The Legend of Shale
by Jay Avilev
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In June, 1999 I had the privilege of joining my parents (Albert and Libbie
Kaplan of Va. Beach, Va and Sarasota Florida) on a roots tour to Lithuania
organized by Howard Margol. Howard, then president of the International
Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies (and my Mother’s first cousin)
has led many groups to Lithuania. These trips are extremely well organized,
and provide wonderful opportunities to visit ancestral home places.
Our trip consisted of organized tours to sites of interest to everyone
as well as two days where we were matched with a tour guide and taken to
the shtetl(s) of our choice. My parents and I were lucky enough to
be paired with Regina Kopilevich for this segment of the trip. Through
her tireless energy and skill, our journey to Vasilishki and Lipniski became
much more than a journey into time and space. It, in every sense, touched
our souls in a way we never expected. But I am getting ahead of myself.
My Father’s parents, Sol and Ida Kaplan came to the United States in the
early 1900’s. Both in their early teens, they immigrated to Norfolk,
Va. with their families, married and had four children. Both of these
grandparents died in the mid 1960’s and in those years, discussions about
their experiences in Europe, their voyage and adjustments to America and
all the things we so much search for now, were just not discussed. Knowledge
of their birthplaces and lives were scant at best We only knew, prior to
the preparation for this trip, that they were both from “Vilna Guberniya”,
that my Grandfather’s family name was Berkowitz in Europe (changed to Kaplan)
and my Grandmother’s family name was Schwartz in Europe (changed to Goldman).
We also knew that my grandmother’s mother (my Great-Grandmother) was a Kushner.
Because I live in Israel, the work of the documentation and information
search, which was correctly recommended by the tour organizer, fell on my
Father. While there are many reasons why I consider this a most successful
roots tour, clearly his many days of work over many months were a primary
reason for the success of this trip. Dad was not able to correctly
determine his father’s birthplace, but with Regina Kopilevich’s skill, we
were able to search the archives in Grodno where we found his birth records
(Lipniski). Dad did correctly determined, from immigration and naturalization
documents, that his mother was born in Vasilishki and that is where we went
on the first day of this visit part of the tour.
We entered Vasilishki hoping to find some connection with my Grandmother,
my Father’s Mother, Ida Schwartz-Goldman-Kaplan. What we did in Vasilishki
was touch time.
As we drove through the still small village, Regina would stop the
car when ever she saw someone who appeared old enough to have had an recollection
of the war.
“Are there still Jews in Vasilishki? Do you remember the years
during World War II?” Regina’s persistence met success when she began
speaking with Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky.
Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky asked us to wait a moment as she finished feeding
her chickens. She then began to tell us about her life. Born
in 1932, she lived not far from the church. She remembers the families
Gordon, Grodzensky, and Katz. She also remembered Libka’s shoe store,
Chaim-Osher’s store, Schwartz’s (my great-grandfather) who manufactured the
upper part of boots and Kushners (my great grand-mother) who sold fabrics
and ice cream in the basement. She recounted that there were five hairdressers,
5 inns, 5 bakeries and one of the synagogues still stands, now as a library
and cultural house.
“But come” she said, and took us across the road and into the woods.
Finally, we came into a clearing with a monument. A man was trimming
the grass and growth around the monument, a task, we were to learn he has
been doing for years, without pay.
“And here,” she said, “was the place of the Jewish cemetery and the massacre
place of the Jews.
“I was a witness to the procedure.
“Jews from surrounding shtetles were gathered in the ghetto at Lenin Street,
not far from the synagogue. They were brought in lines to the square,
and then taken to the pits. The pits were dug by gentile men, four
of them at a time, who were forced to do so.
“The bodies were covered up, but, for several days after, you could hear
moans coming from the earth.
“The town speaks of 7 Jews who escaped from the massacre place.
Six returned to hide in the ghetto and were captured the next morning by
the Nazis, and murdered on the spot.”
