost impossible.

A week later, in Vilna, the leaders of the Lithuanian Cultural Society invited members of the community to meet me. With only one day's notice, over 200 people attended and our discussion focused mainly on the problems of Aliyah to Israel. It was a miracle in that day and age in the Soviet Union that such a meeting could take place. This was the Lithuania and Latvia of 1989, bubbling with new–found nationalism, demanding independence from Soviet control and, with the ability of the Jewish community to rebuild some form of cultural community experience, to re–establish a Jewish school system, openly to learn Hebrew, practise the Jewish religion and plan Aliyah.

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Should one leave the issues ol the moment and peel off another layer of time, the remnants of the Jewish community of the Baltic States and their leaders were wholly immersed in the events of the Holocaust. There was very little interest in what had occurred before, because there was no point in rekindling memories of a world that had disappeared altogether. So, to get to that world, we had first to go through the process of the events that had overtaken the Jewish community so tragically in June 1941 and which led to its almost complete destruction.

We had started on our trip to the world of the shletl from Riga and were making our way towards Shavli. We had a minibus with a Lithuanian driver and were accompanied by two Latvian Jews, a father and son. The father was a reasonably well–off scientist and the son was a student from Vilna who had been studying with a man from Rostock at Jurmala. With Jill, David and me, we were a party of six. As we were on our way to Shavli, the driver told us that he had been bom and brought up in Joniskis. We were travelling through this town when he said that he wanted to show us something. He turned off into a forest road and, after a few hundred metres, stopped and took us to a memorial which had inscribed on it: ‘Here perished 493 Soviet Citizens – victims of Fascism.’

He then said: ‘When I was 8 years old, I was playing in a tree and I noticed Lithuanians, who had been fed a lot of vodka by the Germans, who then drove hundreds of Jews from our village into this forest. The Germans had arranged for loud music to be played and then they instructed the Lithuanians to shoot the Jews. And I saw all the Jews shot and then buried right on the spot.’ As he paused and we absorbed this horrific event, the young man from Vilna. who was 18, said: ‘Yes, my family was among those who lie buried here.’

There was no moment in which we were not made aware of the events of the Holocaust. In Riga, we had been taken by Gregory to the site of the Choral Synagogue where, he informed us, on 4 July 1941 the Nazis had burnt the synagogue with hundreds of Jews inside it. On 4 July 1988, the first small tablet with a Magen David, recording the event, was unveiled on the site. From the synagogue he took us into the forest at Rumbulas where the Jews of the Riga ghetto had been slaughtered. As we visited each small shtetl we were reminded of the Holocaust: there were, at the most, only a handful of Jews in them and, sometimes, none at all. At Telz we visited the forests in which 30,000 Jews had been killed – the men on one side and the women and children on the other. Some years later, a small stone tablet was erected to record this horror. I was particularly conscious of this event because it was to the Forest of Telz that our family from Riteve had been taken and it was in the Forest of Telz that Lithuanian remnants gather on 4 September every year to remember the communities destroyed.

When we reached Vilna, we were taken to the Forest of Ponery where, in the foundations of oil tanks. 100,000 Lithuanians, of whom 80,000 were Jews, had

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been killed by the Nazis. Their remains were set on fire in order to cover up the atrocity. In no instance was a victim of Fascism anyone other than a Soviet citizen.

I visited the minister of foreign affairs in Lithuania with Mr Moshe Aaronson, a member of the Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Society. I explained that the anti–Semitism of Soviet society shown by the lack of understanding for the Jewish suffering in the Holocaust through omission on the memorials of any Jewish link, was unacceptable. He promised that memorials would be set up in Yiddish and Hebrew and that appropriate references to the Jewish victims would be made – as has now been done. Approximately 134 memorial sites would be marked and 434 cemeteries would be cleared and tidied up. Much of this work has been done. The Riteve cemetery which used to be what we call ‘bush’ in South Africa, is now not only cleared, but is also fenced.


Lithuania between the world wars: 1918–1939

Is it possible after viewing these honors to persuade any members of the community to pierce the veil into the world that existed before the Holocaust? Only very slightly. In Telz, I was fortunate to meet members of two or three Jewish families living there: Mr Shapiro and Mr Schmuliwitz. Alexander Judelis, who had joined our party, pointed out the house in which he had lived before the war as well as the house of Rabbi Bloch whose son was his chavrusah. And, ultimately, we found the building that housed the famous yeshiva – now used as a cinema. Alexander remembered that there were 110 students before the war, of whom 30 were qualified. (He was talking of the yeshiva and not the mechina or the teachers' seminary.)

