Letter from Renee
Renee Kaufman wrote this letter to her family after returning home from the trip.
To all my dear family,
I arrived home on Thursday, safe and sound, from what turned out to be the most amazing ''roots'' tour in Lithuania, specifically for the descendents of the shtetl ''Kupishok'' or ''Kupiskis'', the main purpose being to dedicate a Wall of Memory to the more than 800 Jews who perished in that town in June,1941. One must
understand that every single Jew left in the shtetl was killed, and they were more than half of the town at the time, in prominent positions, and on very good terms with their Lithuanian neighbours. Today there is not a single Jew living there. This happened all over Lithuania, in all the little shtetls ,and in the big towns as well.
The ground is literally soaked with Jewish blood, and it was devastating to realize and understand the extent of the loss of Jewish lives and ''life''- the annihilation of a Yiddish and Hebrew culture that was so rich and enlightened.
There were 48 of us on the tour, people from Israel, England, America, Australia, and South Africa.
It was organised mostly by Norman Meyer (ex Port Elizabeth- now living in Washington) and helped by his brother Alex (Jerusalem) and cousin Mervyn Shapiro (Jerusalem). This was their third visit to Lithuania. It was an excellent group of people, who bonded very quickly, and soon felt like we'd always known each other. Emotions ran very high many, many times and tears flowed freely often, but thank G-d we were able to laugh more than we cried. The ''steering committee'' all have an excellent sense of humour, and so there were
many funny moments, which we all needed.
Three of the participants were people who were born in Kupiskis, and had gotten out, and were now returning for the first time. So you can imagine what an emotional trip that was for them, and obviously their stories were incredibly interesting. Also several of the people were related to each other, so there
were little family reunions as well. And we were extremely lucky to have with us Ann Rabinowitz, the genealogist who has done so much research on the Jews of Kupiskis. Also the guide, Regina Kopilevich, was amazing. Born in Lithuania to a Jewish father, so while not halachically Jewish, she loves Judaism and has a very deep
knowledge of it, and speaks perfect English, Hebrew, Russian, Lithuanian and Yiddish.
We met in Vilna at the Hotel Radisson on Friday afternoon, and had the Shabbat service and supper in a private room of the hotel. This was our first meeting and was terribly emotional.( We couldn't have our service in the shul as planned, because of a typical fight within the community- what's left of it - in Vilna. Can you
believe it ?!!)
On Saturday we did a walking tour of the Jewish Ghetto. And on Sunday visited the Jewish Museum in Vilna, the Jewish Cemetery, the Paneriai Memorial in a forest where 70,000 Jews were slaughtered. This is a lovely, peaceful forest now and it is just horrific to think what happened there. We said Kaddish and sang
Hatikva there, as we did many times after that.
Sunday we drove to Kaunas and visited the museum of the 9th Fort, where there is a massive memorial to the more than 30,000 who perished there.
We had lunch in Kaunas, and in the afternoon went to see Sugihara House. Sugihara was the Japanese Consul in Lithuania during World War II and saved about 6,000 Jews by issuing visas, at enormous risk to himself and his family. The Consul house has been made into a museum.
Then onto Ponevezh where we slept the next two nights, for our visit to Kupiskis. I must say that the accommodation in both hotels was excellent and the food wherever we went was quite good. I ate cold borscht, served with potatoes and sour cream whenever I had the opportunity. It's funny to see how the foods which we think of
as "Jewish'' delicacies are actually Lithuanian foods, and abound there- the borscht, herrings in every form, latkes, blintzes, pierogen. Our guide even got us teiglach from a Jewish woman who lives in Vilna.
Obviously the day in Kupiskis was the highlight, and I think it was the biggest event in the town in the last 60 years too, judging by the number of on-lookers that turned up. We went straight to the library, which used to be the shul, and where the Wall of Memory had been put up. We were met by the Mayor and his
entourage of workers, photographers, and people from the Jewish communities of Kovno and Vilna. The Mayor welcomed us beautifully and very warmly, saying how much he admired us for coming back to honour our ancestors. We then went into the former shul for a Shacharit service. Now, can you imagine how emotional this was- this was the shul where
all our ancestors had prayed, and this was the first time in 60-odd years that the shul was again filled with Jewish people, descendents of the wiped-out community, and Jewish voices loud in prayer. I cried throughout the service....
Then we moved into the foyer of the building for the ceremony of the unveiling of the wall. Again, lots of emotion. Many speeches, by the mayor, Norman Meyer, the head of the Vilna community and all had to be translated by our very capable Regina. Each delegate was called up to light a memorial candle, to which was attached the flag of the country from which they came. All in all, it was a very
dignified ceremony, and, believe me, more honour could not have been given to the occasion. The mayor then entertained us all at lunch, at which there were more speeches and presentations. This was followed by a rededication of the newly repaired memorial at the Atheist Cemetery, which is where all the Jews were butchered and buried in a mass
We were then provided with guides and buses by the municipality, and taken to wherever we needed to go. I asked to be taken to the road which my Mom remembered she'd grown up in (she left when she was 6). The name of the road had been changed to Sodu St. I wasn't sure which house to look for, but went into a house there.
There is still no running water inside the house, the toilet is outside, no telephone, exactly as my Mom had described it. It was very depressing. Time has stood still there, but the town is clean and well-kept and there are pretty flowers and little gardens. I did find the now run-down school building where all the Jewish children went to
school, and have a photo of my Mom at kindergarten there. Then we all met for tea, provided once again by the mayor, and back to Ponevezh for our last night.
There were so many connections found and made - both Kupishok ones and ''modern-day'' ones. For example, Ronnie Fendel's mother had kept a diary in Yiddish as a teen-ager growing up in the shtetl. It was found after she died and the family are now having it translated. Two of the people on the tour found their late
parents written about in the diary! One of the survivors from the shtetl brought along and read to us her mother's last post-card to them - her mother had stayed behind and then perished. There were so many touching moments and these are what made the trip so special for us, and of course it was unique in the sense that this is the first time
that a memorial has been put up in any of the shtetls in Lithuania.
All in all it was a really moving and unforgettable experience, and I'm truly grateful that I was privileged to be a part of it.