Lithuania Memories - Summer 2003
In the summer of 2003, our extended family visited Lithuania for a week to rediscover part of their ancestral heritage. The visit was educational and eye-opening; as part of the experience, several people put pen to paper to describe what this meant to them. Some of these memories are reflective, some are short, some are even poetic! Contributors (so far) include:
I have tried to coordinate the comments with a variety of pictures from this trip, as best possible. I think well over a thousand pictures were taken so the few shown on this page are hopefully the ones that illustrate the text most effectively. There are more great pictures on a second page that I just couldn't fit into this page.
Lithuania was “back then”. None of our elders seemed nostalgic. And none seemed to want to know much about “back then”. Now we are trying to connect the dots of what was. Who was there? How did they live? What did they do? And thanks to technology and Jeddy and Regina we have learned a lot and can learn much more.
But the generations between Lithuania and ourselves seemed all clammed up. In fact, one of my three sets of Lithuanian great grandparents stayed behind. And there is now evidence of trips back to see them by some great aunts and our Uncle Sam. And there were photos in drawers of what we now know are close family. But all unlabeled and unsung.
It was as though, in leaving Lithuania, the fabric had been irretrievably torn, leaving jagged edges - siblings scattered - some to the U.S., some to South Africa, and some to Israel. They dealt with it by not dwelling on the pain or loss, certainly not with us grandchildren.
And so, from both grandmothers, I heard about the leave-takings and the arrivals and the list of siblings and where they lived now -- but not about the world they left behind.
And our parents' generation was so focused on this life, on this country, focused on their work, and they homes, their children and their dreams, and their future -- not much time for looking back. We certainly left no legacy of great scholars or teachers or writers to remain a part of the Lithuanian lore that would require looking back. And there were no estates or lands to remember or revisit.
So where was the romance of Lithuania for me? I don’t know. It just seemed important to connect those we knew and loved with what we could learn about their history, to see the spaces where they lived, the world they knew. What did they leave to become our grandparents? Why in the world were they so proud of being LITVAKS?
Since our trip we know a little more. We know the country is beautiful and clean, and full of people who look a lot like us. We know more firsthand of the glorious Jewish Culture that developed there and why Vilna was such an important center of learning. We understand better how Lithuania was buffeted between powerful nations, their ties with Poland, the enmity with Russia. And we know exactly what happened to the Jews when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
And it leaves me wondering profoundly what we can learn from this story beyond a closer sense of the virulence of Anti-Semitism and how it operates to ventilate popular frustration. Is there anything we can glean that sheds light on the Anti-Western mood in the middle east, or on the Israel/Palestine conflict?
I have been thinking about the parallels in patterns of violence a great deal since our trip. I also was able to meditate on all of this in Israel only a few weeks after we returned. All of this has left me feeling more realistic about human nature and less optimistic about the future. The need to feel powerful today seems to trump humanity most of the time.
But trips like ours solidify a lot of good strong family ties. It is better to worry about all of this together. Onward!
Perhaps it was Azerbaijan that I had in my head when I began thinking about the extended family trip to Lithuania. Streets flanked by open sewers, Gypsy children smoking cigarettes, Soviet style lines that one needed to bribe one's way to the head of, thieves lurking behind street corners with schemes that could fool even a bred New Yorker, and then outside of the city - fields of nothingness.
I guess it’s fair to say that I was wrong. It's true that we did have a Saturday afternoon lunch in what appeared to be the middle of the Gowanus Housing Projects, and that I wanted to do a special Lithuanian promotional campaign for Arid or Right Guard, but on the whole it was far from the undeveloped fantasy I had in my mind.
What was this Vilnius? Happening (paved) streets, an Escada, a Benneton, a hotel that topped any I have ever stayed in. What was this Kleipeda? With its gorgeous sculpture garden, a Raddison, a gloriously well-kept spit of land closer than Staten Island is to Wall Street. What was this Kaunus? Excellently curated museums, ubiquitous Japanese tourists, an elegant old city.
I did not experience the weird displacement that I feel when traveling to a third world country. I was okay, but something else was displaced. Day after day we visited the nonexistent Jewish culture of Lithuania.
Instead of confronting the sadness of the fantasized third world country, I discovered a different kind of sadness, one that I had not yet experienced in any of my world travels: my own.
I was hit hard with the realization that a visit of Lithuania's Jewish History was the equivalent to touring Pompeii - an entire civilization wiped out. The only difference being that it is easier to forgive a (super?) natural disaster than human malice.
