I have just watched a fascinating little documentary about Fania Brantovskaya, now in her 90s, who conducts walking tours of old Jewish Vilnius (Vilna) in Yiddish.
Listening to her speak I was vividly reminded of my own grandmother, Pearl, and the recordings my father made of her talking about her life back in Russia. Fania’s intonation, the cadence of her language, mirror almost exactly my grandmother’s speech.
Fania was born in 1922. She had just started university in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Vilna. She tells how two Lithuanian policemen knocked on her door at 6am on 6 September and told her family they had to move into the ghetto, giving them just half an hour to pack.
Fania lived with her parents and sister in a crowded apartment shared with four other families. She points out their three windows, on the middle floor of a large three-storey building. Fania guides us past the hospital, school, theatre and library that continued to function within the ghetto walls. Indeed, the Vilna ghetto was known as the Jerusalem of the ghettos for its intellectual and cultural richness. But death was never far away, with regular deportations from the ghetto to Ponary, now Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.
Fania’s father changed her birth date to make her appear four years younger than she actually was, enabling her to avoid the call up to work in the Nazis’ forced labour camps. Instead she joined the United Partisan Organisation that was formed in the ghetto in January 1942 by the poet Abba Kovner, among others, as a means of Jewish self-defence and to sabotage German industrial and military activity.
The partisans smuggled arms, food and medicine, and found ever more ingenious ways of doing so. Chimney sweeps carried guns in false-bottomed cases, while wounded men and women hid supplies in their bandages. Fania worked as a messenger, using the slogan “Lisa is calling,” in honour of a partisan who had died early during the resistance.
After more than two years in the ghetto’s stifling narrow streets, in September 1943 Fania managed to escape to join other partisans living in the forest a two-day march away. She couldn’t have known at the time, but her escape was to precede the liquidation of the ghetto by just a few hours. Fania never saw her family again. They were divided up and taken to different concentration camps across the area, where they perished.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, Fania lived in the forest, where she and her fellow partisans continued their struggle against the Nazis and their local collaborators. They lived in tents and underground shelters dug from the earth, with walls of wooden planks and foliage pulled over for cover, sleeping on pieces of wood covered with spruce branches. They had very little to eat, surviving mostly on grain flour donated by local people and hot water. Some locals would willingly give them food, she says, but others would not. Nevertheless, after two years in the ghetto, Fania says, the forest made her feel like a human being again.
Today Fania works as a librarian at the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, where she created a collection of Yiddish books. She leads walking tours of the city of her youth, keeping alive the language and memory of her family and the tens of thousands of other Vilna Jews murdered at Ponary and elsewhere.
Fania is one of just two or three thousand Jews living in Vilnius today, a city that had been a major Jewish population centre for over four hundred years. Around 70,000 Jews were resident there by 1941, close to half the city’s population. Through much of its history, Vilna was a hub of Jewish culture and learning. The definitive edition of the Talmud was printed on the Vilna presses, the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—known as the Vilna Gaon—was one of the most authoritative Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages. And YIVO, an organisation dedicated to the study of Yiddish life and language, was founded in Vilna.
After the war, Vilnius became part of the USSR, as capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I visited in 1989, shortly before Lithuania finally gained lasting independence. Even in Soviet times, the city had a lively and attractive air, but it has changed a lot since then--the historic centre has been restored and a buzzing arts and entertainment culture has taken root. It must be time for a return visit, before Fania and her walking tours are no more.
The documentary, by Edita Mildazyte, can be viewed here:
I have written before about the revival of the Yiddish language, in particular in the US where a hit Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof is currently running in New York.
But many will be surprised to learn that Yiddish lives on in parts of Eastern Europe too, in a few isolated communities that survived the Holocaust and its destruction of a once vibrant Jewish culture.
A group of linguists and historians from Indiana University spent seven years from 2002-2009 interviewing nearly 400 elderly Yiddish speakers across rural Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia and documented their journeys in photographs and video. They named their project AHEYM meaning “homeward” in Yiddish, and doubling up as an acronym for “Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories.” In subsequent years AHEYM expanded its work into Latvia and Poland.
The project is led by linguist Dov-Ber Kerler and historian Jeffrey Veidlinger and explores Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after World War II. The interviews cover a range of topics, including family and religious life, community structure, cultural activities and recreation, education, health, food and folklore, as well, of course, as harrowing tales of Holocaust survival and life under the Communist regime. They include musical performances, anecdotes, jokes and folk remedies. Some present guided tours of local sites of Jewish memory.
