My Holocaust Story

Despite the title of this piece, I had no Holocaust story, or so I thought. All of my relatives had squeaked out of Lithuania before the Holocaust, and many even before the turn of the 20th century. I’m actually a third-generation born American on my maternal grandmother’s side.

Shaffer Family

My great grandparents Mollie and Lewis Shaffer with some of their children. My Pittsburgh-born maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Shaffer Kopelman, is at far right.

But in 2001, I began to study my family tree. Every once in awhile, someone would mention a certain book, There Once Was A World, and insist I had to read it. The book is a 900-year chronicle of the town of Eisyskes, just 27 miles away from Vasilishki, my ancestral shtetl.


For years, I had searched maps, looking for our shtetl, and not seeing it. The reason? My Grandpa called it “Vashilishok.” That’s how the Jews called it. Just as the Jews called Eisyskes, “Eishyshok.”

Not to mention, my Grandpa said the shtetl was in Lithuania. It was. When he lived there. But the Lida District, of Vilna Province, where Vashilishok was located, changed hands 8 times between the two world wars. I was looking in the wrong country. Today, the entire district is part of Belarus. Including the town of Radun, where Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the famed Chofetz Chaim lived, just 19 miles away from Vashilishok.

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, Z"L, the Chofetz Chaim.

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, Z”L, the Chofetz Chaim.

In fact, he went to Heder in Vashilishok as a small child and taught a Kollel there as an adult. His students in Radun used to shlep him food every day to Vashilishok, as the Chofetz Chaim only ate food prepared in his own home.

It was only when we got our first computer that I was able to figure it all out. That’s when I got access to Jewishgen, the largest free resource for Jewish genealogists, with everything online. I found that website and entered my mother’s maiden surname, KOPELMAN, and bingo, got several hits. I shivered, looking at the screen. Someone had just opened a door for me to everything that I am: my family history.

When I finally got that book, There Once Was a World, I knew why everyone had said I had to get my hands on a copy. My family is in that book. Photos, history, everything.

I devoured this humongous coffee table book and then I reached out to the author, Prof. Yaffa Eliach. Who called me on the phone out of the blue!

She got my letter the same day she was flying to Israel for a lecture tour. She knew my family. Knew them well. Told me things about my family I never would have known without her. How they got to Lithuania (they escaped forcible conversion and persecution in Germany); when they got to Lithuania (she had a document in her possession, the earliest town  “pinkas” that mentions the Kopelmans in Vashilishok, in 1736); and where they settled (Vasilishok, Olkenik, Grodno, and Eishyshok).

Woman raising chickens in my ancestral shtetl of Vashilishok (Wasiliski, Belarus). Photo credit: Richard Segal.

Woman raising chickens in my ancestral shtetl of Vashilishok (Wasiliski, Belarus). Photo credit: Richard Segal.

Were my Kopelmans, the same Kopelmans in the book?

They were.

And here is the story, in brief:

The Holocaust came to Eisyshok first. Yaffa was six. Her family fled to the Kopelmans, their good friends in Vashilishok, to escape the Nazis. This was a family of two parents and five children. Later, when the Holocaust came to Vashilishok, the Kopelman family sought out a non-Jewish farmer, Kadishon, who had always been a good friend to them. They’d already given him their possessions to watch over, now they were entrusting him with their lives. He hid them in his barn.

Here is how Prof. Eliach tells what happened next.

“One night while the Kopelmans were asleep, Kadishon murdered them all with an axe, then scattered the pieces of their bodies on the ground for the pigs and other animals.”

From right, Beila, Rachel & Elisha, were ax-murdered with their parents. Elisha Peretz is on the left - he was killed in the Sinai Campaign in 1956.

From right, Beila, Rachel & Elisha, were ax-murdered with their parents. Elisha Peretz is on the left – he was killed in the Sinai Campaign in 1956.

I read that sentence and stared and stared at the photo of my cousins. That beautiful family. Dressed in their best for a family photo. My cousins. My blood. Axed to death as they slept. Fed to the animals.

I could see the panic, the blood and the iron-tinged smell of it, hear the screams. I imagined it over and over again. Who got it first? That first blow of the axe? To a head? An arm?

Did the children see their parents murdered, axed to death by a trusted friend? Did the parents see their children hacked up to pieces as they screamed the high-pitched terrified screams of small children?

The betrayal. The indignity. The blood.

I dreamt about them. Over and over again. My kin.

I called my mother in Pittsburgh. Did she remember anything about family back in the old country? Did no one reach out to them for help? She’d thought they’d all left. That there was no one else.

And the truth is, she was right. There was no one else. They were all murdered and it wouldn’t be something you’d talk about to your small children.

If my grandparents knew about it, perhaps they whispered of it in hushed voices at night, not wanting the children to know of this other world, on the other side of the earth, where children were not safe. Where friends were not friends. Where human beings were fodder for cattle, unworthy of burial, even.

When I think of the Holocaust, I think of my cousins, the Kopelmans. I think of that photo. I think of the blood and the screams. And then I can’t think anymore.

It’s too much to take in, that evil. I can’t understand it.

I only know this: it happened.

P.S. It’s still happening. In Jerusalem.


Varda Epstein

A third-generation-born Pittsburgher on her mother’s mother’s side, Varda moved to Israel 36 years ago and is a crazy political animal who spams people with right wing political articles on Facebook in between raising her 12 children and writing about education as the communications writer at Kars for Kids a Guidestar gold medal charity.

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