Childhood Memories Haunted Me to Find Answers
I was born in 1946 to German Jewish refugees – in the UK. My father was already 62 when I born and was to die 2 years later so I really had no memory of him. My mother had to struggle to bring me up – she had lost almost her entire family in the Holocaust and she rented rooms in the house they had bought before I was born.
My father and ! I was aged 2 Alexandra Park London 1946
Growing up was not easy - ghosts of the past haunted my childhood – ghosts that were never explained – at school in England in the 1950’s I experienced anti-Semitism without the support of my mother – she said "this is our burden" and left me alone to deal with it.
Fortunately, at the age of 10 we moved to New Zealand where I felt much freer. Despite my mother’s occasional attempts to interest me in Judaism I felt no connection to it and was later to marry my first wife in an Anglican Cathedral! As you will gather my relationship with my mother was not an easy one.
My first wife and I were teacher’s and like so many young New Zealand teacher’s we left New Zealand to travel to the UK . We were living in London in October 1973 when the Yom Kippur broke out – despite no Jewish education I felt a strong pull to go to Israel – this was the first time that the ghosts of the past returned to me – would there be a second Holocaust? Could I remain indifferent? no!
We spent 6 months on a kibbutz on Israel’s eastern border – it was a great experience lots of fun and of course no responsibility! But perhaps most appealing was the warmth and acceptance of the family that adopted me. They gave me a sense of belonging that I had never felt before. However after 6 months we returned to the UK and by the end of the year we were back in New Zealand.
Despite the fact I was now the deputy headmaster of a primary school I felt that something was lacking in my life – this sense of belonging that I felt on the kibbutz. So six months later we decided to separate and I return to the same small kibbutz. At the age of 30 I gave myself a year to see if this was what I wanted in life. Exactly 1 year later I applied for citizenship and volunteered for the Israeli Army.
I had met a wonderful girl from Tel Aviv and we were married in 1980 – our first daughter Rama was born in 1982.
Rama Salinger after I returned from Lebanon Kfar Ruppin 1982
– she had just returned from the hospital when I was called up to fight in the First Lebanese War – again here on the narrow roads of Eastern Lebanon the ghosts returned – as we swept forward in our armored fighting vehicles I saw scores of frightened refugees fleeing I remember pictures of the Blitzkrieg but now we held the upper hand. On returning home after the war I suddenly realized that I was a father, and yet I knew nothing of my father!
As I said he died when I was 2 – I knew that he had been imprisoned before the war in Sachenhausen Concentration Camp and again interned in Britain as an enemy alien. What sort of person was he? And so I began a 20 year search of discovery. In 1982 there was no internet so everything was done by snail mail. Over these 20 years I built a family tree going back to around 1732. The Salinger’s had first appeared in a small village in Western Poland and after 1772 they were expelled and moved East to the Suwalki area and one branch settled in Southern Lithuania in the town of Vilkaviskis. My grandfather who was born in1840 left Suwalki and finally arrived in Berlin where he married my grandmother who had come from a small village in East Prussia.
The travels of the Salingers from 1732 till the 1860’s
My father was born in Berlin in 1882. His parents were orthodox Jews but this did not prevent my father from a relationship with a non-Jewish woman and they had a daughter [my step sister] who was born in 1908 ! In 1914 my father joined the German army and fought on both fronts. After the war he returned home and married his again non-Jewish secretary – he was a lawyer. They had 2 children. Hans Werner was mentally retarded and when Hitler came to power she divorced her husband [my father] and married a member of the Nazi Party who protected him throughout the war – he died in a home in the 1980’s. Gerhard was put into a Jewish Orphan’s home and somehow got to England before the war. Despite checking all the records – I have never managed to discover exactly how he came to England. He lived with us and for me he was my second father - I loved him very much.
However, by 2002 I felt that I had discovered as much as was possible – and I thought that a roots tour of the places where the Salinger’s had lived would be an appropriate why to conclude this project. My eldest daughter was now 20 and she had completed her army service and although not enthusiastic at first I managed to tempt her with an offer of a day,s shopping in Berlin at the completion of the trip.
We travelled in Poland visiting the town’s and villages where the Salinger’s had lived – I had no expectations of discovering any new family information but just wanted to see something of the Jewish presence that had existed there. From North Eastern Poland we entered Lithuania and arrived in the town of Vilkaviskis but sadly we could see nothing that remained of the Jewish presence that had existed there before the war. Our schedule was tight and we returned to Warsaw and from there to Berlin.
