In Kalvarija Father Died


 Itzhak Kronzon, Nonfiction

 

In the year 1934, several months after my parents immigrated to Palestine from Lithuania, a postal worker of the British Mandatory Postal Service rang the doorbell of their rented one-bedroom flat in Haifa and handed them a telegram. In those days, most residents of Haifa had no telephones, and telegrams were sent solely in connection with either joyful events or bad news. Since joyful events were usually known of long in advance, both my parents understood that this telegram was dealing with a death. Grandfather Itzhak from Kaunas (Kovno), my mother's father, and Grandfather Shmuel from Kalvarija, my father's father, were then in their sixties, and both, like many Jewish men in Lithuania, were no strangers to sickness: heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure. Father, who opened the envelope and read the contents of the single sentence, had to relay the bad news in such a way that, from the start, it would be clear to my mother, who was then pregnant with her first child, that her father was well. Had he begun the sentence with the word "notify" or "father" or "yesterday" or "died," she would believe, even for a splinter of a second, that the reference was to her father, and then, she might possibly faint or God-forbid miscarry. But one as wise and sensitive as my father would never let this happen. He looked at her and said quietly, "In Kalvarija Father died."

Mother did not faint nor did she miscarry, and my older brother, Shmuel, was named after that grandfather. Several years later, the telegram arrived announcing the death of Grandfather Itzhak from Kaunas, and I was named in his memory. Every time Mother would sing my father's praises, she would inevitably arrive at the famous key sentence "In Kalvarija Father died," while accentuating the word "Kalvarija," as her eyes and ours filled with tears.

 

Kalvarija is situated on the border of Lithuania and Eastern Prussia, located on the crossroads between St. Petersburg and Berlin. My father's family had lived there for more than two hundred years. At the end of the nineteenth century, the town boasted ten thousand residents, eight thousand of whom were Jews. Every Jew in Kalvarija (and even many of the Gentiles) spoke six languages: Lithuanian, the language of the peasants; Russian, the language of the country's rulers; Polish, the language of other conquerors who also ruled over Lithuania at one time or another; German, the language of the many travelers who stayed for the night, as well as the international language of trade; Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European Jews; and Hebrew, not only the language of prayer, but also the language used to educate children in the homeland of Abraham Mapu and the Haskalah ("enlightenment") movement that followed.

On Fridays, during the Kiddush, it was customary to speak only in the holy tongue, and when the need arose, orders would be given to the Gentile servant in using the Hebrew word for maid: "Shifcha, bread!" "Shifcha, knife!" Over time, many of these expressions became part of the vocabulary of the local Lithuanian women who would call each other "Shifcha" with correct emphasis on the final syllable.

Kalvarija also housed the insane asylum in which hundreds of mentally ill patients from across Lithuania were hospitalized. This was the largest source of income for the town's residents, who provided nursing care, services, and supplies to the asylum. I know that Father, most of whose brothers and sisters were physicians, visited there on many occasions. Throughout our childhood, he forbade us from balancing a fork or spoon on our finger since all the insane of Kalvarija would perform such balancing exercises during meals. I also recall a story he told us once, before bedtime, how when the Germans entered the town at the start of the First World War, it was decided to evacuate the insane and convert the buildings into barracks. One crazy old man, who had been hospitalized since his youth, refused to be evacuated. He argued to the director that since everyone knew where he had been until then, he would be unable to provide for himself. The asylum director decided to give him a certificate in which it was declared that the person named in the certificate is normal. "Thus," Father said in response to our laughter, "there was only one man in Kalvarija who carried a certificate attesting to his normalcy."

