by Julija Šukys
“The story of this trip begins with a map, which is to say the story of this trip begins with a need.” —W. Scott Olsen
I grew up not far from Toronto, on the banks of the Credit River. By Canadian standards, it’s a shallow and minor tributary, whose small delta has created fertile wetlands. My most vivid memories of time spent with my father are of the long walks we used to take surrounded by bulrushes and songbirds. Rivers marked his childhood too: my father was born on the Lithuanian banks of a waterway similar in size to the Credit. The River Scheschuppe (Šešupe, in his—our—language) appears as two lines that snake along the edges of the map of a Lithuanian border city that hangs on my office wall. The town once served as a gateway from Lithuania to East Prussia. From the various languages that are now or were once spoken there, its moniker translates as Newtown.
Every day, when I get to work, I read the family names plotted on the map (“Salanski,” “Kaplan,” “Silberman”). I trace its carefully rendered streets, named for landmarks like the bathhouse and synagogue. Next, I follow paths beyond the paper’s limits to territories that ancient cartographers ascribed to dangerous creatures: Here be monsters, they wrote. Out beyond the known world lay the realms of fast-running, backward-footed Abarimon and dog-headed Cynocephali. But monsters can be deceiving. The Eastern monks who painted St. Christopher as he carried the young Christ across a river sometimes portrayed him as a giant Cynocephalus. Storybooks tell us that monsters can be humane. History books and archives remind us that humans can be monstrous. And yes, beyond Newtown’s edge once lurked the cruelest creatures of all: men with guns.
I’ve hung the map despite my husband’s warnings: “It’s in bad taste,” he says. “Macabre.” When colleagues pop their heads into my doorway, they instinctively grin up at it: it’s rare to see a document so large, so detailed, and so obviously handmade. But once their eyes settle on the block letters printed at the bottom right-hand corner of the map, they understand what they’re looking at: MASS GRAVE OF ALL WOMEN AND CHILDREN 3RD DAY IN ELUL-5701 SEPTEMBER 16TH 1941
An arrow points to a place beyond the paper’s edge.
They see this and a shadow descends. Conversation cuts short. My colleagues excuse themselves and take their leave. Though I respect their discomfort, I leave the map on the wall, because I need this object of contemplation. For me, it serves as proof of how much I still do not know. Of how far I must go to finish what I’ve started.
Hand-drawn in ink, my Newtown map measures almost one square meter. A friend found it while digging in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and sent me a digital file.
The creator of this document was a native of the city he drew. A young man in 1922, Ralph Goldberg left Newtown for Chicago, and thus escaped the fate of so many. Almost fifty years later, he began to plot his childhood streets from memory.
The map pleases me because in it I recognize something I do too: meticulously piecing together detail upon detail. I like the way the mapmaker has sketched a plan and pondered what’s absent. But the thing I love most about this rendering of Newtown is that it remains a work in progress and includes an invitation to take part. “There is enough space for anyone to write in a missing name in his proper place or to correct any error,” declares an inscription at the map’s edge.
But it’s the cartographer’s dedication that I read and re-read:
My intention in making this map is—perhaps in the future generations, a grandchild or a great-grandchild will, out of curiosity, unfold [it]. He may accidentally recognize a familiar name that he heard years ago in his parents’ or grandparents’ home. He will also read about how and when the terrible Holocaust happened. It is my hope that this will remind him not to forget and not to forgive.
The friend who sent me the map believes I’m the heir its maker had in mind.
“You are the grandchild,” she writes. “He drew this thing for you.”
I, on the other hand, am not so sure. Yes, I am a grandchild of Newtown. But surely I’m also the wrong one. The wrong kind. The mapmaker’s last sentence, in particular, fills me with dread.
In the spring of 2014, I take the map down from my office wall, fold it four ways, and slip it into a suitcase. I fly to Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania. I arrive quietly, without fanfare. I tell no relatives of my visit and ask them for no assistance. Instead, on my first jetlagged morning, I buy a road atlas in a bookshop and drive out to the western border region, alone.
