I do believe, with all my heart,
That God created a beautiful world,
The sun and the trees, the flowers and the bees.
And the best way to serve God, is
To enjoy the fruits of His labour of love.
Despite the painful memories from the past,
In the joyful celebration of life, I do believe.
I do believe with all my heart,
That God has created man in image of His own.
And killing of man, is like killing of God.
by Alexander Kimel- Holocaust Survivor
Introduction: “Letters to Leah”
By Joel Alpert
I grew up in the United States, a second generation American, happy and carefree, like many other American kids. I was born in 1944 as World War II was winding down. No one in the family ever mentioned that we had lost family in the horrible Shoah as I was growing up. I started studying engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1962, which ultimately let me to a successful career in the field.
But things changed. I remember that in 1965 at age 21, I sat down with my grandfather and my sister and asked about the old country and wrote down a family tree that he dictated. He told me about the existence of a large extended family that lived in Europe before the Holocaust. My sister and I took notes and wrote out on six sheets of paper the family tree back to our great-great grandparents and all the descendants he could remember. He told us that he had a brother Meyer, and remarked that Meyer’s “Large family was lost.” This was the first hint that our family did suffer losses in the Holocaust. I had always thought that our family was spared, because “no one spoke about it.” In later years, I came to appreciate that no one mentioned it because they had been in shock at suddenly receiving returned letters and slowly realizing what had might have happened. Then the news finally reached the public of the horrid, unspeakable, unbelievable Nazi crimes. It was too horrifying and painful to discuss, especially with grandchildren. In 1990, with my first computer, I started to use that hand written family tree to put our family information into a genealogy program and then delved into the history of my extended family. In the years later, I found that a Memorial or Yizkor Book had been written about the town of my grandparents. Unfortunately it was written in Hebrew and Yiddish. With the help of the extended family, all of whom had origins in Yurburg, Lithuania, donated to the translation of that book into English. Then we published the translation of the Yurburg Memorial Book that included many stories of my family in the town of Yurburg in Lithuania and the community they lived in.
It was then that I understood that the narrative that I was able to recreate by reading the Yizkor or Memorial Book epitomized the larger European Jewish history. Since then publications of Memorial books from Eastern Europe became my retirement project. Based upon my experience publishing the Yurburg Yizkor Book, a few years later in retirement, I started a project on “JewishGen.org,” the premier on line place to research Jewish genealogy, to publish any other Yizkor Book from any town that had been translated. Now, nine years later, in June 2021, I, with the help of a deeply committed team of volunteers have published over 120 titles and sold more than 11,000 books that are deeply appreciated by people whose ancestors came from the towns.
In the course of my genealogical research, I understood that heritage comprises much more than just names of family members or the places where they once lived. Heritage also includes the intangible–the beliefs, the values and the customs that transcend generations and become communal. Thus, heritage can be something that has been written, or is displayed and preserved. In these books we learn much more about the lives and community that our ancestors left behind. It is, in fact, just a part of life that we feel a duty to preserve. Our memory of past experiences does more than simply allow us to remember our pasts. It also appears to be intimately linked to our ability to imagine our futures.
In 1983 a bundle of letters written in Yiddish and sent from Lithuania to Mexico during the period between 1937 and 1941 were found in the worn leather brief case of an older woman, a member of our family who recently died. Her name was Leah Krelitz, and I remember thinking that there must have been a reason why Leah kept these letters for so many years. Indeed, there was. In a way this was a whole legacy of our family hidden in old yellowish envelopes. She too could not bear to let go of the legacy that of her lost family. She never spoke to her two children about this. Having read the translation of these letters, I felt that these epistles should be preserved if only because they tell us more stories and provide authentic evidence of our past. And this knowledge of our past make up a small part of our heritage which can link us to a better understanding of our future and an awareness that is needed to shape it.
Fania Jivotovsky Hilelson, a cousin, edited the letters and added her own explanations or content where necessary. The letters were not changed much; the writing style was modified at places always keeping in mind that authenticity should be preserved. The original letters have been donated to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem by Leah’s son.
We present to you a time period just before the beginning of the Holocaust and the fatal months of August and September of 1941 when a vibrant Jewish Community of a Lithuanian town would disappear forever.
