The hidden, humbling history of the Litvaks
Kęstutis Pikūnas put together a beautiful coffee table book called ‘Passport – The Litvaks’ about the Jews of Lithuania. Being Lithuanian and having grown up there, he knew nothing about Litvaks beforehand. The SA Jewish Report asked him about his experience.
How did this project come about, and do you have a Litvak background?
When I first started writing these Passports, my goal was to present Lithuania in an annual English publication for a foreign audience.
Being Lithuanian and having lived abroad for many years, I wanted to tell the story of Lithuania through its people from the best possible angle. This ambition came from bitter personal experience and the fact that many people identified me as a foreigner who came from a culturally and economically poor country. It triggered a sense of inferiority and frustration, leading me to try to prove everyone wrong.
Little did I know that as I interviewed luminaries, I learnt humbling life lessons. I realised how little I knew about the history of my homeland and how selective and superficial my approach was. This was the beginning of my journey.
I don’t have a Litvak background and when I started the project, I didn’t plan to dedicate one whole publication to the Litvaks. This was because I knew very little (or close to nothing) about Litvak culture, heritage, and history.
I was born at the time when Lithuania was still under the Soviet regime, so we didn’t learn about it at school, nor did my parents talk about it at home.
When I was compiling the second volume, I met Professor Irena Veisaitė, who was among the few Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Meeting her was an eye-opener.
Hearing her extraordinary story of survival and courage, I was left with countless unsettling questions. How come I had only learnt about this now? Why was my perception so superficial for so many years? Where does this disinterest and denial come from?
This initial conversation led to a dear friendship and further discoveries. After interviewing her for the second volume, which also features an interview with South African cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (known as Zapiro) and Litvak businessman Eli Broad, it was clear to me that the third volume would be dedicated to the Litvaks.
What did you expect to learn from the project?
I had way more questions than answers. As I learnt more, I felt a deep sense of shame about the massacres and local collaborators.
To this day, I find it hard to comprehend how, in this modern day and age, we still choose to turn a blind eye to the uncomfortable truth, trying to forget rather than talk openly about it.
It always puzzled me. We all know that Jews lived in Lithuania for hundreds of years. They created, built, and loved together. There are plenty of signs all across Lithuania of that. But I understand that realisation comes gradually. This is what this experience has taught me.
What were you trying to achieve and why?
I wanted to induce empathy and honest dialogue. I believe storytelling is a powerful tool, and it can work miracles if it captures the reader’s attention on a personal level.
I’m happy that I had an opportunity to record and perpetuate what I consider an inseparable part of Lithuanian history.
A friend of mine (I had no idea he was Jewish), whom I interviewed, said, “History is made up of facts, but treating these facts selectively, choosing what feels acceptable and familiar but ignoring anything that may be unpleasant, is foolish. This road leads to nowhere, and often results in hostility.”
I believe that knowing history through its dry facts and figures is one thing, but being able to understand the events and reasons why and how it all happened is another.
Another important detail which is important to mention is that I didn’t have to do this book, I chose to do it. It was never my intention to invent something new, quite the opposite. I wanted to feel it, discover it, and “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”. And I don’t regret a single minute of it.
What were the stories/anecdotes that stood out for you and why?
It would be hard to pick out one story that stood out the most while compiling this publication as they all are personal and delicate. Probably the reaction of my peers surprised me most as I was keen to learn what my family and friends knew about Lithuanian Jews and the history of Lithuanian Jewry. To this day, there are so many ridiculous superstitions, myths, and twisted narratives about the Jews. I simply don’t get it. As for anecdotes, there aren’t that many, and they are far from funny.
What were the most emotionally tough parts to deal with?
Quite a few. Being at murder sites and talking to Holocaust survivors about their experiences moved me immensely. It would be impossible to describe that feeling in words as it’s utterly incomprehensible how this could have happened. Just standing there next to a pit, or simply looking into a person’s eyes who witnessed the atrocities without saying a word, these silent moments speak volumes to me.
Was there anything uplifting and inspiring in the process?
The courage of those who stayed true to human values. Those who resisted, and risked their own lives to save their neighbours or even a stranger. Their stories and testimonies will stay with me for the rest of my life. Of course, becoming friends with those who contributed and those whom I interviewed for this publication is another rewarding experience.
What were your impressions of the South African Litvaks you spoke to?
