Finding Her Voice
THE DISCOVERY OF A YOUNG JEWISH POET AND HER HOLOCAUST DIARY PROVOKES SOUL-SEARCHING IN LITHUANIA
“I don’ t know why, but my future sometimes flashes before me and it is so sad and so painful that without even realizing it I crumple up in pain .... That is the fate of restless souls like me: We wan der from one place to another, hoping to find some peace.” —from the diary of Matilda Olkin
In June of 1940, as war swept across Europe, thousands of Red Army troops arrived at the eastern border of Lithuania, making good on a secret pact with Germany to divvy up the continent. Local leaders were given an ultimatum: Agree to immediate annexation by the Soviet Union, or face a long and bloody invasion. Overmatched, the government capitulated, and within days the Soviets had seized control of the country. In Kaunas, the home of the former president, Red Army tanks clogged the streets; in Vilnius, dissenters were hunted down and arrested or killed.
In August, in a wood-framed house in northeastern Lithuania, a young Jewish writer named Matilda Olkin unlocked her diary and began to write:
I see—crowds falling to their knees, I hear—nights filled with crying. I travel through the world
And I dream this strange dream.
The poem, describing the pilgrimage of an “exhausted” people across a hellscape of “burning sands,” was a departure for Olkin, then just 18. Slight and brown-haired, with opaline skin and wide-set brown eyes, Olkin had grown up in the farming village of Panemunelis, in circumstances she recalled as idyllic. Her father, Noah Olkin, ran the town pharmacy; her mother, Asna, stayed home with Matilda and her three siblings—an older brother named Ilya, and two little sisters, Mika and Grunia.
Like much of the country, Panemunelis and the nearby city of Rokiskis were home to sizable populations of Jews, who worshiped freely and held important civic positions. Every Sunday, Noah Olkin dropped in on Juozapas Matelionis, the village priest, to discuss literature and theology over tea. Matilda and her two younger sisters frequently ate meals with the Catholic girls next door. Together the girls wandered the birch forests and undulating pastures that surrounded Panemunelis.
Matilda’s early surviving work pays homage to that pastoral beauty. The writing is vivid and sweet, full of encomiums to “rejoicing” flowers, “leaping” suns and “silver stars.” A poem called “Good Morning” practically overflows with exuberance:
But the Sun shines most
In the eyes of the little girl.
Her eyes are bright, full of light.
They greet her joyful world,
A world bursting to life and filled with sunshine. “Good morning! Good morning!”
Soon Matilda was publishing verse in literary journals, and editors hounded her with solicitations. (“We are waiting and waiting for the fruits of your cheerful pen,” one wrote.)
But in time Matilda’s poetry darkened, and she became “distant”: “She would stand and gaze out the classroom window with her hands tucked under her apron,” a friend later said. “What she was thinking, I don’t know.”
“Matilda had a special voice. To me, it was a voice that needed saving. . .”
A diary Matilda started keeping in August 1940 offers some clues. “Times are awful,” she wrote in one entry. “The world has spilled out into the streets.” In another, she wrote, “There are more and always more worries. Good always follows bad. And so where is the good?”
The roots of her anxiety were both personal and political. Although her brother had thrown his support to the new Soviet regime—“Ilya,” Matilda noted acidly, “is one of those enlightened people who believes in communism”—Matilda was more mistrustful. And presciently so: Her father’s pharmacy was nationalized, and his income all but erased. He and Matilda’s mother were thrown into profound despair. “They are both ill and unhappy people,” Matilda wrote. “And I am their daughter, but I can’t do anything to help them. I can’t help Papa, who complains of a bad pain in his stomach, or Mama, who recently began blowing through her lips in this strange manner.”
In the major cities, a far-right Lithuanian group called Iron Wolf was urging a boycott of Jewish businesses; anti-Semitic leaflets were distributed in the streets; and at least one leading newspaper railed against the “dirty habits of the Jews.” It must have felt that chaos was inevitably coming for Matilda and her family, too.
Still, that October, Matilda left for Vilnius to study literature. She did not do so lightly. “I am constantly saying goodbye, goodbye,” she wrote in her diary. But the university was offering a stipend, enough to help support her family, and she felt she had no choice.
