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The Birthday Party

It was taken on Saturday, March 20, 1937, in the town of Swienciany, which lies on the Polish border with Lithuania approximately 50 miles northeast of Vilna. Nine girls and two boys, together with three women and two men, had gathered on a pleasant spring day in the Svirsky home at 11 Pilsudski Street to celebrate the fourth birthday of the youngest girl, Hanele.

Called in to record the event was Yaakov (Yankl) Levine, the local photographer. As the guests arranged themselves in a half-circle around the extended table, he set up his heavy camera, inserted his head under the black cloth, calibrated light and distance, issued last-minute instructions, and finally pressed a button to capture the image on a glass plate at the bottom of his apparatus. The party broke up, the celebrants went about their affairs, and several days later the resulting photograph was delivered to the Svirsky residence, together with numerous postcard-sized copies. Several of these were distributed as souvenirs among the original participants, others dispatched far and wide to relatives in Leningrad, Berlin, and Argentina—testimony to the abundance, security, and sedateness of the lives depicted.

There had been, indeed, special cause for celebration: four-year-old Hanele had only lately recovered from a dangerous outbreak of scarlet fever that had seen her hospitalized in Vilna and had left her with permanent damage to her heart. From now on, she would have to adhere to a special diet and abstain from physical effort. The party was thus intended to mark her recuperation as well as her birthday, and many wishes for a long and healthy life were voiced by the adults in attendance.

Obviously, none of the participants could imagine what the future held in store. Not in their worst nightmares could they conceive that in September 1939, a mere two-and-a-half years later, their world would be completely overturned, or that within another two years the community of Swienciany, together with thousands of similar Jewish communities, would be put to an end. Of the sixteen people in the photograph, six were due to perish together on a single bitter day in early October 1941. Six more would be murdered or starved to death in various places between 1940 and 1944. Only four were privileged to see the day of deliverance in 1945, of whom three are still alive today.

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On that relaxed spring day, a week before the Passover festival, all this was far beyond the horizon. The family table had been carefully prepared for the event, fitted with an extension, bedecked with a white holiday cloth, and festooned with treats. In the center stood a vase of white ivory with a dark ellipse; from it, just before the picture was snapped, a garland of artificial flowers and fruit-like balls had been removed so as not to block the photographer’s view. Another, smaller vase, a work of Polish folk art brought by Hanele’s parents from. their vacation in Zakopane, served as a napkin holder at the far edge of the table. Additional white cloths were arranged in a container that shows as a dark patch in the center of the picture.

Scattered on the table in the photograph are the wide tea mugs in which the children had been served their drinks. These were part of the family’s special dinner service—white with a gold stripe around the edge. The refreshments set out on the table include, to the right of the two vases, a transparent bowl full of oranges—a rare fruit purchased especially for this occasion. Below this, in a flat plate, a large piece of cake is visible, and slightly below that, to the left of the big sugar bowl, is another dish that appears to have contained a collection of dark balls, several of which also repose on individual plates. These were teigelakh, dough balls fried in honey, a delicacy of the Lithuanian Jewish kitchen. The plates also hold round cookies with sharp dark edges. It seems the guests were at the height of their feast, or close to the end, when they were asked to assemble for the photograph.

The entire event took place in the family dining room, it walls covered by wallpaper in a pattern of straight angles effecting a gradual transition from brown to pale beige. A white lace curtain over the window facing the courtyard reflects the light streaming in from outside. Against this background one can distinctly make out the leaves of a plant in an (invisible) vase under the window. On the wall hangs a framed picture of the birthday girl, Hanele, dressed all in white and holding a doll. This is in fact a detail from an earlier photograph of the extended family that the same Yaakov Levine had taken a year before; enlarging it, and presenting it to Hanele’s surprised and joyful parents, had been the photographer’s own idea.

