Lithuania; overgrown cemeteries; wooden house (Rezekne, Latvia);Jacqui & Angie; Star of David Memorial (Shaki/Sakiai Cemetery in Lithuania).
The following article appeared in the British Jewry Newsletter and is reproduced here with kind permission of Angie Elfassi.
TRAVELLING "BACK IN TIME" TO THE SHTETLS
This summer, Angie Elfassi went on a family history discovery journey. On her return home to Israel, she emailed members of four different branches of her family with details of her trip that might be of particular interest to them individually, together with observations on the places she visited, and she has kindly shared those thoughts with B-J News. What follows is a (very sparingly) edited amalgam of those emails. References to Angie’s relations have not been removed; there is always a chance that they may strike a chord with a reader, somewhere…
I recently travelled with my sister Jacqui, and brother-in-law Jeremy, to Latvia and Lithuania, to visit the various shtetls where our family originated before coming to Leeds, England, between 1890 and 1907.
My journey from Israel, on the whole, was quite uneventful except that I had to fly via Vienna to Riga, and my return journey was from Vilnius to Vienna and then home. We drove from Riga to Vilnius, Kaunas and back to Vilnius. There was one small point of interest. The plane to and from Vienna was a turbo-propeller - the likes of which I had never seen. I had visions of having to do a Fred Flintstone: slipping my legs through the bottom of the plane and pushing until we took off!
On the Sunday we travelled from Lithuania to Latvia, to our paternal grandfather's shtetl - Rezekne (formerly Rezhita) - and I must first tell you about crossing the border: it no longer exists! We had been "warned" by several people that it could take between one and four hours. So we were surprised and pleased to find that you just continue driving as if it were one big country; the only way you know you have entered a different country is from the sign "Lithuania" (or "Latvia")
Had we not had a guide, we would have had great difficulty in finding Rezekne cemetery. Unfortunately, it is mostly overgrown. There is one small area which is still in use by the remaining Jewish community and so was easily accessible. There is a memorial to those who died in the Holocaust.
In Rezekne, we found the Green Synagogue, which is presently in the process of being added to the World Heritage Buildings. It stands on the corner of two streets, one of which is Izraelas Street. I've seen photos of this synagogue before, but it was quite a thrill to be standing next to the building where I believe my ancestors prayed.
Our guide interviewed one of the local ladies, who recalled a memory from 1941, when she was nine. She had seen one of the local policemen, who had assisted in rounding up the Jewish people, coming back from the place where the Jews had been killed, with gold teeth in his hands - which still had blood on them.
Rezekne is now quite a large town and we drove around for a short while. In one area there are still houses from over a hundred years ago - at least, that is how they looked. They were all made from wood - in the same fashion as the Synagogue - each one painted a different colour, making the whole area quite cheerful!
Since my return, I have received more information about where our ancestors lived, with the following description: "...the river Dvina passed through the centre of the town and had a towering wall built around.... Our house stood at the top of a hill overlooking the river and a railway bridge...". I was excited to receive this, but sorry it hadn’t arrived before I left Israel; maybe I'll visit another time or ask someone else visiting to try and figure out where this could be.
After leaving Rezekne, we went back into Lithuania to a small town called Antaliepte. According to archive records, it is quite possible that some Kassemoffs had lived, died and were buried there but, again, the cemetery was very overgrown. Someone has taken care of it in a minimal way: it was fenced in and a commemorative plaque had been erected "For Eternal Souls".
On the Monday we drove to Stakliskes (Stoklishok) in Lithuania - our maternal grandfather's shtetl. We travelled via Trakai where we stopped to eat kibinai/pirogi. They are like Cornish pasties, or Israeli borekas - or even egg rolls! I guess every culture has its own version of a pastry parcel.
Stakliskes is a village where they make very interesting mead; the address of the mead makers is included on this site: http://www.gotmead.com/component/option,com_sobi/Itemid,103/catid,93/id,285/task,details/ .
As before, we were grateful for our guide’s help in finding our way around. The cemetery, like many others we visited, is overgrown.
The guide had with her a map of "old" Stakliskes where the Jewish people lived - around the shtetl square - and there were houses there from that period. She showed us where the corner stone of the synagogue used to be, right near the town square. The streets were lined with apple trees laden with fruit, and the guide said we could just pick the apples - but we were too embarrassed to do that. She wasn’t! She brought each of us an apple…
Stakliskes is fairly close to Kaunas (formerly Kovno). Kaunas is now a very modern town - and the young women show much leg with very high heels! However, we stayed in the Old Town and, wandering about, we came across Zamenhoff (originator of Esperanto) Street. From the town archives I got several internal passports of my family, including my grandfather's cousin Dina née Reichzeligman. These documents include photos and, although Dina was not related to my late grandmother Sarah, she did look like her!
Interestingly, it appears that a Reichzeligman went to Tomsk, in Siberia, and made beer there - or could it be that he exported it? Go to http://www.beerlabels.bravepages.com/uni/tomsk.html , and scroll down; any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Unfortunately, to date, I haven’t found out any more about a Tomsk branch.
On the Tuesday, we arranged to travel from Kaunas to various shtetls, including our paternal grandmother's: Jurbakas (Yurburg), standing on the River Neiman. We had a street name for our ancestor’s home area - Kranto Street. This was supplied by my late father's cousin Moshe Magidowitz, who lived there as a young boy, was fortunate enough to survive the war, and now lives in Rehovot. We found the street - once more, we’d have been lost without our guide - and it stands not far from the river.
We learned that many Jewish businesses were also their homes: the ground floor was the business, and the upper floor the home. Very often the Jewish establishments were on the corner of a street and the corner of the building was "sliced" off, thus making access to the premises far easier from either direction. In fact, in both Kaunas and Vilnius, I saw modern day cases of this "slicedquot; corner. I’m sure that the banks or kiosk owners don’t know the origin of this.
The younger people speak mostly Lithuanian and the older residents mostly Russian. We knew that, unfortunately, no synagogue remained, but Jurbarkas cemetery has an area with a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust. The cemetery had been tended recently and is in fairly good condition.
In Vilnius cemetery I found one fairly recent tombstone for Magidowitz Gesel Solomonovic b. 1911 d. 1989. I have been given a phone number for his son, and I will try to contact him.
On the Tuesday we arranged to travel to Sakiai (Shaki) in Lithuania - our maternal grandmother's shtetl, now a town. This was a bit more emotional; our grandmother Sarah née Cohen had grown up here, and she had lived with us at home for the last few years of her life. She was about seventeen or eighteen when she arrived in England and I remember she spoke English with an accent - I guess, much as I speak Hebrew with an accent! I was eight when she died.
Yet again, our guide was invaluable! The cemetery, unfortunately no longer exists: the whole area has been razed to the ground, and all that is left is a commemorative plaque. Apparently the locals had taken the tombstones to use in their buildings! Here again, there is a Holocaust memorial.
Both Latvia and Lithuania are basically very flat, green, fertile countries and I wondered how my grandparents, in their separate ways, must have felt leaving the homes that they had known since birth. Perhaps they were happy to be leaving freezing winters, but I was there in the summer and the weather really was pleasant.
I have some tombstone photos from both Rezekne and Jurbarkas - some barely readable; if anyone is interested, I will forward them.1
In all the shtetls we had visited Holocaust memorials, and I was truly thankful that I was able to leave Lithuania freely and without fear!
1 Angie is happy to extend this offer to readers.
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