NOMAD NOTES – Chapter 5 –Victory is Thriving in Spite of It, on the bus from Vilnius, Lithuania to Warsaw, Poland, September 1, 2016
I’m up since before dawn, way before my 7:00 am iPhone alarm, with my mind rolling. I’m on an 8-hour bus ride from Vilnius to Warsaw, at a fraction of the price of flying. The driver is capable of asking for your passport in Lithuanian, Russian, English, and heaven knows what other language.
The grim bizarreness of the bus station reminds me that I am in a city that is still recuperating from the Soviet era. Not so far away deluxe shops sell Italian bags to tourists paying with Euros; Lithuania just switched its currency to the Euro last year.
But here in the bus station my shocking failure to learn even the most minimal language is impacting my ability to find food I can eat on the bus. EVERYTHING is surrounded by a nice, glutinous roll, I don’t know the word for eggs or how to form a sentence, and I manage to buy an apple and a banana for the trip.
I survive getting stuck – together with my luggage – in a floor-to-ceiling turnstyle (think NYC subways) trying to get into the probable last bathroom on land. I’m out of change (what, you want a FREE bathroom??), can’t get out or in, and I’m saved by yet another compassionate young woman. Thank you, Universe.
At this point, my wallet is full of receipts, my bank account is close to empty, my emotional tank is full, and I’m flying back to New York tomorrow.
I’ve just been told that the bus I’m on will not be stopping at the stop I booked for, Warsaw Central, where I’ve purposely booked my last hotel. I’ve been offered a Metro ticket to get to my destination. Why? This is unacceptable. Traffic is impacting the schedule. Oh, I see. Thanks a lot.
I think back over the last two weeks. It’s incredible that I flew to Israel on August 14; was that just 2 weeks ago? It feels like a lifetime. I’ve cried buckets of tears and learned how much I don’t know, like most of the history of my own people.
The Pinkas Synagogue is the second oldest surviving synagogue in Prague. It commemorates about 78,000 Czech and Moravian Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The floor of the synagogue is below ground level, so it has been repeatedly afflicted by floods and moisture. From 1955-60, the walls of the synagogue were inscribed in tribute with names of about 78,000 victims. The synagogue was closed after less than a decade, in 1968, with the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. After the Soviets were ousted in 1989, the synagogue was reconstructed for three years and then opened to public, but it took another three years to restore the inscriptions of the names on the walls that were damaged by moisture (or whatever). In 2002, an old enemy of the synagogue, flood, proved its power and the inscriptions had to be restored again. You cannot begin to imagine the immensity of this task; walls and walls and walls, floor to ceiling. Restored again and again. By hand, dauntlessly. So that the dead who had no graves would not be forgotten.
Vilnius is referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was a center of Jewish learning, and was near the little town where my Grandfather was born and where other family members lived. While the Russian Czar was still in power, my branch of the family immigrated to New York City, in two groups, around 1900. First the father and the oldest sons (among them Morris, my Grandfather), then the mother with the youngest kids. Some other relatives immigrated as well.
Those family members who remained, along with almost all their descendants, were killed by the Nazis on the notorious night of November 25, 1944.
I arrived in Vilnius from Prague by Air Baltic propeller plane, after some nerves but in good shape. A dear friend (and percussionist in my band) put me in touch with an American violinist who had been living in Vilnius for the last 3 years, and by a stroke of luck we were able to connect. Karen was a fountain of information and good advice and she gave me the tour of the Jewish ghetto.
But what ghetto? In Krakow, I had walked into the square and cried with the recognition that I had come home. The restaurants serving Jewish specialties accompanied by live Klezmer music; perhaps it had been diminished by the Holocaust but it was still there.
In Vilnius, there was no center. There was no “there” there.
This great center of Jewish learning, of commerce and trade, where did it go? It disappeared, first under the Nazis and then under the Soviets. The market place, where the Jewish community engaged in vibrant commerce is now a little park in the middle of a road.
Before World War II, there were 100 synagogues in Vilnius; now only one remains, known as The Choral Synagogue.
The main synagogue was destroyed by the Russians in the 1950’s and only these relics remain, housed lovingly in the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum’s Tolerance Museum.
On the plot of land where the main synagogue stood, there now stands an elementary school, all trace of it gone. Just a poster, showing where it was, a photo, a description.
I had the good fortune to arrive during the 75th commemoration of the Holocaust, and Karen brought me to a memorable event at the Vilnius Jewish Public Library, one of several that had taken place this week. Family members of victims and survivors (who now live in Israel, the USA, and the UK) spoke eloquently about those who perished, disappeared, or underwent great hardship and cruelty. Commemorative plates have now been embedded in the streets of the ghetto to honor members of the Jewish community.
In speaking of their grandparents, they echoed some of my own experiences, acknowledging how difficult it is to find ancestors when the borders of countries changed every few years as a result of conquest. One could live in the very same town but one’s country of origin could change – what country are we living in today – is it Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Belarus?
They also noted a typical psychological phenomenon – that survivors cannot talk about their experiences to their children but feel the need to tell their grandchildren. Another reason that in many cases, the information about the past has gone to the grave with those who knew the stories.
In all the accounts, not just of World War II, but also European history for centuries, I see the theme of the Jews being the educated ones, those useful to assist in transactions between those who could not read (future of the Jewish lawyer?). Jews were successful merchants, prosperous hard workers and responsible members of the community. For this we have been envied, hated, stigmatized and preyed upon. Why?
When asked how the present generation can help to repair the past, the family members justly said that the first step is knowledge – bringing the facts to light.
“Worse than hatred is indifference.” Those who stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen showed their indifference. Or perhaps they were governed by their own fear of being punished for speaking out or taking action.
Perhaps the COURAGE to stand up for justice for all humanity is the primary quality we must cultivate in the present and instill in generations to come.
The last gift was when Karen introduced me to Judita Gliauberzonaite and her daughter.
Judita’s grandfather, born in 1913 in Vilnius, looks like my father, born the same year in New York, son of Morris from Vilna.
Her grandmother looks like my cousin Barbara. Same side of the family.
Judita said exactly what I have been saying, “Because they lived I am here.” We hugged and cried, having known each other only minutes.
In DNA terms, a long-lost sister.
As the family members said, “The greatest victory is surviving and thriving in spite of what occurred.”