Personal Memoir of a Trip to Kupishok, Lithuania

by Kenneth Sachar


We davened Shachrit (morning prayer) in the shul (synagogue) where my father and his father and their family davened.  Jews have not davened in that shul since June 1941 when the Jews of the town were murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators. (davening is praying)

Lithuania has the distinction of having one of the lowest proportion of Jews surviving the Holocaust of any European country, of a population of 240,000 Jews 2%,  partly because of the enthusiastic way in which the local population assisted the Germans in there tasks, a willingness which surprise the Germans. The Lithuanians did not wait for the arrival of the Germans but proceeded to torture and murder Jews as soon as the Soviets had left (Masha Greenbaum, The Jews of Lithuania).

I was part of a group of about 50 who went to Kupishok to dedicate a wall of memory, a plaque containing the names of all the Jews from the town who were killed in the Holocaust.  The memorial wall is erected in the vestibule of what use to be one of the shuls and is now the town library, a Beit Midrash for the Goyim. (study hall)

The project was conceived and organised by the Meyer (Meyerowitz ) family who had emigrated to Port Elizabeth, South Africa and now reside in Israel and  the U.S. They had been prompted to make this memorial when in 1997 as a family group they had visited the town where they had lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  On that visit they were given a list that had been found in the archives of those from the town who had been killed.  They were moved to make a permanent memorial and having the list of names, arrived at the idea of a memorial plaque. As Alec, one of the Meyer brothers put it, you travel from one mass grave site to another and there are numbers, often horrifically large numbers, of those killed in the tens of thousands but there are no names. Here they had the names.

The list on the wall comprises the names of the people and their ages at death as far as can be ascertained.  It is not in alphabetical order and it is thought  that the survivors went down each street in their minds and thought about who had lived in each house, thinking “ Oh it was that family and these were names of the parents and the children and next door to them lived this family and these were names of the parents, grand parents and children”. So you have small family groupings of a few people with the same surname but with different endings as is the local custom for men and women married and unmarried and children. (the Lithuanian language has different endings depending on the sex and marital state of the person)

For me the trip started, I suppose, when I was growing up in Cape Town and heard the occasional rare anecdote about life in the shtetl, Kupishok.  My father and his parents and two siblings left the town before the war (World War II) for South Africa and another elder sibling stayed behind as an idealistic Bolshevik.  He was killed in the Stalin purges of the late 1930’s.  After Glasnost I heard of others travelling to Lithuania to ‘find their roots’ but the logistics seemed daunting. When I heard of this project I immediately signed up, together with my daughter Cassy who jumped at the chance to go, not only because it was an organised trip but to mourn with the others for the lost Jews and to mark their memory so that they are not forgotten.  But it was  also to make a statement, to remind the Lithuanian citizens of Kupiskis, as the town is now known, about what had happened in their town and what some of them had done.

We flew Lithuanian Airlines and saw an attractive green country with forest and lakes.  The tourist guide to Vilnius, Vilna as it was - the ‘Jerusalem of Lita’ with over 100 shuls and four hundred men who knew the Talmud by heart and the home of the Vilna Gaon -  was an interesting introduction to the visit, after having just finished reading Masha Greenbaum’s book the Jews of Lithuania, the last chapter of which is an account of the destruction of the community in the holocaust. The guide is made available in the seat pockets on the aircraft. On the very first page of text it mentions that Lithuania was among countries that “contributed to the annihilation of the Jews but goes on to talk about the saving of Jews by gentiles. Under “Places of Interest” the first subject is “Jews and Lithuania” and the first article question the veracity of a story about the basketball champion team being involved in an atrocity. It then tells of Vilna and the Jews of Lithuania and then has accounts of Jews saved by gentiles . Of the entire pre war population of about 240,000 only a few thousand Jews remained alive after the war, mostly camp survivors or partisans, and some who left the country at the outbreak of the war.  Many Jews reached Lithuania as refugees as war broke out only to be killed there and in addition the Germans transported Jews to the country to be killed.

We spent the first three nights in Vilna. The first evening was Shabbat and we davened Kabalat Shabbat and Maariv (Jewish prayers) in the hotel. The leader of the group, Norman Meyer had brought a great friend of his, Samy Ymar, a Sephardi Jew from Morocco via Israel, observant and knowledgeable, along with him to act as the chazzan for the journey.  He lead the service but he davened with a Nusach Sephardi  (style of prayer)which was unfortunate as most of the people in the group having grown up in South Arica would have been familiar with the South African Nusach and it would have been appropriate as it most probably had its origins in Lithuania.  Samy was a source of strength always leading the Kaddish and songs that we sang at various times and places. Challah covers had been sent as gifts from all over the world by Kupishokers who did not make the trip and these were used on Friday night to cover the challot which had been brought from Jerusalem. They were later given to the Jewish community in Panevezys.

