We Are Here

Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust
by Ellen Cassedy
University of Nebraska Press, March 2012

From the beginning of We Are Here:

A soft summer rain was falling as a white-haired woman made her way to the microphone. “Tayere talmidim!” she began. “Dear students!” Through the pattering of drops on my umbrella, I leaned forward to catch her words. The old woman’s name was Bluma, a flowery name that matched her flowered dress. She was a member of the all-but-vanished Jewish community in Vilnius, Lithuania, the city once known as the Jerusalem of the North. “How fortunate I am,” she said in a quavering voice. “I have lived long enough to see people coming back to Vilnius to study Yiddish.”

Seventy-five of us – students of all ages from all over the globe – huddled on the wooden benches that were clustered together on wet cobblestones. Around us, the damp walls of Vilnius University rose into the heavens. As the rain continued to fall, I shivered. It was a complicated place, this land of my ancestors – a place where Jewish culture had once flourished, and a place where Jews had been annihilated on a massive scale.

My reasons for being here were not simple. I had come to learn Yiddish and to connect myself with my roots – the Jewish ones, that is, on my mother’s side. (On my father’s side, my non-Jewish forebears hailed from Ireland, England, and Bavaria – hence my name, Cassedy, and my blue eyes and freckles.) But I had other goals, too. I wanted to investigate a troubling family story I’d stumbled upon in preparing for my trip. I had agreed to meet a haunted old man in my ancestral town. And I planned to examine how the people of this country – Jews and non-Jews alike – were confronting their past in order to move forward into the future. What had begun as a personal journey had broadened into a larger exploration. Investigating Lithuania’s effort to exhume the past, I hoped, would help me answer some important questions.

When my mother was alive, I could count on her to keep hold of the past. But after she died, all those who’d gone before seemed to be slipping out of reach. I found myself missing the sound of Yiddish, the Jewish mame-loshn, or mother tongue, that she had sprinkled into conversation like a spice. At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe (a downpour)!” In the kitchen: “Hand me a shisl (a bowl).” On the telephone: “The woman’s a makhsheyfe (a witch).”

Once my mother was gone, I felt bereft – of her, and of the homey sounds that had once resounded in Jewish kitchens, lanes, meeting halls, and market squares on both sides of the Atlantic. My desire for Yiddish developed into a craving. I wanted to speak it and read it, to understand, write, sing. I signed up for evening classes at the nearby Jewish community center, worrying that at forty, I was too old for language study. The Germanic sounds felt comfortable in my mouth, though, and the Hebrew alphabet was daunting but not impossible. While my children did their homework at the dining room table, I did mine, plodding through textbooks, copying out grammar exercises, thumbing my dictionary till the binding broke.

Raised in a mixed marriage by secular parents, I had never attended Hebrew school or recited blessings on Friday nights. Now, studying Yiddish felt like an act of devotion. Yiddish was the everyday Jewish idiom, not the language of religious texts. Yet to me it embodied sacred values. Yiddish was the language that great writers had used to convey stirring humanist ideas to an audience of “common folk.” It was the language that had united activist Jews in movements for social change in Europe and North America. Studying Yiddish signified that ordinary life mattered, that humble people and their humble daily lives had meaning and would not be forgotten.

Once described as “the linguistic homeland of a people without a home,” Yiddish began to offer me the sense of continuity that had been ruptured by my mother’s death. My husband, who’d been raised in Baltimore’s Jewish community, sensed