By Mia Levitt Frank
The Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv held a ceremony on 5 June to honour Abel and Glenda Levitt’s incredible work in Lithuania over the past 20 years.
Abel and Glenda Levitt were awarded with the highest Lithuanian medal of diplomacy, ‘The Star of Lithuanian diplomacy’. They made Aliya from Cape Town in 1979 with their four children, and first travelled to Lithuania in 1998.
It was then that they met Yacovas Bunka, ‘The last Jew of Plungyan’, who dedicated his life after the Holocaust to commemorating the lives of the Jewish community of Plunge, all murdered in the Kausenai Forest in July 1941. Among those murdered, were many Levitt family members.
Abel and Glenda, who developed a close relationship with Yacovas and his son Eugenius Bunka, embarked upon a journey of cooperation and contribution in Lithuania, devoted to both remembering and honouring the murdered Jews, but also to promoting tolerance education. In 2001 they led a group of 40 Levitt family members from all over the world, to visit Lithuania and Plunge. The tour culminated in a very moving ceremony at the mass graves, saying Kadish and singing Hatikva. Following this event, Abel and Glenda took upon themselves several projects.
One was to cover the mass graves to preserve them (at the request of Yacovas Bunka), and the other to create a tolerance center at the local high school. This could not have been done without the assistance of many wonderful people, as Abel spoke about at the ceremony. Besides Yacovas and Eugenius Bunka, Abel mentioned for example, a teacher they first met at the ceremony in 2001, Danute Serapiniene, who devoted herself to the tolerance center at the school. He spoke about the two high school principals who showed continuous appreciation and support for the project. It was the eighth tolerance center formed in Lithuania, one of more than one hundred functioning today. As they got to know the school and the educational work of the tolerance center, Glenda decided to instigate a project combining art with education for tolerance.
And so, in 2005, the Ronald Harwood art competition was first held. Sir Ronald Harwood is also a Litvak. Since then, the annual competition invites Lithuanian school children to create artwork (painting, acting, singing) commemorating those murdered, and celebrating tolerance. Their goal was and is, as Glenda said in her speech, “To enable young Lithuanian students to enrich themselves, with tolerance and empathy for others, through knowledge, and to express themselves through all mediums of art”.
When the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, the honourable Mr Edminas Bagdonas opened the award ceremony, he spoke about his deep appreciation for Abel and Glenda and what they have done in his country. “When I first came to Israel in 2014, and was contacted by the Levitts, I had no idea who I would meet” he said. “They arrived to meet me with PowerPoint presentations. They were like an organisation!” He was visibly touched when he spoke about the deep significance of the art project with the students. Ari, the oldest of Abel and Glenda’s children, spoke at the ceremony about outstanding Litvaks who have made a mark on society and humanity. He named several, among them Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Nobel Prize winners Daniel Kahneman, Nadine Gordimer and Michael Levitt. Jerome David Salinger — author of The Catcher in the Rye. Ehud Barak — Former IDF general, Israeli Defence Minister, and Prime Minister of Israel and Aharon Barak — Former President of the Supreme Court of Israel.
“Every person has a name” wrote Israeli poet Zelda. Glenda and Abel took it upon themselves to commemorate the names of as many of the murdered Jews of Plunyan as possible. Again, with the help of many people, they organised a Memory Wall built from bricks from the demolished synagogue in Plunge at the Kausenai mass graves, with names of many of the perished Jews.
In 2011, together with a small group including all four of their children, they participated in the municipal ceremony for the revealing of the Memory Wall. In the spring of 2015, Abel and Glenda visited the town of Birzai with Ingrida Vilkiene, Deputy Director of the international commission for evaluation of the crimes of Nazi and Soviet occupation regimes in Lithuania.
Glenda’s grandmother came from Birzai, and like many Litvaks, left Lithuania at the turn of the century for South Africa. Family members that remained in Birzai were among those murdered. In Birzai, Abel and Glenda met father and son, two history teachers Vidmantas and Merunas Jukonis. A new project was born. A monument with names of the Jews of Birzai murdered in 1941. Merunas and Vidmantas were to become key figures in this project.
Glenda and Abel approached Ben Rabinowitz, a Cape Town philanthropist and Birzai descendant. He was on board. According to Abel, Ben is “the true father of the Birzai project, and the person who deserves massive credit for its success”. Ben too was at the moving award ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy. Abel and Glenda left once again for Lithuania on 5 June.
They organised a tour of 50 Birzai descendants from around the world, to visit Birzai and participate in the unveiling of the new monument, designed by the architect Joseph Rabie from Paris. On Friday night, 14 June, the group held Friday night prayers and Shabbat dinner in Birzai, for the first time since the 1941 massacre. The unveiling ceremony took place on 16 June. The Israeli, Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to Lithuania were among the dignitaries present.
Two days later, on 18 June, Abel and Glenda returned to Plunge for a ceremony commemorating the names of 75 young girls murdered in Kausenai forest. Glenda and Abel were joined by two of their children and two of their grandchildren.
Their legacy lives, and will live on.