I only had the chance to interview Robbie Brozin, who later introduced me to Justice Albie Sachs. Each of their stories are unique and valuable. I have to admit that even in my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have thought that I would ever have the chance not only to interview them, but make friends with them. This is very important. I keep in touch with them and our friendship is dear to me.
How did you deal with the South African aspect of the book?
The story of South African Jews is unique. Not many people know that more than 90% of the Jews in South Africa came from Lithuania. Right before the pandemic, I was planning to go to South Africa together with the photographer and spend some time there documenting. As strong and insightful as Albie and Robbie’s interviews are, I believe it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that in the near future it will be possible to travel again and continue what has been started.
What was the reason for putting Sachs on the cover?
Our first conversation lasted for maybe more than three hours and prior to that, we simply agreed to talk, without a set list of questions or any further commitments. I’m happy that Sachs kindly agreed to our talk being transcribed, edited, and published. He embodies everything that this publication is about. I could go on and on about the reasons why Albie is on the cover, but I believe that G-d is in the details. And I have to say that Steve Gordon, a dear friend of Albie, took fantastic photographs.
On completion of this book, what have you learnt about the Litvaks?
An awful lot! I quote Meryl Frank, a Litvak from the United States, whom I also interviewed: “The worst thing a person can do to another is to ignore them, to fail to see them, and erase them from history. I have seen a change in Lithuania over the 15 years I’ve been visiting the city of Vilnius [Vilna]. I believe that with the passage of time and the recognition of history, there is a possibility for building bridges.” I honestly believe that there is no better time than now to reach out for each other’s hand. The truth has the power to liberate.
What would you want those who read your book to learn or understand?
This is probably the hardest questions of all, because while compiling this book, I was often asked questions like: “Why is this important?”; “Why should I care about the past?”; “Why do you care?” and so on and so forth. I think there’s no right answer to this question. I truly hope that the reader will take away a sense of empathy and compassion.
Why do you believe this is an important book, and who is it important for?
The book is relevant to everyone, and it’s especially important for us ethnic Lithuanians, Lithuanian Jews, and Litvaks. It’s a genuine invitation to review and, hopefully, renew the relationship.
The miracle of the maroon handkerchief
Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.
Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.
A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.
“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.
Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.
In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”
A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.
The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.
“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”
So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.
She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”
She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”
Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”
Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.
Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”
Orthodox women make case for life beyond Netflix
As the spotlight shines on the introduction of the “Jewish Kardashians” in My Unorthodox Life, ordinary Jewish woman have begun to air their own stories under the title of #MyOrthodoxLife.
Their personal portraits are in response to the Netflix series, and other shows like Unorthodox and the documentary One of Us that depict people who reject Orthodox communities, and paint them as stifling and oppressive environments.
The SA Jewish Report invited six women in the South African Jewish community to add to the gallery of reflections that stretch beyond the streaming service.
As a starting point, many of them cautioned against trying to confine the complexities of Jewish identity into neat categories: “What does the word ‘religious’ mean? Keeping Shabbos and kosher and wearing a skirt? There are 613 other mitzvot. Why have we chosen those three as the barometer for religiosity?” asks Chaya Ross.
For her, the concept of “religious” is a social imposition. “I don’t think Hashem makes such distinctions. In Hashem’s eyes, I believe we’re all Jewish, the Torah belongs to all of us equally, and His only expectation of us is for us to do our best and to try be better than we were yesterday,” she says.
She suggests that Jewish identity isn’t set, but an ongoing process. “In Judaism, growth is gradual, consistent, small steps to an eventual goal. Making these distinctions in Judaism can stop organic growth and close us off to what could be great spiritual and connecting experiences.”
Breindy Klawansky, suggests that labels across the Jewish community can easily be misunderstood. “Your religious identity is your spiritual relationship and ties to Hashem and the Torah. No one can know how spiritual someone else is. If it’s hard to understand your own relationship with Hashem, then imagine how hard it is to understand someone else’s.”
Adrienne Kay says that even within the concept of orthodoxy lies a “spectrum” of experiences. “It definitely depends upon where you and your community are holding. I can talk only from the South African perspective, and the level at which I’m holding. There are definitely more liberal and more stringent Orthodox communities.”
These women celebrate the importance of communality, especially in South Africa. “South Africans Jews are extremely lucky,” says Lesley Sacks. “We are unique in that even if you’re not remotely frum, a lot of South African Jews consider themselves Orthodox and very traditional.”