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But the main interest lies in the people gathered for this occasion, and their families. Take, for example, on the right edge of the picture, the girl with the folded collar and short, straight hair, lowering her head slightly and casting a bashful glance at the camera. This is Rokhele (Rachel) Kreizer, aged eight, an unassuming, warm-hearted girl from a poor family who was a distant relative of Hanele. Her father, Shlomo Kreizer, short and of hesitant manner with a small mustache, was employed as an accountant at a local grain dealer. Her mother, Batsheva, was, as her Hebrew name connotes, the seventh daughter born in succession to her parents. Rokhele’s elder brother, Hershele, born in 1924, was already known in town as a gifted artist.

Next to Rokhele sits her contemporary, Fira (Esther) Kovarski, wearing a wavy collar edged by a thin stripe. Fira’s expression is open and radiant, her lips forming a half-smile, her hair slightly free on her forehead. Her whole countenance expresses zest and confidence, mixed with a touch of wonder. By contrast, at the left edge of the picture, one can see Fira’s twin sister Lina, in an identical outfit but with her face half-darkened. Owing to a mishap at birth, Lina’s face was marred by a disfigured eye. Her solemn and wistful gaze reflects her introverted personality, and perhaps also her feelings of sisterly inferiority. The two girls were the daughters of Benjamin Kovarski, a much-admired doctor, and his beautiful wife Pola, a lady of the world who the previous summer had been the talk of the town as a result of a trip to the World Exhibition in Paris. Although theirs was among the best-off families in Swienciany, everyone knew that Dr. Kovarski would never refuse to pay a house call on a poor patient, and frequently treated people gratis.

Behind Fira, third on the right, in a pale dress of which only the edge is visible, stands seven-year-old Rivele (Rebecca) Shootan, casting a pure and delicate glance at the camera. With her large, dark blue eyes, she was declared by many to be the prettiest girl in town. Only two months earlier she had been orphaned by the death of her father, the Yiddish poet Michael Shootan, known by his nom de plume, Michael Natish. Shootan’s main work, the long poem Molier Hirsch, centered on the poor laboring environment in which he had grown up in the interwar years. In addition to Rivele, he left behind his wife Kreina, née Ginsburg, a handsome and noble woman.

Next to Rivele, in a checkered dress topped by a sharp pale collar, is Sonia Taraseisky, aged six. Although her expression is mature, the enormous bow in her hair and the remnants of baby fat on her cheeks disclose the tenderness of her years. Second from the left, hands folded on the table, is her exceptionally gifted elder sister Estosha (Esther), her dark eyes fixed with an intelligent, quiet look. The two girls’ parents, Valodia and Yetta, owned a large factory for medicinal products that employed dozens of workers, and were the only family in town to have a private automobile with a chauffeur. Thanks to a distant connection with the Svirskys, the two families frequently spent time together, and a close friendship had grown up between the two sets of girls. Estosha’s special friend was ten-year-old Leyele (Leah), elder sister to the birthday girl, seen here to the left of Sonia in a dark dress with a pale collar, her reddish hair swept back behind her ears, her posture erect and her glance vigorous.

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Hanele herself, seated at the head of the table next to her sister, can barely be made out: her small head and closely cropped dark hair almost disappear in the dark dress of her governess. But one can discern her face with its rather babyish expression and a finger of her left hand thrust into her mouth. The white apron was intended to protect her clothes from being stained by fruit and sweets. Her governess, standing behind her in a protective pose and looking at the camera with a frozen smile, is Gita Gurevitch. Then in her thirties, married but childless, she was on duty every morning from the time Hanele was three until she entered school in 1939.

