About 82 years ago, a small 13 year old girl stood at the Ponevez station in Lithuania, the gentle breeze playing with her hair as the early morning rays of sunshine began to lighten up the surrounding countryside. Holding her suitcase in one hand, and her younger brother’s hand in the other, she was about to embark on a journey that would change the course of history, a journey that would forever change her world, her universe and her life. As she stepped onto the train, she was saying goodbye to the only world she ever knew, saying goodbye to the only life she had ever lived, and saying goodbye to the only place she had ever called home.
That little girl was Mary, my grandmother, and the decision that day began a migration that changed the direction of a life that had been lived for hundreds of years and significantly altered my own private universe, because if she didn’t board the train that cool winter’s morning, if she turned back and refused to leave, desperate to cling onto the known rather than march into the unknown, I and all my family wouldn’t be here today.
In 1934, the world was a different place. Hitler had achieved complete and absolute power in Germany a few months earlier and his dark shadow of evil was beginning spread rapidly. It is probably fair to say that panic had not yet gripped the Jews of Europe, but concern was definitely on the rise. However, this was not new and Jews had and always had been under threat at some time or other. Pogroms were commonplace and tens of thousands of Jews had been killed in them, some of the worst having taken place been 1918 and 1920 in Belarus and Poland. These were not just wild-eyed uncontrolled savages on the loose who committed them – many of the pogroms were actively sponsored, organised and supported by local officials. State sanctioned murder.
My great-grandfather, Mary’s dad, had seen what was happening to the Jews in Europe and knew that the safety that they might have felt at times was merely an illusion, a mirage easily dispersed. So he decided with incredible foresight that to guarantee the safety and the future of his family, they’d have to leave Lithuania. He had made his way to South Africa a year earlier where he began to work, earning money which he would send back to his family in Lithuania in order for them to buy passage to South Africa. My grandmother and her little brother were the first to go, followed by the rest of her siblings and my great-grandmother over the next few years.
But sadly, the rest of her family, her aunts and uncles and cousins either could not or would not make the journey out of Lithuania. Their fate was sealed when the Nazis marched into Lithuania June 1941 and with their Lithuanian collaborators, led them to forests from where they did not return, succeeding in eliminating over 95% of the pre-war Lithuanian Jewish population of 210000 Jews – the highest casualty rate of any Jewish community in the Holocaust.
I later heard about two teenage cousins of hers who had been away at some kind of Jewish youth camp when the Nazis had marched into Ponevez. On their return, they found their home empty and their family gone. Making their way on foot, including being hidden by people who were sympathetic to them, they were able to escape Europe, eventually arriving in pre-independence Israel.
My granny Mary died in the year 2000 and I had only ever known her as my gran, but as I’ve learnt more about her story, and seen her papers, her ticket, her passport, her postcards in Yiddish, I now have a very different image of her. I have one of a 13 year old girl, standing at a railway station in Lithuania waiting to board a train that would take her on a journey leaving Europe, then onto England and eventually boarding a ship to South Africa. Was she scared? Was she nervous? Was she excited?
I know that she never left because she didn’t like the weather, or the economic conditions, or the food. She left because her parents had the foresight to know that the future did not lie in what had been her family’s home for hundreds of years. She left because her very survival meant she could not stay where she was.
People sometimes think that evil and the persecution of the Jews began with Hitler, but Hitler didn’t bring evil to Europe. It was already there. He merely manipulated it, caressed it, allowed it to grow… to simmer… playing on people’s prejudices and tapping into the darkest crevices of men’s hearts, building up the hatred then releasing it so that it swept through the continent like a plague wiping out its inhabitants. He gave the oldest hatred the support of a fully industrialized nation with devastating results.
Soon, as the last remaining survivors of the Holocaust pass from this earth to the eternal peaceful resting place they so deserve, the forests around Ponevez and Lithuania and all of Europe will remain as the only living but silent witnesses to the darkest era in both Jewish and human history.
There’s something about that sadness and that loss that will never leave us, genetically stamped on our soul so that we never forget, but there’s also something about Mary, a woman who did not share the fate of so many others. A woman who was able to change the direction of a path destined only for darkness. A woman who lived when so many did not.
When my gran stepped onto the dock in Cape Town, South Africa on December 30th, 1934 she would not have realised then, but that courageous step she took saved not only my mother’s life, but her sisters and her brother and their children who live on today.
And she also saved my life and my children and with it, the entire Jewish nation.Pictures from the journey: