The last Jew in the Lithuanian village of Plunge has made it his life’s work to commemorate the Jews killed there in War World II – and to remind locals of their past deeds.

Parašė Adam. B. Ellick

virsJacob Bunka is stumped: The 79-year-old cannot recall the exact number of Jews from his hometown who sur­vived the war and returned home afterwards.
So the feisty man begins rummaging through his desk drawers, frantically search­ing for a document listing the survivors. Papers, once meticulously organized in bulky folders, now form a chaotic clutter on his desk and adjacent workbench.
The mess mounts. Bunka is told not to both­er. He doesn’t listen.
„I need to know for myself,“ he says, wav­ing his arms dismissively.
His doggedness is understandable. After all, he is a product of prewar Jewish Lithuania, a culture that survived 600 years of unrest. In addition, his native village, Plunge, is situated in the northwest Zemaitija region, whose inhabitants, the Lowlanders, are renowned for „sticking to things.“
„We lived at the end of a Jewish street, near Lithuanian houses,“ says the soft-spoken man with disheveled white hair. „We used to play with them [the non-Jews], too, and fight and play and make up again. So I have double stubbornness. But if I was not stubborn, there would be nothing left in Plunge.“
Bunka, who stands no more than 1.52 meters tall in his purple-and-white 1980s hightops, is the last Jew in Plunge, a once vibrant, 2,500-member Jewish community. He has dedicated his entire adult life to fulfill­ing a promise he made to himself in 1941 while fighting the Nazis: to forever immortal­ize the annihilated community known as Jewish Plunge.

