My father’s father, Harry Slott, grew up in a small village in Lithuania called Pushalot, where two thirds of the 1,200 residents were Jewish. He was apparently a good student, as he was sent to study at the prestigious Slabodka Yeshiva, a great honor for a boy from a shtetl. After his studies, my grandfather was hired by a wealthy Latvian Jewish landowner to tutor his children. There, Harry fell in love with Celia, one of the rich man’s daughters. During a visit home in Pushalot, he was “drafted” into the Czar’s army with a group of boys, a well-known practice of legally sanctioned abduction that often led to a loss of faith, family, and identity. As luck would have it, the guard “escorting” the young Jews fell asleep, and my grandfather was able to jump off the train. At this point, he was guilty of desertion, a capital offense, and had to flee Europe.
He made his way to America, and like many of the immigrants from Pushalot, ended up in Jacksonville, Florida. From there, he wrote to Celia, asking her to join him in the New World. This all happened at the beginning of the 20th century, and we all know how fortunate they were that their lives took them away from a world that would become a nightmare several decades later. My father was born of this storybook romance in 1922, and while we always knew that our people came from Pushalot, the family assumed that the town no longer existed.
We did have a family tree reaching back to my grandfather’s grandfather, a man referred to as Maisa Meisel Slott, which in the 1970’s included over 1,200 people, almost all of them in America. A portrait of the old patriarch hung in the hall outside my bedroom, and I myself always guessed that his name was actually Moshe Misha’el. Other than that, we knew nothing of Pushalot, and the Iron Curtain seemingly guaranteed that we never would.
But in the 1990s, after Lithuania became the first of the former Soviet Republics to declare independence, some distant cousins did the legwork for me. They found the town, the old synagogue and the cemetery, and they identified a handful of houses that remained from the days of the shtetl.
For reasons that I can not quite articulate, I always wanted to visit the village. Maybe it’s because I never knew my grandfather, who died before I was born, and it was a way of feeling connected. Perhaps it was the same geography-based curiosity that led to my career as a tour guide. In any event, this summer I found myself playing navigator to my wife, Miriam, a loyal partner if there ever was one, as she drove through Lithuanian farmland looking for Pushalot, over 100 years after young Harry Slott fled the country.
As we entered the little town, Miriam noticed a large but weathered barn-like building with a shiny black sign on the side. This building had once been the synagogue. The text of the sign, in Yiddish, Lithuanian, and English read:
In memory of Pushalot Jews who lived and worked for centuries, in peace with their neighbors, and those who were uprooted and murdered by the Nazi murderers and their accomplices in 1941. May their memory be a blessing.
There was something slightly cautious, and perhaps even a little bit ironic, about the wording: The Jews of Pushalot were not killed by the Nazis; they were slaughtered by their gentile neighbors as soon as the German Army invaded and the Soviets retreated.
It was moving to stand in front of the place where my grandfather had prayed as a young man, but my true search was for the graves of my ancestors, particularly the somber-looking Maisa Meisel whose portrait greeted me every morning on my way to brush my teeth as a child.
We began to look for the Jewish cemetery in the general proximity of the synagogue, wandering in ever-widening circles among the small farms. My intrepid Miriam approached a Lithuanian woman and managed with some difficulty to communicate our quest. Greatly excited, she walked with us a few hundred meters, pointed, hugged us both, crossed herself, and disappeared. We had arrived at a grassy fenced-in field with some old stones popping up at various angles. Some were immediately legible. Some clearly had once been legible but were now just scratched boulders, and a few were merely pieces of stone lying on the ground.
Thanks to the aforementioned cousins’ thorough research, I had some idea of where Maisa Meisel’s grave was. The map was laid out in a tidy grid, as though the whole cemetery could be divided into rows and columns, but that was far from the case. We began to concentrate in one area. We had brought shaving cream. The trick is to spread shaving cream all over the stone’s surface, then wipe it off, leaving behind only the foam that fills in the cracks. Suddenly the Hebrew letters appear in white. Or not: On some of the graves, the letters have been completely worn away. On others we discovered people who were not among my ancestors, though in a village of 800 Jews, probably everyone was a relative by marriage of some kind or another.
It was a messy business, smearing shaving cream, constantly wiping my hands with a rag, while Miriam held the list of names. And then, the letters appeared: Moshe Misha’el ben Avraham HaLevi. People of my generation and origin may appreciate that I felt like the exuberant James Earl Jones at the end of the mini-series Roots (“You old African!! Kunta Kinte, I’ve found you!”).
Our trip to Lithuania lasted only three nights and two full days. We visited the home of Sugihara, the Japanese consul who saved 6,000 Jews during the Holocaust, we saw the site of the Slabodka Yeshiva, which became the Kovno ghetto, and we toured Kaunas and Vilnius (or as my grandfather would have called them, Kovno and Vilna), like any other tourist.
I should say “almost” like any other tourist: No Jew can visit Eastern Europe without thinking of the Holocaust: Kovno was 35% Jewish before World War II. Vilna, the nation’s capital, was once 45% Jewish. Those people are gone, starved, shot, and gassed, men women and children, a glorious 600-year-old Jewish community wiped out by an ineffable cruel madness. They are the silent chaperones of any visit to the lands of the Shoah.
Yet something odd and almost embarrassing happened to me: I couldn’t be angry at the Lithuanians I met. They were cheerful, helpful and polite, and treated us warmly, both before and after they knew we were Jews. In this global 21st century, they seemed to have much more in common with me than old Maisa Meisel would have had. Must we, I asked myself, be ambivalent about every person whose grandfather might have helped the Nazis kill Jews? The Jews of Pushalot were killed in 1941. No one under 94 could have been an adult participant in that slaughter. Perhaps there are some 100-year-old monsters still roaming the streets of the village, but I doubt it.
Some day the Holocaust will be like the Spanish Inquisition, or the Crusades, or the destruction of the Temple: Historical tragedies that befell our people and that we remember every year, but not traumas haunting survivors that we have spoken to and embraced. Our grandchildren will mark Yom Hashoah but will never hear the testimony of a living witness. It will be different somehow. We do not, after all, think twice before visiting Seville because Jews were burned at the stake there under Torquemada.
While I visit Yad Vashem regularly as a guide, I am still stunned, horrified, and depressed every time anew. But walking around that grassy field in Pushalot, I was more confused than angry. I was astonished at the sweep of history that the 20th century has wrought: I am the great-great grandson of a Lithuanian egg peddler, the grandson of a Talmudic scholar turned Florida shopkeeper, the son of an American engineer, and the father of Israeli soldiers. Perhaps this is why a “roots trip” is so important: Cartwheeling through continents, we are all a bit rootless. We need memory; we crave memory. It’s part of our DNA as Jews.