Back to the River

Shalom Eilati

(translated by Vern Lenz)

But Lot’s wife looked back

and she became a pillar of salt.

AND IN THE END, DID I EVER RETURN?

 

 

As with so many of my friends, I too had

for many years deep-seated reasons for rejecting the idea out of hand: the

abhorrence, amounting to hatred, of this land of blood, where so many of its

citizens had served as enthusiastic hangmen. And whom will you visit there,

with all your dear ones absent; your rescuers no longer alive; the ghetto long

since destroyed and its land built over again? Will you go to find out who the

Lithuanians are who now live in the house you lived in before the war, who

might even have kept for themselves some of your family’s furniture?

What point can there be in enduring the pain once again?

And what would be the point of confronting again those silent

witnesses — the tranquil landscapes, the forests and lakes, which like a

pastoral blanket cover up the murders and atrocities that took place in

their midst?

And on the other hand, to try once again to confront the difficult

memories, to bring them up to the surface, and attempt to diminish their

strength. To return and test your own strength, to see if you are able to

look back.

But Lot’s wife looked back. At my heartstrings tugs the interpretation

that says Lot’s wife had compassion for her married daughters, who remained

in Sodom. She looked back to see whether perhaps they too were following in

her footsteps. And when she saw what was happening to her birthplace, her

heart broke.

After I had safely crossed the river, my mother, too, had commanded

me not to look back. I obeyed her, got out of the boat, and headed straight

for the gully that led to the opposite hills. That was the first step I took on the

journey to my salvation.

Thirty years passed before I began to look back and to write. The

writing itself lasted twenty years. It was hard to remove old bandages that had

long since merged with the living flesh. But once the book was completed, my

body could breathe again.

And that’s when the definite desire awoke to go back for a visit. Twice

even. The first time after fifty-five years, and a second time, four years later.

A great curiosity awoke as well — how do those places look where I passed

the first years of my life? How wide, in truth, is the river I crossed; how high

The Green Hill from whose hideout I looked down on the ghetto on the

other side? What was the size, in fact, of the field in that distant village across

which I suddenly saw the sugar factory rise in the air in one piece and

crumble into bits, with me there in a field of fire and exploding shells?

And so the moment came when the decision to return was ripe.

The first time we went as two families, Aliza’s and mine. With deep

excitement, and not without fears for the safety of our bodies and souls. But

we went.

I did not regret it.

I was shocked by the visit —

how had the landscapes of my

childhood waited for me here in

secret, and I knew nothing of

them? A world preserved fifty years

and more, where time had stopped

and stood still; like a lost city in the depths of a jungle that had retained,

beneath the thick vegetation, the contours of its former houses and streets

as they had been long ago, remembered, familiar. Nothing seemed to have

changed, except for growing older and considerably fraying.

As if in lifting fog, specific questions sprang up, and sharp wishes

spurred me to find answers. So I went a second time. At the end of the second

trip, after I had seen and visited nearly everywhere I wished, I left behind me

sites that my longing will continue to caress, that will remain with me for

years to come. But since I now know just what they are, I feel that I may be

able to live with them without turning to a pillar of salt.

A.  In the City

As the car approached Kovno, signs appeared — just like everywhere else on

the planet — that listed the decreasing distance to the city limits, and the

suspense grew.

Just before I reached the city, a billboard came into view with a jingle

whose message was suddenly so timely for me:

Tu Nori, Tu Tori, Tu Gali! (You want, you need, you can!)

A dizzy ride down the main artery of the Green Hill, and I was in the

lower city. We settled in a fine hotel near the old quarter.

At dawn the first day — during summer, the nights are very short —

my wife Miriam and I hurried with suppressed excitement into the adjoining

Vilnius Street. Once more I am treading through the streets of my childhood

to my house. Here is the president’s palace, which is surrounded by the same

fence with round iron posts, topped with spearheads, but without any pokerfaced

guards around. We proceed into the heart of the old quarter, to our

street, which is now paved for pedestrians. All along the street had been

various stores to which my mother used to take me in search of pieces of cloth

from which to sew a dress, summer and winter clothes, shoes. This had been a

Jewish area, a bubble lined with shops and workshops, carts and porters, all of

them Jewish. Now there are no Jews. Only the street signs of Mapu and

Zamenhoff keep their original Jewish names. The district has become a

complete tourist attraction. Most of the shops have been converted to

coffeehouses and boutiques.

It was odd, my curiosity about the house and yard of my childhood.

After liberation and my return from hiding in a village, I was in the city for a

year and a half. I was already more than 11 years old, and it never once

occurred to me, so far as I remember, to go back to my childhood home for

a visit. Perhaps I felt some discomfort, some anxiety even, about peering

into places where we had lived before the storm, and where Lithuanians who

had seized our apartment and household goods now lived. And perhaps it

was an aversion to peeking down the stairwell of the abyss into which we

had been cast.

How had the

landscapes of my childhood

waited for me here in secret,

and I knew nothing of them?

 

I had known beforehand that the building that housed our apartment

had changed in form. Messengers that I had repeatedly sent, with detailed

addresses in hand, had brought me photographs whose meaning I could not

make out. Now, with a single glance from the adjoining corner of “Butcher

Street,” the mystery of my house became clear: The building was still

standing, but had been remodeled — our story at the top, which had roofed

with tin, was gone. In its place was a wide colorful tile roof, bordered in

decorative relief.