Letters to Leah
By Fania Hilelson
On a rainy October afternoon, I take out a bundle of old letters stacked in the drawer of my desk. The letters are handwritten in Hebrew characters painstakingly wedged on yellowish pages and neatly lined up in parallel rows - ink soldiers defying surrender to relentless passage of time.
The drizzle outside stops, and I can see the reflection of golden rays in raindrops sliding off the autumn leaves, like tears trickling to the ground covered with a silky yellow blanket of lifeless foliage.
In 1937, Leah got a visa to travel to Mexico from Lithuania. She was going to visit her sister who left seven years earlier, when Leah was only thirteen years old.
However, she missed home terribly. Every morning she would wait for the postman hoping he would bring her the long awaited epistle from Yurburg.
Are you well, Leah?
Tell us about Mexico. Is your home nice? We hope you feel okay, after all you are staying with your older sister and that should make it easier for you.
Would you like to hear the latest? I am happy to share my news, like a big brother should. I want to tell you I am a married man now, and I can also tell you that it is not my fault (joke).
The reason for my quick marriage is your departure. I felt so lonely here without my sister. My bride is young and beautiful; she is 22 years old. It is true love and we will make a life together here, in Yurburg.
They say, Russians will be coming to Yurburg soon. When they do, life will for sure be better for all the Jews I want to tell you about my new apartment. In the bedroom we kept the same bed, but we got a new modern wardrobe closet that was a gift to me from cousin Mendel Abramson. In the opposite side of the house, I installed a washroom; instead of the nightstand we now have a brown gramophone table, and on top I placed all my hand carvings, and it looks good! The only thing I am missing are some drapes in my bedroom. We kept the old sofa in the dining room that I have reupholstered. I got the coffee table from our house. I also refinished the brown bookstand myself, and it looks good. On the wall there is the old clock that was a gift from our brother Leibel, and on the other windows I put beautiful drapes. The kitchen looks nice with the buffet there. We connected the workroom with the storage space, and I put in a new door.
I went into business with Shmuel, your old classmate. We are good, and we are making a living! We have plenty of work and our business is doing well. I help our brother Leibel every morning in the bakery and it is not hard at all for me to do that. Leibel is bragging that he is the one buying me all my clothes. He did make a suit for me, that is true, but so far he did not get me an overcoat! We get along well and he comes to visit me because he feels lonely.
Everybody is fond of my wife; we will live a happy life together. Our wedding celebration was such a happy occasion. We had lots of guests. The only one missing was you. They all send you best regards.
Last but not least - we rented the store in our brick building to Motel Goot. He sells ready-made clothing. I rented the vacant room in that building to Mrs. Zuraven.
In the next letter I will write to you more. Be well and I wish you the best in the future.
Your loving brother Moishe
We are optimistic about the future, for now
Date unknown, most likely, April 1938
We thank you for writing to us.
We are all right for now. The only problem is that the Lithuanians are becoming more and more nationalistic. The Lithuanian National Sharpshooters Association “The Shaulists” is expanding. As you may recall, some time ago they were just a simple Sports Club, but now they are waging a nationalistic war against the Jews. In the past the Lithuanians would never dare to hurt a Jew, for they would have been hit back twice as hard but the situation is changing rapidly
Yet, the steamships, the pride and joy of our Yurburg
are still in operation. Some Jews of our town take the steamship to attend an
underground communist cell meeting in Kaunas. Can you imagine?
We are optimistic about the future although the Hekhalutz Zionist youth movement has regretfully become less active Times are changing here, Leah.
We are getting prepared for Passover and we’re making Passover wine. Are you still coming for a visit?
P.S. Please write soon. Regards to everybody in Mexico City.
Leah suffers frequent headaches and is unable to adjust to the hot Mexican climate. Most of all, she misses home thinking of the long walks with her friends through familiar winding alleys in the neighborhood park or along the grassy shores of the Neman River with sprinkles of yellow dandelions bouncing in the wind in summer. She would remember the rest of her town, immersed in leafy greenery, flowers and scents of the season. Her heart would fill with longing for the life she knew best and for her friends and family. In her reply letters to her family, she says she is coming back for a Passover visit, secretly hoping to stay and never return to Mexico City.
Are you, really, coming back, Leah?
I received your letters, I did write to you as well but it seems you did not get my correspondence.
