After the Destruction, Back Again in the Old Home
I Go Home I Lived to See Freedom!
I did live to see freedom restored, the collapse of the bloody Nazi power and the capitulation of their mighty unconquerable armies. That took place on the 9th of May, 1945 a happy, historic day in the life of humanity. But for me and those like me it was also a painful day, when the brain began to be deeply troubled by new and old questions, questions that had been pushed aside somewhere, and were half forgotten:
Where was I now in the world? What should I do now, after the liberation, and how might I cease to be a forest animal and again become human? How might I tum back to a normal life? My heart had not yet quieted down. It still boiled and seethed, and might never again, perhaps, be at peace. And so, where could I go? To whom? Who was waiting for me? There wasn't anybody left! Should I go home? Did I still have a home? I knew, after all, that all was now dead, annihilated, sunken in blood, in, seas of blood.
No, I did not go so quickly back home.... For more than three months I continued my life in the forest, and this time in a stronger military fighter group, which ridded the woods of the murderers, bandits, and robbers who had now begun to hide out there. They were mostly remnants of stubborn Latvian, Lithuanian, and German fighter units who had not given themselves up as war prisoners. The largest group was composed of leftover police, guard officers, overseers, and even Jew murderers, most of them traitorous Russian military elements. Also included were other German hangers on who had not been able to run away and disappear into Germany.
We wiped out hundreds of those bandits in the woods, and we captured hundreds of others. With the captives, we first established who they really were, and then they paid for their crimes according to what they deserved. And with what pleasure did I, myself, with my own hands, shoot three of the murderers who had, exactly a year before, at Zlekas, murdered my comrades Laib Bobrov, Gershon Yakobson, Laib Yakobson, and Benjamin Vospy! (All together, we did away with five of the murderers because we had already shot two at the time of the partisan battle.)
That was revenge for you, for your blood, comrades of suffering and freedom just as I promised you at the time. But was there then, and is there now, a revenge that could truly compensate for the horrifying crime perpetrated against us, the millions of Jewish children, women, and men? And could any revenge ease the pain of those of us who remained alive? Is there, anywhere in the world, that great, that just a settling of scores?
In August I was finally free of my partisan and military life. I left the woods and turned toward home, toward a more human life. The road back was not a
happy one; it led to graves, to the great grave of our fathers. But I was pulled thereto, and I went. I went to drink up the bitter cup to its very bottom.
I was dragging myself across roads and fields in my soldierly attire, with my backpack on my shoulders, and there I was again on the very spot of the former Popervaln slave camp, my camp. Now there was already nothing left of it only a flat, burned out place, overgrown with wild grasses, and the little hill containing the huge grave of unknown Jews. I was standing that way on the campsite, lost in my own thoughts, when I saw before me a human being. It was in fact the fat farmer who lived nearby, a neighbor of the former camp. Oh, I knew him quite well, from that time. I shouted to him, and went up to his chin in the proper fashion, one, two, three:
You, with the stuffed chin! You don't recognize me, but I know you! I am a local person, from this very place. Do you remember how, a year ago, you complained to the Germans that the Jews from the camp wouldn't leave you alone, begging constantly for bread and potatoes? Do you remember? They were dying of hunger, while you stuffed yourself like a pig, and yet you begrudged them a piece of bread or a couple of potatoes! You even went to complain to those dogs, the Germans! Take that, you son of a dog! Take that, in your mother's belly! Out of my sight, you stuffed pig, or I will tear out your guts!
The farmer got away from there as quickly as possible, having been bloodied, and I realized that I had been out of order. To go do battle with everyone who had wronged me, to have arguments, complaints, and quarrels I would have to fight it out with half the world! And however fast I could raise my hands, and however well I could berate and revile, in the true Russian style.... NO! I must curb myself! This was no longer life in the forests! Enough!
I traveled further over the lonely roads, and there I was again in Zlekas. Of the former rulers, police, and murderers there was no longer any sign. I sought out one person I knew, the local shoemaker, Oginsky, and he led me into the woods, to the grave of my four murdered comrades. He helped me, and together we threw enough dirt on the grave to make a small hill, and we placed a stone on it, and planted some simple field flowers there. I dug a hole for a thick piece of wood, and wrote on it with a wooden pencil:
Here lie in their eternal resting place Laib Bobrov, Gershon Yakobson, Laib Yakobson, and Benjamin Vospy, victims at the hands of Nazi murderers, the 12th of August, 1944. Respect their memory.
That was the gravestone that I set up, and the last respects that I paid to my four closest comrades who had been murdered. Till late into the night I sat by the lonely grave of my brothers and thought I, the survivor, who had, at the time, luckily avoided that same grave in the woods.
I traveled further. I came to the Latvian towns and villages Susmaken (Valdemarfils), Talsen, Kandava, Tukim, and others; I looked for people I knew, at least one Jewish face. There were none no more Jews there! All
were dead, annihilated. I went further and came to Riga, the capital city of Latvia.
I saw that the beautiful city of Riga had emerged from the war almost unscathed. I walked across the broad streets and parks, I dragged myself to the quarters where the ghetto had been, and I made inquiries. I searched, andOh, a stroke of luck! I encountered a few Jews. With curiosity I looked into their faces. I wanted to see into their souls. These were, after all, the first few Jews I encountered after the bloody Holocaust, and they had, like myself, luckily saved themselves. The concept of remnant of the flight or remnant of Israel was taking shape in my mind for the first time. I was also one of them, a remnant of the flight. Were they lucky, satisfied, glad to be alive, or the opposite? I looked at these Jews and saw that a strong instinct for life streamed and boiled in them, as in the past: a tremendous drive to live, to fight. That is good, I thought to myself. There is still some hope for us.
They told me that on Marshal Street there was a kind of committee of the Jewish community of Riga. I went off to that place and learned that they had information on three to four thousand surviving Jews, both locals and people from other towns and villages. I made inquiries about my Riga acquaintances and friends; and I searched through the lists of the survivors; but I didn't find anyone, not one of them. But there was still one more hope, I was told. Surviving Jews were still corning back from the camps, from Germany, from Russia, from the forests, and from the Russian army.
I traveled on, towards Dvinsk. But there were no passenger trains going there yet, only loaded freight trains. You couldn't travel freely. You had to have special permits, and without them you couldn't get any tickets. I came to the Riga train station, which was crowded with thousands upon thousands of people. There was no way to get to where you could obtain a ticket, and no way to reach the doors of the railroad cars. I looked in astonishment. Where did such a huge stream of people come from? Oh, I thought to myself, I will not get anything accomplished by waiting around; I must figure out some other way.
I put on my worn out soldier's cap, took my backpack onto my shoulders, and pushing with my elbows left and right, I pressed my way through the deep crowds, repeatedly calling out:
Hey, citizens, let me through! I'm a military man!You can see, can't you, that I'm in a hurry? Let me through, let me through!
In the same fashion, I pressed my way into a dark, fully packed freight car, created a free little comer on the floor for myself, spread out my military overcoat, and made myself comfortable for sleeping. Early the next morning I got to Dvinsk.
At the Grave of Our Forefathers in Dvinsk
I was again in Dvinsk in the city of my horrible ghetto life and suffering.
I wandered around through the quiet, sleeping streets for a couple of hours or more, and where should I go? To whom? Had anyone survived, and where would one find them, my local friends and acquaintances? I looked around. Half the city and maybe more than half was devastated, burned, and shot up. Whole streets and neighborhoods were lying under ruins. Then I saw new ruins. That, it appeared, was what the Germans had done before retreating. Or perhaps the Russian cannonades and airplanes had caused the destruction. But of what importance was it to me? I wanted only to find a surviving Jew.