His ambitious crusade has seen the erection of memorials at 10 mass-murder sites, where his wooden works – he says he is Lithuania’s only Jewish folk artist – dominate the skyline. He rescued Plunge’s 16th-century cemetery and created the Plunge Jewish Museum. He also founded the Plunge Jewish Community, which took possession of the Grand Synagogue and nearby prayer houses.
Then he authored a book on Plunge, which was the site of some particularly gruesome killings during the Holocaust.
„When I was fighting on the front, I was thinking how to perpetuate the memory of Plunge. I was constantly obsessed with the thought that if I survived, I would never for­get those who died. When I returned from the army in 1947,1 immediately began to worry . about it. The biggest towns had history and everyone knows about them, but the little provincial towns stayed unknown and I want to make them worth something.“ Today, Plunge is an eerily silent, run­down, post-Communist town of 30,000 that hardly resembles its prewar heterogeneous mix. The town’s biggest employer, and only legitimate. source of industry, churns out frozen crabsticks – a far cry from the bagels and fresh herring that filled the marketplace some 60 years ago. Others work for the city, or operate small shops selling household goods and food. The main pedestrian drag, lined with Soviet-style architecture, is no longer than half a soccer field. It features a dreary con­crete town-hall building, Plunge’s lone hotel and one of the town’s two restaurants, a buffet joint where most patrons sit quietly at wood­en tables ‘and prefer to down beer instead of the day’s offerings: potato dumplings and fried pork. Virtually all the men at the scene are between 15 and 30 years old and not one of them dares show up without a black leather jacket or with hair any longer than a buzz cut. Many of the women are stunningly beautiful, with high cheekbones complemented by slen­der figures. They dress with a bit more flair than the men, but don’t seem to escape the fashion evils of the 1980s.
A few blocks away lie historic one-story wooden houses that once belonged to Jews. Today, older folks can be found here, popping in and out of the corner markets and second­hand clothing shops. The perimeter of Plunge, where Bunka and most residents live, is dot­ted vwith ugly Stalinist high-rise apartment buildings. The town’s aesthetic savior is a serene lake encircled by greenery. It’s hardly a remarkable natural sight, but for most of the town’s residents who have never left Lithuania, it’s simply breathtaking. The most affordable getaway is an hour’s drive to Klaipeda, Lithuania’s third largest city, on the Baltic coast. For Bunka, living in a world so distant from his Jewish past requires an admirable dose of tolerance.
„Every day I go into the street and I see Jewish houses and I feel some bitterness in my soul, but I understand there’s nothing I can do about it. The most important thing is to make others understand and learn about Jews. And I see this more and more.“
After the war, Bunka opted to remain in Plunge, unlike his mother and two sisters, Hannah Aroncik and Gene Gornstein, who emigrated to Israel.
„I made a promise to myself,“ he says sharply. „I wanted to commemorate every­thing and just for that I felt the need to stay here. I made much more here for the Jewish people. In Israel, I’d just be a simple artist, but here I made memorials and valuable things like a museum.“ For two decades, his quixotic mission to build Jewish monuments was shunned by the Soviets, who suppressed religious activity. But in 1976, Bunka got his big break. He was approached by the guilt-ridden former mayor of a nearby town, who suggested Bunka honor the town’s 100 murdered Jews. „We will secretly install the sculpture and people will think it’s been there for a while and they won’t touch it,“ he told Bunka, who quickly fashioned a 4.2-meter high cedar sculpture of a man with bound hands and torn clothing. It was erected quietly at night. That gave Bunka the impetus to create monuments in Koshan, the region’s largest mass-murder site, only three kilometers from Plunge. This created a precedent picked up by the Plunge mayor. In the middle of the 1980s, with the Soviet grip loosening, Bunka quietly created Born to Live, a four-meter sculpture of a family surrounded by branches and roots represent­ing growth. The sculpture is made from oak, a symbol of strength. The Plunge mayor was an art lover and serving his final term – the perfect combina­tion for Bunka, who could now bring his long-awaited vision to artistic life. In 1986, at the mayor’s request, 60 Soviet soldiers installed the massive monument.
