I am buried under mounds upon mounds of
my life history. There I breath
a measured and pure breath. There I offer gifts
To all that come. There I sing
in a voice strong and warm. There
I am plain as bread.
– Meir Wieseltier. The Concise Sixties (1984), translated by Gabriel Levin
I didn’t really want to leave that morning, to emerge from the dim warmth of Mother and our only room, to prepare to depart. But I had to. All the arrangements had been made, and now everything depended on getting past the sentries successfully.
It was a clear, crisp dawn in early spring and we may have had something to eat before setting out. Near the house I was befriended by a puppy which ran after us and I was torn –- here at last was a dog that could be mine. I tried to plead with Mother to let me go back just long enough to shut the pup in our room, so that if my escape failed again this morning, too, then at least I would have my very own dog, for the first time in years.
But this time my exit was fast and smooth. The German officer was absent, and the roll call was supervised only by our people, with no interference from the guards. A few more steps and we had already reached the riverbank. Oars cut through the calm water, and I looked around me, wonderstruck. After years in the ghetto, suddenly a river, so much space, and me to sail upon it, like long ago at summer camp.
As we neared the other bank, my mother quietly removed the two yellow patches, the threads of which she had previously cut, and which were now fastened only with a safety pin. Her instructions were clear: once we reached the other bank I was to march without stopping through the Lithuanians standing there, cross the road, and go up the path that led into the hills. All alone, I was to walk without raising suspicion and without looking back. Further up the path, a woman would meet me and tell me what to do.
Everything went as planned, except that I met no woman waiting for me on the path. I proceeded according to my instructions, going deeper into the hills, farther and farther from the riverbank and my mother. Only then did a figure with a sealed face approach me and as she passed me she whispered that I should continue slowly, she would soon return and join me. A short while later I was following her, up a steep path, and I soon found myself in the house of an elderly Lithuanian woman, Marija.
All this occurred so quickly and so easily that I scarcely grasped what had happened to me in such a short while. To tell the truth, I am not sure even today, after these many years, that I have fully digested what happened to me that morning. But the next day I received the first letter from my mother, written on a rolled-up scrap of paper, to be read and then burned: “I watched you move away, my child,” she wrote, and I will never forget this, “climbing all by yourself onto the bank of the river, walking past guards and people on your way to freedom. A day will come when a film will be made about your miraculous escape from the ghetto.”
Like Moses in the bulrushes I was cast by Mother onto the shore of life. I therefore dedicate this story to my mother, who gave me life twice, but was unable to save her own even once.
Yom Kippur (pp.96-97)
An autumn afternoon. We are playing soccer on the lot to the south of the apartment blocks. We play half-heartedly, with a kind of lassitude, until one of us says, “Let’s go to the synagogue.” The suggestion is made simply, and simply agreed to; we all know why. And so, in the same natural manner we had played but a moment ago, we all turned to the shack at the bottom of the mounds that cut between us and the river.
We came to the house of prayer, which was full to overflowing. All were wrapped in prayer shawls, looking pale and dejected. It was forbidden to pray in public, but it was a decree that the people simply could not obey.
We stood in the doorway, peering curiously inside. In a moment we were seen by the worshipers, and a tremor seized the crowd. Here were the boys, come to the closing prayers for the Day of Atonement–the same boys who had never stopped making noise most of the day beneath the synagogue’s windows. They surrounded us, as if embracing us and taking us into their bosom. Some of us found relatives; others were joined by friends who took them in. Our friend Eliezer the writer recognized me, took me to his side, and gave me a prayerbook. As in years past, when I stood beside Father in the big synagogue with the choir, or with my grandfather in his shtetl in his corner at the eastern wall, I now stood with Eliezer until the end of the closing prayer, Ne’ila.
There was much weeping, embracing, and heartfelt entreaty. There was something sobering in the air. The verdict, as every year, had been written “in heaven” and sealed. But there was a feeling this time that the expected sentence was heavier than usual, and that in spite of the sincerity of the prayers, the appeals and petitions for pardon had not been heard. We ended, as usual, by making the traditional wishes for the next year to be in Jerusalem and by blowing an improvised shofar. Outside, they closed with the blessing for the new moon and “Shalom Aleichem” (“Peace Be Upon You”); then they scattered to their homes.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 1943
Epilogue /Back to the River, Selective fragments [ pp.266-293]
But Lot’s wife looked back,
and she became a pillar of salt.