Not for nothing had I heard it said that our building had once been

a monastery. I had found certain evidence for that when we sought safety

in its catacomb-like cellars during the bombings on the first days of the

war. Now a copper plate affixed to the facade testifies that the building has

been pronounced an ancient historic landmark and listed for restoration

and preservation.

 

My home. What is a man’s home? It was natural during my childhood

for us to move from one flat to another every few years, according to my

parents’ considerations, mainly economical. My inner home, the one that was

destroyed, was not the one we left against our will in the city’s old quarter.

My last home had been in the ghetto, at Vigriu 44, and it had been burned

and destroyed.

During my second trip, I found an old article in an architectural

review thanks to which I understood the changes that had rendered my home

unrecognizable. The building originated, it says, in the Middle Ages. Because

it was situated where two rivers met, on the main road from the ancient

fortress to Vilnius, it served as a hostel for foreign merchants.

At the beginning of the twentieth century another unstable story had

been added. The sketches in the article showed our flat.Here is my life’s fortress

nakedly exposed, a shaky addition wrapped in tin, an eagle’s aerie with a wide

window sill from which I could, or so it had seemed, look out in safety over a

stable world. From this same window, in so far as I was brave enough, I had

also been able to follow the last days of the world when it was safe.

When they started restoration, the added third story had been removed.

I have therefore no place to look for our flat’s windows, and I was relieved.

Without a family, there is no need for a home.

A glance across to the opposite street corner reminded me exactly

where the flat of the girl Yehudith was, to whose dolls I had played doctor

and given shots; where Arke and Maimke, my childhood ghetto playmates,

had lived; the flats of my friend Yehoshua, who had disappeared at the start

of the war. Nearby — the enormous cathedral and the priest’s quarters. How

did we have the courage to live next to a Jesuitical compound?

The Rotushe — the town hall — stood in the central square like

always. I could reconstruct exactly where they had erected the demo shelter as

the war loomed, opposite the Society for Jewish Ethnography Museum. Once

more I found myself — this time only long enough for a photograph — on

the spot where I waited for the truck that took me to that distant village, a

journey that brought me back to the shores of life.

* * *

I walked the city with Aliza, who was my age and from my city; we reconstructed

sites and places. Everything as it had been. Here was the promenade

beside the river (“nabrezhna” in popular Russian slang), the market alleys,

and the nearby streets in the old quarter. We identified the Hebrew gymnasium

and the public school from the days of the Russians.

The wonder is that my sixteen months in Kovno after liberation did

not leave me with many more memories. It was as if I had gone through a

certain deadness of senses. I had been overburdened with the struggle against

the memories of the past three years, with waiting for my parents to return,

with the fact that my sister had been torn from my life.

We went to the town hall and requested birth certificates. With some

suspense, we waited a good while behind a large wooden door. When the

door opened, we were both issued certificates. We had indeed been born in

the city, and though we had gone as far as we could from this planet, here our

names remained, many years after we had been as good as dead. What is

more, on my certificate my mother is inscribed with two first names—Leah-

Margola, a name I had never before heard. As it turns out, the municipal

archives registered local rabbinical marriages in the years before the war.

Both of us had lost younger sisters during the war. Would it be possible

to get their certificates? — we ventured. The technocratic reply was, “Only

the parents have the right. ”Go find the parents who can exercise that right.

Then we came to the synagogue. Aliza’s youngest daughter decided to

say the Mourner’s Kaddish in memory of deceased relatives. At the sound of

her sobbing voice, my strength left me and I too was seized by deep weeping,

the first during this visit. Perhaps it was a wail for all my childhood friends,

with whom I hung around on prayer days and during Holy Days; or perhaps

a lament for the Jewish congregation, wrapped in tallitim, which would

gather here and listen to the sweet

voice of the hazzan and the choir

above the bimah, to whose gradual

disappearance I was a witness.

And perhaps—yes—for my

entire childhood world, which was

buried here in smoke and fire.

Now we went to the fortress

of death, the Ninth Fort. Until that time, all I knew about it was the way up to

it, the path that rises diagonally from left to right up the hill, as I saw it from

the ghetto full of our people being led during the next day of the Great

Aktion. Now, for the first time, we ascended it ourselves.

There was an annoying drizzle and I gave up on my deep desire to walk

the length of the road on foot, perhaps even on our knees like the pilgrims in

the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. To try looking back, through the eyes of those

who were taken, down and to the right upon the ghetto behind them at those

of us who were left, who stood there watching, frozen and dumbfounded.

And at the top, on the level, past the line of vision from the ghetto, the

fortress of death appears. God in heaven, already from here the victims could

have seen it clearly.

Not in the depths of a dense forest; not beyond the ridge, as in the Babi

Yar quarry; nor in the treacherous showers of Auschwitz. Here, atop gently

rolling hills, clear, sharp, and definite, sits the fort and its moats, like a beast

of prey, perched securely on its belly, waiting to swallow the rows of victims

as they come closer and closer to their end, which they see and recognize

ahead, before they are led, group by group, to the killing pits. It is beyond my

power to imagine the process of execution, where they were detained and

where they were taken. The pits were opened two years later under German

orders to try to erase the traces of their deeds, and the remains were burned.

The victims numbered at least about 50,000 over the course of three years.

And beyond the sidewalk which abuts a peaceful and tranquil village,

there stretches a green plain. I was glued to the sight of the western moat of

the fortress, all of it punctured with bullet holes. This is without doubt the

 

very execution site, in use daily during the years of occupation, the maw that

swallowed the relatively small shipments. Here were sent, according to the

memorial slabs and documentation, people not only from our city, but also

from distant places—the Lord knows why—from Berlin, Drancy,Marseilles,

and Vienna.

