By Mordechai Karnovsky
Spring. Early morning. Only our footsteps can be heard in the street.
Here, in front of Rabinovich’s store, is the haberdashery. Above it the Friedlands’ apartment. Looking left – Gurvich’s pharmacy and Wolpert’s shop. Another turn and I will see the street where our house stands, the house of red brick. Downstairs – the shop; upstairs – the apartment. In a little while, perhaps father will be standing at the corner, gazing near-sightedly at the road. Maybe mother will also be there.
And here, here is the street, empty and desolate. Here is Wolpe’s shop, right next to us, and here also is our store. Everything is closed. No one stands at the door. I lowered my eyes, and trembled with pent-up tears.
Only now I have noticed that the entire street, from the military barracks to this place, is deserted. All the shops are shut and hardly a living soul is in sight. I was so preoccupied by the expectation of seeing our house that I felt neither depression nor joy. I passed through the long, narrow lane, once entirely inhabited by Jews. The Jaffe family lived at the end. Here is Berger’s cinema, the feldsher’s 1 house, the Weitzers. Opposite, the barber shop. Down the length of the street, all the houses still stand. Not one has been demolished. Here is Kagan’s electrical store and here is the big grocery. Here is the wide courtyard of Rabbi Feinsilber, the last rabbi of Keidan. There is the hotel. There is the sweets factory, Ginzburg and Karnovsky’s fabric shop, and a store of one of my relatives; and Blumberg’s large shop on the corner. On the other side, the new pharmacy, and Bilsky’s shop, next to them Gladstone’s store once stood. How all these names still come back to me! And opposite the pharmacy, a large yard. We once lived there on the corner, next to the extended Rochin family. And behind our house, the large Frank family. Here is Upnitsky’s store, and next to it the photographer’s lane. That is where we were photographed, a group of friends, with my future wife. And here was the shop of my relative, Mrs Greenhouse. And opposite – Ronder’s large house. There in the yard, we played football. There we published the school newspaper on the “shapirograph,”2 fighting over whose turn it was to print it. Srolovich’s large house stood in the same courtyard as ours. The Hebrew progymnasium was once near our house and the joyful cries of the children disturbed the neighbors. Here first loves flowered, and here the youth movements started their local cells, before moving later to the tailors’ yard.
Another few steps, and on the right – the market square, surrounded by the Jewish shops. Podlas’ shop, Ginzburg’s, Gadya’s store, Klibansky’s house. Another turn and there is the Friedlanders’ house. And there – at the corner of the market – the houses of Bukshnevsky and Geben. There also, the Beitar clubhouse. The club was founded there and, as far as I recall, always remained at this place. Those were pleasant evenings in the clubhouse. We sang, we conversed, we danced or simply relaxed. On Shabbat days, at sunrise, we used to meet at the clubhouse for lessons in fencing, marching and so on. And here at the side edge of the market, the kiosk still stands, where we quenched our thirst with sparkling water on flaming summer days. In the evenings we used to throw stones at its tin roof or just fool around near it. Everything still stands. All, lifeless…
I walked on to the bridge, the ancient wooden bridge over the Neviazhe [Nevėžis]. I stopped and looked at its water. There, on the left we used to go with father in the summer before the start of Shabbat, to take a dip. I turned away and the whole street, the whole town in which I grew up appeared before me. We knew every stone in its streets, every door, every corner. The main road of hewn stones, the pavements partially wooden. Our new shoes used to leave scratches in these streets and when we, dressed in our new clothes for holidays, strode to the many synagogues with the elders, we felt proud and envied. How can I forget those holiday evenings in the town? Everything was closed and locked. Everyone in the street walked at a slow, festive pace. Parents with their children, young men with their fathers-in-law. There was no fooling around, just a pinch here and there, a light kick, and then silence again. Where are they all, where are they? Silence. Death reigns in the town.
Before we went into the Kovno ghetto, my parents managed to send me a message of greeting. A gentile man brought a parcel. I was able to tell my parents that we had a newborn daughter. They knew my wife was pregnant. After the baby was born they asked us to name her after my grandma, my father’s mother, Leibe. We named her Ruth Leibe. How they wished to see their granddaughter. They had only one son and never had the privilege of seeing his daughter. They didn’t manage it. We received one more message and then contact ceased. We learned of their bitter end.
At this moment I am on the bridge, escorted by a German soldier, looking for a hiding place for my daughter Ruth Leibe, in the town where I was born and grew up. Perhaps one of my parents’ acquaintances will take pity and agree to raise her and eventually send her to Eretz Israel, to my wife’s family. This is the daughter whom we saved from the aktionen, the roundups and searches. How would we save her? We didn’t worry about ourselves.
