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Crossing the River
By Shalom Eilati, Vern Lenz
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2008 Shalom Eilati
All rights reserved.
How It Began
We abandoned our flat and set out.
The closer we got to our allotted area the more people we met dragging things along with them. Some carried huge bundles on their heads or on their backs. Others pushed wheelbarrows or children's carriages; some even dragged overloaded tin bathtubs on the street. A fortunate few had a wagon hitched to a horse. I began to spot more and more people I knew among the marchers, young and old; they were all on the move from different directions to the same place, and this gave me something like a sense of relief.
The flow of people, which grew denser on the bridge, thinned out again on the other side of the river. I managed to notice that we had passed through a high wooden gate with two doors that leaned on a tall barbed-wire fence that stretched out and disappeared into narrow alleys. We were now in the ghetto. It seemed huge to me, broad and endless. The fence at its edges didn't bother me at all.
The new arrivals poured into the houses to find places for themselves. Quarreling broke out over an extra room, over a private corner, over the right to put a stool in the common kitchen or to stretch a clothesline. They argued and bargained and raged, unwilling to resign themselves to the conditions imposed upon them. We dove into that turmoil, and there was no turning back.
For years I have tried to recall what I had been dreaming the moment before I woke that Sunday, trying to persuade myself that I was still dreaming, what my feelings were during the last seconds before the thunder came. One day I will wake and it will be a regular Sunday morning in my hometown, Kovno, on June 22, 1941, one of the longest days of the year.
At first I attached little importance to the sounds that woke me. Together with the explosions, I heard gunfire, which was somehow already familiar to me. I had first heard similar noises on the riverbank during summer break the previous year. On that fine morning I was attentively watching a tennis match between relaxed, white-clad vacationers, when airplanes suddenly began performing odd maneuvers high above us. One after another they would dive with a loud roar toward a large tube-shaped sack that another, slower plane was pulling. While we children on the ground were engaged in a furtive struggle over the privilege of retrieving tennis balls for the players on the court, the planes in the air abruptly opened fire at each other in several short, sharp bursts. We were startled, but those among us who knew assured us that these were only maneuvers, and thus we learned a new word. The tennis players went on with their game, and this was a sufficient hint for me that it is better to pretend that all was well. Suddenly, at no great distance from us and with no warning sound, a sooty brass shell fell to the ground. We rushed to look at the oddity that had dropped from the sky. Perhaps it was dangerous? Every bystander had a suggestion about what to do with it and whom to deliver it to — the police or the soldiers patroling in pairs — anything as long as it was taken away from the sharp-eyed boy, the lucky devil, who had first discovered the strange thing. So the peaceful tennis lawns of a summer resort were the scene of my first contact with the sounds and weapons of war.
Several weeks before that Sunday morning I had gone with my parents to see a famous movie about Lenin. In one scene, a pretty young woman with dark eyes and black hair, Fanya Kaplan, was preparing to kill the great leader. Smoking a cigarette, deep in concentration, she lined up a number of small bullets on a tabletop. One was given to understand — perhaps my mother explained this to me — the connection between these seemingly innocent details and the barrel of the gun that the young woman aimed later at the much-loved man, just after he had finished a rousing speech to a group of factory workers. There was a dry cracking sound, and Comrade Vladimir Ilyich dropped to the floor in a pool of blood. My parents broke into a fierce argument on our way home from the movie theater. He was a loyal Zionist and she a confirmed communist. Father wanted her to be the kind of housewife who would fix meals for him on time, while she — her friends called her Umru (Yiddish for "unrest") — wanted to save the world. Mother condemned the assassination attempt wholeheartedly, while Father said, "You saw how she pondered, how thoughtful and serious she was, how hard it was for her to decide." This film was my first meeting with the tools of destruction and death.
Thus the sound of guns going off, which I heard in my sleep and was hidden in the depths of my memory, should not have disturbed me. The house was quiet. Apparently no one but I had awakened.
I was trying to fall back to sleep, but then — a knock on the door. At this hour? In came the Schirms, the photographer and his wife, who had no children and lived half a flight above us. They were already dressed, apologizing for disturbing us so early, at half past five in the morning. "Can you hear it? Do you know what's going on? Is it war?" Father, still half asleep, had opened the door. He shrugged. He thought he had heard some thunder in the distance — but war? With my eyes closed, I followed the animated conversation and called out confidently and authoritatively: "Those are airplanes on maneuvers like the ones we saw last year at summer camp." The adults gathered around my bed, eagerly drinking in my words, which gave me a great deal of pleasure. They continued to question me, listening to my decisive explanations, clearly hoping to persuade themselves that I was right. The Schirms seemed to calm down somewhat. They had been on their way to see relatives in town, but now they decided to wait a while, at least until the seven o'clock news: surely someone will explain things then.
