Lithuania memories – summer 2003
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Lithuania memories – summer 2003

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.

 

Mimi

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!

 

Angie Lieber

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.

„Over there, that’s where your grandmother’s family had their house.“

„Where?“

„There, where the church now is.“

„Here we are, at the Jewish cemetery of Plunge.”

“What cemetery?”

“Here, where the High School stands.“

„There were many
Jews in this town. Jews were in my house.“

„Before?“

„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.“

“What streets?”

“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 |

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|[|1 Mother |

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|[|1 Step aunt |

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|[|2 Uncles |

|p| |

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|[|4 First cousins |

|p| |

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|[|4 Second cousins |

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|]| |

|[|7 First cousins once removed |

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|]| |

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

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