My maternal grandmother’s name was Lea Leibowitz.
She was born Lea Charif, in Lithuania, on 5 July 1914, although her birth records were lost during World War II, so the exact year of her birth is unknown. She may have been born a year or two earlier, but by making it 1914 my grandmother could always claim to be just a smidge younger than she really was.
Lea grew up in a village called Moletai (Malat in Yiddish). Her father, Itzik, was the manager of a nearby estate, and her mother, Rakhel, ran a bakery. She had three siblings: an elder brother, Hymie (he migrated to South Africa in the 1930s), a younger brother, Mote, and a younger sister, Gita.
My grandmother often told me stories of her childhood in Lithuania, in a way that made it seem a bit like a quaint European fairytale: summers swimming in the river and picking wild strawberries in the forest behind her house; snowy winters, days spent ice-skating on the frozen lakes, and nights huddled in front of a crackling log-fire.
The one surviving photo of Lea as a teenager shows a striking, quite beautiful young woman – dark skin, fine features and long, plaited brown hair. The photo is in black and white, so you only get a hint of what was her most noticeable physical feature, steely dark green-blue eyes, that seemed to see right through you.
As a teenager Lea went to high school in the nearby town of Ukmerge (Vilkomer), where she excelled. She then moved to Kaunus (Kovno), Lithuania’s second largest city, to attend university. She wanted to study medicine, but there was a quota limiting the number of Jews in the faculty, so she studied biology instead. In any case, in those days a woman studying anything at university was something of a rarity, but by all accounts my grandmother was very, very smart.
In Kovno she met Moses Klompus, a clerk and reporter. They were married, and in 1938 their first child, Michael, was born. They lived in an apartment in an up-and-coming part of town. Moses’ aged mother moved in with them, so as to help with baby Michael while Lea continued her studies.
Theirs was the normal, happy life of any newly married couple: work, studies, holidays, and dreams of the future. In my grandmother’s case, the dream involved finishing her degree, more children, and perhaps one day migrating to what was then Palestine, to take part in the building of a Jewish homeland. She had become a committed Zionist in high school.
World War II began, and with that, all of Lea’s dreams were smashed into a thousand pieces.
In 1941, Lithuania’s Nazi occupiers ordered that she and her family move into the Kovno Ghetto, along with the other 40,000 Jewish residents of the city. There, they experienced horribly crowded living conditions, food shortages and malnutrition, summary executions of those who tried to leave the ghetto, disease, and death.
Deportations of Jews from the Kovno Ghetto to Nazi forced labour camps became a feature of everyday life. One day Moses was taken away with a group of Jewish men. He was never seen again.
In 1943 Lea, her mother-in-law and her son were taken to the Vaivara concentration camp in Estonia. They were forcibly separated – Lea being able-bodied sent to work; her mother-in-law and Michael, too old and too young to be of any use to the Nazis were murdered, for no other reason than the fact of their being Jewish. Lea was then moved from camp to camp by the retreating German army, until the war’s end.
During this time, she contracted tuberculosis, which almost killed her. She experienced the humiliation of being shaved and made to stand naked, alongside hundreds of other women, at daily inspections. She slept in unheated wooden dormitories, sharing a “bed” with up to ten other women at a time. She wore shoes so small they mangled the bones in her feet. She felt hunger so extreme that even a small, uncooked potato, or a scrap of bread, was something people would quite literally kill for.
Lea was beaten many times by Nazi soldiers – one time so severely that for the rest of her life she suffered from pain in the spot where the officer in question had kicked her in the back, repeatedly, as she lay helpless on the ground. On one occasion, while very ill and laid up in a camp hospital, a sympathetic Jewish doctor helped her to dress as a nurse so she could leave the hospital. A few days after that, all the other hospital patients were deported to their certain death, in Auschwitz.
In those years my grandmother lived through hardship and deprivation the depth of which I cannot even begin to imagine. Each and every day she stared death directly in the face, and yet survived. I don’t think I would have.
Her survival was, in no small measure, due to an indomitable will, and an extraordinary brain. Specifically, she had a flair for languages and spoke Lithuanian, Latvian, Russian, German, Yiddish and English more or less fluently (as well as Hebrew and, later in life, smatterings of French, Arabic, and Afrikaans as well). This meant she had a ready role in the Third Reich’s labour camp machine as a translator, between Nazi soldiers on the one hand and Jewish inmates on the other.
