Works in progress

Before I carry on with my visits to Skuodas, I  want to say a few things about working on this site, which has been a very educational and emotional experience.

At the moment, besides the actual nuts-and-bolts of setting up the website and blog, learning the software, and so on, I’ve been working on a number of translation projects which will either appear on this site or be linked to it. I’ve already done some work on the Memorial Book of Skuodas (the 1948 Yizkor book). Upcoming (as soon as I get permission) is a file of material from the Skuodas Museum archive, about 40 pages of memoirs written by the non-Jewish residents of the town, with some other interesting material also.

A second major work in progress is a translation of the 2001 Yizkor book by Hana Shaf-Brener, Testimony on the Murder of the Jews of Shkud, Lithuania. The introduction and accompanying newspaper articles are on Jewish Gen. I’ve recently submitted the completed text to Jewish Gen and hope it will be posted soon.

What I particularly wanted to talk about today is the 55-page list of names that takes up the second half of Brener’s Yizkor book. This is, of course, the list of names of the Jewish residents of Shkud who were murdered in July and August 1941. The list is in Hebrew, and I’ve been working with a translator to put the information into English and edit it for accuracy, spelling of the transliterated names, and so on. The list will go up on Jewish Gen (with a link on this site) when it’s done, though it may take a month or two, because it’s a sloooow process.

Why is the process slow? Well, the sad answer is because there are so many names on the list – about 1200, representing about ½ of Shkud’s prewar Jewish community. Where are the rest? Aside from the few survivors, whose names of course don’t appear, I can only suppose they have been forgotten: lost from the memories of the people who composed the lists and unrecorded in archives. The list itself often carries, beside an individual’s name, the words “and family” or “there were children” – people no longer remembered. And the sad fact is, as I have been working with the list, few names of small children and babies appear, and I can only suspect they, too, have been forgotten.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to Brener and her fellow compilers – quite the opposite, in fact. I can’t imagine the work and difficulty that went into putting together and organizing the names list. It is a tremendous, important, accomplishment, and I’m grateful for it – and I think other Shkud descendants will be, too, when it’s translated and posted (soon, I hope!). It’s sad, though, that the list can never be complete, that so many of our relatives are lost forever, even in memory.

Brener’s names list is organized by family, with husband, wife, and children grouped together. Parents’ names are given (when known), as well as professions, age at death, and place of death. So the list is invaluable in terms of genealogy. My father never spoke about his family, and it’s only through Brener’s list that I learned (and/or confirmed) the names of some of his uncles, aunts, and cousins. I’ve also discovered the surnames of some of the women who married into our family, and a network of associations between families is starting to form in my mind. Of course it’s not the same as having actual, living relatives, but at least I’m developing a sense of what has been lost, and I’m coming more and more to believe that knowing what you’ve lost is better than a blank nothingness.

Besides the odd flash of excitement that comes from recognizing a name or a relationship, though, a lot of what I experience in the hour-by-hour process of translating and transcribing is boredom. Despite the fact that I want to honour the dead by attending carefully to the few scraps of information that are left, time after time I find my mind drifting. It’s scary, and humbling, to think that’s what a life is ultimately reduced to: a horrible, meaningless death, and then, years later, a few words on a page. And there are so many names … murdered en masse, and now barely, if at all, remembered. It makes me sad.

Still, I hope we can rescue some good from the ashes, and I guess that’s what this project is all about. For example, last night I discovered this: Avraham Natanson was an electrician. He was 32 years old, married, with three young children, a son and two daughters. Not only that, but Avraham’s wife, Sarah, a Galgo, was probably the sister of Braina Galgo, who married my father’s cousin Michal, who operated the shoe factory and store that my father, a shoemaker, may have worked in. Yesterday morning, I knew nothing about Avraham; now I can at least imagine him. My picture will be wrong, but it will be something.

Another thing. Using Brener’s list, I’ve been able to confirm – well, probably – that a person I have been emailing for a while, whose mother left Shkud before the war started and thus survived, is my second cousin. So, thanks to Hana Brener and all those who have worked to compile names lists for Shkud and all the other Jewish communities destroyed in the war, some of us can start to rebuild our lost and scattered families.

Now, THAT is something.