“Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children.” – U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hall of Remembrance
Rachel Lea Karpus was born about 1876 to a Jewish family in the northeast Polish city of Vilna. At age 16, Rachel married Reuven Galperin, a typesetter for a Jewish newspaper, and the Galperin couple subsequently had 16 children — though many died young.
Reuven died in 1938. Then, in addition to caring for her nine living children, Rachel operated a small grocery store on Norigorod Street. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and 17 days after that, the Soviet Union invaded from the east, splitting Poland in two. Vilna lay within the Soviet zone, and in October, the Soviets ceded the city to Lithuania.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and within two days, the Germans reached Vilna. Soon after, Rachel and numerous members of her immediate family were arrested and taken six miles southwest of Vilna to the resort area of Ponary. The Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators used a pit (created by the Soviets to install a fuel tank) for a mass execution site. The victims were herded through a narrow circular passage, and then shot and dumped in mass graves.
Rachel and many of her family members were murdered at Ponary.
All of this is ancient history, of course, and easily forgotten. I only know of Rachel’s plight because of an ID card made for her that I picked up at the Holocaust Museum.
My grandfather and father both fought in World War II. and though I am not Jewish, I have long been a student of the Holocaust. I was, in fact, the first in our small town library to check out “Treblinka” — the story of one of the most gruesome death camps of World War II.
“You don’t want to read that,” the librarian admonished, thinking it was too much for a middle school student to absorb, but I was not to be set off the course of trying to puzzle out how human beings could inflict the atrocities I had heard of. Now, years and books and books (and wars) later, I am no closer to such an understanding.
I am now again thinking of concentrations camps, and of Rachel, because last Friday one of my writing pupils mentioned that she is entering a magazine writing contest wherein the subject the entrants have been directed to write about is shoes.
“I love shoes,” the [adult] student confided. “But I saw those shoes at the Holocaust Museum in New York, and as soon as I saw the topic, I knew I had to write about those shoes. I’ll never forget those shoes.”
Oh. Those shoes. I will never forget the mountain of shoes on display, either. The little children’s shoes. The women’s shoes. The men’s boots. All of the shoes deemed more precious to the S.S. soldiers than the tiny and large feet that once trod in them.
I’m looking forward to reading my protege’s story after she tackles this hardest subject, and with her permission, I might even publish it here. For Rachel. And for Milica Popvic Kuhn, who was machined-gunned to death on February 3, 1942, at the age of 46, standing beside her husband in Srem — killed by Croatian fascists.
As someday I will make known to my children’s children.
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