I knew my cousin in Israel very much wanted his children to know our family story. About two years ago he sent me an e-mail sharing this concern with me. He also asked me what he could do about it. Did I have any suggestions? At that point, I gave him what I thought was the easiest answer. I told him he could write it all down for them. Thus, they would know. But it appears he had something else much more dramatic in mind . . .
A year later I again heard from this cousin of mine. Now he simply told me he was leaving the following week for our grandparent’s little village in Lithuania, Mazeikai, and taking with him his long-time companion and one of his daughters. His specific request from me? Did I know the address of our grandparent’s home? Sadly, I replied that I didn’t.
The next e-mail I got from him was one “written” when he was actually on the plane leaving for Lithuania. And here, interestingly, he honestly shared his mixed emotions about this “once in a lifetime” trip, emotions I, too, would surely have had. On the one hand, he was excited about going. On the other hand, he was going back to a place of death, a place where—during the war–so much of our family was killed, a place where most all of the people there, particularly our Lithuanian neighbors, hadn’t wanted us to survive. That last surely convinced his father (one of my mother’s bothers) that he never wanted to see Lithuania ever again, and he didn’t! In sum, I understood my cousin very well. (For that matter, I almost went back with my father many years ago). Now, for some reason, I really felt like I was going with my cousin. In fact, it was probably because of that feeling that I began to think even harder about how to go about finding out my grandparent’s home address . . . (If I were going I couldn’t bear just coming to the village and not stopping there!) and somehow a thought just magically popped into my head. . .
I recalled that when the war came to Lithuania in June 1941, my mother’s three brothers (including my cousin’s father) were in Kovno visiting her. I remembered, too, how (whether my mother or father told me) one of the brothers called home and asked if they (the brothers) should return. My grandfather’s reply, lucky for the brothers and my own immediate family, was that they should stay in Kovno. I say here “lucky” because in the small outlying villages Jews were almost immediately shot by the Nazis and their eager native collaborators. In Kovno, meanwhile, a ghetto would be created and Jews had more time to try to somehow save themselves. Anyhow, the memory of that call home made me realize my grandfather had a telephone . . . And if he had a telephone there must be a telephone book listing all these numbers. With that, I immediately e-mailed my cousin to tell him to look for a 1939 phonebook. However, exceptionally curious now (and impatient for an answer) myself, I began to look for a Lithuanian phonebook from before the war . . . And found one on the internet!!
I still vividly recall how my heart pounded as I came closer to where my grandfather’s name should be listed in that book. I “turned” the pages online diligently scrutinizing the names, not wanting to miss it, God forbid . . . and there it was: his name, his phone number . . . and his address . . . Then, still, on the internet, I found a map of the street in Lithuania where the house should be. Needless to say, I immediately sent all of this information—the phone number, the map– to my cousin. And just in time too! He landed in Lithuania that day . . .
After I gave my cousin all this information I decided, just on a fluke, to put the address I had found in a google search—and, wonder of wonders, the house appeared! My gosh, there it was, my grandfather’s house! Google even allowed me to follow the road in front of the house and look around . . . That’s when I discovered the train and the train tracks behind the house my mother had long ago told me about. It was the train she heard as a child, whistling by in the middle of the night.
Of course, at this point, I was especially eager to know what my cousin would experience going there. One thing I knew for sure: I knew he wouldn’t just stop and look at the house. I knew that after traveling so far he would surely knock on my grandfather’s door . . . No, he would most definitely not do what my mama did. For immediately after being liberated by the Russians in the Kovno ghetto, my mama had also gone back to this house, her home . . . She couldn’t leave Lithuania for good without knowing if, perhaps by some miracle, someone in her immediate family—her parents or three younger siblings– had survived . . . But she didn’t knock on the door. She could see that Lithuanians had taken possession of it . . . and Jews returning . . . They could easily be killed . . . and were.
So, just as I surmised, he did knock on that door and two women answered. I suppose that at first, his questions seemed benign. Then his questions must have hit a nerve of some kind. For soon, he would write me, “they disappeared.”
After that, my cousin visited the place where all the Jews of that village and of the villages in the area were taken and killed. Indeed, he sent me a picture of all the stones that have been left there, stones left by people, like my cousin, who came to see where their family was murdered. I am sure, too, that they stopped at houses once belonging to their family, quickly taken over by the Lithuanians and made their own . . .
A while after my cousin was home again I asked him how he felt about the trip he took. His reply: “I understand my father much better now . . . but I had to do it!”
I thought about that answer for a while, and that need to return . . . The answer I came to: I believe that going back says to those who are no more: “Deep in my heart I remember you . . . always . . . grandma, grandpa, aunts, and uncles . . . For home may be gone . . . but your home is forever in me.
Dr. Diane Cypkin, Professor of Media, Communication, and Visual Arts at Pace University, has won the Kenan and Carol S Russet Award for teaching excellence, the National Jefferson Award, and Pace President’s Award for Community Service. Because of her academic work, she is a member of the Pace Society of Fellows. She is a child of Holocaust Survivors.