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!

Posted in Eastern European Travel, Uncategorized

June 24 – Partial correction and relief

Well, one of us certainly knows how to use Google for answers, and it doesn’t seem to be me!  After fruitlessly searching for a micro USB cable that would fit the opening in the camera body that I thought would charge the battery, it was discovered that a previously unnoticed teeny tiny cover was on the side of the camera which actually is where it can be charged through a USB-C cable!  And, yes, it actually worked. Of course, without an SD card reader, I can’t retrieve the photos – yes, I could probably send them through a wi-fi connection, but I am taking hundreds of pictures every day (remember each of them is worth 1,000 words).

There were two ghettos in Vilnius – the small ghetto and the large ghetto.  The small ghetto housed 11,000 people for 6 months.  It was primarily inhabited by the elderly and the feeble.  Most of the Jews who lived there were murdered, a few were moved into the large ghetto which remained open for a couple of years.

Probably the most famous son of Vilna, at least in the Jewish world, is the Vilna Gaon. There are statues, streets and buildings all bearing his name. Again, the juxtaposition of the remnants of the Jewish community with the modern city is startling – there are plaques all over this ancient city attesting to the fact that once there was a community here, of culture, of spirit, of scholarship and talent.

The churches are simply magnificent in their grace and beauty. Everywhere you turn there is another church. The variety of architectural styles is astonishing.  Walking the streets, I feel the way I did in France at Mont St. Michel with its narrow streets, crowds of people and ancient buildings. The buildings here, many of which survived the war, have been repurposed with new shops. Many of them have been reconstructed, with, by ordinance, a part of the new facade proving a window into the old construction. Looking at the crowds on the street shopping, eating, and touring, if I narrow my eyes just slightly I can go back in time and imagine these streets 100 years ago and earlier – crowded with tourists and people eating and shopping – the clothes are different, the shops  are too, but still, it’s the same.

Posted in Eastern European Travel, Jewish Genealogy, Uncategorized

Uh-Oh June 23 – Error to be Corrected

Well the day started off well enough. In fact, the day was lovely, one would have said perfect, until we got to Vilnius, but I am getting ahead of myself. On second thought, I need to start at the end .  We got to Vilnius, returned the car, took a cab to the hotel (all as planned in advance) got to the hotel, checked in, and started to change out of sweaty clothes and get organized prior to dinner with a researcher.  Then the panic set in. I carry 3 small bags with electronics – plugs, adapters, chargers, cables, etc.  The third bag was absolutely no where to be found.  I ripped into all my various bags, searching in the nooks and crannies where important things decide to hide. Nowhere to be found.  In this particular bag are two very important things, especially relevant to this blog and my daily recounting of our travels: the battery charger for my camera, and an sd card reader. I finally realized that I left them at the hotel in Kaunas. OK, we’ll be back there on Thursday, and I have an extra battery for the camera with me. The battery is good for about 500 photos.  This means that I will not be taking many pictures in Vilnius until we finish here on Wednesday at the archive, because the main thing is to get pictures of the records. Lina emailed the hotel in Kaunas and they have the bag so I can get it on Thursday just before we go to the archive there – there is a fully charged battery in it. I also, however, can’t access the photos I took earlier today. If there is a funny side to this, it’s that last year when we stayed at the same hotel, Ola left a dress behind and had to get it shipped to her!

We visited three very different towns today: Dotnuva and Josvainaia in the Kėdainiai  district, and the city of  Kėdainiai. I will have to wait until I get the photos to describe what we did since when we visit more than one place, they usually blend together, as was the case of Dotnuva and Josvainaia.

 

Kėdainiai on the other hand is extremely distinctive – the town at one time had a synagogue complex with several buildings – most notably a summer synagogue and a winter synagogue on a small market square. Several streets away stood another synagogue in a row of attached buildings.  The city has been beautifully restored and is a phenomenal treasure. I can’t wait to share the photos with you.  Especially from the cemetery which has what I think is pretty distinctive. The stones of course are all in Hebrew, but rather than just Avraham b”r Yaakov, they say (not all but a substantial number) Avraham b”r Yaakov Feldshteyn !  Most of the stones with surnames, have the surnames easily distinguishable.   The only dates I made out were in the 1920s – the other dates were in Hebrew and I need the photos to show you and also too remember the dates.

 

As I said, the city is pretty unique.

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I had really hoped to update the following days as well but the internet connection is as slow as molasses (unusual at this hotel) and I’ll try again on Friday.

 

Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy, Uncategorized

June 22 – Kaunas and Environs

You would think (or at least I would) that sitting in a car all day would be restful, especially if you weren’t the one driving. Well, it isn’t really restful, especially if you keep asking the drive to slow down or stop and hop out of the car to go investigate a building, a cemetery or a plaque.  All of that jumping in and out of the car really adds up – over 16,000 steps worth! Obviously it was more than just rushing out of the car to take photos and then getting back in. In fact, the stops we made were incredibly interesting.

We started the day in Vilijampole which is the district that until the mid 1800s, Jews lived, near Kaunas.  Vilijampole is an area, like Kazimierz that is outside the city walls and at one time was a separate city that was set aside for Jewish inhabitants.  Today, there are no Jews there. Last year we briefly stopped in Vilijampole, and only had time to look at the Yeshiva that was there. The building, in disrepair, still stood, but there have been no Jewish students there since the war.

Today, except for the distinctive tower, we would not have recognized it at all. It’s being rebuilt into an office complex. Even the plaque is missing.

I really hope they put the plaque back.

On this trip we visited all the building we could find that were previously part of the Jewish community. It was extremely moving. The cemetery…words cannot convey my feelings.

Our next stops brought us to non-Jewish research. Towns which at one time each had a sizable Jewish population, but the research we were doing was in the Lutheran and Roman Catholic world. To our surprise, in Sakiai, once home of a small Lutheran community, with a church, there was no cemetery.

We stopped at a tourist information center, and the women who worked there tried very hard to get us to visit all the sites they thought were important (most in nearby towns) and kept giving us directions that sounded like “when you get to Mrs. Brown’s house make a right and go until you get to the old farm and then go left….”  Lina tried to convince them that she couldn’t follow the directions because we weren’t from there and hadn’t been there before, but they just kept telling her how to get place. They were certainly very enthusiastic about their home!

Our final stop for the day was at Višakio Rūda.  A lot of towns in the area have Rūda as part of their name. Lina said it means “ore” but that there was never a mining operation there, so maybe there was some ore of some sort found there at some time, and various places incorporated it into their name. Višakio is the name of a river that runs through town.  The town was charming and the graveyard well kept up. A lot of people were out gardening around their family’s plot. Interestingly, we found a couple of stones for the family we were researching. That’s always the sign of a good day.

 

Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy, Uncategorized