Seeking a Jew in Ponevezh, 1945
The pitiful train stopped for quite a long time at each station, took on water and wood, maneuvered forward and back. The war was over, so it was in no hurry. And although I was drawn to my dear former home, I was not in any hurry, either. I knew what I could expect to find there.
At nightfall, the train stopped at the Lithuanian station ofPonevezh, and I fought with an idea: Should I get off or not? Here, in a village, not far, was where I was born. Here, before the war, my mother was living, and my brother and his relatives had homes, businesses, money. But shouldn't I travel further, to Kovno, where I had lived with my wife and children? I thought, In Kovno, you will certainly not find anyone or anything. Better to travel to your mother's home as a guest, the way you used to do on holidays.
I pressed myself through the crowd in the station building and came to a halt on the very familiar Train Station Street. It was nightfall. What should I do? Where should I go? I turned around and went back into the train station. I made a corner for myself on the dirty floor and lay down on my soldier's overcoat, using my backpack as a pillow. I said to myself, Quietly, quietly! Now it is night. First, get enough sleep, and tomorrow we will see what to do next.
The next morning, it was a radiant August day. I remembered that a year ago, on exactly such a day, they led us away to be shot. In Ponevezh, I had had hundreds of friends, comrades, and acquaintances. I had also had a few uncles and aunts and maybe a couple of dozen cousins, with large, many-branched families, in the town. I tried to find these relatives. I asked their neighbors about them. But they had vanished.
The town had not really changed that much, but there was nevertheless one major change: The Jewish inhabitants were missing. Others now occupied the Jewish homes and the Jewish stores. And then I started noticing other changes. The schools and synagogues had been destroyed; the Hebrew high school was half burned out; and the socalled Rabinoviches Wall, with its dozens of shops in the middle of the
market, was gone. The Germans had apparently taken that whole wall apart and gotten rid of it.
I had lost almost all hope of finding a live Jew in Ponevezh. Then, when I went into a barbershop to get a shave, it seemed to me that one of the barbers was a Jewish boy. He said that yes, he was a Jew. He was now living in Ponevezh, but he was from the nearby village of Ramygala. He had hidden out with farmers, and in the woods, during the war. He was the only one of his family who had survived.
You Jew! I cried out to him. I have been looking for a Jew, even just one, so I could feel better, and lo and behold, I have found you! Tell me, what other Jews are there in Ponevezh?
Not many, maybe a couple of dozen, and even they are scattered, he said. We don't meet one another. But you know what? The secretary of the city administration is a Jew, and at his house, the Jews come together.
Who is he? What's his name?
He lives not far from here, on Monopol Street. His name is Dovidov, Reuben Dovidov, I think. He is a jurist.
And now I shouted, Reuben Dovidov! He is a comrade of mine, a former classmate. Oh, you Jew, why didn't you say so earlier? I was so overwhelmed and delighted that I could hardly wait for the barber to be finished with my beard.
It was almost nightfall when I reached Dovidov's house and met his entire huge family: his wife and child, his father-in-law and mother-inlaw and his three sisters-in-law Yudelevich. A few guests were there as well, and a few people who lived in a couple of rooms in the house. At first, no one recognized me, but that didn't last long.
There was a samovar, and we were drinking tea, just as in the past. They told their stories, and I told mine; there was so much to tell. It turned out that all of them, and a few dozen other Jews of Ponevezh, had found a way to escape during the first days of the war. They had gone far, far away into the middle Asian part of Russia, to Kazakhstan, and now a number of those people, mostly women and children, had come back home.
And the men? I asked them. Where are the men?
Why are you asking? You don't understand by yourself? Dovidov
replied. Who do you think made up the famous Lithuanian brigade in the Russian army-the brigade that went into the first line of fire on the Lithuanian and other fronts? The majority were Lithuanian Jews, and the largest number perished in the battles against the Germans. Others, wounded like myself, were discharged. The few surviving men who were not wounded are still in the army; Vilna is where they are now. My brother-in-law is among them.
