exploring the concerns of the South AFrican Jewish community
Michael Kransdorff argues that memory and commemoration of the Holocaust often does not give its due to those murdered in the "Holocaust by Bullets." He suggests that there is a particular imperative for South African Jews to remember this less well-known history.
MY first encounter with Mordechai Perlov came at a fortuitous moment. In 2015, a few weeks prior to our first conversation over drinks in his Johannesburg flat, Litvaksig -- the Jewish Lithuanian heritage organization, for which I volunteer as a research coordinator -- had discovered a misplaced file in the Lithuanian archives listing thousands of Jews who had been ‘evacuated’ from Lithuania to the USSR during 1941.
Initially I had hoped that this list might unlock the secret to some unknown rescue attempt of Lithuanian Jews as Nazi forces invaded the country. This would have been a remarkable discovery in a country where local collaboration was widespread and over 90% of the entire Jewish population was murdered. Mord scoffed at my suggestion. This was no humanitarian rescue effort. The people on the list were not Jews saved. Rather, like Mord and his family, they were Jews who were exiled and imprisoned in slave labour camps for being designated as enemies of the Soviet state. The majority would die of hunger, cold or disease.
"South African Jews have deep historical and cultural roots in Eastern Europe ... Nevertheless, we too have, until recently, also largely ignored the Eastern European Jewish experience in our commemoration of the Holocaust".
After a few brandies and some prodding, Mord began to tell me his story. For over an hour, he spoke of his privileged childhood as the oldest son of a wealthy mill owner in the tranquil Lithuanian shtetl of Rasein; the turmoil created in their lives by the Soviet occupation and annexation of Lithuania in 1940; his family’s deportation to a Soviet labour camp in the Arctic Circle; his parents’ death and his ultimate great escape and journey to Israel. More than just an inspiring personal story about immense determination, it struck me that Mord’s experience, and that of the thousands of other Jews who were deported to Siberia, was a rare, untold narrative of the Second World War.
The Soviet invasion of Lithuania in June 1940 marked the beginning of World War II in the Baltic. The Soviets instituted a brutal occupation, targeting the intelligentsia and middle class, many of whom were wealthy Jews like Mord and his family. Tens of thousands of perceived enemies of the Soviet regime were deported thousands of miles to Gulags in the Arctic Circle, where many died of hunger and disease. A few days after these deportation in June 1941, Nazi Germany turned on its former ally and invaded the Soviet Union. It would be the death knell of Lithuanian’s 600-year-old Jewish community (See endnote for more detail)[i]. This is a story which had largely been ignored and needed to be told.
Pre-war Lithuania: Mord (Mordechai), his brother Yakov and sister Tova.
Both the Western and Jewish (including the South African Jewish communities’) commemoration of the Holocaust has come to be dominated by Auschwitz as the ultimate symbol of Nazi evil. According to historian Timothy Snyder, this has created a paradox that warps our understanding of the true extent of the mass murder that took place. Many of the Jews killed in the Holocaust had already been murdered by the time Auschwitz became fully operational. These were largely Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews shot in death pits in what has, only relatively recently, come to be called the Holocaust by Bullets.
Although one of the most researched and discussed historical events of all time, even the Holocaust is not immune from the politics of memory. In his book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, Snyder argues that Auschwitz has become a politically expedient shorthand for the Holocaust. On the one hand, it allowed post-war Germany to claim that the mass murder of Jews occurred in a distant, isolated place with limited direct or widescale German involvement. On the other hand, as Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, it presented an opportunity for the Soviet Union to position itself as the liberators of Eastern Europe -- and thereby obscure its extensive crimes in the region.
Of course, political expediency is only one of many plausible explanations and doesn’t account for Jewish (and especially South African Jewish neglect) of the Holocaust by Bullets. As former United States Secretary of State Madeliene Albright, herself a Holocaust survivor, so astutely observed, “history is written backwards but lived forwards”. Far fewer people survived the shootings than survived Auschwitz. Moreover, many Eastern European Jews that did survive found themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain after the war, where the archives were closed to independent research, Holocaust remembrance was discouraged, and even viewed as a threat to the cohesion of the Soviet empire. Consequently, until recently, there were no Eastern European Anne Franks or Primo Levis to share their stories.