I wonder whether my little sister — after she was delivered to the

Gestapo by her “protectors” one or two months before the Germans retreated

— perhaps she, too, was led to this place, together with other Jewish children

that they had gathered up here and there.

Choking, I said Kaddish aloud in a sobbing voice while we fell into one

another’s arms. Every one of us in our little band had someone here to mourn.

B.   In the Country

C.  

Years ago, after having woken from my deep decades-long sleep, I could still

find the living traces of some of my rescuers — of Peˇckyte, the woman who

had found shelter for me in a distant village and conducted me there, and

Ona, the spouse of Daugela, the peasant in the country. I owe my life to these

three and to two others; in all, five Lithuanians.

I managed to send to Peˇckyte a few parcels, and even a sum of money,

which reached her just a few days before she died and apparently it helped

her have a decent burial. Before my second trip, Rima, a good hearted

Lithuanian who lives in Kaunas, discovered the grave of Peˇckyte at the edge

of the city. Now, on my second journey, we went together to the grave, where

I planted flowering begonias.

* * *

“We’re photographed beside the pear tree that you no doubt remember,”

wrote Ona, enclosing an old worn photograph. After my brief correspondence

with her, I received a letter whose return address was unfamiliar to me. “It is

the local postmistress who writes to you,” it said. “I used to bring your letters

to Ona. I am sorry to inform you that she did not see your last letter, having

died after a prolonged illness.” I wrote back thanking her and I kept her

address. Now the postmistress’s son Algis was waiting for me in the town's

train station, and in his car I began to cross the town toward the village.

Was this the same route I had taken when I first arrived in Daugela’s

wagon, and the same by which he brought me back after the liberation?

Here, atop gently rolling hills,

clear, sharp, and definite,

sits the fort and its moats,

like a beast of prey

the great killing: how did they imprison them, how and where did they lead

them, how did they murder them?

I have always had, embedded deeply within me, a picture of the

executions, assembled over the years from photographs and television screens.

Images of the last moments of life, captured by the murderers themselves and

burned into my flesh. Among them—how can I sort them?—the image of a

mother with a child on her lap, leaning toward the barrel of a gun aimed at

her head, or the backs of a group of women, standing crowded next to one

another, leaning over a cliff.

But where are their mass graves? These graves are now the only

evidence of the lives they once had here. In the traditional cemeteries, the

gravestones are mostly shattered and the mounds obscured. During the last

sixty-five years, thick trees and shrubs have grown up there.

Signposts to these places mostly are missing. The locals didn’t like the

signs and vandalized or removed them.

Before my second trip, I equipped myself with a book of photographs

of 220 mass graves in this country. Most of them are local killing sites, each of

which swallowed only a few hundreds or thousands; they are hidden in thick

refreshing and blossoming forests, approached by an innocent dirt road that

winds like a snake to its deadly end. I have visited six of them, in Mazˇeik and

Plungian, Vidukle and Šavli, Nemokšt andZˇezˇmer. Six among more than two

hundred like them throughout this country. Little workshops of death,

operated by the locals, mostly for a short period only — during two or three

months of the first summer of war.

O land of forests, rivers, and lakes.

How then did it happen? How, with orchestrated steps, did someone

send circulars and instructions to all the villages as to how and when to kill

their neighbors? Or was it that, with wondrous inner coordination, they set

their sights, in every corner of this land, on the Jews in their midst, leading

them on a similar path of death?

And I, all unwillingly, on tiptoes and with great trepidation, I am

drawn into a kind of comparison between those who were led to death in the

gas chambers and those who were led to the pits in the forest.

The anonymous, industrial scope of sealed transports in train cars to a

place unknown. And in contrast to them, the country Jews, led along the

village’s main street, their home of several generations, in the presence of

 

friends and acquaintances, among them their clients, people they had helped

in time of need, classmates and playmates, while from the windows all

around they are looked down upon with scorn and glee over their downfall.

(I recall one of the short and pointed stories of Ida Fink, about the

elderly people led through the main street in the heavy rain, and a young girl

running after them and calling out to her grandfather: “Zei gezundt! Be well,

zeide—be well!”)

For days or weeks, they were assembled at the synagogue, and then —

the men first — they were marched to the edge of the village, to a thick grove

where, when things were as they should be, they had wandered and played, in

paths that they knew. And there they were ordered to dig long pits, and before

they understood what it meant, a

shower of shots put an end to their

final minutes.

Irena, a Lithuanian whose

house sits next to the Jewish cemetery

of my grandmother's village,

where they had led the hundred

women and children of the town,

tells me of her childhood memories:

“When the shooting started, my mother would take me into the shelter, so I

wouldn’t hear.”

Here I stop. Impossible for me to imagine what the women and

children went through while they waited, imprisoned in the synagogue for as

much as a month later, before their turn came. And throughout this time —

this model was repeated in Vidukle and in many other shtetls — their

neighbors — again, their neighbors — did not refrain from describing to the

women in detail, through the barred windows, how they had killed their

husbands and brothers, and what awaited them one of these days. And those

days did indeed arrive. Sometimes, of all days, on the Fast of the Ninth of Ab,

or at the New Year and the Day of Atonement.

And so in at least 220 places in that country. More precisely, 220 signed

and catalogued sites. I doubt whether on the Day of Judgment the dead will

find each their own bones. Here all is mixed together with screams, protest,

and shock.

