Saturday, June 20, 2009

Remembrances of a Lithuanian Jew

Cross-posted by Gary Fouse

Memorial in Israel to a Lithuanian shtetl (Anikst)

Back in the 1990s, I was researching my first book on the languages of the former Soviet republics, which included a chapter on the Soviet Jews. In Rockville, Maryland, I met the acquaintance of a remarkable woman named Basya Shadevichene, a Lithuanian Jew who had survived German occupation during World War II. Her story is so moving that I would like to repeat it here.

First, I should supply a little background. When the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia after a brief period of independence, many viewed their Jewish populations, rightfully or wrongfully, as Soviet supporters. Thus, when the Germans occupied those states during World War II, Jewish residents were subject to acts of murder by Baltic nationalists-even before the Germans instigated their own "solution to the Jewish problem". It is a complicated and dark chapter in the history of the Baltic states.

The reader will also note a lot of reference to language(s) in the text since this was the focus of the book.

"I was born in 1921 in the Ukraine. My mother was Ukrainian, and my father Lithuanian. Within a couple of months of my birth, my family moved to Lithuania, where I grew up. The language that we spoke at home was Yiddish, which my mother spoke with a Ukrainian accent.

At the age of 6, I began attending a Jewish public school in which the language of instruction was Yiddish. At this school, we also studied in Lithuanian and Hebrew. Subsequently, I attended gymnasium.

At the age of 13, my parents took me to Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania since Vilnius was occupied by Poland. In Kaunas, I attended a Hebrew gymnasium. All of the subjects were taught in Hebrew except Lithuanian and German classes. later, I had to switch to a less expensive gymnasium because my family's economic situation was very bad. Both of my parents were tailors, and in those days, people would sew one suit, wear it for twenty years and pass it on to their sons. So, as you can see, business was not very good.

In 1937 I graduated from the gymnasium but couldn't receive the diploma due to some unpaid tuition. I was able to begin at Kaunas University on a provisional basis where I studied philology (German, Latin and Greek).

After the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in 1939, they returned Vilnius to Lithuania. Therefore, many of the faculty and students at Kaunas University moved to the University of Vilnius. In Vilnius, I was able to get a job teaching Lithuanian to Polish-speaking children. At the same time, I was attending a Hebrew teachers academy from which I graduated. My dream was to be a teacher in a Hebrew school.

When the USSR took over Lithuania in 1940, all Jewish institutions were closed. Schools, yeshivas, gymnasiums, teachers' academies, libraries and synagogues. Everything.

When the Germans invaded Lithuania as part of the USSR, we were living in a shtetl (village occupied principally by Jews). When we heard the news, I was with my sister on a trip to a lake. The Germans overran Lithuania so fast that we couldn't return to our shtetl, and all we could do was join the thousands of people fleeing. The roads were choked with people in their wagons, on foot or bicycle, and the German planes were bombing us and shooting at us from very low in the sky. My sister and I were the only members of our family to survive. I lost my parents and brother during the German occupation.

My sister and I were able to get out of Lithuania and ended up in Russia. Eventually, I heard about a Lithuanian division being formed in Russia to fight with the Soviet Army against the Nazis. At that time, I was teaching in a middle school, but I left my job and walked three days in the bitter cold to Morshansk, from where I was taken to Gorky. This trip took almost a day. I rode on an open train car until I reached the division which I joined as an interpreter. By then, I knew Yiddish, Lithuanian, Hebrew, German and Russian. In June 1944, I arrived back in Lithuania with my division. I received many medals from the Soviet Government for my wartime service. I was released from the army at the end of 1946.

When I returned to my shtetl in 1944, I couldn't find a single Jew. I lost my mother, father, brother, two uncles and an aunt, along with their families. Twelve of them in all had been killed. A Polish woman, who was a former neighbor in my shtetl, had kept a few photographs, one of which was of my mother. I loved my mother very much, and today, this photograph is hanging in my bedroom across from my bed. I talk to her every day when I get up and before I go to bed.

All of the Jewish people in my shtetl and throughout Lithuania were killed, a total of about 200,000 according to the Lithuanian newspapers. Between my shtetl and that of my husband, I saw two large pits where Jews had been pushed in alive and executed. One pit had contained 2,000 women, the other 4,000 men. Eventually, Jewish survivors built a fence around the pits and erected two large stone monuments on which was written: 'Here lie 2,000 Jewish women and 4,000 Jewish men who were killed by the German fascists and Lithuanian nationalists' We wanted to inscribe the same text in Yiddish but could not get permission from the local authorities.

After the war, the Soviets refused to allow Yiddish or Hebrew schools. People who wanted to study either language were considered 'Zionists' and subject to deportation. There was an informal Jewish theatre in Vilnius, but it had to operate in a discreet manner. The Yiddish-speaking population has grown older, and many have died. The younger generation of Jewish people have grown up speaking mostly Lithuanian and Russian.

The Yiddish language is still an international language for Jews around the world. In Israel, there are many elderly Yiddish-speaking people. In answer to your question, Yiddish will not die as long as the Jewish nation survives. It will continue to be an international language for Jews."

Ms Basya Shadevichene
Rockville, Md
July 26, 1996

from: The Languages of the Former Soviet Republics-Their History and Development
by Gary Fouse
University Press of America, 2000
pp 379-381


  1. Thank you for posting this. My grandfather was from Lithuania and being Jewish, this was very moving for me and my son.

    This woman and her story really hit close to home. Many in my family were killed in the concentration camps. Many, many of my family joined the Lithuianian resistance against the Nazi's and I am hoping to get the written history from one of my remaining relatives who has this. Thanks again.

  2. What an interesting account. I'm glad I stumbled across it.

    It may interest readers of your site to know that Dr Zamenhof, the man who launched Esperanto into life came from this very same background. Although reference books sopmetimes call him a Pole, he declared that was first and foremost a Jew. He was a speaker of Yiddish of course.

    Esperanto can be seen as a sort of international version of Yiddish.