The Last Jews
At every place we visited, our encounters with the remnants of local Jewry prompted us to wonder aloud, "Who will be left here in a few more years?"
In every village a Jewish family or two remains. These are the people who have the keys to the Jewish cemetery and who show visitors the way to the buildings that were once yeshivos or homes of rabbonim. In Volozhin it is Moshe Alterman who performs this function. He, his wife, and his daughter live isolated among the gentiles. Their life is not easy in the material sense, and it is certainly not easy to live with the memories that stare them in the face. Opposite the Alterman home is the mass grave where the Jews of Volozhin were slaughtered. "Every morning when I open my eyes," says Mrs. Alterman in tears, "I see the spot where they murdered my mother."
In Mir one Jew is left alive. Likewise in Radin. In Rakov, the hometown of R. Osher Katzman, where his uncle R. Avrohom Kalmanowitz zt"l served as rav, not a single Jew remains. All the local inhabitants know of Jews is the story of how the Nazis herded them all into the synagogues and burned them alive.
Erev Shabbos in Vilna, we hear the bad news that the last Jew of Kelm has passed away suddenly: Dr. Meir, who devoted his last years to the care of the Jewish cemeteries and retrieving lost kisvei yad.
In Kovno there are still Jews, not all of whom are aware of their history. Chatzkel Zak, the gabai who used to act as tour guide to Jewish visitors, emigrated to the United States a few months ago, so we find our way with the help of Yehudah Ronder, who speaks perfect Hebrew and is excited to meet us. Listening to the exchange between him and R. Leib Baron, we are impressed once again by R. Leib's acute memory.
The first time had been when Moshe Alterman had come to unlock the gates of the Volozhin cemetery for us. R. Leib remembered that he had known a family called Alterman in his childhood hometown, Horodok. Soon the two of them were reminiscing about their youths and R. Leib was recalling various members of the Alterman family by name, wondering what had become of them.
Now, as we meet Yehuda Ronder, we are just as astonished as R. Leib recalls that he and his friends from Yeshivas Mir had stayed with a family called Ronder during their escape from the Nazis. Our guide is almost struck speechless. To think that sixty years later he is face to face with one of the Mirrer bochurim that his family had taken in. "I never dreamed I would be zoche to such a miracle, to meet Jews like you and walk with you on Lithuanian ground," he says. On the way, Ronder reminds us repeatedly that the Nazis had plenty of help in their work from local citizenry. He sees it as one of his life's purposes to try to bring these criminals to justice.
We visit Yeshivas Radin, where Meir Stoller, the last Jewish resident, tells us how he was saved from the Nazis. When the Jews were rounded up to be shot, he and his friends, a group of strong young men, were selected and ordered to dig the pits that would serve as mass graves.
Realizing what was going to happen, they made a plan. At a prearranged signal, the workers suddenly raised their spades and struck at the necks of the German soldiers standing over them. While the soldiers reeled in shock, the Jews fled into the forest. The Nazi officer yelled at the stunned soldiers to fire. A confused rain of bullets flew over their heads, and then the officer himself came galloping after them on horseback. He aimed his rifle accurately, but Meir Stoller grabbed a handful of stones and threw them at the horse's head. The horse reared up in fright and the shot that was meant for Stoller hit the branches overhead as he escaped.
He joined a band of partisans and survived the war. When asked why chose to live alone in Radin after the war, he replies, "I want to die in peace in the place where my life was saved." Who can understand the heart of a man who has been through troubles like those?
These are the Jews who are left caring for the cemeteries and guiding the tourists. What will happen when they are gone, too?
As we make our way back to Eretz Yisroel and America, we are full of the memories of our journey to Minsk, Volozhin, Mir, Baranowitz, Radin, Vilna, Kovno and Kaidan. Centuries of Torah life and our Jewish heritage, passing before our eyes as if in a dream. There is nothing left of the life of old. All we can do is to visit the centers of the past, and remember what once was and is no more.
It was against that background, that the Israeli immigrant who had been born in postwar Vilna approached us in the airport and asked, innocently: "Tell me something -- what is a Dos like you doing in Vilna? Did you lose something here?"
(Reprinted with permission from the Yated Ne'eman and Rabbi Mordechai Plaut)