by Denis Daneman
This is part of a “reflection” that has been more than 65 years in the making. My earliest memories are of being surrounded by a warm and caring rather secular Jewish family in Johannesburg, South Africa, that all seemed to have hailed from a tiny place called Plungyán, in Lithuania, which made us all “Litvaks”. Only more recently did I learn that this pertained not only to my mother’s side of the family. My father’s side came from Riga in Latvia, also Litvaks, fortunately. Both families left The Pale of Settlement in the time-frame 1890-1906, eventually finding their way to Heilbron in the Orange Free State in the case of my Mom’s family, and Ceres in the Cape of Good Hope for my Dad’s. Both of these were to become part of the Union of South Africa in 1910.
I grew up believing that the most important people in my world came from The Pale, most specifically this tiny dot on the map called Plungyán, that they migrated to South Africa where they settled, proliferated, bickered, were educated and prospered. Then, after two or three generations, many, if not most left South Africa, perhaps the biggest group to Israel in the 1950’s and 60’s, some to Australia, the UK and USA, and the Daneman clan to Canada.
I have wanted to visit Plungyán and Lithuania since I was very young, but it was behind the Iron Curtain and off limits to South Africans. But then down came the Iron Curtain, and going became a possibility, then reality due to the decision by my very first Canadian friend, Shelly Wise, who said simply: We’re going to Lithuania together. And the result: an intense, enlightening, enriching, sad, simply remarkable journey from May 11th to 17th 2015 with ongoing ramifications. The participants: Shelley and Yaffa Wise (whose mothers shared a bunk in a concentration camp), my wife Meredyth, and me.
A lot of “facts” have fallen into place, but some are still missing, likely never to be answered: How did the Segal-Greenman-Daneman families live and survive in The Pale? What sort of education did they have? Why did they leave so early, while others stayed through the First World War and beyond the start of the Second World War, more than 95% being wiped out in the early part of the Holocaust? And many more….
So let’s go back to Plungyán and try to discover my preoccupation with the need to go on a visit. My mother’s parents, Bendet Segal (born in Plungyán in 1881), son of Rabbi Joseph, and Sarah Greenman (born in Plungyán 1882), daughter of Brachya Isaac Greenman (b. Plungyán 1855) and Féyge-Mínde Garb (b. 1856), were supposedly unwed, when they hopped on a boat in Lithuania in about 1906 headed for anywhere but the increasingly stifling Russian Empire of the time. The trip has questioned whether they left for the same reasons many people emigrate today: to seek a better life for their families. They would have been about 22-24 years of age, and filled with the need to “get the hell out of” Plungyán. What sort of an education had they had, how much did they know about where they were headed, how much cash did they have in their pockets? Did they marry first or have sex first?
First stop was England, where Blumy (originally Blúme in Yiddish), daughter number 1 was born in December 1906. They did not stay long in England before hopping on another boat to the New World (Is that Dvorak’s Symphony for the New World playing in the background?), arriving on Ellis Island in time for the birth of daughter number 2, Ethel in September 1909, though mystery continues to shroud the truth about her birthdate. It was not long before they got the call (letters) from relatives encouraging them to go to South Africa, “the land of milk and honey.” What we know is that Max was born in Heilbron in 1913, Sheila, my mother, in 1915 and Joseph (Jossel) in about 1918.
Mr. Lamprecht, the high school principal in Heilbron, and my Zeida (Yiddish zéyde for grandfather) were no doubt involved in a deeply-rooted conspiracy. Simply put, they conspired to make sure the Segal kids got a great education and were able to compete for the best university and best professions. Lampie was the closest to a deity my Zeida ever encountered (his own father included), and my Zeida believed passionately that a good education was the only sure way out of poverty.
