On June 24th, Leslie and I drove from Riga to Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish). All over the Old City of Vilnius were posters saying in Lithuanian, as translated to me by a waiter in our favorite restaurant Aline, "remember the tragic events," as June 24 was the 75th anniversary of the Nazi conquest of Vilnius. It was an appropriate day to remember the 100,000 victims and 70,000 Jews killed in Ponar.
While carrying out surveys over the Burning Brigade escape tunnel, the Pit 1 mass murder site, and the processing trench, our minds were largely focused on our work, on getting electric current into the ground, on properly mapping our lines, on photographing the field work, and on in-field processing and quality control. On the evening of June 24th, we focused on the real reason we were all in Lithuania and Ponar. Dr. Richard Freund from the University of Hartford, and Dr. Jon Seligman from the Israel Antiquities Authority lead us through a memorial service for the 100,000 victims of German and Lithuanian mass murder in the forest of Ponar. Present were the Israeli and American volunteer excavators working at the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, the WGBH NOVA film crew including the Executive Producer Paula Apsell who flew in that day - 8 Israelis, 10 Americans, 2 Canadians. We gathered in a circle in front of a memorial monument erected 25 years earlier by Israelis from Tel Aviv, likely shortly after Lithuanian independence.
Jon Seligman opened the ceremony by reminding us of the history and the facts. I was very honored, along with Mika, an Israeli excavator who was also the granddaughter of a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, to light one of the 2 Yahrtzeit candles, special long burning candles lit to memorialize the dead. An Israeli excavator, Valda, read "Shtiler, Shtiler," or "Hush, Hush." This was a lullably and award winning song in a Judenrat Ghetto competition of 1943 with the melody written by a 13 year old and already brilliant musician, Alex Volkoviski. The words were written by the Ghetto poet Kaczerginski. Jon Seligman translated the song into English from the original Yiddish, and then played it to music from a CD...."there are roads that lead to Ponar, There are no roads back. Hush, my child, don't cry, my darling..." It was fortunate the CD was playing as noone could sing or speak through our tears. As the music continued, a train could be heard slowly approaching from the distance, becoming louder as it passed near where the Ponar rail siding once stood to unload its doomed human cargo. Miraculously, Volkoviski and his mother survived the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, only to be sent to a concentration camp. Volkoviski nevertheless survived the war to become a pianist in Israel.
Another Israeli did a moving reading of Zog Nit Kein Mol, the Jewish Partisan Song. Hirsh Glick, also a prisoner of the Vilna Ghetto, was inspired to write this song when news of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising reached Vilna in 1943. It was the song the Jewish partisans sang when they reentered Vilna in 1944, though the reading and the version we heard on CD did not carry the ambiance of defiance as is usually heard in other settings. Some of the Israelis and Americans knew the Yiddish words and sang along. Finally, Richard Freund recited the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish, which, in fact, does not mention death, but reaffirms the value of life, justice, and peace.
After the ceremony, Leslie and I walked the grounds of Ponar, much of which I had not seen as I had been so focused on our particular areas of work. We spoke with Mika about the daring escape of her maternal grandfather from the hospital and a certain appointment with death at Ponar. In the evening we went to services at the Choral Synagogue, the only functioning synagogue left in Vilna (there were 105 in 1941..140 if you include Jewish study halls, Beit Midrash, Cloison, etc. The Canadians and Americans met that evening for an outside dinner and talking long into the evening, though we sorely missed our Israeli excavator friends.