I recently travelled to Lithuania. I had always wanted to visit that country, to explore where my mother’s family had come from – my grandmother in particular. But it took a strange series of coincidences, in Edinburgh of all places, to get me to finally bite the bullet and go there (see my previous post Milk Boys and Jewish Tartans). At the time, it brought to mind a favourite quote from Albert Einstein: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
If this is true, then Edinburgh was only God’s warm-up act.
My grandmother was born in Lithuania, where she went to school and university, married, and had a child. This “first life” of my grandmother can to an abrupt end with the systematic annihilation of European Jewry by the Nazis. Instead, she endured ghettos and forced labour camps while her parents, all but one of her siblings, her husband and her young son were murdered. Then she arrived in South Africa as a penniless refugee, and like other Holocaust survivors she rebuilt, from nothing. (See my previous posts Notes from Lithuania, Part I – How Cold is Cold? and Notes from Lithuania, Part II – Lea’s Legacy).
One outcome of all this horror and death was, well, me. This unpleasant fact generally lurks in my sub-conscious, dark but harmless, although from time to time it rears up to wreak havoc in my life and relationships. So in travelling to Lithuania I was not only seeking a better understanding of my grandmother’s formative years, but also a way to perhaps put some of my own ghosts to rest.
Before the trip I had corresponded with Daniel, a tour-guide who specialises in arranging Jewish interest tours of Lithuania. Through Daniel I had hired a researcher, to search the Lithuanian archives for records involving my grandmother’s family. Which in hindsight was rather one-sided, given my grandfather had also come from Lithuania. It simply never occurred to me that I should try to track down his roots in that country, too. It was only at the last minute, almost as an afterthought, that I emailed Daniel to ask if he could look into what information there was about my grandfather, Samuel Leibowitz.
I knew that Samuel was born around 1910, in a Lithuanian town called Panevėžys (Ponevezh in Yiddish). I knew that as a young boy he had studied at the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva (Jewish religious seminary). I knew that in around 1930, aged around 20, he had migrated to South Africa. There he had met and married my grandmother, fathered two children, and for most of his life he ran a general goods store that catered mainly to black gold-mine labourers. I knew that Samuel had died in 1976. And I knew that like me, Samuel was colour-blind.
That, however, was it. The sum total of everything I knew about my grandfather’s story, in five short sentences.
The fact is I never really knew my Zaida (grandfather in Yiddish).
My grandmother was alive until I was an adult. She had a burning conviction to share her life experiences, and she had an especially close relationship with me. She had often told me stories of her life in Lithuania before the war, her sufferings during and her rebirth after. As a result, I know a lot about my Bobba (see my previous post: Notes from Lithuania, Part II, Lea’s Legacy) who came to occupy a disproportionately large space in both my heart and head. She still does.
My grandfather, on the other hand, died when I was four. Apart from old photos and the odd snippet of information picked up from my mother and aunt, I know precious little about him besides the most basic biographical details. I have no recollection of his face, or his voice, or his personality. We had no relationship that I can speak of. My grandfather barely exists in my memories, and is now confined to just two, both slightly hazy, and very distant.
The first: hydrangeas. Most Friday nights before he died we would visit my grandparents’ home for Shabbat dinner. Zaida would wait for me, at the end of a path leading up to the door. Both sides of the pathway were lined with hydrangea bushes. As I toddled towards him he would reach out and cut a fresh flower from the nearest bush and without fail, hand it to me. This must have made an impression in my young mind, because even today the mere sight of a hydrangea flower brings on a wave of warm, slightly nostalgic feelings.
The second: after my grandfather died, I vaguely recall the shiva (the Jewish equivalent of a wake). Mostly I have a sense of the event, as opposed to specific memories: a feeling of being the only child amongst a sea of “big” people, and a lot of sadness in the air. I remember that the mirrors were covered (a Jewish custom in the house of a recently deceased). And I remember seeing my grandmother sitting on a couch, weeping. I tried to comfort her: “Don’t cry, when I am big I will become a pilot so I can fly a plane up to heaven and bring Zaida back for you”.
Kind of sums it up quite well, really. I have only two memories of my grandfather, and one is actually about my grandmother.