We were about 100 men and women, in the military barracks on the edge of town. We were sent from the Kovno ghetto to the earthworks at the big airfield being built near Keidan. My escort was an elderly German. I had told him that this was my birthplace and that I wanted to see acquaintances. This was in spring of 1943.
We crossed the bridge. On the right, the street continues to the Ronders and the Shlapoberskys. Where are the rest of the Jews, and the synagogue? On the left, opposite the church, lived one of my friends, and next to him, my relatives.
I suppressed feelings of pain and sorrow, and continued with my plan. At that time I still remembered the names of the gentiles I wanted to visit. I asked around, and now here I am, standing at the entrance to a house belonging to one of them. The door opened and instantly I recognized him; he also recognized me. He knew me as a little boy. He was astounded, embarrassed. Perhaps he secretly crossed himself. We exchanged a few words, which I no longer remember. No. He cannot help me. One of my father’s acquaintances, a gentile from the surrounding area, came few days before the Jews were sent to their deaths and had taken a cart full of goods from the store to hide. He himself didn’t touch a thing. No. He can’t help me. We left. I didn’t even visit a second one. I wanted to leave the area quickly. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to save my daughter nor find any help in this town, which had not only witnessed the massacre but had also been complicit in it.
I thanked my escort and a few days later was returned to the Kovno ghetto. We continued to search for a way to rescue our daughter. Salvation came from an unexpected source: One of my wife’s friends connected us to a gentile who wanted a daughter. Ruth was delivered to him.
In July 1944, the [Kovno] ghetto was set on fire after its last inhabitants had been sent to the camps. I was separated from my wife. She and her family (her mother and brother), were deported. Her father was taken in the roundup of old people and children. We decided to part. Whoever survived, if either did, might also save our daughter. Not a soul remained from my family. My aunt and her son were taken in the roundup. Her husband jumped from the bridge on the way to deportation. A cousin who survived the Lodz ghetto, volunteered for the 534th Division and fell in battle. I myself miraculously survived after being in the 537th Division.
After the war ended, and before I left Lithuania, my wife, daughter and I stayed in the town for a few months.
Fertile, black, hilly soil. A child’s boot. The edge of a black bonnet. A scarf. A fragment of leather from a purse. Weeds….
I stand next to the large mass grave of my community. I don’t cry. I choke back the tears. I look straight ahead. I cannot look down. Here they dug their own graves. Here they were slaughtered. Here they said their final prayers and died as martyrs, with the names of their loved ones on their lips. Supporting each other, the old, feeble and sick. Women, infants and children. A few managed to escape, one or two. Here a lone rebellion took place, by Tzadok Shlapobersky. He dragged his killer into the grave and bit his throat. He alone, the only one.
I returned to Keidan. We survived, my daughter and I. I took my daughter from the gentile who saved her life, one of the 36 righteous ones,3 named Alfonsas Sviderskis and his wife. We waited for news of my wife. Why did I decide to return to Keidan? At this moment it is difficult to remember. I had nobody in Kovno. An inner urge drove me back to the town.
I met Chaim Ronder. He had survived. We spent few weeks in his home, my daughter on the folding bed and I on the floor. I got a job in one of the offices. My daughter became ill. A woman came to help and took her to her home. In the meantime, Fanny Karnovsky also returned to the town. She was from the Karnovsky family who lived on the hill. I got a room with her and took my daughter back. Some time later I came across a young Jew from Poland who had gotten trapped in Keidan. He fled the massacre site and was rescued. He married a gentile girl from one of the surrounding farms. I also met Birger. He too had escaped and married a gentile girl. Still later, a young man from the surrounding area, by the name of Rubenstein, turned up. Then a few members from the Gel family; they settled in Yasvin (Josvainiai) village. One evening the partisans attacked them, murdered the husband and robbed them. We were 5 or 6 families in Keidan. The lawyer Gamus also returned and was made municipal secretary. He was a veteran communist 4 and had managed to flee to Russia.
I didn’t visit the town; I didn’t even approach our house. These were the days of the partisans and I slept with a rifle and a revolver by my side.
There was no feeling of victory. Although I walked about openly among the gentiles, those who knew me looked startled and puzzled. I felt numb and depressed but also hopeful. Maybe my wife would return. When I was in Kovno, I made contact with “Bricha“5. One of its leaders was Shlomo Gefen, who became a Prisoner of Zion 6 and later made aliya. I received documents for three people as Polish repatriates. This was the beginning of the escape to Eretz Israel. We waited.
One day I went to look around the town with a rifle on my shoulder. I wanted to visit our house, to ascend the steps, to touch the door. Maybe a miracle would occur. I reached the house. I raised my head. The same curtains on the windows. Here is the yard. Silence, silence at the Yisraelov’s house and next door. I opened the front door. Here is the entrance to the shop and on the right, the stairs to the apartment. I ascended them slowly, slowly. I didn’t knock, just opened the door. I don’t recall the look on the faces of the couple who lived there. They froze where they stood.
