Kovno to Dublin

Maurice Elliman arrived in the world as Moshe Helman on March 9, 1872 (or possibly 1873 or 1874).  He was born in the small village of Luchiken near Kovno (Kaunas), set amid the woodlands and meadows of Lithuania. His father, Moishe, had been dead for three months by the time Maurice was born.  His widowed mother, Molly, then 29 years old, shouldered care of the new baby together with that of her first child, Jacob, who was three years old when Maurice was born.

Rural Lithuania

No village or record of the village that Maurice recalled to his children as Luchiken (and wrote on his Naturalization certificate and ‘Lucniken, Kovno’) exists today. The best candidate for his birthplace is Luoke, a small town in western Lithuania. At the time that Maurice would have lived there, it was home to over 1,000 Jews. It had a mill, two breweries, a couple of workshops, several shoemakers and tailors, taverns, and about 20 shops mostly owned by Jews. If Luoke is Luchiken, it would have been here that Maurice’s mother had her wine shop.

In 1888, shortly before Pesach, Luoke experienced a particularly violent pogrom in Luoke. Its Jews began leaving — for South Africa, the USA and Palestine, reducing the Jewish population by half. Maurice left the following year, when he was 18.

His emigration was wiser than he could have known. During World War II, the village’s remaining Jews were taken to the surrounding forests and killed, and the town was destroyed. Ninety-five per cent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, almost all of them marched three or four miles into surrounding forest and shot next to pits in a ‘Holocaust by bullets’.

Luoke was rebuilt after the war. It has no monument to the hundreds of Jews murdered there by the Lithuanians, Nazis and subsequently the Soviets. Its centuries of Jewish life are memorialized by death — two Jewish cemeteries, one on the town periphery and the other to its west.

(LEFT) Entrance to Luoke, new houses in the foreground, the old village on the hilltop behind. The Jewish cemetery is in the valley between them (not visible).

(CENTER) An original unrestored Jewish house. Behind the tree in the foreground, is a well. Few village dwellings in rural Lithuania, even today, have indoor facilities or running water, with many houses drawing water from their own wells.

(R) Rebuilt Jewish houses off the main square . The house on the left has had an extension built into the roof, which would not have originally been there.

(LEFT) Rebuilt Jewish houses around the market square. The pink house at the end has three windows: that in the centre was probably once a door as Jewish houses always had two doors: one for the business and one for the family.

Luoke  lay in the northwest of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, the area from the Baltic to the Black Sea in which Tsarist Russia had confined its Jews by law since 1795.  It had the additional misfortune of being directly under the boot of Tsarist troops: nearby Kovno had been a centre in popular uprisings against the Tsar in the early 1830s and again in the mid-1860s. Since then, Russia had kept a large garrison in Kovno — and harassment of the local Jews was a welcome distraction for the bored soldiers and wretched local people.

The 19th century Ninth Fort, was where the Tsar’s troops were stationed. The Soviets used it to hold dangerous criminals. The Nazis made it a place of torture and mass execution, murdering more than 40,000 Jews here. Shackled in iron chains and held in its dark, damp underground cells, prisoners were harnessed to ploughs, forced to dig peat-pits and often whipped to death. Over half those who died in the fortress were marched here from the Kovno Ghetto along the two-mile road which they called the Via Dolorosa, and their murderers called the Way to Heaven.

By the time Maurice was born, there were more than four million Jews in the Pale, living under laws which grew increasingly oppressive. With anti-Semitism officially sanctioned and the local population largely hostile, Jewish communities kept apart from their Christian neighbours. They observed their faith, spoke Yiddish between themselves rather than Russian, and eked a living from a handful of permitted trades and services that catered to their Christian neighbours and themselves. A few found special niches that led them to banking and business, but the majority of Jews earned their bread as tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, clerks, bakers, bath attendants, letter-carriers, entertainers, earthen-pot vendors, fur-pelt merchants, coachmen, cap vendors, candle dippers, carpenters, iron dealers, egg dealers and in other similar petty trades and services.

Maurice’s mother Molly was the proprietor of a small wine-shop, and, like many in the Pale, she probably moved on or was moved on periodically, taking her family and her business with her from village to village. 

Life was hard for a woman alone with two small children, and the young widow married again.  She gave birth to two more sons, Hyman and Charlie — with Hyman later listing Bauske (red marker) as his birthplace.  The blue marker is Kovno. Almost half of Bauske’s population was then Jewish, its thriving community including distillers, bakers and scholars.  It had only another 50 years to live.  By 1942, its entire Jewish community had been wiped out under the Nazis.