The rumbling sounds from beyond the horizon did not cease. Heavy and earthshaking, they rolled toward us in waves like a rainstorm. Even though the skies were clear, something seemed to thicken in the distance like a little cloud that swelled to engulf us, and the frightening word, spoken first by the Schirms, rolled inside, filling the entire flat until we couldn't ignore it anymore. War? Returning to bed was impossible, and Mother was not at home. Summer vacation had just begun, and she, a nurse, had been hired to go with a group of children the day before to the summer resort. We planned to join her in a day or two, to our great joy, according to a detailed itinerary that I had memorized. That same day, Uncle David was due to arrive by bicycle with a friend from a distant shtetl. Both teachers, they were delegates to the national teachers' conference that was to begin the next day in Kovno. They had a full agenda for their stay in the city, the details of which they had carefully planned long ago and coordinated with us by telephone. War was simply out of the question.
Only a week before, the previous Sunday afternoon, my parents had been talking with their guests, who were teachers: "So there is going to be a war," one of them summed up, and I remember rushing to Mother in a way I had never done before, entreating her, pleading, "Mother, don't let there be war! Don't let it happen!" as if my mother had the power to erase the latent dread that had suddenly revealed itself in my outcry.
I used to sit on the wide window ledge in our flat, high on the fourth story, looking out like a captain from the bridge of his ship. The lower walls of our building were very thick; it had apparently been a monastery in previous centuries. Only our floor, the top one, was a flimsy addition. Although the outside walls were covered with tin sheeting, it was very damp, which gave Mother severe rheumatic pains for the rest of her life.
Seated safely on the window ledge, I loved to look out into the distance. From here everything seemed firm and secure, spread out below as from a high mountaintop. At my feet lay roofs of houses, churches, and monasteries. Far to the south I could see the contours of the great river that traversed our city, and beyond it rose the steep green hills.
South of this slope spread the large airport, lying in wait for the days to come.
We lived in the lower city, at the meeting of two rivers. From this ancient corner the town had grown and climbed the surrounding hills, spreading beyond the banks of both rivers. The city was surrounded by ten huge fortresses from World War I, each surrounded by a deep moat or mound. Each had underground halls of red brick and contained iron gates. In the years to come, some of them served as execution sites for thousands of Jews, especially the forts numbered 4, 7, and 9.
Every spring the old quarter was prone to flooding. The thick cover of winter ice, which turned the whole river into a glorious skating rink, would crack and buckle and break off in huge chunks, piling one on top of the other at the juncture of the rivers, preventing the water from bursting through to the sea. The pent-up streams would invade the land, seeping into the basements and lower stories. Although the water never reached us, on spring nights I would imagine the lapping sounds of water about to emerge from the deep cellar beneath our home. Silently, the water would rise higher and higher, and by the time it burst through, the bells of the firemen would already mingle with the anguished screams of the drowning people crying for help. Was it not too late? Could we not have been better prepared?
At the tip of the peninsula created by the juncture of the two rivers, the cathedrals, monasteries, and Catholic churches were huddled. The streets there were narrow, paved, and clean. Mustachioed janitors thoroughly scrubbed the droppings of carriage horses from between the pavement stones. Novitiates in pairs and nuns with starched collars pattered through the street. Through large shop windows ornate, glossy, and lacquered coffins peered out at me. From here luxurious funeral processions with big candles, a priest bedecked in white vestments, and children's choirs would set out with ceremonial splendor into the main street beneath our window. One day near this area, my mother rescued a small Lithuanian child from the wheels of a bus, one of the modern snub-nosed kind that had been introduced that year to our city. Mother returned the boy to his parents who were busy selecting a coffin, but added a word or two about parents' responsibility for the lives of their children — making it all the more difficult for them to return a word of thanks to a Jewess.
The walls of the Jesuits' buildings in our quarter were thick and still. Their lowest windows were high, almost invisible to the children playing beneath them. From within the walls of that mysterious building on Mapu Street we sometimes heard the tremulous sob of a violin. Perhaps there was a conservatory within, or maybe some tortured monk was airing his laments. But the children said the house was bewitched and that anyone who dared to touch or lean against the wall was doomed to die. With dread we would dare one another to come close to the wall, touch it for an instant, and flee with a burst of nervous laughter. It was indeed a cursed house: before many years had passed, almost none of the Jewish children who had touched its walls were still alive.
