Return to Serei
The morning after arriving in Lithuania, with our guide Regina Kopilevitch and driver Misha, my son, Avram, and I set out for Serei. We were very quiet for the two hours we drove, each with his own thoughts. When we saw a sign, SEIRIJAI, we stopped, and took a picture before continuing on our way.
As we entered the town I looked for familiar signs. Most of the houses looked like something out of a Chagall painting: small one-story wooden structures, painted varying shades of yellow, rust, brown, and cream. The main street, which we used to call " "Lange Gass" and which the city called "Vytautas Street" that I remembered as straight, was actually curved and meandering. We reached the church, the most imposing structure in the town. I didn’t remember the iron gate around it - but the building looked even more menacing than any of my memories of it. Up the street from the church was where our house should be and there it was. Although it was now painted a garish yellow, without the lilacs and with no front door, there it was. However, Regina, who had been to Serei some months earlier and had met an old Lithuanian claiming to know our house, said I was wrong. Furthermore, the 1939 Lithuanian Telephone Directory, which she had somehow managed to unearth, showed my father’s house to be number "19" while this house was "53." In 1939, Serei had around 30 telephones, 20 of them private households, our number being "14." She suggested we go to Serei’s City Hall to check out pre-war records.
|At the City Hall a clerk told us there were no records from before WWII, but we insisted on seeing something. Because of the heated discussion which ensued, the Mayor walked in to see what was happening. A pleasant looking woman of 47, she realized immediately we were Jews looking for the past and she was determined to be as helpful and pleasant as possible. She repeated many times how she treated everyone the same, how she tried to care for the cemeteries in the town, how she would like to help us. She told us that house numbers had indeed changed after the war, and if the house I remembered was indeed ours, the two families living there would not welcome us. So she telephoned them and asked them as a personal favor to her to let us in. Thus we were able to enter the house that had been my family’s.
Originally, the building had been divided into two parts, one where our family lived and the other part a mini-restaurant where beer was served. (My father owned a brewery.) My father kept the restaurant where hardly any food was served and the only customers were Lithuanians from the countryside mainly as something to keep my grandmother occupied. Now the building consisted of two apartments. I remembered the porch where my father had built the Succah; the room where the morning after Purim my father would begin making "mead" for Pessach; the room where my brother and I had slept; but mostly I remembered the large tile stove extending from floor to ceiling, one side in one room and the other side in the second room, which heated the house in the winter. I remembered it as extending almost the whole wall length although now it was much narrower. The woman living there told us that part of the stove had been removed.
The windows were the same, but the front door I remembered was barricaded. My mother’s once carefully tended floors were now splintered. The paint was peeling from the walls, on every one of which there was either a cross, a picture of Jesus or a picture of Mary. My mother’s lace curtains - gone; the wooden shutters - gone. No one now needed shutters to protect them from the rocks thrown on Easter Sunday or during Christmas as the Lithuanians went to and from church. The barn was there but the ice house gone. The garden was overgrown and the gate to the garden was hanging on a broken hinge. Both tenants made sure to tell us that they had "bought" their apartment from the previous owners.
Before going to see the house, the mayor had taken us to the old cemetery. The sign said:
The old Serei Cemetery
Holy is the memory
Of those who have died
My great grandfather had died in 1918. All my life I had heard stories about this saintly man who was beloved by all, and who, after his wife Chana died when he was in his 70’s, married again still hoping to have a son after siring seven daughters, the youngest being my own grandmother Bat Sheva. I read all the tombstones, and although some of them were elaborate with praise and with "yiches," none had the personal and loving feel of this man. My brother was named for him, and my son Avram is named for my brother. We spent a few hours in the cemetery, identifying graves, photographing many of them, assessing the neglected condition, and then returned to the mayor’s office.
I gave the mayor several hundred dollars and asked her to cut the grass and put up some type of fence. She suggested we plant spruces since a wood fence would rot and iron was not practical. She promised to send me pictures of the fence and the grass and would account for the money. I also told her I would send more. It was then that she telephoned the people living in our house and also gave us the names of a few elderly Lithuanians who might remember my parents.
This is the story the residents of Serei told of what happened on that dreadful day. On September 8, 1941, all 953 Jews remaining in Serei were brought to the school house by the Lithuanian police. Two weeks before, all the young men in the town, over 20, were gathered and told they would be going to Alyta to" work." All of them, plus one girl who was engaged to one of the men and had refused to leave him, were shot on the way to Alyta. Each Lithuanian told the same story and each identified the girl as the daughter of the "shoichet." (This was the word they used, the Hebrew/Yiddish word for a kosher butcher.) The rest of the Jewish population was brought to the school house and kept there for three days and three nights, with no food or water. One detail everyone remembered was how the beautiful three year old daughter of the local doctor, my cousin Hershel Garbarski, stood in the school window, dressed in a red dress, smiling and waving at each passerby. One Lithuanian woman who was allowed to enter the school asked the Garbarskis to let her take the child. The family refused saying that the child would remain with her family and suffer the same fate, whatever it was.
On the morning of the 11th, wagons were brought to the school to transport the old people to the forest. The others were told to follow the wagons as they marched three kilometers to their final destination. The Lithuanian population was ordered to stay inside their homes with the curtains closed; anyone caught outside would suffer the fate of the Jews. About 15 to 20 Lithuanians carried out the murders but none were local so they were not known to the townspeople. After the killing was completed, the killers went to the brewery owned by my father to celebrate their "victory" over the Jews by drinking my father’s beer until they were drunk. It is important to note that no Germans participated in the killing since there was no German presence in Serei at that time. They also described gruesome details of degradation and abuse before the killings took place.
