St. Petersburg Jews Honor 1941 Nazi Massacre Victims

A solemn ceremony was held here this week to mark the 55th anniversary of the mass murder of 600 Jews by Nazi soldiers in this small town, which is now considered to be the northernmost reach of the Holocaust.

With no relatives living here to recall the victims, members of the Jewish community of nearby St. Petersburg attended Sunday’s gathering to pay their respects.

“You can’t live your whole life crying,” said writer Maria Rolnekaite, a survivor of the ghetto in Vilna, Lithuania, where some 100,000 Jews perished during the war. “But you must always remember.”

Clustered around a bronze memorial erected five years ago in memory of the victims, the 100 attendees of the ceremony listened as schoolchildren sang Yiddish songs.

One elderly man recited El Molei Rachamim, a prayer for the dead, while everyone stood in silence.

When the ceremony was over, they lined up to lay tiny stones on the monument, which depicts a crouching figure holding his weary head in his hands.

An inscription, from the 79th Psalm, on a nearby stone reads: “Their blood flowed like water … and no one was there to bury them.”

The memorial site is symbolic: No one really knows where the small community of Pushkin perished in early October 1941, when Nazi forces occupied the city on their march to Leningrad, the Soviet-era name for St. Petersburg, some 10 miles to the north.

Best known for the majestic Catherine Palace, which once served as the summer residence of the Russian czars, Pushkin carried its dark secret until 1986, when a small group of researchers began to piece together the events surrounding the murder of the Jews.

“We still know very little,” said Alex Frenkel, deputy chairman of the St. Petersburg Jewish Association. “We haven’t found any survivors.”

Nazi forces entered Pushkin on Sept. 17, 1941, barely three months after the German army first pushed into the Soviet Union. Within two weeks, Jews were told they had to register for resettlement.

By early October, they were rounded up and shot.

There are several versions of the incident, said Frenkel, who has interviewed a number of local residents about the event.

One version claims that the Jews were imprisoned in the Catherine Palace basement for several days without food and water.

Some maintain that the Jews were shot in the shadow of the nearby Alexander Palace.

Others say it took place in a park on the edge of the town.

As the front line during the Nazis’ 900-day siege of Leningrad, said Frenkel, the area around Pushkin is too full of mass graves to be able to determine which is which.

“But everyone remembers the column of Jews marching through the town center,” Frenkel added.

Yevgenia, a Pushkin resident who was not at Sunday’s ceremony, later recounted how her Jewish grandmother and mother fled the town immediately after the German invasion.

“Granny said that none of the [Jewish] friends she had before the war survived,” she said. “She tried to find some after the war.”

In the absence of relatives to recall the perished, many of the older Jews attending the commemoration had tragic memories of their own, either of the brutal siege of Leningrad, during which 1 million Russians died, or of their lives as concentration camp inmates.

“I felt it was only right to come,” said Asya Lifshitz, 76, herself a survivor of the siege. Her husband’s family perished in Ukraine about the same time the Nazis destroyed the Pushkin community.

For survivors during the Soviet era, the Holocaust became a taboo subject because government officials emphasized the sufferings of all nationalities during the war, refusing to single out particular groups for special attention.

Only with the opening of Soviet society in the late 1980s could Jews begin to relate more directly to their experiences during the war.

“All of this became open just recently,” Lifshitz said.

Holdover sentiments from Soviet times made it difficult to receive local permission to put up the monument, Frenkel said.

But after heated debate, town authorities adopted a resolution in 1990 calling for a monument devoted to all the victims of the war.

At the end of the declaration, permission was granted for a separate memorial for the Jewish community.

One year later, the Jewish community dedicated the monument, a reproduction of the statue “Formula for Sorrow” by the well-known Soviet dissident Vadim Sidur.

The town itself never went forward with its plans for a general memorial.

“I don’t think we should divide people up,” said 17-year-old Anna Peshnaya, standing with a group of friends from a St. Petersburg Jewish youth club. “But each people must remember their own.”

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