Last Jew of Vilkaviskis goes home
Eli Rutstein pays an emotional visit to his grandmother’s grave in the Vilkaviskis Jewish cemetery
When Eli Rutstein and his family left Vilkaviskis 45 years ago, they were the last Jews to leave the Lithuanian town which had once boasted a Jewish community of thousands.
After they left for Israel, the town’s Jewish past was largely forgotten and its 50,000 residents are mostly now unaware of the role the community once played.
But last week Mr Rutstein, now a 61-year-old father-of-three, returned to his home town and received a hero’s welcome from civic dignitaries and former classmates.
He was taken to his old home and the shul where he celebrated his barmitzvah, and visited his mother’s and grandmother’s graves.
Ex-classmates presented Mr Rutstein, who runs a garage in Hendon, north west London, with flowers and chocolates.
Mr Rutstein travelled to Lithuania with his wife, Lorraine, and children Sara, Natalie and Adam. He began researching the town’s history on the internet last year and found a site run by Israeli historian Ralph Salinger.
He put him in touch with Antanas Zilinskas, of the town’s main museum, and local reporter Algis Vaskevicius, who helped organise the trip.
The Cockfosters and New Southgate Synagogue member said: “It brought back a lot of memories. Because we lived a Jewish life in a small town, we were well-known. Everyone knew my father. We stood out because we were different.
“This trip was very emotional. A lot of people told me they remembered my father.
“I went to my old house, but I was heartbroken because it is in such a very bad state. The people who rent it now are drunks and drug-addicts so we had to bribe them to go in.
“Vilkaviskis is much bigger than when we lived there when it was just like a shtetl. The impact the Jews had on the town was very big.”
Before the war around 3,500 Jews lived in the town, but between July and November 1941, all but 100 were murdered. Less than 1,000 of those killed are buried in marked graves.
Mr Rutstein’s father, Meir Rutsteinas, escaped the killings and survived the war after being sent to Siberia.
He returned after the war and started a new family. They were joined by just three elderly Jewish couples.
The family, including teenage Eli, eventually decided to move to Israel. They finally received permission to leave, at the eighth time of asking, on November 23, 1963, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated.
They moved the following year and Mr Rutstein, who moved to London in 1973, had no contact with Vilkaviskis until a brief trip to Lithuania last year.
Last week’s reunion event was at a local football ground, where he presented a sponsored kit to players from the town’s Metalas club.
His gesture replicated that of his father, who had sent a kit back to Lithuania the year after leaving.
More than 200 people turned up to see and hear Mr Rutstein’s story, but not everything went to plan, as the Metalas players, in the new shirts, lost an exhibition match to a team made up of former Vilkaviskis residents.
Mr Rutstein said: “It was amazing and overwhelming to see the players come out with the shirts. I made a speech, thanking them all.
“I just felt I had to do this for my parents. I wanted to let the young people of Vilkaviskis know about the history.”
For the Lithuanians, he said, the visit held different emotions. Residents struggle to come to terms with their guilt over the almost total eradication of the Jewish community.
“They do not want to talk about the past. They feel ashamed. If we tried to talk about it too much they stopped us,” said Mr Rutstein.
In an attempt to recognise the influence of the town’s Jews, the museum is preparing a major exhibit. More than 150 photographs of residents killed during the Shoah have already been sourced from Yad Vashem.
Mr Rutstein hopes to return to Vilkaviskis next year with his sister Ida, who lives in Haifa.