These testimonies bring to life the story of those Jews who stayed behind. The interviewees were mostly born between 1900 and 1930 – they would have grown up in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and not only survived the Holocaust, but rebuilt their lives in the very places where some of the most horrific events of the 20th century occurred.
The majority of Jews who survived the war in Eastern Europe soon abandoned the shtetl and the Yiddish language, following the call of the metropolis or a life abroad, where they lost many of the local customs and practices that had defined Jewish identity in the shtetl.
But a small number of Jews came back to these small communities after the war. Some returned after evacuation – often to a different town from the one they had left, others came out of hiding. Some literally crawled out of mass graves to reclaim their lives.
The AHEYM team has catalogued, annotated, and translated into English nearly 800 hours of videotaped interviews in Yiddish with such survivors. The recordings are preserved at Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music and form part of the EVIA Digital Archive Project.
Most of the video clips lack English subtitles, but even as a non-Yiddish speaker I found them addictive. I can’t understand much of the content, but I recognise the accents and the cadence of the language. They recall the recordings I have of my own grandmother telling stories similar to many of those in the AHEYM archive. Some of the videos are funny, some are strange and of course, some are chillingly harrowing.
“When they called us here for work, how could we have imagined that they would murder us?” remembers an old man near Berdichev. “My mother asked me to watch the bread while she went to work. That’s what saved my life and that’s why I bake bread every day, in honour of my mother who kept me alive with her request.”
Visit the AHEYM website for more information: http://www.iu.edu/~aheym/index.php
A selection of the videos is available on the AHEYM Facebook page
And a full list of the recordings can be found here http://eviada.webhost.iu.edu/atm-subcollections.cfm?sID=69&pID=162
I have both read and written a lot about the pogroms in Ukraine, which were at their peak a hundred years ago. Like Holocaust literature, the more one reads, the more one ceases to be shocked and horrified. I thought that reading about the pogroms would no longer have the searing impact on me that it once did, but I have found that a new book published this month still has the ability to sicken.
The work, by Nokhem Shtif, was first published in Yiddish 1923, but now appears in English for the first time translated and annotated by Maurice Wolfthal as The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust. Shtif was editor-in-chief of the editorial committee for the collection and publication of documents on the Ukrainian pogroms, which was founded in Kiev in May 1919.
Shtif focuses specifically on atrocities committed by the Volunteer Army, also known as the White Army, under General Anton Denikin, as opposed to the myriad other armies and militarised groups – banda as my grandmother called them – that were rampaging violently across Ukraine at the time.
The number of Jews murdered in Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution is estimated at anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000, with up to 1.6 million injured, attacked, raped, robbed, or made homeless in the largest outbreak of anti-Jewish violence before the Holocaust. The number of individual pogroms is estimated at more than 1,200.
“The Jews were attacked by a number of different groups of perpetrators including Anton Denikin’s Russian Volunteer Army, Simon Petliura’s Army of the Ukrainian Republic, various peasant units, hoodlums, anarchists, and the Bolshevik Red Army.
“These attacks stemmed from a number of grievances: accusations of supporting the enemy side, the chaos following the collapse of the old order, the aftermath of World War I and of the Russian Revolution, and a widespread anti-Semitism, after the dissolution of the Russian and Habsburg Empire.” So writes the Berlin-based historian Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe in his preface to the book.
The relative lack of literature and research on these events provides some explanation for why the Ukrainian pogroms have garnered so much less attention than the Holocaust that followed some 20 years later. Of the research that does exist, much focuses on the nationalist leader Petliura, the subject of my December 2018 blog post.
When it comes to Denikin, “the crimes committed by his army have not been forgotten but they were neither investigated as thoroughly as the massacres by the Petliura army nor did they arouse any major controversies, because none tried to systematically or deliberately deny them as the Ukrainian nationalists did in the case of Petliura’s soldiers”, Rossolinski-Liebe argues.
But Denikin’s army was unique among the banda in that it murdered Jews in an orderly and methodical way, clearing out the Jewish population from the towns and villages it raided using many of the practices that would be adopted by the Nazis two decades later. The author’s aim is to demonstrate that the pogroms were an integral part of the Volunteer Army’s military campaign, much as the murder of the Jews was for the Nazi regime.
The Volunteer Army was a force made up of former Tsarist officers that aimed to drive out the Bolshevik regime and restore every aspect of Russia to its pre-Revolutionary days. Their aims, as Shtif says were, “The land must be returned to the aristocracy. The labor movement must be crushed […] Jews will continue to be second-class citizens, oppressed and subservient.” Pogroms were a way of preventing Jews from gaining the equal human rights that the revolution had granted them.
