An Unforgettable Journey

I am back from an unforgettable trip to Belarus and Lithuania, where last week I bore witness to some of the most unspeakable crimes committed against Jews during the Second World War and also witnessed some of the most profoundly moving and humane responses to those atrocities. It was a week I will never forget, will continue to teach about as a rabbi and leader, and hope to share with those of you who may want to travel back to Europe with me next year. Your identity as a person and a Jew will be shaped in new ways forever.

As you know, I traveled with my colleague Leonard Petlakh to conduct dedication ceremonies in Belarus in four of the more than 400 areas where distinct massacres of Jews took place. Leonard runs the Kings Bay Y and JCC Brooklyn and is himself a Jewish refugee from Minsk. He and his family came to the United States in 1987. We joined Joni Kletter, who works in the NYC Mayor’s Office and her brother Cary, an employment lawyer in the Bay Area. The Kletters began this work some years ago by joining forces with Michael and Diana Lazarus, two Jews from London, who originally founded this effort while on a humanitarian mission to help the poor Jews of Minsk for the JDC. When Diana and Michael saw the appalling condition and lack of any historical marker in these areas, they committed themselves to changing things. Working with what remains of a once massive Jewish community ( 90% of Belarus’s 1 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust ) as well as local authorities and the JDC, sites are located, marked and commemorated. A platform is built, a stone is carved with the dates of the killing and the number of victims — language is always in Hebrew, Russian and English — and then it is dedicated. More than a hundred such monuments have been erected in Belarus since the Lazaruses and Kletters began their work.

This year our journey began outside of Minsk, in a small museum in Borisov where I helped officiate a bar and bat mitzvah for two youngsters from Minsk. The Reform rabbi of Minsk, Grisha Abramovich, is a kind and generous man who sustains those Jews throughout the country with learning, Shabbat and holiday experiences, funerals, and of course, b’nai mitzvahs. The Torah scroll he uses was given to the Minsk Jewish community by the late Israeli leader Shimon Peres and since then, more than 300 kids have become bar or bat mitzvah. We sang together, drank brandy, and danced on Shabbat afternoon in a Russian country estate, dedicated to various generals of the Tsars armies. The triumph of Jewish survival in such a place was emotional and joyful. The brandy wasn’t bad, either.

B’nai Mitzvah in Borisov, Belarus

Sunday and Monday we dedicated memorials in Bykhov, Sapezhinka, Svisloch and Porozovo. In each place, witnesses turned out to describe either what they saw or what their parents and grandparents told them they saw. Their towns Jews, which nearly always numbered more than 50% of the town’s total population, rounded up by Nazis and killed by Latvian and Lithuanian collaborators. The killing sprees usually lasted no more than 48 hours. And just like that, most of Belarusian Jewry was destroyed. It’s rather hard to describe the setting. The Belarusian countryside is beautiful and fertile. Pine and birch forests are vast and everywhere you look, there are fields lush with corn, wheat, and sunflowers; with apples, pears and plums. The towns, or shtetls as we Jews called them, are modest, huddled places. Thatched and tin roofs lean down; wells are often still a source of water; goats and horses move easily in the main roads while in larger towns, Soviet remnants can still be seen, with statues of Lenin and Stalin in their grand poses. It’s totally surreal.

But not as surreal as the numbers: Bykhov, more than 5000 Jews; Sapezhinka, more than 70 Jews; Svisloch, more than 3000 Jews; Porozov, more than 350 Jews. And on and on. This is what is known as the “Holocaust by bullets,” where an incomprehensible number of Jews were murdered in plain site, not in camps but in towns, villages, and fields. There were always witnesses.

