Historical Context

What one could not have imagined

Polina Toker (Tokerienė)

Jerusalem, 1998

translated by Gregory Toker

One could say that in the old independent Lithuania, where I was born and grew up, Jews lived relatively well. One could openly speak Yiddish and call each other by Jewish names. Books, journals and newspapers were published in Yiddish. There was a Jewish theater, libraries, a Jewish hospital, Jewish banks, various public institutions such as Jewish Health Protection Agency, and ORT schools where Jewish youngsters were taught crafts and technical professions. Shop signs could be in Yiddish along with Lithuanian. High schools taught in a wide variety of languages, to anyone's liking. Apart from the Lithuanian state language, there were schools teaching in Russian, Polish, German and also in Yiddish and Hebrew, even with different orientation for observant and secular Jews. University was accessible to all though not for free.

Immediately after the declaration of independence, all minorities, including Jews, received extensive rights. A Ministry of Jewish Affairs was formed headed by a Jewish minister. Jewish cultural and public life flourished. Unfortunately, this "golden" period did not last long. Gradually all the freedoms were retracted. The Jewish Ministry was closed. Various restrictions were imposed and anti-Semitism resurged. Jews could not be employed in state institutions and were forbidden to buy land and thus could not engage in farming. May be because of this there arouse the belief that Jews are not able and do not want to work the land. (In Israel, Jews proved otherwise: the Israeli agriculture is one of the best in the world.) In Lithuania, the only occupations left open to Jews were trade, crafts and study - provided one had the means. Many young people did not see any future for themselves in Lithuania and tried to emigrate. Some went to South Africa, some to America, while the most idealistic ones were drawn to Palestine, dreaming of a future Jewish State.

Such was Jewish life in Lithuania at the time. Jews had to suffer various restrictions as well as manifestations of anti-Semitism, but there was no threat to life.

Everything changed drastically with Hitler's rise to power in Germany. The dark forces arose also in Lithuania, baring their latent hatred of Jews. There began various oppressions; Jewish shop signs were smeared with tar; there was even fear of pogroms.

The Jews began to look towards the Soviet Union. That country was attractive because of its nice ideas and slogans. Many dreamed of emigrating there, thinking that only there can Jews become citizens with full rights. However, the border was sealed, and it was not possible to simply move over there.

Soon, however, something unexpected happened - the Soviet Union "came" to us. Following a fabricated appeal by the Lithuanian government, Lithuania was absorbed by the Soviet Union and the Lithuanian Soviet Republic was declared. Immediately after that military bases of the Red Army spread throughout Lithuania, including our town Radvilishkis. Many Russian officers brought their families with them. People joked that by sending the Red Army to Lithuania, Stalin committed two errors: he showed the West to the Red Army, and he showed the Red Army to the West. Arriving from a poor semi-starving country, the Russians were pouncing on the stores, disbelieving their own eyes, grabbing everything at hand without even bothering to choose. Especially bad impression was produced by the officer's wives, many of them illiterate, wearing high army boots and red berets, and carrying their babies wrapped in quilted blankets. How could they stand up to the sophisticated wives of Lithuanian officers who would not even be allowed to marry just anyone. Anecdotes about them abounded. For instance, they would appear in the streets in recently bought silk nightgowns firmly believing that these were evening dresses…

Many of the Russian military arrived also in Radvilishkis. By the order of the military Governor they were lodged among the population. We too had to "squeeze ourselves" since ours was a large two-story house with five rooms above and seven below.

Our first tenant was a single young doctor Andrei Ivanovich. We put him in a room on the ground floor, and tried to make him comfortable. He produced a very pleasant impression, a simple good-natured Russian boy. Notwithstanding his medical degree, he was completely uncivilized and had no table manners; we often had to hide our smiles. Nevertheless we treated him well and even with some warmth. After he was transferred to another regiment we discovered, much to our surprise and shock, that he had "borrowed" the best of our things from his room, and left his bill in my husband's store unpaid.

After that we had a middle-aged colonel. This one was constantly scanning our house with his eyes and muttering to himself while walking around: "Yes, I can see you are not from among the poorest." We were not rich, but, being two well established doctors, did not lack anything and could afford to furnish our house nicely and comfortably. To the colonel it seemed like a palace. His mutterings worried us considerably since the deportations to Siberia already started. No one knew what to expect and everyone was afraid. It was thought that they are deporting the rich, the so-called "bourgeois," enemies of the Soviet power, but among the actually deported there were also the most unexpected people. Sometimes old scores were being settled, sometimes someone coveted someone's apartment, someone's position. A sly word, a false accusation would suffice. People were deported quickly, without any investigation or trial.

Our last tenant was the military Governor of the town with his wife and two children. They stayed with us until the beginning of the war. We gave them two rooms upstairs, and learned the "charms" of the communal kitchen. Our house became crowded: my husband Haim, our little daughter Adutė (Ada) and myself, our three servants, the Governor with his family, Haim's father, and Haim's sister Ethel with her husband and their child (as their house burned down, we took them in). Despite the overcrowding, we all got along well with each other. It was only uncomfortable to notice how the Russians stared at our servants. We had a nurse for our little daughter, a cook, and a maid named Antsia for helping with the patients, who had practically grown up in our home and was devoted to us. She survived the war and we stayed in touch even after leaving for Israel. We soon let the nurse go and Antsia, who loved Adutė very much, gladly took her duties.

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