Lithuania Memories – Summer 2003

Lithuania Memories – Summer 2003

In the summer of 2003, our extended family visited Lithuania for a week torediscover part of their ancestral heritage. The visit was educational andeye-opening; as part of the experience, several people put pen to paper todescribe 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 fromthis trip, as best possible. I think well over a thousand pictures weretaken so the few shown on this page are hopefully the ones that illustratethe text most effectively. There are more great pictures on a second pagethat I just couldn’t fit into this page. 


Lithuania was “back then”. None of our elders seemed nostalgic. And noneseemed to want to know much about “back then”. Now we are trying to connectthe 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 canlearn much more.But the generations between Lithuania and ourselves seemed all clammed up.In fact, one of my three sets of Lithuanian great grandparents stayedbehind. And there is now evidence of trips back to see them by some greataunts and our Uncle Sam. And there were photos in drawers of what we nowknow are close family. But all unlabeled and unsung.It was as though, in leaving Lithuania, the fabric had been irretrievablytorn, leaving jagged edges – siblings scattered – some to the U.S., some toSouth Africa, and some to Israel. They dealt with it by not dwelling on thepain or loss, certainly not with us grandchildren.And so, from both grandmothers, I heard about the leave-takings and thearrivals and the list of siblings and where they lived now — but not aboutthe 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, andtheir future — not much time for looking back. We certainly left no legacyof great scholars or teachers or writers to remain a part of the Lithuanianlore that would require looking back. And there were no estates or lands toremember or revisit.So where was the romance of Lithuania for me? I don’t know. It just seemedimportant to connect those we knew and loved with what we could learn abouttheir 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 theyso proud of being LITVAKS?Since our trip we know a little more. We know the country is beautiful andclean, and full of people who look a lot like us. We know more firsthand ofthe glorious Jewish Culture that developed there and why Vilna was such animportant center of learning. We understand better how Lithuania wasbuffeted between powerful nations, their ties with Poland, the enmity withRussia. And we know exactly what happened to the Jews when the Nazisinvaded in 1941.And it leaves me wondering profoundly what we can learn from this storybeyond a closer sense of the virulence of Anti-Semitism and how it operates

to ventilate popular frustration. Is there anything we can glean that shedslight on the Anti-Western mood in the middle east, or on theIsrael/Palestine conflict?I have been thinking about the parallels in patterns of violence a greatdeal since our trip. I also was able to meditate on all of this in Israelonly a few weeks after we returned. All of this has left me feeling morerealistic about human nature and less optimistic about the future. The needto 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 betterto worry about all of this together. Onward! 

Angie Lieber

Perhaps it was Azerbaijan that I had in my head when I began thinking aboutthe extended family trip to Lithuania. Streets flanked by open sewers,Gypsy children smoking cigarettes, Soviet style lines that one needed tobribe one’s way to the head of, thieves lurking behind street corners withschemes that could fool even a bred New Yorker, and then outside of thecity – fields of nothingness.I guess it’s fair to say that I was wrong. It’s true that we did have aSaturday afternoon lunch in what appeared to be the middle of the GowanusHousing Projects, and that I wanted to do a special Lithuanian promotionalcampaign for Arid or Right Guard, but on the whole it was far from theundeveloped fantasy I had in my mind.What was this Vilnius? Happening (paved) streets, an Escada, a Benneton, ahotel that topped any I have ever stayed in. What was this Kleipeda? Withits gorgeous sculpture garden, a Raddison, a gloriously well-kept spit ofland closer than Staten Island is to Wall Street. What was this Kaunus?Excellently curated museums, ubiquitous Japanese tourists, an elegant oldcity.I did not experience the weird displacement that I feel when traveling to athird world country. I was okay, but something else was displaced. Dayafter 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, Idiscovered a different kind of sadness, one that I had not yet experiencedin any of my world travels: my own.I was hit hard with the realization that a visit of Lithuania’s JewishHistory was the equivalent to touring Pompeii – an entire civilizationwiped 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 theyprayed, an entire group with one faceless face – at the edge of a twentyfoot pit, shot in its collective head.[pic]And instead of dealing alone with sadness as I would in a third worldcountry where I usually travel by myself, here I was blessed with thebuffer 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; handholding, tear wiping and hair messaging to keep things in perspective. Wepuckered our lips at the putrid taste of Gira, the beverage made fromfermented bread. We drank the borscht here, and the borscht there. Wedelighted in getting to know each other better each day. We complainedabout each other as we got to know each other better. We posed for pictureafter picture after picture after picture after picture. We remarked on howmuch 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 beachesthat were enjoyed by previous Jewish eyes. We visualized the greatness thatonce was the Jewish Community of Lithuania and we conceptualized the futureof the next generation. The trip was being with my family, and being withmy family was the trip. I learned that the Jewish community survives, and amicrocosm of that community was the community on that bus.A third world country Lithuania is not. It is not the disastrous painfullypre-modern Lithuania of Jonathan Franzen’s “Corrections”. It is on thebrink of becoming a member of the European Union. It is a country with adifficult history, traumatized by centuries of foster care. But withindependence 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. ExtraBonus: flushing toilets. 