We found a synagogue operating in Vilna, in Kovno and in Riga. Wc attended a Friday night and a Saturday morning service which took us right back to the pre–war years. The reader of the morning service and the additional service had exactly the same intonation and musical tone as we have in South Africa today. Unlike the Soviet Union, religious intolerance came to the Baltic States only in 1940 and all those attending the service had had some form of religious education. In Vilna and Kovno, the interiors of the synagogues reminded us of those in South Africa in the period before the Second World War.

Our first venture into finding the tracks of the past was to pick up memories of the years between the wars. We visited Radviliskis where Jill had been given the address of a house in which her grandmother's family had lived before the war. She had been told to go to the railway station, turn right and find the fourth house on the left – a face–brick building. We did this and came to a wooden building. We were about to give up the search when our young Lithuanian fnend said he thought that we were in the wrong street. The correct one was the street facing the railway station and he was proved right. The fourth house was exactly as it had been described to Jill: face–brick with an A–frame roof. It was now a vegetable shop. This had been the home of Jill's great–grandmother and her children.

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Standing outside the once famous yeshiva at Telz. Left, heads of two of the last three remaining Jewish families in the town, Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Schmuliwitz.


My wife, Jill, stands with our elder son David, right, outside the house in Radviliskis where her mother's family lived before the war.

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My second cousin, the late Alexander Judelis and his wife, Leokadija, right, were our guides as we explored the shtetlakh in which family members had lived
This scene in Telz is typical of our journey; the minibus parked in a wet street next to a muddy pavement – the ‘blotte’ (mud) that my Bobba Rachel had so often told us about – as Alexander and Leokadija indicated places to us. It rained or drizzled most of the time. The house behind them is where Alexander lived at Telz and they are pointing to the home of the famous Rabbi Bloch, head of the yeshiva.


The successful conclusion of this search was topped off by an incredible event that happened a few days later in Vilna. In the hotel elevator, I was carrying my talit when a small man entered and spoke to me in Yiddish. He asked me where I was from and I replied: ‘Johannesburg, Jerusalem.’ He said he was from New York, but had been born in Radviliskis. I told him that my wife's family, the Goldstucks, came from there. He collapsed and said that we must be related. I replied, ‘Not to me, but maybe to my wife.’ He told me: ‘You know, I was in Radviliskis looking for the house in which I grew up – the Goldstuck house. It was near the railway station.’ I said: ‘You made the same mistake as us: you turned right and looked for the fourth house on the left.’ He could not believe that he had met a member of his family in the elevator and we discovered that he had lived in the very same house as Jill's grandmother – his aunt's sister. And also, of course, his aunt, too, although he never knew her.

In Biers, a little shtetl in which my wife's grandfather was born, we stopped outside a church on a Sunday morning and tried to find anyone with any recollection of a Jewish past. One of the congregants hurrying into the church told us of an old man who might have some memories. We went to the apartment building indicated and found the old man's wife there. She said she would show us what had once been a synagogue.

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This is an old picture of Shadove, obtained 20 years ago from the late Sarah Broer, my Grandfather's cousin
The twin spires of the Catholic church, still in existence, may be seen in the background


As she climbed into the minibus, I asked her if she spoke Yiddish and she replied: ‘How can a Jew not speak Yiddish?’ She took us to the shtibuls that existed before the war and were now homes and also to a neglected grave site where the only gravestone upright and legible was that of her father. She told us that when they had returned from Siberia after the war, she had heard that her husband was in Vilna. Her father had said: ‘Children must not grow up without their father’ and they had proceeded to Vilna to find him. However, en route her father was shot by Lithuanian bandits. She returned to Biers and was joined by her husband and her children. She said: ‘The street through which we are driving had only Jewish homes. The village was 60 per cent Jewish – but that was before the war. Now there are a tobacconist, two teachers, my husband and myself. That is the totality of Jewish life in Biers.’ The cemetery of Biers was much like other cemeteries: overgrown; gravestones indecipherable. It was impossible to find memories of the past – even the recent past. However, in discussions with the minister of foreign affairs, he approved a project to reconstruct the old cemeteries of Lithuania.