Besides, cosmopolitan Vilnius suited her. She went to the opera, listened to “nervous screeching music” at a bar, danced at clubs, and got a perm. And she pined after an on-again, off-again boyfriend. In her diary, she scolded herself for fixating on relatively trifling romantic concerns: “People are starving. The war is moving closer toward us. I may not receive my stipend—nothing is certain, everything is in a fog. And I am standing on the edge of a precipice, picking at the petals of a daisy, asking: ‘Loves me? Loves me not.’ ”
In what may be her last poem, dated November 14, 1940, the setting is a funeral. The narrator peers back at the throngs of mourners:
Oh, how many have gathered And no one will see love.
I hold an infant in my arms— And my infant—is Death.
Seven months later, Hitler invaded Lithuania. Violating the pact with the Soviets, the Germans chased out the Red Army in days. On June 26, they reached Kupiskis, miles from Panemunelis.
If latent anti-Semitism in Lithuania was the tinder, the Nazis were the spark. The Germans were quick to point to Jews as the cause of Lithuanian “humiliation and suffering under Soviet rule,” as the Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder has written, and the Nazis instructed their local collaborators to round up Jewish families into walled ghettos for “processing.” Soon word reached Matilda in Vilnius: Her parents and sisters had been arrested.
We have no record of Matilda’s thoughts on her journey home, because by the end of February 1941 she had stopped writing in her diary. Why she did so is unknown: Perhaps she switched to a different journal, although there were plenty of pages left in the original. More likely, circumstances prevented it. The once-faraway war the young poet had tracked through newspaper headlines was now on her doorstep, and everything she held dear was about to be destroyed.
Eleven years ago, in the summer of 2007, a Lithuanian historian and museum curator named Violeta Alekniene received an email from an editor at Vers-
mes, a publishing house. Versmes was working on a series of monographs about the Lithuanian provinces, from the Middle Ages to the present, and the editor hoped Alekniene would write about Panemunelis during the Second World War.
Alekniene, then in her early 50s, immediately agreed. She had grown up in Panemunelis, as had her parents and grandparents. She’d lived through the stifling postwar Soviet occupation, when the country was part of the USSR, and the heady early years of independence, in the 1990s. She knew the place intimately, and, moreover, she had long wanted to write about a grim part of Lithuania’s history: the extermination, by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators, of more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews— some 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population.
As Alekniene explained to me this past summer, she knew from previous research the broad outlines of what had happened to the Jews of her home district: Shortly after the Nazis appeared, the entire Jewish population was corralled into the village’s train station and sent to the nearby town of Rokiskis. There, in August 1941, more than 3,200 men, women and children were lined up in front of hastily dug pits and shot.
But not all the Jews of Panemunelis had perished in those pits: Three families—merchant families who were thought to have hidden wealth—were moved to a stable not far from Father Matelionis’ church. The Olkins, who had once lived a few miles from the house where Alekniene grew up, were among them. Alekniene decided it would be part of her mission to track down the details of their fate.
“Outside of raising my family, my entire life has been dedicat-
“Somehow, I think it is fate that the books came to me.”
ed to historical research,” Alekniene told me. “To not write about this tragedy now that Lithuania was independent, now that we had freedom of speech, would have been”—she paused. “I had to do it.”
Alekniene threw herself into the research. She dug through pre- and postwar Soviet archives, and interviewed dozens of subjects from the region. And she devoured Matilda’s diary, which was published around that time in the journal of a local historical society. From these sources she learned about the Olkins and their personal lives, and she traced Matilda’s growing fame as a young poet. Matilda’s writing made a permament impression. Eventually, she came to view Matilda as a symbol of the goodness and beauty that had been lost in the Holocaust. From this tragedy, she hoped to tell the story of the near-erasure of Lithuania’s Jewish community. “Matilda had a special voice,” Alekniene told me. “To me, it was a voice that needed saving.”
In 2008, Alekniene tracked down a childhood friend of Matilda’s named Juozas Vaicionis. He told her that after the rest of the Jews had been deported, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators—known as “white armbanders” for the sashes they tied under their shoulders—ordered Matilda to clean the now-empty train station. Vaicionis sneaked into the station to see Matilda and offered to hide her or find her safe passage out of Panemunelis. “Matilda would not even answer me,” Vaicionis recalled. “She kept on scrubbing the floors. I could not get her to answer me when I insisted, ‘Why don’t you want to run away from here?’” But Matilda was adamant: She would not abandon her family.
