Revisiting Roots in Lithuania
There is a unique establishment in Long Beach, NY, called Follow Your Art where one can get a picture framed and also discuss Lithuanian Jewry. Recently, the proprietors, Hedy and Eric Page, revisited Lithuania, where Eric was born and raised.
The following are excerpts from the journal Hedy kept during their trip.
Friday, August 25, 2000
We arrived in Frankfort at dawn. One by one the other flights arrived, and we compared dates and reasons for our trip. We were immediately in luck. When Leo Kahan from Baltimore arrived, it turned out that he and Eric had been in the same places: the Siauliai and Kaukago ghetto, Stutthof, Dachau, Utting, Dachau again, and from there the death march. Also, Leo remembered Erics uncle, Morris Schachner, who was in the same places.
When all the members of the group arrived, we boarded a smaller Lufthansa plane and at 9 am, two hours later, we arrived in Vilnius. The waiting bus took us through the main roads. The buildings were shabby but when we arrived at the Radisson Hotel, the nearby buildings had been restored and painted and they were beautiful. We were to see those opposites wherever we went.
At dinner at the hotel that evening with our group -- a warm and festive meal -- each person introduced him/her self and told us what each was researching. We were from so many different areas, but we all had the same purpose in coming to search.
Saturday, August 26, 2000
Yet there was a warm and comfortable atmosphere at this shul and they made us feel welcome. Eric met a man from Tauroge who had gone to school with Erics cousin, Juta Pagremanski, who had been his fathers brothers youngest child. She, her mother, and two sisters had been shot to death when the Nazis entered Tauroge, Eric talked to most of the men there -- everyone seemed eager to talk to the visitors from America.
After lunch we went to the Vilnius ghetto with a guide. Her name is Rachel Kostanian, and she is an amazing woman who is the driving force behind the Jewish Museum in Vilnius. She has dedicated herself to keeping alive the fact that there was a great Jewish culture alive and thriving here. She told of poets and writers and scholars and how they loved this city of Vilnius. She also recounted how when Hitler arose, Jewish refugees poured in from Poland by the thousands. When the German armies came into Vilnius, gates were erected and all the Jews were forced into a ghetto area. People were given about half an hour to grab only what they could carry and driven behind these ghetto gates. It was so crowded that 20 or more were in each single room. Between 2,000 to 3,000 people were kept standing on a street designated to be part of the ghetto. Then it was decided not to include that street, and the people were loaded on trucks and taken to Ponar (Paneriai). There were huge pits in Ponar. The victims were told to take off their clothes, and they were shot and shoved into chutes. They slid into the deep pits and the other bodies followed them. Ultimately, 70,000 Jews were murdered there during the Holocaust.
In the Vilnius ghetto there were so many children who had already lost their parents. The teachers -- who had no writing materials in those first terrible days -- gathered these children and taught them poetry, music, and ballet. They became substitute parents as the schools began. Workshops were also started in order to teach trades so that the Germans would need their services and allow some people to live.
Rachel told us how one night the ghetto police pounded on the doors and told people to rush to the courtyard. Two thousand yellow papers were being handed out and each would cover four people from a family. It meant that one would have to choose which relatives would live and which would die. To make this choice between ones children, ones wife, ones mother or grandmother! Imagine the terror, the chaos, the screaming and the crying. There were 40,000 people in the ghetto and only 2,000 slips.
Rachel also took us to the smaller ghetto. In there had been a selected group of people -- old men, invalids, women, children -- and within six short weeks all had been killed. We had heard these and other terrible stories before, but walking through these narrow streets which housed those horrors brought it home in a different way.
There is no Jewish quarter left in Vilnius. The houses and the signs have been repaired and repainted. There are flower boxes in the widows. There are few beggars. Most people are beautifully dressed, and the restaurants and bars and coffee shops have customers.
We asked Rachel how she managed to stay here. She said that she needs to let people know that once there was a Jewish world here and how it disappeared. "As for me," she said, "I walk with ghosts."
Sunday, August 27, 2000
At 9 AM a bus took us to the Jewish Museum in Vilnius. It is housed in a shabby but very clean wooden building. We walked into a small room used as a lobby. Other tiny rooms branched out from it, and Rachel took us through each one as she lectured. She began with the history of Vilnius and explained its Jewish life of the past. Jews lived there for centuries, and one of the destroyed synagogues dated back to the 16th century. It was a world of great Talmudic scholars, writers, and poets. People who created music and art as well as Zionism and political groups.
Then came the rooms dealing with the Holocaust. These were small rooms with photographs, shoes, keys, and dentures of the victims.... Rachel spoke quietly but with so much passion that everything became personal for us. The people who died became real. The graphic photographs of the dead and dying had been taken by Nazi photographers so that they could have a record of how they implemented the "Final Solution." There were lists from the German government recording how many men, women and children were murdered each day.
We have seen photos and lists like these throughout the years, but in these small primitive rooms with Rachels voice speaking, they were even more chilling.