When the Germans left in 1918, Lithuania became an independent state for the first time since 1795. The League of Nations (a predecessor, of sorts, of the United Nations), which granted Lithuania and the other Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, their independence, required that all minorities in these countries would be granted full autonomy, including freedom of religion and education. Hence, there came to be established, during those few years of independence, a network of Jewish schools in which all studies were conducted in Hebrew. Throughout his lifetime, my father was more fluent in Hebrew than his Israeli-born children. I still keep in my possession the certificates from the Regional Hebrew High School in Mariampole, from which he graduated with honors, as well as the photograph of the Bar Kochva regiment, Kalvarija branch, in which he stands, at age twelve, third in the upper row, bearing an amazing resemblance to one of the grandchildren who would be born in Israel fifty years later. When we celebrated the Passover Seder at home, in Haifa, together with Father's sister, who had immigrated to Israel before him, they sang all the songs in the Kalvarijan Jewish version. Any attempts by Mother and her sister to sing the Kovno Jewish version were always met with dismissal, and sometimes, when he was more relaxed, Father would imitate, in a high-pitched voice, their dull and monotonous version. Even we, the children, preferred the rich and melodic Kalvarijan melody. On the Seder eve, Father used to say that all of Kalvarija sang "Adir Hoo" and "Ki Lo Yaeh" simultaneously. Eight thousand Jews.

 

I know that, in his youth, Father was a true Lithuanian patriot. He loved that country and its vistas, and would sorrowfully compare them with the views seen in overheated Palestine. Once, when we took a trip to the Galilee, he pointed to the Jordan river and said with a sigh: "A small trickle of urine and the entire world becomes excited and sings songs in praise. In Lithuania, there was a river called the Nieman, ten times wider and twenty times longer, and no one was impressed or said anything."

When he completed his studies in electrical engineering at Prince Vytautus the Great University in 1930, Father was drafted for mandatory military service in the Lithuanian army and became a flight engineer in their air force, which he called "The Aviatzia." He flew canvas and wooden biplanes above the skies of Europe, reaching as far as Tangiers in North Africa, a journey documented by photos and papers that I keep with me. I recall him telling me that one of the other pilots brought a monkey back from Africa. During the Lithuanian Independence Day parade, the monkey jumped onto the shoulder of the air force commander, removed the commander's cap and smeared his pate with toothpaste.

When he completed his service, Father contemplated an academic career and applied for the post of lecturer in electrical engineering at the same university from which he'd graduated at the top of the class several years earlier. The interview was a success. "There is no doubt," he was informed by the chairman of the academic committee, "that you are the most suitable candidate, but unfortunately, we already have one Jew."

Father was insulted and decided to leave this country that would not permit him to be a citizen with equal rights, in his opinion. His family tried to convince him to stay and not give up on the benefits offered by a modern, established country, and a well-to-do and educated family. But he stood his ground and together with my mother, who was already pregnant, traveled to Palestine, where they lived together for many years until their deaths in 1978.

The rest is a chronicle of destruction of Lithuanian Jewry. With the German invasion in 1941, the Lithuanian Gentiles rose up and killed most members of our family, and there was no one left who would send us a telegram about it. In Kalvarija, not one Jew remained.

 

Several months ago, in my home in New York, I looked up our family name on the Yad Vashem website. In this archive, it is possible to locate copies of original forms that had been submitted, in the 1950s, by relatives and acquaintances of those who perished in the Holocaust. Among these I found tens of forms that reported Kronzons who had been murdered in Kalvarija and about whom I had never heard. Many of these forms had been completed by Father, in his handwriting, and bore his signature. Thus I received a sort of greeting in writing from him, many years after his death. I, myself, do not have what is currently referred to as "second generation Holocaust complex." My parents were no longer there when it happened, and even their parents died of natural causes.

 

Owing to my specialty in echocardiography, I am often invited to teach and lecture in various countries. Last year, following a series of lectures in one of the countries of Western Europe, a delegation of five young Lithuanian cardiologists showed up at my hotel, wishing to invite me to Kaunas to teach the physicians there various techniques related to my specialty. I was frightened and refused. I told them about my uncle Leibush, a physician in Kalvarija who decided to inject his wife, his two daughters, and himself with poison as the Lithuanian peasants were breaking into their home to murder them; and about my uncle Abrasha, also a physician, whose wife and three children were burned alive; and about my aunt Jenia, who perished there with her husband; and also about my father, who had been rejected by Prince Vytautus the Great University where there was already one Jew (who, by the way, also died in the Holocaust).

The Lithuanian physicians listened with great sorrow to the terrible story, and said, not without justice, that all this had occurred many years prior to their births, and that, if indeed I would agree to come to Lithuania, I would see for myself that it is a pleasant and receptive country. Since I did not wish to hurt them further, we agreed that I would consider their offer.