I wandered around in the marketplace among the display tables and baskets. I looked into the faces, and there, I thought, was a Jewish woman. Yes, an acquaintance from the ghetto, Mrs. Epshtein. I spoke to her, but she didn't recognize me. I told her who I was, and she cried out and clapped her hands:
ACH! That's who you are? I would not in my life have recognized you. See how you look, it's frightening to take a look at you.... Well, come to our house! We live not far from here. You will get a bit of rest, and then we will talk, and tell our stories. So, you have really been a soldier!Well, come, let's go!
And now, for the first time since the war, I was once again in a Jewish home, with a Jewish family. She was a fortunate woman, this Mrs. Epshtein. She had only lost a husband and two children, a sister and brother, and one other person. Now she and her daughter, who had also survived, were living with her brother in law and his sister and both their families. They, the relatives, had come back from Russia, and Mrs. Epshtein and her daughter had come back from separate concentration camps. All of them, ten to twelve people, lived together in three rooms with a kitchen. Yes, there is no lack of food to eat, they said; Bread they have. It's good, of course, but it could be better. Certainly it's far from being really good, but. ..it's good.
I also met up with a few other friends and acquaintances from the ghetto years Magid the dentist, Dr. Blachman, Shaina Ichlov, Mendel Hellerman, Yitzchoc Treger, Boma Zelicman, Dr. Landau, the sisters Asya Brudna and Masha Lapidus, and a few dozen others, including Motl Krom and his whole surviving family. About Motl Krom I thought:
Now, there is a lucky and heroic Jew. To be able to hide out in Dvinsk itself, and save his entire family, his wife and two children! He is the only one who was that lucky, but who can compare with him to his dog's life and dog's luck?
And I remembered how skillfully and boldly Motl Krom and his wife used to maneuver during the ghetto time. They would sneak out of the ghetto, hide the children with Christians they knew, wander around in disguise in the city, stuffing money and gold wherever it was possible and necessary, and...what did they not do!
A satisfied person, with his round, laughing face and his impudent little eyes, Motl Krom was now sitting and telling me about his experiences and
dangers. Now he wanted to get back his house with the brick wall. It had survived almost completely, but it had been taken over by the Russians....
Then he changed his mind. No, he said, he could do without the brick wall. He would rather leave Dvinsk and settle in Riga. In Dvinsk people knew him too well; it was too small a town. Everyone looked into his mouth to see what he was eating and what he was doing. Yes, he did have a position, a good position as a buyer for the Russians; he earned not too badly; he could make a lot of money, to be sure, but... Everyone knew him. Yes, he really wanted to pack up and move to Riga, but he was tied down. The Russians wouldn't let him go; it was not that easy to tear yourself away from them. You had to sit where they told you to sit, but then again, of course, for money you can do anything....
You see, with Motl Krom I am not downhearted. He is a clever operator and knows how to handle himself. I hope that he is now one of the nouveaux riches in Dvinsk, unless he finds himself in Riga, or maybe a little bit further away than that, in Siberia.
Other Jews I met in Dvinsk included a few dozen survivors of the ghetto, camps, and woods, and hundreds more who had saved themselves in Russia. I must, however, admit that later many of them abandoned their former homes and set out on new, uncertain paths. They wanted to come to another land, and another life. I encountered them in my later wanderings they were looking for new homes to take the place of the ones that had vanished.
But I myself was not, at that time, looking for a new home. Instead, I was drawn to that place, to the vale of tears in Dvinsk. I made my way to the former ghetto in the old fortress across the Dvina River. I saw again the thick, gloomy stone wall, the local water wells, the barracks and stalls, and I thought for a moment that I was seeing bloodied figures, human shadows of those who had been tortured. They were moaning, shouting, and calling for help... but there was no help, not even the prospect of help. The gates of heaven were locked, and there were no more hearts in the human bodies. And now they, the shadows, were being driven uphill to the slaughter men, women, and children, very small ones, older ones...and mothers with little children....
I rubbed my eyes and shook my head to dispel those images; I took a closer look, and I saw quite a different picture, a picture of the present reality. Thousands of German prisoners of war now lived in the old fortress. The sons and brothers of the murderers, and maybe also the murderers themselves, were locked up and driven to hard labor, and they walked around half hungry with cooking pots hanging from their worn out grey green uniforms. They chased after a bit of bread, a potato, peelings, exactly the way we, the Jews had, not long ago. But they were not tortured, and they were not shot.
And I noticed that the Jew Hellerman, a former ghetto inmate from Dvinsk, was the chief of staff of the prisoner camp. The Germans trembled before him, they flattered him, they polished his boots, they grabbed a bit of cigarette that he had thrown away. The surviving ghetto Jews of Dvinsk rejoiced at this, and
saw in it a great revenge. They saw in it the finger of God. But for me the question arose again: How could there be a revenge great enough for the horrible crime that had been perpetrated against us?
Finally, I was drawn further, to the blood pits of Dvinsk, to the mass graves. I had, after all, a share in them, quite a very large share of my life, of my flesh and blood. For an entire day I wandered around in the neighborhood of Pogulyanke and the nearby areas, around the places of the gigantic brother graves. The ground was already smoothed out, overgrown with grass, yet I still felt how the earth moved, and heard how the blood in the pits cried out. It was as though souls were fluttering around in the air, weeping and complaining like children. I heard the lament of the souls of my own two children, cut down in their youth....
I had not wept for a very long time, my heart having been turned to stone, but now ...now the accumulated suffering and pain tore open and broke out in a stream of lament and tears. I wept, bitterly wept, over the fate of those who were tortured and those who survived over the bitter fate of all of us.
I spent an entire day among the mass graves, and on the broad, deep graves of our forefathers. I thought and thought, and could not find my way through the main thought that somewhere moved my mind. That evening, when I had become exhausted, I sat myself down and wrote something on a piece of paper. Later, in Lithuania, in the village where I was born, I wrote it over again, changing it. Here is what I wrote:
|Come down to our forefathers' grave,
Jew from distant homeland!
No more danger: the angel of death
Has already wiped clean his hand...
You will see what has become
Of your people in their old home.
Do not suppose, Jew, you were born
There, far from here, from a stone!
Your grandfathers had already been
Now Jewish life has been wiped out,
|Body and soul, wealth and need.
They have inherited Jewish fortune
Man and wife and child are dead...
There remain only the mass graves
Filled with countless Jewish bodies,
Europe is for us become
All at once a Jewish cemetery!
They have, after all, killed off a whole people
Perhaps our path is not the right one
Perhaps we are building on sands
Are we deeply rooted in the earth
|Perhaps after all...we are foreigners?
Sucking up foreign spirit and food?
Where is our home, in the end,
A piece of the earth, a circle of one's own,
Where we should be able to live
And there also be able to fall to the ground,
But not like sheep, but rather still able to give
Blow for blow, with fist and sword?!
Come down to our forefathers' grave,
|(Written on the great Jewish forefathers' grave after my return from the woods, in August and September, 1945.)|
I Seek a Jew in Ponavesz
The pitiful train, its freight cars packed with soldiers and passengers, dragged itself along. It 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 home, to the old one, my dear former home...I was not in any hurry, either. I wanted to take a look, but I knew what I could expect to find there.
At nightfall the train stopped at the Lithuanian station of Ponavesz, threw out a few dozen passengers, took in hundreds of new ones, and I fought with an idea: Should I get off or not? After all, this was where my old former home was. Here, not far, in a village, was where I was born. Here, before the war, my mother was still living, and my brother and his relatives had homes, businesses, money ...but shouldn't I instead travel further, to Kovno, where I had lived with my wife and children? I thought:
In Kovno there you will certainly not find anyone or anything. That you know, of course.... But why get out here, in Ponavesz? What, are you going to run and take a look at your former house? Will you rejoice if you should find anything of your former possessions and goods? Do you really need that? Better to travel to your mother's home as a guest, the way you used to do on holidays, on Passover, on Sukkot....