O land of forests, rivers, and lakes.

 

Who were the people who carried out the comprehensive killing?

I look at the people around me, some with impassive faces. Some whose body

language tells of the hard years they lived through, some still young—dressed

in jeans with shaved heads—blasting loud rhythmic music from their cars like

in every other place in the Western world. Who among their parents accompanied

people to the pits and pushed them in; who shot them and buried them

alive, who stripped and robbed and plundered them? Two hundred twenty

sites? Let us say that at every killing site there participated fifty to one hundred

“local abettors,” as most memorial plaques delicately put it. This rough

calculation too yields a sum of at least ten thousand. Ten thousand in the

shtetls and villages only. And what about other places in that country?

And once more, on tiptoe, I approach the subject with the greatest

caution, trying to touch and understand — how did they determine where

the killing would take place, where the pits would be dug? Why just “there”?

In Kovno, the ancient fortresses — the underground vaults and catacombs—

were chosen as suitable sites for the killings. In Ponar, near Vilnius, it

was giant pits that had been dug to store fuel. In Marijampole, they imprisoned

the Jews in empty military barracks beside the Šešupe River, and on the banks

of that river the victims met their death. In dozens of other places, the margins

of the Jewish cemeteries were the natural choices, as it were, for the killers.

But sometimes they led the victims many kilometers into distant

forests. That is what I saw near Zˇezˇmer, Nemokšt, Vidukle. The Jews of Sˇ avli

—the third-largest ghetto in Lithuania—were placed tens of kilometers into

the Kozˇi Forest. So it was in Plungian; they went to a hilly thicket west of

town, bringing victims from half a dozen other places. Why there?

In Kozˇi, there is a row of mass graves. Eleven giant pits, long and

rectangular, each at a distance of several meters from one another. In what

order did the digging, and the killing inside them, take place? First deeper in

the forest, then toward the perimeter, or the other way around? And similarly

in Plungian. It is a sharp, pointless question that will not leave me alone.

* * *

In Vidukle Jewish life had bustled around the synagogue and the house of my

grandfather, the rabbi. The story told by mocking locals after they returned from

the site of the bloodshed is that the old rabbi, my father’s father, lagged at the end

of a line of people, as they were led to a grove beside the train station, and refused

 

to hasten his pace. It was a march of two or three kilometers to a trench behind

the railway station. There now stand a few defeated trees, remnants of the thin

grove that perhaps provided killers with a measure of cover for their abominable

act. Among the trees is a concrete stone bearing a plaque that tells what occurred.

“For years, human bones would rise and stick out of the ground on

this lot,” a neighbor told us. I have childhood memories about the wide open

space between the town and the railway station. My father and I used to walk

along this road, when we took vacations in the town. But no one then

imagined a script about leading a mass of innocent people on a hot August

day to be shot at the edge of a pit.

As for the Jewish cemetery, beyond some lonely old gravestones

peeping here and there among tall trees, on a back slope, near a small lake, we

discovered a fenced, rectangular mass grave.

My slow-moving grandmother, and with her all the children of the

town with whom I used to play, who grilled me about the big city that I came

from—here all of them met their death.

At least she hadn’t had to march a long distance like my grandfather.

* * *

Siad, my mother’s birthplace. My albums are crammed with photographs

that I collected from the belongings of her brothers and sisters overseas,

pictures brimming with the romance of youth.

Those were days of enthusiasm, of dreams whose fulfillment they

pursued across the sea, far from the small and stifling village. Only their aged

parents and a few members of their generation stayed behind to stand in place.

They are the ones I found in mass graves. The women and children,

among them my maternal grandmother, on the edge of the local cemetery. The

men and boys are 20 kilometers to the north—they dragged them that far.

A village full of wooden buildings strung about a main street, sprawling

on the shore of a small lake, with a stream that traverses it. And all around it,

a forest.

I would like to stay here for a number of days. To get up at dawn and go

out of town, to the edge of the forest; to feel the cool dampness wafting the

scent of pine and oak trees, the odors of dairies and goats that had been in the

yards of Jewish townspeople. To wander, towards evening, in the paths that

lead to the nearby stream and lake, to try to reconstruct the position captured

 

by the photographs I have in my hand. To walk into the thick forest, where

“youth full of life and joy,” in the

words of the caption written on the

back, would be photographed in a

certain pose while leaning against a

tree trunk, or at a professional photographer’s

studio, holding a guitar,

decked out in holiday clothing, their

expression suffused with undefinable

longing.

They whispered words of love

and courtship, recited poems by Jewish poets, dreamed of distant lands,

quoted words of philosophy and spirituality about the soul’s salvation and

the pursuit of happiness. “Remember, my sister, friend of my soul, these

marvelous, magical days that we shared before I sailed across the seas.”

Now there is no one to lead me through the streets and paths of the

village, to tell me a bit about the area, the views that attended my mother

when she grew up here nearly a hundred years ago.

I wish I could pull at the wooden planks of the houses’ walls, like a

child tugging his mother’s apron strings, begging and pleading—tell me, tell

me what memories are buried in your boards about the days gone by before

the new tenants invaded your midst.

In a shack that was threatening to fall, in a neglected, untidy room, sat an

old toothless man of 95, leaning over his plate. He was hard of hearing, but his

gaze was clear. They repeated my question to him several times, and suddenly his

eyes lit up: “Greenstein? Blechar! (tinker). I worked for him!” I was agape—my

grandfather Shalom Zvi and his son Idel (who had migrated to Palestine with his

family, and because it had been too hot for him, had returned to his town and to

his death), had been the local ironworkers—blacksmiths and locksmiths.

