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When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewryby Gal Beckerman
Beneath the Earth
Yosef Mendelevich was sixteen when he saw the killing grounds for the first time. It was the fall of 1963. He had heard about the place: just outside of Riga, in the vast woods of tall fir trees and sprawling brush that the locals called Rumbuli. All one had to do was follow the train tracks east, toward Moscow. There, underneath the black soil, in five narrow ditches, lay twenty-five thousand bodies, Jewish bodies, killed by the Nazis and their Latvian collaborators in ten days at the end of 1941. Mendelevich knew this. All the Jews of Riga did. And they knew too about the small group of Jews -- Zionists, they were calling themselves -- who had searched the year before under the dark shadow of those trees for the exact place of the massacre. In the end, it hadn't been so hard to find. Poking out of the earth were fragments of charred bone, the shriveled brown leather of a child's shoe, a broken Star of David on a necklace.
Mendelevich was a shy, withdrawn boy with pale, pimply skin and thick, horn-rimmed glasses. Most days when he wasn't in school he was alone inside his parents' house in a poor section of Riga. The outside world entered mainly through its brutal noises -- the shouts of his Latvian neighbors stumbling home full of vodka; glass breaking; drunken fathers beating their children. Like any sensitive teenage introvert, he found his home, his only comfort, in his imaginings. In Yosef's case, the world he escaped to in his mind was a real place, though a rather fantastical destination for a young Soviet boy. It was a country so far away, so obscured and unknown, it might as well have existed under a different sun. That place was Israel. And he constructed his idea of it with what he had at hand. His aunt Fanya, one of the rare Soviet citizens allowed to immigrate in the late fifties, had once sent a color postcard of a swimming pool at Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz in the northern Galilee. Mendelevich took a magnifying glass to it, counting all the people, scrutinizing the shape and shade of every tree. The sight of so many Jews gathered together wearing swimming trunks seemed unreal. Fanya had also written his family a letter in which she recounted the history of the one-armed Joseph Trumpeldor and his last stand at Tel Chai, not far from Kfar Giladi, where he was killed in 1920 while defending the settlement from local Arabs. He became a legend for his famous dying words: "Never mind, it is good to die for our country." At night, Mendelevich's father would tune their shortwave radio to Kol Israel, the Voice of Israel, and hold the receiver close to his ear, translating the news from Hebrew to Russian. Before the war, his father had studied in a cheder, a Jewish religious school, and so he understood the language. But to Mendelevich the sounds were unfamiliar, a mystical, warm tongue from a better place, one he knew little about but felt, even as a teenager, that he was destined to go to.
Mendelevich didn't exactly trust the person who'd first told him about Rumbuli, a boy who sat next to him at the college he attended at night and who seemed to be a bit of a daydreamer. Still, if what the boy whispered to him was true, that young people were gathering on Sundays to clean up Rumbuli and make it a proper memorial ground, then Yosef wanted to go. So the next weekend, he set out with a friend.
What he found there, at the place he began referring to as Little Israel, startled him. Jews, most of them young but some in their sixties, were on their knees, digging their hands into the earth, lifting it up and dumping it clump by clump into homemade crates. Others were filling in the spaces with sand from two enormous mounds. Dozens of people with shovels and pails, rakes, and baskets, working. Some of the men had their shirts off.
In the middle of it all, static amid the activity, stood a huge wooden obelisk, taller than a man, painted pitch-black with a splattering of red at its top. On the obelisk's face, framed and behind glass, hung what looked like a large photograph of an oil painting. In somber browns and grays, it depicted a long line of tearful women, babies clinging to their breasts, followed by ashen-faced, downtrodden men, all marching under a threatening sky - Jews being led to the slaughter.
The scene actually before him was altogether different. The only time Mendelevich had ever witnessed so many Jews in one place was when he'd gone with his father to the synagogue on Peitaves Street in the old town. But those were old men. Here were young people, young Jews, sweating together under the sun. One man in particular caught his eye. He was tanned, strong, straight backed, just what Mendelevich thought an Israeli would look like. In the shock of the moment, he was willing to believe that such a miracle - an Israeli in Riga - might have occurred.