My imagination flowed when my feet touched the ground where the murdered stood. Sturdy, crippled, fertile, sterile, ingenious, foolish, hideous, beautiful, brave, cowardly, chaste, prurient, tall, short, dark, fair, virtuous, unprincipled, young and old. They stood, complex in their make up, as complex as Babel. Thousands stood as one, and in an abhorrent twist they were unified under the same God that they prayed, an entire group with one faceless face – at the edge of a twenty foot pit, shot in its collective head.
And instead of dealing alone with sadness as I would in a third world country where I usually travel by myself, here I was blessed with the buffer of the hearts of 20 of my family members.
We had our bus load of analyzing, processing, therapizing; smoked fish, Tylenol, diet Coke; discussions, votes, arguments, agreements; hand holding, tear wiping and hair messaging to keep things in perspective. We puckered our lips at the putrid taste of Gira, the beverage made from fermented bread. We drank the borscht here, and the borscht there. We delighted in getting to know each other better each day. We complained about each other as we got to know each other better. We posed for picture after picture after picture after picture after picture. We remarked on how much one of us looked like the other. We posited how similarly generous, kind spirited, thoughtful and inquisitive we were. We saw the sunsets, willowy trees, forest ants, clear bright stars, flat lakes and long beaches that were enjoyed by previous Jewish eyes. We visualized the greatness that once was the Jewish Community of Lithuania and we conceptualized the future of the next generation. The trip was being with my family, and being with my family was the trip. I learned that the Jewish community survives, and a microcosm of that community was the community on that bus.
A third world country Lithuania is not. It is not the disastrous painfully pre-modern Lithuania of Jonathan Franzen's "Corrections". It is on the brink of becoming a member of the European Union. It is a country with a difficult history, traumatized by centuries of foster care. But with independence and strength it will soon come to terms with its wayward past.
I am very glad that I made the trip. Everyone we met taught me something. Every place we went moved me. Everything I tasted fascinated me. Extra Bonus: flushing toilets.
Greetings, dear family:
The article includes a vivid description of
Trakaii, the Curonian Spit and the Stiklaii Hotel. About this, Keller writes:
"We stayed in the Stikliai, a luxury hotel cleverly insinuated into a
17th-century building in the Jewish quarter. The furnishings and food were
exquisite, although the architects seem to have been some-times baffled by the
challenge of reconciling the 17th and 21st centuries. We stayed in a sloped
attic room the size of an Olympic swimming pool, with the furniture clustered at
one end and the closet at the other end."
Lithuania was, for me, a very real mix of emotions, experience and disconnects. My experience on the plane perhaps exemplifies this the best. As I waited in line for my connecting flight in Copenhagen, a tall, attractive, American businessman stepped up behind me. I, oddly, felt immediately comforted. No one else in line looked remotely like me, or like they might speak my language. I waited in line anticipating a moment when I might begin a trivial conversation with him and forget my anxieties about flying to a city capital I had not known existed before my trip. I thought he might relieve for me, the estrangement that I felt at the thought of returning to an unrecognizable homeland. He was recognizable to me. As I reached the front of the line, he asked, "Why Poland?" And I knew this was not his journey. The woman behind the counter, clearly noting my concern at being left said with a smile, "You can wait until the next plane shuttle bus if you'd like to keep talking to your friend." But how do you ask a stranger to stay and talk to you in the Copenhagen airport?
In many ways, this initial moment reflects many of my feelings about the trip as a whole. I wanted to feel connected the land and to the family I knew on the trip, but I felt a repeated disconnect. I strove to make personal meaning of the places and events, but the constant chatter and enumeration of body counts made me feel more isolated than ever. I wanted just to be in the place; I wanted to imagine those currents in my blood that are my ancestors reconnecting with a soil that was once their own. But, instead, I felt the constant sharp breaks in that serene and seemingly natural processes. Those breaks came with the pronunciation of the word "HO-LO-CAUST." That moment in history seems to me to be the hollow cost of our trip: Hollow, because we cannot retrieve it; cost, because it taxes us emotionally and mentally, both rightly so and also in a way that detracts from our ability to just be there. The incessant repetition of an unforgettable, unforgivable, and irretrievable history thrusts us further from a past we might make a part of our present: the lives of our real, not imagined, ancestors. With every "how could they do that to us?" we pulled farther and farther away from potentially palpable past. It became 'US' against them. (How fitting these pronoun's letters seem in light of our current identifications and history).