A few things have happened along the way to stimulate the need to go way back in time. First, it was actually Shelly Wise, the architect of this trip to Lithuania, who many years ago gave me a copy of the book, Middlepost, by Sir Antony Sher, the acclaimed British actor. In the acknowledgements Antony Sher says that growing up in South Africa he thought everyone came from Plungyán. When I saw that I said, that’s me not you! Subsequently I found Antony Sher’s autobiography in which he describes his visit to the desolation of Plungyán in 1991: he spent two days crying, promising himself never to return.
Then, at the end of a safari to Botswana in 2010, we landed in Livingstone, Zambia to visit the Victoria Falls. The Zambian man who drove us from the airport to the lodge at which we were staying gave us a great tour of Livingstone, eventually saying “and that is the Jewish cemetery.” I said what are you talking about. He said Livingstone used to be a very Jewish city, just ask Peter Jones, the lodge manager. Peter showed me 3 albums about the Jews of Livingstone, and on the very last page it said they mostly came from Ríteve or Plungyán, Lithuanian shtetls a stone’s throw from each other. These were my people! I needed to know more. I emailed my cousin Pam Boner in Israel to ask if any her Dad’s relatives had settled in Livingstone, since Uncle Israel, from Kúpishok had gone first to then Rhodesia. She replied, only his cousin Natie Katz. Turns out that Natie’s daughter, Gail was Peter Jones’ first girlfriend. How small is the world?
At its most thriving, Plungyán had a population of about 2,800 people, 45-50% of whom were Jews. Some left before the first Great War, some between the two wars; almost all the remaining Jews of Plungyán (~1800) were massacred in Koshen Forest early in World War ll (1941). Why did my Bobba and Zeida leave so early? Did they know something? And why South Africa, really? The answer to why South Africa is simple: chain immigration. That is others from the same area of Lithuania had gone there, settled into a new life and were encouraging their relatives to join them.
I am fascinated by what my Zeida and Bobba actually knew about the world out there as they irrevocably severed their links with Plungyán and Lithuania. I have a theory to test…..the emergence of Marxism (Das Kapital was first published in 1867) pitted father, the rabbi Joseph, increasingly against his son, Bendet. The pressure was on for the next generation to follow the deeply Orthodox philosophies of their elders. Bendet hooked up with the charismatic Sarah who was mesmerized by his learnedness (how much formal learning he did is unknown) and, likely with his father’s disapproval they skipped town. Misfits ahead of their time, perhaps.
Before we even start the formal part of our trip, I have found some things that I had not bargained on at all: first, that the South African Jewish immigrants from around the turn of the 1800-1900’s right up until the post-Holocaust period of the late 1940’s when I was born, came from a remarkably small geographical area that frequently changed national status depending on who was the conquering nation; that this separation of Russian Jews from Latvian from Lithuanian from Polish from Galitzianers is far more arbitrary than I had thought. What had I thought: initially, my impression was that a greater percentage of Litvaks had escaped the Holocaust than Polaks.
On May 11th 2015 as the plane takes us from Paris to Brussels I wonder what sort of emotional response I will have both to Lithuania and to its current Lithuanians (less so Latvia and Latvians for unknown reasons, perhaps because I “identify” myself as a “Plungyáner.”) We arrive at Vilnius Airport, a tiny nondescript place that could easily be anywhere in the world, except for the old wooden houses and typical Soviet-style buildings that are seen as we come in to land. First impressions are of a mish-mash of old, run down buildings with peeling plaster, dull and cracking Soviet-era medium rises, and some more modern architecture sprinkled amongst the more gentrified buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century which form the core of the old city, where we are dropped at the modern and comfortable Novotel.