Shtif is convincing in his explanation of the causes of the pogroms: “For the reactionaries pogroms are a way to prevent Jews from obtaining equal rights, which the hated Revolution granted them. Pogroms are the first step towards reducing them to a state of slavery. That principle […] is at the root of the pogroms. In the eyes of reactionaries Jews are creatures without rights. And as soon as anyone dares to give them their rights, they are outraged and they burn to put the crown back on the head of perverted justice. In the eyes of reactionaries, of course, Jews have no rights.”
In describing the events of the pogroms, I feel traumatised yet again knowing that my grandmother and her family lived through and survived such terrifying times. So much of what Shtif writes corroborates what my grandmother said about the pogroms, and the many different banda that perpetrated them. The towns my great-grandparents came from – Pavoloch and Makarov – both in Kiev province, receive several mentions in the book, each one sending shivers down my spine. “So horrendous are the accounts that they are difficult to grasp,” Shtif writes…. “There are no words…”
It often feels in these troubling times of the early 21st century that swaths of the population in many parts of the world are returning to the extreme nationalism that pervaded a century ago. We seem to be revisiting that world of religious extremism, with murderous attacks on immigrant communities and a US president who vilifies those of other faiths and nationalities. We would be well served to learn lessons from the past and prevent the current polarisation of society from leading once again to the kind of mass violence that tore Ukraine apart a hundred years ago.
The Pogroms in Ukraine, 1918-19: Prelude to the Holocaust is published by Open Book Publishers
I recently read a fascinating obituary of the last musician to grow up playing traditional Jewish music in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Leopold Kozlowski died in March at the ripe old age of 100.
Kozlowski gained fame as the “Last Klezmer of Galicia”. He was an expert on Jewish music, having taught generations of klezmer musicians and Yiddish singers in Poland. He continued to perform until shortly before he died.
He was born Pesach Kleinman in 1918 in the town of Przemyslany, near Lviv, which was then in Poland and is now part of Ukraine. His grandfather was a legendary Klezmer player by the name of Pesach Brandwein, one of the most famous traditional Jewish musicians of the 19th century. With his nine sons he performed at Hassidic celebrations and even for heads of state, including the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph.
Brandwein created a musical dynasty, with many of his descendants forming family orchestras throughout Galicia. The clan also gained renown in America. Brandwein’s son, the clarinetist Naftuli Brandwein, settled in New York in 1908 and became known as the “King of Jewish Music.”
Because of the family’s reputation, Brandwein’s youngest son, Tsvi-Hirsch, decided that in order to prove himself, he should change his name and go it alone. He adopted his mother’s maiden name, Kleinman, to avoid association with his famed grandfather and uncle. His son Pesach — later to be known as Leopold Kozlowski — and his brother Yitzhak would prove to be the greatest musical talents of all Brandwein’s grandchildren.
Kozlowski played the accordion and later the piano, while his brother played the violin. By the 1930s, as teenagers, they began playing alongside with their father, but times were hard and most families could no longer afford to hire a band for weddings. The boys devoted nearly all of their free time to practicing and performing and were later admitted to Conservatory in Lviv, completing their studies in 1941.
By this time their home town had become part of Soviet Ukraine and was flooded with Polish Jews who gave increasingly dire accounts of the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland. When Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, most believed that the Germans would only kill Jewish men of fighting age. Kozlowski’s mother told him, his brother and his father to flee.
The three men travelled 200 miles on foot in a little over a week, their instruments slung over their shoulders. But they were intercepted by the German army on the outskirts of Kiev. Realising that capture meant near certain death, they searched for a place to hide, settling on a cemetery where they dug up the earth with their hands and hid in coffins alongside the dead.
Finally emerging from hiding, they were immediately captured by the German army. But just as the soldiers were about to fire, Kleinman pleaded with them to allow him and his sons to play a tune. The soldiers listened, and slowly they lowered their rifles. After checking to see that no-one was watching, they gave Kleinman and his sons some food and left. The three men returned to their coffins.
Unable to remain among the dead any longer, and with no other option open to them, they eventually headed home, travelling by night and hiding in the forest by day. Three times German soldiers captured them, and each time they were released after playing a song.
