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Monday, April 8, 2013

On this Holocaust Memorial Day

On this Holocaust Memorial Day I want to pay tribute to members of my family who perished in the Holocaust and to those who survived it. 
In 2008, with seven of my maternal cousins I visited Plunge, our mothers’ hometown. With no Jews left in twon after WWII, Jewish life there all but died. Walking there I could not help but think about how all those picturesque houses I saw – among them my mother’s house that was made into a women’s clothing store in 2005 - had once belonged to Jews who, during the Nazi years, were forced out of their homes into ghettos, then murdered.   
We visited the areas that used to be the Telz and Shavli ghettos, to where our family was taken. We visited, too, the nearby forest of Koshan, where my grandmother, aunts, uncle, my unborn cousin, and other relatives are buried in mass graves, together with eighteen-hundred other Jews from their town. By those graves we solemnly recited the Kaddish prayer for the dead. 
We walked by the paths on which my aunts Sorke and Eerle walked daily - four miles each way from the ghetto to the German aircraft factory, where they were forced laborers, and back to the ghetto. Young and good looking they survived the 1941 Koshan massacre, witnessing the murder of their mother and sisters alongside the hundreds of others from their home town. Their brother Itzik was murdered in Telz, probably in the Rainiai forest, in the outskirts of town.
Having immigrated to Palestine in 1933, eight years before the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, my mother (and two of her siblings) did not experience the fear and horror of the World War II years that her family did. But she might have never forgiven herself for escaping that terror.
We also visited with Jacob Bunka, eighty-two at the time, who has been for years the only remaining Jew in Plunge. He lived with his wife in a one-bedroom apartment, which he had turned into an archive, documenting and memorializing the life of Jewish Plunge that ended with the Nazi slaughter. A known carver, he had also erected numerous towering totem-like sculptures made of tree trunks, commemorating the Nazi victims of the killing fields at Koshan and other forests. 
In the summer of 2010 I traveled through Poland with my paternal cousin Anat, to trace our family’s history. My father and her mother, their parents and siblings, escapes the Holocaust: In 1926, after witnessing and stopping an anti-Semitic incident, my grandmother Brucha Bakman decided in no uncertain terms that her family will immigrate to Palestine.
We traveled through the horrors of Birkenau and Auschwitz. Nothing that I haves studied, read, or seen in films, documentaries or photos; none of the interview I had watched and the Holocaust museums I had visited, including Yad Vashem; not even my previous visit to the Terezienstadt concentration camp near Prague, had prepared me for those death camps. What socked me most was the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their oiled death machine and industry. They left nothing, not even the minutest detail to chance: they carefully calculated where the trains carrying their Jewish human transport would first stop, where their victims would initially be selected for immediate death or for forced labor, often by young SS soldiers; where their victims first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric, and where they were disinfected for the second time if they had not been immediately selected for the gas chambers; where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time; where their clothing and other belongings were collected, sorted and stored; where they would die by the Zyclon B poisoning gas, and where and how their corpses would be burned. It took merely twenty-five minutes from the time the human cargo arrived to the camps selected to die and turned into ash. 
In Krakow, from where we left for the camps, a Jewish festival was taking place. When we returned there from our emotional trip the town was festive with live Hasidic music and dancing. I needed to be among the celebrators. Anat, who was shocked at my ability to do so immediately after the horror we just saw, could not. But for me, standing in the center of Krakow, where the Jewish Ghetto once was, surrounded by hundreds of joyous Jews and non-Jews alike, celebrating Jewish life, was the very answer to the place from where we had just return. To me, it epitomized Jewish continuity in Eastern Europe in spite of Hitler. Nothing would have angered him more, I thought tearfully, than seeing the great granddaughter of Samuel Bakman, who died of starvation in the Radom Ghetto, and the great grandniece of his sisters Khaya, who was murdered in Auschwitz, taking part with so many other descendants of his victims, in the revival of Jewish culture in Poland. 


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