Remembering a lost people
'There Once Was A World: A 900-Year Chronicle of the Shtetl of Eishyshok'
(CNN) -- When asked to work on a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yaffa Eliach decided that the best way to remember the dead was to honor the lives they lived. So in 1979, she set about a 17-year project to reconstruct the 900-year history of Eishyshok, a small Jewish settlement in Poland where no Jews remain. "There Once was a World" chronicles the centuries of Jewish life that so violently came to an end in World War II. Her work is a detailed history of the changing life and enduring traditions in the small Polish shtetl.
The Quest for Eishyshok: Restoring a vanished past
—- Albert Camus
In August 1979 I was on my way to Russia, in the midst of a fact-finding mission to Eastern Europe. As a member of President Carter's Holocaust Commission, which was charged with making a recommendation for an appropriate United States memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, I had spent several days traveling to the various capitals of the Holocaust Kingdom—Warsaw, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Plaszow among them. Now, flying south of Vilna (Vilnius), on a plane from Warsaw to Kiev, I became aware that somewhere beneath the clouds lay the town of Eishyshok, home to the early years of my brief, interrupted childhood.
Eishyshok (the Yiddish name for Ejszyszki, as it is known in Polish, and Eisiskes in Lithuanian) had been home not just to my family and to several thousand other Jews just before the Holocaust, but home to generation upon generation of Jews, going back to the eleventh century. In fact, Eishyshok is the site of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in that part of the world. My paternal ancestors had been among the first five Jewish families to settle there in that long-ago time, and their descendants had lived on its soil for all the centuries since then, under all the various governments that had fought for control of it: Lithuanian, Polish, German, Russian, and Soviet. But now, in the post-Holocaust era, it was for the first time in all those hundreds of years a town without Jews.'
Nine hundred years of Jewish history in Eishyshok had been wiped out. In Eishyshok, as elsewhere in Poland and Lithuania, nearly a millennium of vibrant Jewish life had been reduced to stark images of victimization and death. During my travels I had been struck by the fact that, insofar as the world knew anything about the Jews of Eastern Europe, it knew them as skeletal concentration camp survivors and huge piles of corpses, ashes in crematorium ovens, pitiful targets of history's most astonishing epidemic of mass genocide. What kind of memorial could possibly transcend those images of death and do justice to the full, rich lives those people had lived, I wondered. At the time, the question seemed merely rhetorical to me, a question that could never find a satisfactory answer.
Thinking these grim thoughts as I flew over my former home, while remembering what I could of the colorful, intricately detailed tapestry of my own family life before that tapestry was so brutally shredded, I suddenly saw that there was a possible answer, and that I might be able to play a role in providing it. With great clarity my mission began to unfold before me: Regardless what kind of memorial my distinguished colleagues recommended to the president, I decided, I would set out on a path of my own, to create a memorial to life, not to death. Rather than focusing on the forces of destruction as most memorials do, mine would be an attempt at reconstruction. I wanted to re-create for readers the vanished Jewish market town I had once called home. I would chronicle its history, from its earliest years as a place of Jewish settlement to the tragic, premature end of that settlement.
There and then on the plane, with little understanding of the implications of my decision, I committed myself to a course of action that would completely dominate and consume the next seventeen years of my life (not to mention the effect it would have on my husband, my two children and their spouses, and my ever-expanding brood of grandchildren). The financial burden of doing the research would be enormous, as would the demands on my time. For all those seventeen years I would have to struggle to balance family, an academic career as professor of history and literature at Brooklyn College, and Eishyshok (with Eishyshok tipping the balance heavily in its own favor, my family often felt, particularly during the final stages of the research). There were to be no vacations during these years, but my travels in search of source material would require me to circle the globe many times, taking me to six continents and hundreds of cities, towns, and villages. The speaking engagements that helped finance this research took me to even more. In sum, every minute and every mile of these travels were devoted to either my research or its financing.
Eventually the Eishyshok project assumed a whole new dimension. During another trip to Europe, in August 1987, when a Guggenheim fellowship enabled me to do further field research, I returned to Eishyshok itself for the first time. I had not been there since 1945, when my brother and I visited our father, Moshe Sonenson, in the jail cell where he was being held by the Soviet authorities.
As part of my tour of the town, I went to one of the mass graves, which had been both killing field and burial ground to thousands of Jewish women and children from Eishyshok, Olkenik, and the surrounding villages, who had all been murdered on September 26, 1941. The place was marked only by a drab concrete plaque bearing the misleading dedication: to "The Victims of Fascism, 1941-1944."
