Into Eternity: Reb Nokhem Yanishker and the Holocaust in Kaunas - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Into Eternity: Reb Nokhem Yanishker and the Holocaust in Kaunas
The Ninth fort in Kaunas, Lithuania, a landmark to the victims of Nazism (Vaidotas Grybauskas/Shutterstock)

It happened on the twenty-ninth day of the month of Sivan, in the year 5701, and it happened in the Slobodka neighborhood of the Lithuanian city of Kovne. To put it another way, it happened on the twenty-fourth of June, in the year 1941, and it happened in Vilijampolė, a neighborhood in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. A Pole might call the city Kowno, and the neighborhood Słobódka Wiliampolska. A Russian might call the city Kovno, and a German might refer to Kauen. Calendars and toponyms, languages and faiths, nationalities and histories may differ, but the events that took place on that early summer’s day in Slobodka, and during the grim days, months, and years that followed, are what matter most here.

Operation Barbarossa had begun two days earlier, heralded by German Luftwaffe bombing raids against Soviet airfields, armor concentrations, and city centers alike. Four thousand civilians were killed in a matter of hours, the Red Army was routed, and the German Army Group North plunged like a dagger into the heartlands of western and northern Lithuania, delayed only slightly by an unsuccessful Soviet counterattack at Raseiniai, in the foothills of the Samogitian highlands. The German Army Group Center, meanwhile, advanced almost unopposed towards Vilnius. Insurgents of the Lithuanian Activist Front rose up against the Soviet authorities in Kaunas, and Lithuanian Red Army deserters took control of Vilnius. Soviet rule in Lithuania, established as a consequence of the odious Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, had lasted only a year, but the independent Provisional Government of Lithuania, proclaimed on June 23, would last no more than a day. The German army entered both Kaunas and Vilnius on June 24, and set about forming a temporary military administration, which would later give way to the brutal civilian occupation regime known as the Reichskommissariat Ostland.

The city of Kaunas, which had so readily fallen into German hands, was home to a flourishing community of some 40,000 Jews, representing nearly forty percent of the urban population. Lithuania’s second largest city, Kaunas had for centuries been the cornerstone of the social, intellectual, and religious life of the Lithuanian Jewry, and during the interwar period it served as the seat of the Lithuanian Ministry for Jewish Affairs, the Jewish National Council, and the Central Bank for the Support of Jewish Cooperatives. An extensive network of Jewish kindergartens, gymnasiums, seminaries, hadarim, and yeshivot ran through the city, and five Jewish newspapers, including the Zionist daily Yidishe Shtime, were published daily. Two world-class bookstores could be found on Kaunas’ high street — Valter Fišer’s Vokiečių and Max Holzman’s Pribačis — alongside Abba Balosher’s peerless private lending library, with its 38,000 volumes accessible for a modest monthly fee. Above all, Kaunas was renowned for its religious institutions. Some twenty-five synagogues and prayer houses catered to the spiritual needs of the community, foremost among which were the Baroque Revival Kauno Choralinė Sinagoga, designed by the talented architect Justinas Golinevičius, and the Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael, the so-called “mother of yeshivas” located in the predominately-Jewish Slobodka neighborhood, near the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers. Such was the thriving world of the Kaunas Jewry on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Lithuania.

One of Slobodka’s religious leaders at the time was a certain Reb Nokhem, the son of an impoverished water-carrier from the northern Lithuanian town of Yanishke, or Joniškis. Reb Nokhem Yanishker was a fervent adherent of the Musar movement, which had arisen in nineteenth-century Lithuania and emphasized individual self-examination, contemplation, meditation, and chanting (nigunim). Pesakh Markus, a journalist with the Shtime and a contributor to a post-war Lithuanian Yizkor (memorial) book, observed that the rebbe “continuously speculated about how man might reach a high enough level to be truly worthy of being called man.” As the grotesque Nazi regime grew in power, and an unprovoked invasion loomed on the horizon, Reb Nokhem became increasingly worried, even overwrought, wondering “Is this Man, God’s greatest creation?” He was able to rouse himself from his torpor, however, redoubling his spiritual efforts, giving memorable moral sermons, and always encouraging his students after their morning and evening prayers. But now it was the turn of his students to despair. “Please explain to us,” they pointedly asked their teacher,

Don’t you see now, Rebbe, that man is lower than the animals? And you, Reb Nokhem Yanishker, still speak about the elevated nature of man. The German cutthroats rob and slaughter Jews without remorse, and we, your students, who wouldn’t dare touch the belongings of another, you preach morality to us? You still demand that we bear ourselves ever more purely because we still haven’t reached the level of humanity. It’s almost an insult to be called a man now. So raise your voice and ask Heaven why we are being punished so bitterly.