When I met Daniel on arrival in Lithuania, he told me that the researcher had uncovered quite a lot of relevant information about Samuel. Apparently, the Lithuanian Central State Archives had records to the effect that Samuel Leibovich, a schoolboy, had received a Lithuanian passport on 14 June 1928, and subsequently forfeited it when he became a British citizen, in 1935, in South Africa. The head of the household, Chaim Leibovich (my great-grandfather) was listed as being a chemist. The family (as at 1920) consisted of his wife, Tsirla, three sons – Gutel (21), Todres (17) and Samuel (10), and one daughter, Sara (15).
The researcher also mentioned that my grandfather’s birth record gave the address in Panevėžys where the family lived when he was born: 7 Marijos Street. Daniel told me he had checked with city authorities, who had verified that this was still a street in the town today, although had been renamed to Smetanos Street after Lithuanian independence.
With all this information at hand, a visit to Panevėžys seemed in order. I planned a trip there, but for my last day in Lithuania: something to fill in the time until my flight back to London; something to occupy me once my “real” purpose in Lithuania – to visit places associated with my grandmother – was done.
Panevėžys is Lithuania’s fifth largest city, home to around 100,000 people. It took about an hour to drive there from the capital, Vilnius. Today it is a grim, fairly industrial town with not much to recommend it. In the 1920s, when my grandfather was a boy, it was a much smaller place – less than 20,000 people – although still a regional centre for business, industry and trade.
Prior to World War II, around 40% of the population of Panevėžys was Jewish. In 1941, like in the rest of Lithuania deportations and killing of Jews began. In July of that year the Jews of Panevėžys were herded into a small ghetto. This arrangement was short-lived. For the next two months, there were daily mass shootings, and finally, from 23-26 August 1941 every remaining Jew in Panevėžys was taken to a nearby forest, shot, and their bodies dumped in a mass grave. Thanks to the meticulous records kept by the Nazi army, we know that exactly 7,523 Jews were murdered in this three-day killing spree.
We passed a statue in a public park, erected recently to commemorate those who were killed. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother were most likely amongst these, but my grandfather and his brothers were spared: his two elder brothers had migrated to Palestine, and Samuel to South Africa, during the 1920s and 1930s.
Before leaving Lithuania, my grandfather had studied as a teenager at the Ponevezh Yeshiva. Today this yeshiva continues to operate, one of the most famous Jewish religious seminaries in the world. Only if you want to visit it, you will need to travel not to Panevėžys, but to the ultra-orthodox suburb of Bnei Brak on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, in Israel. Prior to WWII the head of the yeshiva fled Europe, made his way to Palestine, and re-established the yeshiva there.
On the other hand, if like me you do actually travel to Panevėžys itself, the only thing you will find is a big imposing building, rendered and painted in light cream, surrounded on all sides by a parking lot. Which nowadays is, of all things, a bakery. A pretty average one at that.
We went inside. I ordered a croissant and a mug of coffee. I looked around, searching for any signs of the building’s prior use, but there were none. After finishing my snack, we went outside, into the car-park that surrounds the bakery-nee-yeshiva. The ground was covered in snow, dirty-brown from the constant back and forth of cars.
There, on one external wall of the building is a small black granite plaque, recording in Yiddish and Lithuanian that this building was once the home of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. No memorial, no statue, no museum or exhibit. A site that was once one of the foremost hubs of Jewish study and learning in the world, not to mention my grandfather’s school, and all that is there now are mediocre croissants and a small sign?
I felt totally underwhelmed.
From the bakery we made our way to Smetanos Street, formerly known as Marijos Street, and came to Number 7, the house in which my grandfather was supposedly born. According to my mother, her father had spoken to her of this house – the front was a chemist store in which his father had worked, the back being where the family had lived.
But the building I saw did not seem to fit the bill at all. It was solid, elegant and well-maintained, two stories high with a peaked roof and arched windows, and a decorative wrought iron balcony graced the second floor. The ground floor was a beauty clinic, offering manicures and waxing and hair treatments. Everything looked far too new to be from my grandfather’s time.
I sighed dejectedly – first the yeshiva, and now this. Clearly, Ponevezh was not going to live up to even the limited expectations I had of the place.
Still, I decided to explore for a few minutes more, and stomped through the slush, around to the rear of the building. I came to the backyard, which was covered in fresh white snow. Half buried in the snow was a dilapidated wooden shed – more a heap of weathered wooden boards than a functioning structure of any sort.
