September 15-26, 1997, I was in Lithuania (and two days in Belarus). I went as part of a group of landslayt connected to Eishishok, the
town in which my father had been born in 1905.
the trip were people from the United States, Canada and Israel, those who were
born there and survived the Holocaust; those who left Eishishok in the 1930s,
and their children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren, some of whom knew a lot
about the town and some of whom knew very little. With the group was a film
crew from WETA, the public television station in Washington, DC, which is
making a documentary about Eishishok, as well as a reporter from U.S. News and World Report.
was in Eishishok (now called Eisiskes in Lithuanian); in Vilna (now called Vilnius in Lithuanian)
where we stayed almost every night; and briefly in other towns in Lithuania,
such as Kovno (now Kaunus); Olkenik; and Troki. Some of us went into Belarus,
to Radun, just over the border from Eishishok, to Nacha, and Lida. On the
second day in Belarus, I went with one other woman, as well as a guide and
driver, to Bastuny (where the family name Bastunski came from); to Voronovo and
Sokoly, where the Bastunski family all had been; and to Vasilishok, where
several people on the trip had connections.
had come two days earlier than most of the Americans, along with Prof. Yaffa
Eliach (z”l) of Brooklyn College, who has documented Eishishok so thoroughly
and is responsible for the Eishishok exhibit in the Holocaust Museum in
Washington, DC, and the film crew. The group of about 15 from Israel had also
come on Sept. 15, because there was only one flight a week – on Sundays – from
Tel Aviv to Vilnius. And although the rest of the American group left on
September 24, I stayed two days later, to spend time doing archival research as
well as to visit a newly-found cousin.
IMAGINATION, MEMORY AND REALITY
had quite prepared me for the way Eishishok looked when we arrived there by bus
on Sept. 16. I had several pre- World War II maps of the town, one drawn by a
man in Israel and one that I had found at the Library of Congress, which was so
detailed that it showed the streets, with little dots for the houses.
the town looked bigger than I expected it to, and it felt as if it could have
been a small town anywhere in Europe, or even a small, rural town in the
Eastern U.S. In the early decades of the 20th century, there had been about
3,500 people in Eishishok, about two-thirds of them Jews. Now there are about
5,000 people, according to official figures, with not one Jew living in
the town is now in Lithuania, Eishishok, as part of Vilna gubernia (province) was part of inter-war Poland, and the town is
still a Polish enclave in the area. In many ways, it appears to have a
self-sustaining economy, with people producing what they need to eat, either on
their own land or in the town. I saw chickens in many yards. We were there
during apple harvest, and almost everywhere there were big bags of apples, and
people sitting in the yards peeling apples to preserve them for the winter.
While we were standing on one little lane, a woman walked by with a cart full
of what appeared to be animal intestines. There is a factory in town that makes
luggage (I didn’t see it, but, amazingly, found reference to it on the
some ways, Eishishok appeared to have been frozen in time for the last
half-century. On the one hand, there are signs of modernization – cars in some
driveways, nice, new cars, such as Audis – and television antennas on almost
every house. On the other hand, none of the houses appeared to have any indoor
plumbing. People went outside to pump water from a well, and to use an
outhouse. The town’s inn had a public toilet that was relatively clean and
modern. (Lack of indoor plumbing is the condition in almost all small towns and
villages in Lithuania and Belarus, and in some older, poorer buildings in larger
cities as well.)
PEOPLE IN EISHISHOK
times in Eishishok, we were there during a weekday, so most of the people who
came out of their homes or were gathered on the street were either pensioners
or unemployed. Many of the older women were in housecoats, wearing either
bedroom slippers or no shoes at all, even when they came out into the street.
Many were toothless, and all, without exception, wore a babushka on their heads.
in the afternoon, we did see a few nicely dressed, middle aged people coming
home from work.
we had guides with us who spoke, Russian, Lithuanian and Polish, and because
the Eishishok natives among us spoke Russian and Polish, there were a number of
conversations between members of our group and the people living in Eishishok
was their attitude toward us? Towards Jews in general, and in particular, to
the Jews of Eishishok who had been murdered in 1941 by Nazis – with
participation by some local residents?
the answer to that question reflected a spectrum of the town’s current
residents, it also reflected the particular intersection of past and present
history that is tragically not unique to Eishishok but for which Eishishok has
become a world-wide public symbol.