They made a fine practical use out of us! remarked the elder Yudelevich. But there, at least, one knew why one was being killed. It had some meaning. But here, here they slaughtered everybody, like lambs for a celebration. And he went on, giving the details. Fifteen or sixteen thousand Jews from Ponevezh and the surrounding villages were killed here. Now all of Ponevezh has no more than seventy or eighty Jews, and they are scattered in all the corners of the town, so that even on the Sabbath, one cannot assemble a minyan. Harsh and painful is the kind of life that exists now. No Jewish community, no Jewish school for children, no synagogue for prayer. And do you think that the Jews are all from Ponevezh? God forbid! Maybe half have come from the surrounding villages. People say that it is dangerous for Jews even to put in an appearance or to sleep there.
Why is it dangerous? I asked him. I am planning to go tomorrow morning to Pumpyan. It's a little over twenty kilometers, so I will walk there. Who will bother a Jew nowadays?
What? You want to go to Pumpyan all by yourself, on foot? Everybody looked at me with wondering eyes. Do you regret that you have remained alive?
One can see immediately that you are a greenhorn, just arrived from the woods, the elder Yudelevich said. You don't know yet that here, in our woods and far into the villages, hundreds and maybe thousands of bandits and murderers lie in wait for the current police, or a Russian soldier, or a Jew who has just barely managed to survive, or any others they do not like. In some places, they conduct entire battles, and at night, they fall upon police and garrison troops in the villages. Jews have lost their lives even now, after the war. Just a short while ago, they killed two Jews near Krokenove, a Jew at Mozheik, and others elsewhere. No, brother, I will not let you go!
What do you mean, not go? I have to go!
If you won't have it any other way, then we must see that you travel with the police and with soldiers, in their automobile. There are whole armies of police and soldiers traveling around here. Every day, they carry out raids to catch the bandits. Or else, you know what? The small train is operating. You can take it as far as Pushelot, and you can go the last five kilometers either with the police or...you will easily find a way yoursel£ Bur by yourself you should not go, and not at nightfall. At nightfall, you should not even go out of the house! More than one life no one has!
That night, I stayed on a soft sofa with clean, white bed linen, and I could not fall asleep. I wasn't accustomed, it seemed, to such comfort. I turned myself over on all sides and thought about how there was no longer any Jewish community life. And again, I recalled the village where I was born. Tomorrow I would go there and face the death and devastation. I was drawn toward it as if by invisible tongs, but I found it gut roiling to think of seeing that dreadful reality.
It was already close to sundown when I drew close to my old home. I saw the familiar steeple top, then the first houses and the tall trees around them, and the closer I got, the more my steps slowed. I knew in my heart that no trace, no remembrance, was left of my family. Nothing would be left of any Jews. And how could I talk to the people I found there? How could I even look at them, when any one of them could be the murderer of my mother, my brother, my relatives? When they have inherited all that we had possessed?
I couldn't go any further that day. My heart was full, loaded with pain, and it did not let me come into my old, dead home.
I turned off onto a side path, sought out an isolated barn, and, in keeping with my recent casual living style, I lay down on the hay. And there, in the barn, I poured out the bitterness of my soul. I cried alone in the night, so that neither enemies nor false friends nor indifferent observers could see and quietly rejoice at my Jewish grief and pain.
In the morning, I wandered around in the village for half a day, through the streets and alleys, through the marketplace, the grounds of the synagogue, the cemetery. I looked at the houses of relatives and other Jews. Yes, everything was still where it used to be-the houses,
the grounds, the shops-but the inhabitants were missing, the former owners, the Jews. Lithuanian neighbors had inherited the Jewish homes, lands, shops, gardens, orchards, furniture, clothes, household goodsthe entire Jewish wealth and...the life.
I went to a house that had belonged to my own family and examined the great commercial orchard of a couple hundred apple trees that my brother and I had planted some fifteen years earlier. The orchard stood fully loaded with fruit. Who would harvest it? Who would profit from our long years of labor?
Our house was occupied by a local Russian from the village of Gegabrost, a drunkard and his family. I knew him well. I later learned that he was now one of the top officials of the town. He served with the local police; he was concerned with the new order. And when he took a drink of whiskey (and when didn't he take one?), he was capable of making fiery speeches. Well, that kind of person, certainly, deserved one of the finest homes in town.
I knew the new owners of other Jewish homes. They were genuine Lithuanians, not bourgeois and not fascist. During the war, they had had dealings with the Germans, and they had also had a hand in the murderous violence and the plundering of that time, but they had avoided getting splinters in their fingers when taking Jewish belongings. And now they were repentant. They were washed sparkling clean. Their children even carried rifles against the bandits in the woods. So, of course, it was only right that they should be granted Jewish homes and belongings.
