The Lithuanian link

Sara Manobla explores her family roots in the town of Zagare.

THE LAST Jew of Zagare, Isaac Mendelssohn, poses with his wife, Aldona (photo credit: ROD FREEDMAN)
THE LAST Jew of Zagare, Isaac Mendelssohn, poses with his wife, Aldona
(photo credit: ROD FREEDMAN)
On July 13, 2012, veteran Israel Radio broadcaster Sara Manobla served as master of ceremonies at a memo- rial ceremony in the Lithu- anian town of Zagare, for the 3,000 Jews slaughtered there in 1941 by the Nazis and their local collaborators. For Manobla, the dedication of the memorial plaque in the town center was not only the culmination of a journey exploring her own family roots there, but “a gesture of reconciliation and acceptance.”
The climax came eight months later, though, on March 19, 2013. Manobla personally tracked down Ruth Yoffe, who as a little girl had been hidden and saved by a Zagarean family together with her grandmother during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, and now lives in Jerusalem, not far from Manobla’s own home. In a moving ceremony held in Zagare, members of the Levinskas family joined Manobla, her son Ze’ev and cousin Joy in Zagare to receive the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
Zagare: Litvaks and Lithuanians Confront the Past is an elegantly written account of Manobla’s personal discovery of her family’s Litvak past, the legacy of a destroyed Jewish community and its message for Lithuanians. A superb storyteller, Manobla draws the reader in brilliantly as she herself transforms from someone disconnected with her past into a kind of Jewish Sherlock Holmes, uncovering the horrors of the Holocaust and the heroism of a few families while harboring a sense of hope for the future.
Manobla was born Ursula Sara Towb in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England.
Growing up, she was unaware that her paternal grandparents, Berthe Moeller and David Towb, were from the Lithuanian town of Zagare, where they were married in 1889 and left for the UK soon after. “Of Zagare and Lithuania, I knew nothing,” she writes.
Sara made aliya in 1960, settled in Jerusalem, married Eli Manobla, a Jerusalem-born architect, and had three children.
Having worked at the BBC World Service in London as a producer of foreign-language radio broadcasts, she continued her career in Israel Radio’s English Service, where she became a popular broadcaster.
What she terms her “improbable” first visit to the Soviet Union, as a member of an Israeli delegation to the annual conference of the International Journalists Ski Club, marked the beginning of her commitment to the cause of Jewish refuseniks and her own voyage of self-discovery. The search for her family’s Litvak roots, she writes, was also sparked by her non-Jewish cousins, Joy and Suki, the youngest of her grandparents’ 13 grandchildren.
Joy and Suki visited Zagare in 1995, four years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, and for the next 15 years, it became Joy’s mission to find out all she could about the town, establishing the Friends of Zagare from their home in the English Lake District, and then a committee, called Lithuania Link, to raise funds, send aid and provide scholarships. Although he knew nothing about Lithuania in the beginning, Alex Gibb, Joy’s 17-year-old neighbor, took on the job as its unpaid director for the next 13 years.
Sara and Joy were among a party of eight that traveled to Zagare in 1998 as the town marked its 800th anniversary. Joy had the honor of addressing the celebration in Naryshkin Park, together with the mayor and Lithuanian president Valdas Adamkus, whom Manobla interviewed for Israel Radio. They also met Isaac Mendelssohn, the sole survivor of the town’s Jewish community, and developed a close relationship with him and his family.
Manobla also left a copy of Rose Zwi’s Last Walk in Naryshkin Park with an English teacher named Aldona Bagdoniene, who promised to read the harrowing history of the Zagarean Jews to her classes.
Upon her return to Israel, Sara wrote to Rose in Australia, and thus began a close relationship.
She also found Ruth Yoffe, living in the Katamon Gimmel quarter of Jerusalem, which ultimately led to the testimony needed for Yad Vashem to provide the Levinskas family that hid her and her grandmother with a Righteous Among the Nations award.
This is the final chapter in the book, and you should have some tissues ready for it. To give any more details would spoil the story for the reader, but suffice it to say that Manobla ends on a hopeful note. “To a great extent, it seemed as though Zagare had accepted us and we had accepted Zagare,” she writes.
Zagare is a book that should be read not only by Litvaks and Lithuanians, but by anyone interested in the history, present and future of the relationship between Lithuania, Israel and the Jewish people.
Manobla told The Jerusalem Post that the book, just published by the Jerusalem-based Gefen Publishing House, was an 80th birthday present to herself. She celebrated her birthday on March 6, while the official launching of the book is to be held at the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem neighborhood on March 25.