There were moments when I was alone with the place itself. A run through Vilnius' city park. A moment when I managed, in fact, to step away from the group. Those are moments I will remember. I also remember feeling guilty about those moments. Shouldn't I want to care? What about those babies who had their throats lacerated with rusty-nail-encrusted sticks. Shouldn't I care? I do. It's horrible. I hear. It's inhuman. But these are the stories I've heard before. I wanted to hear the stories in the trees: the arms of a grandfather maple opening themselves to the small body of a great-great aunt who dirties her dress on his branches. I wanted to see a great-great uncle carrying his child to school or his prayer book to shul. I wanted to feel the narratives that the streets yearned to unfold before my tender feet. I came for life, not for death. And this life embraced me in punctuated, yet fleeting moments.
I do not deny that I received life from the trip as well. I no longer needed the American businessman in the airport. I began to love my cousins more dearly and with a greater passion and understanding than I did before. I feel that pulsing life. At a certain point, the trip needed to be about those bonds. I wanted to know about my cousin Betsy's four children who I have never met. I wanted to talk with my cousin Angie about her experiences with her mother. I wanted to go dancing at a Lithuanian bar with my cousins Michael and Stephen. And that's what the trip became for me: an opportunity to connect with the living because I was repeatedly pushed from the still reverberating voices of the dead. I know that beneath the others' screams, they still whisper.
A week in Lithuania with twenty of my family members! Taking this journey with family members was one of the main reasons I felt compelled to find a way to make this trip work for me. But who could imagine that such a group could trek across country in a small yellow bus with such good spirit through to the end of the ride? Fortunately, Regina, our guide, was not only very knowledgeable and personable, but she was firm enough to keep us on track and flexible enough to figure out how to relate to our family culture. There were many fun moments we shared on the bus. Among them I will fondly remember democracy in action for our group decisions, Betsy’s fine dining grocery shopping, indulging in the smoked eel, Josh’s valiant attempt at convincing us to drive the mere extra mile to the Russian border, Carl’s wonderful reading of Woody Allen’s book, and that we are not a very singing group of people!
While the bus ride may have been the time to share ourselves with each other, the experience off the bus was educational and emotional. I was moved by how dedicated Emmanuel, Rachel and Jacob Bunke were to memorializing the horrific events of the holocaust. Our stops at the numerous killing pits were somber moments. Each had its own character, though, which imparted different significance to me. The size of the vast pits at Penariai Forest spoke of the magnitude of people destroyed through the evil of the Germans and corroboration of the Lithuanians. Plunge felt more personal and invoked a sense of intimacy that one has with the loss of family and fellow villagers. The Soviet monument in Kaunus had a sense of strength and power that this shall never be forgotten and will never happen again. The site I found most moving was at Kelme. The tree (see picture at left) that had emerged from the killing pit at Kelme, and those planted around it, reminded me that there is life from and after death, even as horrific as this death was.
But the sadness of the killing pits was not the strongest emotion I went home with. I left more with a question in my mind about how much of a place this has in our hearts and minds.
At the wonderful buffet dinner on our last night, I remember Emmanuel Zingeris talking of dedicating 10% of our thoughts to what happened to our people there. In retrospect, I have been thinking that perhaps his formula is applicable in other ways. We, as a people, seem to allow the events of the holocaust to overshadow our memory of the rich culture that existed before those events and the significant role they had in who we are as Jews. While it is important to never forget what happened to our people, I walked away from this trip feeling that we need to reexamine the balance between remembering the events of the holocaust and remembering the cultural richness that existed before those events. By remembering and honoring the life before the holocaust, we strongly reinforce why the holocaust was such a world tragedy, not just because so many people were lost!
For me this trip was about family -- past and present. It also became a trip that changed my perspective on our Jewish priorities- to focus more on celebrating and appreciating the life of our Jewish past.
My heartfelt thanks to Mimi for dreaming up this trip, Jeddy for making the trip so easy, Carl for taking the reins of an otherwise unruly busload, Dan for making it more affordable for us, Donna, Erica and Matt for collecting our memories, and to everyone for sharing this wonderful journey we had together.
I believe the family trip in August to Lithuania was special to all of us, with many layers of meaning and emotion. I know that when I decided to go I did not have a full notion of what the reality would be. That is probably always true, but here the reality was far beyond expectation in character and depth.
The family, those I have always known and those I know less well, were together with energy, generosity of spirit, togetherness, laughter, tears, reflection, and conversations, both noisy and quiet. That total family experience has clearly nourished our sense of family to a different dimension.
The experiences that fed the family and individual experiences were completely memorable. Lithuania is a poor but dignified country, beautiful, clean and food of inconsistency in quality, but sometimes quite good. Cities with old, important Jewish communities, and stettels where grandparents and their parents led modest but dignified lives. Exposure to the enormously rich intellectual and cultural history of the Lithuanian Jewish community in the 19th Century. And then the slow deterioration and destruction of so many communities with deathly marches, marches from cities and villages to beautiful nearby forests, which became execution sites that remain beautiful now, but full of death.