These were shreds of memories: there were too few people left for vivid ones. It was then possible, having gone through the period of today and experienced the pangs of the Holocaust and peeled off the last, very thin layer – that of the elements of Lithuania between the two world wars – to attempt to find the life of the shtetl.

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My son David stands outside a typical house in Shadove – compare this with the photograph on the previous page. This house stands above the stream, unchanged from the sort of dwelling in which his great–grandfather mighi have been born.


Life in the shtetl

We were approaching Shadove for which we had very little direct source material. We knew that it was the shtetl in which my grandfather, Max Kaplan, had been born in 1876. We knew thati his cousin, Sarah Broer, had lived in the house in which he had been bom before she left for South Africa. We knew that she had written that Shadove had a main square with a Russian Orthodox Church and that from the square, there led three roads: the one to Shavli in which was the Roman Catholic Church; one to Ponevezh in which was the shop of the German chemist; and one to Keidan which was lined only by wooden houses except for two brick buildings that had been owned by Jews.

Well, we stopped at the Roman Catholic Church which dominated the village as we entered via the road from Shavli to Shadove. We found a Roman Catholic priest, quietly spoken, who remembered that he was at school with Boraks. Katzes and Kaplans before the war. The Jews, he said, lived all around the village, especially the main square. He knew where the synagogue had been – today, it is an open parking ground. He suggested that we walk along the path behind the church to some fields and find an old man who would tell us more.

We walked along this path and crossed a wooden bridge over a stream – the stream in which Sarah Broer had said the village people did their laundry. Not only did the stream still exist, but the house above it in which the old man lived had

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The farmhouse at Pastravinska where my great–grandfather, Israel Groll, was born
– a photograph taken by a relative, Abe Galaun


no running water – only wells. We could not find this scion of the village as unfortunately he had broken his arm the day before. But this village had been maintained as a timewarp ol the shtetl era. We walked in the same fields in which Sarah had walked as a child 90 years ago. with the houses unchanged and the stream still used for laundry.

We walked past the Roman Catholic church into the town square and there was no longer a Russian Orthodox church – it had been burnt with the synagogue during the Stalinist period. Next to the empty space where the synagogue had been was the house of the rabbi; behind that was the house in which Sarah had lived and behind that was the well, still in use. which her family and my grandfather's family had shared with the rabbi. The houses along Keidan Street which Sarah had described were still wooden ones, but there were the two brick houses among them: one of them a library and the other still a home. You could sense the world of the shtetl. Little had changed since the birth of my grandfather – except that there were no Jews. A shtetl which had had a population of over 50 per cent Jews was now a little village of around 3,000 people, lost in time and, to a large extent, lifeless in terms of the energy and distinctiveness of its Jewish soul.

From Shadove we visited Krakinovo whose shtetl world centres on the remnants ol two synagogues, a town square and a river which still rushed past an overgrown cemetery. It was celebrating its 580th year and brought back memories from an old photograph of the marriage of my grandmother's sister in that shtetl over

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A farmhouse at Shadove


80 years ago. Otherwise, there was no sign ol its Jewish past, no memory of anyone there and no concern about what had been.

The shtetl came alive to us through Alexander Judelis. And it was a miraculous discovery to find a close relative who had survived the war. He was the grandson of David Groll, the youngest brother of my great–grandfather, Israel Groll. The older brother, Israel, had moved in the 1870s from the farm on which he was born in Pastravinska, outside Riteve, to the shtetl of Riteve. His young brother, David, had remained on the farm, succeeding his father, Abba, as the farmer. After his wife's death. Israel Groll had followed all his children to South Africa where they had settled not long after the turn of the century. My grandmother, Rochel Groll, had married in Parow and had transferred the shtetl of Riteve to Parow, making her home the venue for services until the shul could be built. She created a family atmosphere which included over 50 members in Parow – an atmosphere, as I now discovered, she had experienced in Riteve.