Leah, I heard that you are coming back. In a way, I am happy but at other times I am not. You’re coming from a big country to our small town. Why? Yes, I did hear the climate in Mexico does not always agree with you. Your health is more important, of course. Yet, try to adjust, Leah.
I am all right and business is good for now, although there are very few pleasures here in Yurburg. There are no young people and there is no one to talk to.
I will make this letter short. I will tell you everything in person when you get here. Have a good trip back to Yurburg.
Your friend Feiga
We still have the gymnasium and our “Tel Aviv Park”
Here is our latest news. Your friend Ella finally left for Palestine. It is becoming harder and harder to leave, and there is more checking, more papers, more refusals. Jewish people want to leave. There is a sense of imminent change, and, who knows, if the changes will be for the better
The Russians will be here soon. Lithuania will be annexed to the Soviet Union. Some think it will be better.
Gymnasium of Yurburg
There are problems in Germany. Jews are not treated well there or anywhere and we are becoming more concerned. We will continue to live in Yurburg for now, but when the time is right, Leah, we will ask you to help us so that we could join you in Mexico.
Yet, Leah, we still have our gymnasium and our favorite Tel Aviv Park. For centuries we were proud of the proximity to our cultured German neighbors. After all, it is from them that we learned the German language. How things have changed!
Leah, are you well? Perhaps, you should reconsider travelling back for a visit.
It is the rainy season here and there is a lot of mud all around Yurburg. Be well, my dear sister
Your brother Moishe
March 28, 1938
Dear Sister Leah,
I received your letter and I am livid about you coming back to Yurburg. Postpone the trip, at least temporarily. The situation in Lithuania is deteriorating. A war can break out any day. On March 11, Germany invaded Austria, and now Hitler is after Poland and Lithuania. You cannot imagine what we are going through. I am sure that it will happen when I say that a war can break out any time.
Leah, perhaps you can wait until the Russians come in. I’m sure you can have a nice Passover with your older sister and her family in Mexico City, in fact better than with us in Yurburg. What is your hurry to come back?
Leah, I am thinking, that, perhaps you would be happier if you went to America to stay with our other relatives. Go there for a visit. I am sure you can have a great time there and you might forget your problems. If you decide to come back, you will encounter problems that are much worse than the ones you are facing in Mexico.
Have a Happy Passover, dear sister. There must be something very wrong in Mexico if you want to run home to Yurburg so fast, and actually risk spending Passover on a vessel! I would not wish such a Passover even to my enemies.
Your sister Fannie
P.S. Everybody is buying gas masks for Passover.
Our home is still here, Leah!
Dear Sister Leah,
Thanks for your letters. Things are changing in Lithuania.
Right now we feel that our business is being more and more restricted, and it is clear that the Lithuanian people would rather do business with their own, than with us.
We hope and pray every day that things will change for the better. Yurburg is still our town, and our home is here, at least for now, Leah.
Things are so unsettling …
Dear Sister Leah,
How are you? Surely you must be angry about something because otherwise why you would not write for such a long time.
I tried to make a few pictures of our little daughter Esther, but they came out too dark because I took the pictures inside the house. I am enclosing new pictures for you. Esther is much prettier in person. She is five months old and a she is a precocious baby.
You ask me if I can make a living here. I could, indeed, but the business climate is getting really bad, particularly for businesses owned by Jews.
Most of the people in Yurburg say that we need to get out of here, go anywhere, to any other place, because Lithuania is now the worst place in Europe for Jews. It will be especially bad if a war breaks out, and if Hitler's decrees are enforced in Lithuania. We are afraid, it will happen, Leah.
What do you think of our plan to leave Lithuania? Do you think we could immigrate to Mexico? Do you think I could make a living there with my skills?
Don’t be sad that you no longer live Lithuania and don't ever consider returning because everyone here will say you are crazy. Things are very unsettling here and in Europe as well.
Everybody sends their regards. My wife Dora and little Esther send their love. Be Well,
Your Brother Moishe
We have many destitute refugees!
March 28, 1939
My Dear Sister-in-law Leah,
How are you? You are in a big world; it’s not like in Yurburg. Here the girls are complaining that it is very lonely, and there are no young men to ask them out on a date!
