VILNIUS, Lithuania (Aug. 26)
Abraham Foxman remembers how a 3-year-old Polish boy by the name of Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi spat on “those dirty Jews” living behind the barbed wire of the Vilna Ghetto.
Foxman remembers because he was the Polish boy.
At the time, the future national director of the Anti-Defamation League did not know that his own parents were among the ghetto residents slated for extermination.
Born in 1940 in the Belarussian town of Baranowicz, Foxman spent the first five years of his life hiding from the Nazis.
“My father said that at the age of 10, I had lived a lifetime,” Foxman has been quoted as saying.
Last week, Foxman returned to Belarus and Lithuania as the head of an ADL delegation.
He took the opportunity to revisit the places where he and his parents survived the war and where the rest of his immediate family perished at the hands of the Nazis.
He said it was a painful visit — the original intent was to say Kaddish in the places that live in his family’s memory.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Foxman. “At first, those were just the names on the map.”
It turned into a journey that evoked a flood of memories.
Joseph and Helen Fuksmans — then the family name — lived in Warsaw before the war.
Once the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, they moved east to Belarus. After Abraham, their first and only child, was born, the family left for Lithuania.
Then, in June 1941, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.
Seeing the Nazi forces close around the Jews, Joseph and Helen Foxman entrusted the 15-month-old Abraham to the care of his Polish Catholic nursemaid, Bronislawa Kurpi.
She baptized him into Catholicism.
“I was a practicing Catholic,” Foxman said of his childhood in Vilna, now known as Vilnius.
His grandparents and 13 of his aunts and uncles perished in the Holocaust. Some of his family members lie in the dirt underneath Abraham Foxman’s birthplace, which is now called Baranovichi.
Foxman’s parents survived the Vilna Ghetto. His mother escaped from the ghetto and survived by posing as a Pole.
She got a job in occupied Vilna and supported her son and the nursemaid.
His father was sent to several concentration camps. In 1944, he was liberated in Estonia and came back to Vilna where the family was reunited.
The boy later became a pawn in a bitter custody dispute between the nursemaid and his parents, who eventually won custody rights.
The family moved to Poland and then to Austria. They came to the United States in 1950.
In Baranovichi, he found the house in which he was probably born. While most of the city was destroyed during the German occupation, this red-brick, one-story building surrounded by chestnut trees stands unharmed.
The family that currently lives in the house said it has belonged to them since before the war.
“But I felt it was the house,” said Foxman. “Not because it belongs to me, but because I can visualize, because I remember conversations that I’ve heard from my parents about how they lived.”
Baranovichi remained permanently etched in the Foxmans’ collective memory. Since the Nazis organized the first major killing operation in Baranovichi on Purim in 1942, the Foxmans, even in the United States, never celebrated that holiday.
The war claimed the lives of 30,000 Baranovichi Jews.
Today, the 150-year-old city has 800 Jews. All of them came to Baranovichi after the war, except for Ruvim Turetsky, “the last Jew of Baranovichi,” as local Jews call him.
Turetsky was born there in 1924. After the Nazis came into town, he was one of the few Jews who managed to flee to Eastern Russia. After the war he returned.
He and Foxman conversed in Yiddish. They looked like two acquaintances who were reunited after many years.
Foxman and Turetsky could not help crying at the monument to thousands of local Jews that was erected three years ago by an organization of Jews from Baranovichi who now live in Israel.
“You say Kaddish at a lot of places, but when you say it at a place where you know for certain your flesh and blood is — it touches you differently,” said Foxman.
In Vilnius, Foxman walked around with the help of the street names found in his father’s Yiddish-language memoir.
The Church of All Saints once stood across the ghetto gates. It was in this church that Abraham became Henryk. During the war, he came here every day.
The priest, a man in his 30s, looked surprised to be listening to an American Jew who came to the church looking for his baptismal records.
The church was closed shortly after the war and the Soviets turned it into a warehouse. It later became a museum. It reopened as a church in 1990.
“All the wartime records are lost,” the priest said. “The older priests have already died.”
A few months after the war, Foxman began to learn about his Jewish heritage during a Simchat Torah celebration.
A Soviet Jewish officer came up to Joseph Foxman and asked if he could take his son for a minute.
“He put me on his shoulders, began to dance saying, `This is my Jewish flag,'” Foxman recalled.
The synagogue where the young Abraham Foxman experienced this moment 50 years ago still exists in Vilnius. It’s the last one operating in the city once referred to as the Jerusalem of Lithuania.