Upon arrival at Newtown’s market square I tuck Ralph Goldberg’s map under my arm and make my way across the street to the municipal museum to explain my quest. The building is empty and my voice echoes in its lobby. Both the director and her assistant are friendly but skeptical as they study the document I’ve spread out before them.
“You’ll have to walk far,” they say. “You can’t get very close to the site with a car.”
We talk. We think out loud. We weigh possibilities, and then we part for lunch. When I return, they have a plan in place. The museum women have made some calls and drawn on local knowledge. They agree to help me find the mass grave beyond the map’s edge.
Every family tells its children the story of who it is. Ours went as follows: the Red Army took my father’s mother and shipped her east of the Ural Mountains, alone. They took her by mistake. It was all a mistake, or so the story went. Her husband Anthony had been the target. But after her arrest, he escaped to the safety of the West, by luck and through cunning, with his children.
Our job, as kids growing up in Canada in the 1970s and ’80s, was to learn this story and remember it. To master our grandparents’ language so that, one day, we might return home from exile. The first problem in taking on this task was that we had never seen this home. The second was that the story we’d been told wasn’t strictly true. Important pieces of it had fallen away: the complicated bits that made it hard to narrate.
There was always, for example, a great hush surrounding the years between 1941, the year my paternal grandmother was deported to Siberia, and 1944, when her husband Anthony and his three children—my father was the youngest of the trio—fled westward. These years demarcate the Nazi occupation of Lithuania. Anyone telling children the story of our family history inevitably jumped from my grandmother’s arrest and deportation in 1941 straight to her children’s dramatic departure from Lithuania with their father in 1944. Decades passed before I realized that the second event hadn’t followed immediately on the heels of the first. Indeed, so total was the silence surrounding the German occupation that I was fifteen before I realized that the Holocaust had anything to do with Lithuania. I was forty before I realized it had anything to do with my family.
In truth, from 1941 to 1944, countless atrocities were committed in my grandparents’ and parents’ country of birth. Who did what—for example, who oversaw the establishment of ghettos or shot so many thousands of Jews at the edges of pits—remains a subject of deep contention in the country, but the death toll amongst Lithuania’s Jews was staggering, and the violence they suffered horrific and unprecedented.
By 1944, more than 90% of Lithuania’s Jewish community had been annihilated. Of more than a thousand Jews who lived in Newtown, only fifteen survived.
The road leading to the forest from Newtown grows both rougher and softer. As predicted, our tires begin to sink and the engine to protest. Eventually, the museum women and I abandon the car and walk to the forest’s edge. Mosquitoes quickly blanket my jeans and a layer of fine, dusty earth covers my boots.
A few hundred meters down the trail, I spot a pyramid-shaped and moss-covered cairn. It marks a depression ringed by small boulders. Inside the stone perimeter grow ferns, grasses, and tiny evergreens. Beneath these, I know from the map, lie Newtown’s Jewish women and children.
I walk slowly around the site. I say a prayer. I say I am sorry. I say it again. I’m sorry. And again. The phrase echoes inside me. My breath quickens.
Lithuanian archivists tell me that records from the German occupation are spotty, because so much burned in bombings. And though some municipal police rosters still exist, I have found none for Newtown.
And so, I turn my attention to oral history, the next best thing to documentary evidence.
“Your grandfather was my father’s good friend,” says R., a Newtown historian whom a public librarian helped me locate. I visit him over tea and cake in his Vilnius apartment a few days after my trip to the forest. “They worked together, both as border guards and then as police officers. Anthony used to come to our house for lunch when he was police chief. I would hide and eavesdrop on their conversations,” R. tells me. “I was ten years old,” he says.