Leizer Peisachson was in town on vacation. He was supposed to be released from the Lithuanian Army but they’re holding the soldiers back because the situation is so unstable. He told me that he wrote to you but he did not get an answer from you. I showed him your picture; you look beautiful. He said, he would like to go see you but I told him “she doesn’t need you, she has better boyfriends there”. He was insulted.
The economic situation here is deteriorating and the merchants are complaining they will not be able to run their business much longer. Nobody spends any money, Leah. Everybody is waiting it out.
I believe that Moishe wrote everything to you, therefore I will close now. It is Erev-Passover and I did not do a thing yet.
My daughter is a little “mensch” already. She wants me to play with her and right now! She gained some weight and looks beautiful. If the weather is good, we will take pictures and send you a few.
Be well. Regards to your sister Rivel, brother-in-law and nephews,
Dora, your sister-in-law
No Date, most likely 1939, pages missing
….. See to it that your brother Moishe gets papers to join you. Talk to your older sister about it, Leah, please.
Things are not good here. All the businesses are now in the hands of the gentiles. If we come to Mexico, nobody will have to waste a penny on us, we will pay you back for everything. The time to move is now. Later may be too late.
Why didn’t you answer our letters for such a long time? Your brother Moishe said he already explained everything to you. He wants to sell half of his brick building. His business is not doing well because he is restricted by the gentiles
Have a happy trip to America
“Geilom”,the Celebrity Electro Robot, designed by Westinghouse
World Fair, New York, 1939
No date, most likely 1939
How lucky is a person to live in a free country. I heard that you’re going to the World Fair in the US. How wonderful, Leah! Make sure you visit the Jewish Palestine Pavilion! I heard how perfect everything is in America!
The situation in Lithuania is terrible. I was recently in Kaunas. The outlook is not good there either. I’m sure you read about it in the newspapers. Let’s hope that things will change to the better. I will write more when I get your letter. I have lots to tell you. I wish you the best.
Your friend Feiga
Best regards from all your other friends.
1939 New York World’s Fair
The Jewish Palestine Pavilion featured a monumental
hammered copper relief sculpture entitled
by the noted Art Deco sculptor Maurice Ascalon.
From Jewish Press, Exhibit 4, 2016/11/30
SEND US IMMIGRATION PAPERS, LEAH!
Dear Sister Leah,
How are you? You wrote and told me that you are getting used to life in Mexico there and that you got a job. You also told me and I’m very happy about it that you are going to the World Fair in America and that you’ll be able to see many of our acquaintances. Perhaps, when you meet Uncle Velvel you could tell him to send us immigration papers. That’s all we are asking him to do.
We would sell everything and we could bring some money with us. I’m sure you know that Gershon, my husband he is not a lazy person. I talked to both your brothers – Moshe and Leibel and they told me to ask you if there is a place for them in Mexico; it would be good if you could bring Moishe to Mexico first. He can no longer make a living here. He knows his profession well. He would do well in a big country, not in the present day Yurburg.
The competition here makes it difficult to succeed, and, as I said, he can’t make a living. They sold the brick building for 16,000 Lit (about $1600 – probably worth $35,000 in 1997) and Moishe could bring the proceeds from the sale with him.
Ask your sister Riva and her husband Shmuel to do this for Moishe. He could go to work right away because he has a profession. Please, answer right away because Moishe’s situation is really bad. After all, he is our brother. We tried to get him a job but did not succeed. We were told they are layoffs everywhere.
See to it, Leah that he is helped and bring him over there. He told me that he would go there with Dora, his wife and their beautiful baby Esther.
What else can I tell you? I’m sure you heard what is happening in Europe. It’s in all the newspapers.
They arrested Moishe Eisenstadt in Smolninken. That’s where he lived but he was able to escape. They also arrested Moishe, the doctor and he had a nervous breakdown and they had to take him to an asylum. This was told to me by Mrs. Weinstein. I must tell you that the situation here in Lithuania is just terrible. There are signs all over saying “Don’t buy anything from Jews.” Every stinking farmer tells us that we are only guests here, and there are pogroms in other towns, and that is the truth.
YOU WILL NOT HAVE TO BE ASHAMED OF ME!
