I never cared very much for the Holocaust.
As a child born shortly after the war, I grew up barraged by sordid black-and-white images and film footage of the piled-up, naked bodies of Jews, heaps of gold teeth, lamps made from their skin. These emaciated, striped-suited people in concentration camps seemed abject. I knew they were Jews, but they didn’t at all seem like me, my family, and my Jewish friends living in the Bronx. They weren’t Jews really to me; they were haunting images with scary eyes and belonged more in the B-horror movies I watched in my neighborhood movie theater on Sunday afternoons. At the end of the thriller, I could return to the safety of our apartment to have a hot meal and watch TV. Not so with the Holocaust images.
My parents, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of anything to do with Nazis. Although my grandparents came from Eastern Europe—Lithuania and Poland—my parents, both Deaf, were born in the UK. They came to the US before World War II, so my grandparents and parents had avoided the terror and turmoil of that war. My father did not have to serve in the war because he was too old (he was born in 1898) and of course because he was Deaf. Their interest in the Nazis seemed to be purely lurid. At that time, the television airwaves were filled with movies about the war. I can recall my parents saying “Nazis” (with their British pronunciation softening the “z” and getting rid of the “t” sound of the US “Natzi”) with a kind of feverish glee as they rushed to watch some movie about sweat-beaded US soldiers tunneling out of a prisoner-of- war camp.
As a child, it wasn’t uncommon for me to see older Jews with numbers tattooed on their arms. Where I should have looked on them with respect and sympathy, again I saw that other. By a strange act of metonymic thinking, I associated them not with me but with the Nazis. The mother of my friend David Freitag who lived in the building next door had such a number and spoke with an accent. But the kids on the block misguidedly whispered that she was a Nazi and therefore made fun of him. I remember his tormented attempts to explain to us she wasn’t. We didn’t know, and we didn’t care.
When I was ten, I went alone to see a film called Mein Kampf. The advertising for the movie blared: “Every foot of film authentic from secret Nazi archives!” I’m not sure why I went; perhaps because it seemed like an adult movie–something forbidden. There I watched two hours of images I wished I’d never seen. Although the New York Times described the movie as a rehash of old, previously seen footage with a few minutes of heart-rending scenes in the Warsaw Ghetto, to me it was all nightmarish. The surreal nature of the film was added to by the fact that I forgot to bring my glasses. I saw the same carnage and torture now through the blur and distortion of youthful astigmatism. It was Salvatore Dali meets Dr. Caligari meets Adolf Hitler.
From then on, I avoided the Holocaust. It seemed both horrible and unthinkable. But the worst part, I see now, was my inability to perceive those wretched people as me or like me. They were flatly others who had lost their identity as individuals by being so tormented as a group. They weren’t people; they were victims. They were “they.”
It is possible to get through one’s life as a Jew and not pay much attention to the Holocaust. My children didn’t get exposed much to it, because I didn’t talk about it. Eli Wiesel was always there telling the world not to ever forget, but I forgot. I don’t think I ever remembered.
As I write this, I am in the town of Ariogala in Lithuania. It is the shtetl from which my father’s family came. It is also the place where about 700 of the town’s Jewish residents were marched to a field in June of 1941 by Lithuanian nationals under the protection of the Nazis. The Jews, according to some accounts, were made to dig a long trench, get out, remove their clothing, get back in naked. And then they were shot to death and buried on the spot.
How did I get here?
What brought me back and closer to the events was the rather neutral issue of genealogy and DNA testing. In the process of writing a book on genetics, ancestry, and my own story of trying to find my biological father, I had myself tested through FamilyTreeDNA. That together with the help of the resident genealogist in my family, a cousin named Carol Stirk who lives in Australia, helped me discover that my family name, hidden by the brackish tides of Ellis Island, was not Davis but Melondovitz (Melandovich, Melamedovitz, depending on the conquering nation and the echolalia of uneasy literacy). The meaning of the name “son of a teacher” seeming to fit with my professorial role. I discovered not only generally where my grandfather came from—Kovno as he wrote on the ship’s manifest that took him to New York City from London—but the specific town of Ariogala about a 30-minute drive from Kaunas, the name that the Lithuanian nationalists call it. We traced Melondovichs back to the 18th century where one Meier lived. The records of town show a plethora of Melondovichs, as do the neighboring towns.
I find myself singing “Ariogala, Ariogala…that’s my home town.” If you grow up as Jew in the United States, it’s strange to have a hometown that your family inhabited for generations upon generations. Mostly your experience is being a newly arrived immigrant. It was your parents or your grandparents who came over. There isn’t a cache of family items passed from generation to generation; no big gathering of the clan on Thanksgiving; no historic place to visit where your aunts and uncles played as children.
But this was my hometown. My grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather all the way down lived there. Lithuania has two major cities: Kaunas and Vilnius (the Jews called them Kovna and Vilna) and these were packed with Jews. People think New York is a Jewish city, but Jews make up only 15 percent. Vilna was over 45 per cent Jewish, as was Kovna. Census records show dozens of Melondovichs in Ariogala. You probably couldn’t walk to the market without running into cousins, uncles, aunts—the whole mishpocha.
Now that I had some genealogical and onomastic information, I thought about going to Lithuania on a quest, a bit of Jewish tourism, to find my roots. I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own, but as is often the case with academics, I got an invitation to attend a conference there. So I bought a plane ticket to Vilnius (the city with the international airport) and begin my trip.
