South African Jews and the Holocaust in Lithuania
Memory, Commemoration and Restoration
Dr Rose Lerer Cohen
As a family researcher born in South Africa, I specialize in genealogy research in South Africa and the Baltic countries of Lithuania Latvia and Estonia. As a result of my research projects, I have made almost a dozen trips to Lithuania. Most of my time there is spent researching in the archives in Vilnius (Vilna) and occasionally in Kaunas (Kovno). On each visit, I take a trip out to the towns were my parents were born, Plunge (Plunyan) and Uzventis, to pay respects to the members of their family that were murdered in the Shoah in Lithuania.
In the forests of Kupiskis, Plunge and Uzventis there are new memorial stones that have been erected next to the old, to commemorate those murdered in the Holocaust. Ex-South Africans, some living in Israel, have been instrumental in erecting these monuments.
When I grew up in Cape Town, the Holocaust was spoken about by very few, including my family. I have no doubt that this was the case all over South Africa. In fact, recently I met with an old friend and he mentioned a number of names of classmates of mine whose parents were Holocaust survivors, I was surprised to hear their names. Today, things have changed with the establishment of The Cape Town Holocaust Centre in 1999. The centre is dedicated to creating a more caring and just society in which human rights and diversity are respected and valued.
This article aims to portray the close link between the South African Jews of Lithuanian descent and the Holocaust in Lithuania. It serves also as a commemoration to the men women and children who were murdered in the Shoah in Lithuania.
Immigration to South Africa
Lithuanian Jews immigrated to South Africa to escape the anti-Semitism and poverty and to start new lives.
Excerpt from an interview from the Southern Africa Oral History Project; “ My mother came to South Africa to her brother who had emigrated earlier to Johannesburg, South Africa. My grandmother was murdered in the Holocaust in Lithuania”
Hotz (1963) states that from the data gathered from the document of Morris Alexander K.C MP, from the beginning of 1904 to the middle of 1906 more that half the Jewish immigrants to South Africa were born in Lithuania and 30% in Latvia (Courland). Their places of origin were spread over nearly 300 towns in Eastern and Central Europe. According to the statistical breakdown of birthplaces of the group, the majority of the Lithuanian immigrants listed their birthplace as Kaunas (Kovno), following with Panavezys (Pononvisz) , Siauliai (Shavle) and Plunge (Plunyan)
The number of Jews in South Africa had risen from about 4,000 in 1880 to 38.101 in 1904. The number reached 46,000 according to the census of 1911, thus a thirty year period some 40,000 immigrants entered South Africa. Between 1910 and 1948 there was a relative decrease in immigration and the 1946 census showed the Jewish population of South Africa as over 104,000. In the years 1924-1929 there was another large wave of immigrants. In the 1924 wave of immigration, 70% of the immigrants to South Africa from Eastern Europe were from Lithuania, 10% from Poland, 8% from Latvia and 12% from Russia.
The numbers dropped steadily from 1927 and with the introduction of the Quota Act of 1930, Jewish immigration to South Africa had almost ceased. South African immigration laws did not allow Jews into the country. When conditions in Germany began to deteriorate, German Jewish immigration was stopped by an Alien’s Act in 1937. It should be noted that Jews were not mentioned by name in the act, the Government hinted that they were excluding communists, and it was understood that this category included Jews. (Schrire 2005)
Following liberation, when displaced persons were seeking refuge all over the world, admission into South Africa proved difficult. Between the years 1946 and 1948, 1512 Jews entered South Africa, of these 200 are members of the She’erith Hapleita and there are possibly 100 more survivors who are not affiliated to this group. The law was not relaxed after the war. A few Holocaust survivors were allowed into South Africa for family reunification or because they had specific skills, like cantors. (Schrire 2005)
Jewish immigrants came to South Africa by ship with the major port of embarkation Libau. Shipping agents Knie and Co., and Spiro and Co., had sub agents in the shtetls who accepted bookings for passage in South Africa. A smaller number passed through Hamburg and Bremen. Those passing through England came first to Grimsby or London and from there to the Jewish Temporary Shelter in Lehman Street in the East End of London. A number of immigrants also passed through Rotterdam and Antwerp. The major port of entry was Cape Town, although a minority entered at Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Lorenco Marques (Maputo).
As the vast majority of South African Jews have their roots in Lithuania and there is a strong link between South African Jewry and the Holocaust in Lithuania.
Of the 250 000 Jews who lived in Lithuania in 1939, 95% had been murdered by the end of the war. Survivors who did enter South Africa came from Lithuania, Holland, France, Germany and Poland. (Schrire 2005).
South African Jews sought survivors after the war. This is an example of a form
which appeared in the Jewish Times in South Africa in 1943. These questionnaires were filled out in South Africa and sent to the Search Bureau in Israel by those seeking remnants of their family whom may have survived and whom they left behind when emigrating to South Africa. (CZA/S4/720).
