I recently decided to visit Lithuania (see my previous post Milk Boys and Jewish Tartans). It was a spur of the moment thing, as I had a long weekend free in London.
It was also something I have thought about doing most of my adult life. My maternal grandparents were both born in Lithuania, and before she died my grandmother had often spoken to me of her life there, pre-WWII. Lithuania has thus always loomed large in my mind as being a place I very much hoped to visit one day. I wanted to go there to put in context the place names I have heard of over the years, the family members I will never meet, and the many tales I have heard of events long past.
But I also thought that by going to Lithuania I might be able to change its strange hold in my consciousness, where until now the country has existed pretty much on a par with other places of my childhood imagining, like Oz and Middle Earth and Narnia. I hoped that Lithuania could become a real place for me, which in turn might perhaps allow me, even if only in a small way, to come to terms with all those other stories my grandmother had told me: stories of human suffering so complete and Nazi atrocities so barbaric that they have always been near impossible for me to conceive of in the abstract.
So it felt just a little bit weird to touch down onto the very real, very solid tarmac at Vilnius International Airport. My fellow passengers, as if reading my mind and wanting to remind me that we had, honest to God, actually arrived in the place that had supposedly contributed 50% of my DNA, burst into loud and sustained applause, that rang out all up and down the plane. Cute, although at the same time a little bit disturbing: was it just that they were happy to be home, or more a case of them being thankful that the rust bucket plane we were in had actually made it to Lithuania in one piece…
I peered out of the window as we taxied. It was late at night and very dark, but the landing lights cast enough of a glow to see that there were snowflakes swirling in the air, and the sides of the runway were lined with two-foot high banks of fresh, white snow. I touched the glass and the tips of my fingers felt like they had been instantly snap-frozen.
The plane came to a stop some distance from the terminal, and old-fashioned steps were wheeled up alongside. As I shuffled towards the exit I saw something I have never seen before: an air hostess standing by the open forward doorway, frantically shovelling snow out of the body of the plane, which was blowing in just as fast as she could get it out. And, when I finally stepped into the Lithuanian night air, I literally gasped at the sudden jolt of the cold. It was like someone had reached under my overcoat and punched me, deep in the solar plexus. Within seconds I was shivering.
All omens, perhaps? Whatever the case, this was clearly not going to be a warm and comfortable visit for me.
The following morning I met my tour guide, Daniel, a Lithuanian Jew about my age, who specialises in organising Jewish-based tours of the country. I had previously sent Daniel whatever details I had relating to my grand-parents, and he had in turn searched the Lithuanian archives. Based on the results, he had custom-designed a three-day tour for me.
The first day would be general sightseeing in and around the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius (or Vilna as I have always known it, the Yiddish name for the city). The second day would involve visiting those towns where, before WWII, my grandmother grew up, went to school and university, and lived as a young woman with her first husband and child. The final day would be spent in pursuit of my grandfather’s story, in the town where he was born and lived before migrating to South Africa before the war.
We began with a walking tour of the Vilnius Old Town, and as we set off Daniel gave me a quick lesson on Lithuanian Jewish history, which for the sake of expediency I might summarise briefly.
In the 1320s Lithuania’s Grand Duke Gediminas wrote letters of invitation to citizens of other European cities. He offered low taxes, freedom of settlement, freedom of occupation, and freedom of religion to anyone who cared to move there. For your average persecuted medieval Jew, still being blamed for one of their number supposedly having killed Christ, a mere thirteen-hundred years before, this was a pretty attractive proposition. A few hardy Jewish souls decided to take up the offer, never mind that in those days Lithuania was not much more than a series of fortified castles, surrounded by bandit and wild bear filled forests, and covered by snow for half the year.
