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Word Travels - Travelling Along Roots by Robin Esrock
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Travelling Along Roots
by Robin Esrock / Published March 25 2008
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In this personal essay, Robin writes about the emotional journey to discover his roots.
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Ike joined me at the hip Double Coffee shop on Pilies Street, Abie was running late. It took me a few moments to acknowledge him, my attention being focused on the buxom black-clad brunette waitress with the short bangs, carrying a tray full of large beers. Ike cleared his throat, whiplashing my attention, and I turn to face a thirty-two year old guy, my age, with a stern face, thin channels of life already carving themselves around his eyes. He's somehow managed to instantly get a pint of Utenos ale , so we raise our bushy eyebrows, and take a sip in silence. Seconds later, Abie comes in, smiles at the waitress, deposits his hat on the hook James Bond style, dances across the room and takes his seat next to Ike.
"So what are you doing in Lithuania anyway," he asks me, heavily accented.
I begin to explain. My grandparents on my dad's side were both Lithuanian (although my grandmother was born in South Africa, her parents were Lithuanian), and my grandfather on my mom's side, also Lithuanian. Through fate, luck and mercy, I've been given a ticket to travel the world, so why not see where they come from, and by extension, where I come from too?
"It's not going to be all fun and gaming," remarks Abie, drops of rain still falling from his curly hair onto his stylish leather jacket. They really know how to dress in this part of the world.
"Most people don't even know where Lithuania is," says Ike, one eyebrow curiously arched.
"Then, as a travel writer, it's my job to tell them," I say, signaling the waitress for another beer.

VilniusI thought it was a small Baltic country (population 3.3 million) in north-eastern Europe, but scientists have determined that the geographical center of Europe lies just 26km south of Vilnius, the nation's capital. Twice the size of Belgium("and we all know the size of Belgium," ribs Abie), it borders Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Russia, and 99km of the Baltic Sea. Picture flat, green farmlands, fresh lakes and pine forests, towns with medieval cobblestone squares, aristocratic palaces and fairy-tale castles. Much like other countries in Eastern and Central Europe - Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary - only a little cheaper, less recognized, and with fewer tourists. History dates Lithuanians back to the 11th century, mired in an ongoing series of regional wars with larger neighbours Russia and Poland. The country was also the last remaining pagan outpost in Europe, although today it is mostly Roman Catholic. Jewish history begins in the 15th century, and due to brilliant scholars and large Jewish schools, Vilnius became known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." Lithuanian is one of the world's oldest surviving languages, regarded by linguists as the oldest link to the original Indo-European tongue that gave birth to most of the languages of Europe and beyond. It is also closely related to Sanskrit ("that might help me find myself, should I get lost in India," mutters Ike). Lithuanians, a proud and industrious lot, have given the world notables like actors Sean Penn, Sir John Geilgud and Charles Bronsan, singers like Anthony Keidis of the Chilli Peppers, not to mention Bob "Zimmerman" Dylan, fictional serial killers like Hannibal Lechter, and writers like Nadine Gordimer and Anthony Sher. "And, although it remains to be seen, maybe you," says Abie.

