July 3 – Vilnius

I’ve been traveling now for 5 of the last 7 weeks throughout Poland and Lithuania.  It’s hard to believe that today is my last day here. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic, and just wandering through the streets that Lina so carefully pointed out, giving me enough clues about each of them, that I have no fear of getting lost.

It’s raining off and on, and I hoped to accomplish a few things in between drops.  I wanted to walk up to the castle and for that I need the stones to be dry, otherwise it would be very slippery.  I did get up to the top, or at least to the top of the hill, just outside the castle tower.  To get up the hill, there is a short flight of wooden steps and the rest of the way is all ancient stone.  If it was raining, I doubt I could have gotten there and down.  I briefly contemplated going into the tower and going up, but the sky was getting darker and the gray clouds seemed ominous, so I caved and walked back down.  Sure enough, as I crossed the street by the Cathedral Plaza, it started to pour.  I wasn’t too bedraggled by the time I got to the hotel, just across the street, but that’s probably just my opinion because I don’t want to admit how pitiful I must have looked.

Once the rain stopped again, I went out for a very late lunch, walked down the street I have officially named the ice cream street because of all the ice cream vendors, and today, Trattoria had pizza dough, so I had a last pizza alla’ herba. Delicious.  I walked around the streets some more, walking in and out of the small and large ghetto areas, getting one last look.  Of course, the wind picked up and the rain looked imminent so I headed back to the hotel.  I guess we have a theme going today called dodge the rain.

I spent some time working but by about 7 PM, I decided to go out one last time and stop at a bakery and pick something up for my early morning trek to the airport.  Of course, the ice cream stands called out to me, and I decided, since I wasn’t having dinner, to have one last chocolate and pistachio cone. Yum.

Packing has proven to be a challenge.  I bought so many books with Marek and Lina’s help, that I needed to buy a bag just for them.  The army surplus store had something almost perfect for only 13 EU – if it had wheels it would have been absolutely perfect, since lifting it is going to be a challenge.  I bet it’s over 30 pounds.

Next stop, Amsterdam and them Minneapolis on the way to SLC.  Back tomorrow, July 4.  I think it may be a week or more before I catch up on the photos for all the blog posts.  Stay tuned, and happy 4th.

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Vilnius 30 June – 2 July

The last three days have gotten all jumbled together in a rush of things to do, things to finish and little time when I was awake and not on the move.  All these weeks of travel have finally gotten so tangled up I barely know where I am much less what day it is, where I go next, and who we’re supposed to be meeting with.  Thank goodness that Lina has her notebook always present, with copious notes about what we are doing and how to get there and best of all, when to go!  My computer always has the office time on it, my watch and phone always have local time.  I know when looking at the phone or watch to subtract however much the difference is between wherever I am and Salt Lake City (in this case, 9 hours) but confusion abounds – I often find myself looking at the computer time and subtracting the difference from there as well! Ugh.

Anyway, back to our travels.  On Sunday we returned to Vilnius in time to return the rental car, check back into the Amberton and have lunch before our intrepid driver, Gabriel, Lina’s husband, took off for a few days on his own.  Lina and I enjoyed a few hours of just wandering the streets of the old city, looking at shops, not rushing anywhere.  I do wonder though how come her fitbit always registers about 2,000 steps more than mine!  We’ve joked about shorter steps, her wrist fitbit registering steps when she does things to her hair, etc.  It’s still not settled, but 2,000!!!!

On Monday, we rushed off to breakfast and then to the archives.  The Vilnius archives are great – the air conditioning makes a huge difference to start with.  The crowning touch of course is all the information that you can find on the computer.  of course there is advance work to be done before getting to the computer – you have to know what record you’re looking for – the fond, inventory and file numbers.  Then, once you have gotten into the correct file, finding the actual record.  Because our time is limited and there is a lot to do, as always, we photograph the images from the computer screen, to be able to look at leisurely on our return to the office, when Lina and perhaps Ola will work on translating and analyzing the records.  Records can be in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian or Latin, depending on the time period and the type of record – church records are often (but not always) in Latin.  Monday’s research was a little easier than on the previous visit to the archive mostly due to the photo viewer that was installed on the computer we were using.  Last week, the photo viewer stuck if there were two images open, this time, we were easily able to move around from image to image, often having multiple pages open at the same time, all due to the program. The way the program worked made it easier to see full screen and zoom in.  Most of the time, the original image on the screen was difficult to read – it had to be enlarged.

The church records we were reviewing were not indexed – although we knew that we were looking for a particular record, all we had was a 6 year range of when the event took place.  Thankfully, the parish was small, and each year’s book had a listing of which towns in the diocese appeared on which pages. The church records follow a formula – the first line had the year and date with the priest’s name, the second line usually had the groom’s name and then the bride’s name might start at the end of that line or be on the third line.  One year had the “signatures” of the bride and groom at the end of the record separate from the text and a line or so later, the “signatures” of the witnesses – each of these was followed by several “x”s which made them stand out even clearer.  I wish all the books were like that.  We started with the earliest year and made our way through 5 years of records before we found the record we were looking for!  Easy is really a relative term.