Standing on the grass-covered grave, with yellow buttercups dotting the ground everywhere I looked, I found myself riveted to the spot. I could feel my beloved grandmothers Hayya Sonenson and Alte Katz holding on to me, my aunts, cousins, friends, and neighbors pulling at me. And I could hear the voices of those buried beneath my feet. By this stage of my research I had read many of their diaries and letters, collected their birth and marriage certificates, pored over their photographs. They surrounded me now, my family, my parents' friends, and my own little friends, asking with new urgency to be remembered, not as heaps of skulls and bones but as the vibrant, dynamic people I'd known. They wanted the world to see them as they had looked at their weddings, on their picnics, in their social clubs, and during the course of their daily lives.
My husband, David Eliach, who was standing a short distance away, later told me he seemed to see me sinking into the mass grave, aging before his eyes. But I was brought back to life by the mental image of one of my little grandchildren, whose face appeared out of nowhere, smiling up at me, giving me strength to leave the grave.
During my long vigil at the killing field, Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones had assumed new meaning for me. "Behold," he heard the Lord say to the bones, "I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live..."
When I left Eishyshok that time, I had a new mission—or at least a new component to my original mission. In addition to the book I was writing, I wanted to create a photographic exhibit depicting every man, woman, and child of twentieth-century Eishyshok, bringing them all back to life, and all together in one place: "Beloved and cherished, never parted in life or in death" (II Samuel, 1:23). The 1,500 photographs that line the walls of the Tower of Life in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., were the ultimate result of that decision. Like this book, they are part of my commemoration of my lost home. Thus my own vision of a memorial found a place in the official memorial that President Carter and the U.S. Congress had commissioned to be built on the banks of the Potomac.
For both personal and historical reasons, Eishyshok seemed to me to be an ideal candidate for the kind of memorial—or memorials—I had in mind. Given my family's ancient roots in Eishyshok and my own early years there, the personal reasons are obvious. But my instincts as a historian were also at work in the decision to document the long life of this particular community.
First of all, from the practical point of view of a researcher (and this may have been the only "practical" aspect of my decision), the size of Eishyshok's Jewish population, which ranged in its last five hundred years between 1,000 and 3,500, made it seem like a manageable subject. This factor was particularly important to me since I was determined to find some kind of authentic documentation, visual or written, archival or anecdotal, on every Jewish person who had lived in the shtetl in the twentieth century, including those who had emigrated from it, those who had been privileged to die a natural death in it, those who had perished there or nearby during the Holocaust, and the handful of Holocaust survivors who had somehow lived to tell the tale.
Eishyshok, insignificant and obscure as it may at first appear, seemed to me to be not just a manageable subject but a very important one, particularly in the context of Jewish history. The fact that it had been in existence since about 1061; its geographical position at the crossroads of Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, the three countries that for hundreds of years were home to the largest concentration of Jews in the world; its proximity (forty miles) to Vilna, a major intellectual and cultural center of Jewish life; the world-renowned yeshivah it supported during the nineteenth century, which made it a wellspring of Jewish intellectual life itself—all these factors and more allowed me to see in Eishyshok the very paradigm of the small Jewish market town—the shtetl, as such towns were called, using the Yiddish diminutive of shtot or stadt, the Yiddish and German words for "town."
The shtetl, typically a town ranging in size from about one thousand to twenty thousand people, was a uniquely Eastern European phenomenon, the product of a very specific time and place. We can trace its origins to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when Jews from Babylonia, Germany, and Bohemia began trickling into Eastern Europe. Many of them settled in large urban centers, and a few lived in isolated rural areas, but most would eventually make their homes in one of the thousands of shtetlekh that came to serve as trading centers for both country and city folk in the vicinity.
Given that shtetl life was for hundreds of years the predominant mode of existence for the majority of East European Jewry, and that during that period Eastern Europe was the principal domain of the Jews, the shtetl had clearly played a central role in Jewish cultural history. Indeed, no history of Jews in the Diaspora would be complete without an understanding of the shtetl. And yet, as I discovered to my surprise when I began my preliminary researches, no serious, comprehensive, in-depth account of shtetl life had ever been done. For a historian whose areas of specialization are Eastern European intellectual history in general and the Eastern European Jewish community in particular, such a gap in the literature presented a unique opportunity. By studying Eishyshok, I felt, I could create a portrait that would reflect the various historical, social, cultural, economic, educational, and religious phases of shtetl life from the time of its origins until its destruction during the Holocaust.
