Mon., 13 Aug -Archives

Amazing is the only word that comes to mind after walking into this facility. Actually, if I am being realistic, I’ll admit that I was awestruck and at a loss for words.  The facility itself was beautifully renovated. The space was welcoming as were all the people.

As an American, I rarely come in contact with books and documents that are more than a few hundred years old.  Here, that was a new kid on the block!DSC01824.JPG

Believe it or not, the object below is one book!  Can you imagine sewing the pages of something this large together, much less lifting it and bringing it somewhere?

We felt very privileged to have so much attention paid to us. Our tour through the archives (which are closed for vacation) included a glimpse of the reading rooms and all the equipment available.  We also had a close up look at brilliantly colored illustrated manuscripts whose colors do not seem to have faded all these centuries after they were first painted. The documents were under protective glass and photographing them was not an option.DSC01828.JPG

Our final visit at the archive was with Galina Baranova, who has been most helpful identifying records and resources for us.

We headed back outside to walk around the Vilna Ghetto area, and then to walk further afield getting a good feel for the city and all the peoples who have inhabited the area. Vilna has changed hands so many times – I get dizzy trying to sort it all out. As we wandered around, I was fascinated by the alleys and courtyards, and what could be seen through the archways.

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Although many of the buildings are new, they were built on the footprint of the previous structures, so the overall concept with very little imagination (ok, the cars weren’t always her and the narrow streets prove that) takes you back in time.

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There is so much to see. I guess I am also forgetting to mention the amazing pastries, ice cream and Lithuanian food. We have had phenomenal ice cream snacks from carts in the street downtown, incredibly creative and delicious meals – some traditional Lithuanian food, like the potatoes stuffed with either meat or curds; mead and local beers to drink; and pastries galore. Oh, and pizza. Everywhere you look there is another pizza place. The decor is kind of unusual in some of them –  one the other day in Kaunas had red velvet couches all over and chandeliers – not exactly what I expected in a pizza place!

Lindsay is scheduled for her dental visit on Tuesday and we are all on edge. I’m sure the jokes being thrown about aren’t helping her, but we are all so nervous.

 

 

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Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy

Sun 12 Aug cont’d…

…Vilnius, a world of dreams and adventures in learning, culture and history. Jews lived here for over 700 years. Lithuanian Jews are known as Litvaks, and Vilnius, in Yiddish was called Vilna.  We will not, on this trip have time to walk down all the significant streets but just being here is being steeped in history. Today we began to wander around, tomorrow, we will visit the archives and have an opportunity to explore more. By the time we reached Vilnius, checked into our rooms, and got settled (and parked the van) we were tired.

We checked into the Corner Hotel which apparently is split in half – half are basic rooms, probably one step above a hostel, the other half are regular hotel rooms with air conditioning, refrigerators, nice carpeting in the halls, and some toiletries in the bathrooms, also a kettle with fixings for coffee and tea. Although we had reserved the more basic rooms, not understanding what they were, we upgraded!  Marek managed to maneuver the van around a very tight parking lot and found a great spot, slightly out of the way, to leave it.

Lindsay is doing well, but we do have to find a dentist to take care of the root canal she needs, sooner rather than later.  Lina is on top of it and is finding the location and work hours for what seems like every dentist in Vilnius.

We began to explore. The following are our initial photos as we walked around the ghetto streets.

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There was more to see and hunger was fighter with our desire to see more.  We promised ourselves just a bit of seeing other sights while looking for a place to eat.

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…and now food calls – so many choices, so little time.

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This was at a very formal and beautiful hotel.  We consoled ourselves with the thought that eating lunch at 4 PM, pretty much guaranteed that we wouldn’t be eating dinner.

Afterwards, we stopped for some snacks at a supermarket and then stopped in amazement o watch what appeared to either be an exercise or dance class with some new footwear. We think this would be great to have in our office!DSC01820.JPG

When they are in motion (it’s hard to see in a still photo) they are jumping up and down (well maybe bounding is a better term).