The large kitchen, with the oven on the right. Here is the dining room, the bedroom, the high beds. It seemed as if nothing had changed during four years of nightmare, fear and trembling. It was as if my parents were about to appear, and I would hear my father’s voice and the footsteps of my mother, small, measured, and worried. What has happened to her only son?
The apartment was silent. Here is the sofa, the table surrounded by chairs, the radio in the corner and the buffet. In this room, my parents were introduced to my future wife. The wedding date had already been set. Where is she, the mother of my only daughter, will she return? The rifle became heavy. I put it down and leaned on it.
“Do you want the apartment?” the man asked in a feeble voice. He told some tale about himself. I didn’t listen. “Perhaps you will find something belonging to your parents? Take it,” he said. I didn’t answer.
For some reason, I don’t remember why, I went up to the attic. Maybe I was told something on my first visit. Or was it simply an impulse. Or it was hinted in one of the last letters. Maybe mother had hidden a memento. I grubbed around in the sand and found two earrings, two rings and a chain. Suddenly my strength left me. I descended, slammed the door and went out. These earrings, the rings and the chain went with us through all our wanderings, until they were stolen in one of the camps in Austria.
One morning the radio broadcast an announcement that the war was over, and the reign of evil was overthrown. We gathered with a number of Jewish families and went out to the mass grave. We surrounded it. We stood in front of it and said kaddish. We looked wretched, very wretched, in the presence of the massacre. There was no urge to take revenge, even though we knew the Lithuanians’ role in the slaughter. We were all armed and perhaps we could have taken vengeance on those whose names we knew. We did nothing. We gritted our teeth and spent our anger in inconsequential talk.
The earth began to burn beneath my feet. I was fed up with the town. Every few days I travelled to Kovno, to hear the names of the returnees. On one of these visits I learned that my wife had been released; she had been seen in Łodz and was on her way to Kovno. Meanwhile, the little girl was growing up. I couldn’t be a mother to her, didn’t know how to play with her. Whenever we went out walking, the gentiles looked at me with glassy eyes: “How did they survive? Look at them walking, these living dead. How did they climb out of the pits?” Yes, we rose from the depths and will continue to rise. As soon as our family is reunited we will leave you to eternal disgrace, to occupation and oppression, while we shall ascend the path to our homeland.
One day I went with my daughter to meet my wife. We returned to Keidan and stayed a short time at Fanny’s home. Ruth began to smile again as her mother’s care and love revived her. The little girl had suffered a lot and was now back in the bosom of her family, from which she had been torn so cruelly.
I didn’t tell the other families about my plans, but kept them secret. The underground had warned us that we were in danger. One morning we packed everything on a cart, and Fanny accompanied us to the train station. Our parting was difficult for her. She understood that we would not return, despite the story we invented about one of us needing an operation.
We were delayed in Kovno a few days. We were assisted by gentiles who still live in Lithuania, so I won’t mention their names; the wicked regime may still harm them. We arrived at Lida [in Belarus]. And after much wandering and a too-long stop in Germany, we reached our homeland, just as it declared itself an independent state.
Keidan, my native town! I don’t yearn for you. I feel no connection to your streets and your yards and your schools. If at my first visit I still felt a part of you, when I left, all I saw was your ruins, your orphanhood. I have left you, but who have I left? Not a living soul, only desolation in your streets and a large mass grave on your edge. Your houses still stand, but they are empty. Your synagogues still stand, but God has abandoned them. What am I really leaving?
I didn’t look back when I left you, town of my birth. May your murderers be damned! There is small comfort in knowing you are condemned to occupation until the end of time. Lithuania will not be independent or govern itself. The Russian boot has trod on you and will trample you. May it be God’s will!
Translated by Bella Golubchik
- An unlicensed medical practitioner.
- Also called a hectograph, a printing process involving gelatin-coated paper.
- According to Jewish folklore, God continually spares mankind from destruction for the sake of 36 unblemished individuals living in the world at any given time.
- Eliyahu Gamus (1905-1989) was in fact not a Communist Party member. A lawyer and Lithuanian army veteran, he was appointed municipal secretary in Keidan in 1940. He, his wife and two daughters were evacuated with Soviet administrative personnel after the German invasion. On the way to Russia his wife was wounded and his youngest daughter was killed by German bombs. Gamus later served as an officer in the Red Army’s 16th Lithuanian Division. He emigrated to Israel in 1978.
- Bricha (“Escape”) was a post-war Zionist organization that worked, often clandestinely, to help an estimated 300,000 Holocaust survivors reach Palestine.
- Term for one imprisoned by the Soviets for Zionist activity. Gefen, who helped Jews from Lithuania get to Palestine, spent nine years in the Soviet gulag. Released in 1955, he arrived in Israel in 1971.