Alekniene could find only one surviving witness, now living in Vilnius, to describe the brutal end of the Olkins’ ordeal. Her name was Aldona Dranseikiene. One July morning in 1941, she told Alekniene, she was with her father when they spotted a horse-drawn cart hammering down the dirt road that led north out of Panemunelis. Up front sat men in white armbands; escorts carrying rifles pedaled on bicycles alongside them. The procession drew to a halt in a pasture. Dranseikiene, then 8-years-old, took cover behind a haystack, while her father craned his neck over the stack to watch.
“They shoved their guns into the backs of the men and the women who had been blindfolded and forced them out of the wagon,” Dranseikiene told Alekniene. (Dranseikiene, like all the eyewitnesses, has since died.) “They made them walk up to the top of the hill,” she went on. “We heard screams and cries. That went on for a very long time. Who knows what went on there? Only much later, in the afternoon, we heard their final death cries and gunshots.”
In the evening, the killers showed up drunk at nearby farms, demanding vodka. “For a long time,” Dranseikiene recalled, “those men hung around and sang.”
The next day, local farmers made their way across the pasture, where they found five twisted corpses— Noah, Asna, Matilda, Grunia and Mika Olkin—lying beside four others, members of another Jewish family, the Jaffes. (The fate of the third family remains unknown.) The farmers covered the shallow grave with dirt and sprinkled it with lime, to aid decomposition and prevent forest animals from desecrating the corpses. (Matilda’s brother, Ilya Olkin, who had been living in the city of Kaunas, would join the resistance, but was killed not long afterward.)
I asked Alekniene if she knew what happened to the Olkins’ Lithuanian killers. One, she said, was tried and executed in the Soviet era; another went mad. But the other two remained in the village. “No one could definitely prove it was them, but naturally there were whispers,” Alekniene told me. “I was raised with their children, in fact.”
I wondered if the children had been ostracized. Alekniene shook her head. “They are very good people,” she told me. She was eager to move on.
In piecing together the Olkin family’s last days, Violeta Alekniene was, in essence, continuing the narrative that Matilda Olkin had begun in her diary.
This summer, an elderly scholar named Irena Veisaite invited me to see the document myself.
Her apartment in Vilnius was high-ceilinged and bright, the walls covered with books, watercolors and family portraits. Opening the door, Veisaite complained of the persistent headaches and fatigue that often kept her inside. “But that’s all right,” she smiled, her eyes magnified behind wire-framed glasses. “It means the young people have to come to me.”
I followed her to an office and waited as she rummaged through the bottom shelf of a large armoire. She returned with two books. The thicker one was bound in hand-tooled leather: Matilda’s diary. The other, which had an ink-stained cardboard cover and appeared to be a repurposed ledger, held Matilda’s poems. I ran my finger over the handwritten script. M. Olkinaite, it read—a formal Lithuanian language rendering of Matilda’s family name.
In the 1970s, Veisaite explained, she was working as a tutor at the University of Vilnius when one day a graduate student stopped by with a pair of tattered books. The student—his name was Alfredas Andrijauskas—came from Panemunelis, where as an organist at the church he’d known Father Matelionis, the priest who had been close to the Olkins.
He told a poignant story: Father Matelionis had offered to hide Noah Olkin and his family, but Olkin had refused, fearing that anybody caught harboring Jews would be shot. Instead, he passed along Matilda’s notebooks, which Father Matelionis then stashed inside a hidden compartment in the altar of his church. In the 1950s, the Soviets deported Father Matelionis to Siberia, part of a campaign of religious persecution across the USSR. But just before he was sent away, he gave the documents to Andrijauskas. Now Andrijauskas was bringing them to Veisaite.
Veisaite, a rare Jewish Lithuanian Holocaust survivor who chose to remain in the country of her birth after the war, read the poems first, in a single sitting. “I was crying,” she told me. “I thought, ‘Why am I alive and Matilda is dead?’ ”
Veisaite immediately grasped the importance of Matilda’s writing, which gave voice to the dead in a way that forensic accountings of the Holocaust could
not. Soon afterward, Veisaite published an essay about Matilda’s poetry in a literary journal. She longed to dig deeper into Matilda’s life and the circumstances of her death, but she could only say so much: The killing of Jews had never fit comfortably with the Soviet narrative of the war, which framed it in Manichaean terms—fascists on one side, resisters on the other. Nor did it mesh with the post-Soviet Lithuanian narrative that resolutely turned its gaze from local complicity in the murder of the country’s Jews.