(The village in the picture is Pumpian, near Ponavesz)
I stepped down in Ponavesz, pressed myself through the thick crowd in the station building, and came to a halt on the street, on the very familiar Train Station Street. It was nightfall. What should I do? Where should I go? I turned around and went back to the train station. I made a comfortable little comer for myself on the dirty floor and lay down to sleep on my soldier's overcoat, using my backpack as a pillow. I said to myself:
Quietly, quietly! Now it is night, the time for sleeping. First get enough sleep, and tomorrow, in the morning, we will see what to do next.
The next morning came. It was a radiant August day. I remembered that a year ago, on exactly such a day, they led us away to be shot, and my four closest comrades perished. And now I was roaming around the familiar streets and houses of Ponavesz, lost and having no idea where to go.... I had lived for many years in Ponavesz, and had had hundreds of friends, comrades, and acquaintances, but now there was no one to be found, not even one Jewish face. 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 in their former homes. I asked the neighbors about them. But they were not there. They had vanished.
In the old city park, on a bench, I ate a good lunch of meat from my soldier's backpack, and then I set off again in search of a Jew. Find at least one, I thought to myself, one of the thousands of Jews who once lived in Ponavesz.... I looked around. The town was intact. The houses were still standing. Shops and the market were still there, and lots of people were walking around. It had not really changed that much, but there was nevertheless one major change the Jewish inhabitants were missing. I could not find any Jews in the whole town. Other owners 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 so called Rabinovitches wall, with its dozens of shops in the middle of the market, was gone. The Germans had apparently taken that whole wall apart piecemeal and got rid of it.
I grew tired of walking around in the streets and searching. I had lost almost all hope of finding a live Jew in Ponavesz. Then, when I went into a barbershop to get a shave, it seemed to me that one of the barbers was a Jewish boy. I asked him, and he said that yes, he was a Jew. He was now living in Ponavesz, but he was from the nearby village ofRamigole. He had hidden out with farmers, and in the woods, during the war. He told me he was the only one of his family who survived.
You Jew! I cried out to him. I have been looking for a Jew in Ponavesz, even just one, so I could feel better, and lo and behold, I have found you, the first one! Tell me, what other Jews are there in Ponavesz?
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. He knows better than I do how to help you ask him.
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 speak up? 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 in law, and his three sisters in law Yudelevitch. 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. They soon regarded me as one of their own.
We sat around a large table. There was a samovar, and we were drinking tea, just as in the past, as in the good times. 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 Ponavesz, 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? Davidov 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 Jews, Lithuanian Jews, and the largest number of them perished in the battles against the Germans. Others, wounded
like myself, were discharged from the army. The few surviving men who were not wounded are still in the army; Vilna is where they are now. My brotherin law is among them. You know him, don't you? He hopes he will soon be discharged and come home.
What is there to talk about? remarked the elder Yudelevitch. They made a fine practical use out of us! But there, at least, one knew why one was being killed. It had some meaning. We went into battle against the human wild animal, the German.... But here, here they slaughtered everybody, slaughtered them like sheep. 'Like lambs for a celebration'.... There was not one Jew left alive in Ponavesz, or in the surrounding villages, or in all of Lithuania one could say. Maybe a few, a small number, but isolated cases, very few, who somehow succeeded in hiding out with farmers, in the woods.
And he went on giving the details: Fifteen or sixteen thousand Jews from Ponavesz and the surrounding villages were killed here. Now all of Ponavesz 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, or for a memorial prayer, one cannot assemble a minyan. Harsh and painful is the kind oflife that exists now in town. No Jewish community, no Jewish school for children, no synagogue for prayer. And do you think that the seventy or eighty Jews are all from Ponavesz? God forbid! Maybe half of them have come over from the surrounding villages. They could not stay where they lived and did not want to, because in those villages there is no Jewish life at all. People say that it is dangerous for Jews even to put in an appearance or to sleep overnight there.
Why is it dangerous? I asked him. Here I am planning to go tomorrow morning to Pumpian. It's a little over twenty kilometers, so I will walk there. Why do you think it is dangerous to appear in the villages? Who will bother a Jew nowadays?
What? You want to go to Pumpian 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 explained. 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, and they kill people. Jews have lost their lives even now, after the war. Just a short while ago they killed two Jews near Krakenove, a Jew at Mezishek, and others elsewhere. So that's why people are astonished that you want to go on foot to Pumpian, just as if you were taking a walk! No, brother, I will not let you go!
What do you mean, not go? I have to go! You know that, of course....
If you won't have it any other way, if you must go, 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 now operating. You can take it as far as Pusholat, and you can go the last five kilometers either with the police or...you will easily find a way yourself. But remember what I am telling you: By yourself you should not go, and not at nightfall. At nightfall you should not even go out of the house! Remember what I am saying to you! More than one life no one has!
That night I stayed in a clean room, 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, not in Ponavesz, not in similar towns in Lithuania or Latvia, and certainly not in the villages. Was that a permanent condition? Would a revival ever occur? There were, after all, bits and pieces remaining, at least a few people, a few families. Would they ever build homes, lay the foundations for a new Jewish life, for a future? Who knew?
And again I recalled the village where I was born. I thought of my mother, my brother, my relatives, and all those who perished. Tomorrow I would go there and face the death and devastation. I was drawn toward it, dragged as if by invisible tongs, but at the same time I found it gut roiling to think of seeing that dreadful reality.
I See My Old Home it is a Dead Place!
It was already close to sundown when I drew close to my old home, my birthplace. 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 down. Where, in fact, am I going? I asked myself. To whom? And also: Don't I already know everything? I know, after all, that there is no one here....
An indescribable ache, a gnawing sensation enveloped me when I saw my village in the distance. I knew in my heart that no trace, no remembrance was left of my family. Nothing would be left of any Jews. Every step I took seemed to be steeped in blood. Everything was devastated, dead, vanished. 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.
Quite close to the village, I turned off onto a side path, sought out an isolated bam, and in keeping with my recent casual living style, I lay down there on the hay. And there, in the bam, I poured out in tears 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. I remained and spent the night in the barn.
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 former inhabitants were missing, the former owners, the Jews. New prosperous owners now occupied those places. Lithuanian neighbors had inherited the Jewish homes, land, shops, gardens, orchards, furniture, clothes, household goods the 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 of hundred apple trees that my brother and I had planted some fifteen years ago. The orchard stood fully loaded with fruit, and who would now 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 for 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, you couldn't have any complaints about him. That kind of person certainly deserved one of the finest homes in town, with a huge farmyard, garden, stable, granary, in general everything anyone might want. ...
I also knew the new owners of other Jewish homes. They were genuine Lithuanians, not bourgeois and not fascist. During the war, they had sinned only a little bit. 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 Jewish belongings. To whom else should those things be granted, if not to them?
I looked, and lo and behold, 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 thereafter a coachman and thief. And now I saw that Sheshkeitis had risen in the world. In fact, it turned out to be because of his wife and her productivity: She, his wife, had been granted a specific medal for her heroism in having ten children, and she was now called heroine on the children front. Naturally, such a family was entitled to a fine Jewish house and a considerable piece of our orchard.
There, that was what they were, these new owners: self satisfied nouveaux riches who had built upon the devastation of our Jewish life!