World War II ended, in 1944, a few of the Eishishok Jews who had survived the
war in hiding, or fighting as partisans in the forest, returned to the town.
Members of the Armia Kryowa (Polish
Home Army), killed Tzipora Sonenson and her baby son – the mother and brother
of Yaffa Eliach. Yaffa has written and spoken widely about this murder, which
was one of hundreds throughout the area in which Poles killed Jews after
the end of World War II.
in Poland and in the US have tried to deny her story – and to discredit her as
a historian, first by claiming the murder never happened, then, when they were
forced to acknowledge it, by claiming they were not trying to kill Jews, only
members of the Soviet NKVD.
was clear that the people living today in Eishishok had read these Polish
attempts to refute the reality of the murders. Even the Eishishok Mayor tried
to claim the killings had been done by “Lithuanians, not Poles.” On the first
day we were in Eishishok, a group of three men, probably in their 40s, followed
us around the town, one of them waving a Polish language newspaper that
attacked Yaffa and claimed the shooting had taken place because her father had
been a member of the NKVD. At one time an old woman, who herself did not deny
the story, said to the argumentative man, “ You don’t even know what you’re
talking about – you weren’t even born!”
woman in her 70s, however, began crying when she spoke of the day in 1941 that the Jews were marched to
the outskirts of town and shot. She recalled working (apparently as a maid) for
a family named Levitin; it appeared a number of the woman who had been young
girls before the war had worked for Jewish families.
having been exposed to the hostility to Jews expressed by the group of men, I
was nearly ready to abandon the idea of mailing my Jewish New Year’s cards from
Eishishok. But then I reminded myself that my purpose went far beyond getting
an Eishishok postmark for members of my family. It was indeed a way of defying
the Nazis more than a half-century after the war by saying, in essence, “You
may have thought you’d never again have to send “Shana Taivas” from the Eishishok Post Office. But think again – you’re going to have to do
it one more time.”
I went into the Post Office with one of the guides from the group and asked
about postal rates, one of the clerks there asked, “Is there among your group
anyone from the Koniuhovska family?” She remembered the names of Chaya Fruma
and Ada Koniuhovska, Jews who had lived in Eishishok for several years after
World War II.
the group’s second visit to Eishishok, just as the bus was preparing to leave
the center of town, we were approached by a man who asked if anyone “knew of
the Jerusz family who had hid Jews just outside Eishishok?” And Pan Anton, the
shepherd whose family had helped hide Yaffa and her brother Itzhak, found our
group and came with us to our memorial service several days later.
OF JEWISH LIFE
stranger coming into Eishishok could easily walk the streets of the town and
never knew that Jews had lived there for hundreds of years. What was once one
of the synagogues in town is now a “sports palace,” for example, with nothing
to mark the building’s previous life in a once-active Jewish community.
occasional physical traces of Eishishok’s Jewish life linger. One woman came up
to our group as we gathered in the market square – carrying in her arms an old
Yiddish phonograph record, as well as a postcard and a needlework wall hanging
that she said had been found in her house but had once belonged to Jews.
days later when we returned to the town, word came to our group of a man who
had two matzevas from the Jewish
cemetery in Eishishok that was destroyed when a school was built (deliberately,
many in our group felt) on the cemetery grounds. I saw the stones, which the
man uses to sharpen knives. One said, “Kraina
the last decade, a denkmol – a
memorial – has been placed over each of the two mass graves in which the men,
and the women and children of Eishishok were massacred on September 25 and 26,
men’s mass grave is on the edge of town, and although a few people were picking
potatoes in a nearby field or walking on a nearby path, it is still far enough
away from the streets on which today’s Eishishok residents conduct their
everyday business that they can avoid thinking about the Jews who once lived
among them – and how and why they no longer do.