The last small rooms dealt with the death of children. A soldier was photographed shooting a mother who held her child in such a way that one bullet could go through both bodies. Rachel told us of the ways devised for the torture of the smallest children, so many in sadistic sexual ways. All was done with government sanction. The Nazis shipped Jews to Lithuania from other European countries because so many Lithuanians were eager to collaborate in the murder and torture. But she also told of Lithuanians called "Righteous Christians" who risked their own and their familys lives to help Jews. Many hid whole families, diplomats ignored their governments and faked passports ... there was an opposite to the evil as well.
Then we went to a Jewish cemetery. It was for those mainly who had died after the Holocaust. On an empty hill is a memorial for the children who were murdered. A cemetery keeper had said that late one night a truck came with childrens corpses. There was no blood in their bodies and much of their skin was gone. He said that the blood and skin of these Jewish children was used for wounded German soldiers in the hospitals.
Monday, August 28, 2000
After breakfast our group was taken to the Vilnius Archives which are stored in one of the many large grey buildings. At first we were given a short lecture on the work done here, and we were shown ancient records taken during the many occupations of this area. There were individual consultations with the woman in charge of the Jewish archives, and some people found information, although most in our group did not.
After lunch we stopped at the soup kitchen where elderly needy Jews are given meals. So many of them were eager to tell their stories to us because two in our group could speak Lithuanian and some others could speak Yiddish. In the afternoon we met with members and staff in the Jewish Community Center and we learned about their school, their organizations for their elderly, their children, and their sick. In this building there is the Ezra Medical Center, the Jewish Historical Museum, and the "Room of the Righteous Christians." So far they have collected about 1,000 names of Lithuanian Christians who go under that title. But, as Rachel explained, each one of them had a family, a neighbor, sometimes an entire village who helped -- or at the very least did not report them.
Tuesday, August 29, 2000
This was our last breakfast in Vilnius with our group. At 8 AM our guide, Ruta Puiyte, joined us, our rented car arrived, we re-read our map, and we went off to Siauliai where Eric and his family had been imprisoned in the ghetto. We arrived near noon and Ruta asked where the Jewish Community Center was located. The woman we met went out of her way to lead us there. When we arrived, we saw a few elderly men sitting on a bench, and the man who welcomed us and seemed in charge spoke to us in Yiddish and Lithuanian. He told us the history of the present Jewish world in Siauliai. He also put us in touch with Leiba Lipsic who met us later at out hotel.
Leiba looked at Eric and said, "Do you know that Im related to you? My mother, Esther Rabinovich, had an uncle whose name was Pagremanski. Im a writer and am writing about the Siauliai ghetto. During my research I got a record from Dachau Concentration Camp of your stay." We really didnt believe that to be possible, but when we took Leiba home later he gave us the paper. It was from the Dachau archives, and gave Erics birthplace and birthdate and that he was imprisoned in the Dachau Concentration Camp.
This day was turning into a difficult day, the most difficult one so far on a difficult emotional trip. Leiba took us from mass grave to mass grave. These were the graves of the people who were murdered in the Siauliai ghetto where Eric and his family had been. After going from quiet forest to quiet forest and seeing mass grave after mass grave, Eric said, "This time it really got to me. These were the people I knew."
These graves have been placed away from the main roads. Few people even know that they are there. To get to them you must walk into the forest, and a distance from each other there are metal posts placed around a grassy mound. Under each mound are the bodies, and the grass covers all. Sometimes there are signs; sometimes there is a monument erected by the survivors.
Wednesday, August 30, 2000
Yesterday the hotel seemed empty, but at our 7 AM breakfast the restaurant was packed and we heard Hebrew from every table, A large group of survivors and their families had come to Lithuania for the same reason we had. We found out that one had gone from the same ghetto to the same camps and on the same march as Eric. "After this," he said, and made a covering gesture with his hands, "its over. It is a closure for me."
We drove to Taurage where Eric and his family had fled to in 1938 and stayed until the war in 1941. We went to City Hall where two women in their offices really went out of the way to help us. But they could do nothing for the Taurage Jewish records had been mostly destroyed. Then we drove to a monument of commemoration to the Jews who were murdered there in Taurage. It stood on a mass grave. Further back there was a smaller mass grave. If you let yourself think of who lies there the pain is unendurable. This was a hard area for us because Eric believes it is where his Aunt Frieda, his other aunt, uncle, and cousins are. There is no other cemetery for Jews who were killed there.
We continued on to Panemune where Eric spent most of his childhood. This area had once been German, and the language, the customs, and the people were mostly German. When the German armies invaded, Eric and his family fled into Taurage. He had looked forward to this trip in the hope that there would be someone in Panemune whom he would know, someone who would remember his family. But everybody and everything was gone. The German population had gone back to Germany and the Russians had taken over the vacant homes. Most buildings were old and broken. Erics home had been near a bridge which now leads into Russia.