Mendelevich quickly grabbed a crate, got down on his knees, and began moving the earth with his bare hands. He rarely missed a Sunday after that. He would spend the week looking forward to Little Israel and to the bus rides from Riga. The group of young people grew through 1963 and into 1964, and eventually they took up almost all the seats on the bus leaving the city. And they sang. Mendelevich learned Israeli songs, such as the rousing anthem of the Palmach, the scruffy, pre-state paramilitary force in British Mandate Palestine:
All around us the storm rages
But we will not lower our heads
We are always ready to follow the orders
We are the Palmach.
From Metulla to the Negev
From the sea to the desert
Every fine young man to arms
Every young man on guard.
Though he understood not a word of the Hebrew, for the first time in his life, Mendelevich felt like part of a group. And when he listened to himself singing along with the whole bus filled with Jewish youth, he also felt, strangely, like a fighter.
Passengers faced with a busload of young Jews singing vociferously in a foreign language would often get off. One day, the driver stopped Mendelevich as he was exiting the bus. "Where do you come from like this?" he asked with a mixture of shock and contempt. Mendelevich didn't answer. He knew that the driver was bewildered and perhaps a little threatened by the loud group. Jews did not generally comport themselves like this, unabashedly strident and unafraid. But on the way to Rumbuli, they did.
It was strange but not entirely unexpected that in the early 1960s the Jews of Riga felt compelled to claw at the earth in search of their recent past. Most people living in the Baltic States were afflicted with a deep nostalgia. Until the summer of 1940, when they lost their independence and were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia had spent over two decades as free, prosperous, and democratic countries. The devastation of the war and then the total subjugation by Moscow's overbearing regime made for a defeated and demoralized population. In the early 1960s, most middle-aged people had a strong memory of and longing for the world they had lost.
For Jews, this tear through history was even more brutal and dramatic. They had seen their entire universe erased, and what they'd lost was a diverse and rich Jewish life.
To judge from population and emigration numbers, the interwar years were good ones for Jews in Latvia. Riga's Jewish population nearly doubled between 1920 and 1935, going from twenty-four thousand to forty-four thousand. Even at the height of the Zionist movement's popularity, few of these Jews opted to go to Palestine - only seventyfi ve went in 1931. Latvia, which gained its independence and established a parliamentary democracy following World War I, accepted and even to some extent encouraged a Jewish presence. Jews served in the army and in government and formed a wide range of political parties - from religious to socialist Zionist - that were represented in the hundredseat Saeima, Latvia's parliament. The Jewish bloc won six seats in the first election, in 1920. And among the socialist and communist opposition, it could be said that Jews predominated, many even volunteering to fight in Spain with the International Brigades against Franco.
As far back as 1840, Riga was home to a Jewish secondary school that taught secular studies. In the 1920s, cultural groups named after two of the great Yiddish writers of the day, Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz, multiplied. The state even subsidized some Jewish activities, such as the Jewish Educational Society on Baznicas Street, which ran vocational schools for Jews who wanted to become craftsmen and workers in Latvia or Palestine. Its library was filled with books in dozens of languages, and the society held readings and discussion groups for the local intelligentsia. One such event, on March 30, 1935, was an elaborate ball and lecture to commemorate the eight hundredth birthday of Maimonides.
One of the speakers that evening was Simon Dubnow. With his pointy white goatee and round spectacles, Dubnow was Riga's most famous Jewish intellectual. By the time he moved to Riga, in 1933, escaping Berlin and Hitler, he was already well known for his ten-volume Die Weltgeschichte des ju_dischen Volkes (World History of the Jewish People), published from 1925 to 1930, the most comprehensive such history ever written. He had settled in the northern Mezaparks district of the city in an apartment lined with his vast collection of books. His years in Riga were spent translating his magnum opus from German to Hebrew and Russian and condensing it into one volume, History of the Jewish People for Work and Home, intended primarily for children.