For hours I wandered around town in this way, seeing new owners and recognizing them, remembering them, but me, in my soldierly get up no one
recognized me. That pleased me. I felt freer, more comfortable. No one would gawk at me. I was just some kind of soldier wandering around; who cared who I was? But then the old Razinski woman came toward me, the one who spoke Yiddish like a Jewish child, and 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 I pretended not to notice. But she recognized me. She shouted:
Just give a look! I could swear you are Rachel Zalman'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 me and kissing me, our former house servant, the only one who recognized me in the town where I was born, in my old vanished home. People clustered around us. Now many recognized me, and seemed happy to see me, and 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 were driven away to the slaughter four years ago. I was a sensation! People were looking at me from their doors and windows the first and only Jew who had turned up there! Razinski spoke:
You must certainly be hungry. 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, a surviving Jew. His mere presence stabs them in the eyes. He reminds almost every one of them that they have profited from the death and destruction of their nearest neighbors, that their hands are not clean. And certainly many of them are frightened, lest he go looking for things, this guest, lest he find something. 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.
Vanished Lives, Lost Homes
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:
They tormented them in advance with hunger, lashes, and blows.... To begin with, they herded everyone together in a few homes on Tiffleh Street. You know, in the homes of Sholemke the butcher and Moishe the mason, the house of the rabbi, Mende the blacksmith's house, the house of Abraham the shoichet (ritual slaughterer), and a few other houses. Then they fenced in half of the street with barbed wire, and they kept all of them there for a couple of weeks, and did not let them out. The younger ones were driven to work, and were beaten. I could not go near them, and could not stand looking at their suffering, but 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 any more. As you know, everyone feared getting hit. So 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 them. Were there Germans in town? Were they the ones who behaved like owners?
Were Germans there! Occasionally a few passed through, and stopped for a while, but 'they' they were our local people, 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 of it they guarded the Jews, drove them, robbed them, shot them.... And here Razinski and his wife named dozens of names, well known 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 can tell that? Who has the heart to tell that? One day more policemen and shaulists arrived from Ponavesz 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 Ponavesz to work that's what they told them. But all of them had the feeling that this was bad news. They 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 ...to Ponavesz. 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, towards 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 Ponavesz, 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, together with her finger. There you have the murderers! Our own townspeople. We didn't know
very much about them, and 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. But no. Here comes winter, soon, and that will be the end of them. They will then be cleaned out. But those who ran away to Germany, those you will not capture. Who knows them there? Who even knows that they are there? They probably walk around freely, like everybody else, and....
Tell me, I interrupted them 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 Ponedel. 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. Where did you come from?
Early the following morning I took leave of my birthplace and my former home, with the thought that I would not come back. There had been, in my youthful years, a warm home here, and after I had grown up and moved away, I had still had a mother and a brother with a family and relatives here, all of them for many long years rooted and settled. I used to come here as a guest for Passover, for Sukkot. But now ...now it was over. Now everything was sunken in blood, wiped out, vanished forever.
Even the cemetery had vanished. The thick stone wall around it, which Jews had finally got 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. It had not burned down, no.... 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! Only the Jewish community's stone bath
house remained a prison was there now.
Also gone, vanished, were the two rows of Jewish shops in the middle of the market. Their fate was exactly the same: The townspeople took apart, divided up, and sold the building material. Now the marketplace was fiat, huge, weird, empty, and spacious....
What was it we used to say among ourselves? That without Jews there can be no market? But that turned out not to be true. Now there really were no Jews, but the market was there as before, as in the past, as in the time of the Jews.
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 eagerly 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 were bad and dishonest, all had become rich from Jewish blood, but not he, but not she not the narrators. They, the narrators, had not even taken 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 about their goodness, about their honesty and friendship. But before I left town, I went off
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 to him:
I have been to the Jewish cemetery. Everything is broken and damaged, and cows and pigs and sheep are grazing there. The cemetery is a holy place, a sacred ground! Can't the present authorities forbid people to graze their animals there? One must forbid such desecration, such dishonoring of the dead in their graves! Why do you allow such a shameful thing?
He answered me:
Yes, you are right, comrade, correct. A cemetery is a sacred ground. But what can I do and 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. Right? I will try to drive them away, but...I don't know, I'll see. The militiamen and their families keep their cows there.... I will see, I will see.... Now, you see, if you wanted to remain here, we would quickly settle this matter. Ha, what do you think, maybe you will stay here? We will give you a good position. We will find a position for you, a good position. Where else would you go? Why not settle here? 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? Right, comrade?
I heard out his warm, cordial words, and thought to myself:
No, I will not stay here! I don't have a home here anymore. 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, not even one day or one hour can I stay here, where my mother, brother, and relatives were tortured and murdered, and where everything reminds me of their life and of their horrible death .... No, here I can no longer have a home. This is where the life of my mother, my brother, my people were wiped out, and with them were wiped out also my feeling, my love, and my bond with my old home. It has all been annihilated, wiped out, lost forever!
With the Surviving Remnants of Refugees in Kovno
I decided to travel to Kovno.
On the way, I stopped again in Ponavesz and recounted to the elder Yudelevitch what I had seen and heard in my birthplace and former home.
Well, what has happened to your house, and the fruit orchard, and the whole valuable property of yours there? he asked me. You say there was a huge orchard of more than a hundred trees how does it look? Is there anything there to look at?
Yes, everything is in its place the house, the orchard, the trees, I replied. There is an extraordinarily good harvest this year; the trees are loaded with fruit, almost breaking the branches. The orchard is now in its best years. It has never before had such a huge harvest as it has now. Oh, they will have a very
good time there, the new owners....
Well, and what do you intend to do?
What do I intend to do? Nothing. I am leaving soon for Kovno.... We'll see....
And the house, with the orchard and fruit, are you just going to abandon all of it? You can take it back, after all, since it is yours!
What would I do with it? Take it with me? Stay there and be the boss over it? I can't even bear to stay there one extra hour, where the earth is bloodied and burns under my feet! The devil take them, and may they choke on the house, on the orchard, and on the fruit! I don't need it.
You are crazy, an insane person, out of your mind, a...a...I don't know what else you are! the elder Yudelevitch assailed me. What do you mean, you don't need it? Who else would need it? Do they need it? Do you intend to just leave it behind for them, the cutthroats? And you have no need to live, to eat, to drink, to wear clothes? See how you look in your green rags you don't need a decent shirt, trousers, a jacket, a coat? No one will give you any of those things for nothing, even though you are an officer, a sergeant.... An apple, fruit, is like gold now. People tear it out of your hands. They pay the highest prices for it. You could pick the apples off the trees, bring them to Ponavesz, and sell them. You could make quite a pretty pile of rubles. It would be useful for you, never mind that you might have to throw some of it away. After all, now you have to begin life anew, from the beginning.
Could be that you are right, my dear friend, I answered him. But...I can't do it. I cannot stay there for even one more minute, and...Idon't need it. We shall see. We will somehow or other get things in good order.... Be well! I'm going to the train.
That person is insane, nothing else than crazy, Yudelevich complained, shrugging his shoulders, not wanting to tear out of their hands what is his, what he owns, what is coming to him....
I went on to board the train. Once again, my worn out soldier's uniform allowed me to avoid all the difficulties. I didn't need any tickets or travel permits, only a pair of healthy elbows to make my way through the dense crowds. And lo and behold, the next morning I was at the Kovno station.
But the huge Kovno railroad station I knew so well wasn't there. A bomb had destroyed it, and German war prisoners were now clearing the rubble. I pressed my way through the crowded wooden barracks that had replaced the old building, and then I was on the streets of Kovno.
On the broad plaza around the station there stood a couple of half destroyed walls. They, too, had apparently been hit by a bomb. I went a little further, into the center of the town, and I saw that everything was the same: The town was whole, lively, in motion, bathed in sunshine. The businesses and shops were open, all as they had been before the war. Many military officers wandered through the streets, along with civilians in military or half military clothing.