After Shabbat supper there were words of welcome, songs, some Israeli dancing, and some stories. As on other evenings after supper we would gather as a group and people would talk about why they had come on the trip.  Mostly were former South Africans now living in the abroad, in the U.S. and Israel.  These included from England a member of our shul Dina Serra and her daughter Mia and 8 year old granddaughter, who gave us so much by being part of our party as one of a new generation who would continue; and Cassy and me; a family came from Australia; and some Israelis; and some Americans.  One South African couple who still live in Cape Town came, my first cousin Ronnie Fendel and his wife Michelle.  We shared what had made us come, telling of growing up hearing stories about Kupishok such that it was almost a mythical place, and of the relatives who had been killed during the war.  Many tears were shed by both the tellers and the listeners.

We were privileged to have with us some who had been born in the village but who had escaped the holocaust. Gary Bodas whose mother had decided on the day war broke out to leave the town and escaped with her children through a series of adventures that now seem miraculous, of being taken off trains by Germans and Russians and then allowed back on.  He returned to Vilna after the war and worked there as a taxi driver until he went to the U.S. in the 1950s.  His wife was a partisan living in the forests for five years.  On that first evening she sang Shir Hapartizanim (a song of the partisans) for us with a vigour and proud energy that moved us deeply.

Another who was born in the town was Tova Dranov the cousin of shul member Beverley Friedgood who got out with her sister on a student visa through the Berlin to join her father in the then Palestine but whose mother was trapped and killed in Kupishok. She read out a heartbreaking postcard from her mother, the last she received and told moving tales of her childhood.

The following morning, Shabbat, some of us went to the Chabad house to daven. There used to be over 100 shuls in Vilna there is one left and it closed, locked, so that not only could we not have a Shabbat morning service there but we could not even see inside it. Why? Because the Lubavitch Rabbi who ran the shul had some major disagreement (there was talk of coming to blows in the shul) with the American organisation that funded the shul.  Plus ca change…

In the afternoon we went on a walking tour of the centre of Vilna, including the Jewish areas some of which are hundreds of years old. This included place where the Vilna Gaon (famous rabbi) lived, taught and died and were told of the rich Jewish history of the town and saw the street and even some buildings which formed the location of the rich Jewish life and heritage which was destroyed.

We walked through what was the ghetto during the war and saw some of the surviving buildings in the ghetto, some still with Yiddish signs still visible proclaiming the business name.

The next day we were taken to the Jewish museum of Vilna which recounts the history of the Jews of Lithuania and also of the illustrious Jews of Lithuania, such as the artist Chaim Soutine, the founder of Esperanto, politicians such as Zalman Shazar and others who have streets of Tel Aviv named for them like Gordon and Mapu. But it also tells of the destruction of the Jews of Lithuania and Vilna in particular. But also of the rich cultural life of the ghetto before it was liquidated and the resistance, heroism and self sacrifice. A postcard sent by from a sister, received some how via the Red Cross by her brother  in South Africa saying that the Germans and Lithuanians were killing all the Jews and that she was going to be killed but that he should look after himself and his family, and take revenge. Also a note found in clothing, Yehudim Nekoma or (Nekamah in Hebrew) Jews revenge,

And the features of the Shoah that we unfortunately know so well, Jews crowded into inhuman conditions into the ghetto, selections, transports, liquidations, torture and murder; but also heroism, supreme courage, self sacrifice of many kinds such as the doctors who would have been welcomed by the partisan but who stayed to treat their patients and were killed. And descriptions of an active and lively culture of music art and theatre, a well used library and cultural events classes, and of education for adults as well as children. The highest reaches of the human spirit in the face of severe deprivation. Until of course the final destruction and killing. Also photographs of the early mass killings at the nearby Ponar forest which we visited later in the day.

From there we went to the Vilna Jewish cemetery with the burial shrine of the Vilna Gaon which is revered by some as holy place and the graves of relatives of some in our party. Some of the gravestones have pictures of the deceased etched onto the stone.

