VILNIUS—The following is an informal report on today’s Jewish memorial events in the Svintsyán (Švenčionys) region, posted by Dovid Katz on his Facebook page:
Warm congratulations to Moisej Shapiro (chairperson of the tiny remnant Jewish community of the Svintsyán (Švenčionys) region in eastern Lithuania, and to city councilman Darius Velička, dedicated devotee of keeping alive the memory of the area’s destroyed Jewish civilization, and all their colleagues, who made today’s events such a success. As ever, our beloved Vilner khazn (Vilnius cantor), Reb Shmuel Yusem, chanted the various memorial prayers in their authentic Lithuanian Ashkenazic form. The event included four distinct components.
(a) Greetings in the town square at the wooden menorah erected in the early 1990s on the initiative of the late Blumke Katz (Bliuma Kac). This was attended also by the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of East European affairs, Efraim Zuroff, and by Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite. There was some misunderstanding and confusion engendered by the remarks of an official of the town’s museum about the ghetto period in 1941.
(b) Unveiling of a beautiful trilingual (Lithuanian-Yiddish-English) sculptured plaque, byJuozapas Jakštas, in dear Blumke’s memory where various of us shared memories of Blumke who was a student of Max Weinreich and Meyshe Kulbak in prewar Vilna (see our modest beginnings of a page with her writings, and others’ writings about her: http://dovidkatz.net/blumke_katz.htm).
(c) The annual remembrance at the mass grave site known as Poligón, ten or so kilometers to the west, where 8,000 Jews from Svintsyán and its region were brutally murdered on 7-8 October 1941 after being locked up in nearby barracks without food, water, or facilities, for over a week. It is the gravesite of the Jewish communities of Svintsyán (Švenčionys) and the neighboring towns Dugelíshik (Naujasis Daugėliškis), Duksht (Dūkštas), Haydútsetshik (Adutiškis), Ignáline (Ignalina), Kaméleshik (Kimelishki, Belarus), Koltinyán (Kaltanėnai), Lingmyán (Linkmenys), Líntep (Lintupy, Belarus), Maligán (Mielagėnai), Podbródz (Pabradė), Stayátseshik (Stajėtiškis), Svintsyánke / Náy-Svintsyàn (Švenčionėliai).
There was a moving presentation by pupils from the local high school, and important educational contributions by local educator Diana Galatiltienė. I’ll never forget the privilege of organizing with Blumke the first Svintsyán passover seyder in many decades in 1992 or the pleasure of bringing her to Oxford as the star of our 1996 Yiddish teachers’ program that year…
Among the memorable speeches were those by Darius Velička underlining the need to construct a list of all the victims’ names and something of their lives; Lithuanian Jewish Community’s chairperson Faina Kukliansky’s, underlining the need also for the list of perpetrators (including all the local perpetrators); Holocaust survivor and Jewish partisan hero Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky’s emphasizing wartime memories of the partisans; the Israeli Embassy’s deputy head of mission Yehuda Gidron; and the many poignant memories interspersed by the event’s main organizer and chairperson Moisej Shapiro. I was honored once again to read a poem in Yiddish about Svintsyán by my late father, poet Menke Katz.
For unknown reasons, the annual group photograph was objected to by the head of the Jewish community from Vilnius, and didn’t take place (that upset a few older people who wanted to have such a photo this year too), but the event ended, as each year, on the deeply moving note of everyone walking around the long, long mass grave, and passing by the tree with a visible indent from the masses of babies’ skulls banged against it to save ammunition during the two days of massacre. The Soviet-era sign near the tree’s indent disappeared years ago and was never replaced.
(d) The annual farewell drink at the Arka cafe in the middle of town where we all promised each other to always work hard to make it each year, and to pass on the tradition to new generations, to never forget these 8,000 people. And that takes me to one sad observation: Not one younger Jewish person from Vilnius (or anywhere) was there. Something we need to work on for next year.
Everyone was happy to see the last Jew of Svintsyán, Meyshke Preys (Misha Preisas), himself a native of Kovno (Kaunas) who lived through the Kovno Ghetto and a number of concentration camps including Auschwitz. He continues to suffer from loneliness and cultural isolation, so if people in Lithuania are in the area, and can pay him him a visit one day…. Not to mention that he is has so much to offer pupils by way of telling the story…
Photos of the event by Julius Norvila are posted here.