Many half holiday idlers were taking a walk on Laisvess Alley, or sitting on benches. Here and there a house, a wall, or a government building was lying in ruins, and German prisoners were poking around and cleaning up the breakage.
And for me, the same thing began again. I was walking with my soldier's backpack on the streets of Kovno and looking for a former friend, a familiar face, a familiar house where I could go and make inquiries. I was walking along that way, thinking to myself, and looking at the numbers of the houses, when suddenly:
Halt! Why are you not saluting? Don't you know that military officers in town must be polite and salute in the military manner? Why are you not doing that?
I looked, and there, at the comer of Laisvess Alley and Maronya Street, stood a lieutenant with a few soldiers, apparently a patrol group from the town command center. It was they who were addressing their complaint to me. I explained to them that I had only just arrived home, and was, it seemed, lost in thought, looking for a familiar house. One of the group answered:
Lost in thought! A military officer should never dare to be lost in thought! Well, give me your papers and come with me to the command center.
I showed him my documents, but I had no inclination to go with him to the command center. I turned to the lieutenant and spoke to him from the heart:
I've been in every rotten comer and concentration camp, in the woods, in the partisan battalion at the front lines. And then I come back to my town, I look for some place or other, a little comer, and a fine welcome I encounter from you people! Is that right, comrade lieutenant? No, it is not right!
The lieutenant smiled, looked over my papers, and gave them back to me. He said:
Go to your home and get a couple of weeks of good, sound sleep. But remember, you are still a soldier, as long as you don't yet have civilian documents.
I dragged myself further around the streets. I looked, I sought after people, and what more is there to say? I met a family that I knew, Dushnitski, recently returned from Russia. At their house, I found a place, a small comer, where I could sleep. It was a new world that I had descended upon, I the greenhorn from the woods.
The next day, I took a walk over to the Laisvess Alley, and there, at that very same old gathering place, just before evening, I met a number of Jewish men and women, mostly single surviving individuals from families. A small number were people I knew, but most of them were unfamiliar to me. They had recently returned from Russia, from Germany, from a ghetto, from a concentration camp, from the military, from a village, from hiding in the woods; some had directly escaped from the claws of death....
What a peculiar and multicolored weaving together of human experiences,
feelings, thoughts, and desiresl There was a sense of airiness, landlessness, a sense of starting over from the beginning, and...what not? This was the first large group of the remnants of refugees that I had encountered in Kovno, and what I found most memorable about it was just that kind of fluttering mixture of souls and colors.
Various and different thinking were those who had returned from Russia. Even more different were those who had escaped from the concentration camps, and different in still other ways were those who had survived in the woods, in the military, or in a hiding place. But I noticed one thing that was the same in everyone, and it stuck out in everyone's soul all wanted to live, to get pleasure out of life, to build a life, a home, all over again, from the beginning. But how to do it, where, and on what foundations that no one knew. These were subjects that everyone touched upon cautiously and quietly in the surrounding post war landlessness, in the midst of the bloody destruction and their broken down Jewish life.
And I too l was becoming more and more overwhelmed by new thoughts and feelings, of the kind that used to pop into my mind not so long ago like a dream, a fantasy, an impossibility....
People whispered quietly to one another, and in secret. Those who knew each other entrusted things to each other; people talked themselves out; andI felt, as others did, how new and even unbelievable it all was. Be quiet, everyone said. One does not talk about such things out loud; one doesn't tell....
I learned that it was not a fantasy. People had indeed taken risks, traveled, flown in airplanes, and...some had fallen into prisons or been sent to Siberia. Others, however, had crossed over borders and through countries and were o their way to a new land, to a new life.
Well worked out strategies were already being passed along what to take for the journey and how to repatriate oneself, steal across borders, travel through lands and zones. One needed to have money, it was said, and not just a little money ... but it would turn out all right. One would obtain the money ...but it wasn't that easy. On the contrary, it was difficult, very difficult, risky and even life threatening, but you would talk it over with friends, you would prepare yourself, you would quietly sell off everything you owned and buy what you needed...and then you would leave. And more and more did leave. Only yesterday one had seen them, and today they had already disappeared from the horizons of Kovno and Vilna, Chaim, Itzik, Boruch, Yankl, and dozens and even hundreds of others. This was the mood among Jews, among the surviving remnants of refugees they wanted to run, steal across borders, and drag themselves over uncertain roads to a new life in the invisible distance.
I was curious to see the former ghetto of Kovno, over in Slobodke, on the other side of Vilye. The great bridge had been destroyed, so one had to go across the river in a small boat, or go a very long way around and cross on a wooden bridge. I took the small boat over the river, and soon I was walking
through the labyrinth of the streets and alleyways of Slobodke.
Seen from the front, the streets and houses were still whole, scarcely damaged at all, but further along and deeper into the area, where, until recently, a few thousand Jews had lived, not one intact house or wall remained. Everything, house for house, the Germans, together with their Lithuanian and Latvian assistants, had torn up with dynamite, burned down, or otherwise destroyed just before their retreat from Kovno in July of 1944. And there more than three and a half thousand Jews who had been left in the Kovno ghetto were shot, burned, asphyxiated by smoke, and buried under debris entire families, men and women and children, who had, in the course of many long months, built secure hiding places, bunkers, under their homes and cellars.
The bloodthirsty mad beasts had found out about the hidden Jews, yet had been unable to get them out of their bunkers. So they had simply demolished that entire section of Kovno. The protruding chimneys, pieces of walls, burned and deformed iron cots, and other debris comprised a mute yet screaming testimony.
But I also heard a living witness in the deathly stillness a voice that carried all the way across the wide expanse of destruction. I looked around and saw an elderly woman sitting on a stone ruin and weeping quietly and inconsolably. I spoke to her, I asked her why she was crying, I tried to comfort her, and thereupon the woman spoke and expressed the bitterness of her heart:
Right here my last two little birds met their death. Right here, under the house, my children were burned and asphyxiated.... What are you talking about? What are you saying? How can there be any hope, how can they still be found, and be able to call out to me, when I know for certain that they remained hidden in a bunker together with a couple of dozen other Jews, and no one came out alive? All were asphyxiated, and they too, my little birds. Oh how well I know that! I wish I did not know it.... I was, after all, also hidden in there. I went out to get water, and just then they caught me, dragged me off to Germany, held me in captivity in all kinds of places. I got over a severe case of typhus; I nearly expired from hunger and cold and pain; and as you can see I remained alive. For troubles and for renewed suffering I remained alive.... What good is my life? Why do I need my life? I am alone, after all, lonely just like this stone. There is no one here now; no one remains. My older son, right from the beginning, was shot, right over there, during the seventh round. My husband and our two youngest children died during the ninth round and the so called children action, and then the last ones were asphyxiated and burned right here. With smoke and fire their lives ended, and they disappeared. Not even an ash remains of them, and I...I, this old broken vessel, I am still alive.... I must still live and walk around here, on the bloodied earth. I must tear at my wounds and suffer, endlessly suffer.... Oh, my life! What good is it? Why do I need my life? I am, after all, a leftover, a superfluous person in the whole world, superfluous for God and for mankind. What good is my life,
when my heart is full of wounds and pain, and beyond endurance, beyond endurance....
Thus had argued the surviving mother. I spoke with her, tried again to comfort her...and then, afterwards, I wrote down something about it. Here it is:
Today I encountered a mother...
She has remained alive by sheer accident.
he Nazi wild beasts have broken up
Her home, and driven out her children.
This Jewish mother has wept:
My husband, my children, are lying dead,
This Jewish mother has wept,
You, a hearty Jewish mother.
|(Written in the ruins of the Kovno ghetto, September, 1945.)|
(Photographer: G. Kadish, 1944)
How is it Possible to Live Above Cemeteries?
