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.


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
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.”

“What cemetery?”

“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.”

“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 |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |
|[|1 Mother |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |
|[|1 Step aunt |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |
|[|2 Uncles |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |
|[|4 First cousins |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |
|[|4 Second cousins |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |
|[|7 First cousins once removed |
|p| |
|i| |
|c| |
|]| |

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:


If you haven’t seen it, and can, check out yesterday’s New York Times. In
its “Sophisticated Traveler” travel magazine, there is an article by Bill
Keller about his recent trip to Lithuania and the other Baltic states.
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.”

 I know he wasn’t talking about MY room! 


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-
[pic][pic]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
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


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
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!!!!
|[pic] |[pic] |

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
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

a flood of pain

flows wordless from the

 grey horizon

like old souls unsettled

aching to be heard again
Listen for the voices that are gone

 help me hear beyond the horror

 and embrace the life and laughter —

the hardest thing I have ever done
In the great green forest

 the silent fir trees stand –

it is not their fault –


 they spread their arms to a vacant sky

Do they not see the terror?

Families assembled at gunpoint

 scientific separation

 six years and older lined along the edge and shot

 the littler ones lacerated with nail-studded paddles

 pushed into the pits and left to bleed to death

Do they not hear the cries

 dissipating like smoke

above the verdant branches

 knit so thick

 you cannot see between them

rocking, aching in the wind

trunks erect

the sentinels stand in silent solidarity

 guarding unspeakable secrets

 and muted memories

unwitting monuments to a massacre
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah

the words come now in ancient Aramaic

 echoing the sages and the ages

fragments of Paneriai’s past

Adela of the streets

risks a furtive smile

still blue eyes reaching fifty years

 across the chasm

“My family,” she says,

 “hid two little girls.

They were so beautiful

 with round faces.

They never came back…

We love you very much…”
The hint of eucalyptus in the air

extends a tantalizing invitation

beckoning enigmatically

drawing us in toxic trance

up the earthen path

 our steps rise and fall

 in slow relentless rhythm

 of a force beyond our will

into the forest

cradling children who know no better

centuries of

 mending socks

 learning sacred Talmud

 cooking chickens

 lighting Shabbos candles

 hitching horses

 gathering tzedakah

 tying shoes

 making love

 and praying to Hakodosh boruch hu

pass before the unforgiving firs

markers of the horror

turning uncomprehending eyes

 to empty skies

our pounding chests outpace our wooden feet

to the unspeakable altar among the evergreens

there is no angel now to hold their hand

no ram in the thicket

the clattering panic of hearts

 bursting, breaking

with skulls of infants

 smashed against the trunks

shots shattering

 life as we know it

pulverizing prayers


three hundred years of shtetl life

 now smoke and silence

eighteen hundred bodies and souls —

the only families we have —

who left us with the anguish

 and the questions

 and the love
Oseh shalom b’mromav

Hu ya’aseh shalom


V’al kol Yisrael

V’al kol yoshvei teivel

V’imru amen
In Telz amid the tombstones

a wizened woman

in tattered scarves of violets and roses

and soggy tennis shoes

carrying a stick and water bottle

reminisces –

well kept cemeteries



of Jews

rounded up and taken

by Lithuanians and Germans

luminous blue eyes

stare uncomprehending

over the ramshackle stones…
Still now

 listen for the voices

Do you hear them?

in the mournful calls of ghost-white gulls

 careening over Klaipeda

ancient incantations

 of Kovno’s wistful wind,

whispering pines

the creaking of a rusty cart

 behind the clip-clop laboring horse

 resolutely challenging the hill,

the crisp chip-chop of

 the surviving sculptor’s chisel

 reclaiming faces,

 gestures of horror and heroines

 from the contorted trunks of abiding oaks

the piercing singing stars

 defying darkness
And faint

 but stronger now

 they come

the footsteps and the hymn of partisans

“Never say there is only death for you

The leaden skies concealing days of blue

Because the hour we have hungered for is near –

Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble –

 We are here”