women’s and children’s denkmol is on
the other end of town, reached by walking through the Catholic cemetery. The
contrast is sharp between the gravestones of all those gentiles in Eishishok
who had died naturally over the years– many of whose tombstones bear their
photos, in Eastern European fashion – and the single stone that marks the mass
grave of Eishishok’s 2,500 Jewish women and children.
gathered at the men’s denkmol for a haskora, a memorial service, saying
Kaddish, reading psalms, and feeling the connection with our family members –
1,500 Jewish men from Eishishok and nearby Olkenik.
our group was Zvi Michaeli (z”l), the lone survivor of the massacre of
Eishishok’s men, who had jumped into the pit a split second before he would have been shot, then lay
silently in the pit as bodies fell on top of him, and crawled up and out only
hours later when the area fell silent.
have heard Zvi’s story a number of times; but as we stood in a circle around
where our family members lay deep underground and listened to Zvi retell the
details of that day, we were indeed transported to that fateful place and time.
Zvi recalled how the men were forced to undress and how it had felt to him like
the ultimate indignity to be forced to see his melamed Reb Zusye naked. And while we stood there, listening, a horse and cart drove by, just as it could
have 56 years before.
back down the path from the memorial site (which many of us clearly realized
was a walk our ancestors never got to take ) we passed two young mothers with
babies in strollers. Among our group was one couple from New York with an 18
month old baby and a woman from Israel with an infant. As the babies of the
current, largely Polish residents of Eisiskes crossed paths with the babies
descended from the Jews of Eishishok, the point was quietly but clearly made: Am Yisroel Chai…Am Eishisker Chai…The Jewish
people live, and the Jewish people of Eishishok live.
there are no traces of either the centuries-old or “new” – 19th and
20th century -- Jewish cemeteries in Eishishok, the final, natural
resting places of Jews in other towns in the area have fared somewhat better.
group went to Olkenik, about 15 miles west of Eishishok, and when the Mayor of
the town learned we were visiting, he led us by foot nearly a mile into the
woods to find an area with several dozen gravestones, a number of them
readable. Finding this undesecrated cemetery was especially satisfying, all the
more because it was so unplanned and unexpected. It was one of the ironies of
the trip that seeing evidence of Jews who had died a natural death, albeit
before the Holocaust, should feel like a triumph, that even a mile out of
town, a remnant of Jewish life could
in Radun, just over the border in Belarus, we saw a Jewish cemetery that
appeared well kept-up, with many legible gravestones, including one marking the
resting place of Rabbi Israel Meir Ha-Cohen, the great scholar called for the
name of his best -known work, “Chofetz
Chaim.” Apparently, however,
many of those stones had been buried in a swamp and were recently excavated and
placed upright, although not necessarily over the bodies atop which they
in the Radun cemetery, near the memorial to where the Jews of Radun were killed
in 1942, stood a grave waiting for its eventual inhabitant. “Abrashke Rogowski 1923- ,”
the stone read. It had been put up by Rogowski, now 73, an Israeli who
wants to be buried with his family who were killed in the Holocaust. (As a
teenager, he was a boyfriend of my first cousin Sorke Bastunski, daughter of my
father’s brother Shmul Bastunski.)
because two of the men on the trip – Reuven Paikowski (z”l)of Israel and Israel
Dimitro (z”l) of New York – remembered who had lived in many of the homes in
Eishishok, I was able to locate the houses were a number of members of the Kaganovich
families had lived.
saw the house where Shmul and Rivka Bastunski and their children Leib, Sorke
and Maishke had lived, on Vilna Gas
(now called Vilnius Gatve). The house
faces front on Vilnius Gatve, but on
the side, facing the entrance to the Market Square, it serves as the Eisiskes
Municipal Building. In the same area,
back from the Municipal Building, I saw the wooden house where my father’s
sister, Altke Bastunski Kaplan, her husband Abram and their children Maishke
and Rochele had lived. The house where our cousin Leibke Kaganovich (now Leon
Kahn of Vancouver, Canada) had lived has been torn down, and is now just an
saw the house on Vilnius Gatve where
Herschel Bastunski – the uncle of my
grandfather Eli Bastunski and his brother Feivel and sister Rivka Bastunski
Abramovich, and the great-grandfather of my cousin Sonia Kovarski Kabacznik of
Brazil – had lived.