Riga had a society of Jewish physicians and a society of Jewish outergarment tailors; it had Jewish mutual aid groups and sports clubs. A Jewish hospital with internal medicine, neurology, and surgery departments was established in 1924. A professional Jewish theater opened in 1927. And on the radio throughout the 1930s, one could hear the songs of Oscar Strok, the Jewish "King of Tango," who became famous when Peter Leschenko crooned his romantic ballad "Chorne Glaza" (Black Eyes).
Yiddish was in the street; the first newspaper in the language, Nationale Zeitung, was published in 1907, and a rich array of others followed: Yiddishe Stimme, Weg, Das Folk, and Frimorgn. Riga had fourteen synagogues, including the Altneie Schul, built in 1780, and the imposing Gogola Street Synagogue, built in Renaissance style in 1871 and famous throughout Eastern Europe for the vibratos of its cantors.
But it was the number and diversity of Zionist youth groups that provided the strongest proof that Jews felt at home here - young people dressed in uniforms, marching, singing, learning Hebrew, preparing themselves to be farmers and soldiers in Palestine. Hashomer Hatzair, the oldest and most popular group, was affiliated with the Labor Zionist movement. Its goal was twofold: to encourage emigration to Palestine and to defend the interests of the proletariat. At the movement's peak, in 1927, its Riga branch had three thousand members. At the other end of the political spectrum was a group whose influence began to eclipse Hashomer Hatzair's as World War II approached: Betar. The name was both an acronym in Hebrew for the "League of Joseph Trumpeldor," a tribute to the fallen Zionist hero, and an allusion to the last suicidal battle of the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans in 135 CE. In their brown shirts and shouting military songs, the members of Betar represented a Zionism of blood and fire.
Betar had sprung from the mind of Vladimir Jabotinsky, a journalist, prolific essayist and translator (he even rendered Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" in Russian and Hebrew) who provided Zionism with its unaccommodating, proud, and sometimes violent right flank. Born in Odessa, Jabotinsky, jug-eared and bespectacled in owlish round glasses, lamented the loss of Judaism's ancient muscle. He was fiercely opposed to the dominant Labor Zionism; he thought the group was more concerned with the class struggle than it was with the tough job of wrenching Palestine from the Arabs and the colonial forces who controlled it. His political philosophy became known as revisionism, as he was determined to "revise" what he saw as the Zionists' complacent relationship with the British occupiers. He preached Jewish militarism, a cult of bravery and sacrifice. The world had never lifted a finger for Jews, went Jabotinsky's teaching - which was passed down to his followers and formed the basis of their ideology - so Jews had no choice but to rely on themselves and their strength alone.
Jabotinsky did more than just write and lecture. He put his ideas into action, organizing Jewish self-defense units throughout Russia following the devastating pogroms of the 1900s and later establishing a Jewish Legion to fight alongside the British in World War I. Betar was a critical part of his vision. It was started in December 1923 by a group of students in Riga who had heard Jabotinsky deliver a fiery call to arms, a speech titled "Jews and Militarism." Branches of the group soon proliferated in cities all over Russia and Eastern Europe, and Jabotinsky eventually claimed the movement as his own. In a 1932 essay, he defined its goals: "[Betar], as we think of it, is a school based on three levels in which the youth will learn how to box, to use a stick, and other self-defense disciplines; the youth will learn the principles of military order; it will learn how to work; it will learn how to cultivate external beauty and ceremony; it will learn to scorn all forms of negligence, or as we call them, poverty or ghetto-life; they will learn to respect older people, women, prayer (even that of a foreigner), democracy - and many other things whose time has passed but are immortal."
Betar and its radical nationalism continued to play a role in Riga long after the world that had cultivated it disappeared. Many of those middle-aged Jews who gathered at Rumbuli in the 1960s had been Betari youth. Ezra Rusinek, the man Mendelevich mistook for an Israeli, had been a member. As a young boy, Rusinek marched in the brown shirt and neckerchief of Betar, saluting by slapping a clenched fist against his chest and belting out "Tel Chai," the name of the settlement Trumpeldor had died defending.
