Ode to Kupishok

By Rabbi Michael ben Stanley Mayersohn, January 27, 1995

One of my earliest memories as a young boy growing up in Cincinnati was weekly visits to my paternal grandparents on Sundays. Zaide gave us a quarter and was mostly silent, Bubbe made what, my memory tells me, was the same meal each week - - mashed potatoes and brisket or pot roast. While I am unable to recall specific activities or conversations during these frequent visits, the memory survives of a warm, loving and embracing family connected across the generations.

I do not remember the first time I heard about my grandparents' hometown, what we knew as Kupishok. The name simply became a part of the family lore, the rich and vivid stories that helped me to feel rooted and secure. Over the years, I came to know something about this small town in Lithuania, never quite sure of the physical geography of the place, but confident that this town had helped shape the childhood and early adulthood of my grandparents. As Jerusalem plays a real and mythical role in the life of the Jewish people, so Kupishok held a tangible and mystical place in my own personal and family consciousness.

In subsequent years, as a result of my father's international research into the fate of his aunt, uncle and cousins who remained in Kupishok until the Nazi invasion in 1941, I came to hold in my hands a photo of the town's main street. Then, came the information that shot through my heart and soul - - one of my cousins, Yehiel Tuber, had been ordained as a rabbi only months before the Nazi invasion. He and most of the rest of the family still in Lithuania were killed in June, 1941, as they fled the murderous onslaught. Somehow, the knowledge that this cousin I had not known of before, this cousin who in his very different time and place had made a commitment akin to my own, gave new meaning to my own resolution to serve God and the Jewish people. I knew that in my rabbinate here in America I could somehow further the work that Yehiel Tuber of Kupishok, Lithuania, had dreamt of. I could be his living Kaddish.

It was in that spirit and with that as background and foundation that I jumped at the opportunity several months ago to visit Lithuania. This nation, which had been the site of so much glory and so much pain for the Jewish people and for my own family, drew me despite the expectations of harsh winter conditions. Rachel, my daughter, and I would journey to Lithuania to make what would be nothing less than a pilgrimage to Kupishok, the home of my grandparents and my cousin, Rabbi Yehiel Tuber.

There was my day in Kupishok, the ancestral home of my paternal grandparents and previous generations. I hired a driver and translator from the Jewish community to take me; I had arranged to meet the Mayor. Mr. Gurklys met me in his office with enthusiasm and warmth and surprised me by indicating that he had arranged for the Town Archivist to spend the day with us. Every town in Lithuania, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has conducted research into the history of ethnic groups in their community.

There are no more Jews in Kupishok or the surrounding area, but the Mayor and Archivist have taken it upon themselves to research the history of the Jewish community. I showed them the 1932 picture I had, depicting the main street of the town, indicating I would love to re-create the photo today. They excitedly told me that the photo had been taken literally across the street in the center of town and we went out in the bitter cold to explore.

About half the town's population before the War had been Jewish, and much of the center of the town was part of the Jewish community. They pointed out to me public buildings still standing that had been owned by Jews. We saw the flour mill once owned by the wealthiest Jewish family in town. We walked the grounds of the large Jewish cemetery, destroyed by the Soviets, but now being marked and memorialized by the Mayor and his government. We were able to see two of what had been three synagogues, now a library and its annex, and in no way recognizable as a synagogue. We saw the homes once occupied by the Jews of the community, including the home once owned by the rabbi, on a street still known as Synagogue Street.

For me, the most powerful moment was walking down this Synagogue Street, having been told by the Archivist that it had not been repaved since the beginning of the century. I walked those paving stones knowing that my grandparents, my uncle, my great grandparents, had walked the same street, passing by the same homes. Eighty years ago and more, they had traversed this path, perhaps to visit the synagogue, perhaps to visit friends, often just to get around town. And here I was, their grandson, their Kaddish, feeling more powerfully connected to them and to my personal history than ever before. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to carry their lives forward, to commit myself more fervently than before to preserving the meaning of the life of my cousin, Rabbi Tuber, along with other cousins and relatives. I cannot give their death meaning for it was senseless and void of any purpose; but I can, and all of us can give life to some of their dreams.

When I pray and lift my voice in song, when I study our sacred texts and even when I contribute to the creation of Jewish community, I, and we, are fulfilling the dream of Rabbi Tuber and millions of other young and old Jews from Kupishok and thousands of other towns and cities. When we strengthen Jewish community, when we enrich our own Jewish lives, when we give tzedakah and when we light Shabbat candles and when we tell a child a story about their people and when we live and transmit Jewish values, then we give life to dreams a tyrant once sought to destroy.

Our commitment is not to the past, but to the future. With meaningful and insightful glances back to where we were and who were we can step forward on our own paving stones and create Jewish homes and Jewish lives that will be cherished by our children and grandchildren. In Lithuania, this winter, I touched my past and embraced our future.


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