By Larry Kobrovsky

Imagine armed soldiers coming to your town, pointing bayonets, speaking to you in a foreign language, robbing your native land of your recent hard won independence and then following this up by taking all of your possessions, telling you that you no longer owned anything you worked so hard to obtain and filling every spare inch of your dwelling with strangers. This was the experience of Lithuanians when the Soviets occupied their country in 1939.

Imagine armed thugs coming to your house, pointing bayonets, taking away the men to be tortured and then executed, removing the women and children to your place of worship to be executed the next day and seeing your neighbors lining up outside your house with their horses and carts to take your possessions as you were led out of your house at gunpoint. This was the vantage point of the Jews of the villages all over Lithuania after the Nazis’ drove out the Soviets.

To Lithuanians, the Nazis represented the removal of the Soviets, a possible return to independence and the return of private property. To the Jews it meant death.

To help Jews in any way meant death to you and your entire family and neighbors who turned you in for helping hide a Jew would be entitled to all of your possessions.

Despite all of this, many Lithuanians did hide Jews. But, in every village in Lithuania the Jewish community was rounded up and executed at gunpoint by the Nazis and their local collaborators, after which drunken parties were held in which the shooters celebrated what they had done.

To the Lithuanians outside looking in, it was the criminals and thugs who lived among them who participated. To the Jews who were murdered, the last thing they saw while alive was their neighbors participating in their humiliation and ultimate death.

The Nazis kept detailed records of the exact number of Jewish children, women and men they murdered in each village.

My mother’s family came from Jewish villages in the rural heartland of Lithuania. From an early age I knew that the world we came from no longer existed.

Our family had stayed in contact with the family members who stayed behind until the Second World War. Then all communication stopped after the Soviets took over and the entire area was off limits to communication, travel or any personal contact. The mystery of what happened and why became my life mission.

Going home

In 1984 I finally traveled by myself to Lithuania to explore first-hand what I could. Before the War, there was an independent Lithuania, but in 1984 there was still Soviet occupation of Lithuania. In 1984 there was only one hotel you could stay at in Lithuania and your movements there were extremely limited. I observed a nation downcast and bleak.

Thirty years later in 2014, with Lithuania now an independent country again, I was able to return and go wherever I wanted. My purpose on that trip was to observe, listen and learn. I knew I would be back and my experience in life is that you learn a lot more by being open, listening and observing. I went to every place our family had contact with. I had a wonderful guide, Martynas Samulevicius, who shared my interest. We had no fixed itinerary but would go to each village and walk around and see what fate would bring.

That first trip back in 2014, as I walked through the villages my family had lived in the physical layout remained the same as when my family lived there. Where the synagogue had been was the center of town, surrounded by our homes and the central market. The difference was that there were no Jews. In most places the cemeteries had been razed by the Soviets after the war to use the tombstones for building roads, walls and foundations of buildings. In remote places some of the cemeteries remained intact and some synagogues, if made of stone or brick, were still standing forlorn and long put to other uses.

Diverging perspectives

It was soon apparent to me that the Jewish and Lithuanian communities had vastly different narratives of what happened and different relationships to the space we once inhabited. It was also very obvious that each group had never really heard the different narratives directly in a forum of common ground.

A conversation I overheard at the Jewish culture center in Vilnius neatly summoned this up. A Lithuanian woman who was in charge was having a heated discussion with an Israeli couple. The husband and wife from Israel were asking about the villages that they insisted no longer existed and the Lithuanian woman was arguing that these places existed and Lithuanian’s lived there. There was much arguing back and forth. To the couple from Israel, these villages once existed as Jewish villages, where we lived as a people apart according to our traditions in all matters pertaining to our life: These places no longer existed in any way, shape or form. To the Lithuanian woman, these were names of villages in Lithuania that still existed now as they always had on the map and where Lithuanians now live.

I grew to really bond with and have a great respect for the people I met there. I knew that my family had the bakery in the town and that my great aunt Hanna kept a book with all the recipes from her mother. These were the same recipes that the Lithuanian people living there now would remember and for which still have a great fondness.

I thought by sharing these recipes as well as the photographs of my family taken when they still lived in the village, I could bridge the gap between us and remind the people living there now of our common heritage. I made 50 books, all in Lithuanian, and went back the next year. I gave a presentation there and gave as many books away as I had to everyone who came, as well as the local museum and public library.

When I returned to my home, I kept on researching and contemplating what I had seen and heard. There was one survivor of the mass execution, Hirsh Hirshowitz, who was a 13-year-old boy who had escaped from death by a miracle and the assistance of local people. I had the account translated into Lithuanian. I also had an interview with him as an 87-year-old man, reminiscing about the life he remembered as a child in Vidukle before the Nazis came.

I decided to write another book. In addition to the first-hand accounts of Mr. Hirshowitz, I included the reminiscences put together by the local high school students of their interviews of their elders about the relationship between the Lithuanian and Jewish people during peace, war and occupation. I wanted to put in one book the first- hand accounts written from the vantage points of both communities, written originally for separate audiences, so that people from both communities could read them together.

I also included in this new book the name of every Jewish resident of Vidukle I could find in the census and property lists available from 1784 through 1912, including entries form 1784 Census of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the census books mandated by the occupying Russians from 1816 up to the time of Lithuania regaining independence in 1918. I included as well the name and family relations of every man, woman and child that I could find who lost their lives in the mass executions by the Nazis.

It was my hope by presenting these first-hand accounts, it was my hope that the Lithuanian and Jewish communities would learn more about each other and appreciate our common heritage.

Creating connections

I returned to Lithuania last month with my daughter, Abby and presented this new book at the local public high school in Vidukle and left 10 copies for the local museum and school.

A ceremony was held in which the local historian, Antanas Pocius, a man of great learning and dignity, presented a history of the Jews of Lithuania, in general and of Vidukle, in particular. The mayor of Vidukle also addressed the students as did the school’s history teacher. I then followed with my own address and presentation of the book. Afterwards we had a delightful lunch with the faculty.

My daughter Abby and I also went to explore the villages in what is now Belarus where my father’s family originates. That adventure would necessitate its own story to do it justice.

I set out on a journey to understand what can never be understood or known — the madness that could cause human beings to try to exterminate other human beings, to search out and kill infants, woman and children for the crime of existing.

What I saw and did learn led me to a greater appreciation of what a miracle our own country is in the history of the world. Every American should thank God every day for the good fortune to be a citizen of this country.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.