Mem­o­ries rest not at a grave­side, but in a Nazi killing field

In the first of a se­ries, vis­its the spot where his grand­mother was shot dead

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS -

A SUN-DAP­PLED meadow slopes gen­tly down from the hill­top to­wards the city of Kau­nas. The grass is freck­led with yel­low and purple wild flow­ers, a peace­ful summer scene that be­lies an unimag­in­ably bru­tal past.

On Novem­ber 29, 1941, my grand­mother, Ilse Cohn, was shot here, in this field, by the Ein­satzkom­mando 3 Nazi death squad, un­der the com­mand of a Swiss-born SS colonel called Karl Jäger. On that day alone, they mur­dered 2,000 Jews, de­ported by train from Vi­enna and from my grand­mother’s home­town of Bres­lau.

So I have come to hon­our her mem­ory. My mother was her only child, and although Ilse had three broth­ers, she had no neph­ews or nieces. My brother and I, and my two chil­dren, are her only liv­ing rel­a­tives.

Kau­nas (pop: 300,000) is the sec­ond largest city in Lithua­nia. Be­fore the war, its Jewish pop­u­la­tion num­bered around 32,000. To­day, there are barely 300. In Oc­to­ber 1941, the Nazis, who had in­vaded Lithua­nia four months e a r l i e r, mur­dered 2,007 J e wi s h men, 2,920 women, and 4,273 chil­dren from the Kau­nas ghetto. By 1944, the rest of the city’s Jews had ei­ther been de­ported to con­cen­tra­tioncamp­sor died when the Nazis burnt the ghetto to the ground.

One ghetto street re­mains; it leads from the rail­way sta­tion to the killing fields of the Ninth Fort. This is the street the de­por­tees walked along, on their way to their deaths.

An eye-wit­ness at the time recorded: “Two hours ago, there passed in front of our eyes, be­fore the win­dows of our houses, many thou­sand Jews from south­ern Ger­many and Vi­enna who were taken with their lug­gage to Fort IX … There they were killed with ex­treme cru­elty.”

I have come to Kau­nas with one of my old­est friends, the jour­nal­ist Stu Seidel, for­merly of the US pub­lic ra­dio net­work NPR. His grand­par­ents on his fa­ther’s side were im­mi­grants from Be­larus and Lithua­nia — by a macabre co­in­ci­dence, his grand­mother was born here in Kau­nas. His great­grand­par­ents on his mother’s side were im­mi­grants from Poland, so we are re­trac­ing our fam­i­lies’ jour­neys, as they headed west from cen­tral Europe to Bri­tain and the US. Their sto­ries will be fa­mil­iar enough to many read­ers of the JC, but we are luck­ier than most to have the op­por­tu­nity to make the jour­neys again our­selves, to see with our o w n e y e s where our f a m i l i e s came from and where they ended up. I couldn’t have em­barked on this project while my mother was still alive. She didn’t be­lieve in look­ing back, espe- cially on a past full of bad mem­o­ries, and she dis­cov­ered only 15 years ago ex­actly how her mother had died.

She re­mem­bered that as a child, she used to love sing­ing with her mother, and go­ing to con­certs to­gether. Her mother loved clothes, loved go­ing out, al­ways in high heels.

In one of her last let­ters, writ­ten in Au­gust 1941, Ilse wrote: “One has to take care of one­self for as long as pos­si­ble … In my view, my courage to face life will dis­ap­pear as soon as I no longer look smart and well-groomed.”

There is a pho­to­graph in the Ninth Fort mu­seum show­ing Jews from Mu­nich be­fore de­por­ta­tion, just a few days be­fore my g r a n d - mother was de­port­ed­from Bres­lau. Many of the women are dressed in their finest, some i n fur coats. That’s how I imag­ine Ilse Cohn, at 44, on her way to her death. Jour­nal­ists get used to re­port­ing atroc­i­ties dis­pas­sion­ately, and on my visit to the Ninth Fort, I slip into that coat of ar­mour all too eas­ily.

I compose im­ages with my cam­era, I record in­ter­views and make notes. But then I stop. “Ilse,” I say, as I stand at the edge of the killing field, “I was here to­day. You are not for­got­ten.”

And on the way back to the car, past the gi­ant Soviet-era memo­rial to the 30,000 dead, we walk past a small lake with girls swim­ming and laugh­ing. I am not of­fended. Life goes on. More about his project ‘In the Foot­steps of Our Fam­i­lies’ can be found at www. wan­der­ingscribes.com.

Robin Lustig: Rec­ol­lec­tions

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