I feel like Im defying the Nazis, says librarian

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Basha, Dvora, Elia, Yankel, Chaim. Judy Baston is learning their names one by one.

"I'm trying to learn the names the Nazis tried to erase. Every time I learn another name, I feel like I'm defying the Nazis," says the San Francisco editor.

The names are from her father's other life, the one he led before leaving Lithuania for Oakland in 1922. They were relatives who, if things had been different, might have bounced Baston on their knees when she was a toddler, or taught her to light Shabbat candles or sew a hem.

All Baston knew of that lost world was that her father's village, Eishishok, was wiped out in September 1941. Its 3,500 Jews were machine-gunned and buried outside of town by a Nazi mobile killing squad.

It was believed that all records were destroyed. Until recently, that is. For years, the stranglehold on archival records behind the Iron Curtain made it difficult, if not impossible, for people like Baston to look into their families' histories.

The fall of communism in Europe catalyzed a slow but steady move toward openness, as countries such as Lithuania, Poland and Belarus are lifting the bureaucratic shroud that has obscured the history of towns like Eishishok.

In 1990, for example, Vilnius began processing genealogical requests after the restoration of Lithuanian independence. Vilnius, formerly Vilna, warehoused the records from Eishishok.

Baston, who is also a librarian at the Jewish Community Library, had been researching her past for years. Several months ago, her work paid off. She received a thick packet of 36 names and records from the Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius.

Baston had no idea what her efforts would yield when she completed the necessary forms and sent them to Lithuanian archivist Laima Tautvaisaite, whom she had heard speak at a Jewish genealogy seminar in Washington, D.C., last summer.

She enclosed a money order for $70 along with her forms, and felt as though she were "mailing into another dimension."

The past was a place her father had never taken her.

"When I'd ask my father about the Holocaust, he would just say, `Nobody's left. Nobody knows anything. It's all destroyed,' recalls Baston, whose father died in 1978.

Baston's search for the past began 10 years ago when she happened to catch a documentary about the Holocaust on cable TV that profiled the Eishishok massacre. The program included the testimony of survivor Leon Kahn.

Baston instantly recognized the name. Kahn was a long-lost cousin who had settled in Canada.

She met Kahn, then sifted through piles of photographs of family members she had never known. The meeting sparked her interest in finding out more, so she became a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society and began reading Jewish genealogical journals such as Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy.

Looking for clues, she arranged the translation of more than the 50 Yiddish letters from her grandfather to her father. She searched steamships' passenger lists as well as phone books and computer databases.

While the work didn't yield instant results, she says, "it gave me an incredible sense of connection, taking me back in time and across 7,000 miles."

Finally, her interest led her to the U.S. Holocaust Research Institute in Washington, D.C., where a thaw in Soviet-Israeli relations yielded an incredible find via Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Recently, the government of the former Soviet Union gave Yad Vashem records that were collected just after the war by the Extraordinary State Commission to Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed on Soviet Territory. Those records describe the fate of 1,450 towns, including the Vilna ghetto, where Baston's uncles once lived.

The list, combined with records newly available from Lithuania, gave Baston what she wanted: the names of relatives she never knew.

But it gave her more than names.

The information led her to Dora Wachter, a second cousin who survived the Vilna ghetto and lives in New York.

"We met and really hit if off," says Baston. "I absolutely think that I will find more people alive."

Specifically, she is looking for another second cousin. All she knows is that her name is Ruth and that she was born in Trenton, N.J.

As she searches for more names and more living relatives, Baston keeps the memory of her lost family alive through the memories of their friends who survived.

Every September, around Rosh Hashanah, Baston travels to the Canarsie section of Brooklyn for the annual reunion of survivors of Eishishok. They tell her stories about her grandfather, Eli Bastunski. And while she never met her grandfather, she now has something of him to hold onto.