How a Buttonhole Camera Kept Kovno’s Past Alive

ON THE GO

By Masha Leon

Published September 19, 2003, issue of September 19, 2003.
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At the Center for Jewish History on September 3, traumatic recall was the subtext of Solly Ganor’s remarks at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s reception for his book, “Light One Candle: A Survivor’s Tale — From Lithuania to Jerusalem.”

“It took me 50 years to write my diary… I had nightmares,” said Ganor, who survived the Kovno ghetto and Dachau. His book inspired YIVO’s “Light One Candle” photo exhibit by Kovno ghetto photographer George Kadish, aka Zvi “Hirsh” Kadushin, whose images of children, taken through a buttonhole in his overcoat, include one of a young Ganor.

Postwar U.S. Army photos show Ganor in an Army uniform, as well as members of the U.S. Third Army’s Japanese-American 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the 442nd Combat Team from Hawaii, which helped liberate Dachau.

An emotional Ganor recalled how “Clarence Matsumura rescued me during the death march from Dachau to the Tyrol.” Ganor learned English in the Kovno ghetto and became a translator for the U.S. Army. “Trailing around the D.P. camps…. I had the satisfaction of ferreting out Lithuanian Nazi collaborators…. It was easy. Those with the S.S. had a tattoo under their left armpit.”

“In 1948, when I was 18, I decided to go to Israel,” he continued. “It was important to have a state of our own…. I was told, ‘You’re going to another Holocaust.’ For me it was the single most important act of my life.” In Israel, Solly Genkind changed his last name to Ganor, which, he explains in his book, means “garden of light.”

Ganor and I first met in July 1994 on a mission to Japan for the dedication ceremony on the Hill of Humanity at Yoatsu that honors Chiune Sugihara, Japan’s consul in Kaunas who in 1940 issued 2,139 visas that saved 6,000 Jews, including my mother and me.

Led by Eric Saul and Lani Silver, the 1994 mission was sponsored by the Holocaust Oral History Project of San Francisco. The mission’s participants included members of the 522nd who helped liberate Dachau and Yukiko Sugihara, the consul’s still-vital widow.

For Ganor the trip to Japan had additional resonance. As a 10-year-old, Ganor had invited the Sugiharas to his home in Kovno for a Chanukah celebration. Unfortunately, he and his family missed getting those precious life-saving visas.

At the YIVO reception I was delighted to see Ganor’s wife, Pola Ganor; was introduced to George Mukai, a member of the 442nd and a new Ganor friend, and met author Allison Leslie Gold, who had interviewed me by phone and mail for “A Special Fate: Chiune, Sugihara — Hero of the Holocaust,” which showcases Ganor’s and my childhood recollections of the Vilna-Kovno-Sugihara saga.

* * *

Miriam Hoffman, a professor of Yiddish at Columbia University and a Forverts contributor, just back from teaching at the Vilna Summer Yiddish Program, where, along with teachers from Estonia, Argentina and Los Angeles, she taught 60 students from Italy, Belgium, Poland, Canada and the United States.

She told me of the demise of Jewish Vilna — the onetime “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” An embittered Hoffman recalled Ponar, the lush forest outside of Vilna, the eternal resting place for 40,000 slaughtered Vilna Jews. “It was like being in hell,” she said.

“The ground is so fertile…. the trees huge, and there are no markings around the gravesites,” she said. “The last signs of [Yiddish] letters on buildings [in Vilna] are being painted over. In two years, no one will know Jews ever lived here.”

Joshua Cohen’s “Litvak-less Birthday Bash,” a chronicle of Vilnius’s 750th birthday celebration (in the August 29 Forward) offered me painful “closure.” The only photo I have of my parents and me was taken in Vilna in 1940 at the Gaon’s gravesite. Cohen’s article reports: “The original site of the grave of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon, is now a sports complex.” Soon Vilna will become Lithuanian Jewry’s Ground Zero.

* * *

Roman Kaplan, owner of Manhattan’s Russian Samovar restaurant, was excited about the recent television shoot of co-owner Mikhail “Mischa” Baryshnikov and actress Sarah Jessica Parker for an episode of HBO’s “Sex and the City” (to air September 14).

What did they eat, I asked. “They chose what [late poet and a Samovar founder] Joseph Brodsky liked: kholodetz, veal in aspic vinaigrette, Russian beet salad and herring. Mischa drank water; she drank martini.”

* * *

Famous actress she may be, but I was appalled by Parker’s interview in the September 15 Newsweek “Newsmaker” column. Asked “in case of a fire in your home, which pair of shoes she would save — Manolos or Jimmy Choos?” Parker replied: “Oh well, it’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ It’s an impossible situation.” How dare she compare the choice of a fashion accessory to a mother forced to choose which child will live or die in Auschwitz!






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