By Veronica Belling
On 16 June, the 2400 Jews of Birzai who were murdered in August 1941 during the massacre at Astravas in the Pakamponys Forest four kilometres outside the town, were honoured with a new memorial bearing the names of 525 of the victims.
This memorial had an incredibly long gestation period of four and a half years during which it had to overcome several seemingly insurmountable obstacles along the way. The memorial owes its creation to Cape Town businessman, Benny Rabinowitz, who wanted to do something for his ancestral town of Birzh the home of his father, Faivl or Philip Rabinowitz. His idea was taken up by Glenda and Abel Levitt, former South Africans living in Kfar Saba, who received the Lithuanian Medal of Diplomacy on its behalf that was featured in last month’s Chronicle. Their efforts would never have succeeded without the cooperation of their Lithuanian partners, Merunas Jukonis and his father Vidmantas, and the support of the Israeli ambassador to Lithuania, Amir Maimon.
A party of fifty descendants of the town accompanied Benny and Glenda and Abel to take part in the unveiling of the memorial. The largest component of the group were former Capetonians living in Israel, a slightly smaller number (including non-South Africans) came from the United States with six from Cape Town, two from the UK and three from France. The designer of the monument was Dr Joe Rabie, a former Capetonian, living in Paris with his family. The unveiling was preceded by a tree planting ceremony in the town to honour the righteous gentiles who had sheltered Jews, after which the crowd walked the same four kilometres to the forest that the Jews had taken on the way to their deaths.
What was unique about this tour was the interaction with local inhabitants of the town that preceded the unveiling. The first was hosted by the Birzai Museum located in the old Castle, where in the morning five members of the group spoke to five different groups of high school students.
In the afternoon a conference was held where two young Lithuanian doctoral candidates from the University of Vilnius, spoke about the history of the Jews of Lithuania between the two World Wars and on Jewish death records, respectively, together with presentations from the group by Yael Laraby from Israel who spoke about Jewish traditions and customs and my own presentation on our Litvak heritage. All the presentations were in English. The following day the group visited the Saules Gimnasija where the principal, Dainius Korsakas, teachers and students presented a history of the school including their research into the students of the school who were murdered during the Holocaust. So far fifty of some two hundred have been identified. They also introduced their Tolerance Education Centre, one of about 135 that exist in Lithuania today, where their latest project is ‘Our Neighbour Jew.’ After the presentation eleven members of the group went to speak to senior students in different classrooms.
Also inspiring was meeting local Lithuanian Jews, such as Assia Gutterman from Kaunas (Kovno) and Shmuel Kerbelis from Siauliai (Shavli), the children of Holocaust survivors who have never left Lithuania, and who besides their Lithuanian home tongue, speak an authentic Litvish Yiddish!