It is true, of course, that each shtetl had its own distinctive character, its own folklore, which varied according to geographic location, political and economic conditions, level of scholarship, patterns of leadership, relations between Jews and Gentiles, and so forth. But the towns had enough in common with one another, and enough to set them apart from any other kind of settlement in history, to make the study of one relevant to the study of all. Eishyshok, I decided, would be that one.
And I came to realize as I did my research that Eishyshok was not just a paradigm of Eastern European shtetl life, but a veritable microcosm of Western civilization, and beyond that of the entire family of humankind. There is hardly any major trend in the last nine hundred years of history that did not manifest itself in Eishyshok. From the Crusades to World War I to the Holocaust, from the pagan worship of the early Lithuanians to the European Age of Enlightenment to the secularization that occurred throughout much of the Western world in the twentieth century, Eishyshok has seen and experienced it all.
And yet, even as it reflected events and trends from the world at large, Jewish Eishyshok remained true to itself. In this shtetl as in so many others, the Jews lived and thrived in the midst of pagan, Muslim, and Christian neighbors, managing to be both of that world and apart from it, for many centuries. By maintaining a strict adherence to their own customs, they created a Jewish homeland thousands of miles from the original homeland, a kind of Jerusalem of the spirit. Napoleon himself is said to have called nearby Vilna the Jerusalem of Lithuania on account of the strong ethnic identity of its Jewish population. Perhaps at no time since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 c.e., and at no other place in the Diaspora, had there been a more successfully autonomous and intact set of Jewish institutions than those preserved in the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe.
Every stage of life in the shtetl—birth, circumcision, bar mitzvah, marriage, divorce, death and burial—was observed according to ancient law and tradition. So complete was the immersion in pre-Diaspora Jewish culture that the children of Eishyshok perceived the very topography of their surroundings as being a replica of the ancient Land of Israel. In their lively imaginations, the local Kantil stream was the Jordan river, the plaza that was home to the synagogue and the two houses of study was Mount Moriah, the sacred grounds of the Temple in Jerusalem.
But even though Eishyshok was a place whose very heart and soul were dedicated to religion—with a bit of superstition thrown into the mix—its people, like Lithuanian shtetl-dwellers in general, were so intellectually rigorous and questioning that other Jews expressed doubts about their piety. Hence the popular Yiddish expression "Litvak zelem-kop," an almost untranslatable phrase meaning, literally, "Lithuanian cross-head." It conveys the notion that every Lithuanian Jew has a little Christian cross inside his head. (It also conveys, in even more untranslatable fashion, the extreme stubbornness of Lithuanian Jews, who are known for never yielding to another opinion.)
If they were sometimes stubborn and unyielding, they were also open-hearted. Eishyshok's Jews supported the yeshivah in their midst with a generosity so extraordinary that they were frequently invoked as models of devotion to Torah-learning.
But these generous people were also such aggressive traders that they were known as albe levones—half moons—because they would even try to buy the dark side of the moon.1 In short, Eishyshkians were complicated, contradictory, multifaceted, and fascinating, true representatives of the family of man in all its complexity and beauty.
When I embarked on my work, upon returning from the Holocaust Commission trip in the summer of 1979, I had no idea what kind of documentation I would be able to find for it, or where it would be. But I was soon to learn the truth of Goethe's warning that the most valuable materials are not to be found in official archives—not those of Europe and the Soviet Union, nor those of Israel and the United States. While I never ceased in my efforts to get access to those archives—a particularly difficult challenge during the Cold War years, when it involved dealing with the wary officialdom of Poland, the Soviet Union, and, after the breakup of the Soviet bloc, Lithuania—I found that what I could learn about Eishyshok from these sources was very limited. In fact, the official documents give no clue as to who lived in the town of Eishyshok, or what happened to them. The text of a history of Eishyshok, part of a multivolume work on the towns of Lithuania that was commissioned during the last years of the Soviet regime, published in 1983, reads as follows:
During World War II Eisiskes suffered great losses. The majority of the people were shot, the economic life was paralyzed, and the town center was destroyed. Despite this devastation, during the years 1941 to 1944 the borough remained a district center, its administrative offices continuing to function.2
A footnote to the text mentions the fact that 3,446 people were shot near the town, "Jews and Soviet activists among them" (my emphasis). During the massacre of the men on September 25, 1941, and of the women and children September 26, only Jews were murdered—not a single Russian or Lithuanian or Pole—and there were about 5,000 victims, not 3,446. In the years that followed, the town did indeed continue to function, but it did so without the people who had constituted the majority of its population, for there were no Jews left. Those who had survived were in hiding, as they would remain until liberation, in July 1944.