Anti-Semitism, of course, did exist in this prewar world, especially among the members of the local National Socialist Party. And the 1934 coup by the authoritarian Karlis Ulmanis made life more difficult for Jews. Leftist Zionist youth groups like Hashomer Hatzair were outlawed (Betar, whose mission the Fascists at least respected, was left untouched). Businesses were nationalized, which affected many Jewish entrepreneurs. But given the alternatives - Stalin to the east and Hitler to the west - Latvian Jews felt comfortable and settled. After all, it was to Riga that Simon Dubnow had fled when he left Germany in 1933.
Then came August 23, 1939. Molotov and Ribbentrop shook hands, sealing the nonaggression pact between Hitler and Stalin and placing the Baltic States in the Soviet "sphere of influence." By early October, the Soviets were mobilizing thirty thousand troops on Latvian ground. The following summer, Moscow had concocted a border incident that gave it an excuse to bring a hundred thousand troops into Latvia and call for new parliamentary elections from which all but the Working Peoples' Bloc were disqualified. The newly elected Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic then duly asked to be annexed by the USSR. As soon as it was, on August 5, 1940, the Kremlin outlawed all non-Communist groups, which meant the immediate end of Jewish organizational life. But much worse was to come. By the following summer, Hitler's army occupied most of Latvia. Jews panicked at the German approach, having heard rumors of what was happening in Germany and Poland. Others had memories of being treated well by the Germans after World War I and hoped that the same would be true again. But even if they wanted to, many could not leave in time. Only a small number, about ten thousand, were able to flee farther east into the Soviet Union. The vast majority, about seventy-eight thousand, were stuck.
Their end came quickly. After being corralled behind a double fence of barbed wire in a small section of the old city for four months, the Jews of Riga, by order of Heinrich Himmler and with help from local Latvian volunteers, were liquidated. At four in the morning on November 29, 1941, fifteen thousand Jews were driven outside of the city to Rumbuli, told to undress and lie down, and then shot in the head. A week and a half later, ten thousand more Jews, including eighty-one-year-old Simon Dubnow, the great chronicler of Jewish history, were taken to Rumbuli and murdered.
By the end of the war, there was no Latvian Jewry. A progress report six months after the German invasion, signed by the head of one of the mobile killing units that massacred Jews in the wake of the German army, put the Jewish death toll at 63,238. That included the Jews of Riga. That included the five ditches at Rumbuli. In all, 90 percent of the Jews in Latvia were slaughtered by the Nazis; the rest were scattered through Siberia or starving and lonely in attics and holes waiting for the war to end. The majestic synagogues were burned to the ground. A culture had been totally annihilated; worse, it was as if salt had been spread on the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again.
Yosef Mendelevich was born in 1947 and knew only the world after the war.
His parents were from Dvinsk, in southern Latvia, and they had survived through his father's resourcefulness - he had managed to get a horse and carriage and escape deep into the Soviet Union before the Germans arrived. Like many Latvian Jews, he discovered there was little left of his hometown after the war, so he went to Riga. A committed Communist since the age of sixteen, Mendelevich's father never completely abandoned a sentimental attachment to Jewish tradition. When Yosef was born, his father even found an old mohel to circumcise him, one of the few remaining in Riga. On holidays, father and son would visit the one synagogue left in the city - it was crammed between buildings in the old town, and burning it would have meant destroying the surrounding houses. The Germans had used it as a stable. At home, Mendelevich's mother prepared Jewish meals, matzo balls at Passover and poppy seed-filled hamentashen on Purim. Yosef and his sister spent hours peeling potatoes to make latkes for Hanukkah.
But for Mendelevich, the warm world inside did not resemble the world outside. There, he learned early that he was not like everyone else. On the first day of first grade, his teacher asked each child to declare his or her "nationality." Every Soviet citizen was required to carry an internal passport at all times; it gave basic identifying information and, more important, the bearer's propiska, the place where he or she was officially registered to live. On the fifth line of the passport was a space for nationality; for most, this was the place to indicate the republic, language, and culture the individual was ethnically connected to: Ukrainian, Georgian, Latvian, Russian. But for 2,267,814 Soviet citizens, the fifth line read Jewish, and it indicated only one thing: difference.