And other evidence stands in the town — its main synagogue. Already

on my first trip, I had been surprised to see the wooden, two-storied building,

still in one piece. I was told that in all of Lithuania, only about 15 such

structures remain standing today.

In the intervening years, the building had been used as a workshop, a

garage, and a storehouse. It is now standing empty and neglected. The stylistic

trim on the edge of its roof, the remnants of the latticed partition in the

 

women’s section, left no doubt about the structure’s past, although I could

find no traces of a mezuzah in its doorways.

I went back and circled the building with wonder and excitement. Here

my grandfather — according to my aunt — would emerge at times and, in a

good-humored way, shush the children playing outside during the hours

of prayer.

During my second visit to the place, four years later, the building had

already fallen. Its second story and roof had collapsed, and there is no one to

repair or preserve it.

* * *

In Zˇezˇmer the archivist produced for me documents and a picture of my aunt

and uncle.The photographs are wonderful in their crispness—mounted in glass

panes that were discovered only in recent years in the ruins of an abandoned

house, apparently that of the local Jewish photographer. In the pictures, Aunt

Libeh and her husband Shmuel Sidrer, both of them teachers, in their classrooms.

She is in the girls’ classroom, he in the boys’. Beautiful children, tender, bright faced

Avremeles and Shloimeles, good, beaming souls. Together with the photographs

is an annual report from the district supervisor about the school in the

year 1939. There were four classes in the elementary school, “Yavneh.” The staff

were the principalMoshe Sheifer and two teachers—my uncle and aunt. In all,

138 pupils. Lessons were in Hebrew, according to my father’s books —“Dawn”

and “My ABC Book.” The supervisor’s summary: positive.

Two years later, most will be led to the nearby forest. I wish I could cry

to them, “Escape while you can!” The men and youths were led to one place,

and the women and girls to a different woods (among them Rivkah and

Zionah, my aunt’s daughters). And buried half-alive.

O land of forests, rivers, and lakes

One of the survivors of the village who was identified in the pictures tells

me how, on the third day of the war, a relative came from another town with a

truck and took them with him to escape to the east. At first, the rabbi came too,

but immediately decided against it. He must stay with his congregation, he

said. So he got down off the truck. To his doom.

Siad, Mazˇeik, Vidukle, Nemokšt, Zˇezˇmer, Marijampole, Kozˇi, Ponar,

and the forts of Kovno — they are now among my possessions, places deeply

rooted in my world; I brought them home with me.

D. On the Green Hill

The gray willows of my longing—

Whose real location on earth I never did find out

(The Demon,Marina Tsvetaeva)

Until I finally paid a visit to my city, I didn’t know what I was looking for.

I knew I wanted once more to see our house, the last one before the ghetto, as

well as my two hiding places, in the city and village.

It became clear to me, with

ever sharpening focus, that the Green

Hill was still a special place of great

significance for me. Here was my first

path of escape. Here began the one

hundred ten days of my rescue. My

mother had ascended its green slopes,

under cover of darkness, from the

Pilz-Fabrik brigade where she

worked, to visit her two children,

each in their own hiding place.

In all, half a square kilometer.

The Green Hill is that part of the country that falls from the plain to

where the rivers meet; alongside it stretches most of the city. To the

inhabitants of the ghetto, that slope rising on the other side of the river did

indeed look like a kind of hill. Along the line of its ridge, sharp roof edges

peeped through the trees, hinting at a world that we could no longer reach.

Some days before my escape, I had already known that in one of those houses

my hiding place was waiting, and there I went after I crossed the river.

I was confident that I shall be able to identify the house of my old

Lithuanian woman, since I could see in May the ghetto’s buildings from its

attic, when I was allowed to climb up to catch a little sunshine. In this way

I could even see another stretch of the river and follow my mother's boat

brigade as it returned at day’s end to the ghetto.

In addition I had in my memory the sight of the deep gully cut

through the hill alongside the old woman’s house; I had walked up it to reach

During my first trip, I came to the place from the city itself. From the

perspective of ghetto dwellers, it was as if I arrived from behind the scenes. In

one of these streets my parents had once lived as a young couple, and here, if

I were to invest some time in exploration and inquiries, I could reconstruct,

using the photographs that I have, exactly where my grandmother could be

seen in the window, or where I had been photographed at ten months at my

mother’s side, on the verandah through which could be seen buildings, most

of them still standing now, after sixty or seventy years.

But I was in a hurry. Here we were at “Workers Street,” which later

becomes “Little Workers Street,” and at its end, standing apart a good distance

from the houses in front of it, house number 59a was supposed to be standing.

Though the street had changed its name, we came easily enough upon

house number 59, and my suspense grew. But here began an impenetrable

mystery. New houses were interspersed among the old in an unbroken stretch

— the numbering starting anew, in a street with a different name stretching

to the top of the slope. Was it naēve on my part to expect that 59a would

appear right after number 59? But now, where is the house that hid me; where

is Maria’s house?

Onto the memory of this house converge my distress and my desire.

Here traces would be preserved, perhaps, that I could find in no other place.

This is the house which, for several months, took into its walls my feelings of

anxiety and loneliness, the constant fear, the endless longing for my home

and my family, for the ghetto. The walls of this house shut up the memory of

my mother’s last footsteps during the only visit she paid me, a visit that lasted

one full day of apparent tranquility, a full day that I could not know would

also be our last.

