Apr/May 2011 Travel

Lithuania: Filtered Light

by B.J. Yudelson

Photo by B.J. Yudelson

Photo by B.J. Yudelson

The padlocks catch my attention the moment my husband Julian and I step onto the bridge across the Vilnia River. Most are brass or silver, a few blue or green. Some show the rust of age, others seem shiny new. Many bear initials and dates. A few are as ornate as the metal railing to which they are affixed.

I look at Julian. "There must be a story. Any guesses?"

He turns to a young teen walking past. "Do you speak English? Why are these locks here?"

"Is local custom," replies the youth. "On wedding day, bride and groom lock it here and throw key into river. Is sign of their always love."

Julian and I smile at each other. Today is our 47th wedding anniversary, and we like our trip's romantic beginning.

The boy continues on his way. I peer over the railing into the swift river that cuts through the center of Vilnius, Lithuania's largest city. Trees lining the banks throw their leafy shadows into the current.

"Look! Down there!" A glint of sunlight bounces off a key lying in shallow water. Soon we spot more.

Satisfied, we continue across the bridge to our hotel. I wonder aloud if divorced couples hacksaw their padlocks off or leave them as a permanent reminder of the love they once shared.

That evening, the Jewish Heritage Tour group assembles to meet each other. We are in Lithuania to explore our roots. My father-in-law spent his first eight years here before moving to America with his parents in 1904. Although his roots are not mine—my ancestors emigrated to America from Germany in the mid-1800s—his family has been mine for almost half a century.

Some trip members, who have corresponded in advance with archivists, hope to uncover documents that may shed light on their pasts. The trip leader, our niece Peggy, is an ardent genealogist, and we are content to leave our family's research to her. When she invited us to join her and her parents on this trip, I had urged Julian to sign up. This would be, I figured, another in a series of trips to interesting destinations—Peru, Thailand, Galapagos Islands, Israel—with the bonus of family connections animated by Peggy's knowledge and enthusiasm. In preparation, I read a novel about Jewish life in pre-war Lithuania and another about a Lithuanian immigrant's life in America.

On the tour's first full day, we meet dark-haired Simonchik. At 27, with a degree in finance, he has turned down lucrative business opportunities to help sustain Vilnius's 5,000 Jews. He ushers us into a soup kitchen, where 25 or 30 elderly Jews, Holocaust survivors, sit at tables, more interested in their food than in gawking visitors.

"Their pensions are meager, and they depend on us." Simonchik sighs, then continues in excellent English, "With more dollars the community could feed more Jews." He explains that he does this work as a memorial to his grandfather, who was killed in the Holocaust. "I believe that a stone monument would not mean to him what a living community would."

Simonchik guides us through the Jewish Community Center's two floors of classrooms and meeting rooms. As we enter the kindergarten, I hand him a stack of aleph-bet games and puzzles I have brought from home.

"This is very useful," he says. "Things like this, it's hard for us to get toys with Jewish meaning. We don't have enough for our chil'rens."

The teachers have prepared a surprise. Eight eager-faced youngsters sing in rote Hebrew, a language once familiar to every Jewish schoolchild, and in memorized Yiddish, the mother tongue of their great-grandparents. Both languages were stamped out in this place long before their parents were born. Thoughts of the trampled past and the budding future mingle to moisten my eyes.

We visit the Green House, a six-room museum of Lithuanian Jewry. Displays depicting the vibrant pre-war life underscore the scope of destruction. Rachel, the museum director and a Holocaust survivor, describes the exhibits in rapid, accented English, her emotion seemingly as fresh as if this had all happened yesterday.

She points to a portrait. "That is Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman. You probably know him as the Vilna Gaon. Many consider him the most important Talmudic scholar since the Middle Ages. He laid the foundation for Lithuania to become the center of intellectual, cultural, and spiritual Jewish life in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries." We take time to examine the pictures and texts crowded onto the walls.

In a space that details the annihilation, I listen to questions asked by my travel companions. I try to absorb Rachel's answers. But I can't shake off the effect of two Lithuanian maps that hang in adjacent rooms. The first pulsates with Jewish life; the towns and villages where Jews lived cover the map like dancing dots. The other, the one I'm staring at now, is black with marks representing killing sites. There are fewer spots than on the map of life only because Nazi efficiency dictated that village Jews be killed in central locations.