The moral insanity of the Nazis had, in the eyes of Reb Nokhem’s students, utterly devalued the very notion of humanity, and the worst was yet to come. Of what use is individual self-examination, or virtue-based ethics, when the world is coming to an end, when man’s inhumanity to man is being demonstrated on a scale unknown in all of history? Here, on the eve of the German takeover of Lithuania, the questions of evil and theodicy had never been more pressing.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) records a debate held over the course of two and half years between the scholars of the academies of Shammai and Hillel, the former maintaining that it would have been “better for man not to have been created than to have been created,” the latter that “it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created.” Ultimately, the two schools concluded that “it would have been preferable had man not been created than to have been created. However, now that he has been created, he should examine his actions that he has performed and seek to correct them.” Reb Nokhem Yanishker likewise believed in making the best of a bad situation. “If the world conducted itself as it should,” he told his pupils, “perhaps we here in Slobodke could allow ourselves to pardon a bad habit, and rest from constantly wrestling with our stubborn wills. But now that evil is so widespread, who shall uphold the world, if not Slobodka?” This was no time to surrender, for “the more you increase your holiness here, the less room there will be for evil.”

Reb Nokhem then grew pensive, seeming to age before his students’ eyes. When he prayed, “tears flowed from his eyes. He had to hide his face with his hands, so that the students wouldn’t see that their Rebe was crying. And sometimes a hoarse, stubborn moan tore out of him, which scratched and scratched on the window like a buzzing fly and wouldn’t go away.” His students endeavored to spare their rebbe news of the coming war, news of the blitzkrieg, news of the swift German victory. “As the Germans tore into Lithuania with storm and bloodshed,” however, “there was nothing left to hide from him.” By June 24, the sound of artillery salvos could be heard within the yeshiva. The windows shook, the ground trembled, rifle reports echoed down the cobblestone streets of Old Town Kaunas. Surprisingly enough, Reb Nokhem was preternaturally calm that day. He immersed himself in the mikveh, he dressed himself in his finest Sabbath clothes, he went about inspecting the mezuzas on the doorposts, and finally took up a position by the prayer stand. Only then did his students notice the slightest hint of plain white linen peeking out from underneath his collar. Reb Nokhem was already wearing his tachrichim, his burial shrouds.

He began to speak. “I, Nokhem Yanishker, have thought on my own account: everyone knows that a Jew must prepare himself to undergo martyrdom,” and now that time had evidently come. “I, Nokhem Yanishker,” the rebbe continued, “have never searched for a bargain in my entire life. I have toiled with myself, sought with my effort, to earn the world to come, like my father, the water-carrier of Yanishke, sought to earn his bread through his own effort. And I would be most happy if Heaven would now demand from me a dear price for sanctification of the Name.” Yet there was still time for one last moral lesson. “Man must take care not to let the evildoers soil his soul,” the rebbe proclaimed, only to be interrupted when the yeshiva door was thrown open by a man shouting: “The Germans are coming!” Reb Nokhem then “drew himself up to his full height,” and resumed speaking in an “earnest voice.” It was just as the poet and Talmudic scholar Shmuel ha-Nagid had written some nine centuries before:

In times of sorrow, take heart

Even though you stand at death’s door

The candle flares up before it dies

And wounded lions roar.

“With the power that the law gives me as your Rebbe and with all my authority,” he commanded, “I order you to leave me here and to run to save yourselves. Guard your bodies and guard your souls.”

Also, I beg and command you to always remember people who will die at the murderers’ hands…And if peace returns to the world, you should continuously tell of the greatness and wisdom in Torah and morals of Lithuania, what a fine and honorable life the Jews led here. But don’t dissolve into tears and mourning. Tell it peacefully and calmly, as our Holy Tanaim did in their midrash Eykho Rabosi, about the destruction of the Holy Temple. And like them, the holy wise men, you should also recreate your speech in letters. That will be the greatest revenge you can take on the evil ones. In spite of them, the souls of your brothers and sisters will live on, the martyrs whom they sought to destroy. For no one can annihilate letters. They have wings, and they fly around in the heights…into eternity.

Thus concluded Pesakh Markus’ unforgettable account of Reb Nokhem Yanishker’s final, soul-stirring moral lesson.

