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.

Background

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.

Vasilishki

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.
 
 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 escaped.

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 a tailor.”

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






Postscript

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, a Legend.

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.


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