Lithuanians Embrace a Long-lost Uncle

By Ellen Cassedy

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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Chatzkel Lemchen died in 2001, but the legendary Jewish lexicographer has been given a new lease on life in Lithuania’s schools. Starting this month, children across Lithuania will begin watching and discussing “Uncle Chatzkel,” a film about Lemchen’s life story that serves as the centerpiece of a new curriculum about the country’s rich Jewish heritage.

Lemchen, who was born in 1904 in the Lithuanian town of Papile (known in Yiddish as Popelan), was treasured in his native land for helping to preserve the Lithuanian language during the Soviet era. He also translated Yiddish classics by Sholom Aleichem and Yitzhak Leib Peretz into Lithuanian, and authored the only book about the Yiddish language ever published in Lithuanian.

For his role in bridging Russian, Lithuanian and Yiddish languages and cultures, on his 90th birthday he received his country’s highest honor, the Order of Gediminas, in recognition of his public service. The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum honored him as “one man who is a complete institute” unto himself — a personification, in the words of the museum’s deputy director, of “edelkayt — kindness, intellectuality and spirituality.”

Lemchen was 93 when his grandnephew, Rod Freedman, a filmmaker based in Sydney, Australia, showed up on his doorstep in Vilnius in 1997.

Growing up, Freedman had heard vague rumors from his grandmother about her brother, Chatzkel. He was the one sibling out of seven who’d remained behind in Lithuania while others immigrated to South Africa, France, Russia and America. “Uncle Chatzkel lived in a parallel world,” Freedman, now 54, said, “and none of us in Australia ever thought of calling him, let alone visiting. What would happen if we did open that door?”

Freedman’s journey was a purely personal one at first. “I never imagined the depth of feeling that I would experience when I touched the soft skin of his hand and felt my face against his cheek,” he recalled. “In a moment, we bridged three generations. The years and distance receded, and we were no longer strangers but family.”

At the time, Lemchen was hard at work on a new dictionary in his book-lined office, but between deadlines he made time for interviews with his grandnephew. Once Lemchen began to tell his story, Freedman realized that “this was much more than a family reunion,” and he decided to make a film. Lemchen had lived through the Russian Revolution, two world wars, the Holocaust, the Soviet period and the transition to Baltic independence. Along with the poignant tale of his family’s reconnection, Freedman resolved, his film would explore the broader — and often brutal — story of Lithuania’s Jewish history.

Freedman traveled to Lemchen’s childhood hometown and stepped into the very kitchen in which his great-grandmother had once prepared meals. He also tracked down rare archival footage, including a fascist propaganda film that hadn’t been screened for nearly 60 years. Haunted by the mass murder site where his great-grandparents were shot and buried during the Nazi era, Freedman reflected in the film: “I can see why we never looked back. In this landscape of memory, I feel I’m searching for the invisible.”

While Lemchen was an inmate in the Kovno Ghetto during World War II, Freedman learned, his skills as a speaker of many languages and former assistant to Lithuania’s leading philologist came to the attention of authorities. He became part of a team of Jewish intellectuals who were forced to sort through thousands of confiscated Yiddish and Hebrew books, selecting the most important for transport to Germany. (The rest were scrapped at a paper factory.)

Although Lemchen’s two small children were killed in Auschwitz, he and his wife survived the Stutthof and Dachau concentration camps. After the war, they settled in Vilnius. There, in 1948, Lemchen was tapped to compile a Lithuanian-Russian dictionary. “They were in a great hurry,” Lemchen said in the film; the dictionary was urgently needed for the first official postwar Communist Party conference. Uninterested in politics, Lemchen was nevertheless asked to edit official publications. He also served as a translator at government meetings. He noted in the film: “Whatever had to be translated from Russian into Lithuanian, that was my job.”

Lemchen’s second, carefully researched Lithuanian-Russian dictionary came out in 1955. “During the Soviet period,” he told Freedman, “it became a classic.” Specialized volumes followed, containing economic, sports, meteorological and medical terminology. In 1970, Lemchen’s book about the influence of Lithuanian dialects on the Yiddish language was published in Vilnius.

Many of Lithuania’s Jews emigrated in the 1970s and ’80s; though Jews once constituted one-third of the population of Vilnius, they now number fewer than 2,000. But a deep love of language and intellectual inquiry kept Lemchen in Vilnius, at his desk. In 1995, he revised his book on Yiddish philology and translated it into Yiddish for publication by Oxford University. Until his death, at 97, he read the Forverts and corresponded with scholars from all over the world.

All this became part of the film “Uncle Chatzkel,” which Freedman completed in 1999. “I realize now what we almost lost by not looking back,” the filmmaker said. “Uncle Chatzkel” has been featured at film festivals on every continent and has won awards in Australia, America, England, Israel and China.

It was Lemchen himself who persuaded the filmmaker that “the most important audience of all was the Lithuanian one,” Freedman told the Forward. “Chatzkel felt that Lithuanians needed to be educated about what had happened in their own country — especially the young who had not lived through those traumatic times.”

Fulfilling Lemchen’s vision, the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Lithuania has begun distributing 300 copies of the film to high schools. An instructional booklet, written by historian Ruta Puisyte of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, accompanies the film. Puisyte designed the booklet to look like a family photo album. “The film carries a spirit of warmth,” she said. “We wanted the booklet to have a similar spirit.”

During the nearly 50 years of the Soviet era, Jewish history was not part of the Lithuanian school curriculum. Since independence, this has begun to change. “In the last five years,” Puisyte said, “our schools have received very precious books and educational materials on the Holocaust and Jewish history.”

Puisyte’s goal is to make sure that the materials end up being used effectively, so that students can “honestly attempt to evaluate and recognize the past.” In her country, where old Jewish houses and buildings dot the landscape, many Lithuanians have never actually met a Jew. It’s her hope that classroom encounters with “Uncle Chatzkel” will help.

Freedman began his project with the aim of forging a connection with “the last fragile leaf on our Lithuanian family tree.” In that, he feels, he succeeded. “Now [Lemchen’s] a part of our family,” Freedman said.

Through the new curriculum, Lithuanian children might come to claim “Uncle Chatzkel” as an honored member of their nation’s family tree, as well.

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