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Jewish Journal

A Journey Back to the Shtetl

by Eric Mankin

April 20, 2006 | 8:00 pm

Not too much has changed in some respects.

Not too much has changed in some respects.

Finding my grandparents' native town in Lithuania was not easy. "Litvinovo," as my grandmother remembered it, appears on no map of Lithuania that I could find.

I had searched large-scale maps over the years on and off but found nothing solid. It was, of course, the Internet that eventually came to my rescue. A Web site, JewishGen, "the home of Jewish genealogy," has a remarkable utility, the ShtetlSeeker. When I looked there for a Litvinovo in Lithuania, it returned a set of alternate place names -- Liudvinavo, Lyudvinov, Lyudvinavas, Lyudvinav, Ludwinów, Ludvinavas, Liudvinavas, in all the old languages my grandmother spoke and more -- as corresponding to a village a few miles from Marijampol. And a map. I could drive there easily.

My grandparents were not Holocaust victims -- their families had left for America 100 years ago -- so I wasn't after a tale of the Shoah. I just wanted to trace my roots, find what I could find and see where they had lived. I returned with a Jewish story told by non-Jews, one that is not of my own family but rather of my people. It's also simply a story about people.

sign for Liudvinavas

My journey took me to Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, past a bronze bust of Frank Zappa -- perhaps the most singular monument to the fall of communism -- to the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. It's known as "the Green House," a small wooden building uphill from a big busy street, marked by an easily missed, inconspicuous arrow.

Upstairs is the office of Neringa Latvyte-Gustaitiene, a young, energetic historian paid by Lithuania to document the history of that nation's Jews. Her English is blessedly better than my clumsy Russian. Neringa knows where Liudvinavas is, and she's prepared to go there with me in my black rented Hyundai.

Neringa, from a town about 70 kilometers north of Vilnius, isn't Jewish. She studied Lithuanian history at the nation's national university. The popular options for students of history, she says, are to focus on the country's glory days, which come in long-separated historical epochs: 1,000 years ago when the Lithuanian empire reached all the way to the Black Sea; or the achievements of the Lithuanian state established between the world wars.

It was a charismatic professor, MeirisShubas, who guided her to a black hole in the country's narrative. Shubas, almost 90 at the time, insisted that the real history that needed to be written, the history no one was writing, was of the Jewish community. Neringa followed his advice, although her choice bewildered her friends.

"They think I'm doing it for the money," she says, adding that there isn't any.

The next day, on the drive down, Neringa fills me in. Liudvinavas was founded in 1710 and opened to Jews as a shtetl in 1780, one year before the founding of Los Angeles. Jews thrived because they had civil rights that were uncommon for Jews elsewhere. They could sue, for example, and own property. In 1856, the town had 473 Christian inhabitants and 1,055 Jews.

But prosperity and liberality took a downturn, and most Jews gradually left.

Mayor Irena Lunskiene
Mayor Irena Lunskiene with the sign marking the park that was once a Jewish cemetery.

The exodus accelerated due to pogroms and political instability before and after World War I. My grandparents left for Pittsburgh, Penn., where they would meet each other and marry. By the end of the 1930s, only 19 Jewish families made the fatal mistake of remaining in the old country.

The town of 1,000 residents dips out of a wide plain onto both sides of a river, with footbridges spanning the river's wooded ravine. It's an architectural patchwork, part 19th century timber-frame structures, part boxy Soviet housing. With a practiced eye, Neringa points out the old houses most likely to have been Jewish -- the ones with two doors, one to the house, one to the adjoining shop.

A Jewish House
A Jewish house. Note the two doors: one for the family, one for the shop.

The town's friendly mayor, Irena Lunskiene, knows someone who can tell us what happened to those 19 families. She leads us to the home of Teresa Vizbariene, a grandmother who has, for two years, been collecting material about these Jewish clans -- photographs and diaries that supplement her memory and those of others.

Teresa climbs into our car and, as we drive, points out houses and tells us about their former inhabitants.

