Fifteen years ago a stranger in Israel contacted me through the internet to say that we were distant cousins. She was her family’s genealogist and discovered that my Grandmother Naomi was her mother’s first cousin. For the first time I learned that my grandmother’s uncles, aunts and first cousins, had been murdered in one day during the first phase of the total destruction of the Lithuanian Jewish community. My father and his brothers never knew their mother’s secret. She never shared what she may have thought was too burdensome. Maybe she didn’t know herself? My father passed away before discovering this family history.
We at the Russell Berrie Foundation have supported Fr. Debois’ work for a few years and when they decided to go into Lithuania, I decided I had to go with them. I’m not sure what I was looking for — maybe a witness who knew my grandmother’s family or maybe just a deeper understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust by Bullets? After landing in Vilnius, I was greeted by Michal (the group leader) and Gediminas (the driver) and whisked off to the site of the Ponary Massacre where up to 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were executed between July 1941 and August 1944. It was like having a bucket of cold water thrown in my face — an awakening to what the days ahead would be like. We proceeded through stretches of farmland onto Kedainiai in the center of the country and my grandmother’s birthplace.
Kedainiai is a colorful and clean town. We met with Mr Zirgulis, the director of the regional museum. His English was adequate but it was hard to make out what was he was trying to say. He was defensive and said something about intellectual property and ownership over the Holocaust information. He said, “You know, the Jews are problematic. No, I’m just kidding.” That was the second bucket of cold water. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in New York any more.
Nearby in Ariogala, we met a woman in a home for the aged who witnessed the execution of Jews from Betygala. Her adult daughter wanted to be in the room while we filmed. She watched but had a hard time listening. The mother said she saw a column of Jewish victims being brought to the execution site located between Ariogala and Betygala where ten Jewish families were killed. She said, “To this day, I remember the screams. I wondered why they didn’t try and escape.” Her daughter had to leave the room before the end of the interview.
This was an anomalous interview in a clean location where the witness was supported by hospital staff and family. Many of the homes we visited, the witness lived in an overheated, filthy and intolerably foul-smelling room. Most were happy to receive so much attention from an international group of young Lithuanian translators, French cameraman, Guatemalan photographer, Polish/French group leader, French interviewer and American visitor in their modest homes.
The witnesses were frank and spoke of these horrific events with a matter-of-factness and little outward emotion. Some remembered extraordinary details like the names of the families and the extra herring the Jewish vendors would give him. One very frail woman in her nineties remembered her Jewish friend who lived across the street. They went to school and played together. When she and her friend were 19, she witnessed her hiding in a hay stack, trying to escape five Lithuanian men. The men took a pitchfork and plunged it into the hay. The frightened girl fled but was caught, raped and shot to death in the stomach.
The questioners followed a similar script, but it was anything but scripted. Witnesses were asked in a quiet, soothing voice their age, what their parents did for work, before asking questions about atrocities against the Jews in their villages. Some witnesses behaved like they were still a child — compliant and unquestioning. One witness said, “Her grandmother was killed because she was Jewish. They [the Germans] told us we were Jews so we were Jews. We were terrified because they said they would shoot the Jews and we were afraid of that.” Others were nearly deaf. Victoria the translator screamed in a unique, gentle manner and listened intently for the answer. It was very impressive.
We didn’t meet anyone who knew my grandmother’s family. We visited memorials on the sites where her family was murdered and buried in mass graves on August 28, 1941. Their names cut into a steel wall that looked like the infamous iconic barbed wire fences used throughout Europe. It was enough for me to feel the place, smell the air and interact with the people who witnessed one of man’s most heinous follies.
I couldn’t help but ask if the painstaking work of amassing interviews with the surviving witnesses was worth the time and effort? People who deny the Holocaust will find a way to repudiate these immutable facts. But when I asked one of the translators if she learned about the Holocaust in school growing up in Lithuania, she said, “Yes, but I had no idea that these mass murders happened in my own backyard.”
I left Lithuania feeling thankful to see firsthand the work of Fr. Debois and his dedicated Yahad in Unum team of investigators, translators, cameramen, drivers and others. They’re bringing meaning to the phrase “never again” and encouraging remembrance for this human tragedy.