I’m tired just looking at them. Tomorrow is indeed another day.

Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy

Sun 12 Aug – Kaunas to Vilnius via Vilkija

We all stayed up way too late last night, working, communicating with friends, family and clients. This morning we made our groggy way to our next stop: Vilkija. We knew that the synagogue was no longer standing and that it was now a parking lot.  The words to the Joni Mitchell song “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” kept playing over and over in my head. What would we find?

We arrived in Vilkija and easily found the parking lot, and some interesting wood carvings.DSC01592.JPG

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But was this the right parking lot? A beautiful river flowed below the street and parking lot. We wandered for a few minutes looking at the carvings, the steep flight of stairs right beyond them and then saw…

Synagogue sign.JPG DSC01616.JPGSynagogue carving.JPGThe memorial sign to the synagogue clearly showed us what it must have looked like.  There appeared to be ruins further down the slope but we decided in the rain to wait until later and to explore the area around the synagogue. Facing it, across the street, were houses which we thought from our reading were probably all occupied by Jewish families.

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We met up with Irina who has lived in Vilkija for 4 years. She is a native of Kaunas. Her son purchased one of the houses formerly owned by a Jewish family with plans to renovate it, as an investment. Irina told us about the Jewish homes and of some of the community, many of whom were merchants. They had built their homes on the main street, and their doors were flanked by windows on either side through which they sold their goods!

She also told us about the building and field across the street from her home. It was constructed by the soviets and stood on what had previously been a Jewish cemetery. When recent excavations took place for sewer lines, they had to stop because it was clear that the field and also the building were on top of the cemetery. Irina described the cellar behind her home which she said was constructed by the soviets and is also protected and can’t be taken down. She thinks it possibly has nothing to do with the soviet era but that all the previously owned Jewish buildings are protected from further destruction.

The synagogue was built on the hillside leading down to the river.  The site where the building previously stood and the land owned by the synagogue was purchased not long ago by a member of the city council (who is not Jewish) so that nothing could be built on that site. In addition to the remains of the synagogue, are the remains of a house which was owned by a non-Jew built on land that had probably been previously leased from the synagogue.

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More later – we just arrived in Vilnius and want to get settled in our hotel, and perhaps get some lunch, too. The weather is very overcast and looks like it will become stormy.

Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy

Sat 11 Aug – Vilijampolė, Raseiniai, Grinkiškis and Krakės

We had been keeping an eye on the weather all week, partly because we knew the archives were not air conditioned and we wanted to make sure we were dressed coolly enough, and partly out of general curiosity. We had been looking forward to the lower temperatures predicted for the weekend and, because we knew we would be driving for several hours, grateful that there would not be blazing sunshine. Rain was predicted, and rain we had. There was a steady rain all day, and we all had rain gear with us, so we were ok.

We began with Vilijampolė, known in Yiddish as Slabodka. This was the Jewish area of Kaunas. Not much remains of what was a thriving Jewish community with almost 3,000 Jews by the mid-1800s. The Slabodka Yeshiva, known as the “mother of yeshivas” was located here. The building still stands, and is in the process of being renovated.  It was founded in 1881, and in 1924, due to edicts requiring that secular studies be added to the curriculum, many scholars relocated to what was Palestine (Israel under the British Mandate) and established two branches – one in Bnai Brak and the other in Hebron. Not everyone left, and the Yeshiva remained open in Slabodka until 1941.

 

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Looking at the remnants of the Yeshiva blended in with the gloomy weather and what we found during the next few hours. Nothing surprising, it just set the stage.

Our next stop was Raseiniai – I have a terrible time with the pronunciation of this and many other town names in Lithuania. I really appreciate Lina’s patience as she says them over and over again. The Yiddish name, Rasayn, is much easier and I think I will have to just stick with that.