Back in Przemyslany, the Gestapo ordered all Jews over 18 to assemble in the marketplace. From there the Germans led 360 Jews into the forest where they were forced to dig their own graves and then shot. Among them was Kleinman, while his wife was murdered soon afterwards when German soldiers found her hiding in a nearby barn.
Kozlowski and his brother attempted to flee, but were quickly captured and sent to the Kurovychi concentration camp near Lviv. Both brothers soon joined the camp’s orchestra and when SS officers learned of Kozlowski’s skill as a composer, they ordered him to compose a “Death Tango” to be played by the orchestra every time Jews were led to their execution.
The officers would bring the brothers to their late-night drinking sessions and command them to play. They were frequently made to strip naked and the Germans extinguished cigarettes on their bare skin.
Eventually the two men joined a group that planned to escape. They befriended a Ukrainian guard with a drinking problem, and while the brothers distracted a group of SS officers with their music, a third prisoner stole a bottle of vodka from them and gave it to the guard while he watched over the camp fence. Once the guard passed out, the inmates grabbed his wire cutters and made a hole in the barbed wire.
Immediately the camp’s searchlights fired up and gunfire reverberated. Several inmates were mown down by bullets just outside of the fence; others were caught by guard dogs and executed. Running alongside his brother with his accordion over his shoulder, Kozlowski felt several sharp jabs in his shoulder. When he examined his accordion later, he found multiple holes; the accordion had blocked the bullets’ path, leaving him unscathed. The accordion is now on display at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.
Following their daring escape, the brothers joined a Jewish partisan unit and later a Jewish platoon of the Home Army. In 1944 Kozlowski’s brother was stabbed to death having stayed behind from a mission to guard injured comrades, and Kozlowski never forgave himself for being unable to save him.
Throughout the horrors of their wartime experiences, the brothers had continued to play music. Music not only saved Kozlowski’s life several times, but also helped heal his psychological wounds, his long-time friend, the American klezmer artist Yale Strom, said in an interview.
After the war Kozlowski settled in Krakow and enlisted in the army. Still fearful of anti-Semitic violence, especially after the massacre of Jews in Kielce in July 1946, he exchanged his Jewish surname for the Polish Kozlowski.
He served in the military for 22 years, achieving the rank of colonel and conducting the army orchestra. In 1968 he once again fell victim to anti-Semitism when he was discharged under President Wladyslaw Gomulka’s anti-Semitic campaign.
“He thought to himself: ‘I’ve already changed my name, already hidden my identity and I’ve served more than 20 years in the Polish army and yet I’m still considered ‘the Jew,’” Strom said. “‘I’d be better off not hiding anymore. I might as well play Jewish music.’”
At a time when most of Poland’s remaining Jews fled the country, he joined the Polish State Yiddish Theatre and began composing original scores and coaching actors to sing with an authentic Yiddish intonation. He also played at celebrations for Krakow’s Jewish community and taught children Yiddish songs.
Under perestroika as the Soviet Union began to release its iron grip, Kozlowski was able to connect with klezmer musicians abroad, and in 1985 he visited the US where he met the leaders of the nascent klezmer revival movement.
Later, Stephen Spielberg met Kozlowski in Krakow while scouting locations for his film Schindler’s List. The two hit it off and Spielberg hired him both as a musical consultant for the film and to play a small speaking role.
Strom released a documentary, “The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski, His Life and Music,” in 1994, transforming Kozlowski into a celebrity in Poland. In old age, Kozlowski’s fame continued to grow. As well as international festival appearances and his regular concerts at the Krakow restaurant Klezmer Hois, he gave an annual concert with his students as part of Krakow’s international Jewish cultural festival. Even at 99 he was still the star of the show, playing the piano for two hours.
In his final years, Kozlowski spent much of his time in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter, which has become a tourist attraction. He often received visitors from abroad at his regular table at Klezmer Hois. Among the Jewish cemeteries, synagogues that function primarily as museums, and quasi-Jewish restaurants, Kozlowski himself became a sort of tourist attraction, the last living link to the music of pre-war Jewish life.
I can only wish that I had chanced upon him when I visited Kazimierz last summer.
This is an abridged version of a piece that appeared in The Forward. Click here to read the full article. https://forward.com/culture/423976/klezmer-leopold-kozlowski-holocaust-survivor-spielberg-schindlers-list/
In the wake of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, I came across this wonderful and heart-warming story of a holocaust survivor who after nearly 80 years has discovered the identity of the man who saved her from the fate of 6 million other Jews.