Red LeavesAutumn has lined the streets with red, yellow and green leaves, which incidentally match the colours of the national flag. The October Sky has been watching a tragic love story on cable TV, and frequently cries raindrops (when it blows its nose, a chilly wind rushes up the streets of Old Town). I'm looking at the Litvaks Abie and Ike (hukking about the kakameyme schlep to get here in free flowing salty Yiddish), and realize that for once I'm a physical fit in a foreign country - pale, blue-eyed, average height, biggish nose. I'm told Lithuanian girls love foreign men, but that doesn't help me since I don't look foreign at all. We're on to our third deceivingly strong unpasteurized beer, so I order a round of a local herb-based liquor as a sort of yardstick. The waitress brings them over swiftly. I'm trying to flirt but Abie seems to be doing a better job.
"There are three Abrahams in my family, so they call me Abie Bachelor, since I'm already in my 30s and not yet married," he says. "I have been thinking about this Polish girl I met, but hey, if I was in a hurry, I would take a bus."
"'Spose that makes sense, hey, l'chaim!"
We touch glasses, make eye contact, snap our heads back, drain the elixir. I've always thought that anything that tastes this disgusting has got to be good for you.
"So, you both come from Vilnius?"
"No, I was born in a little village called Kupiskis, or, Kupishok, or Shuk, or Shik, or however you want to say it," Abie says, chasing the shooter with a sip of beer.
"I am from nearby, a bigger town, Panaveyz. Today it's the 5th biggest city in the country, used to be bigger. But I suppose a lot of things used to be something here," says Ike, glancing over at Abie, who looks down into his glass. It is quiet, for a moment, but this uneasy silence continues to talk.
"Look, Gonzo, this is not all partytime. This country has seen a lot of pain, ...we...have seen a lot of pain, what is it you are looking for?" says Abie, and for the first time since he entered, I see his face take a serious turn. "People around the world are travelling to see where they come from, digging for roots, trying to understand a little about where they sit on the family tree. Hell, it's become an industry, with software, websites, tourist agencies specialized to help westerners trace their European heritage. It's a good article to write for my travel editors, and better yet, I get to figure this stuff out too."
Ike purses his lips, says something in Yiddish, Abie shakes his head, a brief discussion, then a grimace, a smile, and Abie's face returns to us from Serious Street.
"OK, you like, you want, it can be arranged," he says, "but first let's give our regards to Broadways".

The three of us are sitting at a wooden table at Brodvejus (pronounced Broadways), which one moment was just another bar, and the next a better-than-average high school talent show. There is singing and dancing, all tongue-in-cheek, the dancers flirting and flapping on the dancefloor. A short, squat guy with a goatee, looking very much like a repressed computer programmer, steps forward with a microphone, and commences to sing Yesterday, by the Beatles. The bar sings along with him, the scene is so Europe, so Unlike-North-America.
"Oh I believe, in Yester-Day," we bellow, arms on each other's shoulders, and I decide then and there that I like this country, and I don't know why it took me so long to get here.
I walk back to the guesthouse on Bernadino St, tripping and slipping on the wet, uneven road, giving those even drunker than myself a wide berth. My new Lithuanian friends had agreed to pick me up in the morning, and together we'd drive out into the countryside to see where it all began.

"She's a chariot, no?" says Ike, standing beside a rusted Mitsubishi minivan, the fan belt squealing like teenage pigs at a rock concert. Lithuania has the highest rate of accident fatalities in the European Union, but they're excited for me to take the wheel, to really feel the journey. It's an old stick shift, or more accurately, stuck shift, but after driving an East German Trabant in Berlin earlier this year, I feel confident I can drive anything. We load up, I narrowly avoid scraping a truck that almost blocks the narrow street, and we head off out the city. Although local drivers constantly pull in front of me, tailgate and overtake into oncoming traffic, I am well armed with a dented piece-of-shit diesel minivan that couldn't possibly sustain any more damage than it already has. The speed limit in the countryside is 70 km/hr, which would be useful if my speedometer actually functioned. "If you're in a hurry..." starts Abie.
"Yes yes yes, I know," I cut him off, just as someone cuts me off.
It doesn't take long to leave the streets of Vilnius, the city only has a population of half a million. Having experienced the minefields of Ethiopian highways in recent weeks, it's a pleasure to drive on new, four-lane highways, if not to see out the cracked window with wipers that somehow managed to collect the rain as opposed to clear it. As we make our way to Kupashok, I see fertile, green fields and fat, healthy cows. Old wooden barns and signs with place names I couldn't begin to pronounce. Ike and Abie are in the back seat, looking pensive, dark rings beneath their eyes.
"You guys look as hungover as me," I say, trying to lighten things up.
"We're just thinking about the recent past, you know, the things that happened in this country."