In Mendelevich's first-grade class, he was the only one of the forty students who had Evrei - Jewish - written on that fifth line. When the teacher asked the children to stand up and state their nationalities, Mendelevich considered lying, but his nose and his name gave him away. "Mendelevich?" the teacher asked. "Jewish," he whispered. The class started to giggle. Among the children, there was a hierarchy of nationalities: the Russians were on top, Ukrainians and Latvians in the middle, the Asiatic peoples of the Far East toward the bottom, and Jews definitely on the lowest rung. The teacher made no attempt to quiet the class. Instead, she looked down at the squirming Mendelevich and asked, "Where does your father work?" He was mortified. It seemed all the other children's fathers were pilots or army officers. His father collected scrap iron. There was no way he could say this out loud. "I don't know," he answered. The laughter bubbled up and exploded as the teacher shook her head. "So big and he doesn't know."
From then on, Mendelevich preferred to stay inside, away from others. He read a lot - many Soviet writers, but also Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. His parents were poor and he was a child eager to please. He tried his best to succeed in school. He made few friends and eventually stopped venturing out into the courtyard to play with the other children.
But when he was ten, in 1957, Soviet reality intruded on him. Mendelevich's father was tried for economic crimes, accused of selling a few grams of lead on the black market. Khrushchev had crusaded against such crimes, and a suspiciously disproportionate number of Jews were tried and sometimes even executed as a result. Mendelevich's father was sentenced to five years and sent to a nearby prison camp, where he was forced to make bricks. Mendelevich's mother took him along when she went to visit her husband, and her son never forgot the barking dogs, the line of soldiers with their guns, and the strange sight of his father in tattered clothes.
His father was released early from his sentence. But a few months after that, his mother died. Mendelevich's alienation seemed complete. By the time he entered adolescence, he was living a double life. In school, he was disciplined. His Russian was so good that he was often asked to read out loud to the class. Once, he was asked to read the part of Maresyev, a pilot, in a famous Soviet novel. Maresyev's plane had been shot down in enemy territory; both of his legs were injured, and he was captured by partisans and interrogated. They asked the pilot who he was. Maresyev's response - "A Russian I am, a Russian" - made the children snicker and Mendelevich blush, but their laughter didn't bother him anymore. His home life, increasingly dominated by thoughts of Israel and revolving around the nightly shortwave broadcasts of Kol Israel, mattered much more.
At sixteen, before he'd even set eyes on Rumbuli, he began finding reflections of his secret desires. He spent the days working as a carpenter's apprentice at a factory, and in the evenings he took classes at School 25. By some fluke, a third of the school's teachers and students were Jews. And unlike at his elementary school, Mendelevich found there was no shame here in being Jewish. On one Jewish holiday, the students even wrote on the blackboard, No school. Rosh Hashanah. And to his surprise, he wasn't the only one who dreamed about Israel. Soon he and his new friends were chatting away about what they would do when they got there, what they would take with them, what kind of jobs they might have.
Even more important than his new school was the arrival of an older cousin from Dvinsk who came to stay in his family's home. Small, bookish, and unassuming, Mendel Gordin was studying to be a doctor at the Riga Medical Institute. In 1963, Mendelevich learned that his cousin had a secret. Gordin was part of a small network of Jews that shared illegal books and articles about Israel. It was so dangerous that Gordin kept his extracurricular activities from Mendelevich's father. But Gordin, who was older then Mendelevich by ten years, saw in the teenager a kindred spirit, and although he didn't tell him about his connections in the city, he shared his samizdat with him and talked with him about Israel. The first piece of illegal writing Mendelevich read, typed and loosely bound with a needle and thread, was a collection of Jabotinsky's essays.
That fall, Mendelevich went to Rumbuli for the first time. By then, hundreds of young Jews were arriving every Sunday to work on landscaping the mass graves; delineating them with rocks, planting flowers. The sight of so many young people working together, along with the steady stream of material his cousin was receiving, fed Mendelevich's fantasies about a vast underground Zionist movement operating in Riga. He knew he wanted to be a part of it.
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