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Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:00

Footnotes in Yiddish

By  Lara Koseff
          Footnote 5

In Lithuanian cities, old timber houses sit between grey Soviet architecture and international style office blocks. Heritage laws protect these timber houses; they cannot be destroyed, but some of them are converted into take-away pizza joints and hairdressers. This is a place where you are continually slipping in and out of history; continually being reminded of something only for its meaning to crawl away and hide under something else. Illumination sometimes grabs you and then flits away too cunningly for you to grasp it, too swiftly for the tear forming in the corner of your eye to fall down your face.

It was the afternoon of the first day we had set out, my father, our guide Yulick (a Lithuanian Jew), and me. We stood on a muddy street in Rokiskis in the rain, and I noticed a street cleaner look aggressively in our direction after I thoughtlessly took a photograph of her. Maybe it was the contrast between her bright orange overall and the sour look on her face that made me think that something was amiss. People shuffled past me, neither smiling nor talking to each other. I stood still and listened to Yulick describe what had happened to 70% of this small town's population over 60 years ago. I then realised that this street cleaner's acidic stare was replicated in many of the older faces that passed our way. I finally asked Yulick "Why are they looking at us like that?" I was slightly taken aback when he answered, "because they know you are Jewish, many Jews come here, taking photographs… they think you have come to claim back your ancestors homes, they think you are collecting evidence". I stood there, in the rain, slightly dazed at what my trip, initially planned to explore some of my heritage, had shockingly become. I recognised why some of my relatives refuse to go to Lithuania, where two of my grandparents were born, and where scores of relatives were ultimately from.   Footnote 3

While many people refuse to go, thousands of Jews in the past few years have been flocking to tour Eastern Europe – the place where their relatives either painstakingly escaped or were killed en masse – to discover something more than what they have read in books and seen in pictures. Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated, which was consequentially made into a movie, has also, in a sense, contributed to this drive.  Foer's protagonist is named after him and travels from the United States to the Ukraine to find a woman who might have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is led through the Ukraine by an unlikely trio: a blind old man disturbed by memories of the war, the old man's "seeing-eye bitch" dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and his grandson Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who butchers the English language in a way that becomes both charming and entertaining. There was something overwhelmingly compelling in Foer's description of this quixotic journey that convinced me that I had to make my own way to Lithuania.

And I did. I quit my job. I drew my savings. I engaged in some heathen gymnastics with friends in London and Prague. I took an overnight train from Prague to Lithuania via Poland. I shivered out of fright and association with being on a locomotive with only a rough idea of where I would land up. I watched foreign telephone lines flow rhythmically past my train window. I listened to Tom Waits and Anthony and the Johnsons. I was stripped of all my money and some of my belongings by rogue wanderers on the Polish/Czech border. I got stranded in Warsaw with a non-refundable train ticket, having missed the only connection to Vilnius, Lithuania (where I was meant to be meeting my father), surrounded by more grey Soviet architecture and sad outlandish faces. Waiting in the rain for a bus to the airport (the rogue wanderers were nice thieves, they left me with my passport and debit card) I saw a stray dog run down the stairs into the train station. For some reason, I said to a Polish journalist who had I met on the train and was helping me find my way to the airport, "I wonder who he belongs to". "Probably no one", he said and gave me a puzzled look. I realised I was in too tenuous a state to deal with the concept of a dog with no home. This did not bode well. I needed all the strength I had for what I was about to experience.

I was initially disappointed to discover that our guide, Yulick, was neither a young, slightly affected Ukrainian who made comments like "if you have a good and meaningful dream you are oblongated to search for it" nor had an entourage of a mad dog and blind old man. Yulick cannot be caricaturised; he is a serious man. He speaks seven languages. He has been revisiting the same painful places and has been retelling the same heartbreaking stories for decades. There is a devastating yet controlled sadness in his eyes that reveals that what he does everyday hurts but he does it regardless.

Yulick ensured that my father and I saw everything we had come to see and a great deal more. We went to the Vilnius archives and found my grandparent's birth records, discovering that my grandmother was born on a date completely different to what she had believed her entire life (a cold but highly intelligent Russian woman named Galina helped us discover this. My father suggested that we buy her lunch the next day in thanks. Her response to this was "tomorrow? I won't be hungry"). We visited the bizarre places where my grandparents were born. We met the only Jew in Plunge, an 84 year old sculptor named Jacob who had collected anything to do with the Jewish community that had once lived in this small Lithuanian town (he became my Augustine from Everything is Illuminated). I soon realised there was a formula to Yulick's direction. He first showed us how Jews in Lithuania lived, how they escaped if they were lucky enough, and finally how most of them died in some of the cruelest ways imaginable. Footnote 4

In Lithuania, much like other parts of Europe, small towns are nestled into dense forests. Leading up to every town we stopped at, we would drive through and past these forests, half asleep, as if they were any other sizeable area covered for the most part with trees and undergrowth. I suppose we weren't reading the footnotes. Maybe that's because they were in Yiddish.