This kept her alive, and ultimately, towards the end of the war she found herself in charge of the kitchen at the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, in Germany. There Lea was able to use her position of relative authority to procure work in the kitchen for a number of orphaned Jewish girls. Most of her “girls” survived the war as a result. A photo taken with her “camp family”, at a reunion many years later in Israel, was one of my grandmother’s most cherished possessions.
In April 1945 British and American troops liberated Bergen Belsen. At the time, Lea was an emaciated half-being, weighing barely 45 kilograms. Still, her language abilities secured her a stint as a translator with the American army.
After that she rode the rails in Europe for several months – a stateless, homeless person – before winding up in Paris, where she had a mental and physical breakdown. She was taken in by Nadia, one of her closest school friends who lived there, and so Lea lived with Nadia for over a year. Most nights Lea would sleep in the double bed with Nadia and her husband, so scared was she of being alone. Without the extraordinary kindness of people like Nadia, Lea may not have survived the post-war readjustment, which for many people was just as horrific as their experience in the war itself.
After she recovered, Lea asked the authorities in charge of European refugee relocation to send her to South Africa, where her elder brother – and only known surviving relative – lived. Eventually they did so, and Lea arrived in South Africa by boat in 1947, not long before Israel was created.
I have often wondered what would have happened if she had followed her dream, and instead of South Africa had found her way to the fledgling Jewish state. I would not be writing this now, but I am damned sure that Golda Meir would have had a formidable rival in the “tough old bird” department.
In South Africa, Lea set about the unfathomably hard task of creating a new life for herself, from scratch. She met my grandfather, Samuel Leibowitz, a Lithuanian who had moved to South Africa in around 1930. They married, and she began teaching at a local primary school. They established a home in the small town of Benoni, near Johannesburg. My mother was born in 1950; my aunt five years later. Eventually Lea quit teaching to work with my grandfather in a general goods store, which they owned and ran together until his death in 1976.
After my grandfather passed, Lea returned to full-time study and completed a doctoral dissertation in Holocaust studies (it was never awarded – the work was far too emotional and personal to be considered genuinely academic). She devoted the rest of her life to promoting Holocaust awareness, touring schools and telling young people her story.
In 1988, at the sprightly age of 75, my grandmother migrated for the second time in her life, this time from South Africa to Australia, to join my family who had migrated there in 1985. A few years later, my aunt and her family moved to Australia as well, and after Lea’s brother died, his children and grandchildren eventually came to Australia, too.
In the space of three generations, therefore, the surviving fragments of the Charif family from Moletai, Lithuania, nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, had gathered and rebuilt in South Africa, and then moved even further afield, to faraway Australia, which is possibly as distant from Europe as one can get.
I sometimes wonder what my great-grandfather Itzik would have thought if you had told him that one day, seventy years hence, most of his family would be living on the east coast of Australia. Or that his great-grandson would be an English-speaking Sabra, born in Jerusalem, raised in South Africa and Australia, and now living in Singapore. I suspect he would have thought you were insane, a meshugenah (madman) fit for lock up in the nearest nuthouse.
I was born in 1972, Lea’s first grandchild. I called her “Bobba” (grandma in Yiddish), and it seemed to stick. For the last few decades of her life, that was what just about everybody else called her as well – family, friends, even the guy at the local grocery store.
More than just being her grandson, however, I was the first baby boy in Lea’s life since 1938. In many respects, therefore, I became a substitute for the son she had lost to the Holocaust. I was named after him, my middle name being Michael. Perhaps it is for this reason that I always felt like Bobba and I had an extra special bond. When she died it left a massive void in my life, although it took me more than ten years to even begin to figure out just how big a void it really was.
And now, almost thirteen years after her death, I had finally decided to visit Lithuania (see my previous posts Milk Boys and Jewish Tartans and Notes from Lithuania, Part I). I wanted to see for myself the places my grandmother had told me about. I wanted to understand her life before the war, and the suffering she had experienced during it.
And, if truth be told, I guess I hoped that by visiting Lithuania I could perhaps free myself from the sense of guilt, sacrifice and obligation which, like so many second and third generation Holocaust survivors, I forever carry around inside of me. These feelings are always there, buried deep in my sub-conscious, from time to time surfacing to exert a subtle, powerful, and occasionally destructive influence on my life.
My tour-guide, Daniel, had arranged a search of the Lithuanian state archives before I arrived in the country. He had found an original marriage record, registered in Kaunas in 1937, of Klompus Mozes, clerk, from Kybartai, and Charif Leja, student, from Moletai. He had also found a 1938 birth record of the Kaunas Jewish Community: “Michaelis, son of Mozes Klompusas and Leja nee Charifaite, born Kaunas 7 June 1938”.