The extent of the destruction stuns me, and I don't understand why. I've read dozens of Holocaust novels and memoirs. Survivors have told me their stories. But somehow I didn't expect to encounter life and death, side by side, in this unassuming green house.

Later, we stand on the killing fields of Paneriai. Only Rachel's voice breaks the silence. She tells us that this is where the 70,000 Vilnius Jews ended up: shot and thrown into pits that had been dug originally for a Soviet oil depot.

I turn from the concrete circles marking the pits to look up a paved road that cuts straight through a pine forest. For a moment, I see instead a thoroughfare that extends through an Adirondack pine grove from the crowded, noisy Fish Creek campground to the less frequented one that was my family's destination some thirty years ago. There, as here, the green-needled trees stood tall. The way through them was straight. It could almost be the same scene. Except for the history. The ghosts. One stand of trees beckoned us to recreation and renewal. Its beauty has dwelled in my memory for three decades.

This Lithuanian grove, however, seems oppressive beneath the blue sky. Its shadowed loveliness was the last thing the victims saw. Did they hunger for the beauty of the forest, or only for food? Did they pray for an end to their suffering? Did fear and despair rule out all else?

Rachel's voice brings me back to the present. Slowly, she leads us through the trees to the edge of a large, open pit, overgrown with weeds and brambles. She continues her story. A handful survived the bullets that blasted them into the pits. They clawed their way to the top of the deathly heap to make their way to the forest. Toward the end of the war, Jews were conscripted from the ghetto to disinter the bodies for burning. The Nazis sought to destroy the evidence of their mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry.

Tried to hide the evidence? After all their meticulous record-keeping? The irony is overwhelming.

"This calls for Kaddish," someone suggests.

We begin the memorial prayer. "Yitgaddal v'yitkaddash shmeh rabbah... Magnified and exalted be God's great name... "

Through blurred eyes, I see that I am not the only one weeping. In light of the past, in spite of the past, we praise God—we tourists and Rachel by remembering, Simonchik by rebuilding Lithuania's Jewish community. Thank God for Simonchik and those shiny, hopeful children.

The next day a Jewish university student, also named Rachel, leads us through the former ghetto's cobblestone streets. The gentrified lanes bustle with boutiques and bars. I try to picture these same roads in the fall of 1941 when they teemed with 29,000 frightened, hungry people. Another 9,000 crowded into a smaller ghetto nearby. This was about half the 70,000 Jews who had lived in Vilnius in June, 1941. The rest had been attacked in their homes, thrown out of windows, seized in the streets, or murdered a few kilometers away in the Paneriai forest we visited yesterday. A bare handful had escaped into the forests to join the Partisans.

Rachel points out plaques and monuments to ghetto life. Later, when Julian and I are alone, I pause before a plaque affixed to the stone front of a building, now a puppet theater. "This was the Ghetto Yiddish Theater," I read. "Remember," I continue, "Rachel talked about spiritual resistance in the ghetto? Cultural events would be one way to hang on to their humanity while the Nazis were treating them like animals."

We stroll in silence until I voice the questions that weigh on me. "How many of these well-dressed Lithuanians who pass here every day do you suppose read the signs or notice the monuments? Do you think any of them know or care about the history of this area?"

Julian has no answer to console me.

The group separates to explore the villages of our individual roots. This is the part of the trip I have anticipated most eagerly. First stop: Julian's father's birthplace, Jonava, a village 49 miles from Vilnius. We stop to take family pictures under a huge Jonava sign, posing this way and that. Back in the van, our guide dampens our playful mood when he tells us that before the war, 80% of the town's 2,600 residents were Jewish. Only two or three Jews live here today.

I feel a mix of excitement and solemnity as Peggy leads us through a hilltop cemetery. Among the weeds and markers, she finds the gravesite she discovered on her first trip to Lithuania. "Aren't you thrilled to see this?" I ask Julian. "Your great-great-grandmother's grave!"

We scrape mud off the headstone. While Julian and my sister-in-law photograph it from every angle, I try to decipher the Hebrew writing. Our Jewish Lithuanian driver-interpreter points out that Ryvka Gitel's name appears down the side to form the first letters of an acrostic poem. "Our spirit is very broken... Her soul is pure." Thank God she died in her eighties half a century before Hitler. Even the few knocked-over headstones and the occasional graffiti don't lessen the exhilaration of seeing Ryvka Gitel's burial site.

