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My recent Jewish Heritage Roots Tour to Lithuania and Belarus

Moving and inspiring
By Bill Yoffee, August 2008

From June 24 to July 4, 2008, I was privileged to participate in the 15th Jewish Heritage Roots Tour of Lithuania and Belarus. This annual summer tour, begun by Howard Margol, a past president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies and current president of the LitvakSIG, as well as a consistent benefactor of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, was most ably led this year by Peggy Mosinger Freedman

Needless to say, the experience was a moving one for some one such as myself who is a Litvak on both sides of my family and whose wife is also three-quarters Litvak. Besides visiting Jewish institutions in Vilnius, Panevezys and Kaunas, informative visits to the archives in Vilnius and Kaunas, and even an unexpected aliyah on Shabbat in the Vilnius Synagogue (as I was the only admitted Levite in attendance), I visited four towns associated with my family and two shtelach associated with my wife’s family.

My first visit was to Dolginovo (Yiddish Dalhinif) in Belarus, where my mother was born in 1902, when it was still part of Vilna Gubernia. There was still evidence of past Jewish life in the presence of two confirmed synagogues, and one suspected synagogue with a separate building for the preparation of bodies for burial in the nearby Jewish cemetery. The cemetery was surrounded by an ornate iron fence. While it had been cared for in the past, it was apparently suffering from recent neglect. It contained a modern memorial to victims of the Holocaust. Interestingly, a twin of that memorial was placed outside the cemetery, ornately fenced, and on its base was an official medallion indicating that the Belarus Ministry of Education had charged a local school with the duty of caring for the monument and its environs.

My guide/interpreter whose name was Ruta (Lithuanian for Ruth), and who was the Assistant Director of the Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, taught me how to identify a Jewish house from a Christian house. I named it "Ruta’s Rule." Jewish houses invariably had the main entrance facing the street, often flanked by an equal number of windows on both sides. This was in order to facilitate the public entering and patronizing the shop that the house usually contained. Christian houses usually had their entrances on the side to facilitate access to their vegetable gardens or in the back to facilitate access to their animal pens and barns. A converted house could be identified by the obviously boarded-up front door or the remaining front steps or both. Ruta, by the way, was born a Catholic and was converted to Evangelical Christianity, but she was as knowledgeable about Jewish Life in Lithuania before WWII as any other person Jewish or non-Jewish that I met.

Christian House Jewish House Converted Jewish House--according to "Ruta’s Rule"

The town of Birzai is where my paternal grandfather was born in 1875. His mother’s maiden name was Birze which leads to the conclusion that Birzai was probably her ancestral home. Birzai means birch, one of the most common trees in that region. At Howard Margol’s suggestion, I visited Sheftal Melamed, the “last Jew in Birzai.” Mr. Melamed is nearly 80, and survived only because he was away visiting his brother in the army when the Nazis invaded in 1941. His wife is a Christian as are all of his children, with whom he is very close. After a lengthy conversation in his well appointed apartment, he showed us two synagogue buildings. One of these, a very ornate structure, was the merchants’ synagogue where deals were concluded, and is now a private residence. The other, which was the main synagogue, is being converted into an apartment building. Just down the main street is a building that was once a home for the Jewish indigent and elderly. A legend in Hebrew letters is faded but nearly legible over the front door. The Jewish cemetery is a little out of the way, and was apparently left pretty much untouched. It has been cared for and is fenced.

A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to question my wife’s 100 year old great uncle about his life before he came to America. When I asked him where he was from he said Riga. My family originally had said the same thing, but as I had learned over time that it was only the nearest big city, I pressed him further. And then he named a town I had never heard of. He said he was from a shtetl just outside Birzai named Kirchel (Kirkilai). He added that his sister, my wife’s paternal grandmother, married a first cousin, my wife’s grandfather, who lived in a neighboring shtetl, Slepzie (Slepsciai). Both shtetlach, he said, were close enough to Birzai that they could walk to town and so they did their shopping and went to shul there. Slepsciai is about 1 km. northwest of Birzai, and currently consists of one converted Jewish house and a couple of dilapidated farm buildings. Kirkilai is 1 km farther along the same road. The most prominent building there was a shop built of brick that was obviously very old and had been enlarged several times. The great uncle whose surname was Kretchmer said the name came from the fact that his family ran a tavern and small hotel, a kretchmer, and I came to the unsupported conclusion that this building was it. It definitely had the same characteristics as a Jewish house.