Tuesday, Lina left around noon – she’s going on what seems like a delightful vacation with her family, and then hanging out with friends.  I’m sure she’ll have a fantastic time. She is planning a short work diversion to visit a town where the ancestors of one of our clients resided.

I spent the rest of Tuesday alternating between wandering through the streets and dodging rain.  I went to what became a favorite pizza place on the street I’ve renamed “ice cream street” because of all the carts selling ice cream.  To my surprise, when I got to Trattoria, they said they had run out of pizza dough an hour earlier!  There was very little else on the menu I could eat (when I’m traveling and there are no kosher restaurants I eat vegetarian) so I went to my second favorite pizza place (the crust isn’t as firm in the center, and the cheese which is fresh is less melted than I like) – Jurgis ir Drakonis –  and had a margarita pizza with sun dried tomatoes and green olives. Perfect. It was almost 3 PM and, just like at my office, I had gotten so involved with some research, I had completely lost track of time.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the office next week, and being surrounded by my colleagues all completely focused on the research projects at hand.

 

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Ariogala, Kelmė and Tauragė – June 29

I’m going to have to get back to Salt Lake City to add photos in order to describe what we saw in these very different towns. The buildings in these, as all over small towns in Lithuania that date back to post-war times are relatively few.  Lithuanian towns were devastated in two wars are were on the front lines with German and Russian troops battling for this relatively small country.

I’ve been capturing images primarily of the houses that remain, but also quite a few of the white brick Soviet era buildings.  Red brick are often older, and the time in which the wood frame homes were built are almost impossible to identify unless there are maps with buildings from different time periods. Some which may appear quite old, are less than 50 years old, others may be hundreds of years old.  Often, we see wooden homes that appear to be falling apart, but the crisp white lace curtains ont he windows tell a different story.

The most notable excursions today, were in a park in Kelme and a walk through Tauragė, both to find cemeteries.  As we drove through Kelmė, we saw a marker to a Jewish cemetery. We turned down a road which was part of a park, and parked the car.  Lina and I walked to the end of the park without finding what we were looking for, so headed back, and turned down a dirt path. All we could see at the end was a bridge, but we met a man on the path and asked him and he gave us directions.  The cemetery is huge. A fence runs around it, and the gate was open so we could walk through.  It was clear that someone was taking care of it – the grass had been mowed recently, although the cuttings were laying drying, and tree branches had recently been clipped, they too were laying on the ground – my assumption was that someone would be back to clean it up.  We spent some time wandering through the stones, marveling at the condition of them – some very badly disintegrating, and others looking like it was only yesterday that the stone was erected.DSC01793

 

In Tauragė we searched, walking up and down streets, and finally driving, before we found the lone marker commemorating a cemetery that was no more.  Was it originally just on the empty land on which the marker stood or did it also occupy the land on which relatively new homes stood? Was the land unrecognizable as a cemetery when the homes were built or did the cemetery suffer further destruction at the hands of those who wanted to build there?DSC01977

In Raseiny I asked Lina, the historian (not Lina the genealogist) who showed the remains of one gravestone which was recently found, if she thought the rest of the stones had been used for road filling and for fences and other building material. She indicated that this was probably the case. Was this also the case in Tauragė?

In Ariogala, we didn’t find anything which would indicate that there was once a thriving Jewish community here.  I feel so much like I’m repeating myself over and over.  There were certainly houses that may have pre-dated WWII and in which there may have been Jewish families living, or shops catering to the Jewish community, but now, there is no indication that there was.

 

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Vilkija and Raseiniai – June 28

Today was simply amazing. No other words for it.  Last year, we spent some time wandering around Vilkija, met a woman who lived in one of the houses formerly occupied by a Jewish family, and walked down to the river to see the site where the synagogue once stood.

We also marveled over an amazing wood carving that stood above the river on whose banks the synagogue had been built.

On this trip, we met with a local historian whose knowledge about the Jewish community and what the town had been like was vast. Thankfully he allowed us to record our conversation with him, which Lina will translate after we all get home.  She was translating as he was talking, but only giving us a synopsis so that she didn’t disturb his train of thought. He confirmed that the houses we had seen were originals, some partially restored, but all dating back to the pre-war period.DSC01628

After an hour or so, he brought us to what he said was a local museum.  Whatever we were expecting to see, it was certainly not what we found.  A couple had turned their house, whose original construction dated back hundreds of years into an amazing museum. It was filled with local artifacts and modern artwork, including traditional wooden hangings.  Outside the house were carvings and each had a story.  The man, it turned out had been the artist behind the synagogue carving. To do it, he researched Jewish life and customs – he wanted to be able to depict Jewish life and not to put anything in it which would be offensive to the Jewish community.  The woman’s family included an aunt who hid Jews during the war. What a family!

We spent several incredible hours in  Vilkija after seeing and learning more than I could have ever hoped for.