From the back, however, I could see walls of the main building which had not been re-bricked. So unlike the modern looking street-facing facade, from this vantage point it became evident that the house was a very, very old one indeed. Perhaps this was indeed where Samuel had been born, all those years ago? I peered into a dirt-smeared window on the ground floor, but couldn’t see anything inside. I stepped back, took out my camera and snapped a few shots of what could have, once, been my ancestral home.
At which point a side door of the building flew opened, and a woman came outside. She was wearing a rain-proof jacket and a frumpy skirt. Her hair was covered by a shawl, and she had small warts on her face, so she looked a lot like a witch. She began berating me, very loudly, in a language I could not understand. Although what did I expect? I wouldn’t be half pleased either at the sight of a random stranger in my backyard, taking photos.
The woman was soon joined by her husband. He looked to be in his late seventies. He had on an Adidas tracksuit and trainers, although most noticeable were his two front gold teeth, glinting menacingly as they caught the light. He was an immense, heavy-set hulk of a man, over six-foot-four and broad-shouldered. His ears were a pair of cauliflowers, so clearly he’d had more than a fair share of scraps in his time. In short, notwithstanding his age, this fellow had the look and presence of a Soviet wrestler, and most likely could have snapped me in two without breaking a sweat. So when he also began shouting at me and, more worryingly, waving his meaty fists around quite wildly, I thought to myself: “Oh, fuck. Now I’m done for”.
Thankfully, the commotion caused Daniel to come running. He quickly intervened, explaining in Lithuanian to the woman and her wrestler-husband that I meant no harm, that I was visiting from Australia, and that I was simply looking around, as this house was most likely the very house in which my grandfather was born.
The man eyed me suspiciously, but at least he stopped throwing his fists around, and asked Daniel (who translated for me): “Is he Jewish?” Daniel said “yes”, and I nodded in meek agreement. “Ok then …” said the man, “… I understand. This house was always a Jew house”.
Instantly, the mood changed. The old woman broke into a broad, gentle, almost motherly smile. For his part the man held out a bear-paw of a hand, and shook mine vigorously. Introductions were made, via Daniel.
It turns out the house was indeed well over 100 years old, and over time had been subdivided into smaller units, and the store at the front. The couple was Lithuanian gypsies (a group I didn’t even know existed). Along with the wife’s sister and another cousin, they had for more than thirty years lived in one of the ground-floor units, at the back of the building.
Most unexpectedly, the woman asked if I would like to come in and look around. Moments later, I found myself inside of what was a crowded, very small two-room flat. She showed me the old tiles and wall-paper and ancient wooden furniture in one room, before leading me into the second to view a wall-size mural of Mary and the baby Jesus, and where her sister was hurriedly throwing on a terry-towel dressing gown. Clearly, a visitor had not been on the agenda for the day.
The woman then pointed out to me two wood-burning stoves, one in the corner of each room. These were genuine antiques, although they were still being used to provide warmth in the winter. She told me that these stoves were well over a century old. “If your grandfather was born in this house, then these would have been burning in the winter then, keeping him warm”, she said.
While we talked, her sister and cousin laid out some mugs, and a packet of biscuits. I was asked to sit, and to join the family for tea.
So there I was, in the living room of an apartment on the ground floor of the house in which my grandfather was born. The air was being heated courtesy of the same stove that had burned on the day of his birth, in 1910. And I had been invited to tea by modern-day Lithuanian gypsies: an old crone, her cousin, a third woman in a red dressing gown, and a beef-cake ex-wrestler who looked completely ridiculous holding a dainty teacup in his mammoth sized right hand.
It doesn’t get much more random than that.
After finishing this impromptu get together, Daniel and I headed back to the car. There was nothing more to do in Panevėžys, and Daniel suggested we begin the drive back to Vilnius. He passed me the notes he had got from the research assistant who had been looking into my grandfather, and suggested I should quickly check them, to see if there was anything else in Panevėžys that I wanted to follow up on before we left.
So I did, and in those notes I read the following single-line entry, that the researcher had found in some pre-WWII records of the Ponevezh Jewish Community: “Samuil-Ilia, the son of Taurage town-dweller Khaim ben Shmuel Leibovich and Tsirla bat Girsh-Meiier nee Tov, was born in Panevezys on the 17th of February, 1910”.