It was overcast as we headed for Ponar forest where 70,000 Jews were killed by the murdering Nazis and their local collaborators. Stripped of their clothes and possessions, shot into pits, some by the Eisatzgruppen and some by the local Lithuanians supervised by the Germans, Jewish men and women, children, babies and the aged. (This was before the final solutions was industrialised first with gas trucks and then with gas chambers.) What can you say.  Overwhelmed by a painful sadness, one’s mind and heart cannot bear it.  We sang songs, we heard Shir Haparizanim sung again and we cried and said Kaddish and sang Hatikvah and cried.  The drizzle turned to rain as the guide described what happened and then told the story of a brave escape.  I tried to stop the images of the photos of the atrocity that we had seen in the morning at the museum as I looked at the pine trees of the forest and realised they were there when the atrocity happened and wondered how they could still be standing in the face of such horror perpetrated by men against other human beings; and I recalled the title of book written by a cousin of mine, “ And The Trees Stood Still” in which she recounts how she escaped before a roundup near Kupishok and survived the war. 

Afterwards, by way of relief we were taken to a Kara’ite tourist town called Trakai. It is very pretty with lakes and a castle, visited by Lithuanians and Russians.  We had a lunch of familiar food in a strange place- borscht, pirogen and herring.  There were stalls selling tourist gifts, mostly amber and linen and tourist tat, but I found it difficult being a tourist in a country of so much slaughter.  I remember walking in the streets of Vilnius and looking at the buildings, the architecture and thinking “that’s not what I am here for”.  I did not want to buy any Lithuanian souvenirs.  Others do not feel this way and say we must move on, after all Lithuania is now part of the EU.  They bought souvenirs, amber and linen and some, even tourist tat.

The only thing I brought back, apart from strong feelings, inspiration and memories, was a kilo of the most excellent taigelach (pastries) made, in the old way, by an elderly woman in Vilna. 

The following day we left Vilna and after stopping off at the house of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul who saved many Jews by giving them transit visas to Japan, we proceeded to one the historic forts that surround Kovno/Kaunus. It is another killing site and houses a museum of the holocaust in Kovno.  Again the sad rich ghetto life and the killing and another heroic escape. We said Kaddish and sang Hatikvah and lit candles, or rather tried in vain to in the wind, and we cried for the loss of thousands more Jews, killed because they were different, other, because they were Jews.  (Ninth Fort)

At this fort there is also a memorial to a group of about 800 French Jews who were sent to Lithuania to be killed there because the extermination camps could not cope with the numbers of Jews being  brought to be killed.  This only came to light a few years ago and Serge Klarsfeld and others came and dedicated a memorial to the French transport of 800 souls, giving the details of names, ages, and even addresses in France.

Lunch in Kovno/Kauus, more borscht (for some) but a more varied menu for others,  followed by Minchah (afternoon prayer) in the Kovno Shul and then onto Panevezys where the famous Yeshiva (now located in Bnei Brak) was originally housed in a large building, now used a bakery.  In Panevezys also we saw the building that housed the Hebrew medium Gymnasium school that my father attended and of which he writes so much in his diary, as well as the girls’ equivalent that his sister, my aunt Miriam Sachar Fendel, attended.

And so on the last day we made our way from Panevezys to Kupishok, the town that my father and grandparents, aunt and uncle had left before the war to go to South Africa.  They had got out, as many did, but we were going to mark a memorial for those who did not and who were killed there.

We stopped outside the town at the big sign of the town name for photographs and made our way in wonderment through the town streets where our forebears had walked, we recognised the street where my zeida had his shop, to the library.  Through the entrance of the library where a large Israeli flag covered the wall. It was all a bit tumuldik with lots of people milling about. We were over fifty and there were townspeople, the mayor and his entourage, other civic functionaries, the town archivist, photographers, presumably from the local press, had come, the head of the Jewish community in Lithuania, other people who had been born in the town and/or who had lost relatives whose names were now on the list and who live in Lithuania.

The civic authorities had cleared the part of the building which had been the shul and an annex and the latter was the room where we first gathered and as I looked at the thick columns it hit on me that we were in the shul or at least part of it, where my father and his family had been, had davened.  There was a welcome in that room and then a response by the leader of our group, pleasantries were exchanged, photographs taken by the official photographers and video. We moved in to a bigger hall and this was clearly the shul proper, you could see where the women’s gallery had been. With sorrow and pride some us put on our tallis and tefillin and we davened Shachrit, (morning prayer) singing to the tunes of a Shabbat morning, with gusto. There was a spectator area where the locals and non Jewish visitors gathered and observed the service. It was a bit strange but somehow fitting.  I was so aware of the meaning of the moment, not only personally with Cassy beside me, at a place from where in some sense we ‘came’, but the fact that no Jews had davened in this shul since the Holocaust, because they had been killed. 

