Lithuanian journalist Ruta Vanagaite published a book titled Us: Travels With the Enemy, a rigorously researched account of local complicity in the mass murder Lithuanians committed against their Jewish neighbors across every sector of society—civil servants, academics, the military. The titular “us” refers to those who Lithuanian society pretends are not really Lithuanian: on the one hand, murdered Jews, and on the other, their Lithuanian executioners.
In interviews, Vanagaite urged Lithuanians to be honest about their history. “Go and look,” she said. “What about the things we have at home—antique watches and antique furniture. Where did they come from? We need to ask where the gold in the teeth of our grandmothers came from. We have to ask questions—we owe it to the victims of the Holocaust.”
Among the readers of Vanagaite’s book was Neringa Daniene, a young playwright in the city of Rokiskis. Daniene agreed that the Holocaust could no longer be shunted aside. “I thought it could really change people’s hearts to hear a story like Matilda’s,” she told me. Daniene resolved to write a play about the poet, based on Alekniene’s essay; to prepare, she arranged to bring copies of Matilda’s poems and her diary with her on a family vacation. “Every day, my children would go swim in the lake, and I’d just lie on the grass, reading the diary and sobbing,” she recalled.
The Silenced Muses premiered in Rokiskis in November 2016. The first performance was sold out, as was each date in the initial run. Daniene and her troupe took the play on the road. “Every time, it was just as emotional as the first time,” she said. Still, Daniene was determined that the play focus more on Matilda’s life than her death—the murders take place offstage.
On the advice of a friend, a Lithuanian-American poet and translator named Laima Vince saw the play. “For many years I believed that the Lithuanians who murdered their Jewish neighbors were used by the Nazis, perhaps even forced at gunpoint to commit these crimes,” Vince later wrote on a website called Deep Baltic. “That was the story I’d been told. Perhaps I comforted myself with this thought because the truth was too horrific to face.”
Vince became immersed in Matilda’s life and work, and set about translating Matilda’s collected writing into English. “The play was popular in Lithuania, but once Matilda’s writing is translated, and can be accessed by the whole world, my hope is that the number of people who are moved by her story will grow,” Vince told me.
Already, Matilda’s poetry has been included in a grade school textbook published by the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore. And Irena Veisaite, the scholar, recently announced plans to donate the notebooks to the institute, which plans to release a dual-language edition of Matilda’s poetry, in Lithuanian and English. An annotated version of the diary will follow—part of a larger effort by local institutions to incorporate Jewish voices into the national canon.
Another artist inspired by The Silenced Muses was a local woodcarver, who erected a totem to Matilda in a median near the site of her childhood home. Hewn out of oak, the memorial was engraved with birds and lilies, which are recurring motifs in Matilda’s poetry, and a Star of David; etched near the base is a stanza of her verse:
Then, someone carried off The Sun and all the flowers. The young sisters left
For foreign lands.
Last summer, a more formal memorial went up next to the gravel road that bisects the pasture where the Olkin and Jaffe families were killed. The memorial was funded largely by donations from Lithuanians
familiar with The Silenced Muses. The granite gravestone is engraved with the names of the Olkin and Jaffe families in Hebrew and Lithuanian.
And in the coming months, the Rokiskis history museum will mount a permanent exhibition devoted to Matilda and her family. The museum has also been keen to identify the precise spot where the Olkins and Jaffes were buried. Some researchers said the grave is at the corner of the pasture; other testimony placed it midway down the field’s western flank. Earlier this year, the museum’s director contacted Richard Freund, an American archaeologist, who planned to be in Lithuania excavating the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, and asked if he would take a look.
In July, I accompanied Freund, of the University of Hartford, and two geoscientists, Harry Jol, from the University of Wisconsin, and Philip Reeder, from Duquesne University, to find Matilda’s final resting place. In recent years, the three men and their colleagues have used radar and other noninvasive mapping technologies to document Holocaust sites across Europe, including the discovery, two years ago, of an escape tunnel at a Nazi death camp outside Vilnius.
Arriving at the pasture, we stepped out into the summer heat, and Reeder, tape measure in hand, walked along the edge, until he hit the 230-foot mark—the distance presented in an old newspaper account and the most reliable witness testimony, which placed the grave in the undergrowth just beyond the pasture.
The group cleared a search area, or grid, of 860 square feet. “Atsargiai!” someone shouted in Lithuanian. “Caution!” American students accompanying the scientists hauled out the brush, alongside the Lithuanian archaeologist Romas Jarockis, who had traveled with the group to offer his assistance. Nearby, Jol unpacked a bundle of ground-penetrating radar antennas, which would be staked at intervals of three-quarters of a foot each and would direct electromagnetic energy into the soil. The result would be a three-dimensional map of the earth beneath. From previous projects, and from his own archival research, Jol knew what he’d be looking for on the
scans. “A lot of these pits were dug in the same way, in the same general shape,” Jol told me. “The Nazis and their collaborators were very particular, very uniform.”
When they were done, I walked toward the cars with Freund, whose family has roots in prewar Lithuania. “The main thing we want is closure,” he said.
That evening, in his hotel room, Jol uploaded the data to his laptop. “Right away, I could see something had been disturbed in the subsurface,” he recalled. In and of itself, that didn’t guarantee they’d found the right spot. But while consulting World War II-era aerial maps of the region, Jol had noticed a telling soil aberration in just this spot, and now he looked at the depth of the pit: just four inches, in line with the testimony Alekniene had collected.
Freund and his colleagues almost never excavate burial sites, preferring to offer their data to local researchers. In this case, the officials in Rokiskis had little interest in disturbing the resting place of the Jaffes and Olkins—this confirmation was enough.
The next evening, the scientists and their students gathered on the edge of the road, facing the pasture. Freund had printed excerpts of Matilda’s poetry, in English and Lithuanian, and he wandered among the attendees, handing them out.
“Maciau tada ju asaras,” intoned Romas Jarockis. “Ir liudesi maciau . . . ”
A University of Wisconsin student named Madeline Fuerstenberg read the translation: “Then I saw their tears, and their sorrow I saw . . . ”
As the sun inched closer to the horizon, Freund produced a copy of a modified version of El Malei Rachamim, a Hebrew graveside prayer. “God, full of mercy,” he recited, “provide a sure rest for all the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the European Holocaust, who were murdered, burnt and exterminated.” He wiped tears from his face.
Later that week, Madeline Fuerstenberg walked into a tattoo shop in Vilnius, and presented the artist on duty with a line of text: He read aloud: “Her eyes are bright, full of light.”
Fuerstenberg pointed at a spot on her arm. She wanted the tattoo there, in a place where everyone could see it.
Richard Freund and Philip Reeder at the site of Vilnius’ Great Synagogue. The scientiststraveled to Panemunelis to search for the Olkins’ grave.