It’s always hard to find words. Everyone has heroes. Here’s one of mine. And it’s not often you have the privilege of meeting one.
Fania Brantovsky was born to a family of secular Bundist Jews (left-wing, ham-eating), yet which respected and held to Jewish tradition too. She was trainee teacher when, in her native Lithuania in 1941, the Germans came: it was, ‘the beginning and the end, all at once’.
In September, Fania and her family, having escaped the massacres of the summer, were rounded up and put in the ghetto. There, they worked. Initially, it was merely murder, mostly by Lithuanians. But as the Germans realised that a the hoped for quick victory was not going to come, they needed slave labour: the young, fit and healthy Fania survived.
Some of the young people, like Fania, were not content with merely trying to survive; they dug tunnels, and smuggled arms into the ghetto. A rising failed, and when these young rebels got word of the ghettos imminent liquidation in 1943, and their inevitable deaths, they kissed their unknowing families goodbye: every single member of Fania’s family was killed, bar her.
She escaped. She backed a partisan, hidden in the forests. She fought back, she killed; she killed Germans, and their Lithuanian collaborators. She was no less a soldier than any of those that fought Nazism. She was, is, a hero.
Abraham Sutzkever was another Lithuanian Jew. He was already a published poet, at first in Hebrew, then in Yiddish, before the war. In their gothically bizarre way, the Nazis wanted to create a museum of the very Jewish culture they sought to destroy. When the Vilna ghetto was created, Sutzkever was given the job of saving the key parts of the great Jewish seat of learning that had been Vilna, as Jews knew Vilnius, the ‘Jerusalem of the North’.
Like Fania Brantovsky, Abraham Sutzkever resisted. In the first place, by hiding the great Jewish treasures of Vilna (such as a diary by the founder of Zionizm, Theodore Herzel) and feeding the his captors lesser goods. In the meantime, however, his mother and daughter were murdered by the Nazis. In 1943, he and his wife also became partisans.
Rachel Konstanian (here, with Fania) was the lucky one. The daughter of senior Soviet officials, she escaped Lithuania. She was not to forget. She founded the Green House Museum in Vilnius, after Lithuania won its independence. Unlike the official Lithuanian museum, which almost ignores the Holocaust, this tells the true story. She shows a picture of Fania’ s family. I asked her why she had devoted so much of her life to this remembrance. She looked me in the eye and said, simply, ‘rage’.
Abraham Sutzkever enjoyed a long life, moving to Israel in 1947; he was one of the last great Yiddish poets, dying in 2010. Fania Brantovsky has had a similarly full life, is still in Vilnius, and still talking to those who will listen about what happened to her, and hers. She killed, and she doesn’t regret it. There have even been attempts to have her arraigned for war crimes for the killings of Lithuanian collaborators. She fought. I will always be proud to say that I met her.
Millions were killed, fewer lived, in what remains the worst crime in history: an attempt to murder an entire people. And a culture was killed: Yiddish culture, a thousand and more years of the Germanic Jewish culture that was so central to Jewish life was swept aside.
The dead are, tragically, the dead. Tonight, I’d like to salute the recently dead, and the living. Those who were murdered, of course; also those who lived, and fought back.
This is one of my favourite poems:
My daughter, you must care for your toys,
Poor things, they’re even smaller than you.
Every night, when the fire goes to sleep,
Cover them with the stars of the tree.
Let the golden pony graze
The cloudy sweetness of the field.
Lace up the little boy’s boots
When the sea-eagle blows cold.
Tie a straw hat on your doll
And put a bell in her hand.
For not one of them has a mother,
And so they cry out to God.
Love them, your little princesses—
I remember a cursed night
When there were dolls left in all seven streets
Of the city. And not one child.
ABRAHAM SUTZKEVER (translated from the Yiddish by Chana Bloch)
And here is Sutzkever in his own words.
Thanks be to God, Rachel still runs her museum. Fania can still guide people through the forests she fought from, and very much speak for herself. Judaism is so big on words. Both she and Sutzkever fought with guns; the fight was carried on with words too. In the human ashes of Auschwitz, Jewish orderlies who knew they would be killed hid accounts of what had happened. Jews like words.