And in the end, did I ever return?
Like so many of my friends, I had deep- seated reasons for rejecting the
idea out of hand: the abhorrence, amounting to hatred, of this land of blood,
where so many of its citizens had served as enthusiastic hangmen. And whom
will you visit there, with all your dear ones absent; your rescuers no longer alive; the ghetto long since destroyed and its land built over again? Will you go to find out who the Lithuanians are who now live in the house you lived in before the war, who might even have kept for themselves some of your family’s furniture?
What point can there be in enduring the pain once again?
And what would be the point of confronting again those silent witnesses— the
tranquil landscapes, the forests and lakes, which like a pastoral blanket cover up the murders and atrocities that took place in their midst?
And, on the other hand, to try once again to confront the difficult memories,
to bring them up to the surface, and attempt to diminish their strength. To return
and test your own strength, to see if you are able to look back.
But Lot’s wife looked back. My heartstrings cry out at the interpretation that
says Lot’s wife had compassion for her married sons’ wives, who remained in
Sodom. She looked back to see whether perhaps they, too, were following in her footsteps. And when she saw what was happening to her birthplace, her heart broke.
After I had safely crossed the river, my mother had commanded me not to
look back. I obeyed her, got out of the boat, and headed straight for the gully that led to the opposite hills. That was the fi rst step I took on the journey to my salvation.
Thirty years passed before I began to look back and to write. The writing itself
lasted twenty years. It was hard to remove old bandages that had long since
merged with the living fl esh. But once the book was completed, my body could breathe again.
And that’s when the desire awoke to go back for a visit. Twice even. The fi rst
time after fifty- fi ve years, and a second time, four years later.
A great curiosity took hold of me as well— how do those places where I passed
the first years of my life look? How wide, in truth, is the river I crossed? How high is the green hill from whose hideout I looked down on the ghetto on the other side? What was the size, in truth, of the field in that distant village across which I suddenly saw the sugar factory rise in the air in one piece and crumble into bits, with me there in a field of fire and exploding shells?
And my home— my last stable, thick- walled house, with its wide windowsill
from which I looked safely out over everything happening in the world, the
adjacent yard where I played with my friend, the enfolding streets— essence of early childhood— what are they really like? How will they appear from my present point of view?
And so the moment came when the time was ripe to return.
The first time we went as two families, Aliza’s and mine. With deep excitement, and not without fears for the safety of our bodies and souls. But we went.
I did not regret it.
I was shocked by the visit. How had the landscapes of my childhood waited
for me here in secret, and I knew nothing of them? A world preserved fi fty
years and more, where time had stood still; like a lost city in the depths of a
jungle that had retained, beneath the thick vegetation, the contours of its former houses and streets as they had been long ago, remembered, familiar. Nothing seemed to have changed, although the city had grown older and more dilapidated.
It was a wonder how utterly oblivious I was the first dozen years of my life.
After all, these sights were there all that time. Did I merely never think about it?
As though a fog were slowly lifting, specific questions sprang up and spurred
me to find answers. So I went a second time. At the end of the second trip, after I had seen and visited nearly everywhere I wished, I left behind me sites that my longing will continue to caress, that will go with me for years to come. But since I now know just what they are I feel that I may be able to live with them without turning to a pillar of salt.
At the end of my two journeys, after having seen nearly all I wanted to see, I
think I have had enough.
I count the possessions that are left to me: a roofl ess building in the old quarter, a pile of rubble in the back country with shoots of a pear tree sprouting from it, a factory that holds traces of my mother, a stone path that climbs Green Hill and guards her footsteps, a little open place where the image of my sister is etched, and a patchwork of mass graves in groves saturated with blood.
These are my properties in that country; no one will take them from me. I may not have found an actual home where I belong, but at the least I located my longing for it. A person needs an identity, a place to start. I need be envious no more.
After my voyages, my possessions increased— they also include my forebears’ towns. My grandparents and uncles now sit on both sides of me as in a family portrait, perhaps like a Yossel Bergner painting.
Jack, an American who joined our second journey, dreams of buying the old
house in Slobodka, where, according to documents, his parents lived as a young couple, before they had the urgent need to rescue their young baby. In that spirit, I must buy up half of Green Hill.
Perhaps for both of us, our searches are variations on the theme of Faulkner’s
As I Lay Dying — we drag with us our mothers’ corpses, refusing to part with
Time passed. Aliza and I were sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, talking again about
our visits in Lithuania and events of the past.
