Saturday, June 17, 2017

Upstream 11: Kaunas, part 2 (Saturday, May 26)

I woke up, ate a quick breakfast, then caught a taxi to the Choral Shul, the only functioning synagogue in Kovno.  Before World War II, there were almost forty synagogues in town, often organized around trades--a Kloiz (congregation) for tailors, for masons, for petty merchants, butchers, etc.  The Nazis destroyed all but one--the grandest synagogue, attended by wealthy and stylish Enlightenment Jews.  Built in grand, neo-Baroque style in 1872 and financed by the successful merchant Lewin Boruch Minkowski, it was used for worship and also for large cantorial concerts.  

I walked in and looked around the sanctuary.  The bimah is renowned for its beauty, and it lives up to its reputation--but no one was there.  Instead, an elderly gentleman walked over from beside the entryway and greeted me in Hebrew.  He asked  if I was there to pray.  I answered, "Ken--Yes" and he led me into a tiny side room, where seven men were just beginning the Shabbat morning service.  They handed me a siddur, asked if I was Jewish and had I come to pray.  Then they inquired if I knew how to lead the service.  When I nodded, one of the men led me up to the shtender, the very humble podium, and asked me to serve as shaliach tzibur, the prayer leader.

I assumed they wanted to honor me with a brief part, that I would lead a short section or two of the introductory prayers.  And I was, indeed, honored and very deeply moved, leading the birchot ha-Shachar, the morning blessings, in the same city where my great-great grandfather, Judel Finkelstein taught Torah and his son, Mendel, studied with giants like Isaac Elchanan Spektor and Israel Salanter's disciples, Yosef Horowitz and Yitzchak Blazer.  There I stood, thanking the Holy One for making me free, for creating me as a Jew--here in Kovno in 5777/2017.

I finished davenning this section, arrived at the P'sukei d'Zimra, the psalms of praise--and went to sit down.   But the gathering insisted I continue.  So I davenned on, with and for the community: Kol HaNishama t'hallel Yah--Let the soul of all that lives sing praise to the Holy One!  All that lives, indeed--even if only a tiny fragment of the glory that was once Jewish Kovno.  Again I went to sit down--and they insisted: Tamshich--Continue!

So I chanted Yotzer Or and Ahavah Rabbah and Emet v'emunah, offering blessing to the Holy One for creating light--and darkness--and for abiding love and truth.  I sang Sh'ma and Mi Chamocha, praising the Eternal's power to redeem us in times of trial (alas, so arbitrary, that one. . . ) and insisting on God's oneness in a world that is so badly broken.  And still, they said, continue.  So in the absence of a minyan, we did the Tefilllah in silence, on our own.  Then, at their request, I read the first three aliyot of the Torah portion from the Chumash, followed by Aleynu and the usual closing song, Adon Olam.  Afterwards, everyone came up and shook my hand and offered yesher koach and then, the Orthodoxy of the community notwithstanding, mostly got in their cars and drove away.  


I, not traditionally shomer Shabbos but decidedly car-less, walked away, through the streets of Kaunas' Old Town.  It was a stunning experience, leading the davenning in this place where my great great grandparents lived; I think it will take a long time, really, to sink in.  The morning went by in the blink of an eye, and I was so caught up in the moment,  worried about avoiding mistakes and trying to find a tune or two that they might know--with all of that going on, I could barely comprehend, let alone appreciate, the full measure of the hour as it unfolded.  Still, I was thankful for it.


I strolled around a bit, waiting to meet Rosa.  As I walked the streets of Kovno, I listened to a podcast of a sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous on the portion, Behar.    Her title was "Do Not Become a Hideous Beast," a reference to the Eugene Ionesco play, "Rhinoceros" depicting the insidous ways that authoritarianism seeps into a culture and turns regular people into unrecognizable beasts.  Rabbi Brous speaks of the power of the sabbatical year as a counter-cultural force, and a reminder that we must resist the temptation to yield to the status quo in dark and dangerous times.  She was, of course, speaking about both the past (fascism, Nazism, Communism) and the ugliness running rampant in Donald Trump's America.  And I cannot begin to describe how poignant and potent it was to hear her words here, in Kovno, where the ghetto once stood and where so many were murdered by those who did, in fact, yield to the temptation and became hideous beasts.


But a few kept their humanity.

