Excerpts from an article entitled, “MAMA, MAMA” by Professor Dovid Katz which appeared in the Algemeiner Journal. This article was sent to us by Meilakh. The photos of Ponar were added for this printing.
I was born in 1923. On June 28 I will be 82 years old. I lived my early years in our apartment on Kiev Street; now it is called Kovno Street (Kaunas Street in Lithuanian), not far from the Vilna Railroad Station. My parents were Mendel and Leah (she was called Liza in Polish) and they had a shop for cereals and grains.
As a little boy I was frum, as all of them were, and my grandfather Avigdor had a great influence on me. He was the gabbai of the kloiz for the hospital, where they took care of the sick, over across the way. I’ll show you, the building still stands today. They called him “Vitele the Gabbai.” I was a bar mitzvah there. There is no sign today that there was a hospital there, or a kloiz. Then we moved to the corner where our store was, and we lived in the back rooms. Then we rented a place from the priest of the cloister “All-Holy.” And there you see it, the building just beside the cloister. We lived as Sholem Aleichem described it, “poor and happy.”
… The war began in Poland in 1939, and then Lithuania became part of the Soviet Union in 1940 and the first part of 1941, and Meilakh took various jobs. When the Germans attacked in June 1941, he worked in a cafeteria is a summer camp in Pabrade, not far from Vilna. When the Soviet army fled, so did Meilakh with a group of fellow workers, first to Dvinsk in Latvia and from there deep into Russia.
Meilakh wanted very much to take part in the war against Hitler. In March of 1942 he joined a division of Cossacks, which fought heroically against the Germans. Meilakh was of course their one and only Jew.
In 1944 when Meilakh read in a Russian newspaper that the Soviet Army had liberated Vilna, he immediately mailed three letters: one to the address of the apartment where his family had lived by the “All-Holy” cloister; one to the address on little Stefan Street of his sister Beilinke with her family; and one to his grandparents on Kiev Street.
There was no answer to his three letters.
But one good person searched out Meilakh’s cousin Monieh, who remained alive. This was Monieh, the son of Meilakh’s Uncle Yossel. Cousin Monieh wrote from Vilna to Meilakh in distant Russia. “From my people and from your people not one remains living. All perished at Ponar.
Ponar is the mass grave where the Germans and their Lithuanian helpers murdered and burned the Jews from Vilna… The majority of the Jews from Vilna Ghetto were taken to Ponar.
Some of the many execution pits at Ponar
Execution Pit 1
Execution Pit 2
Stone with inscription: “In this eight meter deep pit, the Hitlerite Invaders brought those who were rounded up, burned their corpses and disposed of their bones.”
Stone with Inscription
Meilakh felt bitter grief at the news that no one in his family from Vilna survived, as they had all been killed for no other reason than that they were Jews.
A very small photo of his mother that he had carried with him through all the bad times of the war (that he still holds dear and keeps with him to the present day) was a picture of his entire world, a world that is no more.
Meilakh fought heroically with his Cossack division. They helped in the liberation of Rostov and took part in the battle against the Germans on the banks of the Dnieper River. Meilakh ended the war on May 10, 1945, 80 kilometers from the city limits of [Estreich?].
Inside he was a broken man. He thought day and night about his father Mendel, about his mother Leah, about his sister Beilinke with her husabnd and little daughter Shulamit (Shulinke), about his grandfather Vitele the Gabbai, and on and on.
A year later, in 1946, Meilakh decided to take one last look at this hometown Vilna, and part from it forever. He arrived by train, wearing his military uniform. He took a look at his former dwelling place on the corner by the “All-Holy” cloister, where his family lived. Entirely new people lived there, Christians, but the furniture and other things in the apartment had belonged to Meilakh’s parents. Strange people were already living with his family’s worldly goods.
He also went to the apartments where his relatives and friends had lived. Not one of them remained.
With a shiver Meilakh went to Zavalna Street, which leads to Sadova, the street that leads to the station. In his hand was a ticket to Rostov, by way of Riga. Just before turning onto Sadova to the station, on Zavalna Street he saw an old acquaintance, a Pole by the name of Aleksander, who worked there in a movie theatre. The Pole didn’t recognize the soldier right away. But Meilakh said a few words to him in Polish, “We once lived not far from here, my parents had a shop where they sold cereal and grains, my mother’s name was Liza.”
Aleksander immediately recognized him and said, “Not long ago I saw your mother, she is living somewhere in a courtyard on Zavalna Street, but on the other side.”
Meilakh said to him, “Be so good, I beg of you, not to rub salt in my wounds.”
The Pole said, “Come, we’ll go and look for her!”
The Pole and the young Jew in the military uniform went away to look. In one courtyard and in another courtyard and in a third courtyard.
And suddenly in one courtyard he saw from afar a familiar figure of a woman.
Meilakh recollected that moment: “I went closer to the woman. She continued standing there and I continued standing there. For a long time I couldn’t say a single word, we simply wept, I wept and she wept. Then I began to call out, ‘Mama! Mama!’ and she began to call out, “Meilakh! My son!” All the people in the courtyard also cried. It seemed that the walls were also crying. And we lived together for 30 more years, until she died in 1976, and we lived right there in the courtyard where we met thanks to Aleksander, whom I saw a minute or two before getting to the station to leave Vilna forever, that was in 1946.”
What does Meilakh think about it today?
“I will tell you the truth,” he says, “I am not a believer and it is perhaps an accident, a lucky accident, one in a million, but an accident. But if you want to write in the newspaper in New York that it is from God, you can also write that.”