Yom Kippur in Vilna

Jewish refugees gather in Vilna's only remaining synagogue at the end of WWII.

Yom Kippur Vilna, September, 1944 Of the approximately 60,000 Jews who lived here before the war, few remain. Some have fled. Some have been sent to forced labor camps. Some have been deported to Siberia. The less fortunate were sent to the Sobibor death camp where none survived. Close to 2,000 people Jews and non-Jews were taken by the SS to the Ponary Woods and shot. There was also Jewish resistance. There were brave Jewish fighters both in the Red Army and the partisan units. There were even a few Jews who managed to evade the Nazis and stay in hiding until the entry of the Red Army on July 13, 1944. It is now nearly three months since the retreat of the Wehrmacht. It is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and Jewish refugees who have wandered into Vilna are searching for the synagogue. Before the war, there were approximately 100 synagogues in Vilna. Now there is only one, in Zavalna Street (that will eventually be renamed Pylimo Street). Dirty and unkempt, the Jews all have one destination the synagogue. They are not sure who they can approach to ask the way. Rather than risk asking a non-Jewish passer-by for directions, they begin their conversations with the Hebrew code-word “amcha” meaning “your people.” A gentile would not respond to it. Any Jew will and does. And so eventually some 500 bedraggled Jews wind up in the synagogue. Among them is Dov Levin, a 19-year old Kovno-born partisan, who emerged from the Rudniki Forest in July. He is the sole survivor of his immediate family. Like all his fellow Jews, he is seeking news of loved ones. Though the common languages among the Jews of Lithuania were Hebrew and Yiddish, most of the congregants who have come together to plead for Divine compassion converse in Russian or Polish. They exchange information about places they have been, especially the camps. The question asked by almost everyone is: “Did you happen to meet...?” And so they learn about the deaths of their mothers and fathers, siblings and other relatives. Or sometimes they learn nothing. There are no fragments to piece together to tell a story. Some of those who have been in hiding are so pale they look like ghosts, especially those who hid in pits below ground-level and didn’t see the sunlight for months on end. “IT WAS important for us to be there together. It was an expression of solidarity,” recalls Levin, now 80 and a professor of oral history at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Levin, who on October 23, 2005 celebrates the 60th anniversary of his arrival in Eretz Israel as an illegal immigrant, recorded many of his war-time impressions in a series of notebooks that remained with him throughout his travails in the Kovno Ghetto, his battles and his journeys across Europe and eventually to the Shefayim coast. Similar diaries were kept by other people including his childhood friend Abrasha Yashpan, who now lives in Brazil, but comes to Israel each year for a reunion with fellow fighters from the Kovno Ghetto. Because they were educated in the same Hebrew school in which Hebrew was taught as a living language, some of Levin’s notebooks contain both his own writings and those of Yashpan. The penciled, remarkably clear handwriting is so similar that Levin can no longer tell the difference. The tw o friends were separated when Yashpan joined the Red Army where he was wounded four times in battle against the Nazis. But Levin and Yashpan are together again on this Yom Kippur in Vilna. And they were together the previous Sabbath Shabbat Shuva the Sabbath of Penitence. It seems that they are specially blessed. The diary does not shed any new light on Holocaust history. What it does do, however, is preserve the names of people whom the authors were afraid might be killed and forgotten. Meticulous records of names appear on almost every page of Levin’s diary not just a first name and a surname, but often a maiden name along with a married name or a nickname, and an occasional explanation of how one person mentioned in the diary is related to a nother. Although war was officially declared in September 1939, the war between Germany and the Soviet Union began nearly two years later on June 22, 1941 with Operation Barbarossa, an attack by the German Air Force whose bombs rained down on Soviet soil. Levin has good reason to remember the date. It was the day that he received his High School Certificate. Only a few hours later, just as the German army was on the verge of entering the city of Kovno, telephones in nearly all Jewish homes were disconnected. This was the first anti-Jewish operation on the part of the Lithuanian nationalists who collaborated with the Germans. The Lithuanian nationalists’ commander, Colonel Jurgis Bobelis, issued a warning over the radio that for every German killed, one hundred Jews would be put to death. Almost immediately after the announcement, armed Lithuanians broke into Jewish homes, beat the males, raped the females and looted the houses of their valuables. In the Slobodke neighborhood, which soon after was transformed into a ghetto for Kovno’s 30,000 Jews, the Lithuanians, not content with violence, rape and looting, also murdered their Jewish neighbors. As the German forces marched through the streets of Lithuania, locals turned out en mass to greet them with floral tributes. LIKE MANY other Jewish families herded into the ghetto, Levin’s family exchanged their apartment outside the ghetto for that of a Christian family who lived within the precincts of the ghetto. As in ghettoes elsewhere, the Jews tried to live as normal a life as the dire circumstances would allow. Thus within a few weeks of the establishment of the ghetto, they were already preparing for the High Holy Days. Prayer services were held in private homes which were already crowded as there were many instances in which several families were forced to live under one roof. Even the non-observant joined in the services, realizing that this might be their last opportunity to do so The cries of supplication throughout the day were heart-rending. Rarely were congregational prayers uttered with such dread and passion. Levin carries an indelible memory of the Ne’ila service, the final prayers as Yom Kippur nears its end. The voluntary cantor, a man by the name of Leib Feler, whose eldest son, Dr. Noah Feler, in later years served as the head of the Sharon Hospital in Petah Tikva, choked on the phrase: “Our father our King, annul the evil decree.” Feler repeated it again and again, as congregants wept and moaned as they echoed his words. For many, the prayer, notwithstanding its sincerity, was to no avail. Yet, for some, the evil decree was annuled. Thus Levin, who attended Yom Kippur services in the Kovno Ghetto in 1941, also attended Yom Kippur services in Vilna in 1944. Yom Kippur 1945, found him with clandestine groups of Jews in Italy, waiting for a boat to take him to Eretz Israel, where he spent his early months on kibbutz. At the invitation of a relative, he went to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur 1946. The relative took him to the Yeshurun syna gogue which was his first encounter with the Jerusalem bourgeoisie. In Hebrew the expression for Holocaust survivor is “Nitzol Shoa” which translates literally as saved from the Holocaust. Levin, who fought in most of Israel’s wars, does not like the expression. “I’m not a Nitzol Shoa,” he says. “No one saved me. I survived.”
SPECIAL YOM KIPPUR SUPPLEMENT 2005 Judaism: The mystical challenge of Kol Nidre I Stand before God together I A unifying fast I The 36 Just Men who save the world Jewish Features: Yom Kippur in Vilna I Breaking the fast the Tuscan way I Bnei Menashe join the tribe Opinion: Thoughts on being religious I Forgiving without forgetting