‘They were aware that everything was end­ing,“ said Bunka, of Soviet rule.
Bunka kept pushing. For the next three years, he worked alone and created eight more Holocaust-themed oak statues. The municipality donated access paths, fences, stairs, asphalt parking spaces, and a memori­al stone describing the history of the period. Unlike many monuments in Lithuania, this stone acknowledges the participation of col­laborating locals. A Lithuanian woman vol­unteered to plant flowers at the site.
Today the park is so beautifully manicured – thanks to Bunka and Plunge schoolchildren (see sidebar) – that it’s hard to imagine the tragedy it represents.
His fight for preservation goes beyond his artwork. In the early 1990s, after 13 tiresome years of court disputes, the city returned the Grand Synagogue and two neighboring prayer houses to the Plunge „Jewish Community,“ which consists of Bunka and 13 non-Jewish members. The fight came to an end only after the Plunge municipality paid off a linen factory that twke sued the Jewish Community with the aim of retaining the dilapidated build­ing it owned in the Communist era.
In 1992, he persuaded the council to rename the street after the synagogue. Six years later, Bunka converted a prayer house into a one-room Jewish museum filled with historic photographs and objects that he had gathered from Jewish survivors and Lithuanians. Bunka hopes to transform the synagogue, currently a basketball gym, into a remodeled youth center, but has yet to find investors.
He also saved Plunge’s 16th-century Jewish cemetery, which was left in ruins after the war, when Lithuanians dug up the ground in a failed attempt to find valuables. Gravestones in good condition were sanded and used at Lithuanian cemeteries. Only 84 stone fragments remain out of the more than 1,000 gravestones that once dotted the land.
In 1972, Bunka rescued these 84 grave­stone fragments – he transported them to Koshan – before the municipality erected a school on the land. Bunka’s repeated propos­als to return the stones to a site beside the school were rejected because the principal sought to install a playground. But the educa­tor relented when an insistent Bunka told him, „It’s not a good thing to walk on dead people’s bones.“

I made a promise to myself. I wanted to commemorate everything and just for that I felt the need to stay here. I made much more here for the Jewish people. In Israel, I’d just be a simple artist, but here I made memorials and valuable things like a museum.

– Jacob Bunka

in1Since 1990, the 84 stones, the oldest from 1760, have been peacefully resting in a semi­circular display near the original cemetery. Bunka maintains the site and later erected a memorial stone where visitors recite the Kaddish memorial prayer. Last year he counted 147 visitors from places as diverse as Korea and Zimbabwe.
His book, Plungyan: A Memoir, provides a historical overview of pre-war Plunge, the Holocaust, the Russian front, and postwar resettlement. It also follows the fate of Plunge Jews and their descendants who emi­grated. It’s an amazingly detailed summary for a man who never attended university or used a computer. His knowledge was gath­ered from witnesses. Excerpts from his book will be published in the Plunge newspaper later this year.
His research turned up 15 Lithuanians who had participated in the mass murders. Most of them served 10-year prison sentences under the communists for fascist collaboration. Today they are all dead.
‘There was one guy and I didn’t let him live in peace. I always reminded him of it. So he sold his house and left,“ says Bunka.