Thursday, August 31, 2000
In Klaipeda we saw something which lifted out spirits. Jakovas Rikleris is the rabbi, Hebrew teacher, cemetery caretaker and everything else. In a fairly large yard there are small trees lining a walk, In front of each is a plaque with the name of a Lithuanian Christian who risked his or her life to save Jews. The Jewish cemetery itself was bulldozed by the Russians, but the broken gravestones have been made into primitive monuments. A cement wall has some which were not broken implanted into it. In a small building there is a Torah, a Hebrew school, and a soup kitchen. Both Lithuanian and Jewish women volunteer there and the needy of both faiths come during the week for food. Everything is poor and shabby, but there is an atmosphere of hope. Unlike the local government of Siauliai, Klaipeda gave this property rent free and tax free to the Jewish people.
After this we drove to Pogegai so that Eric could take photos. He had various good memories of the town. We went back to Silute for lunch and then we were off to Katiciai where Eric believes his mother was born, We no longer tried to find records of the Jewish lives that had once been lived there. In the small towns even the Jewish cemeteries cant be found anymore.
Friday, September 1, 2000
After breakfast we went to the Kaunas archives and we learned how things are catalogued in a country which had been ruled by so many other nations until it gained independence. We also had individual consultations with the archivist. In our case there were no records. But last night Howard Margol gave us the birth records (see below) of the two children of Erics brother, Rabbi Yosef Pagremanski. They had died in the Holocaust before we even knew their names. It is impossible to describe what these documents meant to us.
Saturday, September 2, 2000
|We walked thorough Kaunas until services in the "Blue" Synagogue were nearly over, and then walked in to see if we could meet anyone who might have been in the Stutthof Concentration Camp. From there the men were taken to Dachau, and we have never been able to find out what happened to Erics mother, Anna Loewensohn Pagremanski. The synagogue had a few elderly members who were more than eager to talk to "the people from America." One woman had survived Stutthof but did not know of Erics mother. They told us to come to a specific street in the afternoon because other elderly survivors would be there. Then we went into the synagogues back yard where there is a monument to the Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust. On the ground there are many marble slabs with a town or city name on each and a date. Then there are the numbers of these children on each individual slab. One said 500, another 26, another said 200 -- and then I had to stop reading those numbers because I was numb. |
After lunch we met a few elderly people at their meeting place, and they made phone calls to a few friends who had been at Stutthof. But no one could give us any more information, and yet no one wanted to see us leave. We walked together for a long while before we were able to say good-bye.
At night we had our second farewell dinner and we all felt emotional. Howard Margol, who had made this tour happen, had done an incredible job, and so did the people whom he had employed to ease our way. As for the group members -- well were so lucky -- each one became special to us.
|We gathered for breakfast and said "good-by" to each other. Some were going on extra tours, some had already left, and the remaining three of us went to hotels in Vilnius. Eric and I spent the day walking and looking -- a free day with no bitter history. At five we met with Joe Winston for dinner and had a wonderful time. He had met an American couple who were there to adopt a little boy and they even knew people we know in Long Beach! |
We also prepared our papers for tomorrows final research effort of our "Roots" journey.
Monday, September 4, 2000
This was the day on which we had hoped to accomplish so much in the archives, but we were not lucky. Ruta had left a message at our hotel to go to the Metric Archives. The people there were very kind and promised to have whatever information they could find in their files for us. But when we returned in the afternoon, all they could give us was Erics birth certificate. However, from our tour group we had uncovered new leads and we will follow all of them. We went back to the museum to see Rachel and leave these papers with her. She will correct any errors, and, hopefully, add words of her own.
Rachel Kostanian has had a powerful impact on us. She has shown us how important every human being is and that it us up to us to keep history alive. She gives us knowledge of a culture in Vilnius which had been slated to disappear. We said good-by to her and to our Ruta, met Joe Winston for dinner, and shared more stories -- and that was our last night in Lithuania.
Tuesday, September 5, 2000
Ruta came to our hotel to say "good-by" and it was a sad parting. We had grown to really love each other and we will call or write or e-mail and otherwise stay in touch. We learned so much from her and she from us. This was a difficult trip and it is so good to go home. We know how lucky we are to have our home be the United States of America. Yet through Ruta and so many of her fellow Lithuanians we learned not to generalize about any people but rather to take the good where we find it and eliminate our prejudices. If we allow ourselves to hate indiscriminately, we ourselves become part of what can cause the horrors we saw.
After our trip, though we had no success in our search to find a trace of Eric’s mother, we are determined not to allow her memory to disappear. We have created the "Anna Loewensohn Pagremanski Fund" so that her name will live on. We are working with FEGS, a beneficiary of the UJA Federation of NY as well as a United Way Agency, which devotes its efforts to helping individuals with a wide range of problems - emotional, developmental and physical disabilities, the unemployed, new emigrants, families in crisis. Eric wanted the money to go to people of mixed ethnic backgrounds in order to do the opposite of what caused his mother’s death in the Holocaust: the separation of one part of the human race from another.
Elie Wiesel wrote this comment for our fund in a letter to our daughter, Jo Anne:
"Children are children, they are all not carriers of threats but bearers of promise. It depends on us whether they make us weep or smile."