By contrast, the material I eventually found in private family archives and collections was astonishing in both quality and quantity, exceeding by far my most hopeful expectations.
When I began my systematic research, there were still a significant number of living Eishyshkians scattered around the globe to whom I could turn for memories and material. One of my first priorities was to interview as many of them as I could before age, illness, and death silenced them. During my years as founder and director of Brooklyn's Center for Holocaust Studies, the first in the United States, I had learned important lessons about the possible uses and abuses of oral history, lessons that enabled me to establish basic criteria for conducting interviews and for verifying their accuracy. These proved crucial in the hundreds of interviews I now began to conduct.
Because of their diversity of age and experience, all the people I interviewed brought something different to the process of reconstruction. Some of the older people, for example, still had strong personal links to the shtetl of the nineteenth century; their memories encompassed not just their own experiences but stories passed down by parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
To listen to these old men and women, to look over their written documents and photos with them, was to reexperience the dynamic life of the shtetl, to be privy to its folklore, to enter its past. Indeed, I felt as though I was touching history itself when I heard Shlomo Farber repeating his grandfather's account of Emperor Napoleon's visit to nearby Olkenik during the Russian campaign.
I was in touch with another kind of history—literary history—courtesy of Szyrke Groshman (whose Hebrew name is Shira Gorshman). Szyrke was not herself from Eishyshok, but her life had touched, and been touched by, several people who were: Sarah, Mordekhai, and Rivka Rubinstein. The gifted Sarah had been her Hebrew teacher in Krok, the shtetl of her birth, and Sarah's brother and sister were, like Szyrke, members of a socialist group called the Labor Battalion in Jerusalem. To earn money for the impoverished Labor Battalion, Szyrke accepted a 40-piaster-a-day job as a maid in the household of Sh. Y. Agnon (1888-1970), future Nobel laureate in literature. Though Agnon was immensely taken with her beauty and her free-spirited ideology, complimenting her frequently on her expressive eyes (as well as her gefilte fish), she saw in him merely the epitome of the starched-collar, coat-and-tie bourgeoisie. And then one day in 1927 the beautiful Szyrke disappeared—to Russia. She, Mordekhai, and Rivka, along with about a hundred other disillusioned leftists who felt they could not achieve the socialist utopia they had dreamed of creating in Palestine, had taken the absolutely unheard-of step of emigrating from there to Communist Russia. But it was during her time in Jerusalem that Szyrke's life entered literature, for Agnon almost certainly modeled the protagonist of his posthumously published novel Shira after the lively young woman he had known so many years before.3
Szyrke's brilliant Hebrew teacher, Sarah, came by her talents naturally, being the daughter of one of Eishyshok's most beloved teachers and scholars, Reb Tuvia der Yeremitcher (from the shtetl of Yeremitch). My uncle Shalom Sonenson, who had been privileged to study with him, re-created for me the image of his heder (the religious elementary school attended by all shtetl boys). There was Reb Tuvia Rubinstein, seated at the head of a long wooden table, sipping his steaming glass of tea and sucking a chunk of white sugar during the occasional pauses in his eloquent declamations of whole chapters from the Prophets, to which he appended his own brilliant commentaries and interpretations. And there were the pale-faced little heder boys, lined up on the backless benches to either side of the table, listening spellbound and silent to their teacher's display of intellect. My uncle was but one of many former students I met during my research who could still quote passages they had learned over half a century before from the Yeremitcher rebbe.
Rivka Remz, close to a hundred years old when interviewed, could still conjure up the awe she felt during Yom Kippur services in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. Through her eyes I saw the worshippers dressed all in white from head to toe, standing in their white socks on heaps of fresh-cut straw, beseeching the Almighty God to inscribe them in the Book of Life for the coming year. And so vivid was Morris Shlanski's account of the Big Fire of 1895, which he had experienced as a seven-year-old child, that I could almost feel the hot cobblestones scorching his feet as he ran from the encroaching flames.
