Lost in the woods, and it was quiet

I recently saw the Polish film “Aftermath” at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a compelling portrayal of two brothers who confront local animosity as they uncover the truth about what happened to the Jews of their village during the Holocaust.  I can see why this film was controversial in Poland, raising serious questions about Polish complicity in the murder of their neighbors, beyond that which was wrought by the invading German army.

Several scenes brought back memories of my own experience hunting for Jewish mass graves in the hinterlands of Eastern Europe. In May 2012, I tacked on a couple extra days to a work trip in Lithuania to explore a tiny Jewish shtetl where my then-girlfriend’s relatives once lived. Her father had heard there was still a Jewish cemetery there, and that somewhere outside of town was supposed to be a mass grave where the village’s Jews were murdered in the 1940s. Appealing to the allure of on-the-ground historical sleuthing, she convinced me to check out the scene.

The first task involved renting a car. An employee showed up at my hotel in Vilnius with a white VW Golf, and as we sat in the car filling out paperwork she skeptically raised her eyebrows. “Are you sure you can drive this?”

“Oh totally,” I said.  “I drive a stick shift at home.  Um, but what does that street sign over there mean?”

IMG_0276“That means ‘one-way only’.”

“Okay, gotcha.  And how about that one?”

With ever-increasing doubt in her voice, she said, “No parking.”

“Ah, okay,” I said.  “And how about that one?”

“That means STOP!  Are you SURE you can do this?”

“Yeah yeah, I got this,” I said. “I’m kidding about the stop sign, I knew that one.”

She gave me her number. And her boyfriend’s number.  And then her parent’s house – everywhere she would be all day. “Call me when you get there and then again when you are on your way back. So I know everything is okay.” She was definitely not older than twenty-one.

Off I went, stop signs memorized, but the one-ways threw me for a loop and I had to make a few circuits around the neighborhood before getting on the highway. Then I realized everything was in kilometers. And the signs weren’t in English. And the only radio stations I could find were either playing horrific dance-pop music or Lithuanian talk shows. But I drove forward into a corner of Lithuania tucked between the borders of Poland and Belarus. Ground-zero for the massive eastward march of the Nazi juggernaut, and the murderous rage that came with it.

I rolled into the small village of Seirijai, a small, pretty, serene place that in some spots looked like a suburb and in other places retained the ramshackle rural buildings you picture when you think “shtetl.”  Tractors in the field.  Cows standing around.  A guy mowing his lawn shirtless in camouflage pants.  Huge wind turbines looming overhead.

Memorial at the Seirijai Jewish cemetery

The Jewish cemetery was in better shape than I expected but worse off than it should be. A groomed path from a parking lot led to a Yiddish and Lithuanian memorial, but beyond that it was broken and half-buried tombstones and weeds up to my waist, and lots of emptiness. Still, there were probably two dozen tombstones in near-perfect preservation, and several others where some detail could be made out. I was surprised at the randomness – no stones for several yards, then all of a sudden one would poke out above the brush, standing defiantly alone as if to say “over here, too, our ancestors lay.”

I was a little wary of how I looked way out there, this Westerner plowing through the tall grasses of the Jewish cemetery, camera snapping every angle, pausing to write notes, pushing aside branches, grabbing at foliage. But the few people I encountered in town just gave me benign half-smiles, and I didn’t try to talk with anyone.

IMG_0236From what little I could surmise from cryptic hints on the internet, there was supposed to be a mass grave site just outside the city, possibly in the nearby Barauciske forest.  This is where I got lost.

There was actually a sign on the side of the road pointing in the general direction of the forest, indicating (in Lithuanian) a Jewish genocide site.  Once I entered the forest, however, I ended up bouncing my little rental all over potholed dirt roads, scraping bushes along the side of the car, dipping in and out of the woods, and at one point crossing the middle of a plowed field.  I buzzed by two tractors, which didn’t even pause.

Finally, in the middle of nowhere and nervous about continuing to scrape the bottom of the Golf, I stopped the car in a dirt path and determined to walk into the forest for exactly five minutes – and if I didn’t find anything, then I would turn around.

I entered Barauciske forest on a beautiful spring day, the sun high in the sky, and at exactly the five minute mark I suddenly came upon a flimsy fence open to a long, rectangular clearing.

Mass grave in Barauciske forest.

I stepped through the fence onto the mass grave.  This wasn’t like visiting a concentration camp or a museum, with the tour guides and the informational displays and the detailed maps. This was where the Jews of Seirijai still lay, and the path I just walked through the woods was the route they marched. The trees the same trees they saw at their end, the lake the last time they ever saw water.

The stillness and quiet of this beautiful spot were nerve-wracking, eerie.  There was no one else there to share the moment, yet I had that distinct feeling you get while being secretly watched. Were the birds chirping to each other about this rare visitor? Was that rustling behind me a lizard coming to see who is here? Were the trees leaning in to remember the last time they saw Jews at this spot?

Memorial at the mass grave.

A well-tended memorial (with flowers and fresh candles – who comes out here to take care of this place?), followed up by information I learned the next day at Vilnius’ Holocaust museum, indicated that on September 11, 1941, Seirijai’s 953 Jewish men, women, and children were murdered here by the German army after being forced to dig their own grave. The few minutes I was alone here were the creepiest I can ever remember. To stand there in broad daylight was like being home alone on a dark night in a storm. I was rattled. I took a few pictures, said a hasty Kaddish, and practically ran back to my car, bizarrely anxious during my half-run through the woods that my embattled Golf would be gone and I would be stuck forever in Barauciske forest.

So I can appreciate to some extent the reaction of the villagers in “Aftermath.”  Who wants to confront these things? I barely lasted ten minutes at this killing field – what if I had to live on top of it, knowing day after day that it was here? Maybe I, too, would want to cover up the past, deny any complicity, and beat to a pulp those who try to rend the tranquility of this place.

On the other hand, if you know it’s there, how could you ever forget it?

As I drove out of the forest, I called the girl from the rental agency to let her know I was heading back. “Good,” she said. “Did everything go okay?”

I mean, how was I supposed to answer that?

About the Author
Jason Harris is the host and producer of Jew Oughta Know, a podcast that tells the story of the Jewish People from Genesis to modern Israel. He has taken hundreds of young adults on trips to Israel, and holds master's degrees in Jewish studies from Brandeis University. Prior to his work in the Jewish community he served as a senior staffer to a U.S. Member of Congress. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.