Travels in the Graveyard of my People
I was born five years after the end of the war with Hitler. My grandparents had themselves been born in England, or been brought over as babies; although both my father and many of my parents' relatives fought in the British Army, they knew no Jews who had died at the hands of the Nazis.
So my knowledge of the millions who had perished came from ~ where? From cheder (Sunday school)? Possibly. From references in the rabbi's sermons explained to me by my father? I remember no one specifically telling me, and the concept of the Holocaust in the 1950s had not yet been transformed into a cliché to be bandied about casually in the press or by politicians. I was an avid reader, so perhaps like much other knowledge it permeated my thinking by gradual osmosis. In my teens I visited Yad Va'Shem in Jerusalem. I don't recall feeling much grief. I saw simply the external representation of the column of seriousness that had been embedded within me as a Jew - the millions of my people whom I never knew, their murder apparently my birthright as a Jew of the second half of the twentieth century .
Did I ever conceive of them as individuals like myself? I don't think so; mentally they were an amorphous group, flowing into each other, a bit like Rodin's 'Burghers of Calais' - a powerful symbol not to be divided. They were presented in many ways by my teachers and relatives and the writers I read. Some offered them as instruments of historical necessity -without them, there would not have been a State of Israel. So they did not die in vain - so that was all right then, wasn't it? An elderly uncle once suggested to me that I should thank God that Israel existed so that, if, God forbid, another Hitler should arise, I would have somewhere to flee to. This was unconvincing to me even as a ten year old; in such circumstances, to join the biggest ghetto in the world would have been merely a bid to become one of the next few million victims. The millions haunted my unknown past and threateningly foreshadowed my unknown future. I was sorry about them, but I did not really want them on my back.
The perspective shifted as I, and my children as they grew, got to know my wife's family. There is a faded photograph of my father-in-law, Laci, as a child, taken in Sahy (now in Hungary), with his ten siblings and other relatives, in 1907. All except Laci and a sister went into the camps and of those, only two brothers survived, scarred in brain and body. Laci's sister got to Palestine and was the founder of a kibbutz which is now home to all my wife 's blood-relatives.
Laci himself, after serving with a Czech Army corps in exile, returned with his medals to Czechoslovakia. There and in Israel I and my family have met many who came through unspeakable horrors and had taken refuge in a silence about them which I had no right to disturb. Very few were willing to tell stories, or parts of stories, that shed searing shafts of light into tiny areas of the unremitting darkness of their years of suffering; one felt dumbstruck after listening to these tales -there were no words that could be said.
Laci himself lived through every form of government and repression known to the twentieth century. Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, educated in Germany, living through the first Czech Republic, escaping the Nazis, serving under the British, the French and the Russians, seeing the new Czech Republic and its overthrow by the Communists, thrown into prison during the Slansky trials, experiencing Dubcek's rise and fall, the Velvet Revolution, and eventually the bizarre splitting of Slovakia (where he lived) and the Czech Republic. He earned the right to express his pithy and idiomatic summation of the past 100 years in Europe - 'They're all bastards!'
These people were certainly real to me - but the dead millions were, to them as well, a haunting not to be thought of in terms of flesh and blood; to do that would be perhaps more than they, than any human who had been through such experiences, could possibly bear. But for my children, the last generation who will hear personal witness from the survivors of this era, the human experience of the Jews of Central Europe in the War has been carried more directly into their growing consciousness than it was into mine. My learning came late, and my education is continuing.
For the past three years I have been living and working in Eastern Europe and North-West Russia, or, shall we say, the Land of the Six Million. My base was Kaliningrad, a Baltic town with both a history and no history. Before I went there I enquired from the usual sources whether there was a Jewish community there, and was told 'No, there was nothing'. This would have been very disappointing, if true. For before the war, Kaliningrad was Koenigsberg, the capital of the East Prussian province of Germany, with a wealthy congregation of great renown. In 1945 the Red Army took the town after a bloody battle and drove out all the Germans. The Jews, of course, had already been eliminated. The town was renamed after one of Stalin's toadies and the province resettled with 'volunteers' from all over Russia. Jews, however, were not admitted. The town and province became a military enclave to which no Westerners were admitted -thus, Koenigsberg/Kaliningrad vanished from the notice of the world until perestroika.