I wandered dizzily about, trying the residents. No one remembered

where LittleWorkers Street was.

While I was still looking for a landmark, a point from which I could

see the opposite river bank, now full of new neighborhoods, when suddenly a

dark haired woman darted out of the gully, somewhere beside the river, from

Jonavos Street where a number of factories stand. She was returning from

work, taking a shortcut.

At once I understood — here was the end of the path I had ascended

after crossing the river. At which point here did I leave the path, turn right,

and take a steep path to the yard of my old lady?

 

In that gully there is now a stream of automobiles on a highway that

crosses the river at about the place I had crossed it by boat. It even continues

across the ground of the former ghetto.

And more. I saw that the same path coming out of the gully ended in a

small open place, and I realized—here, in this forgotten corner, nearly hidden

from its viewers, in this empty, partly secluded place, the old Lithuanian

grandmother had taken my sister on a walk of sorts, instead of taking walks as

one would with normal children in parks and gardens.

The tense body language of this seven-year-old child, who looked

restlessly behind her from time to time, was what persuaded me that it was

my sister, not just any girl. Thus I had seen her, from a distance, by leaning far

out of the opening in the attic. One time and one time only.

On the second day of my search, I found a house that seemed to me to

be standing where Maria’s house had stood. From its roof one could see the

ghetto out front, and, toward the back, looking down, one could make out

the opening of the end of the path from the gully. The generous current

occupants of the modern duplex could say little about the new house’s

history except that its owner had been a famous sculptor. And who owned

the lot before him? Had the house that held my hiding place stood here?

There was no one to ask.

Nearby, a few houses away from mine, was the house that hid my sister.

Her presence there was not so invisible after all. My host, Maria, and the

blonde woman on the other side of the wall who shared our secret, had both

been able to tell me that they had seen her walking with the grandmother,

and both of them knew the house where she lived. After liberation, they told

me about my sister’s disappearance and the rumors in the street. Two or

three times during my hiding period I had gone out, under cover of night,

stealing under the shadows of trees, approaching what I thought to be my

sister’s house, to look at it from a certain distance.

I wish the house’s appearance were better fixed in my memory, for in

fact I never saw the house itself, but rather its presumed direction. There

remains in my memory no concrete trace of activity, of voices, or lights in

windows, that could help me make the connection, then and now, between a

certain house and the one where she stayed.

When I returned to that street after liberation, I never dared to approach

that house, to knock at its door and to ask direct, pointed questions.

Now I was walking to the presumed place where my sister had been,

following my dim memory. Once more I stood across from it, examining the

houses across the street, but they were silent. We asked the oldest neighbors

in that row of houses, but they knew nothing. They had passed their youth in

Siberia, and they did not know their neighbors in the first years after the war.

And so, here too remained a question, as before.

* * *

On my second trip, waiting for me on the city-archivist’s desk were a number

of documents, each one exciting. One file was a list of voters from Workers

Street in 1940; another, reports of municipal supervisors during the world

war period; the third, a file on the Pilz-Fabrik Company, the felt-boot factory

where my mother worked.

The 1940 Soviet voters list, region of Little Workers Street, a year

before the Germans arrived. The Green Hill neighborhood belonged to

simple people, and Jews had always lived there. Their names fill these lists

— within a year or two most of these names would vanish without so much

as a gravestone.

Here my father had lived as a bachelor; here I had passed the first years

of my life. It was only when I was about five that we moved down to the more

modern city. In the voters list I quite easily found the name of my old woman

from LittleWorkers Street, but then I came across two other occupants of the

same house, the Orentas couple — an exciting discovery. Perhaps I had

finally found the name of the blonde lady, the key to the whole operation of

my rescue — it was she who worked with my mother in the factory, she who

persuaded her elderly neighbor to conceal a Jewish child. During all these

years I had tried to discover traces, or to find some indication as to her name,

which I didn’t remember — but in vain. Now I had a definite clue. Or did I?

How could I be sure the registered tenants of 1940 were the same as those in

1944? The puzzle remains a puzzle.

This seemed to put an end to my searches, yet I didn’t want to be done

with the lists. With hesitation, with some aversion, I went to the lists to find

the full name of the woman — the one who — perhaps it was her husband

— had turned my little sister in.

Was it not better that they sink into shameful oblivion? But I had

practical reasons for discovering their full names — I wanted to know

exactly where my sister stayed hidden during the last half year of her life,

and how close I had come to the house during my clandestine nightly forays.

I took a deep breath and once more combed through the list of voters,

looking for the woman’s first name, the only one I knew. But I found

nothing there about Martha.

As for my old woman, the municipal records verify it. Grincevicˇiene is

registered in Little Workers Street, as I remembered. But her name, it appeared,

was Julia, not Maria — so says a form from the municipal tax inspector of 17th

September 1942. The description of

her apartment matches exactly what

I recall: “wooden house, property of

80 m2 [square meters], one living

room of 24 m2. Heated by stove.” At

the bottom of the document she

testifies by signing that the details she

has given are true. Her handwriting is

shaky — an old woman who knows

only how to sign her name.

A child’s imagination. I had remembered her as an old woman. On a

form from 1940 in the blank for her date of birth, is written: 49 years old (it

would appear she did not know her exact date of birth). Which means that

when I met her in 1944, she was only 53.