Janine Webber was born in 1932 in Lviv, which at that time was in Poland but became part of Soviet Ukraine following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, she and her family were rounded up and forced to abandon their home and move into a room together with three other families on the outskirts of the city, ahead of the formation of the Lviv ghetto.
Janine’s parents created a hiding place for her, her brother and mother, but the Nazis shot her father. Her mother then died of typhus aged 29, shortly after being forced into the ghetto. Later her brother was shot by the SS while the children and their uncle and aunt were in hiding on a farm. Other members of her extended family died of disease or were deported to Belzec concentration camp. Janine wandered the countryside in search of new hiding places and worked as a shepherdess until the Polish family she lived with learnt of her Jewish identity and sent her back to Lviv.
By 1943, Janine was 11 years old. Her uncle and aunt gave her a piece of paper with the name Edek written on it, and an address. They told her to find Edek if she needed help.
“I told him who I was and he said, ‘Follow me – at a distance’. He took me to a building. He put a ladder against the wall and told me to climb up. I opened the door and that’s where I found my aunt, my uncle…13 Jews. I was the only child.”
The building was a convent, where Edek worked as a night watchman and his sister Floriana was Mother Superior. As the situation became more dangerous, the group dug an underground bunker beneath the building and remained hidden there for nearly a year.
As the group struggled with the cramped conditions and related health problems, Janine’s aunt arranged false papers for the girl and sent her to a convent in Krakow. She later moved again to work as a Catholic live-in maid with an elderly couple until the end of the war.
All 14 of the Jews that Edek had protected survived the war, but they never saw him again. All they knew of their saviour was his name. And Edek was a common Polish name.
Janine moved to the UK in 1956 and lives today in north London. In the 1990s she determined to try to find Edek. She approached a BBC documentary team, which spent six months trying to track him down, but with no luck. Last year she took part in a short feature film for the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum, produced by one of the centre’s trustees, Marc Cave.
With help from the Polin museum in Warsaw and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, he was able to track down Edek’s true identity. Edek’s real name was Franciszek Rzottky, a 19-year old Catholic and a member of the Polish resistance. He survived internment in a labour camp and concentration camp, but never betrayed the Jews he had rescued.
Rzottky later entered the priesthood and died in 1972 at the age of 49. In 1997 he, alongside Janina and Tadeusz Lewandowski who had organised food and money for the 14 Jews, were named as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This year, the National Holocaust Centre will plant a white rose in Rzottky’s memory. The centre’s chief executive Phil Lyons said he hopes the small ceremony will “help transform fear and persecution of ‘otherness’ into mutual acceptance at this time of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial”.
Click here to read the full story in The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/finally-found-catholic-teenager-saved-nazis/
I recently received as a gift a stunning book of photographs by the Jewish photographer Roman Vishniac. The photos were taken in the shtetls of eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before those communities were wiped out forever.
A Vanished World was published in New York in 1983. It is difficult to get your hands on a copy of it now, but the photographs it contains serve as an important historical document.
Vishniac was born in Russia, but was living in Germany in the 1930s. He took the photographs between 1934 and 1939, when the Nazis had already taken power, and when anyone with a camera was at risk of being branded a spy – and in communities where observant Jews did not want to be photographed for religious reasons.
But he had the foresight to see what few others could possibly imagine, that the Nazis would systematically wipe out the shtetls and Jewish communities that had existed and maintained the same way of life for hundreds of years. He made it his mission to not let their inhabitants, along with their occupations and preoccupations, be forgotten.
“I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight. I knew it was my task to make certain that this vanished world did not totally disappear”, he says in his commentary on the photos.
Vishniac used a hidden camera, at a time when photography was in its infancy and equipment was bulky and unsophisticated. He put himself at great risk, and was thrown into prison for a time, but still he persisted in his mission, constantly running the risk of being stopped by informers or arrested by the Gestapo. He managed to take around 16,000 photographs, although all but 2,000 were confiscated and, presumably, destroyed. He chose to include around 200 in this book, the images that he considered the most representative.
He travelled from country to country, taking in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania, from province to province, village to village. He captured images of slums and markets, street scenes and school houses, from the wrinkled faces of old men and careworn mothers to pale religious scholars and hungry, wild-eyed children.
The images are far from anonymous. Vishniac got to know the people he photographed, he often availed of their hospitality and spent time working and living among them. He slept in a basement that was home to 26 families, sharing a bed with three other men. “I could barely breathe, Little children cried; I learned about the heroic endurance of my brethren,” he wrote.