“Aliza,” I ask, “will we ever leave June 22, 1941? Will we ever stop hoping that
we’ll still wake up again on that summer day and go to camp as planned?”
Even sixty- five years later, the question is still open.
But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
How hard it is to look behind, and not turn to stone.
( New findings that surfaced after publication of the earlier Hebrew editions of the book (editions 1-3, 1999-2002); Referred to specific pages in Crossing The River, The Alabama University Press, 2008)
▪ In the first days of the conquest, Jews were executed at the Fourth Fort on the slopes of the Niemunas River, near the Panemune suburb, and at the Seventh Fort above the Green Hill, beside the central hospital campus on Sukilelių Prospektas. (p.19)
▪ In Vidukle, 200 men and boys were murdered on July 24, 1941 behind the train station warehouses. The 100 women and children were executed on August 22, 1941 south of the Jewish cemetery. In Seda, among others, my grandmother – my mother’s mother -Zlate-Rivka Greenstein, and my Uncle Idl Greenstein’s family, were murdered in the Jewish cemetery. The men of the town had been led to their death in nearby Mažeikiai on August 3,1941; there the family of my mother’s sister Feige Peckel and her children were murdered on the Sabbath, August 9, 1941. In the forest near Žiežmariai, the family of my father’s sister Liba Sidrer was murdered, and in a village near Rokiškis, my father’s sister Sheineh-Chaya Rosenstein and her children were killed, August 25, 1941 .All the murders in the shtetls were performed by German units, with the active assistance of local Lithuanians. (p. 25)
▪ The wooden bridge over Panerių Street joined two sections of Dvaro Street (now Radvilų dvaro). (p. 28)
Near the former gate of the ghetto there now stands a stone marker ▪ on the corner of Kriščiukaičio-Linkuvos and Ariogalos streets. (p. 30 )
▪ The “French family”—Lena, nee Baeck, was from Kaunas; her daughter Flora was born in Paris. After becoming a widow, the mother returned to Kaunas. Thanks to Uri and Danny Chanoch of Kfar Shemaryahu and Carmei Yosef, and to Rina Apfel of Bat Yam for the information. (p. 31)
▪ A memorial plaque stands at the site of the hospital that burned down (Gustaito Street 4), (p. 38)
▪ The killing machine at the Ninth Fort apparently functioned without pause. Thus, two weeks after the Big Aktion , on November 17, 1941, 787 Jews from Berlin were sent to their deaths (a memorial plaque has been erected for them on platform 17 at the Gruenwald Train Station in Berlin). (p. 38)
▪ The path to the Ninth Fort is at Linkuvos street and Žemaičiu road. (p. 46)
* The boy was indeed Hans Hoyer of Innsbruk, Austria. He perished together with his mother in Stuthof, July 1944, after the evacuation of the ghetto. According to a review of my book by Dr. Edith Raim, in the Internet edition of Sehepunkte, 9 (2009), 5 .(p.71)
▪ Ileda Katzman nee Friedman . Thanks to Zippy Ya’akov, Ra’anana. (p. 74)
▪ Among the people that escaped in the autumn of 1943 were Magda and Nahum Diener that hid with Sofija Šukiene. (pp. 104, 200)
▪ The felt factory served as a way station for rescue in a few additional cases. (p. 106)
▪ Zipporah Heiman, nee Gross. Her family is from Mažeikiai, and she has relatives in Johannesburg, South Africa. My thanks to Leora Kroyanker, Jerusalem, who helped with identification. ( p.112)
▪ The girl Mineleh (Mina), of the Khmilevsky family. Her mother Pola nee Rosenblatt. The letters my mother sent to Riga included also passages for Mina’s father. When he learned of his wife’s death in ghetto Kovno, Isachar Khmilevsky sat shiv’a. Thanks to Mr. Benny Rosen, Tel Aviv, who, among those transported to Riga, remembered my mother’s letters and recalled Isachar’s period of mourning. (p. 115 ff)
▪ Thus a girl named Gettele, who was born when the ghetto first created, was turned over in the Kinder Aktion by her own father, a Jewish policeman, who later lost his mind. (p.123)
▪ The senior Jewish man in charge in the camp in Šančiai, where Ruchama and her children were, was Eliezer Klavamsky, father of my classmate Abrashka the “zigayner” (the “gypsy”), so named because of his dark skin. On the Kinder Aktion day his father helped to hide Maimke, as well as several others. The later perils brought them to Auschwitz together. (p. 132)
▪ Details about the incarceration of Ruchama in the Stuthoff concentration camp are kept there in registration card no. 12943 of July 13, 1944 (a day after the ghetto was evacuated) as follows: “Ruchama Kaplan, nee Rachman of Zarasai, married, mother of two. Good health, height 158 cm. Languages – Lithuanian, Russian, German. Religion: Mosaic. Lives on Vilnius 29, Kaunas”. Stuthoff Archives , Yad Vashem. (p.133)