Next stop was Rasseiny. On the way there, at the advice of the historian we were to meet, we stopped for lunch at a random place off the highway. Rasseiny really has no where to eat as we found our last year. This year we lucked out – we stopped at Magde’s – a tiny place with a limited menu, but a couple of vegetarian options provided me with the most delicious potato and curd pancakes!  Then onward to Rasseiny.

Again, Lina Kantautiene, the historian there, allowed us to record the time we spent with her. She is the author of a book which we purchased.  She showed us the exhibits and told us of the destruction of Rasseiny, eliminating all trace of the once thriving Jewish community there.  Originally there were 8 synagogues, and about 9,000 Jews lived there, out of a total population of 19,000!  Today of course, nothing.

 

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Kaunas – June 27

We arrived in Kaunas after picking up a car which Lina promptly named the Black Swan.  Much larger than our previous Cinnamon, but when we changed plans and needed a car for additional days this was all that was available. Gabriel, I think, is really enjoying this car!

Unfortunately, although the bag I left behind in Kaunas was waiting for me, along with my extra camera battery and charger, a flash drive and SD card reader were not in it.  I suspect that the bag must have fallen to the ground, perhaps between the two beds (like in many hotels here, a king-size bed is made of two twins pushed together, and of course, as might be suspected, there’s a crack between them) or that something may have fallen out, and the chamber maid didn’t notice.  This means that most photos will need to wait until July 5 when I return to the US. I was able to borrow an SD card reader and got some of the photos from the camera and am updating some of the previous days which had no photos as I find time. I haven’t retrieved all the photos on the camera yet, so there are plenty I suspect that will have to wait until I’m back in the US. Today will be the last blog post before I return that will include photos.

We had an appointment at the archives, and rather than stressing about lost (or misplaced things,  we headed over to get started. We knew that there would be more than 40 books of documents to look through. We were relieved that the weather had finally broken. Today is beautifully cool and since the archive has no climate control, this is very important. It was still a little warm at the archive, and Gabriel agreed to come with us and help take photos of documents which made it a certainty that we would get through all the books.

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Vilnius Archives – June 26

First, let me say what a pleasure it is, always, to be working in the Vilnius archives.  There is air conditioning, working with the directors in the reading rooms is not difficult, and although there are rules which must be followed, there are no impediments placed before a researcher.  There are separate reading rooms for original material and for material on microfilm or on the archives’ server.  Our whole day was spent researching client records and meeting with some of our on-site researchers.

It’s so exciting when records can be found that help to expand or clarify what we already know.  Lina certainly has her work cut out for her when she returns from vacation – she will have hundreds of pages of records to review and translate.

The weather was supposed to have turned rainy and chilly, but the best we have seen is some breeze. Can’t even call it a wind.  It’s so hot, and of course this is out of season for this part of the world and the air conditioning, in those places that have air conditioning isn’t always adequate.  Most of the restaurants have none. In spite of being ravenous when we get to a restaurant, often the heat inside makes our appetites disappear quickly.  Ice cream rules here!

I found (not that it was actually lost) the most charming felting shop with such incredibly cute things – I know that when I’m back in Vilnius for a few days at the beginning of July, I will have to do some shopping.

Today, although we were in the archives for hours and hours, was an emotional break for me — no memorial plaques, no places filled with signs of a lost community. Of course archives have records of people long gone, but when we are locating records and getting copies for analysis and review later, it’s a different feel – we aren’t getting pulled into the records and the families to whom they belong.

I wish I could figure out the conversations around me. The people are so animated, but they speak so fast, I don’t think I can actually hear that fast!  I can make out some words that are similar to those in English, and so, when I know what the conversation is about, I can, combining the words I know with body language, sometimes figure out what’s going on. I don’t dare to offer my understanding of what I think was said, though. I’m probably way off base, and I know that my contributions would probably just cause much laughter!

Tomorrow morning, we’ll be off to pick up a rental car and drive to Kaunas.

 

 

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June 25 – Wish I could share photos!

SO many photos!  Not all of them are repeats of what I took last year, and I’m eager to share.  Lina and I walked the streets of the large ghetto today. We spoke about the different ways material references the ghetto – large or big, small or little.  Neither of us understands why the terminology changes but if anyone knows, I’d love to hear from them.

There are so many museums, memorial plaques and other remembrances not only of the Jewish community but of the brave Lithuanians who housed, sheltered and protected Jews at a time when being identified as such would have been a death sentence. From those who cannot extend thanks, I say it on their behalf.  The Talmud tells us that one who saves a life, saves a world (Sanhedrin 4:5). It is due to the Righteous Among Nations (an honorific used by the State of Israel to identify those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis) that as many Jews survived the Nazi horrors as did.

Vilnius, like all old cities is a marvel and a wonder. Everytime you walk down one of her narrow streets, you encounter something previously unnoticed.  I love old cities, and the countless and endless discoveries.

I’m frustrated right now because I’d love to be able to share what I’ve been seeing.  On the 27th we’ll be in Kaunas and I get my SD card reader back and after Lina and I are done in the archives, I’ll start sorting through all the photos and share!  Thanks for reading and being patient with me.  At least I didn’t lose my phone or camera!

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