The Jews of Liudvinas were very much a part of the town. Their children attended school with Christian children. They were observant Jews, but dressed much as others did. The Ginzbergs ran the water-driven flourmill, the only one for miles around -- that must be the mill where my grandfather spoke of having worked. The old mill and its waterwheel has long been replaced by a 1950s Soviet-style generic concrete factory building. But fragments of the millrace that once channeled water past the wheel is still visible.

We also pass what's left of the old dairy -- my grandmother's family, dairy farmers, must have been familiar visitors there. The dairy, Teresa says, was a cooperative, with Jews and Lithuanians both participating.

For some of the telling, I must rely on my imagination: There is no synagogue anymore. But I learn that the floor above the sanctuary was occupied by the Drostradanskys, a young and financially struggling couple. Teresa has a picture of a young couple, he in a suit; she in a dress.

The Zimonskys were one of the richest families in town; it tended to be the more prosperous Jews who remained. They'd bought up the farms of some of the émigrés. The Follingers had a leather factory and also a farm. The Hodesh family baked bread. So did Yankel, though he also had a farm, where he raised his own grain for his bakery. His daughter married a Hodesh son. Yankel was, Teresa tells us, the last Jew from Liudvinavas.

The site of his completely vanished farm, far out of town, on the crest of a hill, is "where those bushes are," Teresa says. When the Russians came in after the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, they took over what had been an independent Lithuanian state, imposing regulations on private farmers and grain sales. Yankel was found guilty of violating these and exiled to Siberia.

His family stayed behind, including his daughter and her children. In 1941, the invading Germans reached Liudvinavas, only a few kilometers from the border, in a matter of hours. And that summer, with the help of Lithuanian partisans, the Ginzbergs, Resnicks, Hodeshes, Follingers, and others were sent to Marijampol. None ever came back.

The tight confines of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, the Green House, where Neringa works, are crowded with pictures of old Jewish Vilna, its rabbis -- including the great Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), the Gaon who gives the museum its name -- and documentation of the town's large Jewish population. But the Jews of old share more than half the space Karl Jaeger, the highly efficient leader of Einsatzkommando 3, which during 1941 killed more than 137,300 people, mostly by shooting them and throwing them into pits, each day's work meticulously documented in records reproduced on the walls.

On August 22, 1941, for example, Jaeger's men, killed three Russian commandos, five Latvians, one Russian guard, three Poles, three Roma men, three Roma woman, one Roma child, one Jewish man, one Jewish woman and one Armenian. The next day they killed "the mentally sick": 269 men, 227 women, 48 children. On a more ordinary day they killed 500 or so Jewish men, women and children. Final score: Lithuania set the national record in Europe for the percentage of its Jewish population that did not survive: More than 90 percent of the more than 200,000 perished.

Jaeger hid out after the war as a farmer, was discovered in 1959 and committed suicide before trial. About 6,000 Jews survived thanks to "the Japanese Schindler," Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul-general who stamped as many exit visas as he could -- a monument to him stands outside the museum.

Sugihara wasn't able to help the 19 families of Liudvinavas. But one person survived.

In 1957, Teresa's brother was in Stalingrad (now Volgograd), and heard someone speaking Lithuanian with a recognizable accent. It was Yankel, the farmer-baker sent into exile by the Russians. Yankel looked old and battered and would say nothing about himself or his experiences.

"He was only asking about his family," Teresa recounts. "He wanted to know if maybe someone had managed to survive."

"He was very disappointed," is how Neringa translates Teresa words.

Yankel never returned to Liudvinavas.

Teresa has her own memories of the 19 families. She remembers that the Hodesh twin girls were popular, not least because their father owned a bakery that included a candy store. And they had beautiful matching coats, blue and red, like none seen in the town, universally admired and envied. In the summer of 1941, when the time came to send Liudvinavas' Jews to Jaeger, a local partisan working for the Germans saw the 8-year-old girls, coats in hands, waiting to leave.

"You won't need the coats," he snapped at them, seizing the garments. He had four daughters, including twins the same age. His twins wore them.

"Once a classmate of the partisan's two daughters told them that it is a shame to wear these coats," Teresa says. "Because everybody knew how the girls got the coats. The girls became very angry ... got their sisters. They caught the classmate and beat her up and urinated on her. The girls were savage. All the children were afraid of them."

