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Voyage to Vilkaviskis

16 Apr

 (INTRO: This essay was written a number of years ago, and has appeared in print. I’m posting it online for the first time today, on Yom Ha’Shoah.)

***

July 1995. The road from Kaunas, in central Lithuania, to Vilkaviskis, a town near the western border with Russia, looks like Vermont. Pastoral farmland, dairy cows, woods of birch and pine.

Inside tiny grocery stores in the church-villages dotting the road, old women sit behind large wooden abacuses. Back in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, counter-women will calculate your bill on the ancient contraption, then punch the total onto the display of a gleaming new electronic cash register to show what you owe.

This incongruity spills out onto the sidewalks. Older Lithuanians remember the statue of Lenin that stood until recently in Vilnius’s main square. Many still dress in drab Soviet costume. The youngs wear T-shirts or smart-looking suits. They frequent bars and cafés that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan. They speak English.

One of these twentysomethings – a pony-tailed Vilnius entrepreneur – runs an agency for foreign tourists. He arranged for a car, a driver and a tour guide to meet my wife and me in Kaunas, and take us to Vilkaviskis.

Our guide is Chayim, a Holocaust survivor’s son. As we left the agency to catch a bus to Kaunas, the young entrepreneur said Chayim would identify himself at the Kaunas bus stop by waving a “Jewish flag – I hope it’s not too big”.

Chayim met us with a small Israeli flag in his hand. He is fiftyish, short and gregarious. An engineer by training, he makes a living teaching Hebrew and showing tourists the historical Jewish sites of western Lithuania.

Of about 6,000 Jews living in Lithuania in 1995, 5,000 are in Vilnius – or Vilna – and most of the rest in Kaunas – or Kovno – the second-largest city. With 100,000 Jewish residents before the Second World War, Vilna was once dubbed the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Of the 96 synagogues that once stood there, only one remains.

In Vilkaviskis, where we’re headed, Chayim says the only remaining Jewish family emigrated about five years ago.

We’re not sure what to expect in Vilkaviskis, burned to the ground by the Nazis and rebuilt after the war. It is almost impossible to get my wife’s father – who was born there in 1917 and escaped to England several years before the Holocaust – to talk much about it. It is especially difficult now, as dementia rapidly extinguishes his remaining memories.

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In 1995, Lithuania is palpably in the afterglow of sudden freedom. After decades of Soviet oppression, its native language, culture, and politics are newly predominant. The monuments and Lithuanian-language plaques are new and shiny.

But this shininess illuminates some ugly, once-hidden historical truths. Information about what happened to the Jews here is freely available, but it’s hard to tell if Lithuanians pay much heed as they exorcise 50 years of their own subjugation.

You wonder what its teachers think of the kindergarten that stands on the former spot of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, destroyed by the Nazis and paved over by the Soviets. You wonder what workers think as they climb up to the trade-union building on steps built out of old Jewish gravestones.

You wonder about the implication in the voice of the young guy from the tourist agency as he spoke to a colleague in Lithuanian and used the word “Zydu” – Jew – to describe Chayim.

Do young people know what happened to the Zydus here?

In Vilkaviskis, the liquidation of the Jewish community was a model of Nazi efficiency. It was accomplished in just a few months in 1941, after Germany invaded.

Throughout Lithuania, the Nazis also had willing local help. In Kovno, for instance, the slaughter began with a well-documented incident in the yard of a gas station. A 25-year-old Lithuanian stood in the middle of a cheering crowd, holding a large iron bar as thick as his arm. One by one, Jewish men were brought before him. As mothers lifted their children for a better view, as German soldiers snapped photos, the “dealer of death” murdered dozens of Jews with repeated blows to the head.

In one photograph of the incident, hanging in a Vilna museum, the killer stands in the foreground and stares defiantly into the camera. When I saw that photo, I wondered how many young Lithuanians have looked into those eyes and confronted this past.

No doubt the Nazis oversaw the brutal treatment of Lithuania’s Jews, but as my father-in-law has said, the Jews of Lithuania – including most of his family – were slaughtered in Lithuania. There were few deportations and few obstacles here to the Nazis’ final solution.

***

We approach Vilkaviskis and it begins to pour. My wife’s face betrays a queasy dread. The weather, the history and our own equivocal reasons for coming have conspired to make this trip even more depressing than expected.

For my wife, this visit is an attempt to connect with family she never knew, but also an act of defiance against her father’s inability to frankly discuss what happened to that family. She did not tell him we were traveling to Lithuania. But for reasons she cannot fully explain, his deteriorating physical condition and worsening dementia have created an urgent need for us to find out whatever we can here.

Our tour guide, Chayim, tells our driver to take us along a pothole-covered dirt road on the outskirts of the town. When we get to the end of the winding path, turned to mud by the rain, we are confronted with a tall monument topped by a wrought-iron stylized sun.

