Matilda Olkin

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue -

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.

Chap­ter Five

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.