Rebbetzin Estee Stern, says that in her home, inclusivity was always embraced as “my parents instilled within us respect for each person, no matter their background or level of Jewish observance.”
“The South African Jewish community is united,” says Ross. “We have one Beth Din; we daven in the same shuls; and our lives are connected beyond the type of kippah our husbands and sons wear. Instead, we are connected in the way that we answer each other’s questions on Joburg Jewish Mommies; in the way that we chat in the line at Moishies on a Friday; and in the way that our tehillim WhatsApp groups represent every type of kippah or non-kippah wearing Jew.”
In addition, many express a deep sense of fulfilment in Jewish femininity. “Judaism is very pro-feminism,” says Sacks. “Anyone that knows even a little bit of Judaism, knows that it’s not true that women are second-class citizens.” Having become more religious since young adulthood, Sacks says it doesn’t mean that she “didn’t have meaning in [her] life before”, but [becoming more religious] has brought joy to it. “It’s now intrinsically part of who and what I am.”
“I’ve never once felt subjugated as an Orthodox Jewish woman. In fact, I feel empowered and proud,” says Kay. She gives examples of the extensive career opportunities enjoyed by Orthodox women.
“Rachel [Ruchie] Freier is a criminal court judge in New York from a religious Hasidic community. Beatie Deutsch, a frum Israeli woman, is considered to be amongst the top marathon runners in the world. She’s a 31-year-old mother of six, and runs in modest clothing.”
Klawansky is an award-winning musician and singer in her own right. Though she performs only to women, incorporating tehillim verses in her cutting-edge style, her expressiveness has such powerful resonance, it has even crossed cultural lines. Alongside her husband, the duo has received a Global Music Award and a South African Music Award nomination. Most recently, two of her poems have been selected for publication in an international anthology. Rather than feeling restricted, Klawansky asserts quite simply, “My music is in me…”
The women also say that we need to expand the way in which we measure success and fulfilment. Stern points out that the home is the beating heart of a healthy society. “It’s at home that the bedrock of our Judaism is set. The foundation of a home is the woman. She sets the tone, the environment, and the culture for the family. Judaism places much value and emphasis on women. I strongly believe that if you inspire a woman, you inspire a family. And if you inspire a family, you inspire communities!”
Ross notes how “when the Torah was given, Hashem said to Moshe that he must first go and talk to the women and instruct them about the ways of Torah, and then only after that instruct the men. The reason for this, amongst other things, is that women play a central role in giving over the Torah to their children, and imbuing their homes with it.”
Far from feeling cut off from modern society, they describe how Judaism helps them find balance in what otherwise can feel like a frenetic pace. “The thing I wish everyone understood is the power of Shabbos,” says Blumenthal. “I run my own business, and it often causes boundaries to be blurred, but when Friday afternoon arrives and I can turn off my phone and close my laptop, there’s no greater feeling. Without having that distinct boundary between the work week and my down time, I wouldn’t survive, and it’s because of the gift of Shabbos that I’m able to push forward, keep going, and do the best work for my clients.”
Kay concurs in the pleasures of life beyond Netflix in more ways than one. “In my personal Orthodox life, I have found a balance between modernity and the ancient traditions of Judaism. I love the fact that on Shabbos, I switch off from the modern world, including cell phones and TV, and find a unique peace with myself and a deep connection to G-d.”
COVID-19 crashes the party for kosher caterers
The sudden closure of Gary Friedman Caterers, one of Johannesburg’s largest and much-loved kosher caterers, has left the community in shock and shone a spotlight on a troubled industry dramatically affected by the pandemic.
During the best of times, kosher catering is tough, the overheads and costs are high, the margins are small, and the community is dwindling, say insiders. During bad times, it’s seemingly impossible, and many are hanging by a thread.
According to many insiders who wish to remain anonymous, the world of kosher is fraught with a toxic blend of favouritism, nepotism, and fierce competitiveness which has led to market cannibalism and an unsustainable future for many.
Kosher industry players are doing what they can to stay afloat. Innovative ideas by one caterer advertised on Facebook are sometimes copied the next day by another, sometimes for less. Several establishments are selling the same products or dishes, often at lower prices than their neighbouring kosher competitors. The exorbitant and rising cost of meat and chicken continues to rear its head and plague consumers.