In Berlin I was able to see the site of the house where my father was born – the Synagogue where my grandparents had prayed and visit their graves at the large Jewish cemetery in Weinasse. It was time to pay my debt to my daughter and as she went off to do her shopping I took a local train to visit the Concentration Camp at Sachenhausen. I knew my father had been in Block 39 and despite the fact that a fire had damaged much of the buildings Block 39 still existed . I stood there looking at the bunks where my father had slept from 1938 – to mid-1939 and again the ghosts returned.
On returning to Israel the realization that I now knew so much of my father’s history and yet nothing remained of the history of the Salinger’s of Vilkaviskis troubled me greatly. I searched the internet of information but sadly found little. Before 1941 the town was populated by around 7000 souls, half of them Jewish. Around 3400 Jews were murdered in the various actions. Their souls cried out to me "who will remember us? who will remember our lives, our joys and our sorrows ?"
So for the last 15 years I have scoured archives, recorded the memories of those who survived, published 2 books about "Jewish Vilkaviskis [one in English and the other in Lithuanian, I created at web site http://www.jewishvilkaviskis.org The Jewish cemetery has been cleaned and the graves recorded. Signs have been erected in the town marking sites that were Jewish. The erection of a large sign at the site of the mass murders in English, Hebrew and Lithuanian and illustrated.
The sign explaining the Holocaust in Vilkaviskis, Vilkaviskis 2017
Perhaps the most important achievement is to open a dialogue with the local population, through my relationship with the Mayor, by talking in the local high schools, by encouraging trips to Israel. Now we have a local guide a wonderful lady from Vilkaviskis who now can tell the story of Jewish Vilkaviskis.
Irma the new guide to Jewish Vilkaviskis – Vilkaviskis 2018
So perhaps these righteous souls of our ancestors may rest more peacefully?
If you are able to read between my lines you may have detected that the relations with my mother were never very simple. I never made any serious attempt to discover her family’s history. After she died I discovered a picture of her parents – written on the picture were the words "Gertrude and Herman Coper died in a concentration camp 1942".
Herman and Gertude Coper, maternal grandparents Berlin 1930’s
I always assumed that this was correct. Now my paternal grandparents had died in the 1920’s and Gertrude and Hermann were murdered in 1942 and yet here I am already a grandfather – with 4 wonderful grandchildren – 3 belong to my daughter Rama whose husband was born in Russia and I grandson who belongs to my son whose wife was born in Ethiopia. Ester and her family may have experienced so many of the trials my parents and grandparents must have encountered.
Omer and Yami 2 of my 4 wonderful grandchildren Kfar Ruppin 2020
And yet I have felt the need to try and honor my maternal grandparents who died in Holocaust and thus approached the folks who prepare "Stepping Stones" in Berlin and requested that we create a stone for Gertrude and Hermann. They obviously have access to vast archival material. Within a few weeks that were to surprise me – they discovered that they had not died in a concentration camp, they had discovered that in fact that they had been deported from Berlin in November 1941 to Kaunas and murdered there.
The route of transport Da 26 from Berlin,,Germany to Kaunas,Kaunas,Lithuania on 17/11/1941 source Yad Yashem (1)
I had visited the 9th Fort several times before – this bleak site, an old Russian Fortress coupled with a vast sculpture to mark those many thousands of Holocaust victims. Never had I thought that I would have a personal connection to this terrifying place.
photo of the ninth Fort, courtesy of Barry Halpern 2017
The next step was to find more details of how they met their fate – again I searched the net without success and then turned to my friend Ephraim Zuroff, director of Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem; he was kind enough to search his sources and came up with the frightening and horrifying description that told how this transport had arrived at the main railway station in Kaunas then marched through to town – crossing the Neris river they were seen by the Jews held in the Kaunas Ghetto and then continued to the 9th Fort. Pits had been dug by Russian prisoners of war, they were forced to undress and then shot. Apparently the shooters were not accurate enough and many fell wounded into the pits. Then hand grenades were thrown into the pits to complete the destruction.
Karl Jager, head of Einsatzkommando, reported they took everyone off the trains, “…and on 25 November and on 29 November. In the 25 November shooting, 1,159 men, 1,600 women, and 175 children were killed (resettlers from Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt)” (2)
Further evidence from the exhibition JEWISH FOREIGN CITIZENS KILLED AT THE NINTH “On November 25, 1941, almost three thousand Jews transferred from Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt am Mein were shot to death in the Ninth Fort.”(3)
Such a tragic and painful end to their lives – yet here I am still unable to understand my own great fortune – may their memories be blessed.
(1) The route of transport Da 26 from Berlin, Germany to Kaunas, Lithuania on 17/11/1941, source Yad Vashem https://deportation.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en&itemId=5092826
(3) Jewish Foreign Citizens Killed at the Ninth Fort FORT https://www.9fortomuziejus.lt/naujos-ekspozicijos-atidarymas/?lang=en