by Esther Cohen
For Part One of BOBST, click here.
UNLESS WE READ history, most of us know very little about contexts, even our own. And although I am not a factual person (most of my facts are actually sketchy), still, a few facts seem important to the telling of this story. To know how a place makes us all who we are, we have to understand the place a little.
My grandparents, all Jewish, were from four different locations, but the heroine of this story, we are calling her RIVKA, was born in Lithuania, one of three Baltic states, along the sea, east of Sweden and Denmark. I’ve never been there, and only know a few Lithuanian basics. Enough to tell you this story.
In every country, it seems to me, there is the country’s history. And then there are Jews. Jews seem to have their own separate history, although I am sure that there are many who would disagree. So here’s Lithuania, where Bobst is located. Latvia’s north. Belarus is east and south. Poland’s south. Lithuania has almost three million people.
Vilnius is the capital city, and Rivka’s husband, my grandfather, always said he was from Vilnius because that’s where the Jewish intellectuals lived. He wasn’t actually from Vilnius, but that’s another story. Vilnius, or Vilna, has always been called the Jerusalem of the North. Home of the famous YIVO library. Many people know this story, but for the sake of my grandmother it bears some repeating.
FROM 1941 TO 1944 the countryside of Lithuania was pretty much destroyed. And most of the Jewish population, about 250,000 people, was killed. Some, like Rivka, got away, to the United States, or Canada. Or to Palestine.
What happened next was Stalin, from 1945 to 1953. Lithuanians became more determined to put an end to the repression their country had experienced for so long. Tens of thousands of people, including most intellectuals, were deported to Siberia for being educated or being involved in intellectual circles, and many others fled. Those who remained were determined to change the system. Groups of “forest fighters” fled to the woods to avoid deportation and maintain nationalist resistance. It is said that some of these fighters remained in the forests until 1960, seven years after Stalin’s reign ended.
About Rivka, she had a few sisters and a few brothers. Funny that I don’t know exactly how many. Who lived. And who died. It’s not so easy to find out the facts. Why she didn’t tell us, I don’t know. For the sake of this story, we will make sure that some of her siblings arrived with her, on the boat to Ellis Island. Ruchel and Tzvi. Her parents stayed behind.
Rivka was 14 when she got off the boat. Ruchel was 15 and Tzvi 17. Their mother’s brother, Label, met them at the boat. “Label the Communist” was what he was called in the family. He lived with Sophie and their four children in two rooms on Orchard Street. So far the story seems familiar. Families arrive.
Sometimes that’s when the story begins.
Esther Cohen is arts and events consultant for Jewish Currents and writes a daily poem at her website,esthercohen.com.