Monday, December 18, 2006

Vilnius Ghetto

Amazon is very good at knowing what I might be interested in reading - it's a great marketing strategy. So when a book popped up by Schoschana Rabinovici called 'Dank meiner Mutter', I thought it was another book on holocaust survival, and I have read quite a few. However, turns out that Schoschana was a girl from Vilnius - that immediately made it much more relevant!

Indeed it is a story of holocaust survival, written in 1991, and it seems, written in German. Schoschana, or Susie, as she was then, was 9 when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, which Lithuania was part of at that moment in history. She describes vividly all that happened to her large extended family, all of whom lived in central Vilnius (she uses the Polish street names, but one can work out more or less where the locations were). The family was quite comfortably off, but as life became more and more restricted, they moved together into increasingly crowded apartments, at one stage living 15 to a room - and then it gets worse. Just before the fall of the ghetto it is decided to build an underground refuge, with the entrance going through an outdoor toilet with very complicated plumbing arrangements. As a number of invited families gather outside the entrance, other people join in, too, and in the end 180 people go into this hole. The only oxygen supply is via a chimney and people have to behave quietly and not use energy. A baby who cries is accidentally smothered by his father. Susie's mother discovers she suffers from claustrophobia....

After a day or two they decide that this is not going to work, and they go back to their or other people's houses, where eventually they are caught and sent via days sitting in a graveyard in December, sent to the first camp, near Riga. Life there is predictable, little food, much disease etc. Finally via another camp Susie and her mother are liberated - the father's brother also survives, out of a family of more than 15. But it is indeed thanks to her mother that Susie survives; the mother who bribes a guard to let her 10-year-old daughter join the working women (as opposed to the 'to be disposed of' women), the mother who makes her dress and wash every day in freezing conditions, the mother who gets all sorts of jobs which come with extra food, thus allowing Susie to eat, the mother who bullies her out of starvation - and finally Susie also saves her mother's life.

The book is not wonderfully well written, but it is a harrowing story told in a very matter-of-fact way - after all, the author was very young at the time of these events and saw it through a child's eyes. I read it through in one sitting. The details in the book triangulate well with the recent film 'Ghetto' , based on a play by Joshua Sobol, about the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre, started by the Germans to entertain the ghetto population. It's a gripping film! The film's soundtrack by the composer Anatolijus Senderovas is awesome, mixing yiddish songs with Bach's Ciaconna, amongst others. The songs are sung extremely authentically by Judita Leitaite. The DVD of the film (which is in English) is available from Amazon in Germany, though I noticed that some Germans here did not much care for the film - but the linguistic quality of their comments makes you wonder what exactly they watched the film for, and what kind of people they are.


Jessica said...

This sounds absolutely fascinating - I'm going to try to get the DVD. Thanks for the recommendation!

violainvilnius said...

Inevitably the film is quite emotionally challenging; bear that in mind first time you watch it.

If you look very carefully, you will see our National Symphony Orchestra's leader Algis Peseckas playing in the background of a party scene (the violin solos on the sound track were played by Ingrida Armonaite).