He spent a month working as a porter in Warsaw, pulling heavy loads in a handcart, in one of the very few occupations still open to Jews during the Jewish boycott in the late 1930s, which forced tens of thousands of Jewish employees out of their workplaces. It was cheaper to have a Jew pulling a cart than a horse, for the horse had to be fed before it would work, while Jews were forced to carry the goods first and eat later, only once they had been paid.
As one reviewer, the American photographer and museum curator Edward Steichen, wrote, “Vishniac took with him on this self-imposed assignment – besides this or that kind of camera or film – a rare depth of understanding and a native son’s warmth and love for his people. The resulting photographs are among photography’s finest documents of a time and place”.
Vishniac emigrated to New York in 1940 and became an acclaimed photographer and professor of biology and the humanities. His only son Wolf died in Antarctica while leading a scientific expedition, and his grandson Obie died at the age of just 10. The book is dedicated to them, as well as to Vishniac’s grandfather. He writes: “Through my personal grief, I see in my mind’s eye the faces of six million of my people, innocents who were brutally murdered by order of a warped human being. The entire world, even the Jews living in the safety of other nations, including the United States, stood by and did nothing to stop the slaughter. The memory of those swept away must serve to protect future generations from genocide. It is a vanished but not vanquished world, captured here in images made with hidden cameras, that I dedicate to my grandfather, my son and my grandson."
I was in Warsaw earlier this month to give a talk at the IAJGS conference on Jewish genealogy, which provided an opportunity to visit this fascinating country. Agonising glimpses of once vibrant Jewish communities abound, but it is the sense of what has been lost that is palpable everywhere.
I cannot remember when I first became aware of the Holocaust. Most likely it was when, at the age of 13 or 14, my mother gave me a second-hand copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. Later, at 19, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel. Strangely I don’t remember being shocked by either of these (although I do recall a feeling of nausea at the piles of shoes at Yad Vashem); perhaps I felt that they confirmed information I had already absorbed.
As an adult, books by Primo Levi and other survivors, including an absolutely chilling account of the workings of Treblinka by Chil Rajchman, broadened my knowledge. Yes, the details are sickening, but familiarity with the events of the Holocaust has become so universal that I’m not sure it is ever possible to really imagine the enormity of what happened in Europe in the early 1940s.`
Visiting Poland certainly brought the horror home to me. One day my husband and children went to the Wieliczka salt mines, while I visited Auschwitz. Beforehand, I tried to explain to my eight-year-old daughter why I was not going with them. I only told her the most basic elements, but her face wrinkled up and she told me to stop. That night, frightened by my stories, she was unable to sleep.
The tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau, conducted by a guide whose great-grandfather had survived the camps, was haunting. Appalling, gruesome, sickening….there are no words that can do justice to the horrors perpetrated there. The visit is something everyone should experience. It records events that should never be allowed to happen again. And yet humanity does not seem to learn. Since then, ethnic cleansing has been perpetrated in former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur, in Myanmar and elsewhere. And the far right has experienced a resurgence across much of Europe.
Most shocking though, was the sense of absence. In Krakow and in Warsaw, both cities with large pre-war Jewish communities – around 60,000 in Krakow and 400,000 in Warsaw, around a quarter and a third of the population, respectively – the loss is palpable. In Krakow, several vestiges of the old Jewish quarter remain – synagogues turned into museums; a cemetery where one wall has been built using fragments of gravestones shattered by the Nazi occupiers; shop fronts adorned with the names of their Jewish former owners. Indeed there is something of a revival of Jewish culture and heritage, with concerts of klezmer music, a Jewish festival and the Israeli ‘Hummus and Happiness Bar’, as well as a museum of photographs documenting the area’s Jewish life and loss.
In Warsaw it is the dearth of remnants of the Jewish community that is so chilling. The Germans razed the city to the ground as they fled the approaching Soviet troops. This makes the tiny fragments that remain all the more shocking: a single street that survived the demolition of the ghetto, pockmarked with bullet holes; a narrow fragment of ghetto wall; a synagogue that miraculously survived – one of over 400 that used to exist in the city; metal strips traversing the pavement at intervals, marking where the wall stood from 1940 until the ghetto was liquidated in 1943, when its inhabitants were herded onto cattle trucks and sent to the death camp at Treblinka.
And, in the sparkling new Jewish museum, exhibits marking hundreds of years of Jewish life in Poland come to an end not during the war, but afterwards, when the remaining few Jewish survivors returned to their villages to be welcomed not with sympathy and understanding, but with rampant anti-Semitism and fresh pogroms. The foundation of the state of Israel provided the escape that the remaining Jews needed, and they fled, en masse, in 1948.