With little money and no land-holdings to rely on these first Jewish migrants took up work as tax collectors for the Grand Duke. Over time Lithuania’s Jews thus became quite important players in the finances of the state. In 1388 the rights and freedoms of Jews in Lithuania were codified into a legal “charter”, and over the next century the Jewish community grew in response. By the end of the 14th century the community’s financial importance had begun to irritate some of the local nobility, and in 1495 these nobles persuaded the then Grand Duke Alexander to expel the country’s Jews into neighbouring Poland, although apparently Alex was not thrilled about doing this. So when Alexander became King of Poland as well in 1501, the expanded power base gave him the security he needed to revoke his earlier expulsion order, allowing Jews to return to Lithuania.
Then, in 1569 Poland and Lithuania joined together formally into the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth, which became one of the largest, most populous and most powerful countries in Europe at the time. Across this whole territory Jews enjoyed rights of self-determination and cultural autonomy – something that might not seem all that remarkable nowadays, but back then was virtually unheard of anywhere else in Christian Europe.
All of which meant that the Jewish community in what is today Lithuania grew and grew and grew – from 120,000 in the mid-1500s to an estimated quarter-million by the late 1700s.This was matched by equally explosive growth in the much larger Polish half of the commonwealth, where the Jewish community came to number in the millions.
In 1795 the union of Lithuania and Poland was dissolved. Big swathes of the former Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth now became part of the Russian Empire. In Jewish terms this area came to be known as the “Pale of Settlement” – a zone in which permanent residency of Jews was allowed, and outside of which it was prohibited by the Russian overlords.
By the late 1800s, more than five million Jews lived within the bounds of the Pale of Settlement. For comparison purposes, that is roughly the same number of Jews as currently live in each of Israel and the United States. Autonomy meant that the Pale’s Jewish communities exercised a high level of self-Government, running their own schools, collecting their own taxes, speaking their own language (Yiddish), and often living in rural villages that were almost entirely Jewish (shtetls). Over time Jews also moved in large numbers to the bigger regional towns and cities, including Vilnius.
However, under Russian imperial rule pogroms (racially motivated anti-Jewish riots) became a regular feature of life. In response over half of the area’s Jews – more than 2.5 million people in total – emigrated, mostly over a relatively short forty-year period that began towards the end of the 19th century. As population shifts go this is quite staggering to think about. Try to imagine, for example, what it would be like if half of present-day Denmark (population 5.5m) or New Zealand (population 4.5m) or Finland (population 5.4m) simply packed up and buggered off one day? Imagine the consequences for split families; the abandoned houses and deserted farmlands; the empty stores and unused schoolrooms.
Most often Jews leaving the Pale of Settlement opted for the promise of a better life in the USA and the UK; or made their way to what was then Palestine, in pursuit of the dream of Jewish independence. Although in the specific case of Lithuanian Jews a large number also found their way to the then British colony of South Africa, which at the time was experiencing a gold-rush inspired economic boom. This included my grandmother’s elder brother, Hymie (who moved to South Africa in the early 1930s), as well as her future husband and my grandfather, Samuel, who migrated to South Africa at around the same time.
Nevertheless, on the eve of WWII, Lithuania (which had regained independence after the first world war) still had a very sizeable Jewish population. My grandmother, who at that time was in her mid-20s, was married to her first husband, had a young son, and was living in Kaunus (Lithuania’s second largest city), where she studied at the university there.
On 23 August 1939 the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed. In it, Hitler and Stalin had drawn a few lines on a map, carving up the whole area of Eastern Europe between them, and agreeing that Russia would not oppose a German invasion of Poland and Lithuania. And just like that, the fate of every Jew still in Lithuania, including that of my grandmother and most of my maternal family, was sealed.
When WWII began a month later, the Jews of Lithuania, a community that had endured for centuries, suddenly found themselves to be unwanted, despised subjects of the Third Reich. Destined at first for the nightmare of the ghettos, the horror of forced-labour camps, and ultimately for the firing squads and gas chambers of the Nazi death machine.