And the house was gone. How could it be? Rima came to interview

people, and found an old man who also worked in the Pilz-Fabrik. At the

top of the slope he pointed down in a certain direction and said, “That’s the

factory’s roof.” And as for Maria’s house, he said it was demolished because

it was in danger of collapsing at the edge of the gully. While I was still

urging Rima to return and ask the man more questions, the man died. A

narrow opening closed once more; once more there is no one to ask, and no

one knows.

* * *

A surprising and precise document awaited me in the municipal archives —

a professional labor force roster from the felt-boot factory, dated the end of

August 1941, that is to say, only seventy days after Germans had taken over the

city. At the top of the form, in German and Lithuanian:

Ostland B Faser Geselschaft m.b.h.

Aussenstelle Kauen

Valstybinio Veltinis fabriko “Zˇvaigzˇde”

Kaunas, Jonavos gtve 74, tel 26806

With a single stroke, an unknowable mystery became a concrete reality

in the form of an address, ownership, and organization.

Under cover of the Pilz-Fabrik brigade, at the end of the exterminating

Kinder Aktion against children, I left the ghetto one chilly dawn. Only by

virtue of the special circumstances in this place, where women from the area

worked without partition with people from the ghetto, could one smuggle

and make deals, not only in matters of barter and commerce, but also in

matters of salvation.

Here my mother arranged hiding places for my sister and me; from

here the blonde lady brought me mother’s letters; and from here Peˇckyte set

out to her distant birthplace, to find me another hiding site. In this place,

between these walls, while their hands were kneading boot felt for the

Germans, my mother and two Lithuanian women wove the first fibers in the

rope of my rescue, which led me back to life.

Jonavos Street, which runs along the riverbank across from the ghetto,

leads to the townlet with the Jewish name Janeve. Here is where my mother‘s

brigade turned every morning. I remember precisely that, after they crossed

the river in the boat, its people were to turn right in that street, to the west. I

hadn’t known how close their destination was to my hiding place.

Together with Rima, we hurried to the place.

Jonavos 74. On one side of the street lay the river. On the other side of

the street stood a row of industrial and commercial buildings, bordering the

slopes of the Green Hill. At the end of a row of factories, we discerned a

compound, enclosed by a low wall, with a gate at the entrance, and a

one-story building with several wings. A shack to the left of the gate

doubtless housed the guards. How many German soldiers had stood sentry at

this place? Had the German firm paid the army for them?

The compound is now divided into a row of offices and small separate

workshops. In a nicely restored and painted office we find a secretary and a

manager. Neither knows a thing about the place’s past. They look at us in

silence and with a certain reserved wonder, a complex look that I encountered

in many places in this country. They seem not to understand, these

Lithuanians, the meaning of the bold investigations of Jewish tourists in

these places.

Cautiously I leave our group, circling slowly once and once again the

surrounding area.

Where did she work here? Where could she move around a bit and

pass from one point to another? Somewhere here, traces of my mother are

preserved. Since it was Sunday, the offices are closed, and there is no access to

the space inside. There, perhaps, might be an address, some graffiti perhaps,

that testifies to the former presence of the Jews.

At the beginning of July, 1944, at the end of her final week of work here,

they announced to the last remnants of the ghetto that they would be transported

westward during the next few days.

The forced evacuation of those who

obeyed the order took four days, and

on the fifth, they began to blow up

and burn all those who were in hiding

and who hoped to avoid evacuation,

my mother apparently among them.

Perhaps somewhere in the

compound I will feel my pulse quicken, just as my friend Aliza felt across from

a certain house in a distant resort town. Just as perhaps I felt near the fence of

the Catholic cemetery next to the ghetto: there my mother may have been shot

when she tried to escape from the fire on the last night of the evacuation.

I was in the city for a year and a half after the war, and it never once

occurred to me to look for this factory. How could I now leave the place? I

went back and circled it, unable to let go.

I turned to the back of the building. I had to find my way among huge

piles of old worn-out tires, looking to me like mythological creatures

guarding the door to a great secret.

I clambered past the tires until I got behind the building, to a gap

between it and the hill close behind it. Was there some passage here, a hidden

opening of some kind that would allow captives to steal out to the Green

Hill? The wall abuts a slippery incline here, the beginning of the steep slope,

leaving only a narrow space beside the building. Passage is impossible.

If it were possible, I would wander about here constantly, round and

round. How many of my friends have found similarly clear traces of their lost

parents’ work places in the barracks at Auschwitz or in the trenches of

Dachau and Stutthof? She spent no less time here than she had with me in

the ghetto, in the half-room that had been our home.

I shall sit upon a stone here and wait. Perhaps she will yet return; in

the end, she will surely come back.

* * *

Some weeks later, when I had returned to my home, I mustered courage and

turned to the wizards of the Internet. “Ostland-Faser Geselschaft”— what

would land in my net?

Windows and gates emerged, each of them containing clues verifying

that such a firm once existed. To flesh out the information, I went to the

archives at Yad Vashem. An entire vista stretched before my eyes.

I now know that a month after the invasion into Russia began, on the

initiative of the German Minister of Economics, a corporation was formed

to manage light industry (wood, paper, textiles, clothing, and so on)

throughout Ostland (the occupied territories east of Poland — the Baltic

countries, Belorussia, and the Ukraine). Corporate headquarters were in

Riga, with branches in Reval in Estonia and Kaunas in Lithuania. In one of

the tiny cages of this economic whale fluttered my mother’s brigade.

The corporation’s annual reports list the number of workers, broken

out by nationality. On the last row of this table are listed, separately, the Jews.

So many in 1939, but 1943 is marked by a hyphen. That is to say, their number

was not important.