Several decades later, there was Faivl Glombocki astride a white horse in a torch-lit parade that drew the entire shtetl in its wake. Everybody had turned out to say goodbye to the Schneider family, who were leaving for the Bastun train station, on their way to Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel, as the Jews called Palestine before it became a state). Recalling what had been a momentous event for the shtetl some sixty-five years before, the aging Faivl was suddenly transformed into the enthusiastic young Zionist he had been in 1924.
Most of those who were still alive when I began my research were not Holocaust survivors, of whom there were very few, but people who had emigrated before the war in search of a better life, generally to either the United States or Eretz Israel. Having left the shtetl during the 1910s, '20s, and '30s, they had no firsthand knowledge of it during its final years. But there was also a group of survivors who had remained in the shtetl up to and beyond the fateful June day in 1941 when the German troops marched across a centuries-old bridge into Eishyshok, and who had managed one way or another to escape the subsequent massacres. They had been eyewitnesses to the shtetl's final days, its ultimate destruction, and the grim aftermath of its liberation. Additionally, there was a small contingent of people who had chosen to go to Russia or had been exiled there in 1940-41.
The prewar emigrants, unlike the survivors of the German occupation, had not just memories to share but ample memorabilia. When they'd left Eishyshok they had taken with them family records and heirlooms, photos, diaries, letters, and official documents that would prove invaluable to my effort to reconstruct life in the shtetl. Many of them were able to show me souvenirs and keepsakes that shed considerable light on the modernizing, secularizing trends that transformed the shtetl during the twentieth century: for example, the script of a play they had had a role in prior to their departure, or the program for a cultural event in Eishyshok or nearby Vilna, or the lyrics to one of the topical songs performed in the local cabaret revue.
Many of these emigrants still had in their possession a wealth of traditional materials their parents had sent with them when they left: candlesticks to light and kiddush cups to drink wine from on the Sabbath and other festival days, portraits that were to be hung over the beds of their new homes so that the ever-watchful eyes of Papa and Mama would always be there to remind them not to abandon their traditions or their faith. The ongoing bond between the emigrants and those they left behind was amply documented by the bundles of photos, letters, and postcards exchanged after their departure, as well as the souvenirs they had kept of their occasional returns to the shtetl, as tourists taking sentimental journeys home.
The Holocaust survivors' items were, of course, fewer in number, and often much more damaged, due to the perils of the journeys they had made. Many of the photos, written documents, and artifacts that managed to survive the war had been buried in the ground or stashed away in other hiding places, or deposited with friendly Christian and Muslim neighbors, then retrieved by their owners after liberation. Also included among the survivors' keepsakes were various items that helped tell the story of the Holocaust period itself: yellow stars and other grim mementos of the Nazi invasion; diaries and letters describing the lives of their authors in nearby ghettos, and in the surrounding forests, where many went either to hide or to join up with the partisans; death certificates from the post-liberation era of murder and mayhem.
That I had so much material to draw upon was little short of miraculous. To track the history of any given artifact in its post-shtetl days is to follow the twentieth-century trials and tribulations of its owner, and often of the owner's new homeland as well. For example, I was very eager to see anything that the Wilkanski family had taken from Eishyshok, because Reb Layzer Wilkanski (1824-1915), his wife Batia, and their six children had all played such prominent roles in the ethical, cultural, intellectual, and political life of Eishyshok. When they emigrated to Eretz Israel in 1914, following in the footsteps of their children, Reb Layzer and Batia brought with them not just the usual family memorabilia but official records relating to his fifty years of service as the shtetl dayyan (judge). In 1915, however, fearful of being deported from Palestine by the Turks as a foreigner, Reb Layzer buried all his shtetl documents and photos. With the assistance of the Wilkanski family, I was able to retrieve some of those materials; but termites and other underground creatures had gotten to many of them before me. Fortunately, several books about Eishyshok written by Reb Layzer's son Meir Wilkanski still survive to bear witness to the Wilkanski legacy.
Internal Zionist politics could pose just as much of a threat to family archive materials as termites did. In the 1940s, Peretz Kaleko-Alufi, who had emigrated from Eishyshok in 1933, was appointed principal of a Labor Party school in Zikhron-Yaakov. Fearing that a former affiliation with the rightist Beitar youth organization could jeopardize his relations with Labor and hence his job, he buried all his shtetl documents, including, of course, photographs of himself wearing a Beitar uniform. As a key member of one of the families that had inherited the mantle of intellectual leadership from the Wilkanskis, Peretz was a very important source for me. I wanted those documents badly. So in 1987, armed with a digging permit and accompanied by the aging Peretz and my brother Yitzhak, I went on an archaeological expedition. Alas, the main beam of a small building stood just above the spot where Peretz had performed the burial.