When I arrived in October 1994, I was the first West European to take up any lengthy residence in the town. I sought a flat. Few were available. At last someone told me that a family was leaving the town and wanted to make a quick arrangement to let their apartment for two years, unfurnished. From the moment I walked in, I knew it was right. It was spacious, in an old German house in a part of the town that had been neither bombed by the British or uglified by the Soviets. It even had a piano - a German walnut upright, loot no doubt after the siege. And on the kitchen wall - a drawing of a Magen David. Esfira , my prospective landlady, turned out to be Esther and was going on aliyah
with her children. In my then extremely halting Russian, I elicited that there were indeed other Jews in the city, and was given the telephone number of Victor, the head of the local community.
There is no place that I have visited in Russia where I have not found a Jew. Staggering out of a bannya late in the evening in a dacha 30 kilometres from Syktyvkar, in the remotest north-east corner of Europe, with my host Boris, he suggested that we pay a call at his neighbour's dacha before we left Although I was already well beyond my vodka-quotient, I could scarcely refuse. Russians love and are proud of their dachas, generally glorified wooden sheds that they build for themselves as country retreats, often with a sauna - bannya - attached. They want you to love them too, and to love the dachas of their friends. Boris's neighbour, Nikolai, was a town boss even further upcountry. As we entered through the steam, Boris shouted, 'Nikolai, you should meet this guy, he's also a Jew'. In Murmansk in the Arctic Circle, I met a man who was virtually indistinguishable from a close London friend. Actually, he wasn't Jewish (or said he wasn't), but after I had asked him he introduced me to a number of his colleagues who were.
But the presence of Jews has not been nearly as affecting as the ubiquitous sense of the absence of Jews. Wandering through Klaipeda (once Memel) I came across a street named Sinagogu gatve. I needed little Lithuanian to interpret this, and following it to its end I came across a patch of green that had once been the Jewish cemetery. A few fragments of tombstones had been cemented into a wall, and at the rear was a prefabricated building with signs indicating that it was a Jewish community centre. It was empty and deserted. A young girl passed by, saw me peering in, and asked me what I wanted. She was nineteen, going on aliyah by the end of the year; even three years ago there had been about 200 Jews in the town, now there, were about 40, and soon there would be none. The story is repeated everywhere, with differing proportions, but always the same; in Vilnius, once the Jerusalem of Lithuania, in Nizhny Novgorod, in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Tallinn, Astrakhan, Volgograd. I was living and working in the graveyard of my people, where the dream of Hitler, to see a world that was Judenrein, was ironically coming true. Achingly absent from this world were not the Jews of the concentration camps, but the many more millions who would now have been living here, creating with their fellow citizens a diversity of life and achievement. These are the missing Jews whom I now feel 'on my back', not an emblematic 'Six Million'.
This paradox expressed itself most clearly on a visit to Cracow. Of course I went to Oswiecin / Auschwitz and did the rounds, in the company of endless coach loads of European, American and Japanese tourists. It is all laid out neatly and clearly, everything is labelled, it is earnest, it is sincere, but it is inevitably the Holocaust as Theme Park. The less visited (because less 'structured') Birkenau site is more chilling - grim and bare, now only railway tracks and platform, barbed wire and watchtowers.
The sense of loss only sets in when you wander round Cracow's empty ghetto, Kasimierz, when you are face to face with, or exploring the entrails of, something dead, not merely examining the remains of the machine which killed it. And after a while, all of Europe east of the old Iron Curtain began to take on this aspect. There are the places where evil is palpable, like Birkenau, or like Ketrzyn/Rastenburg where you wander through the gloom of a Wagnerian forest and come across the shattered hulks of the bunkers where Hitler, Bormann and Goering lived and directed most of the war. But the horror is still dispersed throughout the land that these places formed.
The paradoxical city of Kaliningrad/Koenigsberg offers a microcosm of Central European Jewry's recent past and likely future. The Soviets seem to have gone to particular lengths to extinguish any memorial of Koenigsberg's Jewish community. The great red-brick synagogue had already been reduced to rubble on Kristallnacht.
