Sunday, July 30, 2017


Ponjemonje: the name sounded to Philo Bregstein (1932) like a spell in the ears, the key to an unreachable world. This was the name of the village in Lithuania where his grandfather came from, late 20th century to settle in Amsterdam. 
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that world became again accessible, and in 1991 Bregstein, the cineast and writer, went there for the first time. About this search for his roots, Bregstein made a film documentary and wrote the book Back to Lithuania: Traces of a Jewish family.
Through a world-wide genealogical network of family members in America, Bregstein communicates with long lost relative Grisja in Panemune (as the name of the village is actually written). In 1941, Gisja was deported with his family to Siberia by the Soviets, where he lived in the industrial city of Barnaul after years of forced labor. 
For Grisja, thanks to his deportation, one of the few still living Jews from Panemune, his birthplace was also unattainable for half a century. For a poor bugger from Siberia his return is glorious.
With Grisja as a guide, Philo returns to the Bregsteins family house, where the current inhabitants receive them with suspicion: "do those strangers claim their old possessions"? They also find the place where the family farm stood, until bulldozed in 1968. The Lithuanian Bregsteins proved to be an ordinary, fairly prosperous farming family who tried to assimilate as much as possible. That pursuit will continue in Amsterdam, where Philo's father marries a non-Jewish woman and baptizes the children in the Dutch Reformed church.
After several visits to Lithuania, the dreamy enchantment of 'Ponjemonje' has been driven out by a hard reality. The family ties have been restored as far as possible, though, but the wounds of recent history are still deep. The cemetery was not demolished by the Nazis but by the Russians and the tombstones were processed into a bridge. 
With Lithuanians, there is still a great resistance to talk about the history of the war, in which they were often involved. Thus, Bregstein learns that Lithuanian nationalists killed more than 15,000 Jews in an organized deceit between Soviet departure on June 22, 1941 and the arrival of the Germans three days later.

No comments:

Post a Comment