We began our tour in the pretty square that fronts Vilnius’ main cathedral. We were at the very place where, on 23 August 1989, the Baltic Chain began; in fact I stood on the exact spot where the first person in a line of over two million people, all holding hands, had also stood. This quite remarkable one-day protest involved creating a human chain for 600 unbroken miles, stretching from Vilnius, up through Lithuania, across Latvia and finally ending in Estonia’s capital city Tallin. On that day the people of the Baltic countries peacefully, albeit incredibly powerfully, made their demand for freedom from the USSR known. Not six months later, Lithuania became the first Baltic country to regain its independence.
On its route north the Baltic Chain had passed through two Lithuanian towns in particular: Ukmerge (in Yiddish, Vilkomer) which is where my grandmother had attended high-school; and Panevėžys (in Yiddish, Ponevezh) which is where my grandfather was born and grew up. Plus the Baltic Chain protest had, not accidentally, occurred on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which as mentioned was an event that had sealed the fate of my family, and set in motion the chain of events that gave rise ultimately to, well, me.
So all in all, it did feel like this was a particularly apt place at which to start my Lithuanian visit. From this one spot it seemed a bit like the various ribbons of time and circumstance that connected me to my grandparents, and the past to the present, all came together in a quite tangible, physical way.
Our walking tour of Vilnius’ Old City took about four hours. Along the way, Daniel pointed out to me sites of general Jewish interest. While he did this I tried not to freeze to death, although the sleety snow and minus-seven degree chill was certainly not helping matters.
We came to an area which was once the Jewish centre of Vilnius, today signified by nothing more than the name of the street – Zydu (Jew Street). As we walked, Daniel pointed out several newly placed plaques on the wall of some buildings: this was where there was once a Jewish school; here there was once a Jewish hospital; this building was previously a library holding a vast collection of rare and important Jewish works.
We came to the site of what was once the Great Synagogue of Vilnius. Today it is occupied by a squat brick structure that houses a government kindergarten. Alongside there was a small commemorative statue of the Vilna Goan, one of the greatest Rabbis and Talmudic scholars in history, who lived and studied in Vilnius in the 1700s, and according to family folklore was my grandfather’s direct forebear.
We walked past the one remaining synagogue in Vilnius (which was shut), and popped into the Vilnius Jewish Community Centre for a few minutes. But apart from this, there was absolutely no sign of Jewish life in Vilnius – past or present. There was no Hebrew lettering over doorways; no niches on doorposts where mezuzahs once were; no remaining buildings of Jewish interest. There was not even a restaurant offering “Jewish-style food”, which was something that even Krakow in Poland had been able to offer.
Daniel tried gamely to enliven things with a back-pack of props: books and maps and pictures of “Vilnius then”, which he pulled out from time to time to aid with the visualisation. All of which only served to highlight for me just how little of Vilnius’ Jewish past now remains. Actually quite hard to believe, when you consider that immediately prior to World War II, Vilnius had a population of 203,000, of which 48.5%, or just on 100,000, were Jews (Daniel said that there are fewer than 3,000 Jews in Vilnius today, or less than 0.5% of the city’s population); before WWII there were more than 110 synagogues in Vilnius (today 1); there were once 10 large yeshivas, or Jewish seminaries, in Vilnius (today, none). In its heyday, the Jewish presence in Vilnius was so pervasive that the city was often referred to as “The Jerusalem of Lithuania”.
Indeed, it was this almost total absence of anything that even hinted at Vilnius’ centuries-long history as a centre of Jewish life that I found to be most remarkable about the place. If it hadn’t been pointed out to me, I would have had no way of telling of the city’s deep Jewish heritage.
It is a bit like Nazi anti-Semitism, followed by decades of rabid Soviet secularism, had acted like a gigantic eraser, very effectively and very permanently wiping out any traces of the city’s Jewish past, so all that now remains is the rather dismal collection of plaques and memorial signs that Daniel pointed out to me as we walked along.
It was really all quite sad.
Later we drove about twelve kilometres out of town, to the Paneriai Forest. Here, starting in July 1941, Nazi SS commandos aided by Lithuanian sympathisers systematically set about killing people by firing squad. Over a three-year period about 100,000 people were murdered in Paneriai, their bodies dumped into seven giant pits that had originally been built for fuel bunkering purposes. Roughly 70,000 of these victims were Jews, mainly from Vilnius; 20,000 were Poles; and the balance Russians, Lithuanian intellectuals, and political dissidents.
