Kupiskis Wall of Memory Holocaust Memorial - Day 3

On this day, we traveled to many sites on our continuing mission of remembrance which led to our final destination in Panevezys.  Our first stop was the old wood synagogue of Ziezmierz.  Typical of the remaining wooden structures that litter Lithuania unattended and unused, it rose boarded and unpainted, a stark reminder of what had been.  We entered the structure and found the interior removed except for two pillars still standing and one fallen to the ground.  The ornamentation that had adorned the synagogue had basically been removed, but a few remnants could still barely be seen.  The walls had deteriorated and all that remained were the underpinnings that had been so carefully crosshatched between the timbers.  The floor was cracked concrete and dirt. 

We saw a photograph of what it had looked like in its prime and could hardly believe that the lonely, forlorn structure was all that remained.  We said kaddish for those who had perished and sang songs and lingered awhile, then left to carry on our journey of remembrance that day.  



Ziezmierz Wooden Synagogue Ziezmierz , Lithuania

Our next stop was Kaunas or Kovna as it was known by most of our ancestors.  Our main focus was the Ninth Fort and Sugihara House, the Museum devoted to the Japanese diplomat who saved so many of Kovno’s Jews during the Holocaust.

The Ninth Fort was a fortification which sprawled about us and contained a number of monuments.  We stopped at the gigantic sculptural display in a field outside the Fort which had inscriptions dedicated to those who had died and said kaddish there and lit candles.

The fort itself was a cold stone fortress where one felt the hopelessness that it had emanated even now.  As we traveled from one room to the next, we saw exhibits of the horrors of what had taken place there and descriptions of many of the people who had been killed.  Most important to me were the photos of the Kovno Ghetto partisans, amongst who was a friend, Abe Resnick, whose family came from Kupiskis, and who survived and had long ago first interested me in researching the Holocaust.  Our friendship had begun as his family had originated in Kupiskis and we had formed a bond through that. 

In another room, a new display was devoted to Convoy #73 which was composed of 878 French Jews who were brought to Lithuania in 1944 to be killed in the last days of the War.  These were the only French Jews who were brought to Lithuania , others being killed in Auschwitz .  Primarily, they had either fled from other places in Europe or were recent immigrants to France at the time.  Many were Sephardic Jews from French colonies and others were Lithuanian or Polish in origin. 




Display of  the French Jews of Convoy #73 who were killed in the Ninth Fort featuring Abraham Cherchevsky the father of Eve Line Blum.

There I saw depicted much of the research I had personally been involved in with regard to this convoy and finally a photograph of my friend Eve Line Blum taken as a child with her father who had been killed in the Ninth Fort.  The Walls where the prisoners had scribbled notes in the stone had been preserved and I found there the message left by Eve Line’s father, Abraham Cherchevsky (Shereshevsky).  Photographs of many of those who had died were included in the exhibit along with information about who they were.  It was a very moving and sorrowful experience for me to view this.  We all left the Fort filled with the enormity of what a toll the Holocaust had taken in Lithuania .

After the Ninth Fort, we visited the Choral Synagogue which was built in 1871.  It contains one of the most beautiful altars of the Jewish world and the interior is blue and gold throughout.  There we prayed and also met a group of Yeshiva students from New York who were on a visit.  In the back of the synagogue is a memorial to the 1,800 children who were killed in the Ninth Fort. 

Following this, we visited the Sugihara House which contains a museum to commemorate the Righteous Gentile, Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, who provided visas to save many Polish Jews of Kaunas.    

After the somber morning in Kaunas, our travels took us to Trakai, the ancient first capitol of Lithuania and home of the Karaites, a sect brought to Lithuania.  Converted to Judaism, they are not considered Jews either by themselves or the Israeli rabbinate.  Their Kesem or house of worship, their cemetery, and other institutions all have Hebrew inscriptions.  




The Karaite Kenes, Trakai, Lithuania

Trakai is situated on a picturesque swan-filled lake in the middle of which is a medieval castle reached by a land bridge.  It was a peaceful and lovely setting in which to stop and contemplate the horrors which we had seen and visited earlier that morning. 



View overlooking Trakai Castle, Trakai, Lithuania

We left Trakai and traveled towards Panevezys, our final stop of the day.  We arrived in record time and passed through the town and viewed a number of the Jewish sites as we reached our destination, the Romantik Hotel.  The town had been modernized since the war and Panevezys Yeshiva was there still, but now housed a candy factory and bakery. 

An art gallery had been built after the War which was surrounded by a brick wall formed from the fragments of the tombstones from the Jewish cemetery.   