The things that happened in this country are difficult to discuss, difficult to understand. In 1939, two of mankind's greatest villains - men deranged by power and hate - carved up Europe in accordance with their megalomania. By the time they were finished, and after they went to war with each other, Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were responsible for hundreds of millions of innocent deaths, and the systematic genocide of people and cultures across three continents. In 1939, Lithuania as an independent country ceased to be, as Stalin, in agreement with Hitler, bullied a de-fecto Red Army coup. Soviet forces occupied the country, soon replaced by the Nazis, who took control over all aspects of the country and went to work to systematically murder Roma, partisans, intellectuals, and over 200,000 Jews - a staggering 94% of the country's Jewish population. Although there were terrible pogroms throughout their past, Jews had thrived as a community in Lithuania, living in bustling shtetls (villages), building world-renowned Talmudic schools and synagogues that produced some of the age's most influential religious scholars. In the space of three years - 1941 to 1944 - all that was wiped out, no mercy shown to men, women, elderly or children. Disturbingly, it was not the Germans responsible for the actual killing of these innocents, whose only crime was being born. Rather, responsibility lay with brainwashed and hate-filled Lithuanians, seizing the opportunity to murder off a population they had long envied for their wealth and business acumen. Anti-semitism has always been around, and will always be around, but it is the speed and brutality of the Lithuanians that renders many of today's few remaining survivors unable to talk about their childhoods, or dare to consider returning to the country of their birth. There were those who saved Jews at the risk of execution, and not everyone was a Nazi collaborator. Yet entire towns of people, where Jews and Gentiles co-existed peacefully for centuries, personally watched thousands of Jewish citizens being marched into the forest, stripped, shot in the head, and pushed into hand-dug mass graves. Towns like Kupashok.

"Say, any of you guys might know how I come to be South African, I mean, why my great-grandparents ended up in South Africa? It seems a little random."
Ike clears his throat, speaks softly with a certain amount of authority.
"From what I can gather, and I'm not sure 110% on this, there was a shipping company that took luxury goods from South Africa to London. They figured the best way to pay for the cost of sending an empty ship back to South Africa was to fill it up with people. So they sent a representative to Northern Lithuania and gave 15 free passage tickets to young Jewish men. I don't know why Lithuania, I don't know why Jewish men, maybe someone at the shipping company was Jewish with Lithuanian connections."
"Sounds like, "interrupts Abie, "I mean it's very good business. Shlomo goes to his son, asks him what two plus two is. His son replies 'that depends, are you buying or selling?' Ha ha ha," and Abie has cracked himself up. "Anyway," continues Ike, amused, "these fifteen men go over to South Africa, to the mines, and things are just about to boom there, Kimberley, the Gold Reef, and these guys make good money, so they bring their families out. Well, within a decade, thousands of Jews are leaving Lithuania and heading for South Africa. Less hardship, better weather, lots of opportunity. Men first, to save up, then they bring over who they can. That's what your great-grandfather did, that's why you're South African."
I think about this for a while. Two generations later, I've packed up and left South Africa for Canada. Similar opportunities maybe, but far less violent crime, corruption. Worse weather, sure, but I get Vancouver's snow-capped mountains and beaches in exchange for Johannesburg's inland urban sprawl. Definitely better lifestyle, hey, I'm just like my great-grandfather! Only I didn't have to work and save up for 10 years (10 long, lonely years) before I could afford to bring over my wife and kids. It's been a lot easier for me in every respect, but at least I can understand why he travelled to other side of the world. I wonder if my great-grandchildren will emigrate somewhere else too, and one day return to South Africa, to Johannesburg, to see where I grew up.