Leikele (affectionate for Leah),
Please let me know if the profession of a watchmaker would be of any use in Mexico? I know the profession a bit, but I could learn more in a very short time. I hired a guy who is a watchmaker, so that I could learn this trade. I can also work as a jeweler and a silversmith. I know these trades well. You won’t have to be ashamed of me. I am waiting for your answer.
Be well and have a good time.
Best Wishes to you from your brother, Moishe
April 12, 1939
I am writing to you again without waiting for your answer. It is about the actual Jewish situation. You know what is happening in
Germany. Now it came closer to us. On March 23, 1939 Hitler entered Memel (Klaipeda), frightening the Jews. Hitler also raised territorial demands on Poland. Lots of Jewish people could not get out because there was no help. Others barely escaped and had to leave everything behind. They took their children and just ran.
In a small town like Yurburg, we know our gentile neighbors; we always got along well with them. Yet, when Hitler comes they will all turn against us. They are eyeing the ones that have money; they will immediately take possession of Jewish businesses.
The newspapers are stating that the future of Jewish people will be tragic in a very short time. Hitler will establish a decree against Jews in Lithuania and he will put an ultimatum before Lithuania. You can imagine that Lithuania is “standing over a hen’s foot (a Yiddish proverb which means, it is trembling with fear)”.
Riverdale Center Permanent Collection, USA
I do not need to describe in detail what is happening here, you already know everything from newspapers. My request to you is that you send us papers as soon as possible so that we are able to get out of here.
About the money issue, you do not need to worry; now there is still time to sell our businesses. Now we can also obtain a loan for the house. Yes, it is really painful that we must give away our businesses, we struggled so hard to make to establish and invested so much work and earned a good reputation but what can we do, the only thing that we want is just to be SAVED FROM DEATH.
See my dearest, and hurry and do everything possible to try to save us and take us out of the jaws of the lion. My oldest son Yosele says, “Mama, write to Aunt Leah and she will save us from death. She knows us so well.”
Be well. Your loving sister, sister-in-law and aunt
P.S. Gershon and the children send regards to all of you. I wait anxiously for your immediate answer and hope for good and happy news.
Regarding the latest news please see urgently to get us papers; we do not care if these papers are a permission to live in the city or another place.
Dear Sister Leikele, see to it that they send us papers as soon as possible. Leah, please write to me. Do not wait to receive a letter from us.
Answer right away when you receive our letter
1 or 2 pages missing
Dear Sister-in-law Leikele,
I received your letter and I am thrilled about your upcoming marriage. I wish you and your darling husband Yakov happiness, love and many years together. You can’t imagine how happy we were when we received your letter with the good news.
You know when your letter arrived Moishe was visiting your friend Feige. Apparently she also received a letter from you, and was thrilled to hear the good news.
We will ask the Guttmans if they can take along our wedding present for you when they go to Mexico. G-d knows when our gift to will arrive. By the way, you can no longer take silver out of the country. They may confiscate it all.
Moishe is sending a handmade bracelet for you……
A GLIMMER OF HOPE ?
The decade was slowly coming to an end, and the situation in Lithuania changes. Jewish businessmen face hard times unable to compete with Lithuanian tradesmen who were opening businesses next door in an effort to limit Jewish commerce and lure customers away. Unemployment soars, and Jews are faced with a growing concern of how to sustain their families. In 1939 Lithuanian towns are flooded with an increasing number of destitute Jewish refugees from Poland who came to flee the approaching German army.
In 1940, the Soviets lead an invasion into Lithuania, and the small independent country gets annexed to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on August 6, 1940
Leah’s relatives and friends, like many other Jews, embrace the new Soviet order with cautious optimism. Life in Yurburg seems to improve, and Jews feel more protected and safer than before. They greet the entering Russian army with bread and salt and flowers believing that the new socialist era will bring equality to Jews and possibilities for a better life.
Leah gets married and soon they welcome a son. Leah finally adjusts to her new country and becomes a Mexian citizen.
January 23, 1941
What do you think of the changes in Lithuania? We are now Russian citizens. The arrival of the Russians in Yurburg is hard to describe. Some people like them and some don’t, but the fact is that it is much better than before.
We don’t wear silk clothes anymore and we can dress simple. The rich people were able to buy nice wardrobes from other countries because nothing is imported to Lithuania any longer.
