Welcome to Jewish Research in Lida Uezd in Vilna Guberniya

Our trip to Eishishok in 1997 for the

making of the documentary film,

“There Once Was a Town”

By Judy Baston

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From 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.

On 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.

I 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.

I 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.



Nothing 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.

But 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 Eishishok.

Although 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 Internet).

In 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.)



Both 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.

Later in the afternoon, we did see a few nicely dressed, middle aged people coming home from work.

Because 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 today.

What 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?

Although 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.

After 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.

Groups 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.

It 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!”

Another 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.

After 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.”

When 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. 

During 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.




A 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.

But 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.

Two 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 bat Yisrael.”



In 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, 1941.

The 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.

The 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.

We 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.

In 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.

I 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.

Walking 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.



Although 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.

Our 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 still stand.

And 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 originally stood.

Also 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.)




Especially 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 and Bastunski families had lived.

I 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 empty field.

I 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.

And 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.

I 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.

I 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.

It 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.



In 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.”

But 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.

And 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 well.



But 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.

Before 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. 

He 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.

Abraham 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.

We 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 Eishishok.



The 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.

Two 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. 

The 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. 

The 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.

And 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.




On 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. 

On 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 more satisfying.

We 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.

The 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.

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.”

While 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.

We 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.)



It 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.

Also 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 exceptions.

Before 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.)

From 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 Jewish country.

Yiddish 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.”



On 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.”

More 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.”

Or 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.”

I heard their voices.  I hope that they heard mine.


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