I spend a lot of time in cemeteries. It’s part of the gig: I’m a rabbi. And my Hebrew name — Avraham Yitzhak — is common enough that I often see myself on gravestones, an eerie reminder of the liturgy we’ll recite this Rosh Hashana: “A man’s origin and end is from dust.”
But last month, I came face to face with my actual name: Avram Mlotek. There it was, on a stone right next to that bearing the name of my grandfather, Joseph Mlotek.
I found their legacies in Vilnius, a city that once teemed with Jewish life. For centuries before World War II, it was called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” and bustled with synagogues, schools and Yiddish writers. Jews of my generation often know much about how these ancestors died, but little about how they lived. Going to Vilna, as it is known in Yiddish, was a reminder of that vibrancy. It was also a painful reminder that culture alone is not enough to protect a people.
The Mloteks, though, were not longtime residents of that dynamic city. When they came to town it was because they were running for their lives.
It was September 1939. My grandfather, my zeyde, was 21 years old and working for a socialist newspaper, Der Folksaytung, in Warsaw. When the Nazis invaded Poland, he fled to Vilna, where he helped collect refugee testimonies. When the Soviets who controlled Lithuania started arresting Yiddish writers, my zeyde went into hiding. In hiding, he learned that one of his brothers had made it to town. He did not know which brother it would be until there was a knock on his door.
Avram and Joseph somehow learned that a Japanese diplomat was granting exit visas out of a nearby city, Kaunas. They waited in line for days in Kaunas (Kovno in Yiddish) and were among the last people to meet the righteous Chiune Sugihara. All told, he saved approximately 6,000 Jews, the Mlotek brothers among them.
Driving along the highway from Vilna to Kovno to see the place where my family was saved, I couldn’t help but wonder: How did my grandfather get there? Was it by horse and buggy? Did he walk the 66 miles to Sugihara’s home, where thousands of Jews lined up to wait as the diplomat had to sign each refugee’s visa personally?
According to Jewish law, one ought to recite a blessing when visiting a site where a miracle took place. In Sugihara’s home, which is now a private museum, I opened up a copy of the Mishna Berura, a Jewish legal text written in Poland, on my iPhone.
Standing over the desk where Sugihara sat signing his name, with the names of my own family members on the wall, I said in Hebrew: “Blessed are you, Lord, God of our ancestors, who performed a miracle for my grandfather in this very place.”
I repeated the prayer in Yiddish, feeling as if I had seen my own name on a tombstone. And yet, here I was, humbled and alive. I wrote in the sign-in book: “Because of his kindness, I live.”
My grandfather’s family included Socialists, Communists, Zionists and Bundists, and I often wonder what the conversation around their Sabbath table must have sounded like. Aside from Joseph and Avram, and a sister, Sara, the rest of the Mlotek family was murdered. Could my grandfather, now long dead, have dreamed that his grandson would become a rabbi and one day return to the city he had fled to officiate a wedding?
Some Jews in Lithuania persevere; among them are a young couple in Kovno. The groom’s father, the leader of the small Jewish community there, did not speak English; we conversed solely in Yiddish, the primary language of the more than six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, and the language my own father spoke to me before English. Overlooking the green hills, we stood under the huppah and blew the shofar, the ram’s horn, as is typical during the Hebrew month of Elul, though not commonly done at weddings.
In just a few days, the Jewish people will mark our new year, 5780. The Bible refers to this day as one of memory, a day of blasts. But what and who are we remembering? The shofar’s cry is supposed to wake us up. But for what purpose? These questions, along with the shofar’s wail, are my spiritual alarm clock. They, like my grandfather’s legacy and the language he spoke, accompany me wherever I go.
Rabbi Avram Mlotek is a founder of Base Hillel, a home-centered ministry for young Jews worldwide.
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