By the time we leave, Julian has photographed most of the headstones. He will send the photos to Simonchik to help with the Jewish community's cemetery mapping project. While I am lost in thoughts of family, he, typically, is taking a larger view.

We drive through the village to the Jonava killing field on the outskirts of town. Killing field? Here? Babi Yar, of course, but that's in Ukraine. Poland, definitely. And I've just learned of the Paneriai killing field near Vilnius. But in tiny Jonava? I've never connected my father-in-law's birthplace with Holocaust atrocities.

In the center of a manicured lawn lined with marigold beds, six white marble steps lead to a pink marble headstone. I take in the view. I had expected a gray monument on the edge of a neglected field, not this. "It's too damn pretty," I mutter to Julian.

"The Lithuanian government maintains it. That shows they care," he responds.

"No, it's too pristine. As if a flowerbed could compensate."

We approach the monument. I read the Hebrew inscription: "In this place Nazi murderers and their local participants destroyed 2,100 Jews—children, women and men."

And then it hits me. Most plaques we've seen are written in Lithuanian, Yiddish, and sometimes Hebrew. But not this one. I turn back to Julian. "There's no Lithuanian. I don't care who pays for the upkeep. What kind of reminder is it to the local townspeople for whom Hebrew and Yiddish are as indecipherable as Sanskrit?" I shudder and turn away.

I am more comfortable in Aniksht, home of Julian's great-grandfather, Eliash, and birthplace of Max Yudelson, Julian's grandfather. At the end of a short, residential street, anachronistically called Synagogue Road, we find an abandoned house of worship. I try to imagine this mold-mottled building abuzz with prayer and study.

"That tree is so large it must have been here in your grandfather's time," I say to Julian. "Can't you just imagine young girls gossiping in its shade while their fathers and brothers prayed inside? I wonder if Grandpa Yudelson was among them."

Julian, the intellectual, appears unmoved by my sentimental imaginings.

Our driver explains how to spot the houses once owned by Jews. "Most Jews were merchants whose shops were on the ground floor of their homes. Their doors faced the street. The doors of Lithuanian peasant homes opened to the side or back toward their gardens and animals."

Door after door has been boarded up, presumably by the gentile townspeople who moved into the formerly Jewish dwellings—or perhaps by Jews who expected to return. I note the hefty padlocks, a bitter contrast to the locks at the Vilnia River bridge. Those keys were tossed away for love. These rusty locks are a bleak reminder that hatred turned the deadbolt on Lithuania's Jews.

We drive to Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city, the regional center that my father-in-law called Kovna and considered his roots. Here, at least, I won't be taken by surprise by the Holocaust connections. For years I have known the story of family members who visited the old country in the 1930s. "Come back," they were urged. "You're suffering financially, and we are prospering here. Leave America. Come back to your roots." Thankfully, no one listened. Of more than 30 family members who remained in Lithuania, only three survived the Nazi onslaught.

Before reconnecting with the larger group, we walk from the river along Nemuno Gatve (street), looking for number 15. This is where those members of the Sulsky family who had not emigrated to the United States or South Africa lived before the war. Julian's paternal grandmother was a Sulsky who married Max Yudelson.

We mill about, gazing up at the large, corner house that stands on the site of the former Sulsky home. It's ugly: a flat, beige concrete structure with few windows or decorative features. "Is this the original house?" someone asks Peggy.

"No, this is post-war. The original house was dynamited after... well, let me tell you what Cousin Rella told me." Throughout the trip, soft-spoken Peggy, with slight build and strapping intellect, has handled 24 people, including her parents and her aunt and uncle, unflappably. Now, her emotion is palpable as she launches into the unfamiliar story.

"During the war, they had a basement hiding place, where they cowered during the Selection. Rella was having trouble breathing. Afraid that she was going to suffocate and die, she began to cry. A soldier heard her... As her father was taken away, he said, 'My daughter's killed me, my daughter's killed me.'"

In the fraught silence, my gasp is loud. Standing on this corner, I can almost see Rella before the war, playing hopscotch or jumping rope. I feel now as if that rope were strangling me. I turn to Julian, whose stony expression masks the pain I know he feels. I reach for his hand, for human contact. "How old was Rella?"

"She was born in 1928. This would have been about 1941."

I wonder if Rella's father uttered those words or if Rella's guilty, 13-year-old imagination put them in his mouth. I can't comprehend how kind, loving Rella could go through life with her father's accusation echoing in her mind. As if the memories of losing most of her family and surviving two death camps weren't enough.

