My great-great grandfather Harris Samilson left from Simne for New York City in 1866, much earlier than the majority of Eastern European Jews who arrived starting in the 1880s. A decade before Harris left Simne, now Simnas, it had a population of 754 and was 98% Jewish.
Oddly enough, in Simne Harris’ family name was likely Angenitsky, which sounds nothing at all like Samilson. Perhaps his father’s name was Samuel or Shmuel and he decided to use a form of that name instead. His 1870 naturalization papers record his name as Samuelson. I was surprised to find this connection to the name Angenitsky many years into my research, when I discovered a document that had been filed with Yad Vashem in 1995. It had been filed by Harris’ niece Ida Samilson Merber’s son Oscar, and recorded the murder of Ida’s brother Mordechai Angenicki in the Holocaust. The family name originally may have been any one of several variations: Angenitsky, Angenitski, Angonitsky, Angonitski, Angenickaite, Angenickis or Angenickas.
We arrived at the Simne town square, and Regina asked the group of middle-aged men standing in front of a store where the old synagogue was. They pointed to a building at the edge of the square, not 100 feet away. The red and yellow brick building certainly resembled a synagogue despite the fact that several of its arched windows and doors had been bricked or cemented over, including the circular window where a star of David likely once had been. The 1905 building replaced a previous wooden structure, and in 1952 was converted to a Palace of Culture and then used as a gymnasium. The town is considering other uses for the building. Despite the fact that it had been used as a sports facility, which seemed slightly at odds with its original use, I was glad that it had been preserved.
Regina tried to remember where the cemetery was, but eventually decided to ask for directions. We stopped at a house in front of which two middle-aged women stood chatting. One woman told Regina that the cemetery had been destroyed during the Soviet era. Regina motioned towards us in the car, and said that our family had originated in Simne, and asked whether the woman recognized the name Angenitsky or Samilson. The woman’s eyes immediately lit up and she said, as translated by Regina, that her parents had told her about Dr. Angenitsky and their warm relationship with him. Here was someone with a direct link to my family! My breath was taken away to be standing next to someone who happened to be born in 1948 into a family that for some reason had thought it important to pass on to their children their connection with friends who had been victims of genocide; this woman was in some ways more linked to members of my family than I was. Such a random event, our meeting. And it warmed my heart, as an archivist, to learn that she was a librarian.
Finding the Yad Vashem report on Mordechai Angenicki’s death led me to an amazing book, Hope in Darkness: The Aba Gefen Diaries. It is based on a diary kept by the 15 year old author, and tells in extraordinary detail how he survived WWII in and around Simne. In the book, Gefen recounts how the able-bodied Jewish men were taken from the community at the start of the German occupation, how those left behind hoped against hope that they were merely being forced to labor for the Germans rather than murdered, and that it was Dr. Mordechai Angenitsky who led the women, children and elderly in their forced march into the forest to be killed by Germans with the help of some local Lithuanians.
It was time to visit our last site of mass extermination, the place that held the Angenitskys’ bones. As we drove out of town past one of Simne’s two lovely lakes, my thoughts were with those who had been forced to march naked down these roads.
We came to a small store and turned right on to a dirt road. There was no sign indicating that this was the way to this historic site. We passed fields and farmhouses and came to a fork in the road, with no sign as to which way to go. We decided to back up (it being a narrow one lane) to the last farmhouse to get advice. Luckily, a car was coming and the man driving it told us to bear left at the fork, which we did. The road narrowed even more as it approached the forest. At another fork we had to guess again, and took the left branch.
Soon we saw a black stone marker indicating that our destination was just forty meters ahead. It wasn’t until we could practically see the memorial that there was finally a sign directing us to it. Regina said that a group of British Jews had organized and paid for the memorial’s construction, and it’s possible they decided to make it difficult to find as a precaution against vandalism.
My breath was once again taken away when we got out of the car and walked into a clearing in the forest, where we encountered a huge, twenty-foot tall stone sculpture of a woman’s face cradled in her hand. The verdant green of the grass and trees provided an aching contrast to the gray stone and the gravel-covered death pit that had been dug there.
We lit the yartsheit candle that we brought and Regina offered to say a prayer to those murdered there. I am a secular person but I so appreciated this amazing gift of song, which I understood as an invocation to connection to the past, to community, and to family, as much as to the divine.