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.
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.