And so Veisaite stuffed the books into the armoire and waited for more than three decades. “Somehow,” Veisaite smiled, “I think it is fate that the books came to me.”
I understood what she meant—the notebooks, the irreplaceable insight they gave into a life, at once ordinary and tragic, and the story of those who had cared for them, had the improbable arc of a legend. It sounded fantastical that they survived, but it was true. The evidence was in front of me.
From Vilnius, it’s a three-hour drive to Panemunelis, ending on two-lane roads no more than 15 feet across. The morning I made the drive, storks gathered on the roadside in perches constructed from truck tires and discarded lumber. In Lithuania, the birds are considered to be a sign of harmony and prosperity, and locals do what they can to get them to stick around.
I arrived in Panemunelis around midday. The skies were cloudless, and the temperature close to 90, but a breeze was blowing across the fields, bringing with it the scent of ryegrass and of the heavy rains forecast for later that afternoon. I recalled Matilda’s description of a violent storm in the late summer of 1940:
Suddenly it became so dark that it seemed as though someone had drawn the curtains closed across the windows. . . . I ran outside and the wind was so strong that it almost knocked me down onto the ground. I adore storms. I push my chest out into the wind and set my eyes on the fields. And then I feel that I am alive and that I am walking forward.
Today Panemunelis is still a farming village, home to no more than a few hundred people. There is a general store, a town square and a dozen tangled streets, unspooling through the surrounding farmland like a ribbon. In a gazebo near the post office, three old men had gathered to drink brandy; in front of a warehouse, a German shepherd strained at the end of a chain.
The town’s train station is still standing, but it was dark, its windows bricked over. I found the Olkins’ address easily enough—the family lived directly across from the local mill—but their home had reportedly burned down years ago. I knocked at the nearest house. The curtains parted; no one answered.
“I know their story—we all know their story,” Father Eimantas Novikas told me that afternoon, standing in the nave of the village church. Novikas, who was transferred to Panemunelis three years ago, is immense, more than six and a half feet tall, with a formidable belly—in his black cassock, he resembled a bell. I followed him out to the churchyard. Through the foliage, we could see the stable that had housed the Olkins and other families in their final days. “What happened was a tragedy,” Novikas said. “What I hope is that we can continue to learn about the”—he looked at me pointedly—“events, so they can never happen here again.”
And yet a full reckoning with Lithuania’s role in
“We have to ask questions—we owe it to the victims of the Holocaust.”
the Holocaust has been a decidedly long time coming, not least because of the Soviet occupation, which made the self-examination undertaken elsewhere in Europe—the scholarship, the government-appointed commissions, the museums and memorials—more difficult. Even after independence, local historians acknowledged the atrocities but placed the blame mainly on the Nazi occupiers. Lithuanian collaborators were written off as drunks and criminals. This was something I heard often. The killers may have been our countrymen, but they were nothing like us.
As a coping mechanism, the rhetoric isn’t difficult to understand. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. “Genocide cannot be accomplished by lowlifes and social rejects,” the Lithuanian scholar Saulius Suziedelis said in an interview last year. “It requires an administrative structure. Who ordered the towns in the countryside to set up small ghettos? Local officials. So I would say the number of participants is much larger than we’d like to admit.”
When Violeta Alekniene finally published her essay about the Olkins, in 2011, the country was just beginning to revisit the inherited Soviet narratives with a measure of critical distance. By 2015, the climate was ripe for a more forceful intervention. That year, the best-selling
What did the ghetto street look like at night? What was the mood of the ghetto from one day to the next? What were the daily hardships and the occasional reprieves? These insights are rarely found in any other source. In addition, some writers had literary ambitions beyond just documenting their days: They challenged, raged, lamented, grieved, reproached, hoped and despaired, grappling with the biggest questions of what it means to be human in a cruel world.
While adults’ diaries have contributed enormously to our understanding of life during the Holocaust, young diarists offer us something very different but equally valuable. Adolescents are in transition, establishing identity, exploring relationships, discovering what they have inherited and what they will embrace or reject. Teen diarists during the Holocaust faced that developmental challenge against an impossible backdrop, one in which their identities were reduced to their Jewishness, which in turn determined their fate. Young writers in particular struggle with the injustice of this, and with many other things besides: the vulnerability of youth and the loss of parents, the absence of schooling and normal life, the theft of time—the brutal interruption of all that is considered the birthright of the young.