We start off with a little exploring of Vilnius on the first day and a more formal tour the following day. Our master guide is Daniel Gurevich from Vilnius who has come highly recommended. His family business is guiding Jewish tourists in the Baltics and beyond. The family is Jewish, lived in Israel for three years, but returned to Lithuania. His kids go to the only Jewish day school in Vilnius. There are less than 2,000 Jews in the city that once was home to 100,000 (around 60,000 between the two world wars). There is much to tell about this first day in Vilnius, but that is the subject of another reflection. Only a couple of notes here: as we move into what was the large Nazi-era ghetto, we stop in front of some photos of Jewish family life and Daniel tells us all about life in early 1941 as the Nazis and their willing accomplices readied to and then liquidated the ghettos: Ponár or Panerai Forest is its chilling testimony. In the ghetto, Daniel reads Abba Kovner’s plea to his fellow Jews: Let us not like sheep to the slaughter go……….. We are silent, moved by the moment, sad, angry, bewildered. It is too real, too close, too sudden. This is not a story: these are our people. Abba Kovner, it turns out, may have been a relative of my aunt’s husband.
After we have been going a few hours we break for lunch. Great beet borscht, and Daniel asks why we are here in Lithuania. I try to tell him but the tears flow and the words stop. Why now? The emotion is close to the surface. In the afternoon we visit, first the old Jewish cemetery, currently slated to become the Vilnius Convention Center, and then Panerai Forest nearby, the first of many killing fields, and as the first and one of the biggest, it hits like a bolt of lightning: words like extermination, liquidation, annihilation, are used for effect, but the seeing is what has the impact. The pits, the mass graves, the yearning Yiddish song Daniel plays on his iPhone. What human beings are capable of such atrocities? How did 350 Nazi soldiers empty the Vilnius ghetto so effectively and quickly. The help of the locals was no doubt pivotal – Hitler’s “willing executioners.” We are all left emotionally drained. How dare anyone do this to our people or any people?
We are deposited back at the hotel at about 7:30 PM. I am steadily becoming both more excited and more trepidacious: I am going to Plungyán tomorrow, but I’ve been a free Jew in Lithuania today. Meredyth asked me for a one or two-word response so far: Remarkable!
I am a Plungyáner (Can one actually be one if the original place has ceased to exist?)
Wednesday May 12th starts in Vilnius at 8:30 AM when Daniel picks us up at the hotel, and ends after 11 PM as Shelly and I quaff a beer and eat some appetizers at an open air, but heated bar-restaurant in Riga, Latvia. In between are Zezmer, Kóvne (the city Kaunas), Ríteve, Plungyán, Shavl, and open road with rapeseed fields. And, killing fields: Fort Number 9, Koshen Forest, Kurziai Forest and more. The day is cold, miserable and wet at times, appropriate.
One of our stops on the way to Plungyán is in Ríteve, a very small community a short distance from Plungyán. Daniel asks why am I so interested in seeing this tiny place? Two reasons: first, remember the story of the Jews of Livingstone, Zambia coming from either Ríteve or Plungyán. Then a collaborator of our younger son, Rich, when he was at UCSF, Mervyn Maze from Cape Town and Chair of Anesthesia at UCSF, wrote me a note introducing himself and the fact that his family came from Ríteve.
Ríteve is a very small town with a few important (to me, at least) revelations: first, we stop at the synagogue, dilapidated, run down, it now serves as a second hand store. On the plot outside the shul are two memorials, the first is a poster containing scenes of Jewish life and pictures of prominent Jews from Ríteve. I linger over it for some time. And there he is, Rabbi Mordechai Segal (Segalas with the Lithuanian ending), the same name as my Zeida, though probably not related, or could he be? Finally I have arrived, this is my Lithuania, these are my people. Would not be at all surprised if Mordechai and I share some Litvakishe chromosomal polymorphisms. I haul everyone out of the van to share in my unbridled joy at this discovery.
Second is a memorial bearing Mendel Kaplan’s name. He headed the Jewish Agency in Israel (?an ex-South African) and had explored many of the Lithuanian shtetls. My mother attended one of his lectures at Beth Tzedec in Toronto in the late 1980s.
