Before the Aktion reached across Mittel Europa into the small village of Soleczniki, off the beaten track of civilization. Before it encircled 900 souls that hot and sleepy June afternoon in 1941, just before dinner, while Irina, the farm girl in pigtails tied with straw, picked blueberries growing along the edge of the clearing. Before she spied, from her vantage point behind a fallen tree trunk, an endless line of villagers: children, their mothers and fathers, being marched down the dirt road into the clearing. Before the men were forced to dig a mass grave by soldiers with guns and a neighbor Irina's father had called killer. Before the full bloom of the apple trees in Soleczniki, where Communists, anti-Communists, Catholics, Russian Orthodox "believers" and a smattering of Jews nodded cordial greetings on the road as they led their cows home from pasture. Before lumbermen disappeared at dawn into the Lithuanian forests and re-emerged after felling birch that grew stick straight deep in the woods. And before local Jewish families like those of Hirsch Schneider and Catholics like Maria Voroniecky completed their simple daily chores-- fetching water from the well for drinking and cooking, tanning leather for heavy boots and jackets, weaving wool for blankets and sweaters, or harvesting grain for sustenance over the brutal Baltic winter. Before all but four of the 900 Jews were marched into the forest, past the blooming wildflowers, in the clearing. Before Irina ran home to tell her father about what she had seen. Before the screams of women and children and shots, tat tat tat tat tat. Before the people were shot and some buried alive; before Irina's father ordered her to stay in the house, and before the field workers, who went to investigate Irina's story, saw the ground still moving after three days.
There was a natural order to village life, rearranged forever. Before, many local hunters' tracks led to this quiet clearing, where blueberries grew wild, and rabbit, deer or the occasional wild fowl were often sighted. After, the hunters went elsewhere.
After, the forest did not swallow the mass grave, but merely guarded it in silence. After, the Nazi collaborators took over the homesteads of families who had disappeared that afternoon and never returned; the Jewish merchant's home, his barn, his cows, now belonged to the killer, as a reward from the Germans. After, Irina continued to pick blackberries, but stayed far away from the clearing. After, Gershon, his two brothers and a friend hid in a hastily dug hole under the barn of their former housekeeper, Maria. After, the men dug a tunnel from barn to farmhouse for an escape route. After, they slipped into the natural protection of the forest each night to hunt, to pray, to mourn, and to pick wild blueberries. After, Irina grew up, married, and raised her family on her father's farm near the clearing of death, a side trip on the historical tour of the Ponary Forest, or as the guide says, Ponar.
After sixty years, we travel to the capital city of Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish) and after 40 minutes on a bus, reach the forest clearing, now fenced with simple pine. After, a Star of David scrawled in black paint is the only sign of who is buried here. After, the children and grandchildren of the survivors -- rescued and rescuers alike -- light candles brought from America and say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. After, Irina is an old woman; her blue eyes set in an impossibly lined face, round as the moon, and framed by a babushka. After, she invites us into her two-room farmhouse, which has no running water but heavy oriental rugs and a color television. After, through an interpreter, she relates her story; she shakes her heavy arms and assumes the position of a soldier; the terrible sounds -- tat tat tat tat tat-- do not require translation.
After, on a hot summer day, in the forest outside Soleczniki, American descendents of those who evaded the Aktion of 1941 pay their respects, not only to the dead, but also to the living -- the children and grandchildren of the rescuers -- as the forest looms, silent witness. After, we accept blueberries from the guide. "Your grandfather ate these berries," he tells my daughter, who holds them in her palm.
About the author:
Nina R. Schneider teaches creative and expository writing at Bentley University. She holds an MFA from Emerson College.