Adjacent to Hanele, in the center of the picture, sits Lovka Pliner, aged nine, in a dark suit with a white collar. His disabled father had received a government license to trade in cigarettes, and his mother also owned a small business—a shop for notebooks, pencils, and other writing utensils. Lovka was the youngest of three brothers, and very popular. Beside him, in a gray woolen dress topped by a star-shaped red collar, sits Mashele (Masha) Baran, aged five, a soft, round-faced girl with light hair. She was the only child of Bronya Baran, who can be seen to her left casting a slightly melancholy glance. Mashele’s father Shmuel had deserted wife and child some time before to move in with Yedida Gut, who taught with him in the local Yiddishist school. Among the town gossips, why Baran preferred a clumsy-looking lover to his graceful and pretty wife was a subject of intense speculation.

Bronya Baran’s arm hugs the shoulder of Dudik (David) Stein, aged seven. Dudik had lost his father as a small child; his mother Lisa, née Levine, was a wide-backed woman, always dressed in black, who managed the flour-and-sugar warehouse she had inherited. Everyone knew that Dudik was the apple of her eye, and that she treated him like a prince. Among the local children he stood out by virtue of his appearance: since infancy he had been dressed only in suits, his shirts carefully ironed, his hair perfectly combed, his shoes brilliantly shined—a real little aristocrat.

Finally, on either side of the seated circle stand the hosts, their faces lit with satisfaction and pleasure. To the right, in a dark, collarless dress, her hair made up, is Rachel Svirsky, to the left her husband Haim. Rachel’s family had lived in Swienciany for generations. After studying dentistry at Kharkow University, she had returned to the town of her birth in 1925 and opened a clinic. In the same year she married Haim Svirsky, born, as his name suggests, in the neighboring town of Svir. Prior to their marriage, Haim had engaged in various occupations, but eventually decided to become a dental assistant. After a year of study in Berlin, he opened a laboratory alongside Rachel’s clinic, where he manufactured false teeth and crowns. The couple’s partnership proved very profitable, and soon they were able to provide their daughters with all manner of good things.

Secular, non-Zionist Jews imbued with Russian culture and responsive to the new Yiddish literature, the Svirskys were among the founders of the local Yiddishist school, which opened in 1935, and belonged to the Central Yiddish School Organization. Their daughters were especially attached to the amiable and modest Haim; their mother, who spent most of her time in her clinic and refused to permit any disturbance, was rather a figure of awe. At the time the picture was taken the parents were both forty-one.

And a coda: next to Haim, also in a festive suit, stands his widowed father Feivel, then seventy-three. An established householder in Svir, Feivel had fathered five girls and three boys, most of whom had scattered around the world. In Svir, he lived in a large stone house and ran a factory making soft drinks, in which there was also a non-kosher restaurant for the local peasantry.

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Some 7,000 people lived in Swienciany in 1937, half of them Jews and the rest Poles and Lithuanians. The town served as an administrative and economic center for 22 smaller towns and villages in which there dwelled several thousand more Jews. Despite the relatively large size of the local community, the prevailing atmosphere was rather intimate. To be sure, there were the usual splits along social and economic lines and among rival ideological groupings, each with its own party, educational institutions, and youth movement. But beyond the tensions lay a hidden unity, rooted in common lives and in a web of familial ties formed over many generations. Ever since the 15th century, Jews had lived in relative peace in this corner of the world with its wooded hills, small lakes, and fertile soil.

A small stream, the Kunah, ran through the region, and its name is connected with probably the most exciting event to occur in all the years of Swienciany’s existence. This was the brief visit paid by Napoleon on his advance into the heart of Russia in 1812. As the Russian army retreated eastward, it demolished the bridges over the Kunah to hinder the Emperor’s forward movement. Napoleon, who arrived toward the end of June, spent the night in a two-story wooden house, reviewing his troops the next morning from the open balcony on the second floor. Ever since then, the building was known as “Napoleon’s House,” and its photograph could be found on local postcards until World War II, when it was finally destroyed.

As it happens, this entire episode is immortalized—from the Russian point of view—in Leo Tolstoy’s great novel War and Peace. Describing the events of 1812, Tolstoy shows us the retreat from Swienciany through the eyes and mind of his hero, Nikolai Rostov, commander of a squadron of horsemen:

Rostov remembered Swienciany. The first day he entered the town, he had replaced his quartermaster and had been unable to control all the drunken men who, unbeknownst to him, had stolen five barrels of old whiskey.

