A sad tale of two countries
By Stephen Schulman
I am extremely fortunate in being able to write these words. In fact, I am extremely fortunate in being here at all and I owe it all to my grandparents on both sides who over a hundred years ago had the foresight, took the initiative and seized the opportunity to leave Eastern Europe and immigrate to the West.
Like many Litvaks (Jews originating from Lithuania) they eventually wended their way to South Africa to seek their fortune in a new land that was free from oppression, persecution and pogroms. Growing up as a 2nd generation South African, the Holocaust was certainly part of my education and consciousness but it never touched me personally as, to the best of my knowledge, my extended family on both sides had long moved to the West.
Coming to live in Israel radically changed my perspective of and my closeness to this unprecedented genocide in the history of mankind. Many survivors have made their home here and the Holocaust is seared into the nation’s psyche. Yad VaShem, the National Holocaust Institute located on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, with its extensive archives and comprehensive museum, is a revered institution and the moving state memorial ceremony that takes place there on the eve of the annual Holocaust Day is broadcast nationwide.
Nevertheless, fortunately in not having been affected personally, I felt a certain insulation that in the course of events changed when I met and married Yona. After the war, she had been born in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp situated in Germany where her parents Tsila nee Bastomski and Meir Perey both Holocaust survivors had met and married. In 1949, not long after the birth of the nation, her parents, with her a baby, came to live in Israel where, like many other survivors, permanently scarred but with fortitude and resolution they rebuilt their lives. Many other Holocaust survivors were less fortunate: crippled both physically and/or in spirit, they were incapable of shaking off the traumas of the past.
Tsila was forthcoming about her past and her wartime experiences and so fortunately in the course of years before she was crippled by illness, I was able to record all that she recounted to me. Sitting listening to her and Meir‘s story, I was filled with humility and awe at the strength of the human spirit to endure and overcome so much suffering and with the greatest of respect for my parents in law.
Tsila and family had lived in a settlement near Vilna (Vilnius) where, the family by dint of enterprise and hard work had built up a successful business supplying the local countryside. With the invasion by Nazi Germany, expelled from their home and possessions they were herded into the local ghetto. There, her father Israel, with all of them forced to witness, was publicly executed for attempting to sneak out to try to obtain food for his family. Tsila’s eldest brother Joshua, serving in the Polish army was murdered as a Jew. Whilst remaining in the ghetto, an older brother Yitschak managed to procure false documents for the remaining family and one night they made their escape, fleeing to a small village where posing as Christian Poles, Tsila, her mother Bunia, brothers Yitschak and Yehuda and elder sister Gessia lived for the duration of the war. Tsila and Gessia worked as seamstresses, Yitschak was an altar boy and Yehuda would walk at the head of funeral processions carrying a cross. Tsila, as was the custom, not forgetting to cross herself before all the road side shrines along the way, regularly walked to church barefoot carrying her shoes in hand to be put on before entering.
In the village itself, life was far from easy as the family lived in constant terror of their true identity being discovered; all too often they had to concur with the villagers’ antisemitic opinions and hear their glee concerning the fate of the Jews. The only times they felt relatively safe were during stormy nights when nobody ventured from their homes. She clearly remembers that when one night, her mother delirious from a high fever started to babble in Yiddish, the terrified family could not call for a doctor.
Meir was more reticent and rarely spoke about his family. Hailing from Bialystok and conscripted into the Red Army in 1939, he served at the front, narrowly losing a leg in battle and after recovering, working as a medical orderly on army hospital trains. Returning home after the war, he discovered that he was the sole survivor as all his immediate kith and kin: parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces had been murdered in the Holocaust.
What had caused Meir, Tsila and family to flee from the land where their families had lived for generations to a distant country to seek shelter in a displaced persons camp? After all, the war had ended and hostilities had ceased. Why had they not returned to their birthplaces? What influenced their decision – and of so many other Holocaust survivors – to irrevocably leave their homes and all behind?
Saul Friedlander and Jeffrey Veidlinger amongst others have documented the anti-Semitism rife in the Baltic States, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Balkans with the Christian churches in many cases either acquiescing or fanning the flames. Indeed, since the beginning of the 20th Century, intermittent pogroms had not only diminished but increased with generations of bystanders and/or perpetrators.