What we would eventually learn was that hundreds of thousands of Jews – men, women and children alike – were shot to death in those forests. They were marched out of their homes and told by Lithuanian collaborators to dig their own graves, then shot. I have been told these stories since I was a child, I have met holocaust survivors, I have looked at photographs of family members who died in, or escaped concentration camps. I have listened to the stories of a relative who was born in Kaunas ghetto and was put in a potato sack and sent to a Christian family who adopted her. I've held my breath as she described how her father, emaciated, survived Auschwitz (her mother and sister died there) and found the family who adopted her. I've nervously touched my face as she explained how her own father kidnapped her (a promise was made that they would never come to reclaim her), with the help of Russian soldiers, and took his angry and confused child on boat to South Africa. I've felt my heart sink as I've listened to relative strangers inform me that Hitler was onto a good thing because the Jews were hoarding all of Germany's money. I've felt nausea rise inside of me when a friend described how a co-worker of hers claimed that Steven Spielberg invented the Holocaust.  

All of this washed away, however, when I stood in front of the first mass burial site I had ever seen.

In Plunge, where my grandmother was born, Jacob came with us to its mass burial site. He has created wooden sculptures that accompany each mass grave and has managed, somehow, to shape a beautiful atmosphere in an impenetrably dark place. One sculpture depicts a woman covering her face with her hands. Yulick explained. A group of 40 young women were brought to this spot. Nazi officers told them that if they convert to Christianity their lives would be spared. They agreed. A priest baptized them on that very spot and immediately afterwards these young women were shot to death anyway. A Nazi officer proclaimed, "there will now be 40 less Jews in heaven". The priest who baptized them subsequently lost his mind.   

Hearing stories like this, visiting four mass burial sites (at one of these sites over 9000 people were killed in one day, over 4000 of whom were children), transported me elsewhere. I was in an elevator, with dark brown walls, hovering between two floors, not settling on one or the other. I couldn't settle on anything. I kept thinking, "How will this ever be resolved, when will the mourning ever end?" I still wake-up at night, terrified, crying. I once met a human rights law graduate who believes the world's entire Jewish population is still suffering from post-traumatic shock. If I didn't believe it then, I certainly believe it now.

Both of my mother's parents were born in Lithuania and yet she will not go. Lithuania is many things, just as the Jewish people are. But the facts that each city and village is accompanied by its own mass burial site and the surronding countryside houses the remains of concentration and death camps, make it a terrifying place to visit. Lithuanians obviously do not want these sites to define their country, just like South Africans do not want their country to be defined by its townships and apartheid architecture. But in Lithuania, unlike South Africa, the associations are sometimes lost. There are few signs pointing to mass burial sites, you'll only find them with a guide. These places are memorialised with plaques in Yiddish, Lithuanian and sometimes Russian, if you speak anything else they will need to be translated. They are like footnotes in an uncommon language: Yiddish. Footnote 1

And, if we do travel far enough to make our way down the eerie dirt roads that lead to these places, do we learn anything when we get there? In his controversial publication The Holocaust and Collective Memory, Peter Novick comments on the means with which the Holocaust is remembered, specifically in American society, and how these means are often detrimental. Novick claims that "if there are, in fact, lessons to be drawn from history, the Holocaust would seem an unlikely source, not because of its alleged uniqueness, but because of its extremity". Andreas Huyssen, however, offers an interesting spin to Novick's argument in that he suggests it is impossible to represent the Holocaust in its entirety; therefore the lessons learnt may come from particular aspects in specified contexts. And whether lessons can and can't be learnt, they should. They should because some of these stories of extremity are believed to be fiction, embellishments, lies, tools for political and social manipulation. Yes, people like David Irving have been quashed and holocaust denial is a crime in many countries including Lithuania. But it still exists in ways that many never thought were possible.

There is always the risk of stories getting lost, never being told again, not being believed. But if I gained anything from visiting Lithuania, it was that enough people care about telling the truth to ensure that it will never entirely disappear. On our last day in Lithuania, Yulick's son Daniel took us on a tour of Vilnius. On a walk around the city, in the rain, we bumped into Yulick. He was taking over 30 local non-Jewish Lithuanians on a Jewish tour of the city in which they were born. Now, when I'm in that dark brown elevator, hovering, I think of Yulick and those 30-odd people - and door finally opens.
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