Monument2

Until a few years ago, Chayim explains, the monument was crowned with a hammer-and-sickle. It was a memorial to the “Soviet citizens” of Vilkaviskis murdered by the Nazis. Now, plaques in Lithuanian and Yiddish tell a more specific tale. The monument marks the site where 7,000 Jews from Vilkaviskis were brought during the summer of 1941, made to dig a large grave, and then shot to death by Nazis and Lithuanian “helpers”. We are probably standing at the gravesite of my wife’s grandparents and one of her two aunts (the other died in France).

The surging rain makes it difficult for Chayim to read and translate the plaque’s inscriptions. My wife takes a few pictures of the site. I leave a small stone on its base. It grows wetter and colder. But after we return to the car and continue into town, the sky clears.

Vilkaviskis is a modern and pleasant-looking county seat of about 20,000 residents, now best known in Lithuania — Chayim says — for a brand of lemonade bottled here. Before the war, 40 per cent of the town was Jewish. A woman behind the counter of a snack bar sells me a bottle of lemonade and tells Chayim she can remember where the Jews used to live and own businesses.

We go across town to the old Jewish cemetery. In fact, it is the new old Jewish cemetery –  the oldest, medieval one having disappeared long ago. The new old cemetery looks on the verge of disappearance itself. It barely survived the Nazis and was neglected throughout the Soviet years. Vegetation has overrun the gravestones, many of which have been vandalized. The Lithuanian government seemingly has not lifted a finger to restore it. Judging by some of the strange looks we are getting from people on adjacent properties, visitors here are few and far between.

At the entrance of the cemetery stands a large mound of earth, ringed by neatly placed gravestones and gravestone-fragments lying on their backs around its base.

Cemetery

You don’t feel all that bad for some of the more recently deceased in the new-old Vilkaviskis cemetery – the ones who died in the late 1930s or early 1940s. They are, of course, among the last to be buried here. You can’t help but count them luckier than those who lie anonymously beneath the monument we saw earlier.

We spend about an hour in the cemetery, the rain starting and stopping. We go from one gravesite to another, trying to make out the fading Hebrew names on the stones. About half the stones are missing, broken or indecipherable. It grows darker. My pants are soaked from wandering through knee-high vegetation.

I remember reading something about disease-carrying ticks in the high grass of the Lithuanian countryside. I try to think of something else.

Finally, in the most remote, most deteriorated corner of the cemetery, we find a gravestone with the fading inscription, “Aryeh Leib, son of Mordecai Sideris, 1923”. The family name is a Lithuanianized version of my wife’s family name, Sider. Chayim says it must be a relative. I take a picture of my wife standing next to the stone. We search the remainder of the area and find nothing else. We return to the car dripping wet.

In a strange way everything this day feels automated and detached, as if we’re scientists on a fact-finding mission. It will take time to absorb this information. We’ll have to piece it together with what we already know.

***

By the end of the Second World War, my father-in-law Jack was the only surviving member of his family.

Before the war, his father had the foresight to pack him off to London to study and to live with an uncle. When that uncle died, the British government tried to deport Jack back to Lithuania. A sympathetic bureaucrat found a loophole that allowed him to stay in England — effectively saving his life.

Jack slept on park benches and earned a law degree. He never saw anyone from his family again.

During the war, he served in the British navy. He understood German, so he was assigned to intercept enemy radio communiqués. Luckily for him, his English was shaky. When he was sent ashore for a weekend course, his boat was attacked and his replacement was shot through the forehead as he sat at Jack’s usual station.

That story was the most interesting thing that my father-in-law ever told me about his early life. It popped out one day unprompted, at an unguarded moment. When I pressed him for details, he clammed up.

Jack was not a survivor of the Holocaust, but had developed a survivor’s mentality: A man who seemingly could not — or would not — take comfort in anything.

From our first meeting, all attempts to talk about his past were met with uncomfortable silences or awkward conversational lunges into more innocuous topics. Mention the war at the dinner table and Jack might ask if you wanted more soup. Ask a question about his childhood and he would talk about the day’s trading on the stock market.

Of course, since he was diagnosed with the dementia that — by the time of this journey — has been progressively, cruelly eating away at his memory and other mental capacities, the uncomfortable silences have become more frequent.

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Here in Vilkaviskis, my wife and I have seen almost everything that Chayim, our tour guide, planned to show us. Before heading back to Kaunas, we stop at a train station on the outskirts of town. Chayim tells us the station is the only place in Vilkaviskis that survived the war intact. If Jack was with us, it would be the only thing he could possibly recognize of his hometown. It’s probably the last thing he ever saw here. We get out and take a look.

As we climb back into the car and head east, the late afternoon sun peeks through the clouds behind us, the day’s gloom finally lifting at our exact moment of departure.