Consequently, Poland of 1945 as before the war was far from being a hospitable home. In the 1930’s formal anti –Semitic legislation had gradually increased and in 1936 there had been widespread pogroms with the murder of hundreds of Jews. In post war 1945, omnipresent ant-Semitism openly erupted making Poland a dangerous place for a Jew to live in. The historian Jan T. Gross ably records the fate of post WW II Jewry where many Holocaust survivors were murdered, the pogrom at Kielce being the most infamous incident.
Meir, upon returning to Bialystok found his former neighbours, now comfortably ensconced in his family abode, most unpleasantly surprised by his appearance and informed him that if he valued his life, he should permanently put as much distance as possible between himself and his old home. Tsila, her mother and siblings, in the dead of night, packed their meager belongings onto a cart and silently fled the village. They were well aware that if their true identity were now revealed, the odds were that they would not remain alive. For them, Meir and other survivors, the only safe recourse was fleeing to the west.
Family records show that my maternal grandfather Hirsh Wolf Edelson born in Sedova (Shadova), in 1909 had married Chana Etel Chaitovitz hailing from nearby Grinkishok (Grinkiskis) before immigrating to South Africa a few years later. Most fortunately, I also discovered that an industrious and indefatigable relative living in Jerusalem had compiled an extended family tree tracing my grandfather’s roots in his home town back to 1811. With my interest aroused, I delved into the proud history of Lithuanian Jewry and discovered one that is both tragic and horrific: how in 1941, Lithuanians from all walks of life, with few notable exceptions, in widespread cooperation with the German authorities and with their scant urging, ruthlessly and with the utmost zealous barbarity butchered and murdered their Jewish fellow citizens. This was executed with such efficaciousness that within a relatively short period of the Jewish community of 220,000 souls, 95 to 97 percent were no longer alive – one of the highest genocide rates in Europe. Their murderousness was equally matched by their avarice and rapaciousness in plundering the possessions and occupying the homes of former friends and neighbours whom they had known well, often for generations.
On the 22nd June 1941, the Nazis occupied Lithuania and three days afterwards Seduva. Less than a month later on the 22nd July, the town’s Jews were incarcerated in a ghetto. On August the 25th, all 665 ghetto occupants were murdered in the Liaudiškiai forest. A few “privileged” Jews who had fought in the War of Independence of 1918 and who optimistically underwent public baptism were not included in the roundup. However, their reprieve was short lived, for a few weeks later they were driven to Panevėžys and shot dead with just one survivor who had been hidden by the priest. There exists a long list of the local shooters all of whom somehow did not recall the names of their victims but remembered in meticulous detail the loot they received for their participation.
In their murderous diligence, no community however small was overlooked: My grandmother’s Grinikishok (Grinkiskis) was not exempt. At the end of August 1941, armed Lithuanians led the entire town Jews – all 20 families! – to the nearby town Kriukai and there on September 2, 1941, murdered them together with the local Jews. All the other Lithuanian Jewish communities shared the same bitter fate. Dr. Efraim Zuroff and Ruta Vanagaita, in their book recording their painful journey visiting Lithuanian Holocaust massacre sites, noted that while Jedwabne in Poland was infamous for its inhabitants murdering their Jewish neighbours, there were over 220 such towns in Lithuania.
The bestiality and barbarism of the Lithuanians shocked even the hardened Nazis, one of whom had witnessed and photographed in Kaunas a townsman proudly standing holding his club with the bloody corpses of 45 Jews behind him. He was surrounded by an enthusiastic and laughing crowd of men, women and children who had cheered and applauded every time he slaughtered a victim. The Nazi bystander recorded that after the “Death Dealer” had finished, he stood on the pile of bodies and to the approbation of the onlookers proudly played the national anthem on his accordion. Lest it be thought that this was an isolated incident, instances of similar atrocities were recorded in many locations. The lists of rape, torture and murder go on and on…….
About the writer:
Stephen Schulman is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist youth movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. He was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.
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