That week will never leave us and hopefully we will all grow from it.
I would like to take a few moments to try and compile some of my thoughts on the Lithuania trip, the memories of which are deeply embedded in my heart – both emotionally and intellectually.
It was like three separate worlds: first, the intimate world of the bus. The private conversations we probably all shared with our seat mates at times, the occasional sing-alongs, the short story reading, the sudden appearance of cheese, bread or grapes dangling in front of our faces as they were passed along from the person sitting behind us during another “eating moment,” the great, greasy and smelly smoked fish in the “restaurant” in the back of the bus, the numerous bathroom stops, and, of course, the constant and usually humorous democratic voting every time a decision needed to be made, well, all that is unforgettable for me. This camaraderie usually extended to restaurant meals as well, at least for the first 1½ hours or so. After that, we had basically had enough of sitting around a table.... only 1½ hours more to go!!!!
The second world for me was the world of the people we encountered: Emmanuel, Regina, Rachel and all the wonderful people we met at that very first dinner were lights into the future of Lithuanian Jewry and the hope that the community can become revitalized with their enthusiasm and effectiveness and our continued support. Of course, there was also Mr. Bunka, the last living Jew in Plungyan (our shtetl), his wonderful sculptures at home and powerful memorials in the forest nearby in which so many Jews were killed. We also had our mini conversations with regular Lithuanians during some of our walks and the vision of modern Lithuanian past times at the Baltic Sea. And, let’s not forget the excitement of the last night: we had met the current president of the country and had gone on a wonderful tour of the presidential palace, but then, at dinner, before our nostalgic sharing of the trip’s wonders, we had the opportunity to meet the first and second presidents (and the future ambassador) as well! What a night.
The third world was that of the past, both the sadness I experienced seeing boarded up synagogues and beautiful small towns which had once housed thriving Jewish communities, now void of Jews, and the overwhelming sense of grief, lost potential, anger and horror I felt at the killing sites throughout the country – the beautiful forests which have such an awful story to tell. There were moments I didn’t think I’d even get off the bus again, but my sense of honoring those who did not have that choice was stronger than my urge to protect myself from having to absorb yet another grim story.
This trip was truly a trip I will never forget. And I will always treasure that experience.
The Levin Family journey through Lithuania was both painful and joyful, but for me, without question, the joyful parts prevailed.
The pain of confronting the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust in Lithuania was tempered, to some extent, by having visited the concentration camps of Poland several years earlier. Visiting the sites of the Lithuanian “killing fields”, and learning of the complicity of the local population, however, brought new horrors to light, and the murdered children in particular were foremost in my mind during Yom Kippur services this year. The courage, determination and spirit of the current community of Lithuanian Jews was a source of inspiration and hope. Yet the growing anti-Semitism around the world makes me realize that the unthinkable could happen again.
But there were also wonderfully positive experiences during the trip. Some of these were visiting places where my father, Ben Halpern, worked and vacationed during his days as a young single man. While my father was born and raised in current day Poland, he spent a number of years in Lithuania in the 1920’s. It was a time of great hardship in many parts of Eastern Europe, but Lithuania was relatively free of the turmoil that engulfed other countries at that time, and it was also, at that time, a place where Jews could do well. Indeed, my father worked as a bookkeeper for a Jewish mill owner who was, according to my dad, “the Henry Ford of Kalveria”. While my dad left Lithuania for greater opportunity in America, he was always proud of his professional success in Lithuania, and looked upon it as a relatively happy part of his life. Visiting the mill where he worked and the seaside resort areas where I have pictures of him and his friends happily vacationing, brought to life many of the stories I had heard for years. Learning that the mill owner and his family, with whom my dad was quite close, had left for Israel before the Holocaust, was a great source of comfort. I don’t know if my dad knew this or not.
But it was the warmth and camaraderie of the Levin family, and our wonderful guide, Regina, whom we all felt was part of the family before the trip was over, that really made the trip outstanding. It was remarkable that 21 of us could spend a week together, much of it in a crowded little bus, and all come out appreciating one another even more than we had before the trip. Whether it was eating Betsy’s smoked eel in the back of the bus, debating with Josh whether or not to go to the Russian border, or figuring out how to get a meal in less than three hours, we had great fun and got through it all with love and affection for each other. It was a tribute to the roots and genes of a wonderful family, and a victory over the forces of destruction against our people.
“We are Here”
The setting sun
Listen for the voices that are gone
In the great green forest
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah
Adela of the streets
The hint of eucalyptus in the air
Oseh shalom b’mromav
In Telz amid the tombstones