There were two short Divrei Torah (a talk on topics relating to a section of the Torah from Samy and the Rabbi, with appropriate words about the meaning of our presence and what the service meant. We proceeded to the entrance or vestibule for the memorial service and dedication of the wall and the unveiling of the plaque of names.

Brief words by Norman Meyers and Ann Rabinowitz, who spoke about the Jews of the town but I cannot remember what she said because I was crying so much. The mayor spoke about the history and contribution of the Jews to the town written I think by the town historian/archivist, a copy in English was made available. He added some more personal remarks.

Candle lighting ceremony each person lighting a candle starting with those born in the town and ending with the youngest members of the group. Then Norman gave an address which was moving, but powerful, courageous, confrontational in a non aggressive way, and inspirational. He made the point that there had been willing accomplices from the town and he named names saying, “Their descendants live in your midst today. They brought shame and a stigma to your town and to your country that cannot be removed. And yet…….. We did not walk away.”

“This generation of Lithuanians (freed from your own yoke of tyranny some thirteen years ago) have a role to play in educating your generation and succeeding generations to remember and to atone for this stain that has besmirched your nation. We cannot do this for you—it is a role, which you have to play as a full and free member of the family of nations. How you perform this role in rekindling your respect for us as Jews and Israel as a nation, we leave to posterity and to the generations that will follow you. It is a task and a challenge that we lay before you”.

(Unfortunately this challenge was not taken up by the mayor nor even referred to.)

Norman also spoke about why we had come, saying of those on the list, “We did not walk away.  We decided that the least we could do was to bring their names to life again. To give them the persona, the dignity, the honour. They are all in Gan Eden but here on earth their names on this Wall bring their memory to life. It was a task that had to be fulfilled. This is the least that we can do” and ended.

The memorial that we all see for the first time today was clothed with an Israeli flag. How appropriate. How proud we all feel that all 12 million of us have our own home, our own country our own nation---Israel.  Let us say to our Lithuanian friends, to this new and hopefully unsullied generation, that we as Jews have come back and once again proclaim on this the 13th of July, 2004 that we as a nation will not forget. We are a proud and defiant nation. We cherish our heritage. We stand here before you today to honour the memory of our families, of our fellow Jews. It is the memories of the past that give us the courage to confront the future.

A pledge not to forget and to educate. El Maleh Rachamim, (prayer for the soul of the departed), Blessed is the Match, by Chanah Senesh , a psalm and Kaddish in unison but ending with Oseh Shalom (Hebrew prayer), with energy through the tears, were said.

In the shul their exhibition, pictures of what the town was like, photographs, mainly of Panevezys but models of the Panevezys yeshiva, the mill of Kupishok, which generated electricity, owned by a Jew called Schmidt, one of those on the list, a model of a wooden shul. As well as these, pictures made by local children of what life might have looked like for Jews in the village. Already another confirmation of the trip being worthwhile, I thought.

The mayor gave us lunch, there were exchanges of gifts. But also a pledge from one of the civic officials to keep the memory alive and to continue research the history of the Jews. This woman in particular had been very moved by the ceremony.

We then went to the another memorial which was put up by survivors of the town but only some years after the war because the soviets would not allow it to be erected and even then only to “victims of fascism”. We had contributed to the refurbishment of this memorial so that it now read in English, Hebrew, Lithuanian and Yiddish. Another killing sight which the murderers had chosen with sad irony, it was the cemetery of the atheists and free thinkers of the town. Questions from the press, an eagerness to know details of their life stories from those who had been born in the town.

Afterwards we split into small groups in local buses with guides as we sought out places of our family histories. We have a picture of my zeida’s house but we could not find the street that it was supposed to be in despite an hour’s searching. It was disappointing but we did see some of the town and the houses in which the locals live, in pretty dire conditions, some have electricity but most do not have running water and draw it from wells in their gardens.

There was a certain amount of tub thumping but I suppose it is as well to remember that the Nazis wanted to wipe out the Jewish people and that they failed and that we continue to exist as a people with a land.  Some us had the courage to return  to one of their major killing fields, to a country that for Jews is one big cemetery, to say we are still here; some of us with our children and some us with our grandchildren. We went to remember, to mourn and pledged to ensure the continued existence of our people, and land of Israel.


See Kenneth's photographs at Kenneth Sachar Photographic Collection

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