For 25 years, I’ve studied the diaries of Jewish teens in the Holocaust. Recently, as guest curator for an upcoming exhibition at Holocaust Museum Houston, titled “And Still I Write: Young Diarists on War and Genocide,” I’ve read a wider range of young people’s diaries in search of common themes. After the Holocaust, there were solemn promises that the world would “never again” stand by while innocent civilians were murdered en masse. But in the years since, there have been wars and genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq and Syria, among other places. Diaries written by young people have survived some of these conflicts, too. These writers report on the events of war; they reflect on the way massive forces shape their personal lives; they ask why they must suffer and struggle to survive; and they affirm their humanity while they protest the injustice all around them.
A number of diaries pose fresh challenges for American readers, maybe even cause discomfort and shame. During the Holocaust, Jewish teen diarists often viewed the Allied forces, including the American Army, as their liberators, the source of their deliverance and hopefully their survival. It’s easy to see ourselves as the heroes of those stories. But not every writer saw events from that vantage point.
At the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, young Japanese-Americans were writing diaries from inside government-run internment camps. A teenager named Stanley Hayami was imprisoned at Heart Mountain Camp in Wyoming when he voiced his frustration and despair at the impossible bind he faced. “I don’t see why innocent and good guys have to pay for stuff that the Japanese do,” he wrote in his diary. “Darn it anyhow us loyal Jap. [sic] Americans have no chance. When we’re outside, people look at us suspiciously and think we’re spies. Now that we’re in camp, the Japs look at us and say we’re bad because we still love America. And now the people outside want to take our citizenship away from us as if we’re the bad ones.” Hayami endured the humiliation and deprivation of internment for more than two years before he entered the Army in 1944, sent off to fight for the very country that had unjustly imprisoned him. On May 9, 1945—one day after V-E Day— Hayami’s family learned that he had been killed in action in Italy while aiding two wounded soldiers. He was 19 years old. Hayami was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
In more recent diaries, writers see America in equally complex roles: as bystander, invader and even oppressor. It is not always comfortable, but it is deeply rewarding to read these diaries and shift our perspective. During the Serbian aggression against Bosnians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, America was among the nations that took years to effectively intervene as genocide unfolded. Nadja Halilbegovich, age 13, was keeping a diary in Sarajevo when she was injured by a bomb on October 18, 1992. More than a
year later, she wrote in despair: “Sometimes I think that there is no hope and that we are all dying slowly while the whole world watches silently. They send us crumbs of food yet never condemn those who kill us. . . . The aggressors kill children and rape women. The world looks on and perhaps gives us a thought while sitting in their comfortable homes and palaces. Are they unable to see? . . . WORLD, PLEASE WAKE UP AND HELP US!!!” (In 1995, America finally intervened militarily, along with other NATO forces, and helped coordinate the negotiation of a peace agreement.) Nadja published her diary at 14 and, two years later, escaped to the United States. She now lives in Canada and advocates for children of war.
Another Bosnian diarist, Zlata Filipovic, was only 10 in 1991, when she began her diary with entries on piano lessons and birthday parties. Soon she was cataloging food shortages and the deaths of friends during the siege of Sarajevo. By her final entry in October of 1993, she tallied the lethal impact of one day’s bombing: 590 shells, six dead, 56 wounded. “I keep thinking that we’re alone in this hell,” Zlata wrote. She eventually escaped with her family and now works as a documentary filmmaker in Dublin.
In Syria, a young man using the pseudonym Samer began a diary in Raqqa in 2013 at the suggestion of journalists from the BBC. As ISIS took over and carried out barbaric acts against civilians, he chronicled the airstrike by the Syrian regime that killed his father as well as his own arrest and punishment of 40 lashes for cursing in the street after a neighbor’s beheading by ISIS. Reflecting in his diary, he lamented: “We didn’t believe the international community would stand with its arms behind its back, watching crimes being committed against unarmed people. . . . Even though [it] could clearly see what was going on, it didn’t act.” Samer worked with the BBC to send his encrypted notes out of Syria; later his diary was translated into English and published as a book in Britain and America in 2017. Samer ultimately escaped Raqqa but remains trapped in Syria, a country, like so many others, in the vise of a civil war.