Besides serving as Plunge’s unofficial Jewish tour guide, he spends a few hours a day creating characters of Jewish Plunge. More than 30 lime-wood figures – rabbis, shoemakers, milkmen – rest in his studio, which is no larger than a double bed. The walls are lined from floor to ceiling with Jewish books. A Yiddische Mama poster hangs near an Israeli flag. Behind the door is a blazer adorned with 22 Soviet war pins. Photos of his works have been displayed at the United States Holocaust Museum, and Yad Vashem and the Diaspora Museum in Israel.
Creativity is in Bunka’s blood. One of his sisters, Gene Gornstein, is a poet in Israel and his father recited witty poems for a living in Plunge’s streets. His grandfather was a cantor.
After studying at a rabbinical seminary for two years during his youth, Bunka learned carpentry and worked at a furniture factory during the Communist era, when his cre­ative urges remained silent. After retiring in 1983, he embarked on woodcraft as a full-time hobby in a region of Lithuania famous for its wood carvings.
His wife of 77 years, Dalija, is a Lithuanian. Today, the couple lives in a small apartment in a Stalinist-era housing complex. Although their three children are not Jews they have pledged to maintain their father’s endeavors when he dies.
„There is no chance to keep the tradition here, but they are proud that their father is Jewish. They value the culture very much. At home we celebrate Purim, Pessah. My wife bakes hamantashen and cooks gefilte fish. My mother taught her.“
„Most of my girlfriends before the war were Jewish,“ says Dalija, 77, who can understand Bunka’s native Yiddish. „I can tell you their names, even today, so this love for these people has quite old roots.“.
Bunka hasn’t encountered anti-Semitism in Plunge and praises the municipality for its sincere support. When asked what makes Plunge different from the rest of Lithuania, which is plagued by intolerance, he says, „Maybe just because the Jewish people here, or just me, care about Plunge.“
The Jewish issue is quite sensitive in today’s Lithuania, where the post-Communist government hasn’t fully faced its past, and the public has little understand­ing of its role in the Holocaust.
„Being angry is not the answer,“ says Bunka. „It’s not favorable to anyone.
„What happened is very tragic and cruel. I want to remind the next generation because after some years they won’t know any Jews. I want to preserve a good Jewish name, so they will know we were good people.“
Plunge’s history is both festive and ghast­ly. Jewish immigrants arrived there in 1348 after being forced to flee Serbia, Moravia and Hungary.
Jewish activity ran strong. The Jewish bank proved so solid that many of its clients were Lithuanians. Jews flocked to six syna­gogues for prayer, including the Grand Synagogue built in 1814.
Children studied at five Jewish schools, including a Hebrew-language yeshiva.
There were Jewish sports clubs – the soc­cer team dominated. There were Jewish poetry recitals and several Jewish orches­tras. There were two Jewish scientific organizations. There was Brit Hachayal, an organization that accumulated weapons for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. There was the entirely Jewish Plunge fire department. There was even a Jewish mayor in Plunge from 1918 to 1931. But behind these organizations and clubs were real faces. Faces like Kotse Zaks, who owned an electrical workshop and flour mill, and whose name was eternalized after Plungyans began referring to electrical out­lets as Zaksin.
There was little Moyshele Royzes, famous among both Jews and Lithuanians, for his ability to tell the time without a watch. During the day townspeople asked him the time, and he would always respond correct­ly, give or take a few minutes. With his damaged knees, he walked the town mum­bling „oy“ with every step.
There was „Yankele the Blue,“ an invalid with blue hands and face, who would roam the streets on Friday nights with a knocker in hand, screaming „Yidn, in shul arayn“ or „Jews into the synagogue.“ There was Hirshe der Fisher, who sold fish that seemed alive in his hands because he shook so much due to his old age. But today, there is only Jacob Bunka. He was an innocent 19-year-old in 1941 when the Germans drew near. With 300 other poor Plunge Jews who had little to leave, the Bunkas quickly fled to Russia. „It was the only place for us to go. No one wanted us anywhere else,“says Bunka, who called the Soviets the lesser of two evils. Those who tried to escape days later were rounded up and shot by their Lithuanian neighbors before the Germans even arrived. Other Jews avoided the Lithuanian fascists but fell victim to German warplanes bombing lines of flee­ ing refugees. The wealthy Jews remained in Plunge, for they had too much to leave – or so they thought. On July 23, 1941, the Germans arrived and with their Lithuanian cohorts forced the Jews into the synagogue, where they were held hostage for two weeks. No food. No bathrooms. No open windows. When the elderly died, their bodies remained inside.
Holy books were thrown into a pit and set on fire. The town’s Jewish photogra­pher was forced to stir the embers with a stick. During those two weeks, 40 Jews toiled in the Koshan forest, digging six pits. Upon its completion, the Jews were marched from the synagogue to the forest. Small children were dragged from their mothers’ arms. The killers saved bullets by swinging the children by their legs and cracking their heads against rocks. They were deposited in the pits. Their murdered parents joined them shortly after. Seventyfour schoolgirls were raped and then buried in a separate pit. The killers drank whiskey and became increasingly drunk. Their bullets often missed their mark and they left some Jews in the pits only half-dead. When the pits were full and covered with mud, blood seeped above the raised earth. Two thousand two hundred and thirty-four Plunge Jews were murdered. Only six Jews survived, thanks to the few righteous Lithuanians who courageously sheltered their friends. Fate proved a bit easier for Bunka and other refugees who fled into Russia. He worked on a collective farm in Siberia and then joined the Russian army. Of the 72 Plunge Jews who teamed up with the Soviets, 42 died in combat, including Bunka’s father and brother. Bunka sur­vived despite two injuries, including a bul­let that lodged in his neck. He saved his life by turning his head at the last moment. He shows his scar as proof.
Back in his home, Bunka’s fervid search for the misplaced document proves suc­cessful after five minutes. He reveals that 138 Plunge Jews returned from Russia. After the war most emigrated to Israel, South Africa and the US. By 1970, Plunge had 45 Jews. But Bunka prefers not to get caught up in the demographics. He is more concerned with something deeper.
„Wherever you live, wherever you are,“ he says softly, „you are always Jewish in your heart.“

