Monday, August 10, 2009

Shtetls and Castles

We began our day with a bus trek accompanied by our guide Regina Kopilevich who previously had assisted me at the archives. On our way out of the city, she pointed out various sites within the city of Vilnius. We have spent most of our time in the old city and have not explored the more modern portion of the city on the other side of the river. She pointed out a sports stadium which the Soviets built on top of a Jewish cemetery. There was also a memorial to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese ambassador during WWII, who saved over 6000 Jews by issuing exit visas against the orders of the Japanese government. During his time in Lithuania a young Jewish boy had invited him to share a Chanukah celebration with his family. Sugihara was touched by the close Jewish family as it reminded him of his Japanese family. The story underscored how humanizing another person dispels stereotypes and bridges differences, in this case resulting in life-saving actions.

Our guide pointed out various monuments ranging from Lithuanian mythological gods to statues at the entrances to the green bridge, the only remaining Soviet monuments. These massive sculptures are in the style of social realism and represent agriculture, industry, peace and youth.

Our initial destination was the shtetl of Olkenik (today Valikininkai). As we traveled our guide pointed out the wooded area where the Vilna partisans lived during WWII. While the area was not far from the city, she stressed the danger they encountered as they made their way to the woods. The female partisans acted as couriers and incurred this risk frequently as they went back and forth. The Germans hesitated to enter that area as it contained marshy wetlands.

Once again the paradoxical issue was raised that many Lithuanian perpetrators of atrocities were never held accountable for their actions, while partisans who were defending their lives are still being harassed by threats of prosecution. To this day, elderly former partisans will not return to their homeland because of these threats.

Our guide alerted us when we passed the cutoff to the shtetl Eishyshok which is memorialized at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. There they have a very moving exhibit with photographs of those that were murdered there.

The stage was set as we approached our destination “shtetl” when a horse and wagon approached us. As we entered the village our guide described Jewish life in the community as well as significant structures such as the synagogue which sadly no longer exists. We then approached the town square where a used clothing market was in progress in front of the church. We learned that the Jewish community typically lived close to this site where they conducted business. We walked down one of the main streets lined with charming homes with lovely gardens. We wondered if these were typical of the homes at that time. As we walked we came upon a much older home which transported us back in time. We were told that it was at least 100 years old. Another home of that vintage resembled a log cabin. As part of the tour we were invited to see the interior of one of the homes. It felt somewhat primitive with a central kitchen alcove surrounded by a room on either side.

We also had the opportunity to see the old Jewish cemetery. We walked through the woods to arrive at the cemetery. As we walked through the woods our guide pointed out cranberries, chanterelles, strawberries and nettles on which the partisans survived. We arrived at a low fence which marked the perimeter of the cemetery. As it is no longer maintained it was overgrown with plants and moss. The ground was spongy and it was difficult to walk around the area because tombstones often lay on the ground. While one would ordinarily not walk on a gravesite, it was impossible to avoid this. While our guide acknowledged these concerns, she also noted that they would forgive us as they don’t get many visitors and would appreciate our presence. Regina searched for the oldest tombstone which dated back to the 1840s, the Napoleonic era. She read the markings on the gravestones to give us a flavor for members of the former community. One of the gravestones was particularly intriguing because it was written as an acrostic. A poem was written on the tombstone where the first letter of each line vertically spelled out the name of the deceased.

We then headed on to Trakai, the home of the Karaite. The Karaite came from the Crimea and were taken prisoner by Peter the Great in 1397. They subsequently served as royal guards. The Karaite language is based on Turkish. The current Lithuanian ambassador to Turkey is a Karaite woman who can communicate easily in that role as she speaks Karaite. The Karaite consider themselves Jewish and follow Jewish traditions, but do not include the Talmud in their beliefs.

In the 1800s Karaite leaders lobbied the Russian government to change the legal status of the group. As a result of that effort, the Tsarist government recognized them as being of Turkic, not Jewish origin, on equal legal footing with Crimean Tatars. This exempted them from many of the restrictions that were placed on Jews. This served them well during WWII when they appealed to the Nazis to exempt them from restrictions on Jews based on their legal standing in Russia. The Nazis ultimately agreed with this characterization and the Karaite community largely survived WWII. A few thousand remain in Eastern Europe and about 70 in the Trakai community. The head of the partisans in Vilnius, a Jew, operated under a Karaite identity which allowed him greater mobility in his efforts against the Nazis.

While in Trakai we visited the Kenesa which is their synagogue. We were greeted by the leader of the Karaite community who wore a fez. Kenesa means meeting place, the same derivation as Israel’s Knesset. The first Kenesa was built in the 15th century on the same site. It was destroyed in 1812 during the Napoleonic wars and rebuilt in 1820. When the last Hebrew speaker died, they shifted to a Latin based language for prayer.

Trakai is a town built on water complete with a castle.

The area has many lakes and had the feeling of a beach town. Sailboats dotted the water and families gathered to enjoy the beaches. While there we ate at one of the Karaite restaurants which served shish kebobs with lamb figuring prominently and kibinai, savory pastry rolls. The foods certainly bore a resemblance to Turkish food.

Another full day came to a close as we prepared to resume our classes the following day. We are at the halfway point in our program and are realizing that we still have a long list of places we would like to explore in Vilnius. The intensive language program often competes with the exploration of the area that is an equally important part of our experience. A friend made plans with our guide to visit the town from which her family came and we hope to accompany her later this week.

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