Shadows and heroes in Lithuania

Prior to WWII this was a major Eastern European center of religious learning, politics, Yiddish culture.

lithuania 88 (photo credit: )
lithuania 88
(photo credit: )
The ghosts of Jewish Lithuania lurk everywhere. As I travel through the country on a tour of Eastern Europe, I find traces of my people hiding just below the surface. Tiles fall off a building's facade in Vilna and reveal Hebrew writing underneath, indicating that a Jewish merchant once sold dry goods here. Nearly-faded mezuza impressions are still barely visible on the doorposts of numerous homes and schools in Kovno, a silent reminder that two generations ago Jews flourished in this city of 40 synagogues on the banks of the Neman River. And a little-noticed plaque in Yiddish stares out of the corner of a bakery in Ponevezh, the only indication that this modest structure at one time housed Europe's most famous yeshiva, attracting elite Torah scholars from throughout the continent. More than 200 plaques and memorials now dot Lithuania's vast, wooded landscape, grim and granite markers that testify to the utter destruction of a once-thriving Jewish community whose capital of Vilna was proudly referred to by its Jews as, the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." LITHUANIA'S demise was not unique among the destroyed Jewish worlds of the Shoah; more Jews were murdered in Poland, Hungary or Russia. But nowhere was the annihilation more complete, more brutal or more vociferously supported by the local residents, who served the Nazis with a passionate, almost obsessive devotion. Even before Hitler's Einsatzgruppen arrived in Lithuania in June of 1941, the locals set about terrorizing their Jewish neighbors, setting fire to synagogues, looting Jewish homes and shooting rabbis, teachers and communal leaders. In less than three months 35,000 Jews were murdered at Ponar, the Ninth Fort in Kaunas, and various other killing fields scattered throughout the country. Though it was a full year before the Wannsee Conference would officially confirm the Nazis' Final Solution for the "Jewish problem," Lithuania simply could not wait to murder its Jews. NOW, MORE than 60 years after World War II, it is time we put to rest, once and for all, the slanderous charge that Jews went to their deaths like sheep to the slaughter. This vicious canard, implying Jewish cowardice, is as blasphemous as it is historically inaccurate. The Nazi regime used every imaginable device at its disposal to prevent resistance by its victims: It spun a web of lies about its deadly intentions; it starved, beat and intimidated the beleaguered prisoners, it cut off every conceivable avenue of escape. And it employed the Jew-hating locals - such as the 10,000 Lithuanians who served as collaborators and outdid their German masters in bestiality - to seek out and destroy those Jews who dared to fight back. To fight this monster was an act of total sacrifice, reserved for only the bravest of heart. If we need any convincing about the dynamics of resistance, we need only look at the tragic events at Virginia Tech last month. One lone murderer shot 45 people - killing 32 of them - with virtually no resistance whatsoever. No one rushed the gunman, even as he reloaded his weapon; to the best of our knowledge no group of students attempted to overpower their killer, even when he lined them up and shot them one by one. And these were well-fed, able-bodied men and women in the prime of their lives, not emaciated, ghettoized skeletons. Would anyone suggest that these students went "like sheep to the slaughter?" THE SIMPLE truth is that, in moments of fear and terror, we are more apt to be paralyzed into inaction, or to engage in wishful thinking that we will somehow be saved, than we are to rush into the face of almost-certain death. Yet in point of fact and against all odds, the Jews of the Holocaust displayed remarkable, unparalleled heroism under fire. They resisted and rebelled on several occasions, not only in Warsaw, but also in the Vilna, Kovno, Bialystock and Krakow ghettos; and they led uprisings in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor death camps as well. Hundreds, even thousands of Jews fought alongside the partisans in the forests, risking death on a daily basis. Many more practiced spiritual resistance, refusing to give up their faith in God or cease acting in a moral and ethical manner, despite the Nazis' attempt to dehumanize and degrade them. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our martyrs; rather, we should feel agony at their suffering, and pride in their behavior at the lowest point of their lives. We ought never to condemn the victims of the Shoah, who faced the most terrible war machine since the Roman Empire. Nor should we impugn the integrity of the students at Virginia Tech who, by all accounts, made no move to stop their killer. Except, that is, for the resistance of one elderly professor, survivor of the Holocaust, who taught us something about resistance - on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The writer, director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana, leads tours to Jewish sites around the world.