The Holocaust in Lithuania
The Holocaust in Lithuania was set into motion by Operation Barbarossa, a surprise attack on the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany, on June 22nd, 1941. The implementation of the “Final Solution” in Lithuania can be divided into roughly three periods: the first, of indiscriminate killings of men, women and children, regardless of sex, occupation or work suitability (Gutman 1990) lasting until November 1941. During this period, the majority of Lithuanian Jewry was murdered; shot into pits in the forests of Lithuania. During this period, a new phase in Nazi policy towards the Jews was initiated — total extermination of the Jews (Arad, Gutman and Margaliot, 1981; and Lerer Cohen & Issroff, 2002). By the end of 1941, only 43,000 out of the 220,000-225,000 Jews who had been in Lithuania at the start of the German occupation who remained alive, were residing in four ghettos: Vilnius, Kaunas, Siauliai and Svencionys (YVA-O 18/245 in Arad, 1980). These Jews were put to work and those unfit, murdered. During the third period the ghettos were liquidated and those who were fit for work were transported to Stutthoff concentration camp and from there dispersed to their slave labour. Those who were unfit, including the elderly and young children, were murdred (Lerer Cohen & Issroff, 2002)
Memorials in the Forest
It is for the men, women and children who were murdered indiscriminately in the forests to whom memorials have been erected in the forests of Lithuania. South African Jews were instrumental in erecting memorials in the forests in three town in Lithuania, Kupiskis (Kupishok), Plunge (Pungyan) and Uzventis (Uzvent)
Alec and the late Norman Meyer from South Africa met with the Mayor of the town of Kupiskis in 1997. The Mayor presented them with a handwritten list of the Jews murdered in the town which was drawn up by 2 midwives after the war. These lists appear in the Lerer Cohen R. and Issroff S., (2002) The Holocaust in Lithuania 1941-1944: A book of Remembrance. Gefen, Jerusalem.
As a result of this list, the Meyer brothers initiated the plans for a new memorial in Kupiskis which would incorporate the names of the murdered victims of Kupiskis which include, not only the relatives of the Meyer family, but of many relatives of other South Africans with roots in this town.
The memorial is located on the wall of the old synagogue which is now the town library – it was dedicated on the 13 July 2004.
The Memorial Wall – Kupiskis, Lithuania. Link here.
1800 Plunge Jews were murdered in the forest near the village of Kuasenai, following the entrance of the Germans into Plunge on 25 June 1941.
The New Memorial - Plunge
The new memorial in the forest to the 1800 Jews of Plunge who were murdered, was dedicated on 17 July 2011 in the Kusenai forest. The driving forces behind this memorial are Abel and Glenda Levitt, ex South Africans living in Israel. They wished to commemorate the members of their family and the relatives of many other South Africans who have their roots in Plunge.
My mother’s family has roots in Plunge and numerous uncles; aunts and cousins lived in the town until the Shoah and were murdered there. I grew up with the story that schoolgirls were raped prior to their being shot into the pits in the forest and that my mother’s cousin, Cipporah (Cipe) Kessel was one of these young girls. I contacted Glenda Levitt who verified the story. She sent me the list of schoolgirls and to my horror, saw the name of Mira Kessel, Cipe’s sister who too was raped and of whose existence I did not know of until that very moment. The girls are buried a mass grave in the forest of Kusenai.
Together with the new memorial stone, and the monuments erected by the Russians in the forests of Plunge you can see many of the wood sculptures of Yaacov Bunke. Bunke is a famous Jewish wood sculptor from Plunge who survived the Shoah.
Memorial Stones erected by the Russians at the place of mass murder with a statue by Yaacov Bunke in the background
There were approximately ninety nine Jews living in Uzventis prior to the German invasion. There were two massacres in Uzventis, one on the July 1941 and the second in December 1941. My paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are amongst those murdered.
In 2009 Vola Levin, the son of a survivor from Uzventis, approached me (the author) with the idea of erecting a new memorial in the forest.. After crossing numerous hurdles, the new memorial stone was erected in August 2010 next to the old memorial stone in the Pasilve forest where the massacres took place.
The New and Old Memorials , Pasilve Forest , Uzventis
In the early 1950’s the larger of the two graves was pillaged as it was rumoured that the Jews were buried with their gold. As a result of this pillaging, a decision was taken to transfer the remains to the cemetery in Vilnius to be reinterred in a mass grave. The stone in the Vilnius cemetery has also been repaired and restored.
Kever Achim (Mass Grave) Vilnius Cemetery (All photos by courtesy of the author)
I hope that this article has brought home the very close connection that South African Jewry has with the Holocaust in Lithuania.
Arad Y. (1980) Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews of Vilna in the Holocaust. Israel: Achva Press.
Arad Y., Gutman Y. and Margaliot A. (eds.) (1981) Documents of the Holocaust: Selected Sources in the Destruction of Germany and Austria and the Soviet Union . Jerusalem: Yad Vashem.
Gutman I. (ed.) (1990) Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Hotz, L. (1963) Jewish Affairs reprinted in Schrire G. (ed.) (2004) South African Board Deputies (Cape Council) 1904-2004: A Century of Challenges.
Lerer Cohen R. and Issroff S. (2002) The Holocaust in Lithuania: A Book of Remembrance. Gefen: Jerusalem
Schrire, G. (ed.) (1995) In Sacred Memory: Recollections of the Holocaust by Survivors Living in Cape Town. Cape Town: Holocaust Memorial Council.
Biography: Dr Rose Lerer Cohen is a former South African, resident of Jerusalem: Professional genealogist/family researcher and Holocaust researcher. Member of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), specializing in Eastern and Western Europe, Israel and South Africa, has a vast knowledge of the archives in Lithuania, has made numerous visits to Lithuania and arranges family roots trips.
Coordinates the Lithuanian Names Project and the Southern Africa Oral History Project. Coordinated and interviewed in Lithuania and South Africa for International Slave Labour Interviewing Project.
Together with Saul Issroff, authored The Holocaust in Lithuania 1941-1945: A Book of Remembrance. (Gefen:Jerusalem). Is a Board Member of the Israel Genealogical Research Association (IGRA) and a former member of the board of LitvakSIG.(Lithuanian Special Interest Group).