"... many Litvak immigrants refrained from dwelling on their own pasts. They were focused on building their new futures in South Africa. Besides a few old black and white family photos, which they had saved, they passed on very little knowledge to their children and grandchildren".
Mord and I continued our conversations at his flat over several weeks, developing a genuine friendship. I floated the idea of speaking out publicly about his experience during the war years. I stressed how important his story could be to reorienting South African Jewry’s focus towards the Holocaust by Bullets in Eastern Europe.
South African Jews have deep historical and cultural roots in Eastern Europe (Lithuania and Latvia in particular). Over 70% of South African Jews are estimated to have come from these countries between the late 1800s and the 1930s. Our religious practices, cuisine and even the structure of our communal institutions hark back to there. Nevertheless, we too have, until recently, also largely ignored the Eastern European Jewish experience in our commemoration of the Holocaust.
Not only did many Jewish immigrants to South Africa lose their entire families in the war but the world they left behind was erased by the Holocaust. In addition to the personal tragedy of loss that many Jews in South Africa had to deal with, accompanied by the helplessness of not being able to change the outcome from so far away, there was also the ‘not knowing’. In 1941, the letters just stopped. There were rumours and conjecture about how their families had died but no proof or documentation. The barriers created by the Cold War made communication with the few survivors almost impossible. This was especially so for those in South Africa because of the then South African government’s staunchly anti-communist stance and the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950. Further, many Litvak immigrants refrained from dwelling on their own pasts. They were focused on building their new futures in South Africa. Besides a few old black and white family photos, which they had saved, they passed on very little knowledge to their children and grandchildren.
Initially Mord was extremely reticent to speak out about his Lithuanian past. It was a part of his life he had long quarantined. He had barely discussed the details with his South African-born wife and children. Moreover, on the few occasions he had brought it up, he had often been admonished by left-leaning Jews (including former Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus’ father) for not being grateful to Stalin for “saving” him from the Nazis. Mord would rather have kept our discussions focused on developments in Israel (which he cared about deeply), sharing insights from his successful business career in South Africa and talking about the surprisingly large and growing number of people we had in common.
I persisted with Mord. I brought him translated copies of old Perlov family records from the 1800s (including his father’s birth certificate), which I found in the Litvaksig database. We did a digital walking tour of his shtetl of Rasein on Google Maps. I shared stories and pictures from my trips to Lithuania and he took me through his old family photos that he had managed to save. However, it was the blockbuster film Woman in Gold that really awakened Mord. If after all these years, Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee like him, was able to take on the Austrian government and win, why could he not gain recognition from the Lithuanian and Russian governments for the crimes committed against him and his family?
To my surprise, I got a phone call from Mord one afternoon, announcing that he was ready to talk and wanted to do so at the upcoming Limmud Johannesburg conference. The catch was that I would have to do it with him. The talk proved to be a remarkable success. His flair for old-style Jewish storytelling (complete with a thick Yiddish accent), the sheer magnitude of the suffering he had overcome, and the largely unknown aspect of Soviet WWII crimes made him a rockstar on the Jewish speaking circuit.
As Mord’s accolades grew, so did his determination to speak out more widely about Soviet crimes. He arranged talks to church groups and public schools. He developed a rapport with the Lithuanian embassy in South Africa - the first contact he had had with non-Jewish Lithuanians in almost 80 years. With their help, he set about making a documentary film about his story.
Mord (Mordechai) Perlov and the author.
Unfortunately, Mord passed away after a short illness in January 2020, at the age of 93. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, including representatives of three embassies (Lithuania, Israel and Germany). His friends from the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre’s survivors’ group, in which he had been warmly welcomed, were also there to pay their respects. With the hot highveld sun beating down on us, I could not help but think how different it had been from the improvised burial he had to perform alone with his siblings for his parents in the Arctic tundra so many years ago.
A few days after Mord was laid to rest, International Holocaust Remembrance Day was commemorated. The United Nations marked this with a photo exhibition of survivors at its New York headquarters. Among them was a picture of Mord, giving ultimate recognition to the thousands of Jews like him, who spent the war years under Soviet persecution.
