All posts by Rachel

Map of Shkud Old Town

Here’s the best I can do at the moment. It’s a pretty skimpy map, but at least it includes the major sites: the Old Synagogue, the Jewish cemetery, and the two present-day monuments.

Shkud-OldTown-map

Map of Shkud New Town

Based on my visits and interviews, I’ve tried to create a map of  Shkud’s New Town. It’s very approximate, and obviously leaves out a lot. Maybe on my next visit to Skuodas I can refine it, or maybe some of you have details to add or suggestions for amendments or corrections.

Here it is!

Skuodas-Centre-Screenshot

Third Skuodas trip, July 30, 2010

For my third trip to Skuodas, I planned well in advance. I hired a translator and guide, Vilius Vaseikis, who lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania, where I was living in July 2010 while attending the Vilnius University’s Summer Program in Yiddish (a wonderful program – I plan to return next summer if possible). For a very reasonable fee, Vilius did advance planning and research, arranged interviews, and drove me and my partner Gene to Skuodas and back, a four-hour trip each way.

We left Vilnius at 6:00 am. On arrival, we went straight to the Skuodas Museum, where Vilius had arranged for us to meet again with Joana. He and Joana had arranged for us to interview Leonardas, an elderly resident of the town who remembered the Jewish community. Unfortunately, as Leonardas explained, some Lithuanian collaborators and murderers had moved abroad, some to Canada, and he requested I not publish his photo.

The following is a rough transcript of our interview, based on Vilius’s translations. The first part of the interview consists of answers to my questions about my family in Shkud – the Mines and Eisen families. The discussion of football comes out of the fact that my dad was on a local youth team in 1928, and the discussion of farms and farming come from stories my father told me about working on a farm when he was very young.

• According to Leonardas, a few pre-war shops are still standing in Skuodas. Before the war, there were many shoe factories – Skuodas was a town of shoemakers. Leonardas remembered the Mines family, but did not remember any first names. He also remembered the Eisens, but couldn’t provide any details. He remembered attending school with Jewish kids in the 1940s. He recalled a family called Yankelovich and another family, the Fogelmans, and said both families had children still living in Vilnius.
• As for a Mines farm … many Jews had small plots of land (not large farms) outside the city where they would keep a few cows, etc. As Lithuanian citizens, they were allowed to own the land. Leonardas took care of cows on the Mayers’ farm. (At least he thinks it was Mayer – many Jews had nicknames.)
• Leonardas played football as a teen. He remembers a famous team, the Macabis. They played in a field. The kids played everywhere they could, including the streets. Jewish and Gentile populations mixed. The kids played table tennis, football, wrestling, boxing, and other sports.
• Before the war, there was a separate Jewish primary school, but Jews and Christians attended high school together. Jewish-Christian relations were good: “There was no difference.” Leonardas’s father lived in the old town and had close connections with Jews. His mother was German. They spoke Yiddish; many Christian kids spoke Yiddish because they and the Jewish kids played together.
• Until 1938, people got along; relationships were good. Then, after 1938, there were growing conflicts, provocations, and fights between Christian Lithuanians and Jews. The reasons (according to Leonardas) is that outsiders were stirring up agitation. There was a German population, including a German school, in Skuodas. The fighting was provoked by Germans due to the situation in Germany.
• World War II started. After a few days, Germans started looting shops, and Lithuanians followed. The Kontinent shoe shop was raided also. Even he, Leonardas, participated and took four pairs of shoes. At that time, Jews weren’t killed. They stayed at home, but the serious trouble started later.
• The Germans invaded Liepaja, a city in Latvia, about 30 miles from Skuodas. Russian soldiers were hiding in the forests around Skuodas, trying to retreat to Russia. About 200 German soldiers were stationed in Skuodas, sleeping in the Skuodas school. There were battles between the Russian and German soldiers in Skuodas. The Russians were defeated. After that, Lithuanians started to round up Jews, men and women separately. It was a planned action with local Lithuanian collaborators. How this was possible, Leonardas doesn’t know: “How to characterize such people?” He believes most “activists” were NOT local and/or didn’t have close contact with Jews. Lithuanians also went into hiding – they hid themselves and also Jews.
• According to Leonardas, motivations for Lithuanians killing Jews (and also other Lithuanians) were complex. Lithuanians killed people they considered “enemies” for whatever reason, including personal grudge. Jews were killed on ethnic grounds. They were imprisoned in various places. Eventually all were rounded up and shot in groups of 40-50, at Darbenai and Kulai. “Those bastards did it everywhere.”
• Leonardas explained what it was like for him, as a young teen, during the massacres. It was a terrible feeling – sitting at home on a nice evening and waiting – peering outside through a gap – hearing shooting – knowing you can’t go out or you’ll be killed. It was a terrible feeling. Groups of 50-60 were taken to be shot – they could have run and escaped (according to Leonardas), but didn’t. There was no end of such stories. Many Christians felt sorry about what was going on, but couldn’t do anything about it.
• When Lithuanians and Nazis locked Jews into the Shaul [Riflemen – Lithuanian National Guard] Hall, Lazar Hodes convinced a Lithuanian guard to go to his parents’ house and ask his father to come. The father came, saw what was going on, and went to [the Shaulist?] HQ. He spoke to a Lithuanian who said he’d speak to the German command. But the Germans refused and wouldn’t release anyone.
• Another episode representing the situation: Leonardas’s father and some neighbours went to the Lithuanians [the Shaulists?] and asked them to release their doctor. Again, the Germans refused.
• Another episode: Immediately after the Germans invaded, there were five days of calm. On the sixth day, the Russians attacked, and there were battles with the Nazis. On the first day of battles, a Jewish neighbour came with a suitcase and asked Leonardas’s mother to hide it. But they knew that helping Jews was a crime and were afraid of being reported, so they refused.
• Were the local Lithuanians antisemitic? No – they were scared and wanted only to survive. Christian Lithuanians worried: why had the Jews been arrested? They complained to the authorities and were lied to. Local collaborators told them the arrests were temporary and everything would be OK. Leonardas said it was Germans, not Lithuanians, who did the shooting.