The math is mind-numbing. It means that around 100 people a day, every day, week after week, month after month, for three whole years, were brought out to this forest and shot. The scale of this barbarism is beyond comprehension.
By 1943, as the tide of the war began to turn and in order to hide the evidence of their crimes, the Nazis brought in a squad of Jewish prisoners from a nearby concentration camp, and in the ultimate humiliation possible, made them exhume the corpses, pile them up on wood, and burn them. When the Russian army arrived in the area they found the sand in the forest was so heavily laden with ash from these fires as to be almost fifty percent human.
Initially, the Soviets built a memorial to the Russians who were murdered in Paneriai. It was only in the 1990s that the newly established Lithuanian government finally erected separate memorials to the Jewish, Lithuanian and Polish victims, and built a small museum on the site.
Today, the burial pits are still there, surrounded by these new memorials and tall fir trees. All but one of the burial pits is now filled in and planted over, so the only thing visible is the outline of where the pit once was. The remaining open pit is kept that way as a graphic reminder of what once happened at this place, forever looking up to the sky and heavens above.
That day, while we stood at the side of the one open burial pit, it was brutally cold. The wind was whistling through the tops of the trees, snow was falling, and the ground was covered in white crunchy snow so deep that it came half way up my calves. I was wearing a beanie, and gloves, and two layers of jumpers, and was wrapped in a scarf and a heavy overcoat, and still I was shivering.
Daniel then told me a story, of how in the winter about seven years ago he had brought an old man from Israel to visit Paneriai. This man had, in 1943 and as a young boy then aged twelve, been there before. He had been brought to the side of this very pit, along with most of his family. The firing squad had started shooting. The boy instinctively fell forward into the pit, although miraculously was not shot. He had remained in the pit for the rest of the day, lying on top of the corpses, the bodies of his dead family sheltering him from above, until it became dark.
He then ran into the forest, where he lived for the next two years, alone, in a small cave. At day he would remain inside the cave for fear of being detected. At night he would leave the cave and go to nearby farms and villages, where he would steal food. He somehow – miraculously – survived in the cave without warm clothes, or closed shoes, or a fire, through two long cold winters. Remember, he was twelve.
Daniel told me that on the day the man visited Paneriai with him, it had been much, much colder than it was on the day of my visit. He said that despite this, the man had stood by the side of the pit, removed his jacket and jumper, stripped down to a t-shirt, and began praying. He had stripped down so he could put on tefillin (parchments contained in two small boxes that are “affixed” to the head and bare skin of the upper arm with attached leather straps, and worn by orthodox Jewish men when praying in the morning). The man had stood there praying for the better part of an hour.
Daniel said it had made him shiver just watching this old man pray, half-naked in the snow, and when he had finished Daniel had asked him: “aren’t you cold?”
To which the man had replied that for people of Daniel’s (and my) generation, no matter how cold the environment we may find ourselves in is, in the back of our minds we always know that anytime we want we can go indoors, or put on a jacket, or turn on a heater, and the cold will come to an end. The man told Daniel that young people of our time have no idea what to be truly cold is, and that for him, ever since those years of hiding in the forest more than half a century before, he no longer ever felt the cold.
I couldn’t help immediately thinking of all the similar stories I had heard from my grandmother; of the brutal winters she told of experiencing in the concentration camps. Stories of walking all day barefoot in the snow; stories of being hungry and nibbling on a frozen scrap of raw potato skin for sustenance; stories of huddling tight for warmth with eight other women on a hard wooden bunk, through dark cold nights while the snow fell heavy on the ground.
I stood there for another ten minutes, trembling quite violently, but utterly unable to leave. And I think I got an inkling, for the first time in my life, of how cold the cold can be, when that cold comes with no end, and no hope.