In Svisloch, more than 1500 Jews were walked through a beautiful forest to their death. The children’s necks were broken to save bullets for the adults who were shot. In the first picture, that is the German ambassador to Germany, whose speech was powerful. “My nation bears responsibility for these crimes which must be remembered and promised to never happen again ‘from generation to generation.'” Townspeople came from all over the region, many elderly survivors, poor and modest and proud. Imagine for a moment such candor from a Southern governor, whose state was built upon the crimes of slavery. And who dedicated his life to the taking of responsibility for an American crime against humanity. The ambassador shared his thoughts about his deep concerns for our divided and troubled world and his grief was palpable. “Never Again” indeed applies to us all. We have much work ahead to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to all people.

Michael Lazarus spoke and through choked words described being a five year old boy who had been moved outside of London for protection during the war. He imagined out loud how “had it not been for the Royal Air Force,” he could have easily been one of the children walking in the forest that dark day.

In my own comments I shared the words of Torah that all people are made in the Divine Image and words of the Talmud, that to kill one person is to kill the whole world and to save one life is to save the whole world. I know that my great-grandfather Chaim Siegel, learned those teachings before he fled to America in 1899 and to return to Belarus and teach those words this week was among the moving experiences of my entire life.

As we prepared to leave Belarus on Tuesday, we were invited back to Minsk in October, where the Belarusian Jewish community will be joined by the highest leadership of Belarus, for the first time in history, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto, where more than 100,000 Jews were killed. This is slow work but there are occasional glimmers of progress in our shared remembrance.

You know, throughout the week I was getting texts and emails from family and friends, expressing an empathic set of reactions to how hard this work is; and it is. But I have a keen sense from those engaged in this work that in fact they find the deepest meaning in setting the record straight for future generations, in bringing to light these horrific events, in engendering a sense, however late, of responsibility for the past with the hope and determination that we are all obligated to one another that such events never again occur. When you stand in these places, these “bloodlands,” you wouldn’t dare utter such words as a platitude. It awakens in you a sense of compassion for and duty toward all people, everywhere, even as an expression of Jewish pride.

After Belarus, Leonard and I traveled to the Lithuanian cities of Vilnius and Kaunas, which were known to Jews as Vilna and Kovno. These were the indisputable centers of Litvak Jewry, Vilna being called the Jerusalem of Lithuania for its rabbinical academies, intellectual and artistic life. Lithuanian Jewry was also decimated — more than 94% of its Jews were killed, in similar manner to the Jews of Belarus, and there are hundreds of massacre sites throughout Lithuania being marked.

Many of the experiences we had are on my Facebook and Instagram pages, so feel free to read about them there. But I will leave you with one very unusual and serendipitous story.

While riding in the countryside on Wednesday with Chaim Bargman, a 67 year old tour guide and only son of two survivors of the Kovno Ghetto, we were talking about how the Soviets and Lithuanian locals destroyed Jewish cemeteries after the war and often used gravestones for tools or building materials. The Jewish Museum in Vilna, for instance, has a whetstone made from a marker. You have to see it to believe it.

Suddenly, in the middle of the story, Chaim stops our driver and jumps out of the car. I’m thinking he’s going to show us one such stone in a house’s wall. After a few minutes, he waves us into the house and there we meet this incredible man, Kestutis Paulavicius, who along with his sister and parents, saved 15 Jews in their home’s basement during the Nazi siege of Lithuania. He was declared “Righteous Among the Nations” and the certificate and medal he received from the Israeli government states that “he who has saved one life is considered as if he has has saved the whole world.” Kestutis is 92 years old, has had two strokes, and cannot speak, but his generous and kind wife cares for him and received us with uncommon warmth. I’ll add, if only because you cannot make this stuff up, after the war under Soviet occupation, Kestutis was a champion water skier. I blessed him in thanks with the words from Leviticus: “May God bless you and keep you; may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may God lift his face toward you and grant you peace.” Then he laid down to rest.

Again, those words from the Sages: “He who saves one life is considered to be one who has saved the entire world,” a Jewish moral teaching that challenges us in every generation to see the humanity in the other and to always remember the past in order to build a future founded on the principles of kindness, justice and peace.

Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.