After I met up with Rosa, we headed for the home of Chiune Sugihara, the diplomat who served as a vice-consul of the Japanese consulate in Kaunas in 1939 and 1940.  It is in a quiet, leafy neighborhood on a hill above the center of town--lovely but unremarkable here, save for the Japanese lettering outside, and the lines of Japanese tourists here to honor a hero.


When the Soviet Union occupied independent Lithuania in 1940, large numbers of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees tried to acquire exit visas--yet virtually no countries were willing to issue them.  

Sugihara decided to grant visas on his own.  He ignored legal requirements and issued ten-day visas to Jews for transit through Japan, in direct violation of his orders.  He also persuaded the Soviet authorities to allow these Jews passage across the country via the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok, where they boarded boats to Tsuruga, Japan.  He continued to write out these visas, by hand, until September 4, when the consulate was closed and he was forced to vacate his post.  According to witnesses, Sugihara continued to issue visas after boarding the train in Kaunas station, throwing them into the crowd of desperate refugees as the train pulled out for Berlin.  In parting, he cried out: "Please forgive me--I cannot write anymore.  I wish you the best" and then bowed deeply to the people.  When asked about this later, he simply noted: "They were human beings and they needed help.  I am glad I found the strength to make the decision to give it to them."  It is estimated that Sugihara issued visas for around 6,000 Jews--and today, nearly 40,000 descendants of those refugees are alive because of his brave actions.  

Of those who reached Japan, some got asylum in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Burma, the United States, Palestine, and Argentina.  Others stayed in Japan until they were deported to Shanghai, which had a large Jewish community during the war.  

In 1985--45 years after the Soviet invasion of Lithuania--Chiune Sugihara was recognized by Yad VaShem in Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.  He died a year later.  When his widow, Yukiko, traveled to Jerusalem in 1998, she was met by tearful survivors who showed her the yellowing visas that her husband had granted them.  



After the Sugihara house, we stopped for a bite of lunch--fittingly, at a sushi place nearby.  Then we met Jonas, our tour guide for an extraordinary Shabbat afternoon walk through the remnants of Jewish Kaunas--Kovno and Slabodka.

We began by the old Bikkur Cholim Jewish hospital, on Jaksto Street.  Built in the mid-19th century, it was financed by the local Jewish community and the municipality.  Like much of old Jewish Kovno, it now stands vacant.

 The old Bet HaMidrash, at 4 Pilies Street, is also largely run down.


As I have noted, both here and in Vilna, most Jews affiliated with a congregation (Kloiz) based on their occupation.  This was the butchers' synagogue.


I have already mentioned Abraham Mapu, and will return to him again. . . He was the very first Hebrew novelist and an important early Zionist.  He spent much of his life here in Kovno, where there is a street named after him (there are also Mapu streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem).

 There is also a street named for Jewish Kovno resident Ludwig Zamenhof.  He grew up speaking Yiddish, Russian, Belarusian, German, French, Hebrew and Polish.  In school he studied Greek, Latin, and Aramaic and later learned some English, too.  He wrote a book on Yiddish grammar.  But despite--or maybe because of--knowing all of these languages, he decided to create his own.  L.L. Zamenhof is the father of Esperanto.

Of course the dream of a common language goes back to the Tower of Babel--and, is, of course, doomed to failure.   Esperanto remains the most widely spoken artificially constructed language in the world; according to Wikipedia, as of 27 May, 2017, over one million users have started to learn Esperanto on Duolingo.  But even before his own death in 1917, Zamenhof must have known that the world would not unify under Esperanto or any other tongue.  

It's a pipe dream.  Still, this kind of grand universalist ideal, as unrealistic as it may have been, is so Jewish.  We are, despite everything, a nation of dreamers.

We passed an old bet midrash, a school where young Jewish children once learned their aleph-bet.  During the Soviet period, it was turned into an auto mechanics shop.


Next week, we will be paddling on the Nevezis River, which runs into the Nemunas on the western outskirts of Kovno.  Before it reaches here, it passes through Keidainiai (Keidan), where Judel Finkelstein was born.  Slabodka was founded by Jews from Keidan, and many years later, they built a shul in Kovno named for the Nevezis River.  The founder of the mussar movement, Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter taught there, at the Neviazher Kloiz, after moving from Vilna to Kovno.  

So I felt a strong connection when we passed the old Neviazher Kloiz, due to my Keidan family, my admiration for Salanter and the mussar movement, and my forthcoming time on the Nevezis river.

Here it is:

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