For weeks I wandered around idly, a loafer, without work, without a goal, and without the will to do anything. Yes, true, I did start to do something in the first days after my arrival in Kovno, I tried to outfit myself as a civilian, in a coat and pants and a pair of shoes. In my papers, it was specifically written in black and white that I must procure civilian clothing. I went off to where you have to go, addressed myself to the highest ranking official, showed him my papers, told him my entire background, and demanded what was coming to me. The official heard me out very attentively and patiently, and at the end he said to me:
Yes, my dear friend, you must get all of that, and of course, as your first priority. It is right. You must have it right away, because I know, after all, that you don't have anything other than your worn out soldier's uniform. Yes, all that is correct, but...but you see, there are already a lot of people waiting for those things, who came here before you did.... No, what are you saying? There will be no shortage. There is more than enough for everybody. We do have everything clothes and boots and undershirts and even wristwatches and what not. ..and if we run out? The factories will simply produce more goods. Production will be increased, and then there will be enough for everyone, and, of course, as a top priority, for people like you.... How long will that take? Who can tell? After all, it hasn't been that long since the war ended! Possibly a few months, possibly also longer.... But don't worry. Here, write down your name and leave it with me, and we will notify you. You can be sure, we will not forget you....
I protested more and more strongly against that kind of providing for my needs. I said I must immediately have at least a jacket and a pair of pants, because I didn't have anything to wear. Then I saw that the official became softer. He wrote down an address on a piece of paper, and said:
You know what? Go to the director of the supply base. Here is the address. It's possible they have there what you need.... Yes, yes, you can tell him that in my name. Why do you need a slip of paper from me? Tell him in my name; that will be enough.
I went straight to the director of the supply base and started all over again with the same litany: I need civilian clothing.... My military uniform is torn.... One can't go around naked....
The director looked at me with indifferent eyes, and finally clapped his hands:
Oh, what does he want of me, that. ..that...? He knows perfectly well that I don't have anything and can't distribute anything! Why does he send you to me? In order to get rid of you, he sends you to me.... Here is the truth, my dear friend. I don't have and cannot supply you with anything at all. If they were to send things to me, then I would have things, but they don't send me anything. They don't send anything, and that's why I don't have anything. But
a good piece of advice I do have for you: Go off to camp store number ten, or number six, or number twelve, and there you will get things. They probably have there.... Would you like me to give you a list? Please, I am writing it down for you....
I spilled out my entire anger and resentment in stores number ten, six, and twelve. But what good did my shouting and my threats do? The directors of the stores just smiled and shrugged their shoulders. They said:
For us this is nothing new, that people like you come to us, with really impressive documentation, and with full rights to receive what they want, and they shout, poor souls, and threaten us.... But do we make the clothes, or the boots, or even the undershirts? Everything we have is sent to us from there, from the base, but they are in no hurry to send things. The little that we had we have already distributed, and no new merchandise has come in. What good is the director's list? He makes people laugh, the way he gives out lists.... Can you make an outfit or a coat from lists? What can you get from us? Here, take a look at the shelf. All of that is merchandise that you have the right to receive at cost price.
I was not able to obtain any clothing at cost price, but I was nevertheless satisfied that my efforts were not in vain. I did accomplish a little something. On that day I became richer with two pieces of aromatic soap, a spool of black thread, three needles, and five razor blades all at cheap cost prices. And I consoled myself and rejoiced that after all one cannot expect to become wealthy all at once, or to jump into an outfit, a coat, or shoes all at once. It is good to begin with a couple of pieces of aromatic soap, and a needle and threa, and afterwards, bit by bit, work one's way up to a coat and boots, and even other things as well. Everything comes with time; one can't become rich all at once.
If I hoped to find, in my former dwelling in Kovno, any things of a household nature, such as clothing or furniture, then I was absolutely deceiving myself. I visited that house where I once lived like a human among humans, with a family, with warmth and affection.... Now there was nothing there. Strangers were living there now, and all my household goods had been scattered, removed.
In that dwelling there was only one thing I recognized, and that was a large, broad branched fig tree in a flowerpot, which a grandmother had once nurtured with shaky, caring hands. She had left it behind as an inheritance to a daughter and grandchildren.... That was all. Nothing else remained of that house, that family. It was one of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish families that had vanished.
And if, during the first days after my return to Kovno, I was thinking about taking up my previous line of work or some other occupation, and about settling in a place of my own, with a table, a bench if I was thinking that way, those thoughts disappeared. How could anyone settle and build a new life
on bloodied ruins, on an endless cemetery? Where could anyone get the will and the courage and strength for that? How could anyone want it? The work would be no work, and the building, the building of a new life...somehow one's hands did not rise to the task of building a new life in such a place. That new life would be no life at all. It would be a life standing on its head, upside down. It would be a crippled life, reversed, with its foundation on the outside. How could one build that kind of new life?
And with such feelings, hundreds and thousands of the remnants of refugees were overwhelmed. They were persuaded to leave. They wanted to travel, to run away, to reach a new life in a new land, and they actually did it. They broke through closed borders. Not all of them, of course, were able to do that; only those who possessed enough courage and determination, and perhaps enough recklessness.
I too was overwhelmed and persuaded to leave, persuaded from head to feet. I already had a goal before my eyes, and I knew that there was nothing that would stop me now. I had once again tom myself away from a frozen and discouraged state. I now had new strength, and I was going to my goal.
We, a group of friends, were getting ready to leave Lithuania, to steal our way across borders and lands, and arrive at new shores.
But how would I get the means, the money, for such a long, drawn out adventure? Without money, and without clothing and food, and without many other things, I could not stir from the spot.
Should I go and get my inheritance, the houses and the orchard property, and sell them to make money? Yes, it could be done, according to the law, through the courts. I would have to seek a judgment, bring witnesses, testify that everything and everybody was dead, that I was the lone surviving inheritor. I would have to grease some palms a little, make out documents, and look for a buyer. Then I would have to do some more greasing, create bill of sale documents, and then give it all away for about one fifth of its worth. I knew a few people who had already done such things, and others who were doing them now. The process typically dragged on for many months. It might even take years....
It was also possible just to let it go, the houses and the valuable property people did that, too. And that's what I wanted to do. My nerves could not handle getting involved in a lawsuit about inheritance and property; I could not bear to remain once more in a state of waiting. Let the inheritance go with the wind and smoke, abandoned; let it disappear like everything else! I couldn't stay any longer and wait. I couldn't, and I didn't want to.
But still, where would I get the necessary means for my journey? And then I remembered what the elder Yudelevitch had said, his argument that I could at least pick the apples from my orchard, sell them, and make a handsome few rubles profit. Apples, they say, are as good as gold that, I thought, was what my old friend had said to me. Yes, that was the way to go.
Without lengthy pondering about the matter, I again put on my worn out army coat, took my backpack on my shoulders, and walked out onto the great highway. And soon I was sitting in a freight car on the way to Ponavesz.
I told my plans neither to Yudelevitch nor to anyone else. You don't talk about such things. You don't tell them. I said only that I was in the process of settling in Kovno, but that I wanted, first, to go again to the village where I was born, to do something there. Yudelevitch said to me:
You see, I told you right away. Take down the fruit. It's almost the right time to do it, and you will have a nice few pennies. If you wish, I can recommend to you a local Russian. He will help you. Oh, you can rely on him! He will stand guard, if that is necessary. So, good luck on your trip, and grab everything away from them, from the murderers, as much as you can! Don't leave even a single fig for them!