"Were there synagogues or other Jewish institutions near here?" My brother-in-law's question breaks the tension. We wander up the street to photograph a red brick building that was the Jewish community's old age home and, beyond that, the Jewish orphanage.

"My daughter's killed me" keeps playing in my head, the words whipping my core.

As we return to the van, I see how close we are to the Nemunas River. How happily Rella's father must have raised his family here. "The prosperity, the prime location, being in the heart of a vibrant Jewish community—it all proved to be so meaningless," I say. Life or death determined by a too-loud breath, an involuntary gasp, a muffled cry.

Julian, brooding, looks as desolate as I feel. What is there to say?

We pray afternoon services at Kovna's remaining synagogue, one of only two in a country that once boasted hundreds. Its baroque beauty surely inspired generations of worshipers, yet today a bare minyan of ten old men keeps alive the ancient tradition. My thoughts darken even more: What will happen to this elegant synagogue without a young generation to revitalize it? Will it become yet another state-sponsored, marble monument to Lithuanian Jewry's 20th century demise?

On the drive back to Vilnius, I try to sort out my feelings. Often on this journey I have felt wrapped in darkness. But in each shadowed moment, like a sunbeam trickling through the Paneriai pine trees, I detect a glimmer of light. The monuments erected and maintained by the Lithuanian government—though mere shards of a shattered society—note the role of the Nazis' local collaborators. Young Jews like Simonchik, who could leave the country, stay to care for their elderly and to build Jewish life anew—in his words, a community, not a stone. Eight kindergarten children singing in their great-grandparents' language is a start, albeit a tiny one. And, despite some disturbing signs of renascent anti-Semitism, the Lithuanians I met support this rebirth. My brain feels like those two maps in the Green House, one side pulled toward death and depression, the other reaching for life and hope.

We stop in ˇie˛mariai to see a wooden synagogue. The exterior is a patchwork of weathered planks. Daylight peeks into the desolate interior through chinks in the boarded-up windows. I note their arched frames, wooden columns, high-beamed ceiling, and evidence of the women's gallery. I hear the long-ago hum of Jews chanting prayers and words of Torah. When I learn that 1,200 Jewish men and 800 Jewish women and children were locked in this synagogue before the Nazis murdered them in the nearby woods, I feel their silence in my gut.

We are not the only ones here today. Three art and architecture students—tape measures, pencils, and sketches in hand—are surveying the interior for a catalogue of all the identifiable synagogues in Lithuania. They can measure the square footage but not the lives and culture lost.

We meet Agrippina Semankov. She lives next door and is keeper of the key. Paid by the municipal government, she makes sure that no one destroys this heritage building. Gray hair falls in soft curls around her long, stern face. When asked her age, she replies, "I am young." Indeed, in her red sweater she looks younger than her 87 years.

Agrippina recalls that during the war, her father took two Jewish families out of town to Kaunas in his wagon, and they left for other countries. "Perhaps they are still alive," she tells us hopefully. We understand the risk he took.

And then, as if to underscore the interplay of darkness and light, death and life, despair and hope that has shadowed our journey, she adds, "My neighbors ask why I bother with this empty synagogue. I tell them that my father saved Jews, and now I do this."

I think back to the trip's beginning. I had anticipated visiting the towns that nurtured Julian's roots. But in these ten days I have encountered terrain I never expected. I didn't anticipate how standing at a mass burial ground, at a desecrated cemetery, or in a Jewish village devoid of Jews would bring death to life. I imagined that this trip, like all we've taken, would expand my awareness. I didn't expect it to assault my emotions, to sear my soul.

I leave Lithuania troubled and confused. What should Jews do when their native land has all but exterminated them? Should they hacksaw the padlocks off as if the link had never existed? Should they be satisfied with commemorative monuments and museums? Or perhaps Simonchik holds the key. Lithuania may never again be a creative force in the Jewish world, but maybe it can be a place where a few Jews live vibrantly as Jews.

For weeks after we return home, I hear Rella's father's refrain. I see killing fields and monuments. I watch Julian sink into a depression that lasts for months.

A natural optimist, I turn to Rella and other survivors for direction. They lived the horror; I've only traversed the remnants. If they can push aside their nightmares every morning to choose love and life, how dare I do less?


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