R. is as stunned to meet me, it seems, as I am surprised to have found him. Over the preceding decade, this octogenarian has amassed an impressive collection of vintage photographs and maps of Newtown. He shows me albums full of nineteenth-century postcards and innocuous street scenes, but also Nazi-era images. I flip through them in silence: German officers in SS uniforms celebrate the New Year, a smiling German customs officer is flanked by the coats of arms of the Reich and the Republic of Lithuania, Soviet prisoners of war build their barracks, and a swastika-emblazoned flag flies over Newtown.
Finally, R. and I make our way to the subject of the German occupation, to my grandfather Anthony’s tenure as Newtown’s Nazi-era police chief, and to the women and children’s massacre that happened on his watch.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, it did so without erasing all of its traces. Change happened so quickly that archivists managed to destroy only the inventories and finding aids to their collections, but not the files themselves. In 2006, Lithuanian authorities decided to open KGB and other formerly secret Soviet files to researchers and to the public. Today, 95% of the KGB documents, housed in the Lithuanian Special Archives, are available to read. The remaining 5%, which include materials like lists of KGB collaborators, remain classified. Comprising more than 1.2 million files, Lithuania’s collection is the largest open repository of KGB records anywhere in the former USSR.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of individuals have been able to request their own files and those of their families. Ordinary citizens can read records of how they were watched and why, see informant reports, and, for the first time, get an accurate picture of how the Soviet regime viewed them.
A few years before acquiring the map and before my Newtown trip, I wrote to the Special Archives of Lithuania and asked for copies of my family’s files. Back then, I was entirely focused on my grandmother’s Siberian deportation story, so it surprised me to find that a quarter of the 400 digitized pages that eventually arrived on a disk in the mail, pertained to Anthony. I couldn’t imagine how fundamentally that query and those documents would alter my relationship to the past.
Inside an imposing mint-hued building on Vilnius’s main boulevard, researchers hunch over narrow wooden desks. I open the battered green folder before me and take in its musty vanilla scent. Across its cover run the words “Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic’s Secret Police Committee (KGB).” A stamp declares “Top Secret.” Opened in 1949, the file’s closing date of 1985 matches the year of Anthony’s death. “Storage Term: Forever.”
There can be no doubt that the record is Anthony’s: both the date and place of birth are his. Inside I find a wallet-sized military portrait of a young version of him mounted onto a manila-hued page and outlined in blue pencil. The pages that follow, most of them typed in Russian, lay out the basis for a criminal indictment. This document is a “search file.” It outlines the identity of—and also the evidence against—a wanted man, my grandfather. The file reads: “During the German occupation period, Anthony worked as the chief of police in Newtown. He independently led mass shootings there.”
When I first read them, the eyewitness statements and details outlined in Anthony’s search file knocked the breath out of me. Months went by before I could bring myself to write email inquiries to historians asking for advice on how to read the files. More than a year passed before I could speak to friends of what I’d discovered. I feared they would see me differently if they knew the truth of my origins. But when I finally worked up my courage, told my tale, and described my reaction to the KGB files, I found that friends struggled to understand why the revelations had affected me so profoundly. When I confessed that I’d been wrestling with the idea that I might carry responsibility for what happened in Newtown, they all dismissed the notion out of hand.
As someone who’s done both, I can attest that it’s far easier to write about victims than perpetrators. It is far simpler to write out of love than out of shame or guilt. Far more rewarding to tell the stories of those who fought against hatred and injustice than to ask pointed questions about who gave orders, who rounded up victims, who transported them, and who aimed the rifles that killed them. Weeks after I first read the accusations against Anthony, I worked hard to process their basic facts. Sitting at my desk, I closed my eyes and imagined gunshots, trying to conceive of what three hundred or six hundred of them in succession would sound like, but my mind couldn’t get past three or four. Panic rising, I found I had to open my eyes, grope for something tangible to hang on to, and catch my breath.
“It has nothing to do with you,” my friends each assured me without fail.
