Dr. Rachel Margolis Honored in
Tel Aviv’s Leivick House
Dr. Rachel Margolis, one of the founders of the Green House (Lithuania’s only Holocaust museum, a branch of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania), was honored at a major event in Tel Aviv at Leivick House on June 19th. Leivick House, the Israeli Center for Yiddish Culture, is one of the main Yiddish cultural centers in the country. It is home to the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists in Israel.
Over a hundred people of all ages packed the hall of its Tel Aviv headquarters on Dov Hoz Street, a few seconds from the city’s central Dizengoff Street, to honor and hear from the dynamic 87 year old Vilna-born biologist, Holocaust survivor, resistance hero, and Holocaust scholar. As widely reported in the international press, Dr. Margolis is unable to return to Lithuania because of the unfortunate campaign against Holocaust survivors who resisted, one that continues to be waged by some Lithuania prosecutors, intellectuals, journalists and politicians. Dr. Margolis has been honored in recent months by the United States Congress and an array of Holocaust related organizations around the world. In a bold display of solidarity, a large group of NATO and European Union area ambassadors in Vilnius wrote to her, at her home in Rechovot, Israel, expressing support, and looking forward to her safe return to Vilnius to enable them to hear her talk on the Holocaust, the Vilna Ghetto, and the Jewish Partisan resistance. For nine consecutive years (1998-2007), her talks each summer had been an integral part of the program of the Vilnius summer program in Yiddish language and literature at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Detailed information about the situation in Lithuania is available on the website: www.holocaustinthebaltics.com.
The recent Tel Aviv event was chaired by Leivick House’s director, the composer Daniel Galay, the director of Leivick House. It featured talks by: H.E. Chen Ivri Apter, the ambassador of Israel to Lithuania and Latvia; Professors Israel Bartal and Dov Levin, both of Hebrew University in Jerusalem; Professor Dovid Katz, founder and research director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University who flew in from Vilnius for the event. Special highlights were a poem written for the occasion by the dean of Israeli Yiddish poets, Rivka Basman Ben-Chaim, and a presentation by schoolchildren who study Yiddish, led by their teacher Hannah Polin Galay, who was a Fulbright student at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in 2004-2005. The schoolchildren led in the singing of the partisan hymn, written by Hirsh Glik, “Zog nit keynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg” (‘Never say you are going the last way’).
During the event, Professor Katz presented to Dr. Margolis a certificate of recognition from the British House of Lords, signed (in English and Yiddish!) by Lord Janner of Braunstone (formerly MP Greville Janner), a longtime advocate of Holocaust commemoration, survivors and truth in European history.
The high point of the program at Leivick House was the speech of Rachel Margolis herself, concerning her survival and resistance, and touching also on her recent works on Holocaust Studies. She was warmly acclaimed by an array of scholars, diplomats, major figures from Jewish organizations, and senior leaders of the various survivor organizations of Lithuanian Jewry in Israel. The event was videographed by Leivick House and covered by a journalist from Kol Yisrael Israeli radio.
Rachel Margolis, born in Vilna in 1921, was hidden with a Christian family after the Nazi takeover in 1941, but decided voluntarily to be together with her family in the Vilna ghetto. In the ghetto, she joined the Jewish resistance in the ghetto, and in September 1942 escaped into the forests to join the partisans who were resisting the Nazis and their local collaborators. She earned many medals for her bravery in the war against Hitler. Her own parents and brother were killed just days before liberation in July 1944.
After the war, Rachel studied biology and volunteered to help at the short-lived postwar Jewish Museum led by Yiddish poets, ghetto survivors and partisan veterans Shmerke Katsherginski and Avrom Sutzkever. They told her about the secret diary of Kazimierz Sakowicz, a Christian Pole who had witnessed the murders of tens of thousands of Jews and others at the mass killing site Ponar (Paneriai). Sakowicz was himself killed in 1944, but left behind a diary which reported that the killers were by and large enthusiastic Lithuanian “partisans” serving the Nazis. More than half a century later, thanks to the rise of Lithuanian independence, democracy and open society, Margolis, with the help of colleagues at the Green House, was able to obtain access to the archive where the manuscript (which Sakowicz had buried in a variety of jars in his garden) was kept. Dr. Margolis painstakingly deciphered and transcribed the work, in the original Polish, and published it in 1999. An English edition, called Ponary Diary, was brought out by Yale University Press in 2005, edited by Dr. Yitzhak Arad. In 2006, the Vilna Gaon Museum proudly published Rachel Margolis’s memoir in Russian, A Flash of Light in the Darkness. Thanks to a committee comprising her cousin Marjorie Margolis in the United States and Professor Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University (who has written a preface), the book’s publication in English is now at an advanced stage and is due to appear in the spring of 2010.