Mord’s life is a testament to the fact that we do not need to be prisoners of our own histories. He never saw himself as a victim but as the ultimate survivor. Despite being a child slave, Mord broke out from a Soviet Gulag, served in the Israeli army during the War of Independence, graduated from the Haifa Technion without having a formal education, built a successful business and raised a family. And, finally, in his 90s, he chose to ultimately escape his past trauma: not, this time, by running away but by confronting and retelling it. Although Mord is no longer with us, we must ensure that his story endures and is a call to action for South African Jewry to reorientate our commemoration of World War Two to focus more on our own neglected history of the Holocaust.
[i] For Litvaks, WWII began in June 1940 when the Red Army marched into Lithuania, following the infamous Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact to divide up Eastern Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. They quickly set about destroying the old "bourgeois" societies, so that new socialist ones, run by loyal Soviet citizens, could be constructed in their place. The Intelligentsia and middle-class (many of whom were Jews like Mord and his family) were targeted: extrajudicial killings; deportations to Soviet slave labour camps and mass arrests and torture were widespread. Large industries, transportation, banks, private housing, and commerce in general were nationalised. Jews, who dominated trade and commerce, where disproportionately affected by the ensuing economic fallout. Moreover, religious education and practices were curtailed. Towards the middle of June 1941, after almost a year of the occupation, Soviet fears were growing about a betrayal by and possible attack from their Nazi German allies. Lists of perceived enemies of the state were drawn up and in a well-planned operation thirty thousand people (including 7,000 Jews) in the occupied Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) were arrested and deported in cattle trucks to work in prison camps in the Arctic Circle -- what came to be known as the Gulags. Conditions in these camps were horrendous. During the war years, around 25% of the inhabitants died from disease and starvation (including Mord’s parents and his aunt and uncle). After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the ensuing Khrushchev Thaw and a de-Stalinization campaign, deportees were slowly released and allowed to return home. The fate of the 220,000 Jews, who remained in Lithuania, would be even worse. A few days after the deportations, the Soviets’ worst fears were realised and Nazi Germany invaded, code-named Operation Barbarossa. Within days, most of Eastern Europe had fallen. While ethnic Lithuanians welcomed the Nazis as liberators, for Jews it was a death sentence. Unlike in other Nazi-occupied countries where the Holocaust was introduced gradually (first limiting Jewish civil rights, then concentrating Jews in ghettos, and only then executing them in death camps), executions in Lithuania started on the first day of the war. Einsatzkommando entered Lithuania one day behind the Wehrmacht invasion to encourage Lithuanians to engage in “self-cleansing”. According to German documents, on 25–26 June 1941, about 1,500 Jews were murdered by Lithuanian partisans. Many synagogues were set on fire; on the following nights another 2,300 were killed. The civil unrest provided justification for the rounding up of Jews, confiscation of their property and putting them in makeshift ghettos for their own “protection”. Within weeks, most Jews in hundreds of shtetls across the countryside were marched into the forests near their homes, made to dig pits and then shot. In Mord’s home town of Rasein, for example, of its approximately 2000 Jewish residents (30% of the pre-war population), only a handful survived by hiding with Lithuanian peasants. By the end of 1941, it is estimated that 80% of Lithuanian Jewry had been killed. The remaining 43,000 Jews were concentrated in the Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai, and Švenčionys ghettos and forced to work for the German military industry. In June 1943 all ghettos were liquidated, and Jews were sent to concentration camps. Only about 2,000–3,000 Lithuanian Jews were ultimately liberated from these camps. About another 1,650 Jews managed to escape the ghettos and joined the partisans. And, a few hundred were hidden during the war by “righteous Lithuanian gentiles”. About a further 8,000 survived by being deported to the Soviet Union or serving in the Red Army.
Michael Kransdorff is a Harvard-educated financial innovator. In addition to crunching numbers, politics and Jewish history are his passions. He cut his teeth in Jewish activism as one of the SAUJS leaders at the UN Durban Racism Conference and has remained involved in Jewish communal affairs. Michael heads-up a Litvak heritage research group for the Zarasai (North Eastern) region of Lithuania. He has made numerous heritage research trips to Eastern Europe.