Molly was widowed a second time.  After this, she continued alone, using the modest income from her wine-shop to raise her four sons as god-fearing Jewish boys in hostile surroundings. In 1881, when Maurice was nine, the Tsar, Alexander II, was assassinated, triggering anti-Jewish riots which swept through south-western Imperial Russia (today Ukraine and Poland). These pogroms were tacitly supported by the authorities.  The Russian press clamoured that the Tsar’s killing was a Jewish act, and the local people seized the opportunity to grab Jewish property and possessions.  There were more than 200 pogroms or mob-attacks on Jews in Russia between 1881 and 1884, the largest and bloodiest of them in Kiev, Warsaw and Odessa.

Nineteenth century engraving of a pogrom. ‘Pogrom’ is Russian for ‘devastation.’ These mob-attacks against Jews were often condoned, approved or even instigated by those in authority.

Although the hub of violence was distant from Kovno and its surrounding villages, the carnage and lack of official reaction it evoked led many Jews to reassess their status within the Russian Empire.  Limited in choice of occupation, socially and geographically immobile and ultimately at the mercy of the gentile world, it was starkly clear there could be no safe existence for Jews in Eastern Europe.  To build any kind of life, decided Maurice, he would have to leave.  Almost three million Eastern European Jews reached that same decision between 1880 and 1914, resulting in the largest Jewish migration since the Expulsion from Spain 400 years earlier.

Maurice was 20 when he left in 1892, his escape proving simpler than he dared hope. A bottle of vodka was all it took for the border guard to look the other way while he slipped over the frontier into Belarus. In all, he trudged 792 miles (1,267 km) from his Lithuanian home, through Belarus and Poland and into Prussia, begging rides, sleeping in barns and working for meals, as he doggedly made his way to the German seaport of Hamburg.

Maurice’s 792-mile walk from his Lithuanian home to the German seaport of Hamburg.

With Jewish emigrants surging into Hamburg, the city and its Jewish community mobilized to help them.  In 1889, some 40 lodging houses with a total 1,200 beds were licensed by the city for these travellers — one of them perhaps briefly occupied by Maurice.  Hamburg’s Jewish community set up relief organizations to help Russian Jews from their arrival in town until they sailed. By 1892, the year that Maurice passed through Hamburg, there were 23 German committees aiding Jewish emigrants from Russia.

The name of every passenger who sailed from Hamburg Port between 1850 and 1934 (excepting the World War I years 1914 to 1918) is recorded in large ledgers.  In 1892, a total 66 people named Helman (Hellmann) are entered, though which is Maurice can’t be definitively identified.

The following shows entries (with cut-outs) from Hamburg’s shipping records, noting Hellmans (Helmans) who sailed from the Port of Hamburg during 1892.  It’s unclear whether either of them is Maurice, or whether he’s among the other 64 Hellmans who sailed that year…

Despite the help at hand, the language and operation of the busy German port were bewildering to the young man, who had spent his whole life in Lithuanian villages.  He found his way on board a vessel, but it wasn’t until he was at sea that he learned the ship was bound for England. It was America, the goldene medina, which beckoned East European Jewish immigrants of the time, so as soon as he disembarked, he found another ship, sailing further west from Liverpool.  But America was not the destination of this vessel, either.  It was bound for Ireland, not Ellis Island.

When the immigration authorities in Dublin asked Maurice for proof of identity, he produced the same papers he’d shown at Liverpool, which named him Moshe ben Moshe Helman.  Later, after he had learned to read English, he saw that the immigration official had renamed him Moses Helman.

At his next meeting with officialdom, when he went to register with the local police in Ireland, his name was changed again, this time to Maurice Elliman.  Maurice still knew only the Cyrillic and Hebrew alphabets, and couldn’t spell out his name in English characters.  Instead, in frustration, he pointed to a van passing the police station window, carrying an advertisement for Elliman’s Embrocation, and told the police officer:  ‘Like that.’

The original Elliman’s features in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None — entitled Ten Little Niggers, when it was published on November 6, 1939. As the world’s best-selling mystery and one of the best-selling books of all time, “some Elliman’s” has appeared alongside “hair lotion, lavender water, cascara, glycerine of cucumber, mouth-wash and toothpaste” in over 100 million copies. (Thanks to Shimon Baum for pointing it out.)

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