Like most tourists visiting Europe, Robin Lustig and I set out on our current trip to Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Germany in search of the old. We sought to retrace the journeys of our forbearers as they fled their homes for safety and opportunity in Britain and America, and we also wanted to see and learn about contemporary life in the places our respective parents, grandparents and great grandparents left behind.
The contrast of old and new has been stunning.
Saturday morning was not about starting new lives but the loss of a young one.
In November 1941, Robin’s maternal grandmother Ilse Cohn was 44-years-old when she was arrested by the Gestapo and taken from her home in Breslau, in eastern Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), Ilse was taken by train, along with thousands of other German and Austrian Jews, to Kaunas, in what is now Lithuania.
From the train, they were force-marched to a hilltop overlooking the city and held in a courtyard at the Ninth Fort, one of a series of fixed fortifications surrounding the city. From there, they were herded by the hundreds and thousands to a field above the fort and shot. By 1944, the Germans had murdered tens of thousands of Jews, communists and Soviet army prisoners of war at the Ninth Fort.
Seventy years later, in the Old Town of Kaunas, where most of the city’s Jews once lived, cafes line the streets, late afternoons are spent sitting under umbrellas on the river bank, and on the rooftop terrace of a local hotel a young couple celebrates their daughter Emma.