According to local legend, Napoleon called Vilnius “the Jerusalem of Europe” and Jews have been there since the 14th century. Where you have Jews, you have synagogues and yeshivas. Vilna had 110 houses of prayer and 10 religious schools. Revered in the history of Vilna was the famous Gaon (or wiseman) who, it is said, had many disciples to whom he stressed the importance of science, newly discovered in the Enlightenment, as an adjunct to religious learning. (If you notice my use of qualifiers, it is because there is little historical documentation for the stories that have accumulated over the years about the Gaon).
Life went on for hundreds of years with the Jews who lived side-by-side with their Christian counterparts. Not all was matzoh and roses; pogroms and forced impressment into the military were the lot of some. My grandfather Solomon (Shlomo) left during one of these forced impressments into the Czar’s army in the 19th century.
In June 1941 the Germans invaded Lithuania, driving out the Soviets, and within a few years, almost all the Jews were killed or deported to concentration camps. The current Jewish population based on the 2011 census is so small it is not even listed; it is grouped under “other.” Basically, all the Jews in Lithuania were killed. And, as one can imagine, not a whole lot of those who escaped returned.
The DNA work brought me to information about my family. But what brought me closer to my people was something brutal and gruesome. I learned that the general idea many of us had that Jews were taken to concentration camps where they were killed in gas chambers was actually a later development in the war that did not directly affect my people in Ariogala and Kaunas. Now, it is widely acknowledged that the Holocaust began almost within days of the Germans setting foot in Lithuania. It wasn’t an elaborate operation with efficient locations, gas chambers, and crematoria. It was, as some have called it, a “holocaust by bullet.” One bullet for one Jew. A group made up of members of a Lithuanian shooting club supervised by Nazi commanders went from town to town. Their method was depressingly the same. Jews were told to assemble in the center of town, they were marched or transported to a forest or field nearby. And there they were shot to death. Some days as many as 2,000 Jews were shot. About a third were men, a third women, and the remaining third comprised disabled people and children. The younger and more able-bodied men were taken for slave labor. A very precise report by Karl Jager details, town by town, the numbers adding up to close to a quarter of a million Jews killed in this manner between July 4 and Nov 23, 1941.
Yes, there is footage of these killings, but unlike the faceless and nameless Jews I had decided a long time ago to repress, these deaths by bullet showed me a person, like myself, perhaps having gotten up in the morning, drinking their tea, eating their breakfast, and then pulled out of their house to be murdered. They weren’t pale, emaciated ghosts, but anyone. It could have been me or mine. A man with a gun and a man without one. I understand that. I feel that moment of terror or resignation. It’s the difference between an execution of an individual and the factory of death of thousands.
It may be trivial of me to make that distinction. To die under any of those circumstances is unspeakable and we should have sympathy for all those who perished. But since I had blocked my sympathy, it is important to talk about how I found it again. I found it in Ariogala. I found it in a name and a place.
One of the hardest things for a Jews is to understand is why Jews didn’t fight back. I had heard there was an uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, but was that the only place? All the rest of the 6 million just picked up their valises and went without a struggle? That was another stumbling block for me in being able to look at the victims and think that I admire them and that I am one of them. No one wants to be a victim. We all think we can avoid that fate.
Then I learned, perhaps should have known, about the PFA, the partisan group in Vilna that escaped the ghetto, lived in a Dominican nunnery, eventually in the forests and fought the Germans. I needed a hero, a face. That face came into my vision—Abba Kovner. There are photos of him holding a rifle, hair long in artistic way, in a kind of uniform, with deep-set eyes, a poet’s face. Slim, almost slight, he looks less like a fighter and more like a painter. Tellingly, I met him personally a few times, about 30 years ago. To me then he was an old man, long white hair, same soulful face but softened with age.
Then I was in my ignorant phase; I was told he came from Vilna. I thought my family did too (although we now know it was Kovna). He and I had an instant connection of the heart. I was told he was a poet and was somehow important. I didn’t understand how, but we talked warmly both times we met. And only now I discovered his heroic role as partisan. Like the people depicted in the film Defiance (2010), he had in him a rebellion, pride, and fighting spirit I could admire.
At the airport in New York on my way to Lithuania, I stood in line waiting to board the plane. There were quite a few observant and Chassidic Jews. One gave me a card announcing the brilliance of the Rabbi Meyer Schneerson, the now departed leader of the Lubovicher sect. Like the concentration camp victims, the Chassids have also been an embarrassment—a black-frocked, hatted, bearded set of “them.” Occasionally I look into an eye and see mine, but the rest of the face and body seems alien. It occurred to me that we had all rushed to get in line, observing the rules, and acting like the herd animals we are. I wondered if I would have stood in line as they rounded us up. Stayed together in the pack in the ghetto?
My goal in heading to Lithuania is to see the sights and sites of my family’s origin and probably my family’s death. Although my grandfather left his town of Ariogala in the 1890’s, there were no doubt Melondovichs who stayed on. The 1940 telephone book lists two in Ariogla and two in Kaunas.
Jewish tourism is a strange thing. When Alex Haley went to Africa to find his roots, he found his town, his people. When my wife, who is Italian-American, goes to Italy, she enjoys seeing the places from which her family departed, and meeting up with long-lost relatives. For most Jews from Eastern Europe, no such connection is possible. What is possible is contemplation of desperation, death, rape, torture, beatings, and evictions. Of course, those things can’t be seen, so Jewish tourism turns out to be an act of imagination. The provocation of this creative act is location and architecture. Yet often this act of imagination takes place in the absence of architecture since so many Jewish places were destroyed.