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Lithuania: marking Yom HaShoah in a way that we shall never forget

On one side of Palanga is a forest that has long ago swallowed the old Jewish Cemetery and on the other is the botanical gardens where the last Jews of Palanga lie in a mass grave, where over 100 Jewish men were murdered. The women and children faced a longer and more humiliating fate locked in the synagogue and terrorised. Eventually they were murdered too outside of the city. This was my family’s home: it was a seaside resort on the Russian-German frontier: Yiddish, German, Russian, Polish and Lithuanian were spoken there. There would be those who mistakenly saw this as diversity. The people there lived happily: they profited from the amber industry and the bathers who flocked to the pristine beaches. When the totalitarian powers of Nazism and Communism clashed their fate was sealed within days. The town was once half Jewish and now apart from the graves all that remains is a road marked synagogue street. The brick synagogue is no more. 

We go further and to the shtetls of Akmian, the home of the Goldbergs, searching for a sign of the once thriving Jewish life that our grandparents spoke about: the village has not changed much, old wooden houses, chickens and a rustic feel. We search further and find ourselves walking across the pretty little river where we arrive facing an army of old Hebrew stones. As we approach the perimeter of the cemetery we see the familiar lettering, though other stones are faded, some have fallen, many are being swallowed back into the earth. The Jews of Cork proudly called themselves Akmianers for over a century and half a century after the last of the Akmian Jews had been marched off to the killing fields: the men on on August 3rd 1941 and the women and the children on August 9th. I read how the Einsatzgruppe A supported by local Lithuanian nationalists carted off the remnants of our village. The cemetery is mowed. I stand outside the perimeter as is the custom for the Kohenim and leave a stone on the gatepost. We say prays to remember our families buried there: Goldbergs, Weinronks, Cristols, Kleins, Barons etc… names familiar to us… names that I am used to hearing pronounced in a familiar Irish brogue… they are all members of my family, the different branches that travelled to Ireland; they are also the names of those that stayed behind… 

Once more we went on to Shavel (Siauliai): once a city with a 50% Jewish population and another place destroyed in two world wars: a battlefield in the first and a place of genocide in the second: here there were shootings and then the establishment of a ghetto. Later there were transportations to Aushwitz from here. The Nazis ran and kept open some of the concentration camps in this region until the end of the war when the remaining Jews were transferred to Dachau and Stutthof. Of the 8000 Jews of Shavel and the 1500 other Jews from the surrounding areas only 500 survived. Amongst them were people bearing our family name, the fabulous Smid boys, two brothers who played a dangerous game of cat and mice with the Nazis and survived. The city once had 15 synagogues, yeshivot and schools. It has nothing left now except the odd memorial and a school building that was once a Jewish school: the Jewish institution is long gone but at least it is still being used as a modern High School, a place of learning. 

We drive back and on the way stop at Telz, a town that had one of the great Lithuanian Yeshivas… the building is still there as is an address claiming to be the current Telsiai Jewish community. There is no one there. The sun is setting. We found similar stories in Gargzdai were another branch of the family lived. We found a sign by accident pointing us to another Jewish cemetery. More Hebrew stones behind a metal gate, with a lonely star of David that local children jump over to retrieve their football from the adjacent pitch. The only names we can make out belong to graves on the perimeter from the 1930s, the others are too faded. In the summer of 1941, the market town was swallowed up by the first advances of the German Army against the Soviet Union and the Eitsatzgruppe A shortly afterwards murdered the 500 Jews living there. By Winter they had murdered 249,420 Jews in the Baltics, mostly in shootings.
It was there that we said more memorial prays… There is no one to say memorial prays for them now… it seems much of the heartland of the Litvak Jews is one massive cemetery… and an emptier, less vibrant place as a result of it. The Lithuanians have not forgotten us but sadly despite our extermination the myths are kept alive: in one of the local national parks they still have a ceremony of chasing the Jewish grandmother on Shrove Tuesday (Užgavėnės)… they say it is like chasing out the winter… others dress up in grotesque caricatures of Jews, devils and Roma… the apologists say it is ‘just fun’… so why do I think those same activities fuelled and fostered prejudices that led to this disaster.
On our way home our taxi driver tells us we don’t have Lithuanian names. When he hears our story he tries to classify us as “Lithuanian – I mean Lithuanian Jews; or Jews from Lithuania”… for him we can’t be Lithuanians… our tribe of Litvaks is gone from Lithuania but lives on… 

My son said to me that the legacy of our people is what they left behind in the towns and cities that they helped built, the industries that they developed, the school and civic institutions that they founded and are still there today. We then looked forward and agreed that our most important legacy was what we took with us and passed on: our culture, our songs, our faiths, our yeshivot, our love of law, logic, music, humour and know-how. The legacy of the great Lita community, the Litvaks, can be seen in many places. There are Telz Yeshivot in Israel and America; Litvak communities in the UK, Ireland, Israel, South Africa and Australia. We are Michael Bloomberg, Sacha Baron-Cohen, Ehud Barak, Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipchitz, Bob Dylan, Nadine Gordimer, Emmanuel Levinas, Amos Oz, Joe Slovo, Sydney Brenner, Irwin Cotler, Daniel Kahneman, Jascha Heifetz, Brian Epstein, Lord Sieff and the Vilna Gaon… to name but a few… And as the two us boarded the plane there were two other Litvaks, two Akmianers leaving behind Lithuania and going home to pass our legacy on…

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