The next visit was to the town of Pakruojis (Yiddish Pokroi) which is where my father’s paternal ancestors lived. Even at that time, in the mid 19th century, it was described as a very poor shtetl. There still exists a classic wooden synagogue where I feel certain that my ancestors prayed. Unfortunately, it has not yet been designated for restoration. I was told that the shtetl was too small for more than one synagogue, and that there was also a Karaite community, too small to support its own Kanessa, that prayed in the synagogue along side the Jews. Another interesting fact about Pokroi is that the rabbi was Joseph Yoffe during the last decade that my family lived there. However, a DNA test of his last remaining male descendant establishes that he was not related to us on his father’s side, but I have a suspicion that the family surname may have been inherited through his mother’s family, which was not uncommon in that era. At the present time, the town’s main street is lined with houses that were originally Jewish houses, according to Ruta’s Rule, only some of which have been converted. This includes a kretchmer that appears to have Jewish origins.

Classic Wooden Synagogue of Pakruojis

About 10 km. outside Pakruojis is the town of Linkuva. On the main square is a building that from all outward appearances could have been a synagogue. My guide noticed a plaque on the wall written in Lithuanian which said that this was the headquarters of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, where people were incarcerated and tortured during the post WWII Soviet occupation. The main synagogue was converted to a cinema during the Soviet era, but is now in the early stages of restoration. During my visit, we encountered a group of art and architecture students from Vilnius who were documenting and diagramming significant remaining original features of the interior. They explained that they are surveying all of the identifiable synagogues in Lithuania in preparation for a book to be made available next year at a conference in Israel.

The Linkuva Jewish cemetery deserves special mention. It is located about 2 km. outside of town in deep woods. Fortunately, it was so remote and so hidden that it was never disturbed during the various occupations. The stones are worn but barely legible. The perimeter is marked by a wide ditch. There are several stones outside the perimeter, which may indicate that there were Jews who were found unworthy of being buried in sanctified grounds, such as suicides. There were also a number of small stones inside the perimeter which may indicate the burial of small children.

Linkuva Cemetery: The perimeter ditch is just behind the stones in the foreground.

The Karaites mentioned earlier are a small and diminishing sect that is centered in the town of Trakai, outside Vilnius. They have often been referred to as Karaite Jews because although they reject Rabbinic Judaism, they adhere to an Old Testament faith very much like Reform Judaism, with several elements of Islam included. They were brought to Lithuania in 1397 by the Grand Duke. They claim to have originated in the 8th Century in Babylonia, what is now Iraq, and also claim to be of Turkic origin, perhaps related to the Khazars. Their theology has strong Judaic influences and their sanctuary, a Kenessa, appears much like the interior of a synagogue, except for the absence of a Torah. The Jews disowned them at the time of the Nazi occupation which may have saved them from the same fate. In 1593, a Karaite, Isaac Troki, authored a Jewish response to Christian missionaries entitled Chisuk Emuna, or Strength of Faith, which has been adopted as the name of several synagogues in the United States. The book is still in print in English in Israel.

The disturbing part of my visit was the evidence I noticed of events that indicated a resurgence of Lithuanian nationalism accompanied by anti-Semitism. Although anti-Semitism is not officially sanctioned or promoted, there is ample evidence that it is being opportunistically tolerated by various political parties, including those in the Government, in anticipation of elections in the coming year. I am particularly sensitive to such efforts because of my training and experience in international relations, especially in Eastern Europe. Let me explain.

First it should be noted that in Lithuania, as in many Central and Eastern European countries, citizenship and nationality are separate and distinct. This gives rise in some countries to extreme nationalism. In Lithuania it is possible to be a citizen without being a Lithuanian national. It is possible to have one’s nationality stated in his or her passport. It is not required, but the absence of the stated nationality, and comparison with an individual’s surname, can arouse nationalistic feelings. In Lithuania, the main nationalities are Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Jewish. Hence Jews are identified as a separate nationality not a religion.