Greetings, dear family:


If you haven’t seen it, and can, check out yesterday’s New York Times. Inits “Sophisticated Traveler” travel magazine, there is an article by BillKeller about his recent trip to Lithuania and the other Baltic states.The article includes a vivid description of Trakaii, the Curonian Spit andthe Stiklaii Hotel. About this, Keller writes: “We stayed in the Stikliai,a luxury hotel cleverly insinuated into a 17th-century building in theJewish quarter. The furnishings and food were exquisite, although thearchitects seem to have been some-times baffled by the challenge ofreconciling the 17th and 21st centuries. We stayed in a sloped attic roomthe size of an Olympic swimming pool, with the furniture clustered at oneend 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 anddisconnects. 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, feltimmediately comforted. No one else in line looked remotely like me, or likethey might speak my language. I waited in line anticipating a moment when Imight begin a trivial conversation with him and forget my anxieties aboutflying to a city capital I had not known existed before my trip. I thoughthe might relieve for me, the estrangement that I felt at the thought ofreturning to an unrecognizable homeland. He was recognizable to me. As Ireached the front of the line, he asked, “Why Poland?” And I knew this wasnot his journey. The woman behind the counter, clearly noting my concern atbeing left said with a smile, “You can wait until the next plane shuttlebus if you’d like to keep talking to your friend.” But how do you ask astranger to stay and talk to you in the Copenhagen airport?In many ways, this initial moment reflects many of my feelings about thetrip as a whole. I wanted to feel connected the land and to the family Iknew on the trip, but I felt a repeated disconnect. I strove to makepersonal meaning of the places and events, but the constant chatter andenumeration of body counts made me feel more isolated than ever. I wantedjust to be in the place; I wanted to imagine those currents in my bloodthat are my ancestors reconnecting with a soil that was once their own.But, instead, I felt the constant sharp breaks in that serene and seeminglynatural 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 ourtrip: Hollow, because we cannot retrieve it; cost, because it taxes usemotionally and mentally, both rightly so and also in a way that detractsfrom our ability to just be there. The incessant repetition of anunforgettable, unforgivable, and irretrievable history thrusts us furtherfrom a past we might make a part of our present: the lives of our real, notimagined, ancestors. With every “how could they do that to us?” we pulledfarther and farther away from potentially palpable past. It became ‘US’against them. (How fitting these pronoun’s letters seem in light of ourcurrent identifications and history).There were moments when I was alone with the place itself. A run throughVilnius’ city park. A moment when I managed, in fact, to step away from thegroup. Those are moments I will remember. I also remember feeling guiltyabout those moments. Shouldn’t I want to care? What about those babies whohad their throats lacerated with rusty-nail-encrusted sticks. Shouldn’t Icare? I do. It’s horrible. I hear. It’s inhuman. But these are the storiesI’ve heard before. I wanted to hear the stories in the trees: the arms of agrandfather maple opening themselves to the small body of a great-greataunt 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 toshul. 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 lifeembraced me in punctuated, yet fleeting moments.I do not deny that I received life from the trip as well. I no longerneeded the American businessman in the airport. I began to love my cousinsmore 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 aboutthose bonds. I wanted to know about my cousin Betsy’s four children who Ihave never met. I wanted to talk with my cousin Angie about her experienceswith her mother. I wanted to go dancing at a Lithuanian bar with my cousinsMichael and Stephen. And that’s what the trip became for me: an opportunityto connect with the living because I was repeatedly pushed from the stillreverberating 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 journeywith family members was one of the main reasons I felt compelled to find away to make this trip work for me. But who could imagine that such a groupcould trek across country in a small yellow bus with such good spiritthrough to the end of the ride? Fortunately, Regina, our guide, was notonly very knowledgeable and personable, but she was firm enough to keep uson track and flexible enough to figure out how to relate to our familyculture. There were many fun moments we shared on the bus. Among them Iwill fondly remember democracy in action for our group decisions, Betsy’sfine dining grocery shopping, indulging in the smoked eel, Josh’s valiantattempt at convincing us to drive the mere extra mile to the Russianborder, Carl’s wonderful reading of Woody Allen’s book, and that we are nota very singing group of people!While the bus ride may have been the time to share ourselves with eachother, the experience off the bus was educational and emotional. I wasmoved by how dedicated Emmanuel, Rachel and Jacob Bunke were tomemorializing the horrific events of the holocaust. Our stops at thenumerous killing pits were somber moments. Each had its own character,though, which imparted different significance to me. The size of the vastpits at Penariai Forest spoke of the magnitude of people destroyed throughthe evil of the Germans and corroboration of the Lithuanians. Plunge feltmore personal and invoked a sense of intimacy that one has with the loss offamily and fellow villagers. The Soviet monument in Kaunus had a sense ofstrength and power that this shall never be forgotten and will never happenagain. The site I found most moving was at Kelme. The tree (see picture atleft) that had emerged from the killing pit at Kelme, and those plantedaround it, reminded me that there is life from and after death, even ashorrific as this death was.But the sadness of the killing pits was not the strongest emotion I wenthome with. I left more with a question in my mind about how much of a placethis has in our hearts and minds.