There was yet another new owner and his wife in a Jewish house. Sheshkeitis was his name, a well-known idler and drunkard from a nearby village. Years ago, he had squandered a rich farm property in drink and had become a coachman and a thie£ And now I saw that Sheshkeitis had risen in the world. It turned out to be because of his wife: She had been granted a specific medal for her heroism in having ten children. Naturally, such a family was entitled to a fine Jewish house and a considerable piece of our orchard.
For hours, I wandered around town in this way, seeing new owners and remembering them. But in my soldierly getup, no one recognized me. That pleased me. I felt freer, more comfortable. Then the old
Razinski woman came toward me, the one who spoke Yiddish like a Jewish child, who had been a servant in my grandfather and grandmother's house, and afterwards in my father and mother's house. She had raised me and my brother. She looked sharply at me, and she shouted, Just give a look! I could swear you are Rachel Hirshovitz's son, the middle one, who lived in Kovno!True, is that who you are? Why are you silent? Oh! You are really crying! That doesn't suit a soldier!
She fell upon me, embracing and kissing me, our former house servant, the only one who recognized me in the town where I was born. In no time at all, the whole town knew that a Jew of the village had come to town, a soldier-the first and only Jew since all the Jews had been driven to the slaughter four years earlier.
Razinski said, Come to our house. You will have something to eat and get some rest. See how they are all looking at you? They are shivering in their boots. They have all done plenty of robbing and stealing, and now they have reason to be afraid. Come, don't look at them at all, those filthy scoundrels, those contemptible people!
An inconvenient guest has turned up in town, I thought to myself. He reminds almost every one of them that they have profited from the death and destruction of their nearest neighbors. I can see that clearly in their eyes, and in their false smiles. Yes, an inconvenient guest has turned up in town: a live Jew.
I sat in Razinski's poor little house on the edge of town, and she and her husband, Razinski the shoemaker, kept on telling me their stories. To begin with, they herded everyone together in a few homes on Tiffieh Street. You know, in the homes of Sholemke the butcher and Moishe the mason, in the house of the rabbi, Mendel the blacksmith's house, the house of Avraham the shoichet, and a few other houses. Then they fenced in half the street with barbed wire, and they kept all of them there for a couple of weeks. The younger ones were driven to work, and were beaten. I could not stand looking at their suffering, and a couple of times, I took some bread, butter, and a little something more to your mother, your brother, and the little children. Once, I got a blow for going too close, and after that, I didn't go there anymore. Meanwhile, they acted like owners in the Jewish homes; they took, they dragged away, they divided up and sold whatever they wanted to have....
Who? Who was 'they'? I interrupted. Were there Germans in town?
Occasionally, a few passed through and stopped for a while, but 'they'-they were our local townspeople and village people. The community authorities, the police, the shaulists [Lithuanian fascists]-all of them were murderers, hooligans, and bandits of the first order. Of course, it was probably the Germans who taught them how and what to do, giving orders and acting like bosses, but they themselves did all ofit. They guarded the Jews, drove them, robbed them, shot them.... And here Razinski and his wife named dozens of names from the Lithuanian towns and villages, names of fellow residents and neighbors.
So, and what else happened to the Jews? I asked.
What else happened? Who has the heart to tell that? One day, more policemen and shaulists arrived from Ponevezh or the devil knows where, and they brought everyone together-the fathers, the mothers and children, old and young. They encircled them with weapons and sticks on all sides and began to drive them...where? To Ponevezh to work-that's what they told them. But all of them understood that if they were being driven out of their houses, then they would not be coming back.
When I heard about that, I took a loaf of bread and ran to give it to your mother, to take with her. They did not allow anyone to come close, but I could still see them-your mother, your brother, his wife, and the two children. Your mother was crying; all of them were crying dreadfully, shrieking, not wanting to go. They beat them with sticks and blackjacks, hit them with rifle butts, and pushed and shoved. The old and weak were put on a wagon, and they drove all of them away. Of course, no one ever came back.
When did that happen? On what day?
