April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Keene, Kaliningrad and Riga: Confronting Memory

I travel for my work; I travel often—my wife and children might say too often. Just before Chanukah, I was in Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Canada, New Hampshire, Washington, D.C. and then back home. A hectic schedule is of little interest, but what I experienced might be.

November marked the 75th anniversary of the Third Reich’s pogroms of 1938, still commonly referred to in the sanitized, beautifying language of that time as Kristallnacht, when they set aflame thousands of synagogues throughout Germany and Austria, destroying some 7,000 Jewish businesses, killing 91 Jews, arresting 30,000 Jewish men age 16-60 and shipping them off to newly expanded concentration camps. It was anything but beautiful.

I was invited to Keene University in New Hampshire for a series of programs convened over four days to commemorate these pogroms by stressing the importance and the fragility of the common space we share. At its culminating event, 900 students and faculty, townspeople and officials gathered in a restored downtown theater to remember the past and reinforce the sense of Commons—an important New England term—making room in that common space for a diversity of people and opinion, a mosaic of people who enrich even the rural New Hampshire landscape.

The fire chief spoke of the mission of his department—so antithetical to the instructions sent out to German fire officials those November days: “Do not put out the fires at the synagogue, unless they threaten the Aryan buildings nearby.” Those instructions were followed by most, but not all, fire departments—there were rare instances in which chiefs would not let their town burn. Survivors spoke of their experiences as young children seeing sacred space aflame and also understanding that in such a world, nothing was sacred.

I was invited to keynote the event, and spoke of many of the things I spoke of at the Henderson gathering of child survivors and descendants that were reported recently in JLBC.

I was also invited to Kaliningrad, Russia for another conference commemorating the pogroms of 1938. Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, was once a German city on the Baltic coast. Ethnic Germans were expelled in 1946. This year it was the site of an annual conference on the Holocaust organized by Ilya Altman, the imaginative head of the Moscow-based Russian Holocaust Center; each year, the conference takes place in a Russian city with a direct experience of the Holocaust and commemorates significant anniversaries of the events that took place in his country.

Doctoral students and young professors read papers on the repressed history of their town, including the synagogues, and the Jewish community before the war. Konigsberg was also the home for a time of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat, later stationed in Kovno, who gave Jews visas to Shanghai in the last days of an independent Lithuania.

The well-known story bears repeating. As Lithuania was being overtaken by Germany, the Dutch Consul, Jan Zwartendyk, discovered that Curacao did not require a visa for entry; in a tiny window of a few weeks, he partnered with the Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara and stamped passports as quickly as they could with the phrase, “Travel Visa not need for Curacao,” also known as the non-visa, visa. With that, and a substantial amount of money, Jews were able to get real transit visas to travel via the Soviet Union to Odessa and from there to Kobe, Japan. If they did not have proper papers for further travel, they were shipped to Shanghai—Japanese-held territory in China. Shanghai in the late 1930s had become a haven for German Jews. Among those rescued were students of the Lithuanian Mir and Telz yeshivos, who were transferred to Shanghai for the war years. Though Japan was allied with Germany, it did not partake in the Final Solution to the Jewish problem, and the Shanghai ghetto became home to some 30,000 Jews.

The Russian scholars, however, were less interested in the end results of Sugihara’s valiant efforts, and more in his regional role. A Finnish professor spoke of newly declassified documents that identify Sugihara as a Japanese spy masquerading as a diplomat. His task in Konigsberg—to track Soviet ships on the Baltic. Scholars speculated—though I will not—as to why he was freed by the Soviet Union, which had imprisoned him and another famous diplomat rescuer, Raoul Wallenberg, while Wallenberg was allowed to die in Soviet custody.

Most impressive, for me, was listening to concerns of Russian secondary school teachers who teach the Holocaust there, and how similar they are to the issues raised by American teachers. How do you personalize the history so that the abstract recitation of times, dates and events become real for the students? Russian teachers, like their American counterparts, have no problem making this history relevant to their student’s lives, as the students can relate to the Holocaust to their own contemporary situation. The sensitive teacher however, must ensure the connections are authentic and deep, not trivial and imagined. The Konigsberg synagogue is being rebuilt on the site of its ruins in the city’s historic downtown, near the Main Cathedral. Its entrance will be modeled on the original façade. A Russian Jew has given EU 7 million to the project.

Because I am writing the foreword to a book on German synagogues and their place within the city landscape, and because I never write a foreword to a book unless I have read it in its entirety, I had in my computer the Konigsberg synagogue’s original architectural drawings as well as pictures combed from archives throughout the world. Was it a coincidence or fate? The architects were as startled as I was by what I was able to give to them.

I also had to be in Latvia for some meetings, and, because air connections would have involved a nine-hour layover in Moscow, I decided to drive between Kaliningrad and Riga—traversing Russia, Lithuania and Latvia. The distance was not great, some 250 miles, but the landscape touched on Jewish memories. A third of the trip was on a country road through a two-country national park, with the Baltic Sea on one side and a magnificent forest in the waning hours of its fall colors on the other. As a student of the Holocaust, I wondered—How many Jews could hide in these hundred miles of woods?

A ferry linked me to the mainland, and then a sojourn through the countryside of Lithuania. Signs were pointing to Vilnius (Vilna) in one direction and Kaunas (Kovno) in another. Would that I had had the time—I was ready to explore Jewish history in these two famous cities.

I arrived in Riga on Independence Day. Thousands of people were walking the streets, and a light show illuminated the darkness. In the morning I toured the ghetto where Sigi Ziering, whose Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics I direct, was interned with his mother and brother—sent from Germany to Riga—and where his name appears on a list of survivors.

A local rabbi is seeking to tell the ghetto story in historic buildings on its actual site. He is developing the site slowly, with great determination and drive. As a Jew travelling in Eastern Europe, I see what is there, but I also see what is no longer there. I am haunted by the Presence of Absence and the Absence of Presence.

As a scholar teaching about these sites, it is a privilege to share the story of what once was and is no longer, most especially to the younger generation, who are so very anxious to learn.

By Michael Berenbaum

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