Pilgrimage to Poland
Doron Avni is a Wexner Israel alumnus (Class XVII) from Petah-Tiqwa, Israel. He was a participant in the Wexner journey to Eastern Europe in the spring of 2008. He is the legal counsel of the Second Authority for Television and Radio, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We marched together on the path to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a group of Wexnerians, Americans and Israelis, shoulder to shoulder. The shadows of Jews once again struck the path. I did not want to visit Poland, the valley of slaughter. The burden was too much to bear. But the knowledge that my friends from The Wexner Foundation – from both sides of the world – would be by my side convinced me that this trip was both a privilege and an obligation. On that fine morning in April 2008, I thought about Cila, my grandfather’s eight-year-old niece. How does an eight-year-old girl feel when she is led, without her parents, down the path to Auschwitz, on the way to her death?
Three months later, at a conference held by The Wexner Foundation in Haifa for its Israeli alumni, those who participated in the trip to Eastern Europe talked about their experiences. I told everyone about the family of my grandfather, Yeheskel Fleisher,(pictured upon his release from a Nazi prison) more than half of whom were murdered in one fell swoop in Lithuania. I told about my grandfather, who survived the Nazi prison that was set up in his city, about his escape into the forests with my grandmother and how they begged for food. I also told how my grandfather, who will be 92 this year, takes such pride in his seven grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
On the way home from the conference in Haifa, I understood that I had begun a journey that I now had the strength to complete. I told my wife that I must return to the place in which my own personal Holocaust began, in June 1941, when the Nazis invaded Lithuania.
A month later, I stood with my sister in front of the Nazi jail in the city of Shavli, Lithuania. The prison is still operating today, and only the red prison stones tell the story of 800 Jews who were incarcerated there right after the Nazis invaded Lithuania, just 140 of whom survived. Some of the Jews, among them my grandfather, were forced to dig graves for their fellow Jews in the nearby Kozai forest, and that is how they stayed alive. My grandfather told me that while he was in the prison, “I made a vow, that if I survived, I would have myself photographed so that the memory would never be obliterated” – and so he did. From the picture, my grandfather gazes at me – thin, hair in wild disarray, the yellow patch on his garment – but with strength and determination shining in his eyes.
No trace of the ghetto remains in the city except for a silent memorial stone and the leather factory in which my grandfather also worked. When we entered the dilapidated factory, we stepped back 65 years, to November 5, 1943. On that day, after everyone left for work, the gates of the ghetto were closed, and Nazi and Ukrainian murderers gathered the children and the old people in the square before taking them to the extermination camps. My grandfather’s story is etched in my memory, about how, from the factory, he watched his little niece Cila, her mother standing beside him, while Cila was led away by a tough Ukrainian trooper who had found her in her hiding place. Eight-year-old Cila was holding the hand of a neighbor’s three-year-old son. “I did not see her face”, my grandfather told me, and I could hear, over a generation of years, screams of agony from parents as they returned to the ghetto and discovered the extent of the tragedy.
We continued along the path of blood to the Kozai forest just a few kilometers from Shavli. We walked off the road into the depths of the forest, a long path flanked by trees on both sides, at the end of which stands a memorial that says that in this forest, 8,000 Jews were murdered – men, women and children. Behind the memorial is a mass grave. When we moved deeper into the forest, we discovered another grave, and another, and another – and our hearts could not contain the enormous pain – and another, and another – ten graves in all. I breathed in a lungful of air – grandfather says that the clear air of the forest in which they dug the graves saved them from the fate of their companions in the prison, who fell ill and died. Those were dark days in which air was considered a precious commodity. Next to the memorial, I placed the Israeli flag, and the melody of Hatikva played in my ears. My grandfather said, “A German soldier stood us in the forest in groups of three and commanded us to sing Hatikva. Afterwards, the soldier demanded that we translate the words but, out of fear, we omitted the part about the revival of the Jewish people in our homeland.”
Several kilometers from that place is another valley of death. A road penetrates into the thick of the forest, which leads to another mass grave with a Yiddish inscription stating that here the Nazis murdered 180 “???????? ?????? ?????“- Jewish men from the town of kursenai. My great-grandfather was one of them, and his only crime was the fact that he was Jewish. My sister and I approached our family graveyard with reverence. “I should have been buried here, too,” said my grandfather, who had miraculously managed to flee from his parents’ home before the Nazis arrived. This is where our family’s history might have ended. On the tree next to the monument, we placed a memorial sign that we had prepared, my sister and I, the night before. We wanted to leave something of ourselves in that terrible place, and restore to at least one of the 180 anonymous Jews his name and his dignity: “In memory of Shlomo David Fleisher, who was murdered in this place” reads the Hebrew sign, beneath which appear the names of his son, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. At the bottom of the sign we added “Israel.” We lit memorial candles and, with a trembling voice, I said Kaddish from that same paper that had been in my pocket throughout our trip to Poland. The circle was closed.
My grandfather told me many stories about the year in which he ran for his life with my grandmother through the Lithuanian forests, and now we were on our way to a small village where the two of them hid for many months in the home of a gentile. My grandfather visited the place in 1996 and in my pocket was a picture of him with Kasta, the daughter of his gentile benefactor, who at that time still lived in the same house. We arrived at the village and after an hour of searching, we despaired of finding the place. On the way out, my sister went into the local grocery store with the picture in hand, in a last attempt to locate the house. When she came out, it turned out that Kasta was the mother-in-law of the grocery store owner. Within minutes we were at the place in which my grandmother and grandfather had hidden. Kasta had died in the meantime and the house is now occupied by her daughter, who is the granddaughter of the gentile benefactors. It is hard to describe the feelings that gripped us. The gentile’s granddaughter spoke only Lithuanian, but the pictures in our hands told the story, and our gestures expressed our boundless gratitude.
And from there to another forest. “Where is the grave of the Jews?” we asked one of the Lithuanians in the city of Zagare, and he pointed in the direction of a park. Children were playing ball, there were sounds of laughter. We went deep into the forest, to another family grave. This is where 3,000 of Shavli’s Jews were brought and cruelly murdered the day after Yom Kippur, 1941. The lives of my great-grandmother and my great-aunt were also cut short in this place. The blood-soaked earth has already produced grass, but the memory has not been erased. We put up a sign – “In memory of Tame-Dvorah Fleisher and Esther Raiza Fleisher” – As the Israeli song reads “every person has a name”. I said Kaddish and promised that we will never forget. It started to rain on our way back. My sister pointed out the window – there was a rainbow in the clouds.
When we returned to Israel, I looked out the window of the plane at the beloved scenery, and the words “to be a free nation in our homeland” suddenly took on a deeper meaning that encompassed responsibility and commitment. The journey that had started a year earlier with the Wexner Foundation trip to Poland had now reached an end. I returned home, embraced my wife and two sons, Yonatan and Nadav, and I vowed that we would never forget.