Daniel, I ask, is there a cemetery in Ríteve? Yes, he says, it is hidden behind some houses and is not sign-posted, and he has not been there in some years. But Daniel is a detective and we won’t give up easily, so we go into the recesses between homes on the outskirts of a small town until, Eureka, there it is. A gate, that is easily entered, an overgrown yard with a few tombstones in Yiddish, some upright, some teetering, some fallen over. Single names only, no surnames. Shelly and Yaffa read the Yiddish inscriptions. It is for reasons not easily explained, a remarkable (that word again) place, somewhat forlorn and unkempt, but peaceful and perhaps eternal. Or is a Ríteve Conference Center planned for this site? Don’t be so cynical!!
Back to the van, deep breath, Plungyán here we come. Remember to keep realistic and low expectations: first, Mendel Kaplan said the old ghetto of Plungyán is now a grassed-over playing field, second, Antony Sher cried for two days when he visited, third, the last Jew of Plungyán, Jacob Bunka, died in 2013, fourth, I read the poem, My Shtetl Plungyán, as we drive into town. It is somber and deeply meaningful.
Daniel drives into a parking lot, carefully maneuvering his van into the center. He then says, we are now in the old shul of Plungyán: that Toyota Corolla is where the entrance to the synagogue was situated, we are parked at the bimah. Joni Mitchell blasts into my head: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!” Turns out a group including Mr. Bunka sold the synagogue to the current city of Plunge, using the proceeds for preservation of other memorials. The first of these are the headstones he has retrieved and put in three semicircles in a small field behind some Soviet-era apartments and next to a soccer field. Yaffa and Shelly read the Yiddish again while I take photos; one may say Segal? This is more contrived than the cemetery in Ríteve and Plungyán feels like a cop out. Has Jacob Bunka sold us out? Or has he, with the help of Abel and Glenda Levitt, in fact, been the prime enabler of the memorial in Koshen Forest? Was it really right to sell and destroy the city-center synagogue for the memorials at the killing sites?
Plunge is a city about ten times the size it was in 1941, its main industry is a crab stick factory which we pass en route to Koshen Forest.
Ersatz crab, ersatz revisionist history?
By now we know the story well: the Russians have upped and run east, the Nazis are coming from the west, and the locals start the killings, the round ups, and more. Then they march 1800 Plungyáners plus another approximately 600 Jews from elsewhere into the forest and it is over in 24 hours. Gone and almost forgotten but not quite. Bunka returns from serving in the Russian army and tries to keep the memory alive. In 1991, the Russians leave and the Levitts and others step in to support the magnificent memorial to the Plungyán Jews who perished: 1,400 of the 1800 who died are known and their names, including 16 Segals, a couple of Garbs and Levinskys, but no Greenmans.
Shelly says Kaddish, Yisgadal ve-yiskadash, shmey rabbo, Omeyn. Just another killing field? There is no such thing, they all wrench the gut, for me none more so than Koshen since these were my people. Or I am their people. We linger, here, is there something I have missed? Is there something more to Plungyán?
We need a stop, a break, some food, some reflection. The roadside restaurant serves its purpose and Shelly buys me the local Plunge newspaper. I have been to Plungyán, but am I better informed? No doubt. Do I have my answers or only more questions? After Plungyán I feel that the real story or the stories behind the story will be forever hidden in the killing fields of Koshen and umpteen cemeteries around the world. The verbal history is gone.
It’s after four in the afternoon and we still have to a couple more places before crossing into Latvia and visiting Riga. We cross the border and nothing changes. We reach Riga at 10 PM. At the hotel, I introduce myself as Denis Daneman of the Riga Danemans, but no-one but me understands what I am saying. Daniel goes to do his business work, Yaffa and Meredyth beg off more food, and Shelly and I go off in search of some time to reflect. A beer or two, Shelly likes the local vodka, and a platter of appetizers: a tuna pate, a liver pate and a few more. Delicious, but not my Bobba’s gehakter leber that would be oh so comforting right now.