▪ According to the transport list which is kept in the Auschwitz Museum, 129 children arrived from Kaunas on August 1, 1944 (a note indicates that 131 were sent, two were missing). They received numbers B2774 – B2902. Abrashka Klavamskis’ number (on his arm) came alphabetically after the numbers assigned to the Kaplan brothers, Arke and Maimke. (Maimke, in the Auschwitz list, is erroneously named Moses [Moshe] instead of Solomon [Shlomo]). Accordingly, Abrashka stood next to them during the lineup conducted by Mengele on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (The New Year), and saw how the two were listed for extermination. Abrashka survived the selection due to Mengele’s interest of his dark skin. My thanks for this information to Abrashka – Dr. Arnold Clevs, Chicago. Maimke’s name also appears in a list of those sent on September 6, 1944, to the clinic for diphtheria screening; [The list is illustrated in: Helena Kubica, Man Darf sie nie vergessen, The Auschwitz Museum, 2002, p. 118] According to the Chronicles, the 129 were placed temporarily in Male Prisoner Quarantine Barracks B-II a . Within eleven days (on the second day of Rosh Hashana, 18.9.1944) 330 men, including 65 of the Kaunas children, were sent to the crematorium. [See: Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle 1939-1945, (New York: Henry Holt, 1990): pp. 676, 703, 707,713, 720.] (p. 134)
▪ A bridge now joins Utenos Street on the Green Hill with Varnių Street in the former ghetto, crossing the course taken by the Pilz Fabrik brigade. From the landing spot, the brigade had to march another 600 meters west to Jonavos 74, where the felt factory stood. The other child who escaped on the boat has also survived—Dr. Alik Peretz, Haifa (p.137 )
▪ The house of Julija Grincevičiene apparently stands in the alley known today as Eigulių takas, beyond Dovydaičio Street (former Mažiu Darbininkų). Julija was honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous among The Nations in 2005. (p 149)
▪ Ona Pečkyte returned to her native village Dženčialauka, near Marijampole, and was aided there by the family Daugela. All were named by Yad Vashem as Righteous among The Nations in 2005. (p. 166)
▪ My shelter on the night of the battle was apparently in the nearby village, Nartas. (p. 183)
▪ Alik Zhofer and his mother hid, after the ghetto was razed, for about 10 days in the space between the water reservoirs in the bathhouse tower, a place crawling with German soldiers, and went miraculously undiscovered. My thanks to Albert Yofe, Jerusalem, for this information. (p.196)
▪ The Diener flat was at Maironio Street 8. Sofija Šukiene was Nahum Diener’s secretary before the war. She took them in and hid them in her apartment at Rutų Street 8, where they walked shoeless for more than half a year. To get provisions for them, she would go out to a different store each time. Because Nahum wanted to smoke, Sophia forced herself to take up smoking so that no one would wonder at the smell of smoke in. Sophia was named a Righteous Among The Nations in 2005. My thanks to her niece Gjedra Saladžuviene and to the architect Yosef Yudelevitch of Kaunas, who supplied this information. (p.200)
▪ The officer of the 16th Lithuanian Division who received my wreath of flowers was Aba Strazh of Kaunas, later the historian Prof. A. Strazhas, the University of Haifa. Years ago he told his young bride about that episode. My thanks to his widow Prof. Nedda Strazhas, Jerusalem, who identified that episode in my book and took the trouble to tell me about it. (p.202)
▪ The Jewish school and orphanage was located at Kestučio Street 54, at the corner of Daukanto. (p.203)
▪ In a letter from our relative Shmuel Natanovich, who researched on 1960, under the request of my father, the disappearance of my sister: “…I was told the old woman would often take her for walks in the street. But after she died, her daughter’s husband contacted the police. He is no longer alive, and his wife [Martha] naturally denied these rumors, accusing instead the neighbors….The neighbors told me they used to see a figure come up to the window at night and look inside. And they would hear crying from inside for a long time afterward…” A couple of years later, Shmuel told me in person, “When I met the wife in the hospital, critically ill, she claimed that one day her husband went out with the girl and came back alone.” (p.206)