I See Them the Towns and Villages Without Jews
I was back again in my native village, in the old home that had disappeared, and this time I had come with a stiff heart and a hard fist, to take what was mine. I had brought with me the Russian that Yudelevitch had recommended, and the Russian's wife and two children as well. I installed them in the orchard to stand guard, and that same day, I notified the new owners that they were not to set foot in there. They received my announcement with a sour, dissatisfied countenance, and in order to sweeten it a little bit for them, I had to take one of them, the more nervy one, and drive my fist into his teeth. That helped, and during the day I saw no more of them, although at night they stole in and smashed trees and fences.
And one more thing I had to take care of in my old home. Townspeople had whispered in my ear a dozen names of neighbors of the murderers and robbers. The murderers and robbers themselves either had been killed or had disappeared, but in the neighbors' homes there lay hidden quite a bit of Jewish property.
With the permission of the militia chief, I took three militia men, and all four of us, armed, set out to search the villages in the woods. But where would you find anything? Everything of value was well hidden, or had been traded, or sent somewhere else, and only a complete collection of my brother's and other Jews' furniture was I able to assemble, along with a cow of my brother's, a sewing machine, a fur piece, a couple of cushions, and a wall clock and all of that had to be torn out of the thievish hands of the villagers by force. My blood was boiling inside me as I listened to their protests and false claims. Yet I did not smash in even one of their ugly faces.
But even if I had, would that have been a settling of accounts? Would that have made things right again? Could it possibly quiet my deep pain? And what did I need the furniture for, and the cow, and the wall clock? I hastily halted the pursuit of Jewish belongings and got rid of what I had gained. Most
of the furniture I gave away to the people I knew in Ponavesz. The sewing machine I sold to a Jewish tailor there, after reducing the price drastically. In the marketplace I traded the wall clock for a wrist watch, and the rest I sold, or distributed, or traded in exchange for food.
In that manner, I actually became a little bit like a rich man, and after I had picked five or six truckloads of apples from my fruit trees and sold them in Ponavesz, I became, in my own estimation, a real rich man. Of course, I did not have as much as fifty thousand rubles, as a real rich man might have, but nevertheless I did possess a great many beautiful, colored, crisp new little paper bills.
(Village of Pumpian, Lithuania)
I said farewell to my native village, to my former home, to my father'smother's brother's old house, and to the entire valuable property forever, never to return to it, never to see it again. Let it remain abandoned, in the hands of strangers; may it soon lie in ruins, burned up I didn't need it! For me it was lost forever, together with those who had been dragged away from it to be killed. But even so, it seemed to me that shadows of the bloodied past accompanied me out of the village, accompanied me the whole way, and that they would never leave me...never....
A new interest awoke in me l traveled around my homeland, visiting more places, more towns and villages, and looking closely at the new life without Jews. I asked after the Jews everywhere I went. I wanted to soak in and fix permanently in my soul as much as I could of the old fashioned past, and of the more recent life that had died out. My soldier's uniform allowed
me to move about freely through Lithuania and Latvia, and into the so called western territories of Russia. I came once more to Vilna, Riga, Shavl, Kaydan, Rassein, Plungian, Telsz, Kurshan, Yanave, Vilkomir, Utian, Trashkun, Aniksht, Kufishock, Birsz, Fosvell, Linkove, Shadova, Marianpol, Vilkovisk, Shaki, Olite, Virbaln, Meretsh, Lazdai, Kalvarie, Neistat, and another couple of dozen larger or smaller places where Jewish life had once thrived.
I remained a few days in Abel, where I helped a friend get back some of the goods and belongings that had been stolen from him. I stayed a little longer in Rakishak, where, out of a Jewish population that had once numbered a couple of thousand, I found barely a dozen individuals, broken down people. I saw the same thing in Kaydan one and a half dozen Jews who remained alive. By the way, they told me here how heroically the well known garden expert of Kaydan, Tsadok Slapobersky, had perished, choking to death two of the murderers and dragging them with him into the grave. In Telsz I learned about a group of rescued Jewish girls, orphans, who were living there under the supervision of a monastery and could not go back to their place of origin, to a Jewish life. And everywhere I heard the same thing how willingly, actively, and ruthlessly the Lithuanians had robbed and slaughtered their long standing fellow residents and neighbors, the Jews. Seldom could one find a righteous Lithuanian who would, for appropriate remuneration, agree to help, hide, or rescue a Jew. Even today, the Lithuanians are full of the Nazi death poison, remaining the blood enemies of Jews. They cannot look a Jew in the eyes, because their conscience is not clean.... And how many of the Lithuanian former Nazis have turned over their fur collars, becoming powerful figures and opinion makers now, in the current administration!
Nearly a quarter of a million Jews lived in Kovno, Vilna, and the Vilna suburbs before the war. That's why the huge Jewish mass graves can be found there. The greatest among them, Ponar, seven kilometers from Vilna, is the slaughter site of a hundred thousand Jews. The next largest, near Kovno, behind Slobodke, is the slaughter site of seventy five thousand Jews. Some twelve thousand murdered Jews lie in each of the next largest mass graves. And what city or town across the whole land doesn't have its own mass graves, where rest another few thousand Jews who were tortured and murdered?
Of Kovno's Jews, a few thousand were killed in the prisons and right at the start of the seventh action. About thirty thousand were all driven together into the ghetto of Kovno, in the suburb Slobodke, on the 15th of August, 1941. They were either systematically annihilated there or dragged off to Latvia, Estonia, or Germany, also to torture and death.
In the Kovno ghetto's great action on the 28th of October, 1941, eleven to twelve thousand Jews were put to death. Another ten to twelve thousand Jews perished in a whole series of smaller slaughters, among them the horrifying children action on the 27th to the 29th of March, 1944, and the liquidation
of the ghetto in July,1944. The remaining Jews were at first taken away to Tigenhof. After that, some mostly women and children, forcibly separated from the men went to the Shtuthof death camp, near Danzig. Others went to Dachau, in Bavaria, to deadly exhaustion from slave labor, hunger, and illness. Some children, not yet sixteen years old, were sent directly to the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. Of the three thousand men taken away to Dachau and nearby camps, more than two thousand three hundred perished. Among them was the sixty five year old Dr. Elkes, who, at the historic last meeting of the Kovno Community Council on the 4th of August, 1941, had been selected as the elder of the ghetto advisory committee the head Jew, according to the German terminology. With courage, a strong sense of responsibility, a clear conscience, and clean hands, Dr. Elkes honorably carried out his duty as the ghetto's community leader and official emissary, but what could one man, even the very best man, accomplish under the rule of the inhuman Nazi beast?
After the war, the surviving Jews huddled closer together and moved toward large Jewish centers such as Vilna or Kovno, where a bit of Jewish com . munity and cultural life still had the potential to develop. Yet in those two cities combined, barely twenty thousand Jews can be found today, and maybe another two or three thousand with the latest group that has come back. Some have estimated that about ten to twelve thousand Jews have assembled in Vilna. Others estimate the number to be higher, up to fifteen or sixteen thousand about three quarters of the entire surviving Jewish population in Lithuania. In Kovno, the administration of the Jewish community has counted barely three thousand Jews, with remnants corning together from all of Lithuania. The numbers, however, are not solid. Small groups of Jews arrive from Russia, liberated concentration camps, and smaller towns and villages all the time, while other Jews disappear over closed borders and are transformed into a new batch of refugees, roaming about on newly discovered paths. The surviving remnants of Israel in Europe cannot be contained, and cannot be accurately counted.
In Vilna, more than anywhere else in Lithuania, there is the pulse of new Jewish life. The cultural and community centers include the Jewish museum, the folk school with the kindergarten and orphanage, and the two synagogues that have remained intact. Other cultural institutions have sprung up as well.
