Stories from a Tower of Faces
Jewish Victims and Survivors from One Small Town
In a three-story tower of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, with natural light filtering and diminishing through each level, photographs of people from just one town cover the walls. Eisiskes, in present-day Lithuania, had about 3,500 Jewish residents in 1941.
That same year, Nazi Germany’s genocide of Europe’s Jews began. Germany invaded the Soviet Union with the goal to claim territory for German “Aryans,” annihilate Jews, and subjugate others based on their racial theories. The murder of six million Jews began in small towns like Eisiskes.
It didn’t look like the Holocaust we usually see portrayed in popular culture. The Jews of Eisiskes weren’t deported on trains, never saw a concentration camp. Instead the killers — Germany’s “einsatzgruppen,” or mobile killing squads — came to their town.
On September 21, 1941, on the eve of the Jewish New Year, German mobile killing units and Lithuanian forces rounded up the town’s residents. Nearly 4,000 Jews from Eisiskes and the surrounding area were forced into three synagogue buildings and held there for three days. On September 24, victims were taken from the synagogue to a nearby horse market. On September 25, the men were led from there in groups of approximately 250 into an old Jewish cemetery where they were shot at the edge of an open pit by Lithuanian guards. On the following day, women and children were shot in a nearby Christian cemetery.
In just a week, more than 250 years of Jewish life and culture in the town came to an end. Today, no Jews live in Eisiskes.
Such massacres occurred across the former Soviet Union occupied by German forces after June 1941. As many as two million Jews were murdered in this “Holocaust by bullets.”
A survivor from Eisiskes, Yaffa Eliach, searched the world for the photographs on display at the Museum. She tracked down Esiskes residents who emigrated before the war, survivors of the Holocaust from Eisiskes, and their family members. Many of the pictures had been taken by her grandparents, who owned the town photo studio.
By humanizing these victims with images of their vibrant prewar lives, we honor them and memorialize all those who were killed without so much as a name or an image to remember them by.
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