Silk stockings cost 22 Lit. It is impossible to buy silk underwear. A pair of nice shoes cost 100 Lit. People, who can afford it, buy a lot. Now we are equal to the rest of the world. The Gentiles do not call us dirty Jews any more. We have Jewish police! Can you imagine, Simon Abramovitch is a policeman now! In the government bank, there are Jewish clerks and the Jews have the same rights as anybody else.
It has been a long time since we got a letter from you. My older sister Leah got married. It happened five months ago. Her husband is very nice; he is a lawyer for the federal government. They transferred him to Vilna that is now the capital of Lithuania. We never even dreamed that my sister would marry such a nice man, because the dowry was very expensive. You know, here a poor girl doesn’t have much of a chance. But G-d does not forsake a poor girl either. You would never recognize my sister. She is beautiful. She is now pregnant.
I was the beauty in the family and she was the ugly one but now she looks better than me, and I am happy for her.
Well, Leikele, what else can I write to you. I hope in my next letter I will be able to tell you more. After all, it is impossible to put everything in a letter. This is all for today. Be well. Regards to your dear husband and son.
From me, Dora, your sister-in-law
January 23, 1941
Dear Sister Leah and Yakov,
It was a great joy and happiness to receive your letter and hear that you now are raising a boy. Raise him in good health.
I’m sure you know what’s going on here in Lithuania. We are now Russian citizens and we speak the Russian language. We now use the Russian Rubles - no more Lithuanian Lits. Everything we buy is with the Rubles. We are very satisfied that our mazel (luck) is to be Russian citizens with the Red Army protecting us. We went through a lot under the Lithuanian President Smetona and his regime the anti-Semitism was difficult to bear Jews also suffered immensely under the Lithuanian Fascism. At the present time we, the Jews live as any other free nation. Everybody has the same rights and we happy about it because the changes put the Jews in a more stable position.
Our daughter, Esther, is very happy when she sees Russian soldiers. She runs and greets them and shakes their hands and they smile to the children who walk in the streets singing Russian songs. The Red Army marched into Yurburg in automobiles and people greeted them with flowers, and it was like that all over Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. The soldiers took the children with them through the streets hugging and kissing them.
Now I can tell you that we have divided the brick building and we have a very fine apartment and the same goes for my brother Leibel. You know, he built a bakery and does good business. As for me, thank G-d I work and make a fine living and this is the most important thing.
Our Esther acts like a grown-up. She’s smart and she greets everybody with love. She’s now 2 years and 5 months old. She looked at your picture today and we tell her that this is her Aunt Leiye (Leah). She asks “where is she? Why doesn’t she ever come to visit us?” She has a good memory and she remembers everything.
I would love to see you and your husband and your little boy. Send us a picture of them. In the next letter I too will send you pictures. We cannot do anything now. We have a lot of snow this year and it is -22 F. Let’s hope the winter is over soon. In the next letter I will write you about the people in Yurbrick and how they look and how their business is going.
Stay well, all the best to you, to your Yaccov and your little son.
P.S. Dora sends her best regards.
COULD THEY HAVE BEEN SAVED?
Local Lithuanians witness Jewish sentiments towards the Soviet Army with bitter animosity perceiving the Russians as an occupying force. Enhanced by deep anti-Semitic hatred and national xenophobia, they direct their hate against Jews who once again become archaic scapegoats blamed for the misfortunes that had befallen the country. Jewish support for the socialists would eventually lead to a bloody and ruthless revenge, as once peaceful Lithuanian neighbors and friends would turn zealously against the Jews, often on their own initiative and in full collaboration with the Nazis.
Sensing the imminent danger Leah’s relatives fevershly reassess the situation again.
Letters to Leah from Yurburg stop abruptly in February 1941. Leah’s envelopes addressed to Moishe, Fannie, Dora, Leib, Feige in Yurburg come back unopened.
Address unknown, return to sender
In the bundle of letters I do find one last letter dated 1943 signed by Mika. It is addressed to Genia, not to Leah. I read on
“… I am not afraid of death, for you know the saying - all troubles come to an end in the silence of the grave…
I have seen suffering and sorrow - imagine how I felt when I saw with my own eyes how they shot and killed my sister and many, many others. All night long I heard the sighs coming out of the fresh graves, the groans of children before death for almost all of them were thrown into the pits while they were still alive.