The records also indicated that the family’s Kaunus address was Daukanto Street, number 14. So we decided to begin our exploration there.
Kaunus is Lithunia‘s second city, and boy, does it show. It occupies a pleasant enough spot at the confluence of two rivers, and from a distance it looks very lovely. But up close, it is a quite grim and drab place – the same old-style European architecture as found in Vilnius, but without the benefit of the money spent on restoration in Vilnius. So everything seemed old, run-down, dirty and grey.
In my grandmother‘s day, Kaunus was home to one of Lithuania‘s top universities, and it still is today. We drove to the campus. Apart from the kids now having iPods and cell phones, it didn‘t look like that much had changed in the past century.
We visited the Ninth Fort, on the outskirts of town, originally constructed as part of Kaunus’ fortifications in the mid 1800s but now an imposing set of soviet-style bunkers. During WWII the fort was used as an execution site for Jews, Russians and other undesirables. Almost 30,000 people were killed there.
Today there is a eye-catching 32m high memorial statue to the Nazi victims, standing in the middle of the field where mass-killings once took place. One of the bunkers houses an eerie, quite haunting collection of stained glass windows. There is also a museum, including a particularly moving tribute to Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who in the 1940s was Japan‘s Vice-Consul in Lithuania. He risked his life to issue over 6,000 Japanese transit visas to Lithuanian and Polish Jews, enabling them to escape from Nazi occupied territories, and thus saving their lives. Many found their way from Europe to Japan and China, and then on to Australia. The grandmother of some of my high school friends was one of the people saved by this courageous and righteous man.
We drove through the old town of Kaunus, on streets that were once the Jewish heart of the city, and which later became the Kovno Ghetto. There is still one synagogue in Kaunus, which looked to be a very beautiful old building, but it was shut. Daniel said that it opens infrequently these days, on account of the fact that Kaunus has a present-day Jewish community of about 250 people (as compared to more than 40,000 in the 1930s, over 50% of the city‘s then population).
Eventually we parked in a quiet suburban area, close to the university. It was bitterly cold, and raining. We walked in silence along a wide pedestrianised street, until Daniel pointed out to me that we were on Daukanto Street. We came to Number 14 – a five-story high block of apartments. The building was old, and Daniel assured me that according to town records it was built in the early 1900s, and was therefore the same building in which my grandmother and her family had once lived.
The ground floor has been converted to shops, so that on one side of the entryway is a hairdressing salon, and on the other is a pizza parlour. I stared at the building for quite some time, not quite sure what to make of it. Eventually I took a few photographs. Passers-by looked at me quizzically. I imagine they may have been wondering what on earth I found so interesting about this otherwise ordinary, slightly decrepit apartment block in a quiet suburb of Kaunus. I wondered the same thing too. It certainly felt kind of weird to be stalking my grandmother, through time and space, as it were.
Eventually the cold got the better of me, and we returned to the car and left Kaunus behind us. As we drove off, I felt absolutely no compulsion to look back.
My grandmother had studied at the Gymnasia Ivrit (Hebrew high school) in the town of Ukmerge (Vilkomer). In the 1890s, across Eastern Europe’s Jewish communities, Hebrew was revived into a functioning, modern language. Schools where Hebrew (instead of Yiddish) was used as the primary language of instruction sprang up all over Poland and Lithuania. Idealistic youngsters, Lea being one of them, began studying in Hebrew, the first Jews to do so in two millennia.
In the 1920s, Lea had sent a class photo to her brother, then living in South Africa. This became the sole record of her high school days to survive the war; everything else was lost or destroyed. In one of life’s small ironies, she later discovered that two of the teachers shown in the photo, although unknown to her at the time, were the elder brothers of her future husband, Samuel.
I did a school project on my family roots in 1987, and this photo became a key “source document”. I must have looked at it a thousand times. I was therefore determined to visit Vilkomer and see my grandmother’s former school, which I felt like I somehow “knew” from that photo.
It took us a few hours to drive there from Kaunus, and on arrival Daniel showed me a beautifully run-down, abandoned old building. He said it had once been a yeshiva (Jewish seminary).
Interesting, but I wanted to see the old Gynasia Ivrit. I asked Daniel where that was, but he said he did not know. He said the Gymnasia had been destroyed long ago, and he had been unable to find out its former location.
There was nothing else for me in Vilkomer. We left town after less than fifteen minutes. I was feeling disappointed, and a touch deflated.
