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Return To Lithuania

[The Mail On Sunday, 2001]

YOU WOULDN'T guess that it's the worst place in the world. Some forests have a dark, forbidding air. Not this one. This one is sylvan charm itself. The woodland is airy and dappled with light. The clearing where we have gathered is bright and quiet. It would be ideal for a picnic, were it not for the fact that it is both the scene of an unfathomable crime, and a mass grave.
  For other families, there are other worst places. But this is ours, a spot three miles outside the town of Wilkomir, in central Lithuania. My father, Max, was only six when he became aware of it, and the circumstances are branded on his memory.
  His own father, Toli, had left Wilkomir in 1926. Our family, then called Misnuner, co-owned the town's tannery. Toli had emigrated to South Africa. There, his surname was adapted to Bennun, to sidestep association with a wayward Misnuner. The man had taken a pot-shot at a colonial official. Family life was still secure enough, and the world still made sufficient sense, for such embarrassments to matter.
  Then war enveloped Eastern Europe. It was, to those on the outside, like a dust storm through which nothing might be glimpsed. In Port Elizabeth, all Toli could do was wait. At last, in 1945, with the Germans in retreat, information began to seep out. A letter arrived. Toli read it and, as Max looked on, fell down on the floor in a dead faint.
  Toli's brothers, his uncles, their wives, their children - everyone he knew and cared for in Wilkomir was gone. All six thousand of Wilkomir's Jews were dead. Within weeks of the German invasion in June 1941, they had been jostled and clubbed into the woods. In the glade, they were ordered at gunpoint to dig several long trenches. This done, they were commanded to strip naked. They were lined up facing the pits. They were cold-bloodedly murdered with bullets to the back of the head.
  The outlines of those graves still rise above the grass. To stand beside them on a sweet afternoon in late summer, almost sixty years to the day since the killings began, is not an experience I would care to repeat. But it is one I have sought out, along with my father and his cousins, Basil and Batia. It brings me jarring up against the immense and unyielding fact of what happened here - an event which for a long time felt abstract to me, so many miles and decades away.
  It is one thing to be aware of the Holocaust, and to know how one's own kin were caught up in it. This must apply to every Jew on the planet. But it is entirely another to feel. . . not a personal loss, exactly. The feeling is one partly of anguish, and partly of absence; of possibilities obliterated.
  I've chosen to visit this vile place because more and more, when I encounter images of the Holocaust, I see in the faces of the victims my own face, and the faces of those I love. I have come to realise that my life has been granted to me only by a quirk of time and space. And now, in this tranquil, arcadian hellpit, space no longer applies. Only time separates me from the horror of it. And sixty years suddenly feels like the blink it is.

OUR guide to Wilkomir (or, “Ukmerge” in Lithuanian) is an 80 year-old, tub-shaped dynamo named Hirsch Pekel. A native of the town, he remembers our relatives well; as a child, he played with long-dead great uncles and second cousins. His family were handicraftsmen: “In the summer they made umbrellas; in the winter, spinning wheels.”
  Hirsch escaped the Holocaust because he spoke English. Lithuania had been annexed by the Soviet Union under the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of 1939. In June 1941, Hirsch was a language student in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania's second city. He learned of the German invasion from the BBC. Russian radio didn't broadcast the news. Stalin refused to believe it.
  But Hirsch did. He fled east, joined up with the Red Army, and spent the war as a sapper in the largely Jewish Lithuanian 16th Division. Only half of his comrades survived. Hirsch was twice wounded. But paradoxically, it was safer to be a soldier than a civilian. 95 per cent of Lithuania's Jews were annihilated during the war, the highest rate in Europe. You wouldn't want to bet your life on those odds.
  At the grave site, the older men say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. I don't know how, so I just stand there, uselessly, head bowed. “All my relatives, all seventeen of my family, lie in this place,” says Hirsch. He has been here many times before, but still the sight brings him to tears. “First they took the intellectuals, teachers, doctors, and hanged them on a farm two miles from here. They are buried here, across the road, in a ditch. Then the men were beaten and driven here. The shooting was heard five kilometres away.”
  Wilkomir now has a Jewish population of one; a farmer in his thirties who knows almost nothing of what happened here. His ignorance is shared by the rest of the town, which seems afflicted with a wilful amnesia. The ground has literally swallowed Wilkomir's Jews, and not a trace remains. Wilkomir's major synagogue, the Great Shul, is now a sports hall. Young men spar where the congregation gathered, watched from the balcony by lackadaisical teenage girls. Once, a plaque revealed the building's original purpose. It has been taken down.
  The only clue that Jews ever lived here is a bare patch of common ground used by children for riding their bikes. For hundreds of years this was the Jewish cemetery. One solitary, salvaged headstone has been re-erected. I could not have recognized this place from the black-and-white home movie made in early 1939 by my grandfather, which pans past a throng of headstones to show those of his own grandfather and great-grandfather. The Nazis levelled the cemetery and had the headstones destroyed. It was not enough to wipe the Jews out of existence. They aimed to erase the fact that Jews had ever existed at all.
  After the war, monuments were raised by the Communists on approximately 200 sites around the country where Jews were massacred. These invariably referred to the killing of “Soviet citizens” by the Nazis, and made no mention of the reason - a particularly insidious form of Holocaust denial; proclaiming the crime while burying the motive.
  The USSR relinquished its hold on Lithuania eleven years ago. Why should this deliberate blotting out of the past have carried on among the Lithuanians themselves?
  There is a good reason. When news spread of the German advance, local fascists, identified by the white ribbons tied around their arms,