Two recent events in particular have caused considerable consternation within the Lithuanian Jewish Community which comprises no more than 0.5% of the country’s population. The first was a parade of neo-Nazis and skin-heads in Vilnius, waving Lithuanian flags overlaid with swastikas, wearing swastika arm bands and shouting “Juden raus.” It took nine days before the Government acted to condemn the parade, and then only after a considerable amount of embarrassing publicity. The second event requires a more detailed explanation.

The State Public Prosecutor is answerable to no one. His office has begun an investigation into an event that occurred more than half-a-century ago, and alleges that it involves three survivors of the Vilna Ghetto. The three are a former general in the Israeli Army, Yitzhak Arad, who was director of Yad Vashem for twenty years and lives in Israel; Rachel Margolis, an elderly Israeli citizen and resident; and Fania Brantsovsky, the librarian of the Yiddish Institute of the Vilnius University, a citizen and resident of Lithuania who has lived and worked in the country for more than 80 years. The three, in their teens, escaped from the Vilna Ghetto before its occupants were murdered, and joined a partisan band in the forest outside Vilnius. This partisan band was led by the Soviets, but its sole mission was to fight the Nazis. It should be noted that the Lithuanians hate the Soviets even more than they did the Nazis because the Soviet occupation, both before and after WWII, deprived the Lithuanians of their independence. In some instances, Lithuanians saw the Nazis as their liberators from Soviet oppression.

As happens during wartime, each side often confiscates food and other supplies, in most cases from farmers. This partisan band had been confiscating food from local farm villages. In one village, Kaniukai, the farmers, who had been armed by the Nazis, resisted. A battle ensued, and 36 Lithuanian farmers were killed. There is no credible evidence that the three Jews participated or were even present during the battle, but, in any event, a case can be made that the partisans were acting in self defense. Nevertheless, while the Prosecution is claiming a war crime was committed by the partisans here and in another village, Girdenai, only the three Jews so far have been called to testify. Needless to say the Israelis will not return to testify which leaves Fania the only one at risk.

Except for several articles in German publications, I could find only two instances where this matter has been discussed in English language media. An opinion piece by Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, entitled Europe’s Shameful Honoring of Vilnius, appeared in the FORWARD on June 26, 2008. It can be found there along with numerous readers’ comments, On July 17 and again on July 21 the BBC Radio 4’s program Crossing Continents presented Reopening Lithuania’s old wounds about this situation. A transcript of the program can be found at BBC News along with a number of listeners’ comments. The comments are worth reading. Many show how entrenched feelings remain on both sides of the issues and how frequently some completely miss the points made by the authors in favor of conventional prejudices such as: Lithuanians share a collective guilt; that the Jews were communists or aided the Soviets who did terrible things to the Lithuanians; or simply what was done to the Lithuanian by the Nazis and the Soviets justifies examining the role of the Jews in what occurred.

In May 2008, the Conference of the Lithuanian Jewish Community issued a statement “Regarding Recent Increases in Instances of Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia in Lithuania.” This was accompanied by an open letter of protest from the Chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Chairman of the Union of Former Ghetto and Concentration Camp Prisoners to the President (formerly and possibly still an American citizen), the Speaker of the Parliament, the Prime Minister and the Prosecutor General of Lithuania. (I would be happy to send copies of the English translations to anyone who would like to read them. My email address is This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Or see The Jewish Community of Lithuania.)

From past experience, the only way the Lithuanian Government can be influenced to act to ameliorate a matter such as this is with a flurry of press comments and statements from influential public figures, particularly in the United States, declaring abhorrence of these developments. This is likely to be especially significant to the Lithuanians because the European Union has designated Vilnius as the “European Capital of Culture for 2009.”

But the circumstances that I have just described should not deter anyone who has the opportunity from visiting Lithuania and Belarus. The non-Jewish people whom the members of our group on the Jewish Heritage Roots Tour met are as familiar with the details and just as disturbed by these developments as are the members of the Jewish Community. The experience of walking where our ancestors walked, seeing where they prayed, seeing their last resting places and the memorials to the martyrdom of the remnant of what was once the most vibrant and intellectually productive Jewish community in modern history was especially inspiring and definitely brings to life our studies of our families’ past.

about the author
Bill Yoffee