Kupiskis"Hey, this is bigger than I thought it would be," I yell back to Abie, "by the way you described it, I thought it would a horseless one horse town."
"Tse tse tse, today there are about 8000 people in Kupiskis, less or more," he says, shaking his head, a little surprised too.
The two steeples of the main church are the highest points, dominating the skyline. I circle a roundabout, and pull into town. In 1897, a census declared there were 2661 Jews in Kupishik, 71% of the total population, but many were already emigrating overseas in search of better lives. By 1938, there were only 1200, 42% of the overall population. Today, there is not a single Jew in the area. Abie becomes quiet, begins to reminisce:
"My father Meyer was a grain merchant. Here in Kupashok, there was a thriving Jewish community. Everyone looked out for each other, nobody went hungry. If you couldn't pay, too poor, that's OK. He told me about Shabbos, Friday night, the shamos announcing "To the synagogue!", the excitement on the street as people prepared for the Sabbath. The smell of food would float out of houses, fish from Yudel the Fishman, homemade challah, potato latkes! He spoke of boys and men constantly studying Torah and debating and arguing into the night, of celebrations on Jewish holidays, when people would sing and dance and pray, and of hunched old men and women who could still remember everyone's names and birthdates. Like Blind Zalman, who worked for the credit union and never lost a letter. Everyone was very religious, the boys going to yeshivas around the country to learn, their mothers begging train passengers to take parcels to their children in this place and that. We got along with the Christian townspeople, traded with them - flax, grain, coal, crafts and goods from Germany - sewed their coats, we helped them out too if they were in trouble. There were problems, like anywhere, conflict between the Chassidim and the Mitnagiddim, problems with the bank, but there was always financial support from overseas Kupishokers, and no pogroms in the town itself. Jews had lived here since the 16th century. It was a pious town, a peaceful town, and then the war, and then..., well, there is nothing Jewish here anymore, just a few memorials recently built by those overseas, the killing sites. Come, you need to see."

He directs me a few hundred metres past the town centre, tells me to park on the road adjacent to a supermarket. Opposite is the Freethinkers Cemetery. Grim, ashen iron gates surround the park, and inside I see a white Soviet statue, Russian tombstones. We walk to the back, and there are five long rectangle strips of grass, each enclosed by foot-high cement walls. In late 1941, local white-banded Nazi collaborators marched over 1000 Jewish men, women and children to this site, and brutally murdered them. Babies were hit against trees to save bullets. The shots could be heard by everyone in town, the mass graves themselves are in clear view of houses and the church steeples. Ike and Abie put a hand each on my shoulder, steadying me.
"I don't...I don't understand. Tell me, what goes through a person's mind when they kill children, shoot an old lady through the head...?"
They remain silent, but tears have swelled up, along with anger, burning inside me. I visualize the victims, hear the ghost echoes of gunshots, look towards the town, the supermarket, walk around each grave in the soft rain. The October Sky is watching the same show, and crying too.
Finally, Ike speaks up. "Come Robin, there is more."

We drive over to the civic center, where they introduce me to a local journalist named Eugenja. She has gray hair and kind eyes, the rain has stopped (a commercial break?), so we walk down a street alongside century-old yellow painted houses. An old Soviet-era Lada is parked by an oak tree, maple leaves are painted seasonal red. The scene is entirely picturesque, the definition of autumn charm. In the early 90's, after Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to bravely declare its independence from the Iron Curtain, Eugenja wrote a series of influential articles examining the guilt of the country, of Kupashok, in the aftermath of the Nazi genocide. It was simply not something that could be swept under the rug. People were living with enormous guilt, and for a future to be bright, they had to make sense of a dark past. She tells me about Luva, a German in Kupashok who was taken in by local townspeople claiming to have escaped the Russians. He turned out to be a Nazi spy, organizing local militias and henchmen, and instigating the massacres of Kupashok's Jews. Local townspeople did all the killing under his supervision. I asked Eugenja what became of this Luva.
"He died of old age in Cologne, Germany," she tells me.
"And what became of the henchmen, the killers, what happened to them?"
She explains that many were captured, arrested or executed by the Russians. Collaborators and their families were scorned by the community, ostracised, known as "Jew Killers".
"Their children were forced to leave, they could not have normal lives here," she says. People, she tells me, looked back fondly on the Jews, the way they cared for each other, cut people breaks when times were tough. But with no survivors, there was nobody to rebuild a community, nobody to demand revenge or justice. And so Kupashok continued, under a new occupier, the Soviets, who later bulldozed the Jewish cemetery, and with it centuries of local Jewish presence.