At the wonderful buffet dinner on our last night, I remember EmmanuelZingeris talking of dedicating 10% of our thoughts to what happened to ourpeople there. In retrospect, I have been thinking that perhaps his formulais applicable in other ways. We, as a people, seem to allow the events ofthe holocaust to overshadow our memory of the rich culture that existedbefore those events and the significant role they had in who we are asJews. While it is important to never forget what happened to our people, Iwalked away from this trip feeling that we need to reexamine the balancebetween remembering the events of the holocaust and remembering thecultural richness that existed before those events. By remembering andhonoring the life before the holocaust, we strongly reinforce why theholocaust was such a world tragedy, not just because so many people werelost!For me this trip was about family — past and present. It also became atrip that changed my perspective on our Jewish priorities- to focus more oncelebrating and appreciating the life of our Jewish past.My heartfelt thanks to Mimi for dreaming up this trip, Jeddy for making thetrip so easy, Carl for taking the reins of an otherwise unruly busload, Danfor making it more affordable for us, Donna, Erica and Matt for collectingour memories, and to everyone for sharing this wonderful journey we hadtogether. 


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 Idid not have a full notion of what the reality would be. That is probablyalways true, but here the reality was far beyond expectation in characterand depth.The family, those I have always known and those I know less well, weretogether with energy, generosity of spirit, togetherness, laughter, tears,reflection, and conversations, both noisy and quiet. That total familyexperience has clearly nourished our sense of family to a differentdimension.The experiences that fed the family and individual experiences werecompletely 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 wheregrandparents and their parents led modest but dignified lives. Exposure tothe enormously rich intellectual and cultural history of the LithuanianJewish community in the 19th Century. And then the slow deterioration anddestruction of so many communities with deathly marches, marches fromcities and villages to beautiful nearby forests, which became executionsites 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 thoughtson the Lithuania trip, the memories of which are deeply embedded in myheart – 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 attimes, the occasional sing-alongs, the short story reading, the suddenappearance of cheese, bread or grapes dangling in front of our faces asthey 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, ofcourse, the constant and usually humorous democratic voting every time adecision needed to be made, well, all that is unforgettable for me. Thiscamaraderie usually extended to restaurant meals as well, at least for thefirst 1½ hours or so. After that, we had basically had enough of sittingaround 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 veryfirst dinner were lights into the future of Lithuanian Jewry and the hopethat the community can become revitalized with their enthusiasm andeffectiveness and our continued support. Of course, there was also Mr.Bunka, the last living Jew in Plungyan (our shtetl), his wonderfulsculptures at home and powerful memorials in the forest nearby in which somany Jews were killed. We also had our mini conversations with regularLithuanians during some of our walks and the vision of modern Lithuanianpast times at the Baltic Sea. And, let’s not forget the excitement of thelast night: we had met the current president of the country and had gone ona wonderful tour of the presidential palace, but then, at dinner, beforeour nostalgic sharing of the trip’s wonders, we had the opportunity to meetthe first and second presidents (and the future ambassador) as well! What anight.The