Only in recent years have a few Jews begun returning to Poland, to rebuild their lost culture and commemorate those who have been long forgotten. Of course anti-Semitism is still rife among some sections of society, indeed a recent law making it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in Nazi war crimes prompted international condemnation. But there is a sense that many are now celebrating and commemorating Poland’s Jewish past, rather than smothering it.
A few years ago, a hoard of songs written by Jewish men, women and children killed in World War II came to light in Kiev. The songs, in Yiddish, are haunting, raw and emotional testimonies by ordinary people experiencing terrible events. They are grassroots accounts of German atrocities against the Jews, with subjects that include the massacres at Babi Yar and elsewhere, wartime experiences of Red Army soldiers, and those of concentration camp victims and survivors.
One song was written by a 10-year old orphan who lost his family in the Tulchin ghetto in Ukraine, another by a teenage prisoner at the Pechora concentration camp in Russia’s far north. The songs convey a range of emotions, from hope and humour to despair, resistance, and revenge.
The project to collect these songs is as remarkable as the music itself. It began when a group of Soviet scholars from the Kiev cabinet for Jewish culture, led by the ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky (1892-1961), made it their mission to preserve Jewish culture in the 1940s. They recorded hundreds of Yiddish songs written by Jews serving in the Red Army during the war; victims and survivors of Ukrainian ghettoes and death camps; and Jews displaced to Central Asia, the Urals and Siberia.
Beregovsky and his colleagues hoped to publish an anthology of the songs. But after the war, the scholars were arrested during Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge and their work confiscated. The story could so easily have ended there; indeed the researchers went to their graves assuming their work had been destroyed.
Miraculously the songs survived and were discovered half a century later. They were discovered in unnamed sealed boxes by librarians at Ukraine’s national library in the 1990s and catalogued. Then in the early 2000s Professor Anna Shternshis of the University of Toronto heard about them on a visit to Kiev and brought them to light. Some were typed, but most handwritten, on paper that was fast deteriorating. Most consisted just of lyrics, although some were accompanied by melodies.
The songs were performed for the first time since the 1940s at a concert in Toronto in January 2016, and are shortly to be released by record label Six Degrees. Artist Psoy Korolenko created or adapted music to fit the lyrics, while producer Dan Rosenberg brought together a group of soloists, including vocalist Sophie Milman and Russia’s best known Roma violinist Sergei Eredenko, to create this miraculous recording.
“Yiddish Glory gives voice to Jewish children, women, refugees whose lives were shattered by the horrific violence of World War II. The songs come to us from people whose perspectives are rarely heard in reconstructing history, none of them professional poets or musicians, but all at the centre of the most important historical event of the 20th century, and making sense of it through music,” Shternshis says.
Yiddish Glory: The lost songs of World War II will be released on 23 February.
For more information see: https://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/yiddishglory/
Earlier this year, a trove of Jewish documents that was smuggled into the Vilna ghetto in present-day Vilnius, Lithuania, during the Nazi occupation came to light. Containing writings by leading figures in Yiddish culture, the collection has been described as the most important Jewish discovery since that of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was one of several Jewish social, religious and cultural organisations in Vilnius prior to World War II. It was founded in 1925 to study Jewish life in Eastern Europe and its library contained memoirs, books and folklore gathered by scholars and volunteers.
Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, the Nazis started looking into Jewish material found in the YIVO library. They wanted to preserve material for a museum in Frankfurt, which would explain how the Nazis addressed ‘the Jewish question’ and their reasoning behind the Final Solution.
Several books and documents from the YIVO headquarters had already been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, which was using the building as a barracks. A Reich department charged with collecting and preserving Jewish literature hired a group of 40 Jewish scholars from the ghetto to examine the archive. They were ordered to find the most valuable manuscripts, which would be preserved at the proposed Frankfurt museum. They were only allowed to keep 30% of the material, the remainder would be pulped.
But members of this so-called ‘paper brigade’ smuggled books out under their clothing and hid them either inside the ghetto or amongst gentiles elsewhere in the city and managed to save much of the collection. Some members of the brigade were also involved in armed resistance and used the opportunity to sneak weapons into the ghetto.
After the war, Antanas Ulpis, a Lithuanian librarian, hid much of what remained of the material in the basement of a local church to save it from the Soviet authorities. From 1989-1991, some 250,000 pages were discovered in St George’s church. Some of the documents were moved to Lithuania’s national library, while others ended up in the state archive.
