Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Roger Cohen weighs in, Again
November 7, 2011
The Last Jew in Zagare
By ROGER COHEN
ZAGARE, LITHUANIA — The last Jew in Zagare, a small Lithuanian town renowned for its cherries, died in September. His name was Aizikas Mendelsonai, born in 1922. He was not buried in either of the two Jewish cemeteries, with their lurching gravestones, faded inscriptions and advancing lichen. Nobody is any more, not even Jews.
At his birth, Mendelsonai was one of almost 2,000 Jews living in Zagare, with its seven synagogues, its Hebrew school and its Jewish People’s bank. Jews made up about 40 percent of the town’s population. Then, in swift succession, came Soviet annexation, blamed by many on “Jewish Bolsheviks,” and Nazi occupation, bent on annihilation of the Jews.
The Nazis wasted little time after pushing into Lithuania in June, 1941. The Jews of Zagare were herded into a ghetto. Almost 1,000 Jews from nearby towns, including Siauliai, were forced to join them. On Oct. 2, 1941, they were ordered into the main square before being taken into the woods for execution by Nazi SS killers and their Lithuanian accomplices.
SS Standartenführer Karl Jäger stated in a report that day that 2,236 Jews were killed in Zagare. In 1944, the Soviets, having fought their way back, examined a mass grave and found 2,402 corpses (530 men, 1,223 women, 625 children, 24 babies). Today, a visitor to Zagare — there are not many — is greeted by a sign pointing to woods of birch and pine: “Graves of the Victims of the Jewish Genocide.”
I recount these events for two reasons. The first is that my grandmother Pauline (“Polly”) Soloveychik was from Zagare, and my grandfather Morris Cohen was from Siauliai, and so I have a natural interest in what would have befallen them had they remained. Their hypothetical European fate was to die nameless in a nameless ditch.
Even at the end of her long life, lilacs could bring Polly to tears because they recalled Zagare; even then she spoke Russian to her parrot. Memory thrust her back in the woods where she had wandered.
The second reason is that I have been pondering the Zagare-Zionism link. The resilience of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — its capacity to last through the Cold War, the post-Cold War, the digital revolution, the rise of China, the Arab Spring — is due in part to the near-perfect equivalency of moral claim to the same land.
What emerged from the Holocaust — from the agony of every little Zagare — was the success of Zionism. Benny Morris, the Israeli historian, has written, “As the pogroms in Russia in the 1880’s had launched modern Zionism, so the largest pogrom of them all propelled the movement, almost instantly, into statehood.”
Through its vote of Nov. 29, 1947, calling for the establishment of two states in the Holy Land — one Jewish and one Palestinian Arab — the United Nations sought to expiate Nazi crimes by granting the Jews what Morris calls “an international warrant for a small piece of earth.”
The thing is, that piece of earth, birthplace of the Jewish people, was not empty. In fact, at the time of the U.N. vote, about 630,000 Jews faced about 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs in the Holy Land. Palestinians failed to see why they should pay for the Holocaust. Arab states, invoking Saladin’s triumph over the Crusaders, seeing in Israel a new expression of European colonialism, went to war against the U.N.’s will — and lost.
Einstein, arguing for Israel, wrote that, “In the august scale of justice, which weighs need against need, there is no doubt as to whose is more heavy.” The Arab League put the opposite case: “There can be no greater injustice and aggression than solving the problem of the Jews of Europe by another injustice” — against the Palestinian Arabs.
Solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict begins with accepting that there is no just outcome, none. Enough Jews and Arabs have died trying to prove the rightness of their cause. Imperfect compromise is the only way out of the spiral.
Carrying Zagare in my blood, aware of what centuries of Jewish precariousness have wrought, I believe the case for Israel was and remains overwhelming, but an Israel that condemns another people to permanent exile is not the one its founders imagined.
An Israeli state, a Palestinian state, economic union between them, international oversight of the holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem: The U.N. idea of 1947 is not a million miles from what any lasting peace must involve.
The second stage of solving the conflict is realizing there are no new ideas, none. The only option is gathering the will to reach the known trade-off.
I went to see the grave of Mendelsonai — the last Jew in Zagare. So, I thought, Zagare is finally Judenrein. In a sense the Nazis have won.
Then, nearby, I saw a European Union flag and thought, no.
Mendelsonai, in his 89 years, lived through five Lithuanias — independent, Soviet, Nazi, Soviet and independent. The last was best, a small state, secure, in NATO, tied in economic union with its neighbors, at peace even with Russia.
It’s amazing what putting the future above the past, jobs above some unattainable justice, can forge.
You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at twitter.com/nytimescohen.