Climbing the darkened stairwell, of a soviet housing commission high rise in a depressing part of Kanaus, Lithuania’s second city, I knew we were about to experience something special.
This was to be one of many incredible conversations in Lithuania as we attempted to visit the birthplace of Dennis’ father and extended family, and pay respects at the killing fields where they were all eventually murdered in 1943.
We spent 1 week hearing stories and seeing the sites of atrocious murders, destroyed or abandones synagogues, death camps, razed ghettos, and old cemetaries. It was fascinating and sobering, yet for me strangely un-emotional. My ties were not here even though part of my culture and people were.
But as the creaky stairwell door opened to reveal a frail 83 year old man (Yehudah) with a an incredibly firm handshake and warm face absent of smiles, I hoped that my role of interpreter (Hebrew -English) would not only help Dennis learn something about his family which came from the same village as this elderly war-veteran, but would help stir something up for me too.
As the conversation proceeded, we incredibly, learned about some of Dennis relatives, and the close frienship that Yehudah had with Dennis´ cousin. We heard about life in the ghetto, we learned about his years after the war chasing war criminals, and finally he shared with us one of his Soviet war stories which I thought was so special and moving, and something I want to share.
It was towards the end of the war and his battalion (he had escaped Lithuania and eventually teamed up with the Soviet army) stumbled upon a German army unit. In the ensuing battle, Yehudah wrestled one of the German soldiers to the floor and with his gun in one hand, reached with the second into his pocket to reveal a photo of his family whilst screaming at the soldier “This is my family. Do you know them?”
The German soldier, begging for his life, nimbly answered – ¨No, no, I didnt kill them. I didnt kill any families.”
“You killed my family – I am a Jew and you killed all of them.”
When the soldier heard that Yehuda was a Jew, he gasped and begged him to kill him quickly, to which Yehudah replied “if you did not kill any innocent people, then why should you be killed?” The soldier didn´t trust Yehudah and raised his arms as if to protect himself. At that moment the enemy fire rained down and shot the soldiers outstretched hands.
Yehudah, after dropping to the floor, offered the soldier his hankerchief to stop the bleeding. The soldier, amazed at Yehudahs´ spirit, was overcome with emotion, and overwhelmed to be shown such mercy by a man who had reason for revenge.
A few years later, Yehudah wanted to meet the soldier again and put out a request for his details via a Berlin newspaper. Two weeks later, he received a call from the soldier´s teary mother, who called Yehudah after seeing the request and exclaimed that her son, every day for the remainder of his life, would recount the story of this amazing Jewish soldier, who showed him such kindness.
As I reflect apon the story, and continue to hear the voice of the elderly survivor Yehuda sharing his stories, not proudly, just matter of factly, I learn about a side of war that we seldom come to realize. It has showed me that even in the face of madness, there is always humanity.