Jewish community and cultural life in Kovno has been revived in the Jewish folk school, kindergarten, and home for children. The well known teacher Helena Chatzkeles is the soul and faithful mother of the entire institution. In addition, the two remaining prayer and study houses the choir school on Azsheska Street and Hoizman's study house on Mayironya Street have brought Jews together. The choir school, which has remained intact, has also become the home of the community administration, in which the rabbis Oshri, Tzuckerman, and Varkool have been active, along with Madam Levy, Vinklsh
tein, the lawyer Nachum Levitan, and others.
A certain Professor Rebelsky, a Jew from Moscow, with total courage and a warm Jewish heart, has remained a legendary figure for the Jews of Kovno. During the war, he was a high ranking officer in the Russian military in Lithuania, and afterward he devoted himself with heart and soul to get Kovno's barely alive Jewish kibbutz back on its feet. He procured the first permission to open the Jewish folk school, kindergarten, and children's home, and helped to get back the abandoned choir school. He also provided some of the school children with clothing and helped take back Jewish children who had been hidden with gentiles. I remember how on Rosh Hashana, he came with other Jewish military officers to the synagogue to pray, and spilled out a bitter Jewish tear....
Only a few thousand Jews remain scattered in the small towns and villages of Lithuania. Shavl has up to five or six hundred Jews. Many places have no more than a few isolated individuals or a couple of families, up to a few dozen Jews in all. And then, of course, many other places, like my native village, have been left entirely without Jews.
Oh my, Oh dear! How Jewless, how emptied out the Jewish village has become! Everywhere there had formerly been a rich, boiling, and noisy Jewish life, I now encounter only bloody ruins and cemeteries, and among the ruins only poor, isolated, homeless refugees. And everywhere it pains me in the same way, and raises the same questions questions about where, and how, and whether these rare remnants will want to establish a new Jewish life.
There, in Lithuania
|Sacred is the memory of my mother,
Rachel, daughter of reb Zalman
Hirshovitch, and my brother Aba, with
his family, Vitl, Zamele, and Getsale
tortured at the hands of the Nazis,
together with the other Jews of my
native village in Lithuania
Marching, marching, was the march of the slaughter
I walk on fields, on roads and trails,
It lies dead and desolate, my home, my village,
The Jewish homes all stand there orphaned,
I cross the streets of town and village,
A good neighbor who had inherited
He tells of the ruined house of prayer,
|Stones tell the tale, how victims
Had fallen for the last time,
How children's blood was spilled on stone,
And the lamentations of their voices heard.
The homeland forest hides the secrets
There stands my father's house, lifeless...
Oh, father, mother, brothers, sisters,
Where are you, homely figures?
I weep without tears, silent and lonely,
A land remains a cemetery
I cannot see you, my fine neighbor,
I cannot bear your not guilty claim,
|My mother's shoes, my sister's dress!
You, Lithuanian land, which has been
I do not want to enjoy your sunshine,
I abandon you, people of murder and theft!
For you will be accompanied and swallowed
|(Written in September, 1945, in my native village, Pumpian, Lithuania, after my return home to the ruins and cemeteries of Jewish life.)|
We Are on the Run Again, This Time of Our Own Free Will
Winter was getting near, with its cold, snow, and discomforts, and we became more and more impatient to start on our new journey. The time of our departure was not known, but it could arrive suddenly. It could be the very next day, the next hour. One must be prepared.
My friend and I rode everywhere, getting ourselves ready together. We made our last preparations shopping, selling, and trading and we did all of it quietly, secretly, disguised. Now I was a frequent visitor to the Kovno market, or, as others called it, the free or black market. There, for good, not manufacturer's prices, you could get anything your heart desired, most of it stolen Jewish belongings that were passing from hand to hand. I was now, after all, a rich man. I could get for myself what I needed, without waiting for everyone else to be served with all the good things....
For a couple of thousand rubles I could get an outfit of pre war fabrication; for one and a half thousand, an outstanding Jewish coat that had appeared suddenly in the bright world, after having been hidden for four years. For some hundreds of rubles !don't remember how many I could buy a pair of
shoes, and for a thousand, a pair of new chromium boots. An American fountain pen would cost a couple of hundred. And as you see, it was a good thing to be a rich man in rubles, because without thousands, the free market's inexhaustible merchandise was not available. Only the manufacturer's supply base, where merchandise had to be made and then imported, could provide goods for a low price.
Gradually my friend and I carried out our packages, and then, quietly, stealthily, we slipped out of our room. The neighbors didn't notice. Nobody knew. We traveled over the streets of Kovno for the last time, and our hearts were uneasy. We worried lest we would be detained. By nightfall, at the agreed upon place, we met a few dozen other peoplemen, women, and children and all were quiet, earnest, and worried about the dangers and difficulties that lay ahead. Finally, three huge military freight autos arrived, each with its own military chauffeur. Quickly we were loaded onto the vehicles, tightly pushed and pressed together. We were covered overhead and on all sides with a large tarpaulin, and the transport started moving away from the spot.
We were going to repatriate ourselves to Poland. Our documents showed
clearly that we were born in the former Polish regions, and in accordance with the Russian Polish agreement, we certainly had full rights to be repatriated that is, to return to our fatherland....
Our transport cut through the night. We didn't know where we were or what kind of danger might still await us. In the freight auto it was crowded and uncomfortable to sit, and we were thrown about in every direction, so that our insides were shaken up. My neighbor, a Jew, and not very young, as I could see even in the darkness, sighed heavily and said a word of farewell to our homeland:
And what were we ever lacking in the past, in Lithuania? There was the Torah, and wit and wisdom, and the means of making a living was also not lacking. There were those who were poorer, and those who were richer, but everybody, nevertheless, had a life, and people knew what it meant to have a life. And we had, among other things, the Lithuanian Jewish kibbutz! Although it was not very large in numbers, yet what weight it possessed, what importance, what intellectual influence in the Jewish world. Also we had many other treasures. Take the Gaon (headmaster) of Vilna, take Reb Yitzchok Elchonon (founder of a teacher training school), take the Talmudic system of thought, the Haskolah movement (the enlightenment), the Jewish commitment to education, the Hebrew schools, take all of those intellectual leaders, take...and what not? And look at what we have lived to see. Everything that was so deep, for generations, long rooted and carved into Jewish life, and.... What am I saying? It wasn't just the scholarly achievements that were lost. Even Jewish life, the naked Jewish life itself, and everything, and all together, body and soul all of that is now tom out, together with the deepest roots. Everything is
annihilated, burned up, uprooted.... What was I saying? It is ruin upon ruins, and I fear that it is for all time. It is already lost forever. Because, looked at with common sense, who is there that will reestablish everything, again lay down foundations, and build a Jewish life once more? Who? They? The comrades? And the last remaining Jewish Jews are running away.... Now you are running away, and I, and all of us, and others and still others. Which Jews will stay, and what are they going to do, and what will become of them?
A soft, womanly voice called out in the darkness:
Don't worry, don't worry. There will still be Jews who will remain in Lithuania. Not all of them will want to run away. And those who remain will build and reestablish. Not everyone will really want to run away. For certain people this is a good time, even better than before. In fact I know someone ....
A strong masculine voice broke in:
About that you are not correct. All want to run away, but not everyone can run away. Not everyone can do it.
And then a new female voice came out of a comer:
Quiet, quiet! Why are you chattering about running away? You yourselves have not yet run away, and you talk about other people running away.... You have not yet gotten past the inspections and the border, so be quiet and wait a little bit longer!
The first, the philosophical Jew, continued to speak on the subject, but no one was listening to him anymore. Everyone was preoccupied with their own thoughts. It was already getting to be daylight. We were approaching the border and the control point, and our hearts were more and more uneasy....
What awaited us now, after the dark years of inhuman torture, after the terrible bloody ruins, and after having lost everything, even our long settled old home? What awaited us? Freedom? A new life, in a new land? Or...or...?
(Photo: G. Kadish, 1945)
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