▪ The tall boy was Yishayahu Matusevich, who became Beadle of the Great Synagogue in Kaunas until his last days. (p.212)
▪ The young woman who took me with her to Vilnius was Liuba Kaplan, Hadera. (p.224)
▪ The KGB building was on the main street in Vilnius, Gedimino Prospektas. In response to my query in 2005, the Lithuanian National Archives released the following information: 1. The KGB archive was not preserved in its entirety, and a check revealed no objects confiscated from Shalom Kaplan upon his illegal attempt to leave for Poland on January 5, 1945 . 2. The KGB archive has a file labeled “Palestine,” from January 1946, that tells of S. And D. (sic), who belonged to Jewish national and religious organizations. They came from Munich and developed ramified organizational work to promote emigration, especially to Palestine and the U.S.A. Consequently, a large group of nationalistic elements and Zionist leaders tried to flee illegally to Poland on January 5, 1946. On the evening of January 5, 1946, twelve kilometers from Vilnius, on the road to Grodno, a military task force stopped three trucks full of the people of the Jewish nationality and their belongings. Some time later, a fourth vehicle drove up to the barrier and did not heed the warning to stop, so it was fired upon. Two Jews were killed and a few more were wounded. During the action, four trucks were stopped; two were from the Tabac Trust and two belonged to the 16th Lithuanian Division. All the drivers were Jews. In all, 79 Jews were arrested; 19 were children between the ages of 5 and 14. 3. Among the other documents in the file: a report from April and June of the same year, about the findings of an investigation into holders of forged papers, findings from an investigation by the interior security “Smersh” of one of the drivers who, as early as December 1945, transported twelve of the arrested people from Kaunas to Vilnius. On June 30, 1950, a verdict was delivered against two of the men who created false transport orders for the Grodno journey. A document from May 1951 [!] repeats and comments on the affair, stating that an archive of the Zionist organization “A.B.C.” was confiscated, as well as others. According to the testimony of an agent (one of three), the illegal visits of D. from the United Zionist Organizations in Munich were intended especially to convey children whose parents had already escaped from the country, or had been deported to Germany and had refused to return to the U.S.S.R. Among the arrested were 20 children who had been held in the orphanage in Vilnius. The next day, a group of Jews (of uncertain identity) broke into the orphanage and, over the protests of management, took children of those arrested by force and hid them with private citizens.(p.231 ff.)
▪ The orphanage in Vilnius is in Žygimantų Street on the river shore. (p. 234) ▪ Shlomo Gefen, a Beitar loyalist, who spent the war in Kazakhstan, was given the task by the rescue organizations in Poland, of managing the escape from Lithuania. He regularly worked with two drivers and succeeded in taking out about ten transports, until one of his partners added two additional trucks, one of which brought a mole. Gefen arranged a hiding place for me with another Beitar family—that of Yasha and Chasia Goldberg. Thanks to Shlomo Gefen of Holon. (p 235)
▪ The Goldberg house in Vilnius is at Rudninkų Street 16, beside the present marker of the ghetto gate. (p.236)
▪ Among my father Israel Kaplan’s effects is a letter from Dr. Wolf Weistein to Marian Pocicz, a member of the Central Committee for the Liberated Jews [ “Sheerit Ha-Pleita”], dated December 9, 1945 (three weeks before my actual escape), in which he complains about the request to take me out of Lithuania without being provided the necessary means to carry out the complex task (by his estimate, it would cost about 25,000 zloti). There was also some worry that the second attempt at my rescue would jeopardize the rescue of additional children. The messengers were operated by Chaplain Abraham Klausner in Münich (pp.240, 256)
▪ My mate during the journey – Gabriel Horovitz, Gedera. (p.258)
▪ At a meeting for the Champollion immigrants that took place in Atlit, it was said that in addition to the 880 certificate bearers (of whom only 265 were adults), several dozens, perhaps even hundreds, were stowaways; others were dubious about this estimate. My thanks to Mr. Yitzchak Meir of Kochav Yair and David Ackerman of Moshav Kidron, who were among the children aboard the ship and who helped me clarify the matter. (p.260)
▪ Rachel and Ya’akov Vishkin, Qiryat Meir, Tel Aviv. (p.263)