We got to Rasayn, and since we had found a self-guided tour of Jewish places, we prepared to do that. Often what is not found is itself very telling. We knew that about 90% of the city had been destroyed in WWII but hoped, since we had a may that detailed the locations of many places of Jewish interest including a synagogue, merchants and homes, that there would be something marking a place, or the remnants of a building. We found nothing.  We followed the map to each location, and we found nothing. There were some old buildings that we saw in the downtown area and we took some pictures. The rainy gray day matched our mood.

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We knew that this was likely to be the only city we would be passing through until evening, where there would be a possibility of finding food, so we looked for a restaurant. We did not have much luck, but did find a small pizza place, and stopped for a quick lunch. Before getting back on the road.  Next stop, Grinkiškis.

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With the exception of the cemetery, there was no evidence of an earlier Jewish community, but there were a fairly large number of older houses and buildings, many in disrepair, a number that had clearly been renovated. Some that looked to be about to collapse but with curtains in the windows, and even gardens. All the houses had wells.DSC01752.JPG

Of course, although our main interest was the Jewish community and its traces for our many Jewish clients, we do have a number of clients from various areas in Eastern Europe who are not Jewish, and for whom we are also doing research. There are lots of churches, some of whose buildings clearly date to prior to WWII, but many of which are newer – it was not only Jewish buildings that were destroyed.

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We had one more stop to make prior to returning to Kaunas – Krakės.  In Krakės we were fortunate to be able to meet with a historian, Robertas, head of the Krakės Culture Center. He is writing a history of the Jews of the area. He was a wealth of information, and Lina’s lengthy meeting with him was really wonderful.DSC01758.JPG

The Jewish homes were primarily located on the road from the bridge into town, but we didn’t have exact house numbers of the homes occupied by the Jewish families. There were, however, a number of homes still standing, and we could imagine…

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…and then of course, the cemetery. Thanks to the many people behind constructing gates around these cemeteries and photographing all the standing stones and transcribing the names. I tried to walk through the cemeteries in Krakės and Grinkiškis, look at each stone, and for those on which I could make out a name, repeat the name quietly. I know a lot of people visit these areas each year.  How else can we keep the memories of these people and these towns alive?

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Posted in Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy, Eastern European Travel

Fri 10 Aug – Kaunas

The archives in Kaunas continued to provide much insight for our hardy group. After a very refreshing night’s sleep at the wonderfully air conditioned and comfortable Hotel Hof (right across the street from the archives) we were back at work bright and early.  It’s amazing how much progress can be made getting through 55 books of records when 5 people are doing the work.  We managed to finish the work we had begun on Thursday, just in time to meet with Gintaras Dručkus, the Director of the Archives, for the second day, this time we also met with Vitalija Gircyte, Head of the Department of Document Use. Vitalija had just returned from Warsaw where she had spoken at the IAJGS conference! They were both so gracious – it was a pleasure meeting with them and we are delighted that we will be able to work with them in the future.

Lindsay and Lina left our meeting a few minutes before the rest of us, to make an unanticipated but very necessary dentist visit for Lindsay who was extremely uncomfortable due to a cracked filling. Thankfully she was given some relief, but she does need some additional work which we hope will be taken care of in Vilnius on Tuesday while we are there doing research.

We spent the afternoon in the old city of Kaunas. We were all anxious to see the area as it might have looked during the time periods we are researching. Of course there are some slight additions to the scenery – namely cars – but many buildings look the same way they would have looked 100+ years ago.

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We found an amusing photo opportunity as we wandered. I’ll let readers judge for themselves. As you can see from Lindsay’s laughing face, you can’t keep a good woman down!

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We inadvertently stumbled across a series of events which were definitely not expected. It seems that Fridays are a top day for weddings in churches and also at the civil registry office. We just happened to have lunch right across from a square that had at least one church AND the civil registry office.

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I have no idea what this means but it was so unusual, I couldn’t resist capturing it!