For this reason, writes Tolstoy, Swienciany was known throughout the Russian army as the place of the “Drunken Camp,” and known also for the extensive acts of pillage committed against the Polish population.

In Jewish history, Swienciany made its mark mainly at the end of the 19th century through the figure of Rabbi Isaac Jacob Reines (1839-1915), who later founded the “Mizrahi” movement of religious Zionism. Reines was rabbi of the town from 1869 till 1884, and it was there, in 1881, that he first attempted his bold reform of traditional methods of learning by founding a yeshiva in which Talmud would be studied with the aid of logical principles derived from non-Jewish philosophy, and secular subjects were to be taught alongside religious ones. Harassment by ultra-Orthodox zealots compelled Reines to close the yeshiva within four years and move to the city of Lida, where he resumed his activity on a smaller scale.

By 1937, this chain of events was no doubt long forgotten. Even events closer in time, like the German conquest of the town during World War I, had faded from memory. The children at the birthday gathering were likely thinking of the coming Passover holiday and their recess from school, or possibly already of summer, with its promise of outings to Kochanovka, the nearby lake where one could swim out to a small wooded isle and rest on its banks. The adults, preoccupied with local concerns in their remote corner of Poland, had probably been unaffected by the anti-Semitic decrees being issued by the government in Warsaw; certainly they had no way of imagining the murderous hostility festering in the hearts of their Lithuanian neighbors and due to break out in full force only a few years hence.

But break out it did. In September 1939, with the onset of war, Swienciany was occupied by the Soviet army, in accordance with the pact drawn up between Hitler and Stalin to divide Poland between them. For a year the political status of the area was unclear. At first it was annexed by Byelorussia, then several months later the Russians bestowed it on the independent state of Lithuania, together with the entire Vilna area—until, in the summer of 1940, the whole of Lithuania was swallowed up by the Soviet Union.

After the uproar of conquest, Swienciany stabilized under Soviet rule, and life returned to a bearable routine. Nevertheless, things had changed unalterably, including for several people in the photograph. Valodia Taraseisky, the father of Sonia and Estosha, had been arrested by the occupiers as a “capitalist” factory owner, and for months he was imprisoned in Swienciany before being expelled to Siberia. Several months later, his wife and daughters were sent to join him in exile. By this means—although they could hardly know it at the time—they escaped the terrible fate that was to befall the rest of their community.

During those still-early days, twelve-year-old Lovka Pliner also succeeded in entering the Soviet Union, together with his two older brothers, who enlisted in the Russian army; Lovka was placed in a military boarding school. Their parents remained in Swienciany.

At the end of June 1940, Haim Svirsky, the father of Hanele and Leah, fell ill with intestinal disease. Because the borders were closed, he could not be taken for treatment to nearby Vilna, let alone to any larger center. After a week of terrible suffering he died at the age of forty-four, on his fifteenth wedding anniversary. His heavily attended funeral was one of the last to take place in the Swienciany community. In retrospect, Haim was fortunate to die in his bed, surrounded by his family, mourned by many, and accorded a proper burial. A concrete marker was placed on his grave, but a tombstone was now beyond his family’s means.

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On June 22, 1941, came the surprise Nazi move against Russian-occupied territory. Within a week German forces had entered the town and by July a regime of terror was in place, inaugurated by a series of executions of Jewish males. These occurred with the active assistance of Lithuanian nationalist forces, known as Partisans, who had come out of hiding with the arrival of the Germans. The town was especially shocked to learn that 100 men had been taken to a nearby forest and there tortured and shot. Among them was Dr. Benjamin Kovarski, father of the twin girls Fira and Lina, who had served as head of the local hospital during the Soviet conquest.