The shame of Riga is Pikerniki Forest. Not signposted, it takes us a little extra time to find: two black tombstones near the road, a long path up to a white monument, peaceful and serene. Is this killing field 5 or 6 or 7 on our trip? There are over 240, and we’ve just seen 6 or so. I am sad, but more anger here. What sort of people could do such a thing? It is unfathomable. And we’ve only got to 1941, the worst is yet to come in Europe, just not here because there is no-one left. It has happened already.
All along the way we discuss how the current governments of Lithuania and Latvia appear intent on “air-brushing” the active participation of their people in killing of Jews during the Holocaust. Rather they try to paint themselves as victims alongside the Jews, citing the numbers who perished at the hands of the Nazis and Russians during the war. Too much evidence exists to support active participation without the need for much encouragement from the advancing Nazi army. But perhaps it is too heavy a burden to bear and it is much too late for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So downplaying its guilt is the easy out. Pity that some Jews give credence to this approach. My take is that the Lithuanian and Latvian “nationalist partisans” were in fact among Hitler’s earliest “willing executioners.”
Then we’re “on the road again” back to Vilnius. Along the way we tell our stories, even a few jokes. After one joke, Daniel pays me the ultimate compliment: Denis, he says, you’re such a Litvak! Truth is, I am.
Sleep does not come so quickly these nights.
“They” said I would be disappointed, sad and angry. They were right: I was a little disappointed at not finding a Greenman or Daneman reference, we’ve disappeared from Lithuania and Latvia! I was massively saddened repeatedly at the senselessness of the annihilation of the Jews of The Pale. I keep hearing Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech: Never! Never and never again! But have we learned from the Holocaust? The Killing Fields of Eastern Europe have been replaced by regional genocides, Cambodia, Rwanda and many more. And I am very angry that people don’t take historical responsibility, but try to airbrush out their roles.
But “they” were also wrong: they did not say I would be enlightened, enriched, encouraged, indebted, and much more. I have connected some of the dots: I even begin to believe my hypothesis of why Bendet and Sarah left while others stayed. Simply stated, the Greenmans and Segals of Plungyán were low on the pecking order, not bankers or merchants, only a rabbi, Reb Joseph. But the son, Bendet was disenchanted with his lot in life. Marxism beckoned and his father disapproved.
As we put on our seat-belts and move down the runway, I feel fulfilled, excited, informed, renewed. I have been to Plungyán. I have an obligation to myself to put together these experiences. Why? So that they can gather dust in our sons’ bottom drawers, until someone, sometime says to their parent: where do we come from? Who are we? Have we learned anything?
The return home could have included one of many scenarios:
- “Closure” as in I have been to Lithuania, now it’s time to move on with our lives. I would term this the “meaningless option”;
- “The Fifth Estate” as in various states of interest but really at arm’s length from emotional impact — these were the experiences of others with limited impact on me personally;
- “Awakening” as in various degrees of discovery of one or more important (at least to the observer) insights.
To say my experience fits number 3 would be a massive understatement. I do have knowledge, insights and interests that have arisen as a result of this trip and its “flow through.”
So far two important steps have been taken: first my email to the Lithuanian Archives requesting the birth certifications for Bendet Segal and Sarah Greenman and their parents. The email went off one day, with a reply a week later asking that about 45 Euro be wired to them to cover expenses and then three weeks later an email from Meredyth telling me that a parcel had arrived at our home from Lithuania: I could not wait to get home to open it, though in my heart-of-hearts I felt it would reveal nothing! Instead it was life-affirming (see below): birth certificates of both zéydes (b. Plungyán November 22 1881 to Joselio (Joseph) and Cipes Segal, a son, Bendet) and bóbes (b Plungyán 20 April 1882 to Brachya Aiziko and Féyge-Mínde Grinman, a daughter Sora Rivka). Two massive insights: my mother, Sheila was called Tzipora in Hebrew but her nickname was Auntie “Chips” – not potato chips but after her Bobba, Cipes!! And, my Bobba was Sora (Yiddish Sóre) not Sarah. The presence of birth certificates gave evidence of life in Lithuania.
