Former South African couple in Israel honoured by Lithuanian government in Tel Aviv
By David E. Kaplan
“What we are all have in common is an obsession not to betray the dead we left behind, or who left us behind. They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness,” Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor.
For over 20 years, these words inspired Abel and Glenda Levitt to embark on a mission to ensure that the names of murdered Lithuanian Jews do not remain buried with their remains and to educate young Lithuanians to understand why a once vibrant Jewish community that lived amongst their grandparents is today “No More”!
In the same week this June that D-Day 70th commemorative ceremonies were held on both sides of the English Channel, honouring the bravery of the soldiers that participated in the 1944 Normandy landings “that their sacrifice should never be forgotten,” a less conspicuous ceremony was held at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv honouring two different kind of ‘soldiers’ to ensure that the victims of Nazi tyranny and their collaborators, would also “…never be forgotten”.
Close friends and family, the media, members of the Lithuanian embassy and honoured guests including Bennie Rabinowitz from Cape Town, South Africa, heard addresses before Lithuanian Ambassador, Edminas Bagdonas, awarded Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Lithuanian Diplomacy Star”. The award was presented “for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and commemoration of historical memory.”
From Rugby To Roots
Who would have thought that the Levitt’s journey began over a rugby match that was not even played? “It was pure chance that took us on our first trip to Lithuania in 1998,” reveals Abel. “Our son Adam played for Israel’s national rugby team and when we saw they would be playing in Vilnius (Vilna), Glenda and I decided to join the tour as “camp followers” determined to wave the biggest Israeli flag from the stands.”
It was not to be!
The match was cancelled but not the Levitts’ trip. They had made arrangements to meet with Jacovas Bunka known as “The Last Jew Of Plungyán”, the town Abel’s father left in 1913 aboard the Durham Castle for Cape Town.
So, while no flag was unveiled in 1998 at a rugby match, a journey of discovery began for Abel and Glenda that traversed many miles and many years and, on the 17th July 2011, through perseverance and persuasiveness, a Memorial Wall was unveiled at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941.
At that ceremony in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania and diplomatic representatives of ten countries, including Israel, Poland, Japan the USA and Germany, Abel expressed that the memorial, “allows us to come and stand here in the killing field of Kaušenai and mourn. We do not ask how it happened. WE KNOW.
We do however ask: WHY?”
“No longer,” continued Abel, “do we speak about 1800 anonymous souls. This Memorial Wall is the tombstone to our martyrs.”
One of the names appearing on the memorial was Abel’s uncle, his father’s brother – Yisrael Levitt.
The Hero of Plungyán
It was from 75-year-old Miriam Lisauskiene, a lawyer in Klaipeda in Western Lithuania – and whose name Glenda had earlier come across researching at Yad Vashem – that Abel learned of the final few minutes of his uncle’s life that earned him the honorific:
“The Hero of Plungyán”.
Miriam was revealing her own story of survival; that she was fourteen years old when she stood at the edge of a pit in Ponar outside Vilna waiting for the bullets to pierce her back and thrust her down into oblivion. As the shooting began, she saw her friends fall beside her and one pulled her down as “We were holding hands when the shots were fired.” Scratched by a bullet, Miriam followed her friends into the grave. Later that night, she clawed and crawled her way out over dead bodies and mounds of earth.
It was while Miriam was showing the Levitts a video of her testimony to the Spielberg Foundation that she excitedly jumped up from her chair and pressed pause.
“There’s your uncle, Abel” she animatedly bellowed. “He was so athletic and tall; you look just like him with the same skin colour. I remember him like it was yesterday.”
She related how the Jews were lined up at the edge of the pit, waiting their fate. Yisrael Levitt, who had been one of the stronger men, had been digging his own grave. Suddenly, he turned around, and with his spade, he knocked the gun from the hands of one of the killers and ran. He knew he had little chance, but what little time he had, he would be free. “Miriam did a zigzag movement with her hand, indicating the way my uncle ran towards the forest,” described Abel. “He never made it. As he reached the edge of the field, his eyes fixed upon the trees ahead, a solitary bullet from a hunting rifle with a telescopic lens ended his valiant run for freedom.”
