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Around the Jewish World Lone Jew in Lithuanian Town Spends Life Preserving the Past

June 13, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jacob Bunka is stumped: The 79-year-old cannot recall how many Jews from his hometown survived the war and returned home.

So the feisty man begins rummaging through his desk drawers, frantically searching for a document. Papers, once meticulously organized in bulky folders, now form a chaotic clutter on his desk.

The mess mounts. Bunka is told by a visitor not to bother. He doesn’t listen.

“I need to know for myself,” he says, waving his arms dismissively.

His doggedness is pardonable. After all, Bunka is a product of prewar Jewish Lithuania, a persistent culture that survived 600 years of unrest.

Plus, his native village, Plunge, rests in northwest Zemaitija, a region whose inhabitants are known for “sticking to things.”

Bunka, who stands no more than 5 feet tall, is the last Jew in Plunge, a once-vibrant Jewish community that at one point had 2,500 members.

Lithuania’s only Jewish folk artist, Bunka has dedicated his entire adult life to fulfilling a promise he made to himself in 1941 while fighting the Nazis: to immortalize the annihilated Jewish community of Plunge.

As part of his ambitious crusade, he has created memorials at 10 different mass murder sites, where his wooden sculptures dominate the scene.

He also restored the local cemetery and founded the Plunge Jewish community — which consists of himself and 13 non-Jews, and which has taken possession of the local synagogue and adjacent prayer houses after the city returned them to the community.

Along with turning one of the prayer houses into a museum, Bunka wrote a book on the history of Plunge’s Jews.

“When I was fighting on the front, I was thinking how to memorialize Plunge. I was constantly plagued with the thought that if I survive, I will never forget those who died,” he says. “Everyone knows about the biggest towns, but the little provincial towns stayed unknown.”

Today, Plunge is an eerily silent, run down, post-Communist town of 30,000 with little resemblance to its former heterogeneous mix.

The town’s biggest employer churns out frozen crabsticks, a far cry from the bagels and fresh herring that filled the marketplace some 60 years ago.

“Everyday I go on the street. I see Jewish houses and I feel some bitterness in my soul, but I understand there’s nothing I can do about it,” Bunka says. “The most important thing is to make others understand and learn about Jews.”

After the war, Bunka opted to remain in Plunge, unlike his mother and two sisters, who emigrated to Israel.

“I made a promise to myself,” he says. “I made much more here for the Jewish people. In Israel, I’d just be a simple artist.”

For two decades, Bunka’s mission to build Jewish monuments was shunned by the Soviet regime, which suppressed religious activity.

But in 1976 Bunka got his big break: A former mayor of a nearby town asked Bunka to create a sculpture to honor the town’s 100 murdered Jews.

Bunka fashioned a 4-yard-high cedar sculpture of a man with bound hands. They erected it secretly at night.

This gave Bunka the impetus to create monuments in Koshan, a forest two miles from Plunge where 2,234 Jews were murdered.

In the middle of the 1980s, with the Soviet grip loosening, he created “Born to Live,” a sculpture of a family surrounded by branches and roots representing growth. It was made from oak, a symbol of strength.

In 1986, Plunge’s mayor, an art lover who was serving his final term, had 60 Soviet solders install the monument.

For the next three years, Bunka worked alone and created eight more vertical oak statues for the memorial. The municipality of Plunge added paths, fences, stairs, asphalt and parking spaces. A Lithuanian woman volunteered to cultivate the site with flowers and plants.

Bunka’s fight to preserve the memory of a lost community also includes a book, “Plungyan: A Memoir,” a detailed account of Plunge’s Jewish history. Excerpts will be published in the town newspaper this summer.

Tourists from more than 20 nations, including Korea and Zimbabwe, most of whom have roots in the region, have recognized Bunka’s efforts. Last year, he counted 147 visitors.

Along with serving as Plunge’s unofficial Jewish guide, Bunka spends his days crafting wooden figures — rabbis, shoemakers, milkmen — recalling the lost community.

Creativity is in Bunka’s blood. His sister is a poet and his father recited witty poems in Plunge’s streets. His grandfather was a cantor.

After attending rabbinical school, Bunka learned carpentry. He worked at a furniture factory, where his creative urges remained silent. He retired in 1983, then embarked on woodcarving as a full-time hobby.

In 1950, he married Dalija, a Lithuanian women with whom he had three children.

The two live in a small apartment in a Stalinist-era housing complex. His children have pledged to continue his endeavors after he dies.

“There is no chance to keep the tradition here, but they are proud that their father is Jewish,” he says. “In the house we celebrate Purim, Pesach.”

Bunka said he doesn’t encounter anti-Semitism in Plunge, and praises the municipality for its sincere support.

Plunge’s history is both festive and horrid.

Jewish immigrants first arrived in 1348 after being forced to flee Serbia, Moravia and Hungary. By 1900, more than 2,500 Jews — including merchants, businessmen and craftsmen — constituted over half of Plunge’s population.

There were Jewish sport clubs, Jewish orchestras, Jewish scientific organizations. From 1918 to 1931, there was a Jewish mayor. The Plunge fire department consisted entirely of volunteering Jews.

Behind all the organizations and clubs, of course, were flesh-and-blood individuals. People like Kotse Zaks, who owned an electric station and whose name was immortalized when locals began referring to electrical outlets as “Zaksin.”

There was little Moyshele Royzes, famous for his ability to tell the time without a watch.

There was “Yankele the Blue,” an invalid with blue hands and face who roamed the streets on Sabbath, screaming “Yidn, in shul arayn,” or “Jews, into the synagogue.”

Then came the Holocaust. Now only Jacob Bunka is left.

Bunka was 19 in 1941, when the Germans neared. With 300 other Plunge Jews, the Bunkas fled to Russia.

Those who tried to escape days later and those who remained in the town suffered a cruel fate at the hands of the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators.

By the time the bloodletting ended, 2,234 Plunge Jews were murdered.

Only six of them survived in the town, thanks to several Lithuanian neighbors who sheltered their friends.

Bunka and the other Plunge Jews who fled to Russia were somewhat luckier. He worked on a collective farm in Siberia and then joined the Russian army. Of the 72 Plunge Jews who joined the army, 42 died in combat, including Bunka’s father and brother.

Bunka survived despite two injuries, including a bullet to the neck.

Now, back in his home, Bunka has found the document he so doggedly was searching for.

He tells his visitor that 138 Plunge Jews survived the war and returned from Russia. After the war, most emigrated to Israel, South Africa and the United States.

By 1970, he says, Plunge had 45 Jews.

But Bunka prefers not to get tangled in demographics.

“Wherever you live, wherever you are,” he says softly, “you are always Jewish in your heart.”

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