My brother Yitzhak and I experienced firsthand how challenging it was to preserve family papers. In 1945, with my mother dead and my father in exile in Siberia, I began the journey toward my new homeland with my uncle, whose papers listed me as his child. Though I was only a little girl, I knew enough to treasure my few remaining family photos—and to hide them in my shoes in order to conceal my true identity. I kept them there during all the months of our travels, from Poland to Czechoslovakia to Germany and eventually to Marseilles, where we boarded a boat that sailed the Mediterranean to the Suez Canal. Only after we arrived in Palestine on a train from Egypt on April 4, 1946, did I remove them.
The following year my brother attempted to reach the shores of Eretz Israel on one of the many ships that were transporting "illegal" Jewish immigrants (maapilim), almost all of whom were Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. The Lanegev left France on January 18, 1947, but was intercepted by three British gunboats off the shores of Haifa. During the fierce battle that ensued, Yitzhak jumped into the water with his share of our family photos strapped around his waist. Along with many of the other maapilim from the Lanegev, he was captured and exiled to Cyprus. In August 1947 he finally made it back to Haifa, his photos still strapped to his body. During the entire War of Independence, in which he fought and was wounded, he carried those precious photos with him, unwilling to part with his last paper link to the past.
Another man who managed to save his family photos was Yossele Hamarski, who had fought as a partisan in the forests around Eishyshok during World War II. In his case the danger came from the army troops of the newly formed Israeli government, who were cracking down on freelance defense militias such as the Irgun, which was supposed to have disbanded after the declaration of the State of Israel. In June 1948, Yossele was on the ill-fated Irgun ship the Altalena, which was carrying men and arms to Israel from Europe. At one of its clash-ridden stops along the coast, Yossele was forced to disembark, with the result that when the ship was fired on by the military and up in flames in Tel Aviv, he and his photos were at a safe distance.
Even as recently as 1991 the precious documents so crucial to my research were endangered in Israel. During the Gulf War that year, a Scud missile hit a home in Ramat-Gan. Though it caused no loss of human life, it did destroy many photos and papers. These would have helped shed additional light on the war years, because they documented the experience of one of the 15,000 refugees who passed through Eishyshok from 1939 to 1941, availing themselves of the community's assistance in illegal border crossings as they tried to make their way to safety.
Much of the memorabilia brought to the United States by the 1,500 Eishyshkians who emigrated there between 1873 and 1940 fell victim not to war, terrorism, or politics, as happened in Israel, but to lack of interest, particularly among the immediate descendants of the immigrants. The "old country" seemed too remote to these products of the melting pot. Ethnicity and family roots were quickly forgotten in the rush to Americanization.
Since most of the second-generation Americans had assimilated so thoroughly that they could not read Yiddish, Hebrew, or any of the other foreign languages in which their family correspondence had been conducted, and likewise could not read the inscriptions on the back of the family photos, or any of the diaries or official documents that had been brought over, they were likely to consign a lot of that material to the trash.
Ironically, even as memories have faded and memorabilia disappeared, recent decades have seen a revival of interest in the story they tell. The new fascination with family roots has resulted in an active effort by American Jews to search for and preserve those materials that still remain to bear witness to the past. But for many family archives, including a number of those from Eishyshok, the change came too late. They are lost to the world forever.
The bulk of emigrant material that survived in the United States (and in other places around the globe) was in the possession of individuals who had a direct physical or emotional link to the shtetl, many of whom had assumed the role of family historians. They included the emigrants themselves, as well as children who had been born in the new land but felt strong ties to the old one, either because they had visited it with their parents or had grown to love it through listening to their nostalgic stories.
