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
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
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.
„Over there, that’s where your grandmother’s family had their house.“
„There, where the church now is.“
„Here we are, at the Jewish cemetery of Plunge.”
“Here, where the High School stands.“
„There were many
Jews in this town. Jews were in my house.“
„Yes, of course, before.“
„Down these streets, Abraham Mapu, Kalman Schulman, Judah Loeb
Gordon, Isaac Meir Dick, Sholem Alecheim, I.L Peretz and Mendele
Mocher Sforim lived, studied, wrote, created.“
“Those, or maybe those.“
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
[pic]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.
[pic]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.
|[|1 Brother |
|[|1 Mother |
|[|1 Step aunt |
|[|2 Uncles |
|[|4 First cousins |
|[|4 Second cousins |
|[|7 First cousins once removed |
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