 Of the 72 Plunge Jews who teamed up with the Soviets, 42 died in combat, including Bunka’s father and brother

Remembrance of lost lives

in2The last school bell of the day has rung, prompting friends to gather together before marching down the main drag toward the city center, where they will gossip over a few beers.
If Saules High School is hardly the place to be at this hour, then Danute Serapiniene’s after-school Circle of Jewish Culture surely won’t gain anyone popularity points. Don’t tell that to 15 non-Jewish Lithuanian girls who spend their leisure time in her bare, Communist-era class­room twice a week to learn about a culture that is all but dead in this tiny Baltic nation. Jewish life in Plunge, a small town in northwest Lithuania, came to an end in 1941 when 2,300 Jews were brutally slaughtered by Nazis and collaborating Lithuanians. Today only one Jew remains. He is Jacob Bunka, the featured guest at today’s gather­ing. The students greet him by swaying to their favorite tune.
‘Turn ba-la, turn ba-la, turn ba-la lai-ka!“ Bunka, 79, knows the words well. But his lips are sealed Mid his deeply wrinkled face shows only a blank stare. „I have no words,“ Bunka shrugs.
Here in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism still looms large, the existence of a gentile Jewish cultural club is a rare and refreshing dose of tolerance, especially in a rural setting like Plunge, a dreary, rundown Soviet-style town of 30,000.
The Jewish club began in 1995 when then-president Algirdas Brazauskas drew harsh criticism in Lithuania for visiting the Knesset and apologizing on behalf of all Lithuanians for his nation’s collaboration in the Holocaust.
Serapiniene, a vivacious and well-liked Lithuanian-lan­guage teacher for the past 32 years, was embarrassed, but not surprised. The 55-year-old, who played with Jews as a child, was always bothered by Lithuania’s provincial mentality.
„I never heard before of anyone from this nation being concerned about Jewish culture and history,“ says the blonde teacher with tinted glassesr“Somebody had to do it before it’s too late. I felt inside of me that I have to do it myself. Our students and society cannot forget that for 600 years these people lived, worked, created, and died with us. I feel the blame for what happened.“
In many Western nations, after-school clubs supplement classroom education. But in Lithuania, where high-school graduates receive no more than a few lectures on tile Holocaust and government textbooks dedicate less than one chapter to the topic, Serapiniene’s club serves a larger pur­pose.
„Our teachers are not prepared to teach it,“ she says.
 „They do not know what the Holocaust is. When these kids came to me in ninth grade they didn’t know the Holocaust.“
The students’ interest, especially at the expense of an after-school social life, is most curious. When asked to explain their presence on this sunny spring afternoon, they quickly glance around the room waiting for a. classmate to end the silence: Perhaps they are embarrassed to speak English. Or perhaps they are a bit flustered by the sight of a foreigner in their remote town. Finally Rita Griguolaite, a tall and slender 16-year-old with curly blonde hair, emerges as the vocal leader.
„It’s important to know that these people don’t die and they must be in our hearts,“ she says with a concerned stare.
„We wanted to know why they were so discriminated against,“ says Kotryna Miknakyte, 14. „We learned it’s because they were better compared with most of the people. They were the most talented.“
For Ineta Crocuite, an innocent-looking 15-year-old whose fair skin is set off by her dark hair, joining the club was more personal. Her grandfather was half-Jewish. „It’s very important [to me] to know about his relationship with Judaism. Before the club I didn’t know so much, but now I know about their life interests, jobs, traditions. Many people say Jews are bad. They even say they catch children and kill them. And I learned it was not true.“
Despite her resolute drive, Serapiniene concedes her stu­dents are unlikely to grasp the depths of Judaism. Her mis­sion, instead, is to counter the myths which are deeply ingrained in Lithuanian minds. Last month when two chil­dren went missing in a small town, die press suspected that Jews had kidnapped them – never mind that the Jews were murdered long ago.
 „They really hear some of these tales, but they change their minds when they hear the truth. They believe what I say,“ says the teacher, with a proud smile. ‘The only way to soften our guilt is to talk about what our ancestors did and to never forget.“
In 1995, after the Brazauskas fiasco, Serapiniene drew up a two-year program for high-school students covering the basics of Judaism, such as holidays, traditions and folklore, and Jewish history in Plunge, Lithuania and Israel. Her groundbreaking proposal took first place in a national education competition. She was awarded $300, about the average monthly wage in this nation. Eight girls enrolled. „I was already their teacher and I think they just wanted to communicate with me,“ says Serapiniene. The group swelled to 26 by 2000, although it dipped to 15 this year. That first year, with communism only four years removed, Serapiniene had a tough time locating resources in Lithuanian.
‘There were no books then,“ she recalls. So Bunka handed over most of his personal Jewish library’- all in Russian. In 1997, Serapiniene won $625 in another contest. That money sent her students to meet the Jewish community in Klaipeda, a nearby city, and the mass-murder site in the capital, Vilnius. She also used the funds to invite the Jewish day school in Vilnius for a joint concert. For most students in the club, it was their first encounter with Jews. Back in Plunge, they have read Anne Frank’s diary and Franz Kafka. They sing „Hava Nagila.“ They watch films about Israel. Each spring they are excused from class for one day to do maintenance work at the local memorial site. They discuss news from Israel and are often embar-rassed to hear about Jewish issues in Lithuania, like the recent uproar caused by far-right politicians when Lithuania took the first steps to return prewar Jewish property. Serapiniene gets paid $5 a week for her impassioned work. Last year she was forced to decline an invitation to attend an international Holocaust conference at Yad Vashem because she couldn’t cover travel expenses.

Still, she dreams of a separate „Jewish room“ at the school, with her own television, VCR, CD player and Jewish decorations. But with Lithuania’s underfunded educational system, her expectations remain low.

„I get tired at times. Lithuania won’t become tolerant quickly. But this is my duty as an intellectual.“ -A.E.