Grain MillThere is one cobblestoned street left, Sinagogo Street, whose name recalls this history. The surviving synagogue has been converted into the town's library. The old Jewish cemetery is now a park with a giant water tower, but a memorial has been built, and a dozen jagged 19th century Jewish tombstones lie under an ominous tree, Hebrew letter faded with time. The the descendants of Kupishik have not forgotten, and in 2004, a group of 50 people from the UK, Israel, Denmark, Australia, the US and South Africa returned to unveil a memorial plaque on the walls of the old synagogue, as well as at the killing sites. In 1997, it was discovered that a group of midwives had assembled a handwritten list of 808 Jewish residents who were murdered during the war. Why this list was compiled is not clear, but it is unique within the entire country, the only list that names some of the town's victims and their ages. This led to a project to create a Kupashok memorial, a Wall of Memory, identifying and honoring the vanished Jewish community. It rests protected inside the library, on the walls of the old synagogue, and it is late afternoon by the time I get there. I find it impossible to make sense of a figure like six million. Six bazillion! Six Trazillion! But standing in front of 808 names, I imagine a rock concert, or a sporting event, or morning assembly at a high school. I can see the people, their faces, their tragedy. What strikes me instantly is the ages: 14, 8, 7, 1, 20, 18, 32 - my age. And then I run my fingers up the list, and find Ezrochovicius, Ezrochoviute, Ezrochas, Ezrochiene, variations of my name, all relatives, all murdered. A group of kids come out of the library, their voices echo in the gloom. I walk over to Abie and Ike, faces in their hands, and together we sit on a table in silence. Emotion strangles the life out of me. The memorial quotes Isaiah, in Hebrew and English: I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

Over 3000 people were murdered in Kupashok, from the town and the surrounding areas, with the biggest massacre happening at mass graves dug in the Jewish cemetery, once again located in the heart of the town. Nobody here can claim they did not know what was going on. In June 1940, when Russians took over the town, Jewish life was immediately attacked. Many Jews looked to escape to nearby towns or into Russia itself. When the Germans took over, local townspeople were agitated and encouraged to join the anti-Semitic purge. Those that tried to protect or harbour Jews were eventually ratted out and executed, including Catholic priests. Rabbis were tortured, Torahs were burnt, houses and businesses confiscated. Wealthy Jews bribed their way to survival for as long as they could, until they too were led into the forest. All across Europe, a cloud of evil rained hell on earth.
Genocide is a distinctly human trait - this cruel desire to murder an entire people. From Tasmania to Rwanda, Cambodia to Darfur, we are the only species on this planet that undertakes such heinous acts, perhaps because we are the only creatures smart, or dumb, enough to justify our actions. Chimps, our closest relatives, have been known to attack and murder rival clans, including infants. Females are usually absorbed into the new clan, and the violence is based around territory. Greed, ambition and military conquest have similarly resulted in the mass murder of people - North and South American Indians - but there is no rational reason to explain man's inherent and unstoppable bloodlust. 2 plus 2 = 808, it doesn't add up, it doesn't make sense. It doesn't look good for our future as a human species either. Nuclear weapons can destroy more people than gas chambers, further removing white collar political killers from the dirty work, from any contact with their victims. The nuclear gun is loaded, and sooner or later, a hate-fuelled delusional fundamentalist will try and use it.