The first Lithuanians we visited were Antanina, 88, and her husband Stassys, 91. They remembered my parents, especially my mother. They described her as a beautiful lady who always smelled good; they remembered her blue silk dress (which I also remember) and how she smiled. When I showed them a picture of my parents Antonina began to cry, held her face with both hands and moaned, "Oy Yezu, Oy Yezu." They described the events of those days, in detail. Later on the other Lithuanians told us what they remembered and all the stories matched, down to the detail of my cousin’s three year old daughter standing in the window of the school wearing her red dress.
Antonina insisted I come into her house (we had met them outside in the garden) and offered us her home made butter and white cheese served with dark bread. She apologized for not having other things to give us and begged me to stay the night, that she would give me "clean sheets." When I gave her some money, which she was reluctant to take, she began to cry and kiss my hand. She told us that the Sunday after the murders, the priest in their church announced that from that day forward the world would be different since such evil as had occurred changes the whole world. For a month, people simply didn’t speak, but went about their business silently... I asked them, and later the other Lithuanians, how they could remember such details after 57 years. The answer was that in the long winter evenings that’s what they still talked about for they kept going over these seminal events in their lives again and again.
We then met Juozas, at 98 the oldest person in town, who though frail in body had a very clear mind (as the others also had), and Vaclovas, his 72 year old son-in-law. They told the identical story. But they had more details since their house was only a few doors away from the school where the Jews were kept. Juozas was good friends with many Jews since they bought the goods he made in his small factory and also supplied him with raw materials he needed. He described how one woman he knew managed to leave the school and come to his house asking for food. A Lithuanian policeman caught her, beat her viciously and threw the food away. He kept repeating, "Why did they kill the Jews? They were innocent - they were good people - everything I had they gave me." He began to wipe his eyes. The son-in-law described how on that day in September he heard nothing but shots all day and all night. To this day he remembers the exact sound of those shots. Then he too began to cry.
|It was time to go to the communal grave in the forest. We drove until we came to a barrier which stops all vehicles from entering the sacred space, about one quarter mile away from the grave. As Avram and I walked slowly, I visualized my father, my mother, and the earlier Avram walking the same path, knowing what was awaiting them. I could barely raise my legs as I tried to control my sobs and the quivering of my whole body. I found it difficult to breathe... I had no doubt accompanied them on that day since I must have been in my parents’ thoughts those last minutes of their life - accompanying one of their children to his death, having saved their other child through circumstance and luck and who knows what else. We came to the marker commemorating the slaughter, a low monument made of marble, on which is written, in Yiddish and Lithuanian:
Here was shed
We lit three candles. Avram and I said "Kaddish," once for our family, a second time for everyone else... Then we stood, sat, and waited. For what... for footsteps, for voices, for a bat kol, a divine voice? There was nothing but the sound of our sobs, the pounding of our hearts, the sighing of the trees, the wind swishing through the leaves and branches. We looked at the incredible blue of the skies, the magnificent array of flowers nearby, the cows grazing peacefully and contentedly in the fields, the awesome beauty of the forest. How could such abominable evil have been perpetrated in the midst of such beauty which surely was part of God’s handiwork? And where was God on that day?
Where had I been on September 11, 1941? Did I have a premonition? Did I dream that night? Was there a voice I should have heard? Should I have sensed being in my parents’ thoughts, could I have been hovering as a silent witness? Was it possible that at such a cataclysmic time I was sitting in class, reading a text book, doing homework, talking to friends, eating supper, listening to the radio, leading the completely ordinary and mundane life of a school girl? The entire time in Serei I was two people - one, Chana Rosen, functioning on automatic pilot, calm, rational, polite, smiling - the other, Chanale Slavaticki, watching the automaton function.
What influenced me to return to Lithuania after all the years? The events leading to the decision began in May, 1998. I had gone to Israel to celebrate her 50th anniversary. On my return to the office, I threw away, unread, at least twenty accumulated newspapers, but for some unexplained reason kept one copy of the Forward. On leafing through it the next day, I read an interview with one Max Apple, author of a newly published book, I Love Gootie. He had written about his immigrant grandmother, Gootie, who lived in Grand Rapids her entire adult life, yet in her heart was still a girl in her Lithuanian shtetl, Serei. Then to my amazement I discovered that Max Apple’s family’s name in Serei had been Slavaticki and upon further investigation realized we were related.
Overwhelmed by the unbelievable happenstance of these events, I began to believe that this was yet another sequence in the succession of events which had guided my entire life and which I call the finger of God. Now I felt compelled to make order in my life, to gather the strands into a comprehensible whole, to tie up all the loose ends.
My life, began in Serei... but because I was ill as a child I was sent alone across the ocean to Cincinnati where I met my life-long friend Nechama... After the War, I was reunited with my Shoah survivor cousin who found me by approaching an American G.I. in the camp - who happened to know me and had a picture of me in his pocket - and handing him a letter bearing my name but with no address... to life in Israel and teaching at Geulah Gymnasia... to marriage and motherhood. In the states... to continuing friendship with Nechama... to innumerable trips to Israel...to the article about Gootie and Serei which brought back into the circle Nechama and her husband Gershon who had known Gootie in Grand Rapids and had seen Max Apple’s wife Talia grow up in New York... to my trip to Lithuania... to meeting a former student of mine from Israel in Kovno...and finally to being in the forest in Serei.
I did not hear a sound as I stood in that lush greenery in the forest... I only heard the flapping of the leaves and the lowing of the cows...my mother, father, brother and the other 950 Jews slaughtered there did not hear the sounds of fluttering leaves only shots and the moans of the dying... no one then or since has heard a sound... But there could have been 954 bodies in that grave... So the question remains as it has since 1941 - why am I here to record all this?