Forty kilometres from Vilkomer, or twenty-five minutes drive down a lonely, snow-covered road, is the town of Moletai (Malat). This is where my grandmother grew up.
Moletai today is a town of about 12,000. In the 1920s, it was a mainly agricultural community of less than 2,500, and over 80% of the town’s inhabitants were Jewish. In a 1931 census, the town was reported to have 21 shops, of which 19 were owned by Jews. There was a Yiddish School and a Talmud Torah (religious school), four synagogues, and a full complement of Jewish communal institutions. Back in the day, therefore, Malat was a bona-fide shtetl (Jewish village). Today, no prizes for guessing, the town’s Jewish population has shrunk to exactly zero.
Before moving to South Africa, my grandmother’s older brother, Hymie, had lived with the family in Malat. One of his children, Ian, visited there a few years ago. Daniel had been his tour guide, and had done some excellent research at the time. He had found an obscure reference in an old book to the “Karifo House” in Malat, a former restaurant / bakery. Armed with a map that one of Hymie’s childhood friends had drawn from memory, Ian had verified that the Karifo House was, indeed, the former home of the Charif family.
So on arrival in Malat this is where I headed first. The building is still standing. It faces directly onto the main square (and former marketplace) of Malat. Today a Soviet-era town hall stands alongside it, a Lithuanian flag flapping on the pole outside. Leading down the hill from the square is a row of low brick shops, still referred to today as “the Jews’ stores”.
Nowadays, however, my family’s former home in Malat is not a residence, or a bakery, or a restaurant. It has been modernised, neatly rendered and painted, and is occupied by the town’s psychiatric clinic. Given this, I thought best that I perhaps not go inside ….
We drove a short way to what was once the Moletai Jewish Cemetery. It is in a small fenced off area, on a low hill on the outskirts of town. Old oak trees dotted the hill, and the headstones were poking out from under two feet of snow. There was not a single footstep in the snow – we were clearly the only people who had visited there in some time. I stumbled around in the snow for more than forty-five minutes, trying to read the faded Hebrew writing on the graves, a macabre (and unsuccessful) attempt to find some familiar names.
Under the tallest oak tree I gathered some acorns to take away with me. Perhaps a bit corny, I grant you, but symbolic too. In any case, I brought these back from Lithuania; apart from photos, they are the only tangible “souvenir” I have of my time there.
We left, and about a kilometre outside of Moletai, on the road back towards Vilnius, stopped besides a glade of trees and a small memorial. On 29 August 1941 the Nazis brought all the remaining Jews of Malat – mostly women and children by that time – to this peaceful spot under the trees. And in one afternoon they erased the entire Jewish history of the town. Every single person – 700 in total – was shot, their bodies dumped without ceremony into a mass grave. Almost certainly amongst these were my great-grandmother Rakhel, and her daughter and Lea’s younger sister, Gita.
For the first time in Lithuania, I cried.
After, as we continued the drive back to Vilnius, I was reading through the notes that the archive researcher had emailed to Daniel. In them she mentioned that my grandmother’s sister, Gita, had been born at the “Bijutiskis estate”. I remembered that my mother had also mentioned this name to me, as being where my grandmother had said she was born. The family had moved to Malat when she was a young child.
I asked Daniel if he had ever heard of Bijutiskis, but he said he had no idea. So we drove on in silence. Ours was the only car out on road, which was covered in snow and flanked on both sides by tall pine forests.
Not five minutes after I had asked the question, we passed a road-sign that pointed to “Bijutiskis”, and indicating the place was to be found two kilometres down a small country lane. “No way”, I thought, and even Daniel seemed genuinely surprised at this almost divine turn of events. It was late, but nonetheless we immediately decided we had to detour. So we turned off the main road and drove along the narrow laneway, slowly and carefully on account of the snow and ice, until we arrived at a small group of buildings, barely enough to count as a village. This was Bijutiskis.
On a rise in the centre stood a rustic wooden church, painted a dirty pinkish colour, and surrounded by weathered graves. Around the church were perhaps a dozen ramshackle wooden houses, painted in colours that may once have been bright, but which had faded through the years. Everything was covered in clean, white snow. There were no footsteps or evidence of human activity. It was hard to tell whether this small hamlet was inhabited, or deserted.
But one thing was for sure. Absolutely nothing had changed in Bijutiskis since the day my grandmother was born there, almost exactly a century ago.