When I returned home, I called my cousin in Israel. He was twelve years old at the time of the German invasion, and had miraculously survived the Holocaust, escaping the fate of 95% of the Jewish population of Lithuania. My cousin, now almost eighty years old, but still hearty of strength, mind, and spirit, advised me to go there, "even if only to show them that we are still here." Meanwhile, I received an invitation from the current provost of Prince Vytautus the Great University in Kaunas, who had heard my story from the young Lithuanian cardiologists, and therefore decided to grant me, in a ceremony to be held in Lithuania, an honorary degree in memory of my father who had been "....rejected by the University because of unjust prejudices."

 

At the conclusion of all the lectures, visits, professional events, and ceremonies in Lithuania, we departed for a trip in a limousine hired for us by our gracious hosts, who spared no cost and effort to make our stay as pleasant, enjoyable and interesting as possible. Traveling with me was my brother, Giora, four years my junior, and my sister-in-law, Nira, who had arrived especially for this occasion from Israel, as well as our guide Regina. Regina, who lives in Vilnius, is the daughter of a Jewish father and Lithuanian mother. She speaks up-to-date Hebrew and fluent English. She makes her living from the abundant ancestry trips embarked upon by Israelis and Jews from the United States, Australia, and South Africa (nations to where many Lithuanians emigrated prior to the First World War). She had acquired her Hebrew attending university in Israel years ago. She'd even attempted to obtain citizenship there, but was denied since her mother was not Jewish. Regina is a true expert on towns, cemeteries, and Holocaust sites. She carries around a satchel with a Lithuanian phonebook from 1939, containing the addresses and telephone numbers of many members of my family who had ceased to answer any phone calls a short time later.

Right around noon, we got off the main road and turned toward Kalvarija, now a sleepy and pitiful border town. Since Lithuania gained entry into the European Union, young persons are leaving the towns and moving either to the cities or abroad. Today, less than one thousand people remain in Kalvarija. The insane asylum is empty. The houses are decrepit. Many of them had been built of wood and appear about to collapse. The yards are unkempt, with scattered rubbish and furniture fragments, with chickens and pigs roaming amongst them. The unpaved side streets are empty. From time to time, a black-clad peasant is seen crossing the main road.

The main intersection houses the sole traffic light in the town. On the southeastern side of the intersection stands a single two-story stone house on whose roof flies the Lithuanian flag. On the first floor is a bank, with an ATM that faces the street. The second floor houses the town offices and regional administration. This is the house of Grandfather Shmuel. Once he lived there with his wife, Grandmother Chaya, and their six children. In the yard was the family business for the sale of agricultural machinery. The house was full of life and light. Each child had his own room, and in one of these my father would play his violin, as can be seen in a photograph that we have hung on the wall in our house in New York. Once, upon returning from a soccer match at the Jewish sports club, Father, who was sixteen years old, was so thirsty that he picked up and drank an entire jug of cream (we heard this story on numerous occasions during the rationing days in the 1950s, when we were permitted only one teaspoon of sour cream once a month). I also remember, from stories, the cat they used to have then. Once, when Grandmother Chaya stepped on the cat's paw and he leapt up and meowed loudly, she admonished him: "That will teach you not to walk around barefoot." It sounds funnier in Yiddish, but I don't know how to write it...

What remained of the large synagogue has been abandoned and partly demolished, but it is still possible to make out the Star of David on its façade. The Jewish cemetery is located in the confines of the local power station. The few graves that are there are covered by thick weeds and the tombstones have been uprooted and scattered haphazardly. Even if one tries with all one's might it is impossible to imagine how eight thousand Jews sang here together "Ki Lo Yaeh, Ki Lo Naeh."

Slightly west of the intersection stands a restaurant which Regina claims serves the most amazing food. We are not surprised that the food there has the same appearance and taste of the food that we ate at our parents' home in Haifa.

 

Upon leaving the town, I remind myself and my brother that in all of our family history, we are the first generation not born here, and contrary to many other families, we are also not the last generation to die here. In my heart of hearts I also thank the chairman of the tender committee of Prince Vytautus the Great University, as a result of whose decision my father did not die in Kalvarija.

 

Translated from the Hebrew by Iris Karev (Kronzon)