But it does, because somebody pays. Someone always pays. The question is who and the question is how.
These discoveries have been poisonous. They sit lodged in my throat.
The Book of Exodus tells us that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son, and perhaps the daughter too: children born of a sinner will pay for their forbear’s transgressions. We in the New World tend to reject this ancient view: the Nile may have turned to blood, we say, but here our rivers run clean. But what, I wonder, is a granddaughter to do with her poisonous past? No river can wash my bitterness away. How do I live with the knowledge that I cannot atone for the sins of my father’s father?
By late 1941 and early 1942, the vast majority of Jews in the Lithuanian countryside were dead. Those who remained were either in hiding or imprisoned in urban ghettos and work camps. In December or January of that winter, his work complete, Anthony left Newtown and his post as Chief of Police and took a job as a trade unionist instead. His children attended a school only meters from their new apartment’s doorstep until July of 1944, when the Red Army began once again to draw close to the Lithuanian-Prussian borderland. Capture by the Soviets could only mean execution or exile for Anthony, so he hitched his inlaws’ two best horses to a long grain wagon packed with food and prepared to leave. He and his children moved through East Prussia, sleeping in ditches and wrapping themselves in a carpet that they eventually took all the way to the northern English city of Bradford.
I do not know if Anthony was aware of the evidence the Soviets were gathering against him, but he believed there were spies amongst Bradford’s Lithuanians. Everyone with whom my grandfather shared his suspicions called him paranoid, but it seems he was right. The search file shows that the KGB knew exactly where Anthony lived. After keeping a Chicago man by the same name under surveillance, the Soviet secret police realized they had the wrong person and tracked down the right Anthony in the UK. His home address from that time appears in the file, as do my aunts’ and father’s names (though after a single mention, traces of them end). Included are lists of Anthony’s correspondents and relatives in America. Apart from the initial confusion with the Chicago man, all the personal information in the file appears to be accurate.
When Anthony and his children arrived in Bradford shortly after the end of the war, the city’s famous textile factories were still going strong. Father and daughters worked, while the son (my father) continued his studies. But soon the regional economy fell into decline. Factories closed and jobs disappeared. The daughters left England for Canada in the 1950s. The son followed in 1961. Anthony stayed until 1966, when he finally crossed the Atlantic by ship to meet his wife who had finally been allowed to leave Siberia and then Soviet Lithuania.
Did he ever think of Newtown after that crossing, I wonder.
There is a photograph amongst the many images of my family that is unlike any others. Dated 1923, it shows a handsome young man in a straw flat-topped hat and three-piece suit. He stands in a garden and holds a thin cane. A hint of a smile sneaks across his face. Affable and even gentle looking, he seems not at all like the stern man I knew as a child.
While studying this photograph, an awful, almost unspeakable question enters my mind. Would it have been better for him to be deported that day in June of 1941? Had he been exiled beyond the Urals with his wife, none of the accusations outlined in the KGB files would have existed. He would have been far away when the Germans came and the Jews were shot. He would never have been faced with his fateful choice.
In this alternate and, yes, selfish history where I can change only one fate, Anthony would have been a clear, clean victim. A hero, even. Is it possible that our greatest tragedy wasn’t my grandmother’s deportation, but her husband’s escape?
Each day, I face the map and count the dead. I sing their names: Kaplan, Silberman, Grossman, Salanski. I write their stories as best I can. But this does nothing for the acrid taste in my mouth.
The river still runs bloody. And Anthony keeps watch from its opposite bank.
I put down my pen. I close the file and rest my head on it, taking in its vanilla scent. There be monsters.
Julija Šukys is an assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where she teaches the writing of creative nonfiction. She is the author of Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout (Nebraska 2007) and Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaite (Nebraska 2012), winner of the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for Holocaust Literature. A new book, Siberian Exile: Blood, War, and a Granddaughter’s Reckoning, is forthcoming in 2017.