But these events were to pale in comparison with what was on the horizon. On Saturday, September 27, 1941, five days after Rosh Hashanah, the new year of 5702, most of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were collected by Lithuanian storm troopers under German command and led on foot in a long column to the nearby town of Novo-Swienciany. Old people and children unable to walk were taken in carts. Toward dusk, after a forced march of eight miles, the column arrived at an abandoned training camp of the Polish army known as “Poligon” (shooting range). There, in the dark, they were packed into huge wooden huts and kept under guard while the inhabitants of seven more towns were added to their number. In all, 8,000 Jews were collected at Poligon and waited in terror for the unknown.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, arrived, and the residents of Poligon sent a great cry heavenward. Finally, after ten days of waiting, on the festival of Sukkot, the Lithuanians, mostly drunk, began to lead the Jews out in groups to large pits that had been dug at the edge of the camp. The men were separated from the women and children, and all were ordered to undress. Then they were gunned into the open pits. Over the course of two days, all 8,000 were murdered, including more than 3,000 from Swienciany alone. According to the testimony of local inhabitants, many of the victims, especially the children and elderly, were thrown into the pits alive; long afterward their stifled cries could be heard, and rivulets of blood flowed from the pits for days.

Among the victims of Poligon were the shy Rokhele Kreizer, aged twelve, her father Shlomo, and her mother Batsheva. Rokhele’s older brother, Hershele the artist, had managed to escape; he would be overtaken by death in the ghetto of Kovno in 1944. The twin daughters of the murdered Dr. Kovarski, the pretty Fira and the sad Lina, were likewise murdered at Poligon, together with their mother Pola; so too was the delicate Rivele, together with her mother Kreina. Dudik Stein, by now eleven years old, probably wore one of his fine suits in the march to Poligon; he was killed together with his mother Lisa, who no doubt, as was her wont, protected him till the last moment. Gita Gurevitch, Hanele Svirsky’s governess, also died there, as did the town photographer Yankel Levine, done to death together with his wife and three children.

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Some 500 of the Jews of Swienciany managed to avoid the march to Poligon: their labor had been considered necessary to the occupiers. These were now concentrated in a part of town that had been turned into a small ghetto. To their number were gradually added Jews who had survived from the surrounding communities, until the total swelled to 2,000. Among them, living in unbearable conditions for another year and a half, was Bronya Baran with her ten-year-old daughter Mashele. (Samuel Baran had been murdered at Poligon together with his lover, Yedida Gut.) One day, little Mashele attempted to leave the ghetto by herself and was apprehended in the street and shot.

This was in 1942. In April 1943, the ghetto was liquidated, its inhabitants herded onto a freight train headed south. A few, with ties to the ghetto administration, were dispatched to Vilna and thus received an additional stay of execution. The majority assumed they were being sent to Kovno. Instead, they were brought directly to the killing grounds at Ponar, near Vilna, and murdered on the spot. Bronya Baran was among them. Meanwhile, in a remote town in Kazakhstan, the gifted Estosha Taraseiski, aged fifteen, the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, died of pneumonia complicated by malnutrition.

The fate of Rachel Svirsky and her two daughters, Leah and the birthday girl Hanele, was rather complex. The three had been brought to Poligon with the rest of the community and spent a week there. But, having an inkling of what was about to occur, they bribed one of the Lithuanian guards and escaped two or three days before the mass murder. For a short time they hid in Swienciany at the house of a Polish pharmacist, an old friend; later, they were able to reach the home of Grandfather Feivel in Svir, as yet untouched.

Thus began a long saga made up of constant moves among ghettos, work camps, and concentration camps throughout Lithuania. Grandfather Feivel himself, who remained in Svir, was transferred at the beginning of 1943 to a ghetto in the nearby town of Michalishok where he starved to death at the age of seventy-nine. At the beginning of 1944, the three women found themselves at Aleksotos, a work camp at the Kovno airfield. Rachel, assisted by her daughter Leah, served there as dentist, and both of them employed every ruse in order to save the eleven-year-old Hanele, who matured before her time in these years of wandering and terror. But on March 27, 1944, Hanele was caught in a children’s Aktion in the camp. A large dog dragged the fragile girl from under the step where she had been hidden by her mother; she was taken to a large black vehicle, perhaps a gassing van, and was never seen again.