The excitement of receiving the birth certificates was tempered a few days later after I had showed them to a Lithuanian individual I know. A day or two later this individual asked if I had gotten the birth certificates as a first step in obtaining Lithuanian citizenship as a means of European Union entry. Cynical, insulting and utterly wrong! Our cordial relationship is forever tainted. Deny and accuse simultaneously! Did Lithuania and Latvia ever pay reparations? Seems from my reading these came late and insufficient. There is no doubt that laying blame on “others” is pretty easy, saying sorry and meaning it much more difficult, perhaps impossible.
The second set of revelations came more recently with receiving the detailed family tree compiled by an ardent family member. In it there is evidence that at least some branches of the extended family did not make it out of Lithuania before the Holocaust. Their names are forever inscribed on the plaques in Koshen Forest.
The one thing that remains perplexing to me is the tendency for some to regard Jewish history as starting with the establishment of the State of Israel. Anything preceding it is pushed aside, perhaps because it has always been too difficult to talk about it or hear about it. But we live in a new world where existential and real threats abound.
Where to from here? Next was the 2017 trip to the other side of World War II, namely the beaches of Normandy and a new set of heroes, those 18 and 19 year olds who fought and, very often died, to save civilization as we have come to know it. But now at the start of 2019 the ill-winds of years gone by seem to be picking up, populism, nationalism, antisemitism. Let’s not go down those paths!
Why did I need to go to what was once The Pale of the Settlement? It seemed to me obvious both in prospect, reinforced in retrospect, that a big piece of South African Jewry belonged in, to and with the goings on in that area of the world between the 1500’s and the outbreak of WWll. Opportunity, word of mouth, friends and family opened the door to “chain migration” to parts of Southern Africa that in 1910 became the Union of South Africa. They came from all parts of Lithuania, most especially the north-west, Plungyán, Ríteve, Shavl, but also Kúpishok, Pónevezh, as well as the big towns, Vílne (Vilnius) and Kóvne (Kaunas).
Then I grew up in a home that included my grandparents, my family and an aunt, making our house the focal point of relatives and friends, also from the same neck of the woods. But not everyone shared the same view of what it meant to be a Jew from the standpoint of those three pillars: identity, religion and Zionism. Why was my Zeida on the left wing of all the issues? A revolt against an ultra-orthodox father or just a sign of the times.
I do not know how they lived, what they ate, what education they had, why they were in the vanguard of those leaving The Pale, but thankfully they did. More than leaving Lithuania and Latvia, they produced the next generation who seem to have spread ourselves around the world and done quite well.
What interests me is just how many of us have had similar experiences, and when I say the word Plungyán in front of South African-born Jews, they all have an immediate response.
Finally, I respect those who have fought to maintain the memories of our Lithuanian and Latvian forebears. More so do I respect those who battle attempts to air-brush these memories from the history of the region. I worry that this is inevitable.
Denis Daneman was born in 1949, in Johannesburg, South Africa to Sheila (nee Segal) and Isy Daneman. He attended public schools in Johannesburg: HA Jack and Houghton Primary Schools, and King Edward Vll High School. He went to Wits Medical School graduating with a BSc (Med) in 1969, an MBBCh in 1973, and later did his DSc(Med) graduating in 2013. In 1975 he left South Africa with his wife, Meredyth, and oldest son, Nick, to live in Toronto, where his second son, Rich was born. Except for three years of training in Pittsburgh, the Daneman family has made Toronto and Canada their home.
Dr. Daneman is a pediatric endocrinologist who has been at the Hospital for Sick Children and University of Toronto since 1981. From 2006-2016 he was Pediatrician-in-Chief at the hospital and the University Chair of Pediatrics. He has received numerous awards for his commitment to child health and well-being including the Council Award of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the life-time achievement awards of the Canadian Pediatric Society, the International Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Diabetes and Diabetes Canada, among others. In 2016 he received an Honorary Fellowship in Pediatrics from the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, and 2017 he was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada for his contributions to child health and well-being.