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Arts & Culture Massive New Work Traces Fate of Lithuanian Jews in Holocaust

January 24, 2003
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Dr. Saul Issroff is a dermatologist by training, but his interest in genealogy certainly is more than skin deep.

After five years of effort, Issroff and fellow genealogist Rose Lerer Cohen, have produced the first substantive record of the Jews of Lithuania who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Lithuania’s Jewish community numbered 250,000 before World War II. Some 94 percent of them were killed in the Holocaust.

Issroff visited more than 100 shtetls in Lithuania in his efforts to memorialize a world that has all but disappeared.

“Seeing and appreciating the sheer devastation of the country’s Jews” transformed “intellectual curiosity” into action, he said.

The result was a four-volume opus, “The Holocaust in Lithuania, 1941-1945: A Book of Remembrance.”

“For many of the families there is no graveyard, no tombstone, and a book becomes a way of recording the deaths of these people,” he said.

Issroff, a native of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, who lives in London, and Cohen, a Capetonian who resides in Jerusalem, began their effort by studying archives in Lithuania, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

“We found that there was material that had never been pulled out and put together, and that’s where the concept of creating a database and eventually publishing a record of it came out,” Issroff told JTA.

In the foreword, Stephen Smith, the non-Jewish founder of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Center in Nottingham, England, describes the book as a “mitzvah of the highest order. It is about the struggle against forgetting, in the shadow of mass death.

“Nowhere is the struggle to reclaim, remember, represent, commemorate and teach more urgent than in Lithuania,” Smith wrote. “Without the tenacity required to ensure that these names were printed on these pages, death would not have been the worst thing that happened to these people, but the oblivion that followed.”

The book, described by Issroff as a resource guide, traces the movements of people from the time they were removed from their homes and sent to labor or deportation camps, recording the places and dates of their deaths.

The book also provides background information on the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania, together with extensive references to work by historians.

Lists of Lithuanian Jews killed in the Holocaust were compiled from a variety of sources, including burial records, memorial books and census lists from the Vilna and Shavli ghettoes.

Some of the material comes from prisoner record cards from the Dachau concentration camp, the destination for many Lithuanian Jewish males.

Other lists were obtained from the NKVD — the Soviet secret police force that was the precursor of the KGB — and other Russian records compiled after the Soviet occupation of Lithuania at the end of the war.

The book also includes detailed reference lists of films, books and articles on the Holocaust in Lithuania, as well as a small selection of oral testimonies of survivors.

One such testimony comes from Dana Pomerants-Mazurkevich, now a professor of violin at Boston University.

The daughter of Daniel Pomerants, a famous violinist in Lithuania, she recounts the story of her childhood escape from the Kovno Ghetto.

After she had survived 13 “selections,” her parents arranged for her to be smuggled out of the ghetto to the safety of non-Jewish friends.

“I was given a huge dose of sleeping pills and put into a sack of potatoes,” she recalls.

As she was on her way out of the ghetto, a German soldier asked her rescuer what was in the sack.

“Precisely at that moment, I began to make some sounds because of the lack of air in the sack,” she said. “My smuggler told the German soldier that he had a little piglet in the sack. He was allowed to go.”

Miraculously, Pomerants and her parents survived the Holocaust. The family was reunited through the Red Cross in 1947.

Despite its lofty ambitions, the book has been attacked by a group of Lithuanian survivors led by professor Dov Levin of Hebrew University.

“Its main criticism is that, because we don’t have the names of all the people killed, it’s irresponsible to publish and it can be used as ammunition by Holocaust deniers,” Issroff told JTA. But “Levin is unable to provide any reference to the use by Holocaust deniers of any previously published incomplete work.

In practice, Issroff said, publishing such works has helped unearth more victims.

“We have stressed throughout the book that this is a work in progress, that it can never be a complete listing because of the manner in which Jews were killed in Lithuania, with many killed on the roads and in little towns,” he said. “Many of these families will forever be unrecorded.”

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