Traditional handwritten, bound notebooks have given way to “diaries” written as blogs, online journals and as entries on Facebook and Twitter. While past diarists often hoped their work might one day be read, today’s writers, steeped in social media, have skipped that step entirely, posting their thoughts for consumption in real time. We may regret that many of these writings aren’t preserved as tangible artifacts with yellowed pages or inky penmanship that bear witness to the authors and the passage of time. Yet how many of those handwritten diaries have been lost forever? For those who write under conditions of uncertainty and danger, technology provides a far greater chance of reaching the audience that will hear and even help them.
During the Iraq War, 15-year-old “Hadiya” wrote from the city of Mosul beginning in 2004. In her IraqiGirl blog, she expressed a fondness for Harry Potter and worried about her grades while documenting the growing conflict. “Last night . . . I couldn’t sleep because the Americans were bombarding our neighborhood,” she wrote. “What should I say? I have so many things I want to write. But I can’t. Until when must we follow what America says? Until when should we follow their orders? Who is America? Ha! We have the oldest civilization. We have oil. And we have the capability to rule ourselves.” Excerpts from her blog were published as a book in 2009, but she continues to post on IraqiGirl even today. After she escaped Mosul, Hadiya became a refugee in Jordan and moved to Australia when she was granted a humanitarian visa last year.
Technology changes not just the physical form, but also the potential, even the purpose, of a diary. Traditionally, we read the words of those who suffered in past atrocities, knowing— perhaps with some secret relief—that we could empathize but not act. Today’s online war diaries, describing unfolding horrors, are fundamentally shifting the burden of moral responsibility to the reader. Hadiya engaged in direct conversation with her audience. “I received many comments and letters saying that I am not Iraqi,” she wrote after reading some public responses to her diary. “Another one said I don’t deserve the freedom that the Americans are bringing to the Iraqi people. That my view of the war is wrong and I should change it. I’ll tell you what—no one in this world can know what I’m feeling. I respect your view of the American soldiers but it is not you who is prevented from sleeping by the sound of bullets. It is not you who every day is woken up by the sound of bombs. It is not you who hears the rocket falling and doesn’t know if it will be on his house or his aunt’s house or his grandfather’s.”
These digital missives also raise new questions about credibility and authenticity. In 2016, seven-year-old Bana al-Abed tweeted about her ordeal in the sealed-off city of Aleppo, Syria. “I need peace,” read one tweet on September 24. “I can’t go out because of the bombing please stop bombing us,” pleaded another. The family eventually escaped to Turkey, where Bana’s diary was published last fall. Though Bana amassed more than 350,000 followers on Twitter, some questioned whether it was she or her mother, Fatemah, who was the true author. (Bana’s Twitter bio acknowledges that the account is “managed by mom”; Fatemah maintains that the girl is deeply involved in its writing.) There is, of course, no way to know for sure—it is easier than ever to blur the lines of authorship on the internet.
Yet even in today’s jaded world, these young diarists still have the power to jolt us out of our complacency. In dire circumstances, they become their own historians, documenting the oppression and violence that threatens to silence them forever. The survival of their diaries ensures that, whatever else might have been lost, their voices of outrage and protest endure.
“I need peace. I can’t go out because of the bombing please stop bombing us.”
Matilda Olkin’s leather-bound diary, hidden for decades, became the basis for a hit play. The diary will soon be published in English and Lithuanian.Opening pages: Matilda’s school portrait, from 1939. Larger photo: The roadto Matilda’s hometown. The stable where she was held is on the left, the church on the right. Violeta Alekniene heard about the Olkins as a child, but she didn’t begin to uncover their story until 2007. “That’s when my eyes were opened,” she says.”
Matilda (bottomrow, far left) celebrating New Year’s Eve 1934 with local children. The area was then nearlyhalf Jewish; virtually no Jewsremain.
The train station where Matilda was last seen alive is still standing, although too few people visit Panemunelis to keep the region’srail line open.
The totem to Matilida was carved from a single oak— just one of a growing number of memorials to Lithuania’s vanished Jewish community.
The artist Vidmantas Zakarka, who sculpted the totem to Matilida, at his studio in Panemunelis. “I wanted this child to be remembered,” he told Laima Vince.
At age 10, Zlata Filipovic began a diary, which she called “Mimmy.” After Zlata chronicled the siege of Sarajevo, her diary was published in 36 languages.Locked away in a U.S. internmentcamp, Stanley Hayami doodled and dreamed ofbecoming “the best artist in the world.” He kept drawing as a soldier in Europe.