It seems that nothing I remember from the prewar years remains as vivid and in such sharp focus as our summer vacations at the resort. Each holiday was always an adventure from which I returned filled to the brim with impressions, the raw material for daydreams and fancies for the rest of the year. The intense preparation before embarking on the voyage; then boarding the Parakhod, the steamboat whose engines were already roaring, proclaiming their power; the anchor raised; long poles pushing between the posts of the pier as it receded from us; and there we were in the heart of the river — would our boat not sink at once?
Once on land, we found ourselves in a small village — one or two main streets, summer houses for rent, several sweet shops, a grocery store, and a bakery. Swans floated in a fenced lake surrounded by a promenade with a bandstand. Children and adults knocked wooden balls through tiny wickets, playing croquet. Jews from the whole country, from the big city and from shtetls, gathered together for the summer. They played cards and checkers, read Jewish newspapers, and chatted endlessly. Even the famous Jewish magazine was available here, featuring photographs of the violinist Yascha Heifetz, the British minister Hore-Belisha, and the famous actor Maurice Schwartz, and you could feel proud of so many well-known Jews, talented and distinguished among the people of all nations.
To the north of the village and surrounding it stood a forest. Forest air, as everyone knows, is very healthy, especially for city dwellers. The trees in the forest were tall and close together; between any pair of them we could tie a gamak, a hammock of thick woven canvas, and swing till we were dizzy.
And beyond the forest — when we dared to venture beyond it — lay another land of wonders both tempting and frightening. Endless plains, fields of golden grain heaped with sheaves, and paths twisting and disappearing. At crossroads we would often encounter a kneeling figure bowed in prayer at the feet of the crucified Christ or his mother, the Madonna. The Savior would be huddled under a little roof with an abundance of withered flowers and burned-out candles at his feet. This was a country of devout Catholics who had not forgotten the Crucifixion. When they passed us we always hastened to greet them, but they never returned our salutations; we were strangers here.
At night at the resort there was the sigh of the wind in the trees, fear-sowing chirps and cackles, violent storms accompanied by tremendous peals of thunder, lightning stripping away all cover of darkness, and no escape. I was all alone, like the delirious child facing the stern Erl King in the poem Mother loved to recite. Only closing your eyes tightly, desperately burrowing deep into the blanket, or even far under the bed, might help.
Sometimes a house would burst into flames. Amazing is the speed with which a family's home can burn up before your very eyes. Was it lightning that set it aflame? Fire engines would hasten to the scene amid sounds of bells and sirens, surrounding the burning house, and panicked Jews would crowd around the fire chief, almost touching the hem of his mantle. They pressed close to hear his every word. Strong and tall, his feet rooted firmly in his land, he would answer their questions patiently. Will the fire spread? Or do they have everything under control this time? Are their own houses, God forbid, likely to burn? Worried and helpless, they would hang on his every word. What to do, what to do!
It had been going on all year, come to think of it, not just during that week — the word "war" was on everyone's lips. The frightening word had become a permanent part of everyday life ever since the Russians, "at the request of the masses," had invaded and taken over the three tiny Baltic states. Our diminutive president, whose face I knew from postage stamps, took his car and escaped immediately, first to Germany and later to South America.
When the Russians arrived, we were visiting Mossik's family on Green Hill, and from then on our families were close. I considered Mossik my best friend, with whom my eyes were opened gradually from the fog of infancy. Like us, Mossik's family had a girl and a boy who were about the same as my sister and I. We were still at Mossik's when we heard unfamiliar sounds in the street outside their home. They were the tanks of the Red Army entering our city; here I saw them for the first time. The surprise was great, and the changes that ensued were far-reaching. Nothing was ever the same again.
The tanks rolled into town, one after another, in an endless column, for several long hours. They continued westward, apparently toward the Prussian border not far away. Young soldiers stood atop the tanks, smiling and cheerful, dressed in their best uniforms covered with medals, holding bouquets of flowers. They looked as if they could not be happier to be on this mission to save us from oppression and slavery. Now we had no cause for alarm — a mighty power, under the command of the most progressive government in the world, had spread its canopy of protection over us. Enthusiastic supporters, principally Jews, could not contain their joy. They stood in groups on street corners, waving flowers and banners, and singing songs of the Red freedom, blessing and adoring all that day and all that night. And there are those who say that on that night the fate was sealed for years to come of not only this tiny country but also the Jews within it. The Lithuanians ground their teeth and never forgave those who exulted during the time of their distress.
Excerpted from Crossing the River by Shalom Eilati, Vern Lenz. Copyright © 2008 Shalom Eilati. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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