Oh, what a terrible night that was! Yes, that night I also heard the trees around the pits weeping, it was the night of the 8th of August 1941.
I am confident that you will not forget me soon. On days when the sun shines again, the fields
are green, the forest whispers its mysterious secrets, the birds chirp and sing the hymn of freedom you will remember me.
I am going to die without fear….”
excerpt from a letter to Genia written by Mika Liubin, Z”B, Yurburg
from the “Memorial Book of Yurburg”)
Many years will pass. Leah never returned to Lithuania. In 1991, after Leah’s death, her son and daughter discovered a bundle of letters from Yurburg in a worn leather briefcase. The letters have miraculously survived, and through her life Leah kept them within her reach.
The sun is shining and I go outside. It is the fall season and I take in all the glory of its departing beauty; it is just a fleeting moment, and then the seasons will change.
A part of Yurburg disappeared forever when Moshe, Dora, Fannie, Feige, Mika and all the Jewish people died. Like other vanished Jewish towns with its smoldering chimneys and flickering lights in the hinterlands of Lithuania, Yurburg lingers in my mind, timeless and indelible as do the people who wrote the letters and all the others who once lived there.
My car is moving along a two-way asphalt road, making headway to Yurburg. I leave the windows open, and the morning breeze brings in a fragrance of the rue, the local Lithuanian flower. The Neman River flows and narrows. It is moving and living, always knowing where to go, a stream of life itself. Straining my eyes under the morning sun I look as far as I can see - at the hills, the valleys, the weeping willows and old oak trees on green landscapes stretching along the way.
I arrive to Yurburg, park my car and walk to the Synagogue Square Memorial. The town looks festive and spruced up. A new trendy coffee shop sits on a small grassy mound along the main street and exudes a blissful scent of espresso I long for since the morning. I reach the Square, and although it is called a square, it is just a corner of a few old homes with no mezuzahs.
The square is the place where the old wooden synagogue once stood behind the marketplace of flowers and vegetables. It was a building of unique architecture, a work of carved wooden art, and a center of Jewish spiritual and social life; its magnificent image is preserved only in postcards and a few photos. Jews were told to demolish their synagogue themselves in 1941. Local Lithuanian farmers watched the destruction of an architectural monument, and some witnesses confirm that pieces of carved interior were taken away in parts. When the synagogue was destroyed, the Jews were told to dance...
In the time of peace, little children must have played in front of the magnificent wooden synagogue, allowed to stay outside, while their parents prayed before a festive Shabbat meal. The children must have anticipated their favorite noodle kugel with applesauce and cinnamon, and roasted chicken with plum tsimmes and their favorite teglach, the divine knotted pastries boiled in honeyed syrup for a Shabbat dessert.
On Kaunas Street in Yurburg, there are old buildings, some of them patched up, refurbished and covered with eye-catching billboards. There were once Jewish shops on Kaunas Street, and Leah’s sisters and brothers lived here.
These walls must remember how on a warm day on August 8th of 1941, all the Jewish residents just disappeared.
I walk towards the Synagogue Square Memorial. I see shiny, polished basalt slabs in the middle of the square; they are placed so low that at first it seems it is a place to cool off on a hot summer day.
Up close you see winding inscriptions carved on the stones – names of people who once lived here. The inscriptions break up the uniform glow of the black basalt, the letters winding and so sure of where they are going, as if living, as if it is a river of words or, maybe, it is the Neman river itself with its magic winding flow reflected in a stone
Among the hundreds inscriptions I find the name of Leah’s family, and then of my family and two thousand other names, families who once lived here, Z”B
I put little stones and flowers next to the names.
Suddenly I notice hundreds of little stones next to almost every name.
I stop where the basalt slabs transcend into a higher dimension – a symbolic recreation of the famous wooden synagogue, facing Jerusalem, and the sculptor raised the stones higher so that the synagogue could be seen and remain forever at the square where SHE once stood in splendor of architectural glory.
Synagogue Square Memorial in Yurburg, 2019
o Letters from Yurburg, - courtesy of editor of Yurburg Memorial Book Joel Alpert
o Mika Liubin’s letter to Genia, 1943 Yurburg Memorial Book
o Yurburg Memorial Book