All of which might not have meant much to me, but for the fact that the date was 17th of February, 2013.
Unbelievable. I had travelled to Ponevezh where my grandfather had come from. I had visited the site of the Ponevezh yeshiva where he had gone to school. I had found the very house in which he was born. I even went inside to look around, invited to afternoon tea by the gypsy family that now lives there. And somehow, as I now learned, I had managed to do all this on my grandfather’s birthday.
I have never experienced goose-bumps quite like those that raced up and down my arms just then.
I flew back to London the next day, where I had a few more weeks of work ahead of me.
A couple of days later I received an email from my mother. In it, after asking a few questions about my trip to Lithuania, she wrote: “By the way, I have just been contacted by another Leibowitz descendant, called Adam, who is Theo’s son and Uriah’s grandson. He found me via the internet. Uriah was Zaida’s uncle (Chaim’s brother) with whom he lived when he arrived in South Africa. Talk about coincidental timing…. I am sure he would also love to hear about your Lithuanian findings! You might want to make contact with him because he lives in London….”
Oh, but of course.
I had just returned from Lithuania where, for the first time ever in my adult life, I had paid some attention to my grandfather’s story. This led to me tea and biscuits inside the same house in which he was born, more than a century ago. And on the day, unbeknownst to me, that just happened to be his birthday. And now I had been contacted, at random and just days after getting back, by a long-lost member of the Leibowitz family? Who by the way just happened to live in London, where I just happened to be? Sure, nothing weird about that at all.
I immediately emailed Adam, and we agreed to get together the following week, after work one evening. It was a wonderful meeting. Adam, it seems, has become something of an arm-chair genealogist, trawling through online databases and libraries in an effort to piece together the story of his – and my – family.
We established that we are second cousins, twice-removed, so not that distant, really. On his iPad, Adam showed me an assortment of aged family photos he had gathered from various sources, including some of my great-grandparents. He went online and accessed an interactive family tree, and we jumped around it for quite some time. He told me things about my extended family that, until then, I never knew; and I answered quite a few questions Adam had about my end of the family, hopefully helping him to connect a few more dots.
The day after we met, Adam emailed me photocopies of two short-stories from an anthology of South African Yiddish writing, translated into English, and published in 1987: “From a Land Far Off”. The reason Adam sent these pages to me is that they the two stories were written by one Samuel Leibowitz.
It turns out my grandfather was something of the amateur writer, and while I had heard of this previously from my mother and aunt, I had never before seen any samples, and given he wrote in Yiddish I had certainly never been able to read any of his work. Yet here it now was, in English, sixty years after it was written and twenty-five years after it was published, delivered to my inbox via the miracle of PDF and email.
The first story was of Bereh, a Jewish butcher in a small South African gold mining town. The second, A South-African Matchmaker, is a light-hearted, almost comedic story, about an “old country” matchmaker plying his trade in a new land.
It was wonderful to read – beautifully detailed and vivid in its descriptions and attention to detail. Indeed, in the foreword to the chapter about my grandfather, the editor wrote the following:
“Samuel Leibowitz was born in Ponevezh … and received the traditional Orthodox education, going after bar-mitzvah to study at the Ponevezh yeshiva … He migrated to South Africa in 1929, and began writing stories in Yiddish soon after, publishing locally from 1931 onwards … In 1934 he began writing in earnest, often labouring late into the night to produce stories … His work reflects a profound interest in the causes of human behaviour, and recognition of the deep divisions between different races and cultures; it is characterised by skilled craftsmanship. Leibowitz excelled in recreating unique personalities from sharp observation… Samuel Leibowitz died … without realising his desire to publish a selection from his considerable output in one book. It is greatly to be regretted … for Leibowitz was unquestionably one of South African Yiddish literature’s most gifted short story writers”.
But what really caught my attention was the following comment:
“Like so many others, Leibowitz was a divided being, unable to make peace between his occupation and his aspiration. Sent to work in an eating house in Tsolo in the Transkei when he first arrived, he found the job soul-destroying … This remained a source of conflict and distress all his life”.
Sound familiar? Seems that I went to Lithuania in pursuit of my grandmother’s ghost, and instead, as a result of one coincidence after another, I found my grandfather. And in him, I found so much of myself.
I have no idea what to make of all this, but I am sure this is what was meant to happen.