across from Hershel’s former house, stood a gray stucco house that both Reuven
and Israel immediately pointed out to me. “Dos
is gevayn ayere zayde’s hoyz,”
they said, “That was your grandfather’s house.” On our group’s first day in
Eishishok there appeared to be no one in the house. On our second time in the
town, I asked a photographer from Warsaw who was with our group if he would
come with me and tell the current inhabitants I wanted to look around. He did,
and we went in. Living there were a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Birzhanski, her
mother, Mrs. Rutkowski, their children and several cats. Mr. Birzhanski
immediately said they had not lived there very long and he was sure there had
been many changes since my family had lived there.
was looking for signs of what my family’s life must have been in that house,
and only the tall tile heat stove appeared to have been there for a long time.
There was a television and telephone, brightly colored decorations and a number
of paintings of Jesus, the Pope and other religious images. They offered me a
bag of apples, and about 10 minutes after we had left and rejoined the group on
the market square, young Mrs. Birzhanzki ran out and handed me a little glass
elephant statuette, asking me to take it to America to remember them by.
felt neither fear or anger being in the house, nor, as I recall, did I feel a
sense of resentment at them that they were in “my property.” Even though they
were among the less poverty-stricken families of Eishishok, they still have no
running water or indoor plumbing. In
some ways, continuing to live there in this town whose infrastructure is frozen
in time itself seems like a punishment of sorts.
occurred to me as I left Eishishok that I had felt a far greater sense of
connection to the town as a place where my family had died, at the memorial, than
as a place where my family had lived, in the house on what is now called Vilnius Gatve.
Vilna as well, I found places that reflected our family’s lives there. It took
a while for me to overcome my first day’s impression of Vilnius – where
boutique-like stores selling Kodak film, Levi’s jeans and Benneton sportswear
now sit virtually cheek-by-jowl with plaques proclaiming the former home of the
Vilna Gaon or the gate through which Vilna Ghetto residents walked on their way
to death in the nearby Ponar forest. There seemed to be an increasing
Westernization in the way that the former Ghetto lanes are now turned into an
almost trendy “Old Town.”
on my last day in the city, I found the part of Subocz Street (now Subacius)
where my father’s brothers Motl and Yankiel had worked, and probably had lived.
I found the location at 25 Rudnisky
Street where they had lived in the Vilna Ghetto.
my cousin Dora Magat Wachter (z”l), granddaughter of Eli Bastunski’s brother
Feivel, had remembered her family’s address, 29 Braite Gas. This means, of course, Broad Street, also once
called Ulica Wielka (big street) in
Polish. Now in Lithuanian Vilnius, it is Didjoi
Gatve, and I took photos of what is now Number 29, hoping that the address
changes that were common after World War II did not happen on this street as
the most stunning family connection in Vilna was not with a building, but with
a member of the Bastunski family, previously unknown to any of us, who had
survived the Holocaust and is living today in Vilnius.
I left for the trip I had discovered
that there was a man currently living in Vilnius named Abraham Bastunski (z“l). But even
though I had written him in my “tsebrochene”
Yiddish about the family and my impending visit, he said nothing in his answer
about a family connection. Well, he is
indeed my cousin!! His grandfather, Abraham Bastunski, was the brother of my
great-grandfather, Moshe Bastunski.
