I asked my friend, whose name is Slava, to tell me again about her parents, who had lived in Vilna, the ancient Lituanian city of Europe known for three centuries as the “Jerusalem of the north.”
(for S.K., in memoriam)
A few months ago, a military court in Italy found a former SS guard guilty of torturing and murdering civilians at Bolzana, a city in northern Italy better known today as the home of Otzi the Iceman Mummy than as the site of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The former SS man, who had been known during the war as “Misha,” did not attend the trial, at which he was sentenced to life in prison and a fine of 8 million lire, but he was identified as a Canadian citizen living in Vancouver who had concealed his Nazi past when he immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1951.
The story was in and out of the news for a few weeks, and I might have thought no more of it but for the incidental information that Misha was living what a reporter called “a crime-free life” on my street in Vancouver, quite possibly in the white stucco house only two blocks from my place, and which I thought I recognized in the background of a news photograph of Misha turning his head away from the camera: a tidy bungalow across from the school, lawn meticulously clipped, sundeck in the backyard straight from the Reader’s Digest home carpentry book, and small clean flowers in neat flower boxes in the front: altogether an appropriate abode for an aging war criminal obsessed by a need to keep up appearances. I passed by the white house several times during this period and never saw anyone at home. This too made sense: no doubt Misha and his wife (to whom, according to news reports, he had recently signed over his half of the house) were hiding out, perhaps holed up in an off-season motel at Harrison Hot Springs or somewhere farther up the canyon. Then late one afternoon toward Christmas, I noticed a light on in an inner room and couldn’t remember if I had seen it on before, and there was a wreath on the front door with a red velvet ribbon hanging from it: perhaps now the coast was clear, and Misha was home.
But what could it mean that the coast would be clear? What do you do when you share a street with a war criminal?
Last month I had lunch with a good friend who years ago had told me that her parents, who immigrated to Canada after the war, were Holocaust survivors. Perhaps I was thinking of Misha, because I asked my friend, whose name is Slava, to tell me again about her parents, who had lived in Vilna, the ancient Lituanian city of Europe known for three centuries as the “Jerusalem of the north.” When the war began in 1939 there were 100,000 Jews living in Vilna (2,000 Jews live there now), among them a well-to-do family whose teenaged daughter would become Slava’s mother, and the man twenty years older who would become Slava’s father. Slava’s father was already married and had two daughters (who would have become Slava’s half-sisters); Slava recalls that her father was a foreman in a crepe paper factory, although she says now that she may have dreamed this.
At Vilna the Germans massacred most of the Jewish population (about 70,000 bodies were later counted in the mass graves in Ponary forest), and locked up the living in a ghetto from which Slava’s father eventually escaped to join the partisans in the Kazian forest. Slava has always imagined her father during that time as a romantic figure blowing up trains and galloping into the forest on horseback. His younger daughter Goldie worked with children in the ghetto, and when the transport trains arrived to take the children, she insisted on staying with them and so met her death in mass murder. His older daughter Kayla managed to escape the ghetto with her boyfriend, but she was soon apprehended by the SS and tortured and then executed at the killing grounds of Ponary.
The story of Kayla’s death has been clouded in Slava’s memory, which retains the persistent image of the young woman Kayla and her boyfriend wearing black leather jackets (Slava says she might have seen the leather jackets in a movie): Kayla and her boyfriend are in a field where they spend the night in a low ditch (when Slava told me this I saw them on a motorcycle, speeding away). In the morning Kayla stands up in the sunlight and a single rifle shot breaks the silence and Kayla falls dead in an instant. Kayla’s boyfriend survived the war and went to live in New York, where he wrote a memoir and lived to middle age before taking his own life. These days when Slava thinks of the boyfriend who killed himself in New York, she remembers Primo Levi, who survived the camps and wrote brilliantly about the consequences of survival, but was compelled nevertheless to suicide when the war had been over for forty years. Slava has a copy of the boyfriend’s memoir, in which he describes searching for Kayla’s father after her murder, and finding him at the edge of Kazian forest among the partisans; here the boyfriend falls to his knees in grief and shame at having failed to protect Kayla, and Slava’s father commands him to stand up; then he reminds him that thousands of men have lost their wives, their daughters, their girlfriends, and that the time for grief will come when the war is over.