So there you have it. In the space of a day I had travelled back through time, a complete tour of my grandmother’s early life in Lithuania. Kaunus, where Lea attended university, lived with her husband Moses, and where her young son Michael was born; Vilkomer, where she had studied in the Gymnasia Ivrit; and Moletai, where she had lived as a child. There I had stood on the steps of the very same bakery-house that my family had once lived in, baked in, and created a life in. Then later that same day I had stood under the trees in front of the nameless mass-grave where at least some of them were buried.
And now, fate had brought me to Bijutiskis, a clutch of aged wooden huts, snow and trees, in the middle of nowhere. This was the place where my grandmother was born. I was standing in the same snow my grandmother had walked in as a child, fetching wood for the fire. Behind me were the same woods in which, during the summertime, she had collected the wild strawberries she so often spoke of.
I stood there for a very long time, knee-deep in white powdery snow, taking it all in. Fluffy snow-flakes were falling on me, and all around me. A few got caught in my eyelashes. It was totally silent.
As moments go it was, in fact, almost magical. I looked in wonder at the tiny, rural village where my Bobba came from. And I thought: “holy fuck, this means that this tiny rural village is where I come from, too”.
I had found my personal Ground Zero. There was absolutely nowhere further back for me to go.
Now, I must confess that despite the mood of that moment, standing there in the quiet of the snow, I didn’t have a blinding flash of revelation. There was no moment of clarity for me, where all the dots joined together so that everything suddenly all made sense.
But over the next days and weeks I churned it over, again and again in my mind. And what I came to realise is that my grandmother’s greatest gift to me was not her story, but the fact that she had one at all.
For the rest of her family in Lithuania – my family, that is – there is, quite simply, no more to be said. Apart from this blog, some dusty Lithuanian archives, and a few pages of testimony at Yad Vashem (the Holocaust memorial centre in Jerusalem), there is nothing to evidence that my great-grandparents, Itzik and Rakhel, ever existed.
There are no tombstones for them, or for their other children, Mote and Gita. No-one will ever know for sure what colour Moses Klompus’ eyes were, or what baby Michael’s favourite food was, or whether Gita Charif was good with languages like her older sister. Like the millions of others who were murdered in the Holocaust, their lights were snuffed out. Completely and irrevocably.
Lea survived, and thanks to that simple fact, I can today write about her. I can tell you that she had captivating eyes and a wicked laugh, ate half a grapefruit for breakfast every morning, and loved playing scrabble (where she occasionally relied on her heavily accented English to invent novel spellings). My brothers and cousins can tell you that their Bobba made the best chopped liver ever, and loved us all to bits. Anyone in our extended family can tell you how she had a rock-hard head, equalled only by her marshmallow-soft heart. And thousands of kids, who met my grandmother when she visited their schools to teach about the Holocaust, can tell you that in some small way she touched them, and changed their life.
My eldest daughter is named after her, and each of my children will forever have a spark of my Bobba’s light, inside of them.
That, in the end, is Lea’s legacy to me.
In memory of:
Itzik Charif, born in Moletai, Lithuania, in 1886, to Mordekhai and Sheine. Married to Rakhel. Prior to WWII he lived in Moletai, Lithuania. During the war he was in Moletai, Lithuania. Itzik was murdered/perished in 1941 in Utena, Lithuania.
Rakhel Charif nee Isaacson, born in Ligmian, Lithuania in 1889, to Yosef and Nekhama. Prior to WWII she lived in Moletai, Lithuania. During the war she was in Moletai, Lithuania. Rakhel was murdered/perished in 1941 in Moletai, Lithuania.
Mote Charif, born in Moletai, Lithuania in 1921 to Itzik and Rakhel. Prior to WWII he lived in Moletai, Lithuania. During the war he was in Kaunas, Lithuania. Mote was murdered/perished in 1940 in Kaunas, Lithuania.
Gita Charif, born in Moletai, Lithuania in 1918, to Itzik and Rakhel. Prior to WWII she lived in Kaunas, Lithuania. During the war she was in Kaunas, Lithuania. Gita was murdered/perished in 1941 in Moletai, Lithuania.
Moses Klompus, born in Kybartai, Lithuania in 1907, to Michael and Hanze. He was married to Lea nee Charif. Prior to WWII he lived in Kaunas, Lithuania. During the war he was in Kaunas, Lithuania. Moses was murdered/perished in the Shoah, date and place unknown.
Michael Klompus, born in Kaunas, Lithuania in 1938, to Moses and Lea. Prior to WWII he lived in Kaunas, Lithuania. During the war he was in Kaunas, Ghetto. Michael was murdered/perished, age 5, in 1943, in Estonia.