Although he lived in Olita (today Alytus), he visited his uncles and
aunt in Eishishok and remembered my first cousin Sorke, who was considered one
of the town’s most beautiful girls.
spoke of his aunt, Vichne, and I immediately recalled a sentence in one of my
grandfather’s letters to my father: “Do
you remember Sholom Gershon? His wife Vichne is my cousin. Last week she had a baby. What kind of news
is this, you ask? By us is is great news for it has already been 17 years since
her wedding.” I had resigned myself
to never knowing who Vichne was – and Abraham brought her and the family
connection to life.
and his wife were in the Kovno Ghetto, then in Stutthoff and Dachau, surviving
because they were young and could work hard.
They came to Vilnius after the war, had a son, Jacob. Abraham, now 78
and retired, worked as a mechanic and he
and his wife subsist on a pension that together equals $120 per month, a little
less than half the average salary of a single Lithuanian worker.
continue to correspond in Yiddish, and in some ways our correspondence already
seems to bear an eerie resemblance to the exchange of letters that took place
six decades ago between my father in California and my grandfather in
one piece of research I had intended to do in Vilnius was to try to get the
marriage record of my father’s brother Yankel, because although Yankel had
mentioned his wedding date in a letter to my father, I had no information about
his wife or any children (my first cousins) he might have had.
days before I left Vilnius, at the Jewish State Historical Museum, I found a
May, 1942 census of Jews who were left in the Vilna Ghetto (most had been
killed by then.) On that list were Motl, his wife and two of his three
children, as well as Yankel, his wife Taibe and daughter Chana, born 1935.
next day, I went with my guide Rita Petrikiene to the Vital Statistics Archives
in Vilnius and asked for the marriage record.
The clerk checked her written index of Jewish marriages for 1934, and
could not find it. She even checked 1933
and 1935 – no listing. I then requested
Chana’s birth record from 1935, and it was in her index. I returned five hours later to get an extract
of the record, which gave her birth date as December 11, 1935.
extract did not list my aunt’s maiden name, but we managed to persuade the
clerk to show us the record – which listed my aunt’s maiden name as Alperowicz
and her parents as Isaac Alperowicz and Dwora Lifschitz. Just 24 hours before, I had not even known
the name of my cousin or my aunt, and now, because of the Vilna Ghetto list and
the birth record, I would have their names to remember.
somehow this act of finding her record, her name – in the archive in Vilnius
where people come to get the documents of everyday life – had turned Vilnius
into Vilna for me.
the Bastunski side of the family, we had ties to a village I remembered hearing
about throughout my childhood – Sokoly. It took me until 1995 to find a map
that was large-scale enough to show this little village – essentially one block
with attached fields – where Eli and Feivel Bastunski and their sister Rivka
Bastunski Abramovich had farmland.
the second day in Belarus, I went there with Beth Rashbaum, who wanted to see
nearby Vasilishok, and our guide Rita and driver Andrusz. I knew without a
doubt that I was standing where members of the Bastunski family had once lived,
and -- despite our jokes about the
one-block town -- it was one of the most moving parts of the trip for me. Sokoly’s
very elusiveness from most gazetteers and maps made this experience all the
stood in the street of Sokoly, talking to residents (through Rita) while she
asked about family names. And although no one remembered the names Bastunski or
Abramovich, it became clear which houses the Jewish families had lived in,
right by the highway. One person mentioned remembering the name Abramovsky. Another remembered a Jewish
family with many boys who went into the Russian Army.
Jewish names people in Sokoly remembered were Vertinsky and Kargovsky. The
man who lives in one of the homes that belonged to our family, a Mr. Wisotsky,
said he remembered a man named Moshe
Abramovich, who left to go to Poland. He said the house had been burned by
fire sometime before he moved in.
Bastuny, a Mrs. Kulesova remembered Jewish people named Yankel, Pesie, Moshe and Chone. She specifically
remembered a Moshe Razitsky and an Abel Dubinsky. “The Jewish families
used to live on that side of the road,” Mrs. Kulesova pointed, and then added,
with great equanimity, “but they were all taken to Voronova during the war and
shot.” About 10 seconds later, she added, “Please take some apples.”