Michael Levy, who traveled to Panevezys the week before we did on a Federation Mission had the following to say about his trip there:

In late June, early July, I participated in a United Jewish Communities (UJC) Mission to Lithuania , Latvia and Israel .  As part of the so called “roots” portion of the trip, I was accompanied by my own personal guide and driver, to visit towns and villages of my choice.  One of the towns I chose was Panevezys – known by Jews as Ponevezh.  My maternal grandfather came from there, and his wife, my grandmother came from a small shtetle (village) close by.


The town of Ponevezh had a fantastic Jewish presence over a few hundred years.  In 1941 there were 8,000 Jews representing 25% of the population.  They, together with approximately 5,000 Jews from the surrounding area, were murdered in a 2 month period in forests 15 kilometers outside the town.  The massacre sites also serve as the mass grave burial sites.


Much of Ponevezh was Jewish and what was left behind was grabbed by the locals, such as houses, factories, shuls, schools and of course the famous Ponevezh Yeshuva building, which is now a bakery.  Of special significance is the very large Jewish cemetery and what became of it.


On arrival in Ponevezh, I met the leader of the 75 person Jewish community (out of a total population of 120,000).  His name is Gernady Kofman, and he came to Ponevezh 33 years ago from the Ukraine .  He has an excellent knowledge of the town and its history. 


We spent the day together and at one point he stopped at a large pleasant park area approximately 1km from the city center.  It was criss-crossed with foot and bike paths, trees and grass.


He explained that this park had been the Jewish cemetery of Ponevezh .   In 1955 only a handful of Jews remained from this once thriving community and the Soviets who controlled the country at the time gave the community a 10 year notice period after which the cemetery was to be bulldozed to be put to “alternative use”.  This was a common practice on the part of the Soviets.  In 1965 – after the 10 year notice period – the cemetery was flattened and converted into park land.  The graves of thousands of Jews of Ponevezh – many whom have descendants in the USA , South Africa , Israel and other places – were no more.


At the same time as the cemetery demolition, the town of Ponevezh built a new and very glitzy art museum in a prime spot of what was to become a revamped and attractive parkland in the downtown area ( not to be confused with the area of the cemetery).  The general construction of the art museum is modern grey concrete and glass.  Contrasting with the concrete and glass, is a perimeter wall of around 6 feet high and over 100 yards in length as well as a major outside wall – alongside the main staircase, all made up of “tastefully” cladded broken brown stone…


The grave stones of the Jewish cemetery of Ponevezh have been put to use!!!  


As mentioned, over the last few years the Jewish community has grown to around 75 people (out of a population of 120,000).  Although very small in numbers, they have, on the one hand, taken it upon themselves to educate the population – specifically the school children – about the history and what happened to the Jews, and on the other hand they have started to assert themselves and have objected to the fact that the gravestones form the decorative cladding of the art museum.  This education process is very positive in that the whole town is learning about something that they either didn’t know about up to now, or have conveniently ignored.


The Jewish community – after much lobbying and pressuring – has been granted the rights to establish a monument/memorial on the site of the original cemetery.  Furthermore, the authorities have agreed to return the gravestones – to be used for the monument.  They are actually going to breakdown the wall and truck every last one to the former cemetery.  The cost of all of this has been born by the Jewish community - $30,000 is the expected cost. 

It is hoped that Ponevezh decedents – wherever in the world – all of whom would have had relatives buried in the cemetery and whose gravestones are now on the wall of the art museum, would help to cover the cost.  A campaign to reach such people is underway.


That is not where the story ends.  In addition to the gravestone/monument issue, there is the issue of the former Jewish property, real estate and buildings that abound all over the town.  Specifically, the Electrical Supply Company building is the former prominent “Choral Shul” and the Jewish Boys High School (Gymnasium) is the Court House building.  The Jewish community is seeking their return as well.  That coupled with the issue of the gravestones has been cause for Anti Semitic action.  ...


* Note 1 - When the masons cladded the wall with the stones, they turned them inwards so that the inscriptions were not visible.  However – a few stones of the many thousands were in fact reversed by mistake.  Those stones were removed and “given back” to the Jewish community out of respect.  They were not/could not be replaced, so the gaps have simply been filled in with white plaster. 

The river now had new development strung along it and Panevezys looked like any other small town.  My eyes roved and wondered where was the Panevezys of old, the place our families had visited, had attended school in, had shopped and been born in?  It was gone, vanished, and along with it the 8,000 Jews who had been killed in the Holocaust.

Arriving at the hotel, I was met by Genadij Gofmann, the leader of the Panevezys Jewish Community, along with some others.  Due to our late arrival and tight schedule for dinner and the evening, I was unable to do much other than give Genady the donated gifts which our group had gathered and others in the Kupiskis SIG had donated for the community.  Genady was most grateful for our support and we had a rewarding talk about the community and the plans for a monument for the 8,000 Holocaust victims.

We settled in and went for dinner and afterwards talked some more and then went to bed to prepare for the morning and our dedication ceremonies.

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