Recently, my wife Clary and I traveled to Lithuania to experience what remains of one of Judaism’s most magnificent centers of learning. My journey, organized by Zvi Lapian of Israel and led by the eminent historian and distinguished scholar Dr. Shnayer Leiman, took me to what was once the world’s center of Torah learning.
Had it not been for these pre-Holocaust citadels of Jewish learning in Lithuania – magnificent yeshivas inspired by the likes of the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim of Volozhin that included Telz, Ponoviez, Radun, Mir, Kletzk, Grodno, Slabodka, and Baranovich – today’s Torah learning, methodology and yeshiva approach would simply not exist.
Indeed, but for the brilliance of Lithuanian Jewry, modern observant Judaism would look very different.
Vilna’s history was as noble as its downfall was horrific. Dubbed the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” Vilna boasted a pre-Holocaust Jewish population of nearly a quarter million. More than a hundred shuls, both stately and modest, served the prayer and study needs of this wonderful community.
And now? There is but a single shul remaining, the Choral Synagogue. In a place where once hundreds of thousands raised their souls to God, it struggles to gather a minyan of paid “worshippers” even on Shabbos. The ghost of a magnificent community remains, with fewer than 3,000 Jews living in Lithuania.
The cold math is enough to make one shudder in grief. Of a quarter million souls, 220,000 were murdered. Wherever one travels in Lithuania, he is forever reminded of the death and destruction, of the wickedness of man that brought down one of history’s great Jewish communities.
During my visit, I found myself gazing upon the beautiful forests of Lithuania. Such natural beauty! How the air was perfumed with the scent of spruce, fir, pine and alder trees! How strong the trees rose into the sky!
In the face of such natural splendor I could not help but recall that these same trees stood silent witness to the blood spilled and horrors perpetrated in their midst. A mere ten miles from Vilna, the Panerari forest rises like an emerald from the fertile earth. A place of growing things. Of soaring trees and fragrant blossoms. It is also a place where 70,000 Jews were shot as they stood at eleven oil storage pits dug by the Russians.
A small group of Jews was “spared” so they could burn the bodies. The murderers wanted to ensure that no physical evidence of the massacre would remain. As if the crying out of murdered souls would not be evidence enough! Panerari, magnificent forest, its name forever cursed as the site of the first phase of the mass extermination of the Jews. Ten miles from Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Tens of thousands of Jews hauled away and murdered.
In Kovno, seventy miles from Vilna, the Ninth Fort rises on a hill just outside the city. This ancient fortress was used by the Nazis and their local collaborators as a prison with cells and torture chambers. On October 28, 1941 9,000 Jews were brutally murdered here. On May 18, 1944, 900 French Jews were slaughtered.
As we passed, I could fairly hear their cries for mercy in my ears, calling out from the forbidding, cold earth. I heard those voices as I led Minchah, davening at the one remaining Kovno shul. I sensed those souls hovering nearby, crying out “Amen,” begging never to be forgotten.
I was awed by the evidence of Torah knowledge, scholarship and spirituality that still emanated from the stops on our visit; at the same time, of course, there was overwhelming sadness at the horrors and destruction that befell these communities and their Jews.
In most of the towns where Jews were exterminated, a lone monument recalls the number with grim objectivity – 1,742 Jews murdered in one place, 2,734 Jews slaughtered in another, 3,265 wiped out in yet another – all transported from this world into mass graves by the cruelty of the Nazis and their local collaborators.
Mere numbers on the monuments but living, breathing souls in our hearts and memories, stolen from their modest homes and taken to their horrific deaths, in most cases together with their rabbanim, geonim and tzaddikim as exemplified by Rav Avrohom Komai, the last rav of the Mir, or Rav Elchanan Wasserman of Baranovich. It was all too much to bear. How could such a thing occur? One word comes to mind: Eichah. Tragedy.