Miriam described how “he was dragged back like a fleeing deer and tossed into the grave”. Shaking with emotion, Miriam said to Abel, “Your uncle was the last Plungyáner to be thrown into the pits; and he was known thereafter as the ‘Hero of Plungyán’.”
From Roundup to Redemption
Abel reveals what happened in July 1941 to the Jews of Plungyán. “They were rounded up by the German soldiers and their Lithuanian Nationalist collaborators in the village square about 100 metres from where our family lived in Telz Street. They were then led into the Groyse Synagogue where they were held in indescribable conditions for two weeks. Thereafter they were marched – the elderly taken by cart or lorry; the children carried – to the Kaušenai forest. For two days the sounds of the shooting could be heard in Plungyán, only four kilomtres away.”
There had also been a witness.
“A Jew by the name of Garb – who incidentally had family in Cape Town – had married a Lithuanian Catholic woman and converted to Catholicism. The local priest pleaded for his life with the German officer who only moments before his execution ordered his release on hearing that Garb had been “baptized”. Garb survived the War and provided detailed testimony of what transpired.”
It was tough hearing Abel speak of the seventy-five schoolgirls who had been raped and murdered. “The priest had begged for their lives and offered to baptize them – but to no avail. They lie buried in a mass grave – covered symbolically with seventy-five slabs – as one climbs the hill.” It was here that Abel discovered that his first cousin, Rosa Levitt, aged twelve, lay buried.
In recent years, when it became impossible to save the synagogue from development – there had been the hope of converting it into a museum to preserve what Jewish life had been like before the Shoah – Abel and Glenda asked the question that paved the path ahead. “If the synagogue is to be demolished, what’s to become of the bricks?”
And so it came to be, that 1800 bricks – one for each of the Jews murdered – were salvaged, stored and then used to build a Memorial Wall so that the names of Plungyán’s martyrs will be preserved for all time.
It was the first such undertaking in Lithuania, “possibly the first in Eastern Europe,” says Abel. With more money raised by the Levitts than was needed for the Memorial, “we supported a Tolerance Centre in Plungyán, the eighth in Lithuania and considered one of its finest.”
This was only the beginning.
The Levitts engaged with teachers in Plungyán – today a city of 25,000 – to educate its youth of the town’s Jewish legacy and why and how there are no Jews left. Art competitions today are held annually for school children on the theme of: “What happened to our Jewish community?”
Some of these art works have been exhibited abroad.
“It is only by educating the young people about what happened,” says Abel, “that we can hope for a better understanding between our peoples, as we follow the words of Almighty God to the prophet Joel:
“Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children
and their children tell their children, from generation to generation.”
While Glenda Levitt noted in her ceremony address that “there are many worthy causes in this world of ours deserving attention, Abel and I stumbled unto two subjects which we felt were interwoven like a tapestry – honouring the victims of inexplicable murder and to ignite in young Lithuanian students an awareness of the vibrant life of a community of Jews who were Lithuanian, how they lived and how they died and are no more.”
The magnitude of the loss was brought home by the Levitt’s son Ari revealing that had certain Jews in Lithuania not read the writing on the wall, the world would not have ever know of:
Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel; Abba Eban, Former Israeli Ambassador to the US and UN; Amos Oz, Israeli writer and intellectual; Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laurette for economics; Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laurette chemistry; Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laurette for Literature; Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter and Nobel prize for Literature, Marc Chagall, artist; Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter; J.D. Salinger, author of ‘Catcher in the Rye; Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel; Sir Ronald Harwood, Academy award winner; Michael Levitt, Nobel Laurette for Chemistry and Brian Levitt, Officer of the Order of Canada.