Some of the material that survived in the United States was deposited in official archives maintained by synagogues and fraternal societies set up by Eishyshkian emigrants. However, since so many of the synagogues in cities like Chicago, Boston, and Detroit either disappeared without leaving a trace or were converted to churches as their congregants left the inner cities and moved out to the suburbs, I was able to rescue only a few shreds of the records they had once contained. But the Eishyshok Society of America (Hevrah Bnei Avraham Shmuel Anshei Eishyshker) proved to be a storehouse of information—about both the people who had been left behind in Eishyshok and those who had come to the new land. Despite the fact that some of the records were "cleaned out" and discarded when the leadership of the Society was taken over by the Holocaust survivors' generation during the 1970s, there was still a significant body of intact documentary material that covered a period of over a hundred years, beginning when the first emigrants arrived on American shores. This material is now in my possession.
The breakup of the Soviet Union, which began in 1989, had a considerable impact on my research, because it meant that many official government archives, most notably those of the newly independent Lithuania, were now at least theoretically open to researchers from the West—for a price. By going through various public and private channels, and paying a very high price indeed, I was able to obtain from the Lithuanian archives comprehensive records pertaining to the Jews of Eishyshok and the villages under its jurisdiction between the years 1792 and 1940. Births, marriages, divorces, illnesses, deaths, and taxes are the subjects of these records, which I used to fill in many gaps not just in the research I did for this book, but the biographical data I assembled on many of the people who appear in the photos displayed on the walls of the Tower of Life at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Valuable as such public records are, they are not nearly as useful as the material from private family archives. The differences between the two kinds of documentation—differences in accuracy as well as personal detail, richness, and color—are enormous. One crucial area in which the public records fall short has to do with the male population. Many of these inaccuracies stem from the attempt to spare young men and boys from the military draft, and the distortions took a number of different forms.
When Reb Layzer and Batia Wilkanski's first child Yitzhak was born in 1879, he was entered into the records as a four-year-old boy. This was done on the advice of the shtetl expert on draft laws, who said that this way when Yitzhak was called up for military service, he would be eligible for exemption as a son supporting an aging father, because there would be no other sons close in age, even if other male children had been born in the meantime. A distortion of a different kind had to do with "only sons." Since only sons were exempt from conscription into the tzarist army, during the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth it was a common practice to give each brother a different last name. Thus ten brothers would appear in the records as "only sons" of ten different sets of parents. Other males were falsely recorded as having died in infancy. As for females, since the government had no particular interest in them, they were often simply omitted from the official records.
Another problem with trying to interpret the information contained in the public records is that it has often been distorted by the political uses to which it is put. In order to disguise the fact that the majority of the people in Eishyshok were Jewish, for example, the Polish records cited statistics that referred to the total number of people in the entire district of Eishyshok, only 10 percent of whom were Jewish, rather than the number of people in the town itself.
Sometimes I was able to get to the truth behind the distortions in the government records by looking at private archives, where I found such items as postcards announcing the birth of a child, photographs with identifying inscriptions on the back, diary entries, wedding invitations, and so forth. Yet, the inaccuracies in the public records notwithstanding, I was able to use them to glean considerable amounts of valuable demographic information about the Jewish population of the shtetl. And the discrepancies between public and private records were themselves of interest, revealing much about the relations between the Jews and the governments they lived under.
The difficulties I faced in gaining access to government archives in what were formerly Iron Curtain countries were different in kind from, but no more severe than, many of the obstacles I came up against in my search for private materials. First there was the problem of finding them. This often required a detective's skills in tracking people down, especially since there was enormous confusion about people's names. People in the shtetl were rarely called by their family names. Even if they weren't going under a false name to avoid army service, their real surnames were often lost to history, submerged under names that indicated the family's place of origin (Matikanski from the village of Matikan, Paikowski from Pajkoi, Bastunski from Bastun, Radunski from Radun, and so forth) or the family occupation (Shuster meaning shoemaker, Portnoy the tailor, Kabacznik the innkeeper, Hutner the glassmaker). Or else they were known mainly by their nicknames, for there were as many nicknames as there were people. The nicknames could refer to a person's occupation (Pessie di Zigele = Pessie the Goat Shepherdess, Nahum der Kvoresman = Nahum the Gravesman); character or personality (Moshe der Shtiller = Moshe the Quiet One, Hayyaike di Berie = Hayyaike the Diligent); disability or deformity (Soreh di Kalike = Soreh the Lame, Israel Leib der Eiker = Israel Leib the Hunchback); or physical appearance (Benyomin der Boof = Benyomin the Fat, Isik Berishe Lape = Isik the Bear Paw, who had huge hands). Some of these nicknames were applied to family members for generations to come.