In 1944, with the Russians in control, the partisan was arrested and executed. The four daughters are still alive -- "but they do not live in Liudvinavas."

Nor do any Jews, of course. But there was the practical matter of the homes they left behind.

In 1941, these houses went to Lithuanian collaborators. Some, but by no means all, were turned over to the local government after the war. It resold them, including the Hodesh house, one of Teresa's daughters now lives there. But some houses, Neringa said, remain in the hands of families who got them from the Nazis.

My hosts couldn't be friendlier. When we return to Teresa's apartment, she serves tea and homemade jam. She gives me a jar of her cranberry jam.

Liudvinavas Mayor Lunskiene proudly points out that the former Jewish cemetery is now a city park. The park itself -- a lovely spot, on a wooded ravine -- shows no evidence of having ever been a cemetery except for a very few gravestone fragments with Yiddish inscriptions that are almost entirely concealed in the undergrowth among the trees. The Christian cemeteries are immaculately tended.

A barn occupies the site of the old synagogue.

Site of the old synagogue
A barn marks the spot once occupied by the Litvinovo shul.

The Vilnius "genocide museum," in a sizeable old KGB headquarters, isn't about Jews, but a testament to what the Russians did to Lithuanians. But there is the Jewish Gaon museum, crowded into about 2,200 square feet, including Neringa's upstairs office.

The Old Dairy
The dairy was a cooperative, with Jews and other Lithuanians participating. The central building dates from the old days.

The Lithuanian government supports the museum -- pays all the salaries and for building maintenance, museum director Rachel Kusturian says. The facility occupies valuable real estate much coveted by its neighbors. The nation is poor, and still struggling to find its feet, she explains, choosing her words carefully: "No, I do not think they could do more."

RESOURCES:

Images from the author's trip: www.well.com/user/stet/liudvinavas.htm

To trace your family history: www.jewishgen.org,

To find your ancestral shtetl, try "shtetl seeker": www.jewishgen.org/ShtetlSeeker

The Vilna Gaon Jewish State museum: www.jmuseum.lt/index.asp.

TRAVEL TIPS:

A number of airlines, including British Airways, SAS, LOT and Aeroflot offer through flights from Los Angeles to Vilnius for about $1,200-$1500 round trip. Savvy and patient travelers can almost halve this by flying to Frankfurt or London and then using the European discount carrier Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), which offers cheap flights to Riga, Latvia and Kaunas, Lithuania.

Baltic prices are extremely low by European or American standards; with good accommodations available in Vilnius for less than $100 per night in, for example, an old monastery, the Domus Maria (www.domusmaria.vilnensis.lt,) built into the old city walls. Or pay much more at the luxury hotel Narutis (info@narutis.com). Both are in the heart of the tourist-oriented Old Town district. (We liked the away-from-the-center ambiance of Eguesthouse, which occupies an old factory (www.e-guesthousee.lt/en).

Russian is the most common second language, but English is spoken widely in Old Town. Roads in Lithuania are good and car rental reasonable and not heavily taxed (a week for less than $150). Only the fearless would want to drive in Vilnius or other Balt city centers.

An extremely useful English source about all three Baltic republics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) is the free, widely distributed monthly magazine City Paper, published in Talinn, Estonia (www.BalticsWorldwide.com). It has up-to-date tourist information about all three nations that was better than the guidebooks we brought. Easy to remember tip: "Thank you" in Lithuanian sounds exactly like "achoo," as in a sneeze.

AUTHOR'S LITHUANIAN GENEOLOGY:

Liudvinavas was the hometown of my paternal grandparents, my grandmother Miriam (Mary) Simons and my grandfather, Chaim Mankin, though they came to Pittsburgh separately about 100 years ago. When I was 18, I spent a summer staying with Mary, who spoke Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian and Russian as a girl, and English as an adult in Pittsburgh. She told that she was from "Litvinovo," where her family had a farm, whose milk they sold in Mariampol. My grandfather (by then deceased) had been a miller.

Eric Mankin writes about science for the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering. He lives in Venice with his wife and three children.

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