wasted no time attacking the Jews. Such pogroms were initially encouraged but soon halted by the Germans. They were not orderly (for the Nazis, even carnage had, whenever possible, to be methodical); and they showed too much initiative on the part of a conquered people.
  Instead, the invaders recruited the most zealous anti-semites to the ranks of their notorious Einsatzgruppen. Before genocide was industrialised inside the gas chambers, these roving “police” squads followed the army across the East, murdering as they went.
  Einsatzgruppe A eventually issued its enthusiastic new recruits with Nazi uniforms. It is estimated that between one-half and two-thirds of Jewish deaths in Lithuania were at the hands of local auxiliaries under German command. “Some 25,000 Lithuanians took part in the slaughter of Jews,” asserts Hirsch Pekel. “Afterwards, the authorities never wanted to speak of it. Three thousand still live in Lithuania. No one will give evidence against them. 317 Lithuanians perpetrated the slaughter here in Wilkomir. I have a list of their names. The Gestapo wrote them down.”
  The Germans did indeed document the butchering of Lithuania's Jewry with their customary meticulousness. The officer in charge of Einsatzkommando 3, operating across Lithuania, was one SS Standartenfuhrer Karl Jäger. His name, aptly, translates as hunter; but he also detailed with an accountant's blank eye each separate atrocity carried out by his middle-aged German reservists and eager Lithuanian thugs.
  Jäger's report lists dates, places, numbers, types of victim. Thus, in Wilkomir: “1.8.41: 254 Jews, 42 Jewesses, 1 Pol. Comm. [political commissar], 2 Lith. NKVD agents, 1 mayor of Jonava who gave order to set fire to Jonava.” A week later: “620 Jews, 82 Jewesses.” Eleven days after that: “298 Jews, 255 Jewesses, 1 Politruk, 88 Jewish children, 1 Russ. Comm.” Finally, on September 5th: “1,123 Jews, 1,849 Jewesses, 1,737 Jewish children.” After that, there was no need in Wilkomir for the kind of “mopping up” which dispatched “16 Jews, 412 Jewesses, 415 Jewish children” in nearby Rasainiai.
  Jäger committed suicide in 1959; not out of remorse, but because he had at last been arrested for his crimes. Most of his Lithuanian accomplices, we can assume, have since been permitted the luxury of dying in their beds.

THERE is only one moment of our visit to Wilkomir which could be described as enjoyable. The Kruk-Misnuner tannery still stands near the riverbank; on approaching the town, its chimney is the first thing we see. Bearing a letterhead from 1930, we call in to take a look around. The management react with exquisite consternation. Clearly, the identity of the former owners is no secret to them. They think we've come to claim back the business. The temptation not to disabuse them is strong.
  But what would we, a clutch of white-collar Westerners, do with a Lithuanian leather factory, in a town where we can hardly bear to set foot? I can't imagine any of us will ever come back here. Or that we would be remotely welcome if we did. Those townsfolk who watched us assemble in the desecrated cemetery did not look overly pleased to see us. After all, shame and guilt are easily put aside - until someone comes along to remind you of them.
  And certainly, that is part of the motivation for this journey: “To show the bastards,” in my father's words, “that they didn't get all of us.” Being a generation younger, I was more curious than angry when I arrived. Three days in Lithuania have left me seething at a widespread - although certainly not total - willingness to regard the country's vanished Jews as an irksome irrelevance; or to disregard them altogether.
  On the outskirts of the capital, Vilnius (aka Vilna), sits the district of Panerai. Here, in large, circular pits intended as fuel dumps, some 100,000 souls were executed and buried, 70,000 of them Jews. The site itself does not lack for memorials. But trying to find it in the first place is a matter of guesswork. It lies hidden in a pine forest at the end of a dirt track alongside a semi-derelict railway line. Not one sign directs you towards it; not one marker admits to its presence in the trees.
  Lithuania's few surviving and mostly elderly Jews are determined that their past should not be neglected in this way. With meagre resources, a group of volunteers runs a museum named for Europe's greatest Rabbinical scholar, the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797). Here are collected the relics of Lithuanian Jewry. One room is ample to house all the artefacts and fragments left behind by 200,000 people. My own lounge has more in it.
  The museum also chronicles Jewish resistance to the Nazis. One wall is dedicated to the partisans who refused to die meekly. Another remembers the soldiers of the 16th division; the bright-eyed, intelligent face of young Hirsch Pekel looks down from there, alongside his comrade in arms, Basil and Batia's uncle Elimelach Rapoport.
  My exasperation at Lithuania's refusal to reckon with history is soothed a little by “Gallery of the Righteous”. Portraits of ordinary folk hang here, alongside those of Jews for whose shelter they risked - and in some cases lost - their lives.
  These people were motivated by nothing other than outrage, compassion or simple decency. It is hard to be self-righteous in the face of their courage; harder still to believe that one would be capable of duplicating it. A few minutes in this room will stall any rush to judgement. But “Catastrophe”, the Museum's permanent exhibit on the Holocaust in Lithuania, serves as a sour memento of just how exceptional were such acts of mercy.
  I have come away from Wilkomir with an image lodged in my mind. A noticeboard outside the sports hall - formerly the synagogue - displays a photograph of a local junior shooting team. The youngsters grasping their rifles irresistibly recall a different photograph, from the “Catastrophe” exhibit. This one was taken sixty years ago: a line of men in Nazi uniform, grinning proudly for the camera, each with his gun at the head of a kneeling Jew with seconds to live.
  I find myself thinking: looks like old habits die hard around here. And catching myself in this ugly sentiment, directed at children, I know it's time to leave.

The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum can be contacted at

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