There Once Was a World

What I Learned from the Final Generation of Jews Who Lived in Lithuania

There is a wonderful Jewish library in Scottsdale, Arizona, near my home. The librarian, Elaine, allowed me to borrow this book, There Once Was a World, about the Jews who lived in the Lithuanian village of Eishyshok, until one terrible day in 1941. I learned a lot about humanitarian societies that Jews in Eishyshok organized and maintained until the end.

It was pretty hard to read this book. The German army killed everyone in the village in September 1941. It is impossible to look at the faces in the photos and remain unmoved by the caption below most of them. The title is a lament for an entire world of Jews that perished from Eastern Europe in World War 2.

All 5000 Jews in Eishyshok were killed that September day. There are no words. What does it mean for us to say, “Never again?” The words sound hollow when the assaults on life and liberty in the Ukraine have made the whole world wonder if humanity has made much progress after all. We are worms, and worse, for Christ our Master taught us the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule. God deliver us from evil.

School Girls, Eishyshok, Lithuania. These girls were murdered by German soldiers in September 1941.

When we worms do make progress—when good is achieved—it often comes about because people of good will start small, humanitarian associations. Jews have been forming these kinds of associations since Bible times. In the Lithuanian village of Eishyshok Jews organized small associations—havurot—to do good. What they achieved may not look like much in the eyes of the world, but their ability to make a difference is an inspiration for me.

Here are some of the wonderful humanitarian societies organized by 19th century and 20th century Jews in Eishyshok:

  • Biker Holim (Visiting the sick).
  • Lina Zeddek (The Righteous Bedside).
  • Ezrat Yoledet (Aiding a Woman at Childbirth).
  • Hakhnasat Kalla (Providing a Dowry).
  • Malbish Arumim (Clothing the Naked).
  • Maot Hittim (Wheat Money).
  • Hakhnasat Orhim (Hospitality Society) and Hekdesh (Homeless Shelter).
  • The Hevrah Kaddishah society assures the dignified burial for the dead. The origin of this group dates from antiquity.
  • Gemilut Hessed (Practicing Kindness).
  • Pidyon Shvuyim (Ransoming the Captives). The ransoming of captives is considered to be one of the most sacred obligations of a Jewish community—a higher duty, by law, than the feeding and clothing of the poor.
  • Billige Kikh (Soup Kitchen).
  • Bnei Hail (Sons of Valor). This was organized to give trauma care to the great number of wounded, shell-shocked Jewish soldiers who returned to Eishyshok. after World War I.
  • Hevrah Beni Avraham Shmuel Anshei Eishyshker. This society was formed by Jewish emigrants in New York in 1891, to send money back to Eishyshok. It was “half benevolent society, half lodge or clubhouse. It brought men together for purposes both practical and nostalgic. The society was named for a rabbi who was well-regarded by the emigrants.”

We can do more good for others when we organize ourselves into small, appropriate humanitarian societies. Jews have these two kinds of structures: the synagogue and the voluntary organizations, or hevrah.