Friday, August 21, 2009

Storytelling

Storytelling has been a constant theme of our travels here in Lithuania. We read stories in our Yiddish classes, we hear stories from survivors and we share stories with our classmates of visits to family shtetls. This morning we eagerly awaited the report from one of our new friends about her visit the prior day to Vaskai (Vashky), her family shtetl. We got our first rendition in our Yiddish class where our teacher encourages us to report in Yiddish about our previous day’s activities. While I grasped the broad outline I caught up with our friend after class to ask for the more understandable English version.

She had been accompanied by a guide who facilitated interviews with older residents of the village. She told us of how they had spoken with an old woman who said she remembered the Jews. She pointed out homes where they used to live. The Jews were shopkeepers so had homes with windows that faced the street.

The woman described how during World War II the Jewish men were taken to the cemetery and shot. She heard their screams. She said she was sad about this because they were their neighbors. The women, children and elderly were later locked in a barn for three days prior to being shot as well.

They also spoke with a young priest, around 30 years old. They asked him about the Holocaust and he replied “that was a long time ago and we don’t think about it”. The older people who we have spoken with in former shtetls seem very forthcoming as if they want to talk about their memories. For the younger people it has no relevance.

Tonight for dinner we went back to a nearby restaurant where we have enjoyed several meals. A friend of ours had an intriguing discussion with the owner and we were interested in learning more. After dinner the owner sat down at our table and visited with us.

We spoke about the history of this area in which she had a particular interest. As a non-Lithuanian European she seemed more curious and open to exploring the historical events that occurred here. This contrasted with the continual denial or indifference that we have observed among many native Lithuanians. She recounted that in her discussions with friends many of them say they didn’t know about what had happened here to the Jews. Their new knowledge has prompted many complicated political discussions.

She then related a poignant story of a very elderly man who stood outside staring at the restaurant. When he entered, he asked if he could sit down in one of the rooms. As he sat there he looked quite distressed. Out of concern she asked if he was all right. He responded that this was once his bedroom. He had lived there with his mother and siblings during the time of the ghetto. When he left he said that he would not be back again.

She then related that there had been a network of catacomb tunnels prior to the Jews living there. Along with those tunnels, the Jews created additional ones during the time of the ghetto. These were used as escape routes and most probably to bring in supplies into the ghetto.

When they were renovating the building they discovered a tunnel that ran under it. She had been told that there had been a tunnel from the synagogue which was behind her building leading to the perimeter of the ghetto gates. It is believed that the tunnel under her restaurant, although boarded up a short distance away, does in fact tie to the tunnel out of the ghetto. They discovered a chute to a lower level. They later learned that this was used as a way for children to access a lower level where they were hidden for safety. When we finished our meal, she invited us to see the area of the tunnel. We walked through and outside the kitchen to an area behind the restaurant. This had once been the site of the biggest synagogue where churches loomed above. We wondered what ghetto atrocities the church clergy had observed as bystanders from these vantage points.

The owner indicated that four small market streets had previously existed in the courtyard behind the synagogue. She then pointed out where the tunnel began and where it led. As we walked back into the building she told us that she and her husband had done much of the renovation themselves. Many nights they were there quite late and strange things happened. They would see shadows of people that she thought were children. We didn’t find this hard to believe after living for a month with the ghosts of the city. As we said good night we told her that if she sees the ghosts she should say, “Shalom Aleichem” which means “Peace be upon you”.

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