And in the production tables, in 1942 the corporation supplied 190,000

pairs of felt boots to the German army, theWehrmacht.

How many of them had been shaped by the bare hands of my mother

and her colleagues?

After the factory had been identified and located, I still wondered —

how had Mother slipped out from the place and ascended the hill? A look at a

map of the city revealed only a single alley rising from Jonavos Street to the

top of the hill. It nearly adjoined the felt factory from the east.

At the end of the workday, my mother had two choices. The first was

to wait until the brigade returned to where the boats were anchored, taking

advantage of the commotion of crossing to leave the ranks and go up the

path I had climbed to make my flight. The second was, immediately after the

brigade left the factory gates, to dart to the right into the steep and winding

Kapsiu Lane. I had to walk it myself.

* * *

Kapsiu Lane. Tense, full of hidden anxiety, I turned into the lane with my

companion, Ari. His mother, too, had been saved by concealment in this country.

The first part of the steep ascent was paved. It would have seemed

fitting had I crawled it on my knees—here my mother's feet had trod.

It was Sunday. The few residents at the start of the lane sat on their

porches in the garden and sipped drinks, sending suspicious, quizzical

glances at the two of us.

Then came the first sharp curve. At the turn, girls were playing with a

ball; they too cast wondering looks at the two strangers, while the inexplicable

tension in me grew. Tall green trees hugged the path on both sides, like those

that met me back then, when I climbed the hill on the day I escaped. The

dimness they created must have been good for the figure slipping out of the

factory, after she had removed the yellow patches and buried her face as deep

as possible in clothing so that her long nose, and the sight of her suffering

face, would not deliver her to destruction.

The climb was tiring, but in this stretch there are no houses or people,

allowing one to proceed without fear of prying eyes. Then came the top of

the hill, where streets are straight and wide, with sidewalks, landscaped trees,

windows that face the street from both sides, people coming and going,

dogs barking, children lingering before going home. I too found these

streets unsettling. It seemed as if we were being watched from all sides,

with suspicion.

So how did she pass here? How did she overcome the immense fear of

exposure, identification, entrapment? They would point to her and shout,

Šita Zˇyde, it’s a Jewess! Quick, run her down, catch her!”

How many obstacles Mother must have passed before she reached

Martha’s house. And after staying there for the night, she had to retrace the

long route back. How had she done it? I am somewhat consoled that her

visits began in January, during the bitter winter months, when hours of light

are few and faces are buried in their coats. But there were also visits in the

warm months of April, May, and perhaps even June, months when darkness

is late to fall. How many such visits did she make after April 20th, the date of

her visit to me, I cannot know. Martha had asked Mother to limit her visits,

which left her daughter restless and capricious for several days afterwards.

And the thought comes to me suddenly, if they had invited the

Gestapo to take my sister, what would prevent them from doing it on a day

my mother was to visit? But it is likely that it was only during the last days of

the war that their resolve weakened, when Mother had stopped visiting.

And for us, how long did the entire climb take us? About  minutes.

Forty-five minutes, and forever.

Closing

At the end of my two journeys, having seen nearly all I wanted to see, I think

I have had enough.

I count the possessions that are left to me: a roofless building in the old

quarter, a pile of rubble in back country with shoots of a pear tree sprouting

from it, a factory that holds traces of my mother, a stone path that climbs the

Green Hill and guards her footsteps, a little open place where the image of

my sister is etched, and a patchwork of mass graves in groves saturated

with blood.

After my voyages, my possessions increased. They include the towns of

my forebears, who sit now on both sides of me as in a family portrait. I may

not have found an actual home where I belong, but at the least I have located

my longing for it. A person needs an identity, a place to start. My restless

longings have found a place in the universe.

Jack, an American who joined our second journey, dreams of buying

the old house in Slobodka, where, according to documents, his parents lived

as a young couple, before they had the urgent need to rescue their young

baby. In that spirit, I must buy up half of the Green Hill.

Perhaps for both of us, our searches are variations on the theme of

Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying — we drag with us our mothers’ corpses, refusing

to part with them.

Time passed. Aliza and I were sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, talking again

about our visits in Lithuania and events of the past.

“Aliza,” I ask, “Will we ever leave the 22nd of June 1941? Will we ever

stop hoping that we’ll still wake up again on that summer day and go to

summer camp as planned?”

Even sixty-five years later, the question is still open

And I also ask myself, still, endlessly, how is it that from that crowded

press, from the piles of thousands of corpses, the rows of mass graves and

mounds of ashes— how is it that I, a random sliver like me— how was only

I pushed out to remain alive?

That question, too, remains unanswered.

But Lot's wife looked back

How hard it is, hard to look behind, and not turn to stone.

Shalom Eilati (Kaplan) was born in Kovno, Lithuania, in 1933, the son of Israel Kaplan,

writer and historian, and Leah (nee Greenstein), nurse and poetess. He survived the ghetto

(as did his father), and reached Palestine in 1946. He was a member of Kibbutz Tel-Yosef,

earned a Ph.D. in citriculture, and became a lecturer in the Faculty of Agriculture at the

Hebrew University in Rehovot. Later he was among the founders of Israel's Environmental

Protection Service, and the coordinating editor of Cathedra, a quarterly on the history and

settlement of Israel. He is married with three children and five grandchildren, and lives in

Jerusalem. His memoirs of his childhood in the Holocaust, Lachatzot et Ha-Nahar (Crossing

the River) were published in Hebrew in 1999 and are forthcoming from Alabama University

Press in 2008.