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Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy, Jewish Genealogy

Thurs. 9 Aug – onward to Kaunas

After a sleepless night in very hot, rooms that were not air-conditioned, we were all ready to get moving. Having a/c in the van was truly a life-saver. The road to Kaunas was “interesting” with lots of construction – we were all glad to be driving it during daylight.

Although we’ve been traveling for several days already, it was only when we arrived here in Kaunas, which my Jewish ancestors called Kovno, that I felt like the trip had finally begun. We checked in at the Hof Hotel at about 10 AM and in spite of being here hours before check-in, our rooms were ready and they had a/c. As promised, the archives were directly across the street. I was interested to learn that the archive was built over the basement of a former synagogue.

The archives were expecting us, and had stacks of books and records waiting for us. We had sent them information about 55 records we wanted to look at in advance. We started with a meeting with the Director who was very generous with his time and had a marvelous feast waiting for us.

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I am always amazed at the age of the records we are permitted to view. The paper is fragile, the ink is often faded. We hold history in our hands.

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I was feeling exhausted and a bit sick from the heat and left the archives before the others, who stayed for about an hour longer. After cool showers and short naps, we were all ready to join Lina’s sister, Vilma, who came in from Vilnius.

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After dinner, Vilma went to catch a train back to Vilnius and we decided to see some of the section of the city near our hotel. Since a picture is definitely worth 1,000 words, I’ll stop talking now.DSC01475.JPG

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Posted in Eastern European Travel, Genealogy

Wed, 8 Aug…cont’d

…a moment of total panic, disbelief and anger when we found out all our paperwork was in order but there was no way to get a vehicle for a major excursion crossing into 5 countries, sometimes (as was the case with Ukraine and Poland) 2 or 3 times.  Hertz to the rescue!  The very helpful staff there checked not only with all the major international companies to see if someone had a van that could do what we wanted, and then tried another route. Finally, two hours behind schedule…we were off

 

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Marek was amazing, loading the van with our (many) suitcases, and insisting on doing it himself!  On the road about 5 PM, over 2 hours after we thought we’d get started, we realized that not only were we starting very late, but it was actually later than we thought – there is a 1 hour time zone difference between Poland and Lithuania!  Lithuania was an hour later. We were grateful that at least the van had a/c.

Our route looked easy enough, we were heading due north, but the line on the GPS that looked straight at first glance was filled with curves and turns, and the highway we thought we would be on, was only a 4 lane road for part of the way. We wound up driving through some small towns, none of whose names we caught – no sooner di we enter them than we left!On the way to Augustow 2.jpgOn the way to Augustow.JPGCobblestone streets made for a bumpy ride, but really beautiful – we were happy that it was still light.  When we got to Augustów, a resort town in northeastern Poland we stopped for dinner.Augustow Dinner Aug 8.jpg

Once again on the road, this time in the dark, we crossed the border into Lithuania (with no border check) and made it to Marijampolė in southern Lithuania and as b that time, it was around midnight, disturbed a sleepy but good-natured person at the Luna Hotel where we had a reservation. We got our keys, unloaded the van and were about to head to our rooms when a cab pulled up.

The passenger in the cab got out and when he had reached the back of the vehicle, suddenly collapsed – the impact of him hitting the ground made a huge sound, and he immediately began shaking, having a seizure. Marek and Lina turned him on his side, we got the attention of the cab driver who in turn disturbed the person on the night shift at the hotel, who, after she understood what was happening, called for an ambulance. The EMTs showed up, by which time the man seemed to be recovering and told us that he had epilepsy. The EMTs checked him out and said that he was ok. We were all surprised that his fall didn’t do some real damage.

Finally we headed off to our rooms. The rooms were clean and hot. There were no fans and no a/c.  And, although I haven’t mentioned it, it’s extremely hot – we had hoped that as we drove north, the heat wave would break, but that’s not the case.

Posted in Eastern European Travel