I don't remember exactly. It was the first year of the war, 1941, toward the end of August. That must have been on the 25th or 26th of August. They brought all of them to Payost, which, as you know, is near Ponevezh, and there...there they shot everyone. A lot of Jews were killed on that spot. Everybody knows it. Many of the people from the surrounding areas saw it, and the shooters themselves told about it afterwards and boasted about their fine work. For example, Lellis from
Possvolier Street, the younger-you know him, of course-afterwards, he would show people a gold ring and boast that he had hacked it off the hand of the pharmacist's wife.
There you have the murderers! Our own townspeople. We could not imagine that they were capable of doing such things. And now they are lying around in the woods, the murderers. They are hoping that there will soon be another war, and that they will be able to show themselves again. Here comes winter soon, and that will be the end of them. But those who ran away to Germany, those you will not capture. They probably walk around freely, like everybody else, and-
Tell me, I interrupted again. Did no one attempt to run away? Did no one escape alive? After all, maybe someone....
Yes, certainly, some attempted to run away-for example, your own brother. Immediately, from the start of the war, before the Germans were even here, he bought a horse and wagon, and together with your mother and the whole family, he set off for Russia. Others did, also. But the shaulists stopped everyone, even when they were quite far away, near Kupishok, or Ponidel. They took everything away from them, stripped them naked, and, barely escaping with their lives, they turned around and came back. And you see, of course, how it ended for them. One could not run away. The shaulists were on guard everywhere. Later, when others attempted to run away, they were caught and immediately shot dead.
No, no one escaped alive. I have never heard of anyone who survived. You are the first of the Jews I have seen here after the war. So, tell us what happened to you.
Early the following morning, I took leave of my birthplace and my former home, with the thought that I would not come back. Even the cemetery had vanished. The thick stone wall around it, which Jews had finally gotten built after years of collecting money, was no longer there. It had been taken apart, stone by stone and brick by brick. No seashells, or gravestones, were to be found in the cemetery, either. The neighbors had stolen them and dragged them away. And on the open, abandoned cemetery field, cows, sheep, and pigs were grazing freely. There was no one left to protest or drive them away.
The massive stone synagogue, built in olden times and rebuilt after
the First World War-that, too, had vanished. Just like the stone wall around the cemetery, the synagogue had been taken apart, stone by stone and brick by brick. The building materials had been divided up among the local people so they could build houses, stables, and granaries. And that, after all, was only logical. Why leave a defunct synagogue standing? There was no one who used it anymore!
Also gone were the two rows of Jewish shops in the middle of the market. Their fate was exactly the same: The townspeople rook apart, divided up, and sold the building material. What was it we used to say among ourselves? That without Jews there can be no market?
Townspeople, friends, were waiting for me wherever I went. They met me; they called to me to come into their homes. How gladly they all told about what had happened here, how speedily they described it with all the details! How eager every narrator had been to help them, the unfortunate ones, giving them a piece of bread, a bit of milk for the children! Yes, they had wanted to help, but...they had been unable to. They had not been allowed to get close to them, and here, alas, their goodness had come to an end.
And how gladly and eagerly everyone whispered in my ear about others, about bad people and dishonest people, who had robbed, bought, and piled up Jewish property! All had become rich from Jewish blood, but not he, not she-not the narrators. They, the narrators, had not taken even a crumb or a thread from Jewish belongings!
With disgust, I listened to all the stories from these friends. I didn't want to go into their homes. I didn't want to see them or hear from them. But before I left town, I went to the chief of the local militia; he was a Russian officer, the commandant of the town and surrounding area. I introduced myself and said, I have been to the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery is a holy place, a sacred ground! Can't the present authorities forbid people to graze their animals there? Why do you allow such a shameful thing?
He answered, Yes, you are right, comrade. But what can the authorities do? There is a large, empty space with good grass, belonging to no one, and no Jews who could supervise it are here, so people graze their animals. I will try to drive them away, but.... Now, if you wanted to remain here, we would quickly settle this matter. We will give you a
good position. You have your own house here, a large orchard, I hear, and we do, in fact, need an agronomist. Oh, you will be very useful to us! Really, do stay here, in your home. What better could you ask?
I heard out his warm, cordial words and thought, No, I will not stay here! I do not have any place or any peace here, where from every patch of ground, from every stone, the forgotten Jewish blood cries out to me. No, her:e I can no longer have a home.
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