David Groll remained on the farm in Pastravinska and fathered five children – two settled in South Africa just before the Second World War, one went to Israel and two were killed with David by the Nazis in 1941, together with the rest of our family – except for one grandson. This was Alexander who had joined the Russian forces in 1941, had been wounded three times and given the Order of the Red Banner – the highest honour in the Red Army – and who had then returned to Riteve. After restarting his father's timber factory, he was sent to Leningrad University to study forestry. He rose subsequently to be head of the forestry divi–


I stand right with Alexander and Leokadija Judelis outside the now decrepit gateway and lodge of the former estate of of the Poritz at Riteve


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sion of Lithuania and was awarded the Order of Lenin for services rendered – the highest award in the Soviet Union.

Alexander welcomed us to his home and we spent four hours with his wife and son building bridges across 50 years of emptiness and then through a period of common ground. Alexander showed us his wounds and said: ‘I was convinced that the entire village of Riteve had been wiped out including every member of my family. I got drunk in the forests on vodka for three months and then decided to'start anew.’

He took us to Pastravinska. where his grandfather and my great–grandfather had been born. The farmhouse had remained exactly the same; if anything it seemed to him a little smaller! The barn with a calf was the same, as was the well which supplied the farmer with his water. The farm was occupied by a Lithuanian who had worked with the family in the timber factory 60 years before. He had carried Alexander and his sisters in his arms when they were born. He knew Alexander's grandfather and his parents intimately. He was a direct link to the operations of the farm which had not been changed since Abba Groll had started it in the 1840s. We asked him about perestroika. He said that Lithuania was a land which had suffered under many conquerors and many changes. He did not believe in the magic of Gorbachev. He said: ‘Wait and see.’

Alexander took us a few kilometres to the shtetl of Riteve and into the town square with its Catholic church. Facing the church had been the shops of the Jewish traders. On one comer of the square, on the road to Plungyan, had been

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A family group taken at a later visit to Pastravinska
The well may be seen on the right–hand side and the house on the left–hand side. Since it has become possible to visit Lithuania, many families like ours have been able to make then nostalgic journey to our roots, although always overshadowed by the tragedy of the Holocaust.


the shop of a relative, Ura Groll. Leading off the square was a smaller street which housed the Beit Midrash, the synagogue, the rabbi's house and the school to which Israel Groll had sent his children. There was nothing left except the Beit Midrash, now used as a cinema. The road had led over the bridge past my great–grand– father's house to the cemetery. We visited the cemetery, which was overgrown. The only inscription I could read was that of a man buried in 1936 – the year in which I was born.

However, near the Beit Midrash were the houses of the Groll and Sacks families and the street which led to the grounds of the Poritz, the palace of Oginski. We entered the neglected gateway and saw what had once been a beautiful lake in the forests in which my grandmother had collected chestnuts. Oginski's palace still stood and was used as a school – next to the building was a dairy which had existed since time immemorial. Above the dairy were the foundations of a windmill which the Poritz had built to provide electricity to the village. My Bobba remembered that Riteve had electric lights before Kovno and here were the remains of that miracle. Riteve had the remnants of a beautiful little shtetl – the Poritz, after all, had given it a lake, forests and a park. The Jewish people had their houses on either side of the square and the synagogue. While the shtetl was recalled through the memory of Alexander Judelis and the words of my Bobba. it was left, of course,

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without the soul of the people who had built, developed and given it the dynamism of a period long past.


The surviving soul of the shtetl

The year 1989 was my first, unforgettable visit to try to find the life ol the shtetl. There was another memorable one from 9–19 June 1992 when 39 members of the family and close friends, all South African–born and all with roots in Lithuania, toured it together following a more extensive route than on our first visit. The tour included, for example, a visit to Memel (Klaipeda), from which some emigrants had embarked on the journey which would take them to South Africa.

Taking part on this tour were my late mother, Jesse Kaplan, and her elder sister, Janie Kushlick, the two daughters of Rochel Bloch, born Grail, who had carried on the traditions passed onto them by their mother. There came a moment at the farm at Pastravinska when a drink from the well was offered to us. And there, on the video taken of the trip, you can see my mother and Aunt Janie sipping the water with a look of wonder on their faces. Did they realise then, perhaps, as I appreciate every time I see it, that the well of the spiritual waters of the shtetl has not run dry; that it carried on from one generation to another in a different country? Our finest tribute to those who died in the destruction of the Jewish community in Lithuania in 1941 is to be faithful to the traditions they passed down to us and to strengthen the centre of Jewish life – Israel.


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