I gave my first talk last night after returning this summer from an intensive 3 week European study tour. Arriving early to prepare and set up, I looked up and in walked Siobhan, a former student, and her mom, followed a little while by an older woman I was surprised and delighted to see- Mrs. Rudnick, or Clara. She gave me a hug and took off her coat and told me that she had taken a cab to the site of the lecture, and, oh, could I please give her a ride home? I was delighted.
During the lecture I recognized her before the audience, and thanked her for coming out. She told the audience how proud she was to live in the “North Country” of upstate New York. Heck, she’s lived here since 1949, a dozen years before I was born! She was moved to tears, as was Siobhan, who gave her a hug.
During the talk, she nodded her head in agreement to many of my points. Afterwards, she pulled out a piece of paper, a short statement that she had written, explaining that she had been meaning to call me. You see, she was not the only traveler to Europe this summer. While I was in Poland touring Holocaust related sites, Mrs. Rudnick had returned to Lithuania of her youth.
Not an easy thing, given that
a. Clara is 89 years old;
b. Clara is a Holocaust survivor;
c. Clara lost most of her family to the SS Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian collaborators.
She and her late husband Abe were two of only 7000 survivors of the 70,000 Jews of Vilna. I was familiar with a lot of the history, but to understand more of what she had gone through, I looked up the following at the USHMM website:
The Lithuanians carried out violent riots against the Jews both shortly before and immediately after the arrival of German forces. In June and July 1941, detachments of German Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units), together with Lithuanian auxiliaries, began murdering the Jews of Lithuania. By the end of August 1941, most Jews in rural Lithuania had been shot. By November 1941, the Germans also massacred most of the Jews who had been concentrated in ghettos in the larger cities. The surviving 40,000 Jews were concentrated in the Vilna, Kovno, Siauliai, and Svencionys ghettos, and in various labor camps in Lithuania. Living conditions were miserable, with severe food shortages, outbreaks of disease, and overcrowding.
In 1943, the Germans destroyed the Vilna and Svencionys ghettos, and converted the Kovno and Siauliai ghettos into concentration camps. Some 15,000 Lithuanian Jews were deported to labor camps in Latvia and Estonia. About 5,000 Jews were deported to extermination camps in Poland, where they were murdered. Shortly before withdrawing from Lithuania in the fall of 1944, the Germans deported about 10,000 Jews from Kovno and Siauliai to concentration camps in Germany.
Soviet troops reoccupied Lithuania in the summer of 1944. In the previous three years, the Germans had murdered about 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews, one of the highest victim rates in Europe.
Clara was anxious to speak to me. She told me of her trip with her son. Together they returned to Svinsyan, where her parents, two sisters and two brothers lived. To one of my students, a few years back, she told the following story:
On June 21st, 1941, the Nazis came into my town, I lived with my mother and father, two brother and two sisters. In July 4th, they took my oldest brother and burned him alive, with 90 other Jewish teenagers in my town. In the early part of August they came in and took my twin brother, along with another 100 teenagers and dug a big hole and buried them alive. In September they took the whole town about 8,000 people and brought then to where we held our flea markets- this was both of my sisters and my mother- out into the woods where they lined them up and shot them and left them there. This is where my father and I escaped- he knew a lot of men- and we went to farm to farm and hid out until the Nazis would come, and we would leave because if they caught us they would kill us and the people we were staying with, because they were harboring fugitives.
At the town’s museum, she stopped to ask where the memorial of the murder site, Poligon, could be found. Clara said that they told her that they did not know where it was, though half the town’s population, many of the families having lived their since the 1300s, had been murdered there.
At the hotel in Vilna she inquired how she could get to Ponary, and was simply told “there is nothing there”. Google Ponary. 110000 relevant results. 70,000 Jews were shot to death there by the Germans and Lithuanians.
Taking the English speaking bus tour of the Old City of Vilna, the guide described the Philharmonic Hall but did not tell the tourists that this was the entrance to the Vilna Ghetto, where she had been imprisoned until being deported to a slave labor camp and later to a concentration camp. When Clara asked why the guide did not mention this, the guide said that she “did not know.”
Maybe the guide was young and was not taught this history in school. Or maybe it was not important enough to be part of the official program. 90 to 95% of Lithuania’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. To one lady on the bus, and her son, it was important. In Clara’s words, “In just three days, I learned that Lithuania has not faced it history of the destruction of its 250,000 Jews”.
Clara is happy that I am keeping the memory alive. She put on her coat and climbed up into my pickup truck without assistance. She chatted all the way home as I tried to navigate to her house in the dark. She thanked me over and over. Not at all. Thank you for coming into my life and making me, and my students, a part of yours.
Here is an informative article which reveals exactly what Clara wanted me to know. Responsibility is not big on the list of Lithuania’s priorities.