Sunday November 6, 2016
I arrived in Lithuania on Sunday afternoon. I expected to take a two-hour drive to the Marijampole region, check into my hotel, and then meet the YIU team. Instead, my driver informed me that the team found out about an 88-year old witness who knew about the killing of Jews in the town of Azula Buda during the summer of 1941. The witness was willing to meet the team in the early evening and be interviewed. I met the team for the first time outside the house of this witness.
We entered the house which was quite old, small and in disrepair. The witness’ wife greeted us and seemed a bit nervous. We removed our boots and entered into an extremely small living area. The witness then came in, greeted everyone and sat down on the tile top of an oven which was used to heat the entire house.
The interview lasted nearly three hours. Questions were asked in English and then translated into Lithuanian for the witness. The witness then responded and his responses were translated into English.
The witness told us that at the beginning of the occupation, Nazi soldiers moved into peoples’ homes without permission. This was particularly relevant to me, as I recall Imma (my mother) talking about how a soldier moved into her family’s apartment when she was a young girl in Munkacz. The witness then shared that he and a friend were returning from a fishing trip and walking on a road near his home, when they heard machine gun fire nearby. After a few minutes, they realized that the machine gun fire was coming from a wooded area across the road. They climbed a tree to observe the Nazis shooting Jews near four open pits nearby, at most a quarter mile away.
The witness held his head in his hands, as he recounted that some of the victims were buried alive. He then took out a sheet of paper and drew the location of the four pits, including how they were configured.
As the witness was talking I was surprised by the small details which he was able to recall, and I was also surprised by his willingness to have his testimony be recorded and shared. I then remembered Father Desbois wisely telling me that these witnesses have been waiting for 70 years to tell their stories. Although I understood what Father meant at the time, I hadn’t truly felt it until now. The witness agreed to take us to the exact location of the killing field the following morning.
Monday November 7, 2016 – Killing Field
We met the witness from the previous evening at his home, and drove the very short distance to the killing field. When we reached the field, we saw the configuration of the four pits that he had sketched out on the sheet of paper the day prior. One of the four pits was unfilled and looked like a crater. The witness explained that the Nazis had dug four pits, but only used three of them for the mass killing, the fourth was never used.
The witness pointed out that tops of the three pits were a bit lower than the surrounding ground. This was because in the years after the killings, the victims’ bodies decomposed, causing the ground to settle. He then showed us where he had witnessed the shootings from, described how they executions took place, and how long the killings took to complete. It was a cold and damp day, and his description of the horrific events – in particular, the victims’ screams he remembered hearing – were in stark contrast to the serenity and quiet of the forest today.
After the witness finished his testimony, I put on my prayer shawl and standing next to my friend Jerry Wolf recited the ancient Kaddish prayer, and began to cry as the testimony he had shared hit me all at once. What struck me most was that this may have been the first time that Kaddish had been said on behalf of the
Kedoshim (the holy martyrs) who were killed here.
I was to repeat this act of reciting the Kaddish many more times during my visit to Eastern Europe.