When Slava was a young woman in the 1970s, she went to France and arrived unannounced at the apartment of her father’s sister-in-law, one of his few relatives to survive the war. When the sister-in-law opened her apartment door and saw Slava standing there, she called out for help: she was certain that she was staring at the ghost of Kayla, who had been dead for twenty-five years.
Slava’s mother was taken from the Vilna ghetto when it was “liquidated” by the Nazis, and delivered by cattle car to Kaiserwald concentration camp in Latvia. She has difficulty speaking of those days, but she remembers a guard shooting a foreign prisoner in the hand as punishment for offering a glass of water to another inmate. She remembers one of the Capos, who passed her scraps of food from time to time, telling her that she was lucky to have come to a labour camp rather than a death camp. Thirty years later, in a novel called Anya, by Susan Schoemberg Schaeffer, the American novelist, Slava’s mother was astonished to read about people she had known in the camp, which had been a place, in Schaeffer’s words, “where the living come to envy the dead.”
Slava’s mother managed to get assigned to farm work by claiming falsely to be a farmer’s daughter, and she was sent out of the camp as a slave labourer. In 1944, as the Russians approached, the Germans began killing the inmates of the camp and moving some of them by cattle barge over the Baltic Sea to Stutthof, the camp at Gdansk which had been created on the second day of the invasion of Poland. Slava’s mother was selected for the barges and from Stutthof she was again sent out to work on a farm. At the end of her “contract,” a neighbouring farmer concealed her in a hole in the ground, under the floor of a shack used to store firewood: here Slava’s mother found refuge from the war (Slava thinks of the movie Bitter Harvest). Months passed, and then one day in May 1945 the farmer told her it was time to go home, and she knew the war was over. That day she began the long desolate walk across Poland to Vilna.
Slava regrets not having tried harder to get her parents’ stories down on paper, but they were hard stories to tell. Her mother often broke down and wept while trying to talk about those years. Her father had the sheet music for two partisan songs, “Never Say You are Taking the Last Road” and “Silently, Silently,” and he would ask Slava to play them when she was practising piano. He told her that he used to drink vodka but had to stop because drinking vodka made him sentimental and he didn’t want to think of the men who had been shot by their own unit for dereliction of duty.
At the end of the war there were no more Jews in Vilna, save the few who returned only to set out for other countries, other lives. Slava’s parents met and married in Vilna and then made their way to Vienna, the divided city at the heart of postwar Europe, where they obtained Canadian visas (Slava hasn’t yet seen The Third Man, so she cannot see the city of shadows that Orson Welles and Graham Greene created as the emblem of the city of her birth). Slava’s mother was pregnant by then and regulations required that she stay in Vienna until Slava was born; from Halifax they took the train to Vancouver, where they were met by her father’s older brother, a man who had fled induction into the Russian army in the 1920s and landed on the west coast of America, with false papers and a new name acquired in Boston. His new name became the name of his brother’s family, and is Slava’s name today.
This is the story that Slava told me last month while we ate lunch in a café on Main Street. We sat there a long time and I made notes as she talked. Her parents eventually opened a delicatessen that became famous in Vancouver. Before that, her father found employment at a company that made burlap sacks, where his brother had worked for years. This factory was owned by a man whose name I recognized as the grandfather of a high school friend of mine, and as Slava was telling me this, I remembered that when I learned that my high school friend was Jewish I became confused, as the only image I had of Jews in my childhood were the cloth figures we used to place on the felt board in Sunday school: Jews in my experience wore robes and carried staffs, and were to be observed only in profile.
A few days later I looked up Misha’s story in the Italian press and discovered that I had been mistaken about the white house up the street. In fact, Misha lives twenty blocks south of me, not two blocks, and a major thoroughfare cuts the street between us. I felt that I had done the white house an injustice, but I was relieved that Misha lived far enough along my street to put him in another neighbourhood.
From time to time in Balzano, where Misha carried out his terrible work, the corpse of Otzi the Iceman, which was discovered ten years ago in a glacier and is estimated to be 5,000 years old, is removed from cold storage “for investigational purposes,” and put in a laminar flow box for “no longer than eleven minutes at a time.” Perhaps this is all the scrutiny that certain of our ancestors can withstand before they begin to decompose.
Click hereto read the most recent news on Micha’s case in the Vancouver Sun.