third world was that of the past, both the sadness I experienced seeingboarded up synagogues and beautiful small towns which had once housedthriving Jewish communities, now void of Jews, and the overwhelming senseof grief, lost potential, anger and horror I felt at the killing sitesthroughout the country – the beautiful forests which have such an awfulstory to tell. There were moments I didn’t think I’d even get off the busagain, but my sense of honoring those who did not have that choice wasstronger than my urge to protect myself from having to absorb yet anothergrim story.This trip was truly a trip I will never forget. And I will always treasurethat experience. 


The Levin Family journey through Lithuania was both painful and joyful, butfor me, without question, the joyful parts prevailed.The pain of confronting the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust in Lithuaniawas tempered, to some extent, by having visited the concentration camps ofPoland several years earlier. Visiting the sites of the Lithuanian “killingfields”, and learning of the complicity of the local population, however,brought new horrors to light, and the murdered children in particular wereforemost in my mind during Yom Kippur services this year. The courage,determination and spirit of the current community of Lithuanian Jews was asource of inspiration and hope. Yet the growing anti-Semitism around theworld makes me realize that the unthinkable could happen again.But there were also wonderfully positive experiences during the trip. Someof these were visiting places where my father, Ben Halpern, worked andvacationed during his days as a young single man. While my father was bornand 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 EasternEurope, but Lithuania was relatively free of the turmoil that engulfedother countries at that time, and it was also, at that time, a place whereJews could do well. Indeed, my father worked as a bookkeeper for a Jewishmill owner who was, according to my dad, “the Henry Ford of Kalveria”.While my dad left Lithuania for greater opportunity in America, he wasalways proud of his professional success in Lithuania, and looked upon itas a relatively happy part of his life. Visiting the mill where he workedand the seaside resort areas where I have pictures of him and his friendshappily vacationing, brought to life many of the stories I had heard foryears. Learning that the mill owner and his family, with whom my dad wasquite close, had left for Israel before the Holocaust, was a great sourceof comfort. I don’t know if my dad knew this or not.But it was the warmth and camaraderie of the Levin family, and ourwonderful guide, Regina, whom we all felt was part of the family before thetrip was over, that really made the trip outstanding. It was remarkablethat 21 of us could spend a week together, much of it in a crowded littlebus, and all come out appreciating one another even more than we had beforethe 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 figuringout how to get a meal in less than three hours, we had great fun and gotthrough it all with love and affection for each other. It was a tribute tothe roots and genes of a wonderful family, and a victory over the forces ofdestruction 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 againListen for the voices that are gone

 help me hear beyond the horror

 and embrace the life and laughter —

the hardest thing I have ever doneIn 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 massacreYitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabah

the words come now in ancient Aramaic

 echoing the sages and the ages

fragments of Paneriai’s past

 incomprehensible…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 loveOseh shalom b’mromav

Hu ya’aseh shalom


V’al kol Yisrael

V’al kol yoshvei teivel

V’imru amenIn 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 darknessAnd 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” [pic]