Even before COVID-19, but certainly during the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of home industries that profess to be kosher but aren’t certified by the Beth Din. These are run by people who are also trying to make an honest living. However, they are having a negative impact on the bigger players who have Beth Din kosher licencing fees, mashgichim fees, high rentals, large staff complements, and other business overheads to account for.
Kosher caterers and restaurateurs have been hit doubly hard by the see-saw, stop-start nature of business during wave after wave of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. An industry heavily reliant on simchas, celebrations, and festive good times, it has taken an irreparable knock. In spite of impressive pivoting, unprecedented resilience, grit, and hard work, many say it has become too difficult.
“It’s a very difficult time,” said Leonard Meyerowitz of Kosher Pie Works and Jozi Coffee Pizza Pasta. COVID-19 restrictions with no seating at eateries or very limited numbers at functions; the drastic drop to zero simchas from shul brochas, brit milah, weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs have taken a toll.
“Add to this the number of days we are closed because of Shabbos, fast days, and Jewish holidays, rising emigration, not to forget Eskom power cuts, it’s really hard on all of us,” he said.
South Africa has enjoyed being a flagship of kosher food around the world, but it’s slowly losing its big anchor establishments, said one concerned supplier.
Just after noon on Tuesday, 6 July, Gary and his wife, Tamara, dropped the bombshell in a letter to all their clients and suppliers explaining that their company was no longer able to weather the storm of COVID-19.
It brought to an end an era of simcha and revelry at the HOD, where he largely operated from. Friedman declined to comment further.
Several caterers and kosher suppliers this week expressed genuine sadness, perhaps seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of his company’s demise. “I was devastated when I heard the news,” said trained chef and caterer Hayley Hack. “Gary is such a good, kind man.”
Hack and her former partner, Sharon Sheer, parted ways amicably when COVID-19 decimated their once thriving, small catering and function co-ordinating business.
“It simply wasn’t financially viable to work as a team anymore, especially with 90% of our functions being cancelled. We walked away with a heavy heart, but at least we didn’t incur debt. It’s very sad because we were established in the industry,” she said.
In the beginning, they tried to make money by selling delicious salad dressings and delivering meals, but found that it wasn’t viable, so parted ways to work on their own after terminating their contract with function venue The Middleton in Morningside. Hack continues to cater on a small scale and Sheer remains hopeful that functions will resume and things will get better once lockdown is lifted.
Long-time caterer Estelle Sacharowitz of Love is in the Kitchen said she was “heartbroken” when she heard about Friedman. “He has an incredible legacy. This is a sad loss for the industry,” she said.
Ian Isenberg, of Spice Premium Biltong & Butchery said, “Gary is the ultimate mensch in the industry. He gave me a chance as a newcomer, and even when the chips were down for him, he still helped to cater a wedding [last month] for a couple who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot for the community and his staff. This is a huge loss.”
Some caterers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion say the Gary Friedman closure goes far beyond caterers.
In spite of a humbled Beth Din following the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal and the continuing saga of the high cost of kosher food, the organisation is seemingly unsympathetic at this time, they say.
“The Beth Din has improved its accessibility and receptivity, but it’s still not customer-centric and now more than ever, it needs to be,” said one kosher caterer who wished to remain anonymous.
“Where is the Beth Din now when we need all the support we can get?” asked another.
“Kosher food and catering is prohibitive. The Beth Din has to do something about the exorbitant cost of kosher meat and chicken, end of story,” said another commentator, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Kosher chicken breasts cost between R244 and R268 per kilogram. Something isn’t right. It has become utterly unaffordable, and it’s affecting caterers and restaurants.
“Young couples are battling to keep kosher. Many are deciding it’s easier not to. My biggest concern is that kashrut is going to be diluted as more and more people resort to ‘kosher style’ food which is not under the Beth Din, like you see happening more and more in places like Australia.”
Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of kashrut at the Beth Din, said the closure of Gary Friedman Caterers had come as a “huge blow to all of us”.
“We are in discussion with Gary as to various possibilities of how to assist him,” he said.
Kosher SA remained dedicated to ensuring the highest kosher standard, Goldstein said. “At the same time, we will continue to look at ways to assist all our establishments. We have, to date, provided payment holidays across the board during hard lockdowns, and extended help on a case-by-case basis.
“We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that all our certified food services are going through.”
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