The Russians built over the main Jewish cemetery with Khrushcheba
- the cheap and nasty flats of the 1950s. Another cemetery ,just out of the centre, seems to have been systematically destroyed by them; it took me the whole of an afternoon, equipped with a small-scale map, to be sure that I had identified the site and to find a few tracks of paths and fragments of stones deep in wasteland and woodland. And yet somehow - and for some reason - Jews began to filter back. I met only one who had been a settler from the beginning -he was a hero of the siege of Koenigsberg and therefore couldn't be excluded. He, himself, was born in Kishinev (whence my grandmother had fled with her family during the pogroms at the turn of the century). Others had come as scientists to work in the military industry in the region; yet others filled 'traditional' roles for the Jew in society in the Land of the Six Million. At least one of the town's principal bankers is Jewish. So is the conductor of the symphony orchestra. He wrote a fine musical based on the Benya Krik stories of Isaac Babel which was produced at the local theatre during my stay. So is the editor of the local literary magazine. I met him coincidentally at the Moscow Booker Prize, where his journal was a nominee, on an evening of 35 below zero. Now Victor reckons that, of a million people in the province, 3000 are of Jewish extraction, but, of course, far fewer acknowledge the fact Nevertheless, at a concert by the Jewish Youth Choir on Erev Rosh Hashanah,
about 400 people turned up -something which would have been unimaginable five years previously.
The choir is Victor's pet project. The kids are all talented and have been inspired by being able to learn about their roots, to participate in their heritage. Most important of all, this has revealed to them that there is an alternative life for them. All of them probably hope to leave Russia - and when they go, Kaliningrad's brief Jewish renaissance will have travelled from nowhere to nowhere. Only a few of the elderly have any knowledge of the elements or chants of the synagogue service; they rely on occasional visits from the Lubavitchers on yomtovim - once or twice they had only me. When one of them died, I coached his brother through the half-remembered rhythms of the kaddish. The melodies of the Koenigsberg synagogue which were once famous throughout Europe have evaporated.
One other aspect of Kaliningrad cannot but present itself to a Jew, and that is the curious, almost parodic, parallel with Israel. Both were settled after the war, and after fierce battle, in 'enemy territory'. The founder settlers of both have a tigerish tenacity for 'their country' and a resolution not to cede it to their former owners -Germany in Kaliningrad's case. Both are geographically isolated from their supporters - Kaliningrad is enclosed by Lithuania and Poland and quite cut off from the rest of the Russian Federation. Emigration to Israel is perhaps a more natural progression for Kaliningrad Jews than for any others.
The former Soviet Union is, as might be expected, ambivalent about its remaining Jewish population. In Almaty in Kazakhstan, a government Minister told me that one of the biggest disasters of perestroika was that it led to the emigration of much of the country's Jewish scientific and artistic elite. Kazakhstan was, in fact, the first of the new democracies to open up independent diplomatic relations with Israel and to develop agreements on technical cooperation. A non Jewish friend in Kiev told me how the musical and artistic life of the Ukraine has been blighted by the Jewish exodus. But these are views 'from the top'. At the same time, the man in the street feels no more - and to be fair, no less - friendly to the Jew than he has done at any other time in history .Whilst he derides Zhirinovsky as a clown, he will also be thinking, 'All the same...'.
To be sure, Russian society is generally far more racist that we claim to have become in the politically-correct West, and Jews are just one of a number of groups (Chechens, Tatars, Georgians, and so on) who are, in a common perception, a 'nuisance factor' in Russian society - complications in an already complicated situation. They are perhaps more envied because they have a potential way of getting out of the country. The new conditions certainly provide little incentive for Jews to stay - and they won't if they can help it.
In a few centres, rabbonim provided by the Lubavich valiantly struggle to bring back the spirit of the past; but however successful and charismatic they are, the Jews of Russia and Central Europe are voting with their feet. For over 1000 years, tolerated or despised, they have been a vital part of the leaven of society and culture. Repression couldn't keep them down. But now there is freedom, and now they are quitting. A mighty chapter in the saga of the Jews and the world is drawing to a close.
Near the end of my tour of duty, my father-in-law Laci died aged nearly 90 in Kosice in Slovakia. When I had first visited him there in the 1970s, the town's shul was haunted only by a group of ancient figures who met me with amazement and asked 'Gibt's jetzt Jiden in Londyn?'
After 1989, a generation which had hidden itself suddenly came forward and started organising a cheder,
Hebrew lessons, talks about Israel. The consequence was inevitably that the younger ones immediately began to think about leaving - and particularly after the split between Slovakia from the Czech Republic. So it was that when we held Laci's funeral,
the congregation was back once again to the few in their seventies and eighties. The cemetery, which when I first saw it 20 years ago was ramshackle and neglected, had been tidied and repaired. But there can be little hope now that it will remain in this condition after the last of Laci's mourners is interred there.
Footnote 2006: I am glad to say the cemetery in Kosice has benefited from significant restoration over the past two years, after it suffered from vandalism - so thanks to the cemetery's supporters, its prospects now seem far better than my gloomy prognostications.