„Within half a year of the beginning of the Nazi occupation, the Jewish inhabitants of Lithuania were annihilated. About 35 thousand remained in the ghettos of Vilnius, Kaunas and Šiauliai, where they were used as slave labour. Their fate is well-known. Out of nearly a quarter of a million Jews in Lithuania, only 6 to 8 percent survived – either those who were out of reach of the Nazi executioners and their local collaborators, or those whom time favoured.
The Lithuanian Jewish community became irrevocably extinct, even though it had developed for centuries, had come to identify with Lithuania, had contributed to Lithuania’s economic and cultural life, and had taken an active part in its fight for independence and reestablishment of statehood.
A variegated, active community had disappeared, along with its remarkable faith to their national culture and traditions, highly developed system of education and publishing (based on two national languages, Yiddish and Hebrew), and its zealous and dynamic youth, which was widely involved in a broad range of international movements which sought a way out of our centuries-long history of persecution. The outstanding Jewish Institute of Research (YIVO) and centres of religious thought and education functioned here: the Telšiai and Slabada (Kaunas) yeshivot (Talmudic Schools) were famous all over the Jewish world. The Gaon of Vilna, the mathematician H. Minkovski, the world- famous violinist and musician J. Heifetz, Esperanto creator L. Zamenhof, the sculptors M. Antokolski and Z. Lipshitz, the artist I. Levitan, the creator of the modern Hebrew novel A. Mapu, and many others came from here and started their creative and professional careers here. Because of this, the Lithuanian Jews, who were called “Litvaks”, occupied a special place in the Jewish world and constituted a respected branch of the Jewish world community. All that is now in the past and will never be regained.“
“There were nearly 200 massacre sites in Nazi-occupied Lithuania, where deep ditches were often dug in Jewish cemeteries to serve as mass graves for thousands of innocent Jews, including children, women and elderly people. The Jewish genocide did not end with their mass graves. During the following years of Soviet occupation, the Holocaust victims were doomed to spiritual annihilation through oblivion. The monuments at their mass graves indicated that these sites were the burial place of “Soviet people” or “civilians”. No mention was made of what really happened there and who the victims of the “Final Solution” were (see p. 21).
With the emergence of the Lithuanian National Revival movement in 1988, the Jewish community immediately began tending the mass- murder sites in an effort to perpetuate the memory of those who were exterminated there. In response to a proposal by the Lithuanian Jewish Culture Society and the State Jewish Museum, the Supreme Council of Lithuania passed a resolution “On tending to the graves and cemeteries of the victims of the Jewish genocide and preserving the Jewish heritage”. Local municipalities and conservation services, together with Lithuanian Jewish organizations, cleaned up the extermination sites and erected monuments to the Holocaust victims. Some of the Lithuanian Jewish emigres provided funds to complete this work. All the monuments bear inscriptions in Lithuanian and Yiddish about the tragedy that struck the Jewish population during World War II.
The book includes pictures of nearly all of the Jewish extermination sites in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. Some data from the State Jewish Museum is used in this book.”
„Dear reader, you have opened the book of SORROW
What can it tell you about the humiliation the Jews of Lithuania were subject to and which before their deaths they were forced to wear as a yellow star on their chests and backs? Perhaps this was an attempt first to kill the spirit, to trample upon the dignity of man and nation, to bend its wise head, to break faith and hope.
But condemnation and scorn befell the victimizers, and it was their victims who were extolled. From beyond graves and monuments – both large and small – they issue a warning and reminder: give way to the man, stop the beast.
This book can tell you the story, dear reader, about the road that broke off, that was cut short, about a road more than 600 years long travelled by the Jews of Lithuania.
Here lies its end. Here is the burial site of more than two hundred thousand defenseless men, women and children who were exterminated.
Here, too, rest those who were still to be born.
Perhaps they are happier because they did not see what their mothers saw: they did not see the barrel of the gun aimed at them. They did not hear their mothers’ wailing before they died as their hands hastened to shield their wombs.
The world, too, was deaf.
It was still very much like an unborn babe.
The truth of the world and its love
proved to be weak, powerless, and confused.
This is where the road of Lithuanian Jewry broke off,
this is where it passed into the shining dark.
Yet where is its beginning?
It is not reflected in this book.
But perhaps its beginning goes back to the letter Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas signed on May 26, 1323, and addressed to the people of Lubeck, Rostock, Zund, Greifswald, Stettin and Gotland, wherein guarantees for safety, care and assistance were given “…to artisans of any status
they may come together with their children, wives and cattle,
they may arrive and take leave in accordance with their wishes
without the slightest hindrance;
thus with this letter we guarantee and promise
that they will be safe and immune from the unlawful claims of my subjects”.
One can rightly assume that this invitation extended by the Grand Duke of Lithuania did not go Unheard by the Jews in the cities of Europe, mentioned and unmentioned, in this letter. Traces of their deft and hard working hands lie imprinted in Lithuania’s towns and townships. They were gifted artisans, merchants and traders, people of learning and culture. The privilege granted by another Lithuanian Grand Duke in 1388 – Vytautas the Great – elevated the Jews who had come to Lithuania to the status of the gentry, thus declaring them free people.
The history of the Jews can thus be traced back to Lithuania’s distant past, breaking off at the grave dug for them in the middle of the 20th century.
It was not Lithuania that dug this grave, for it no longer exercised control over its own land, yet how we live with the pain and shame that a handful of Lithuanians grunned down their fellow citizens – the Jews – and plundered their property. Is it not them that the Psalm of David refers to:
“Let them be blotted out of the book of the living and not be written with the righteous.” /Psalm 69-28/
Can pictures be taken of pain, suffering, despair, and death?
Yes, this book contains all this and those with eyes should see:
the ground, meadows, wild flowers, trees, bushes, and rocks
marking the boundaries of a large burial site, modest monuments
with eloquent inscriptions…
Not one picture is there of a person.
He lies buried in the ground.
You can see people alongside these pictures – perhaps they
are kneeling because of the burden of unbearable pain, perhaps
they are kissing soil soaked with blood, perhaps they are pounding
it with their fists and moaning. This book is a lament of the dead and living.
This book is a book of remembrance. A book of graves. The
book of the buried Lithuanian Jerusalem. “This is Lithuania’s
unhealed wound” – we read in one monument’s inscription. And
this wound is equally painful to everyone.
This book seeks to tell you, dear reader, about the pain, about
the excruciating constant pain left to us by the innocent.
Left as an undying eternal echo, to be passed on from
generation to generation, from heart to heart.
We are all brothers in life and death.
Poet Justinas Marcinkevičius,
Deep pits. Red clay.
Once I had a home.
Many years have passed
The pits are still there
The clay is even redder;
The clay. It is my home.
There my brothers rest
Who were torn to pieces,
Who were murdered in their homes,
Who were murdered at the pits.
Deep pits. Red clay.
Once I had a home.
Lines from S. Halkin’s verses,
translated from Lithuanian by