“How was your trip?” That’s the question we dreaded most on our way back to the United States. It’s hard to respond to a question when you’re unsure of the answer.
The three of us – a social worker, a financial advisor, and an attorney – joined Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Mission to Vilnius, Lithuania and Berlin, Germany. The mission was focused on Jewish history in each respective country as told through the lens of the Holocaust. From the itinerary we received, we were prepared for the “where” and the “when,” but we found ourselves grossly underprepared for the “why” and the “how.” Beyond our professions, we are young Jewish adults, two generations removed from the Holocaust growing up in the Diaspora. We were privileged to grow up with Holocaust education and to identity as Jews without fear.
Unlike a lot of Western Europe, where the citizens had a more passive role in the exposure and extermination of European Jews, Lithuania’s homegrown militia, the White Armbanders, killed over 150,000 Jews, their own neighbors, under the direction of the Nazis.
We met Fania Brankovskaja, a women who displays her unwavering love for Vilnius, where she was born, survived the war and still lives at the age of 94 as a proud Jew.
Fania’s entire family was murdered at the Ponar Forest, where 70,000 Jews were shot, murdered and buried during the Holocaust. She is the only survivor. She not only survived the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators, but a post war government which further persecuted her. She spends her days giving of herself by educating others. She showed us her ghetto, and the Rudniki forest, where she was a Partisan with Lithuanians and Soviets alike, “living like people” as she so proudly states.
Today, Lithuania still struggles with understanding and acknowledging the country’s role in the Holocaust.
We found ourselves in the presence of a bonafide tzadik, Father Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest who’s committed himself to identifying and dedicating mass graves of those murdered in the Holocaust by bullets. In an empty field, an hour outside of the Lithuanian capital, we stood silently in the soft rain as an 86-year-old witness, found by Father Desbois’ tireless team, walked us to the site where ten Jews who had worked for his father were murdered. Today, it is just a grassy field butting up against a young forest of birch trees. If not for Father Desbois, our kaddish and makeshift memorial, who would have remembered let alone, known about these Jews? Father Desbois took us to another unmarked, newly identified mass grave. We stood uneasy as the witness pointed at our feet indicating that is where the Jews were shot, in the middle of a village on Sinagogos Street. Throughout our trip, we recited kaddish countless times.
In Berlin, the past was ever present and accounted for. We went to memorials for the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Murdered Sati and Roma, and the Murdered Homosexuals. We were reminded about Hitler’s rise to power and the danger of complacency. We walked down a Lake-Drive-like neighborhood, past beautiful homes, to a train station; the same walk that approximately 50,000 Jews took to the train station in the middle of the night where they were deported. We found ourselves in the footsteps of our ancestors who faced the unthinkable.
What we did not anticipate were that those same streets currently house dozens of memorials to the murdered and have become living testaments to the cities’ Jewish past and an acknowledgment of the absence of it. Most striking was how much of this presence was initiated by Berliners, the children and grandchildren of the neighbors who saw and heard the Jews walking to the train station.
We’ve learned that you can spend your life studying the dates, facts and figures of the Holocaust, but to touch the ground and follow the footsteps is an experience that will never leave us. From our ancestors who survived or were murdered by the Nazis, to the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the survivors, to Fania Brankovskaja and Father Desbois, we learned that the strength of the Jewish people is immeasurable. We are proud to be a part of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation that took us on this exceptional mission. It is clear that the consequences of the Holocaust are ongoing and unfinished. The story continues.
Nothing we can do today can change the past but we have to fight to ensure that the truth about millions of murders is not bastardized or politicized. We are tested every day, we cannot become passive collaborators when we see intolerance or hate in our everyday lives. Fania, other survivors and the murdered deserve that, and so much more. We are dedicated to working with the Jewish and the greater community at home and abroad to accomplish this. So how was our trip? Simply: Life altering and impossible to reduce to 500 words. Most immediately, we would like to share our experience with the community. Please do not hesitate to contact us.
Diana Azimov-Joseph – AzimovDiana@Yahoo.com
Daniel Kerns – DKerns@RwBaird.com
Mari Zimmermann – MZimmy@Gwu.edu