Sokoly appears to have stayed as small as it was when our families lived there,
Bastuny as a town has grown around the railway station of the same name – the
station people from Eishishok would use when they were taking the train. There
is now an agricultural implement factory and a large potato storage facility in
town. Many houses are painted in bright colors or with touches of bright
colors, and there is a large school.
drove through Voronovo, about seven miles away,
and I placed a stone at the monument at the mass grave there, still
entirely in Russian and with no mention of Jews.
(Since the fall of the Soviet
Union, many memorial stones have been changed to acknowledge that the victims
lying in the mass graves were Jews. At Ponar, near Vilna, the two-part monument
memorializing 100,000 killed by the Nazis now proclaims that of these 100,000,
some 70,000 were Jews.)
was especially interesting to observe some of the dynamics that took place
among the members of the group – North Americans, Israelis and film crew. The
fortnight wasn’t without a few difficult moments, for example, when the demands
of filming appeared to interfere with town visits that members of the group had
expected, or when the presence of cameras and microphones may have created an
occasional sense of unreality or theatricality about an experience.
interesting to observe were the differences between the Israelis and the North
Americans in the group. Most of the Israeli participants knew each other and
had been part of a close-knit group of people from Eishishok in Israel. In general,
most of the Israelis, even those born in Israel, had been told more about
Eishishok than most of the North Americans – although, of course, there were
the trip, I had expected Yiddish to be a sort of lingua franca which many participants in the trip would speak, and
was grateful that I had studied Yiddish for the past several years. I was
surprised on the trip to find that although there were certainly a few Yiddish
speakers, most of the Israeli participants stuck with Hebrew and most of the
North Americans with English. (When we sang “Oyf’n Pripichok,” at Shabbas dinner, many North Americans of my age
knew none of the words.)
time to time, I perceived a tension over the language gap, a tension that
reflected, of course, many of the
ongoing debates in the Jewish world about the Diaspora and Israel and the
relationship between the two. But I could understand that for many of the
Israelis on the trip, there was also a special sense of satisfaction, even of
defiance, in coming back to the land where their family members were killed
solely because they were Jews – and 56 years later, speaking the language of a
did, however, have its special resonance in this land where our parents spoke mame-loshen. One Israeli participant,
Pnina Berkowitz Ivtzan (z”l), with whom I formed a close friendship on the
trip, commented to me that even though she is a Sabra, born to a father who
went to Eretz Yisroel in 1924, she
misses the warmth that was embodied, for example, in her mother’s describing
something as “a shtikl.”
FROM THE PAST
the bus into Belarus, Pnina looked at a detailed map of villages in the area
near Radun and said, “I see these names and I hear the voices of my parents…my
father here…my mother there.”
than once the words and voices of our parents and grandparents from Eishishok
were with us on this trip. Indeed, as
Pnina – granddaughter of Reuben Bainish Berkovitz -- and I sat together on the bus, I showed her
this excerpt from an August 15, 1935 letter from my grandfather Eli Bastunski: “People are going to the land of Israel:
it’s very far. They are not walking but
running; any way one can. Many have
departed already from Eishishok, and many others are planning on
traveling. They sell their houses for
half the price, just to travel. Reuven
Bainish already has all of his children in Palestine. Shortly he will travel there too…” We
were both stunned to realize that 62 years later, the two of us, the
granddaughter of the man who wrote the letter, and the granddaughter of
the man he wrote about, were sitting
there together in Eishishok reading these words.
And as I stood in the street in Sokoly
looking for clues to help me figure out where our family had lived, I had the
benefit of these directions from my grandfather, written 65 years ago: “My barn, half of it I transferred and I
have put it on the side road between my house and the framemaker’s wife’s
property, for the highway goes through the garden. The whole garden was taken away, therefore
they gave me the piece of the side road – from my house to Rivtze’s.”
the plaintive note from my Uncle Yankel, written on July 31, 1934: “On 21/8/34th year, my wedding
will take place, and I am sorry that my brothers have wandered away, to the end
of he world, and they cannot partake in a brother’s celebration. But in my heart, it will be that my brothers
are at my celebration.”
heard their voices. I hope that they