But a separate stash wasn’t uncovered until this year, when all the documents and manuscripts were transferred to the national library. In May, an additional 170,000 pages saved by the paper brigade were made available in the library. These are being examined, catalogued and restored by archivists at the library, in collaboration with YIVO, which now has its headquarters in New York. The find is the most important collection of Jewish archives since the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, according to David E Fishman of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
“It’s miraculous that the materials were found, dusty and dirty, but in good condition. Symbolically, everything is stained with blood, but their existence is a testimony to martyrdom,” he says.
The documents shed light on Jewish life and culture before the war and include writings by famous Yiddish cultural figures, including letters by the author Sholem Aleichem (creator of Fiddler on the Roof), a post card from artist Marc Chagall and poems written by the poet Avrom Sutzkever inside the ghetto. The archive also contains letters, hundreds of photographs and testimonies from those who witnessed the pogroms in Ukraine in 1919, during the Russian Civil War – a particular interest of mine.
The Nazis killed 90-95% of Lithuania’s Jewish population, including 34 of the 40 members of the paper brigade. Sutzkever was one of the six who survived. Below is part of a poem he wrote from the ghetto to his brother Moshe, who had fled to Palestine before the war. Sutzkever’s newborn son and mother had both been executed in a nearby forest when he wrote this poem.
“And do not search for my songs,
Or for the remnants of my limbs.
But wherever you are, one and only brother,
Taste a handful of desert sand.
And every single grain,
Will send you greetings from down under,
Where an unredeemed wonder
Binds the well-spring of my lieder.”
I recently came across a fascinating new book about the French writer Irene Nemirovsky. The Nemirovsky Question by the Harvard academic Susan Rubin Suleiman traces the fascinating and complex story of the author’s life, against a backdrop of French literary culture, emigre culture and secular Jewish culture.
Nemirovsky was born in Kiev in 1903, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker. Her father’s family came from the Ukrainian city of Nemirov, an important centre of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century, where they had become successful grain traders.
In 1918 the Nemirovskys fled revolutionary Russia for France, where they assimilated into French high society and Irene became a successful novelist. Prevented from publishing when the Germans occupied France in 1940, she moved with her husband and two small daughters from Paris to the relative safety of the village of Issy-l’Eveque. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.
Nemirovsky’s background closely mirrors my own. My grandmother was born near Kiev in 1902, also to a family of grain traders. And like the Nemirovskys, my family was closely linked to Hassidism – my great-great-great grandfather was a special advisor to one of the sect’s most famous Rabbis, Reb Dovidl Twersky.
Perhaps it was fate that took the Nemirovskys to France after the Revolution. They had initially fled to Finland, then Sweden. And maybe it was just luck that my family came to Canada. A cousin had ended up in Winnipeg before the revolution and much of the rest of the family followed over the next 20 years. And so my grandmother’s fate and that of Irene Nemirovsky were, mercifully, different.
Nemirovsky started writing Suite Francaise, her most famous work to contemporary readers, in 1941, based on the events taking place around her. In her writing, she denounced fear, cowardice, acceptance of humiliation, of persecution and massacre. She had no illusions about the attitude of the inert French masses, nor about her own fate. She realised that her situation was without hope.
When Nemirovsky was arrested and deported, her husband, Michel Epstein, did not understand that this would mean almost certain death. He expected her to return, and petitioned the authorities for her release on the grounds of poor health. He too was arrested and died in Auschwitz. Miraculously, their daughters survived, having fled with their governess and lived in hiding for the remainder of the war, taking their mother’s manuscript with them from one hiding place to another.
In 2006 I happened to meet a charming middle-aged French couple while on holiday in France. When talking to them about my book, A Forgotten Land, the story of my grandmother’s early life in Russia in the early 19th century, they began to tell me about close friend of theirs called Denise, the daughter of a Jewish woman who had died during the holocaust. Denise had kept her mother’s wartime diary as a memento, but had found it too painful to read until decades after the war, when she discovered it was not merely a diary, but a powerful literary masterpiece.
“Is this the daughter of Irene Nemirovsky?” I asked. They were surprised that I knew of her; the book had been published in French two years earlier, and in English only that very year. For my part, I felt privileged to have met friends of Nemirovsky’s daughter, and so soon after reading Suite Francaise, when its horrors and brilliance were still so fresh in my mind.
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is broadening to include personal experiences and my exploration into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.