And with a single finger pointing in the air Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky
said, “But the whole town speaks of one Jew who escaped.”
And my Father and I looked at each other, and knew, she was speaking of
Shale (Saul) Kushner
I have very few childhood memories of Shale. My mother told me that
Shale, his wife and children were taken out, lined up and shot. All
fell down, but Shale was not dead. Somehow, he remained, laying with
the bodies of his children and wife until nightfall when he escaped into
the woods. For the remainder of the war, Shale avoided death.
I remember one trip to Shale’s small tailor shop in Norfolk to have my
pants hemmed. The memory is cold, gray, sad and silent. I can
not recall if I knew Shale’s story at that time.
After our trip, my parents and Bluma, Shale’s widow, discussed Shale’s
story. Saul (as Bluma preferred to call him) did tell that seven survived
the killings, but six were captured and killed immediately. Only Shale
At the end of the war, Shale, his new wife Bluma, and their daughter Irene
requested that the Jewish agency move them to Brussels from Poland.
Chances for immigration were better from Belgium. Their names were
published in the Yiddish paper and my Grandmother, Shale’s first cousin, after
seeing them in the paper, began the difficult process of bringing Shale and
his new family to America.
She wrote them every day, starting at 3:00 AM. Shale wanted to go
to Israel, but my Grandmother told him that he could not earn a living in
Israel. “Everyone wears shorts” she told him “and they don’t need
Letters to Senators, Members of the House, calls and a great deal of effort
resulted in the Kushners moving to Norfolk in 1952. My Grandmother
set them up with a little place to run a tailor shop and a place to live.
Shale died in Norfolk in 1978.
Standing in Time
Standing on at the very same place where Shale lost his wife and children,
listening to the simultaneous voices of Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky and Regina
in translation, we felt as though we were experiencing a bending of time,
of logic, of spirit. The soil was soaked with the blood of over 1,400
Jews, many my cousins never known. But the ground was not red.
The plaques on the monument seemed so inadequate, so insignificant to the
event they attempt to memorialize. The original plaque, placed by the
Russian Communist, makes no mention that these were Jews that died here.
Even the year is mistakenly noted as 1943, and not the correct year of 1942.
The cemetery was destroyed by the Communists. I was told that if
there were mass killings at a Jewish cemetery, they often tried to destroy
the Jewish nature of the event. There are no visible stones, little
besides the words of Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky and the monument to remind anyone
that this was once a shtetl of over 2,400 people, 2,000 of them Jews.
Teresa Ginel-Gulbatzky directed us to several other places, all significant,
but somewhat anti-climatic. A building, now used as a library and cultural
house, previously a synagogue. Behind it, the foundation of what was
a Yeshiva. In front, the foundation of where they once baked matzah.
This is the site of the Jewish cemetery in Vasilishki
It occurred to me, several weeks after my return home to Israel, that
Shale had a much larger impact on this world than most of us. Of course
he was central in importance to the family that perished in Vasilishki on
that fateful day in 1942. And for sure, he will always remain in the
hearts and minds of the family established after the war; his wife Bluma
and daughter Irene. This would be as it should be for most of us.
But unlike most of us, Shale however is a legend in his birth place.
They still speak of Shale as the one Jew who escaped in 1942, when all the
other Jews were killed. In Vasilishki, Belarus, to this day they speak
about Shale, even though some 60 years ago he left behind the lifeless bodies
of his children, wife and hundreds of other Jews. Shale remains today,
Another Final Note
On December 7, 2003, Shale’s wife Bluma passed away. Bluma was 81
years old. I am so happy that we were able to visit Vasilishki, and
relate to Bluma our experiences. I am so pleased that Bluma knew that
she was married to a very famous man. Bluma Kushner was married to
a legend from a small place in Belarus. Would that world could know,
and remember the Legend of Shale.
Copyright © 2004, E. Avilev
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