We drive into town to the ramshackle yellow wooden house of Veronica, a 91-year old woman who can still recall these terrible times. Ike and Abie are having a smoke outside. Popping in and out of lucidity, Veronica sings me a Yiddish lullaby in her dark, cold room, recalling her love for the Jewish children she once babysat. Suddenly, she leans forward, whispers:
"The Jews were better than the Lithuanians! They cared for each other, they helped each other." Then her milky blue eyes glaze over and she sings another song, somehow burnt into her memory. Being poor, the Church granted Veronica and her husband some land, which overlooked the nearby Freethinkers Cemetery. Veronica watched the Jews marched to the pits, stripped to their underwear. Veronica watched the Jews being slaughtered.
"I cried," she tells me, "I cried and cried. But what could I do? I still see their faces."
I shiver. The smell of age in the house is thick. After a moment, she smiles, and then:
"I tried to save one family's children. To hide them. But the family wouldn't let me."
"But weren't you afraid that if you got caught, you would be killed," I ask.
"No," she says. "No." She drifts off. I pop outside, see Abie playing with an old dog. Ike is looking out over the cemetery. There is no joy to breathe in the air.
"I have seen good times, and I have seen terrible times," Veronica says when I re-enter the house, rubbing my hands to get some life back into them. "Good people, and terrible people."
"Is there more good than bad?" I ask.
"About the same," she says.
She sings another song, this time in Lithuanian, her granddaughter and great-grandson are visiting, and the toddler adds some energy to the void. When Veronica goes, who will be left in the town to remember?

The only hotel in town is being repaired, so we retire 40kms away to Rokishok for the night. It is Friday night, and while I'm not religious, I feel compelled to make Kiddish, a blessing over the food. All three of us have had an emotional day, and nobody is in the mood to visit the nightclub that has opened a few doors down. "How about Panaveyz, did the same happen there," I inquire of Ike.
"The same, everywhere the same," he says softly. "Same stories, all over Europe. Only difference between Panaveyz and Kupashok? 10,000 people, not 3000. More people, so first a ghetto. A few weeks later, into the forest, and then, gone."
In the morning, we visit another site of mass graves, just outside of Rokishok, at a clearing cut into a beautiful pine forest not far from the highway. 3000 Jews were shot dead in this site alone, their bodies later exhumed by the Russians, counted, and reburied in the graves. A small granite plaque stands at the foot of the enclosure, carved with a Star of David and the words: Holocaust Mass Graves. It has been vandalized, the top chipped and broken off, and someone has fired bullets into it. The enclosure fence has been damaged. What kind of person defaces a mass grave? The same kind of person who digs one. They are still here. They are still everywhere. I don't agree with its politics, and I often question its leadership, but when Abie pulls out an Israeli flag, my heart swells with pride. So long as that flag exists, there will not be another Jewish genocide, because, after thousands of years of being victims, Jews will no longer let it happen. If only we could stop it from happening to others (although it is clear why Vancouver's Darfur protests were first instigated and brought to public awareness by members of the Jewish Community).

Ike, Abie and I stand alongside a mass grave in a forest. It is raining again, but birds are flying overhead, red mushrooms grow from the earth. Here, surrounded by tragic death, I am more grateful for life than I have ever been. I think about my family, no doubt currently wondering where the hell I am in the world, and wish I was with them so I could embrace them. I whisper a thank you to my great-grandparents, who bravely decided to leave this green European forest for the wild African veldt, and a prayer for whoever or whatever helped them along the way. I think about what might have been. Would I have been the mere dream of a person buried beneath my feet?

I suppose branches get cut down, but it takes more to kill a tree. Hmm, that's pretty good. I turn around to tell Abie and Ike, only to find my grandfathers, walking arm in arm into the forest, aging fast, talking Yiddish, slowly evaporating amongst the autumn leaves of my imagination.

In Memory of my Grandfathers:
Abraham Esrock (15/10/1909 - 13/11/1996)
Samuel Isaac Kalmek (10/12/1910 - 04/10/1980)

 

Read more of Robin's Reports on his website, moderngonzo.com


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