Later that day, the Kaunas Pogrom began. The bridge to Slobodka was sealed off, and Nazi-organized units patrolled the streets. Sixty-eight Jewish men were beaten to death with metal bars in the Lietūkis garage. Rabbi Zalman Osovsky was captured and tied to a chair, his head laid upon an open volume of the Talmud. He was then decapitated, and his head placed in his residence’s front window together with a sign bearing the words “This is what we’ll do to all the Jews.” The rest of Osovsky’s family was also murdered in a similarly callous fashion. Franz Walter Stahlecker, head of the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen A death squad, estimated that by June 28 around 3,800 Jews had been killed in Kaunas, and 1,200 more in the surrounding towns and villages, and that was only the first stage of the “Holocaust by Bullets.”

By early July, the killings had become more systematic, carried out in forts outside Kaunas by Einsatzgruppen detachments and Lithuanian auxiliaries. The survivors were forced into the Kaunas Ghetto, located in Slobodka. On October 29, 9,200 Jews deemed unfit for forced labor, half of whom were children, were taken away and shot at the infamous Fort IX. Max Holzman, owner of the Pribačis bookstore, was arrested and disappeared forever. Abba Balosher, owner of one of the greatest private libraries in Europe, was dragged from his home by German soldier chanting “Du bist Jude!” and was made to clean the pavement with his bare hands. Balosher would be expelled from the Kaunas Ghetto on March 27, 1944, the day of the infamous “Children’s Aktion,” when 1,700 children and elderly individuals were shot, bludgeoned, and stabbed to death, but he survived, only to be sent to Dachau, and then to Auschwitz, where he perished in 1944 at the age of seventy-five. Jews from Slobodka would meet their ends in Braslav, Vidzy, Sweiciany, Ponar, in northern Estonian labor camps, or in extermination camps throughout central and eastern Europe. Only 3,000 Jews from Kaunas survived the German occupation.

None of them returned to Slobodka after the Red Army reentered Kaunas. The Slobodka yeshiva was turned into a sewing shop, and the Jewish cemetery was demolished and replaced with a community center. A few physical vestiges of Jewish life in Kaunas remain, like the beautiful Kauno Choralinė Sinagoga, the nineteenth-century Tsvi Hirsh Neviazher kloiz, a memorial plaque dedicated to the Kaunas-born philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and the Chiune Sugihara Museum, which honors the legacy of the heroic Japanese consul who provided transit visas to Jewish refugees in Kaunas. An offshoot of the Slobodka Yeshiva was established in Hebron, but the August 24, 1929 Arab pogrom took the lives of sixty-seven Jews, including twenty-four students and teachers. The Slobodka Yeshiva in Hebron relocated to a southern neighborhood of Jerusalem, and became known as the Hebron Yeshiva, an institution where Musar practices are still taught and the spiritual legacy of Slobodka is sustained.

We are fortunate that some visual documentation of life in the Kaunas Ghetto also survived, thanks to the extraordinary efforts of George Kadish, born Zvi Hirsh Kadushin, a science teacher and amateur photographer who explored the streets of occupied Kaunas and Slobodka with a Leica camera hidden under his coat, surreptitiously taking pictures of pogroms, deportations, and other aspects of daily life through a buttonhole. Kadish developed the pictures while working as an X-ray technician in a German hospital, smuggling them out of the building concealed inside crutches, and burying them in milk cans on the grounds of the Kaunas ghetto in a desperate bid to preserve evidence of Jewish life and Nazi crimes. He survived the Holocaust, recovered the images, and took them with him to the Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp and then to the United States, where the YIVO Institute in New York would feature them in a 2003 exhibition. One of Kadish’s last photographs may be his most haunting. On July 8, 1944, the retreating Nazis evacuated the Kaunas Concentration Camp, formerly the Kaunas Ghetto, razing the structures with dynamite and deporting the last few Jewish survivors either to Dachau or Stutthof. George Kadish escaped by swimming across the Neris River to relative safety, and took one last picture of the ghetto in flames, as a huge, dark column of smoke rose over the ruins. In doing so, he had captured the final act of the Holocaust in Kaunas on film.

That should not, however, be our lasting image of the Kaunas Jewry. Reb Nokhem Yanishker, standing on the threshold of martyrdom, pleaded with his students that, should they survive, they must always remember those who died at the murderers’ hands, and “continuously tell of the greatness and wisdom in Torah and morals of Lithuania, what a fine and honorable life the Jews led here,” thereby helping their brothers and sisters live on in the form of letters. Doing so would be “the greatest revenge you can take on the evil ones.” The rebbe uttered these words on the eve of the Shoah, Pesakh Markus recorded them in his post-war Yizkor book, Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin included them in their magisterial 1983 anthology From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry, and I would like to pass them along on this Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah, on this Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, in the hopes that those astonishing words can stay aloft, reminding us of that terrible day, eighty-two years ago, when Slobodka upheld the world.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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