I have often asked myself why it is that I developed a fascination about “the world that was” in the land of our forebears-Lithuania.
It is been my experience that those of us who have had the privilege of having had a warm and close relationship with a parent, grandparent or great grandparent that was able to share, first hand, the stories of their lives “before the War” (meaning the Second World War, to most, but for the Jews, perhaps the focus being more the “Shoah” (the Holocaust), developed a nostalgic fascination and curiosity about “der heim” – the cities, towns and villages of Eastern Europe.
Our family had the privilege of having my mother’s mother from Cape Town, Beila Rosenstein, of blessed memory, live with us in our home after her husband passed away. We refer to her as “Bobba Beila” with great love and affection. She was, without doubt, the matriarch of our entire family after the passing of our grandfather, and was cherished by all of us and our friends. I spent many hours after school sitting on her bed as she regaled me with stories of her childhood. She was born in the shtetl of Mazeik, close to the northern border of Lithuania, and then met my grandfather, Yanke-Leibe Rosenstein, of blessed memory,whom she married and went to live with in the shtetl of Vorna towards the centre of Lithuania in the Telz district. (The present day Vorna Valley in Sandton, was named by a property developer, Harry Galaun, who was from the same shtetel on Vorna).
My grandmother told us how they lived in a wooden house in Mazeik which had two front doors, one being the entrance to the part of the house in which they lived, and the other entrance which opened to a different part of the house in which her parents ran a haberdashery. When I visited Lithuania, I saw wooden homes fitting this description exactly with my own eyes! I was told that this was commonplace in many of the shtetlach of Lithuania. My Bobba described to me the mud in the streets, referred to as “blotte” in Yiddish, and spoke in glowing terms of the love that she had for her family, the warmth of her home and the beauty of the surrounding natural environment. The colourful descriptions were in stark contrast to the grey and white photographs that we scrutinized together, identifying family members that had been brutally murdered by the Lithuanian collaborators, and later the Nazis, whose remains are to this day in mass graves in the fields and forests surrounding the shtetlach.
It was those precious hours that I spent with my grandmother that sparked my imagination, so that when I was offered an opportunity to travel to Poland in 1996 with the IUA-UCF to participate in the “Future Leaders Forum” that I jumped to the opportunity. Since then, I have made several trips to Latvia and Lithuania, and thereafter diversified my travels to visit Jewish communities across the globe, from Argentina in the West, through eastern and western Europe, andtravelled as far as Japan in the East to learn about Jewish life in each country.
Every community that I have visited has been unique and special. However, as a proud “Litvaker” (the term given to those that came from the area of greater Lithuania due to the constant changing of the borders around the country), I can still claim the title“Litvaker”, as my late father was born in ashtetl called Kraslava in Latvia, and my mother in the shtetl of Vorna in Lithuania.
I think it is true to say that the broad spectrum and richness of the Jewish community in South Africa is a reflection of the enormous diversity that one found in Lithuania prior to World War II. From the left wing Socialist Jews, the Bundists, the Religious and Secular Zionists, many of whom found their way to the kibbutzim of Israel, to those that were passionate about their Yiddish culture as opposed to a religious culture, which spawned great Yiddish actors, authors, playwrights and musicians, to the deeply traditional Jews and the Yeshiva world that has had a major influence on Torah Judaism the world over until today.
Initially, I travelled with the IUA-UCF, after which I travelled with World Mizrachi. I have now joined forces with Eddies Kosher Travels of Israel, which company attends to all the logistics involved in Heritage Tours, while I have the role of Scholar in Residence.
In our most recent trip, we started in Riga, the capital of Latvia. We visited the beautiful operational Shull in Riga, and it was thrilling to see a young bearded Latvian Jew learning at a table with his three children, all of whom would have blended in quite inconspicuously in any religious neighbourhood in Israel. That for me is our greatest revenge. To proudly live a Jewish life and celebrate our survival against all odds, while our enemies have disappeared in the sands of history.
After spending a day in Riga, we travelled by bus over the border into Lithuania. We saw the famous building of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. Many South Africans fondly recall Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman who came to South Africa in order to fundraise for the building of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak Israel, which has until this day educated thousands of young men in the ways of their forefathers.
We spent Shabbat in Vilna. It was an absolute thrill to walk from our beautiful hotel in the Old city of Vilna, which has preserved its cobbled streets as pedestrian walkways, dressed in our black-and-white taleisim (prayer shawls) on Shabbat morning, to the Chor Shull and participate in a service with the locals and a number of tourists. Gentiles in the street saw Jews once again proudly walking the streets of Vilna, which was once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. Our group did a walking tour of Old Vilna on Shabbat, and we not only learnt about the famous “Rabbi of all Jewry”, the Gaon of Vilna, the genius in both Torah and secular learning, but also learnt about the Jewish Partisans, who fought valiantly from the Vilna Ghetto against the Nazis during World War II. We saw the building of the famous Romm Printing Press, started by Baruch Romm in 1789. The Romm Hebrew printing-office was the first in Lithuania, and its crowning achievement was the publication of a new edition of the Talmud, which is still the standard printing text to this day!
In Kaunas (Kovno) we were privileged to visit the home and office of the former Japanese Consul to Lithuania just before the Nazis invaded in 1941, Chiune Sugihara, who together with his wife, Yokiko, wrote, by hand,about 2000 transit visas in a few weeks, for Lithuanian and Polish Jewish refugees, including the entire Mirer Yeshiva, and in so doing, saved their lives. The Sugiharas defied the Japanese Government in issuing the visas, with the result that Sugihara lost his job in the Japanese Foreign Service and lived in poverty for the rest of his life in Japan. Today there are 40,000 Jews in the world as a result of the selfless,genuine humanity displayed by Mr and Mrs Sugihara. Chiune Sugihara was named by Yad Vashem is the only Japanese “Righteous Amongst the Nations”, and his wife and family were brought on a visit to Israel to enable the Mirer yeshiva to honour them in a deeply moving ceremony, some years ago.
A highlight of our trip was a visit to the shtetl of Radin, now in Belarus, where we visited the Yeshiva of the Chafetz Chayim, Rabbi Meir Kagan, zt’l, who most of us know as having written the seminal work on the laws forbidding lashon harah, (speaking ill of others), for which the Torah assures us that one can gain long life for resisting the temptation. The Chafetz Chayim, remarkably passed away at the age of 95 in 1933 – certainly not an era of longevity!
We were privileged to visit the Yeshiva buildings of the Yeshiva in Volozhin, (founded by the foremost student of the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Chayim Volozhin), the Mirer Yeshiva and the Yeshiva in Baranovich, where the famous Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman zt’l taught.
We are a truly resilient and remarkable People. After thousands of years of wandering in foreign lands and suffering persecution, we continue to make an enormous contribution to our local communities, and the world at large.
May we speedily in our days see the end of our exile,and the heralding of an era of peace and prosperity for the Jews the world over, and for all of mankind.
Hugh Raichlin is a practicing attorney and is also the scholar-in-residence for Eddies Kosher Travels (koshertravelers.lmdev.co.uk). Follow him on Facebook: “Hugh Raichlin’s Jewish Heritage Travels”. Hugh will be leading tours to Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus in May 2017 and Morocco in November 2017. Enquiries: email@example.com.
+972 2 992 9801
+1 646 240 4118
+44 207 048 6168
+61 39 999 7496
+2783 377 1908