Four months later, Hanele’s mother and sister were taken to the Stuthof concentration camp near the Baltic Sea, and from there to the adjoining work camp. When they could no longer endure the exhausting labor of digging and road-building, they asked to be sent back to Stuthof—that is, to certain death. But before their request could be granted, the German forces began to fall apart under the advance of the Red Army. The thousand women still left in the work camp were marched hastily northward, where the intent was to drown them in the Baltic Sea. But the Russians got there first, and in January 1945 they were snatched from the jaws of death.

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Of the sixteen people in the photograph, besides Rachel Svirsky and her daughter Leah, Lovka Pliner and Sonia Taraseiski were also to survive, in both cases after having spent the war years in Russia. Lovka would remain in the Soviet Union, settling in Riga, establishing a family, and becoming a senior officer in the Soviet army. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he emigrated to the United States, and today lives in Los Angeles. Sonia Taraseiski returned from Russia with her parents at the end of the war, and, after a period in Belgium, likewise emigrated to the United States; today she lives near Boston.

As for the Svirskys, Rachel, who remarried after the war, came to Israel from Poland in 1956 and passed away eight years later. Her daughter Leah, who preceded her to Israel by six years, married there and raised a family, and today heads the organization of survivors from the Swienciany area.

Every year, during the fall festival of Sukkot, the former inhabitants of Swienciany and the surrounding area gather near the large tombstone established in the cemetery of Kiryat Shaul near Tel Aviv, under which is buried the dust brought in the 60’s from the mass grave at Poligon. It is evident from the flow of conversation that the sights and sounds of those days are still very much alive in memory, and that the few survivors of Swienciany ceaselessly revert to the past. Those who lost their parents, siblings, relatives, and friends are inconsolable to this day. But in recent years more and more members of the younger generation appear at these gatherings, seeking to express their own sense of identification with the burden—and not only the burden, but the happy memories as well—of their parents.

In the summer of 1991, 50 years after Poligon, a large group of survivors and their descendants traveled to Swienciany, walked the route of that last march and held a memorial service near the large earthen structure that covers the mass grave. A new tombstone was erected by the visitors from Israel, stating explicitly in Hebrew and Lithuanian that a key role in the murder had been played by the local populace. Additional services were held near the collective graves of other Jews murdered in the area.

Along with the group ceremonies, Leah Svirsky-Holtzman—my mother—fulfilled a private duty at this gathering. In the old cemetery of Swienciany she located her father Haim’s grave and finally erected a proper stone. Her younger sister, my aunt Hanele, is commemorated at the museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There, visitors to the Children’s Hall encounter, upon entering the room, enlarged photographs of nine boys and girls representing, as drops represent the ocean, their million-and-a-half murdered brothers and sisters. One of the nine, in a white beret, is Hanele Svirsky, aged three, her small image enlarged by the museum’s curators from the family photo just as the photographer Yankel Levine had enlarged it 50 years earlier.

Even though the name of Pilsudski Street has since been changed several times, the Svirskys’ house at Number 11 still stands, now occupied by another family. In that house, or in another, are very likely kept the elegant cups, the vases, and the utensils seen in the photograph, together with other possessions looted from the abandoned Jewish homes of Swienciany. As for the photograph of the birthday party itself, this, preserved in one of its copies by relatives in Argentina, was returned to my grandmother after the war. It testifies that all who gathered in that house, on that balmy spring day in 1937, once truly existed. For some of them, indeed, and especially for the innocent children among them, the picture may be the only such piece of material evidence—that, and these lines now penned in their memory.

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