Yurburg, Our Past, Our Future?


It’s been several weeks now, since I first heard of Yurburg, Lithuania, a small village (or large Jewish shtetl) of about 2,000 people. It was placed a a beautiful river, and had been about the same size for about four hundred years. Sherry’s (my wife) DNA results have not come back, proving that at least part of her family was from the Baltic States area. The actual print records prove that, I have the copy of a US Embassy form that was filled out in Riga, Latvia by Jenny Berkover, Sherry’s grandmother, asking to be allowed to come to the US to join her husband. As the current state of affairs proves, it isn’t always easy to make it to America.

So what happens if people are denied the request? No one is certain of the future, but if you are careful you can see signs, and possibilities. Jenny asked to leave in 1920, her husband Hershel had left in 1913. What caused him to leave his wife and family and go to a strange country to live as a stranger in a strange land?

The quick answer is that he could not see a future in the place where he was, and that the promise of a future in America was more of a reality. The Czar had fired all the Jewish tailors making uniforms for his army, Hershel could have stayed to sew for the people in Yurburg, but he didn’t. He followed the dream of America. I can conceive of this as a concept, but I can’t begin to even pretend to accept it as a reality. How bad would have to be before I would pack up and leave my home, live in a country where I don’t speak the language, and where I have no friends or relatives? Where would I go?

This couple leaves Yurburg and starts over in a new place. Remarkably, they are successful, they start a business, they join a religious community, and I suppose they write to the family that is left behind, “Don’t worry about us! We are doing fine!” What they don’t know is that by leaving the old country, they are escaping the doomed future that would take twenty years to appear, but Hershel saw it coming.

As I said, it’s been several weeks now since I heard the town name of Yurburg.

Vaguely I had remembered the town of Kaunas. In reading about the history of the Holocaust (or Shoah), I had come across the “Death Dealer of Kaunas”, a young man that stood in a town square surrounded on all sides by nationalist Lithuanians, German soldiers, and the local police. This was just days after the German invasion of 1941, but before the Germans had actually taken control. A group of Jews had been brought to the square from the recently created ghetto, created by the first wave of the Nazis. This young man had an iron bar, that he swung until there was a pile of death at his feet, then he found an accordion and played the Lithuanian national anthem, while standing on the bodies. That was the first time I had heard about Kaunas.

If you know me, or read much of this blog, you will know that I am interested in history. I read what has been written with the understanding that, largely, history is written by the victors. I am sadly aware of the history of war and the brutalities that humans inflict upon other humans.

I have studied the rape of Nanking by Japan against China, I have read about the fall of Rome in 1527 and the horrific pillage that caused some to write that it must be the end of the Renaissance because it was so awful. I’ve read about Wounded Knee, and the Massacre of the Huguenots. History has repeated over and over that we are not very far from being savage and unspeakably cruel. Here’s a thought… do we believe that Neanderthals existed? Do we actually think that they assimilated? Sure, maybe we all have a little Neanderthal DNA, but it is more likely that they were the first victims of genocide.

Every Muslim, every Jew, and every local Christian in Jerusalem was killed by the Crusaders when the walls fell in 1099. They made no distinction. There are written descriptions of horses standing, knee deep in blood, in some of the lower alleyways within the city walls.

I know of these things because I read. I am affected by this, but I am not crippled by cynicism. Bad things have happened, good things have happened. Genocide of the Native Americans by Europeans did occur. Genocide by Native Americans against other Native Americans also occurred. Vlad the Impaler lived up to his name, and Hitler murdered over six million Jews, Gypsies and political enemies.

But the story of Yurburg has been different for me. It is horrific, to be sure, but it is also personal, and fresh, like an open wound!

Most of my ancestry is apparently Scandinavian, I have also found German relatives that colonized Polish swampland. I know that at least one Panzer tank commander with my last name, drove to his death in the vastness of the bleak Russian winter in 1943. I know that at the end of the war that dozens of my relatives were raped, and killed by the advancing Russians, and that after surviving, they were forced from their homes, and driven into East Germany because the borders had changed.

And I also known that I married, and that my wife’s family became my family. Cousins, and uncles, and grandparents were taken from Yurburg and murdered. What am I to do with this? How can I remember this without being overwhelmed by the horror. How do I inform my children and grandchildren without scarring them forever, or at the very least, creating fear and distrust?

As adults we need to know that people are safe, or they are not safe. We need to move forward, regardless of the past. It is good to think of our children as the future, it is hopeful.

It is also true that we are the results of the past, and that is a warning.