On one occasion, for example, a single clue, consisting of a family nickname (die meizalekh = the mice), took me from the old age home in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I first heard the nickname, to Melbourne, Australia. There I did at last find the material I sought. The man who gave it to me was a descendant of a turn-of-the-century heder teacher who had been nicknamed "the mouse" after a hilarious mishap involving that animal (see chapter 5).
Once I located the people with the family archives, I then had to persuade them to share the material with me. Generally speaking, those who had emigrated at a young age or were the children of emigrants were more cooperative than the survivor/exiles. People like Atara Zimmerman (nŽe Kudlanski; in America Kudlanski was changed to Goodman), who emigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1930; Rosalind Rosenblatt (nŽe Foster, of the Michalowski family), who was born in the United States but visited her grandmother in Eishyshok in 1932, when she was a young college student; and Judy Baston, a descendant of the Bastunski family who was born in Oakland—these women were all eager to participate in my project, in hopes of learning more about their roots, and/or reliving happy memories of the shtetl.
Some people, understandably, were reluctant to share their memories and memorabilia. Those who had lost their families in the Holocaust sometimes found it too painful to part with whatever mementos they'd managed to preserve. Their photos, letters, and other artifacts were their only physical link with families now vanished, a past forever destroyed. Occasionally I was able to overcome this reluctance by bringing a photographic crew to the house of the interviewee, so that we could reproduce the material on the spot. But in other cases I was not even given that option, for some of the Holocaust survivors, especially the older ones, were suspicious about my motives. In at least two cases this meant the permanent closing of a door, because with the death of these individuals, all their materials vanished.
Money helped smooth my way more than once. These business transactions could be very expensive. For one photograph of the market square on market day I paid with a color TV, a vcr, a radio, four jogging suits, and four pairs of Reebok sneakers. On another occasion I paid four thousand dollars for a batch of photographs.
The fact that my family was from Eishyshok often proved helpful, as I had expected it would. All of the emigrants and survivors knew my family very well, and some had had close associations with them. A few even remembered me as an infant or a small child. Thus I was accepted as an insider and entrusted with material and information they would never have shared with strangers.
Such cordiality was not universal, however. Old class conflicts occasionally surfaced. Some members of the working class (the bale-melokhe) still nursed grievances against my family as prime representatives of the householder or upper class (the balebatim). Their treatment of me was a way of evening up the score. As I should have anticipated, given the nature of small-town life, there were also those who had personal grudges against my family, some of them dating back to the nineteenth or even eighteenth century. They used me to settle old family accounts. One woman I approached, for example, refused even to respond to my initial greetings and good wishes until I apologized. What was her complaint? It seemed that some seventy years before, my grandfather, Shael Sonenson, in his capacity as neeman ha-kahal (head of the community), had voted against her widowed mother's request to lease a store in the prime commercial district, thereby consigning the family to a life of poverty. In more recent times, my mother, she claimed, had made a negative remark about the looks of her newborn baby. After apologizing on behalf of my entire family, I was granted an interview, and access to her photos and documents from Eishyshok.
On the whole, my relationships with former Eishyshkians and their descendants were very warm. I came to feel close to many of them, and in some cases, especially where the elderly were concerned, felt it incumbent upon me to assume responsibility for them. I arranged for leaky roofs to be repaired and hot water tanks installed in their apartments; I bought them electrical appliances, medicines, clothes, and blankets.
The kindnesses were mutual. Peretz Kaleko-Alufi summoned me to his deathbed in the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, in order to deliver to me his last will and testament. For him this was a matter not of material goods, but of his expectations for the research I was doing about Eishyshok. These were his last words: "I trust you, that you will present Eishyshok the way it was: small, beautiful, and full of life." A few hours later he was gone. I felt that I had received a great blessing.
I asked a friend and fellow Eishyshkian, Moshe Szulkin, what he hoped I could accomplish with my book. His answer: "To understand Russia, one must be a Russian. To appreciate America, one must be American. If you want your readers to comprehend what Eishyshok was, you will have to transform every reader into an Eishyshkian. Since your Eishyshkian ancestors are nine centuries old and so is your Eishyshkian soul, your pen will be able to do its job."
I hope that Szulkin's confidence proves justified—that the portrait I have drawn will bring back to life many of the shtetl's admirable traditions; that it will offer knowledge of the past and hope for the future; that it will build bridges between the world that once was and the world still to be; and that the world of the future will be a better one because of those bridges.Copyright © 1998 by Yaffa Eliach
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