Ari concluded that with his parents, “Being recognised by the Government of Lithuania for their tireless work in preserving the memory and promoting tolerance, they earn their place on the list of achievements of Jews of Lithuanian descent.
A Town Called Birzh
And then we learnt of Birzh!
There was a large poster facing the seated guests at the Lithuanian Embassy with two photos of Jewish life before WWII and the disturbing words:
“Commemorating Birzh-Birzai 8.8.1941”.
It was said that Birzh was a town few people had heard of. To Lithuanians it is known for its beer and breweries, but for Jews whose families lived there since the 16th century, it is remembered “where their Lithuanian neighbours helped massacre its entire Jewish population of 2,400 in 1941,” wrote Bennie Rabinowitz, Gweynne Schire and Dr. Veronica Belling in their article, ‘Remembering Birzh”. Until very recent years, the present-day residents were unlikely to have ever met a Jew, even though before the war, half its population was Jewish.
All this changed when Abel and Glenda visited Rhodes scholar and philanthropist Bennie Rabinowitz in Cape Town in 2014 and asked if he would help sponsor a young Lithuanian, Gabriella, through law school in Israel. With Bennie’s support, Gabriella the granddaughter of the lawyer from Klaipeda, Miriam Lisauskiene would graduate at the IDC Herzliya and is today working at a top law firm in Tel Aviv and was one of the guests at the ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy. However, back at that 2014 meeting in Cape Town, Bennie revealed that his family roots were from Birzh and that besides a photograph of its main Street in the early 1930s, all he had was “just a name.”
What a surprise to Bennie when the Levitts revealed, “we were there two weeks ago.” What alarmed Bennie was the Levitt’s relating that after seeing the mass Jewish graves, they visited the Birzh Museum where it had NO recorded history of Jews.
It was as if Jews never existed in Birzh and yet a 1931 government survey showed that Jews owned 77 of the town’s 99 businesses; owned 12 out of 14 groceries; 9 out of 12 butcheries; 11 out of 12 textile and fur manufacturers; 7 out of 8 leather and shoe business, 3 out of 4 haberdasheries and 28 of 45 factories.
So why no record of Jews in the Birzh Museum?
The date glaring at us on the poster revealed the explanation.
On August 8, 1941, 2400 Jews of Birzh, including 900 children – were stripped naked and shot into pits in the Astravas forest, 3.5 kilometres north of the town. It was carried out by Gestapo officers supported by 70 Lithuanians from Linkuva and Birzh.
Testimony has revealed that when the killers returned to town at 7.00pm – having begun their grisly work at 11.00am – they “walked in singing.”
This June 2019, the townsfolk of Birzh will became more aware of this dark past as a monument to the victims was officially opened.
Made of sheets of metal, winding their way on a bridge over water and through the Lithuanian forest, the names of the victims appear on the memorial cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. There are three large tablets of stone. One contains the Birzai story in Lithuanian, another in English and the third stone records the major contributors to the project led by Ben Rabinowitz of Cape Town.
The architect of the Memorial is Dr Joseph Rabie, a graduate of the Haifa Technion and a former Capetonian, today living in Paris. His grandfather emigrated to South Africa from Birzh, the Yiddish name for Birzai.
With successive Lithuanian governments accused of minimizing the role of Lithuanians in collaborating in the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry – 96.4%, more than any other country – the award by the Lithuanian government to Abel and Glenda Levitt for their monumental projects to educate is a hopeful sign of new understanding.
In this new spirit of confronting the past, students at the Birzh Austra High School collected the names of former Jewish citizens of their town and painted them on stones which they then took in a procession – accompanied by the Deputy Mayor – from the once Birzh ghetto to the mass grave, where they were solemnly placed.
When these local schoolchildren returned home covering the same journey as their town’s earlier mass murderers, they were not “singing”.
Today, Birzh is Judenrein!
That is a fact not to sing about but to remember and mourn.
In the words of Elie Wiesel:
“They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness.”