In Kaunas, Chayim surprises us with an unscheduled stop. He takes us through an unlit neighborhood to a dingy apartment building. Here, he has arranged for us to visit with two old women — one of them sick in bed. They both grew up in Vilkaviskis, Chayim tells us. He thinks they may remember my father-in-law’s family.

They say they do remember. But as Chayim translates for us, they begin to argue with each other over details. Yes, they remember the family. No, they don’t remember a boy in the family. The family owned a soap factory. No, that wasn’t them. We tell them about the inscription we found on the gravestone. That was a different family with the same name, one of them thinks.

It’s a little frustrating, sitting here in this drab room trying to piece together the past with these women and their fog-bound memories. Sitting here, half the earth away from home, in this country with a selective memory of its own past. Sitting here at the end of a trip that underscored the fragility of memory itself.

When she hears we’re from Canada, one of the women jumps up. She says she knows a Jewish man from Vilkaviskis who lives in Canada. It’s a big country, I say. She pulls out a ragged-looking book and shows us the man’s name and address.

No, it’s not Jack, but the address is in Montreal — not five minutes away from where my wife grew up.

We say goodbye, head down the stairs, and back out into the darkness.

***

(POSTSCRIPT: We never told my father-in-law about our visit to his hometown. Three strangers showed up at his funeral in the year 2000. They were childhood friends of Jack from Vilkaviskis. One of them was the man in the address book.)

The Imperative to Remember

12 Apr

History isn’t always as distant as we sometimes imagine it to be.

Or maybe it is.

About 15 years ago, while researching something unrelated at the National Archives, I stumbled upon an old newsreel from 1945.

It showed footage of a large parade somewhere in the United States, held shortly after the Allied victory in the Second World War.

Among the marchers that day was a small group of elderly men, some in wheelchairs, all of them veterans of the American Civil War.

The scene took me aback because it seemed so incongruous that there were still Civil War vets alive during the lifetime of my own parents, who were children when the newsreel was shot.

For me, the American Civil War seemed part of distant history. Book history. The Second World War, though, was more recent history. Living history.

I knew living, breathing, speaking people who had experienced the Second World War. There were veterans of that war in my family and in my community. From an early age, I’d heard first-hand accounts from vets and from Holocaust survivors.

But the American Civil War? It seemed almost ancient… prehistoric even… by comparison, although (I looked it up) there were still Civil War veterans alive well into the 1950s.

There were once people on this earth who lived through both the death of Abraham Lincoln and the birth of Rock and Roll.

To someone of my generation, the First World War is right on the frontier between book and living history. A great uncle I never met served in the Canadian armed forces during that war, but never saw combat.

From another branch of my family, my mother’s late aunt used to tell me stories of the maimed, vacant-eyed, younger-than-they-looked veterans of the Great War who would wander the streets of Saint John, New Brunswick after returning from the horrors of trench warfare in Europe. They frightened her as a child growing up there in the early part of the last century, and she still had vivid memories of them in her 90s.

At school, First World War vets occasionally would talk to us on Remembrance Day. But they were already quite elderly by the time I was a kid – older than my grandparents. It was hard to picture the frail old men speaking at our school assemblies as young soldiers in the trenches of Passchendaele or Ypres.

The Second World War and Korean War veterans were younger and more accessible. Also, they fought in wars documented by relatively modern cameras, with clear and crisp pictures. The First World War was all old-fashioned photos and fuzzy, silent film footage.

Twelve years ago, on the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the Canadian government brought 17 of that war’s veterans to France and Belgium to revisit old battle sites. At the time, there were several hundred Canadian veterans of the War still alive, most in their late 90s and early 100s. Many of those still around in 1998 had only seen action as underage soldiers near war’s end.

Just a few were strong enough to make the trip. It would be the last major official commemoration of the First World War involving so many living veterans.

Before they left for Europe, they gathered as a group in Ottawa with the family members who would accompany them overseas: Septuagenarian children and 50-year-old grandkids. I was lucky enough to interview a few of those vets for a TV program. Their war experiences were unimaginably horrific, and some still found it difficult to talk about them eight decades later.

Those veterans are all gone now. Book history. And the World War II vets and Holocaust survivors who speak to my own kids’ classes may seem as prehistoric to them as the First World War vets seemed to me as a kid. Some day soon, their living history will also become book history.

The other day, I stood among thousands of onlookers in a cold drizzle at the National War Memorial during a ceremony commemorating Vimy Ridge Day. Officials made poignant speeches. A vintage First World War plane flew overhead. Sixty-five doves – each one representing 10,000 of the 650,000 Canadians who served in the war – were released into the sky.

But for the first time, there were no living witnesses in attendance. The last Canadian Great War vet died in February.

History can’t help but grow more distant. But maybe as the living memory dims, the imperative to remember strengthens.