Personally, I’m not sure how to interpret much of what Leonardas had to say. Aside from editing my notes to make them more readable, I’ve decided to just leave them without comment.

Towards the end of our interview, I showed Leonardas a photo of my dad, taken in Shkud when he was a young man. Leonardas recognized his face: “I have seen him.” That was the first time I was ever able to really feel, not just know intellectually, that my dad had been a Shkudder, and that a part of me, too, belonged in Shkud.

On our way out of the museum, I passed a display case, glanced down, and was surprised and touched to see photos of my family I’d sent Joana after our last visit. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By the time we finished our visit it was lunchtime, and I had the rather strange experience of having a meal in my dad’s hometown. We ate in a restaurant with a view of the main square, which used to be the New Town marketplace. On one side of the square still stands the church tower, rebuilt after the war.

During lunch, we discussed the topic of the monuments to the murdered Shkudders. Vilius told us that after the reburial of the bones in the 1963, a monument to “Soviet citizens” – typically, not specifically mentioning Jews – was erected. Around 1986, after perestroika, the wording on the monument was changed to reflect that fact that most of those killed were Jews.

After lunch, we went to the second interview Vilius had set up for us: with Viktoras and his wife Magdalena, both 85 years old. From this couple we were able to get more information about the Mines family.

• Three years ago, they told us, a man named Mines came from Israel. He was the son of the Mines family they knew, and had come to see the place where his parents lived. His parents were survivors; he was about 65.
• Viktoras and Magdalena said they knew the Mines family well – at least, they knew my father’s uncle and cousins. When I showed them this picture of my father as a boy and his relatives, they recognized the seated man as Michael, who operated a shoe shore and factory with his father Yosef. But they didn’t know my father, his siblings, or parents. Nor did they remember the Eisen family.
• Michael Mines lived next to the church, and his shoe store and workshop were on the same premises. There were six or seven workers in the house next to the church, and in the courtyard was a separate building containing the factory.
• Magdalena was “the shop’s best customer.” In 1935, she lived in the house across the street. Her family would trade milk (they had a farm with cows) for shoes. When she was 10, she had a pair of green shoes bought from the Mines shop. She was proud of them; she was the only one among her friends and classmates who had green shoes.
• All the shoes were custom-made. Workers measured customers’ feet and made shoes to fit. They cost 15 litas a pair; for comparison, Viktoras’s dad earned 150 litas per month.
• The Mines family were living in Skuodas when the Nazis attacked. After the war, when the Soviets took over, the shoe factory was nationalized.
• Relationships with Jews were good. Viktoras went to the gymnasium (high school) and shared a desk with Isaac Cohen’s son.
• Jews lived all over Skuodas; they were not confined in their own areas; they were well-integrated with Lithuanians.
• Viktoras and Magdalena both remember their Jewish friends sharing matzos with them.
• Skuodas Jews were religious. There were two synagogues, one in the old town, and one in the new town, on Basaniviciaus St. Viktoras was a Shabbes goy! – he lit candles for Jews on Friday night.
• In the Old Town was a marketplace used for animals: cows and so on. On the other half of the square, Jewish and Christian kids played football together in friendly rivalry.
• Before WWII, football was very popular. The Skuodas big team, “Sherunas” had the best players, including two Jews, who were the goalkeeper and defender.
• During the Holocaust, everybody lost good neighbours and friends. Of the collaborators, some escaped abroad; others were arrested by the Soviets and sent to Siberia.
• The Old synagogue was converted to a basketball hall during Soviet times.
• The New synagogue was made of bricks. It was demolished by the Soviets to make roads.
• At the end of WWII, when the Soviets took over, all the wooden houses were torn down for wood. It was a cold winter. Church pews, etc. were burned by Soviet soldiers for heat.

After the interview, Viktoras took us on a tour of the formerly Jewish area of Skuodas, where he and his wife now live.

• We went first to the corner of J. Basanaviciaus and Birtutis steets where the New Shul had been.

 

 

 

 

 

 

• On these streets were also Jewish shops (Fogelman’s hardware store, the taxi company, the newspaper kiosk). On this corner, near the newspaper kiosk, Viktoras explained, the synagogue crier used to call “In shul arein” on Friday evenings. (Viktoras recalled and repeated the words in Yiddish.)
• On Gedimino Street, the former beginning of Laisves Street, is the Catholic Church next to which Michael Mines and his father Yosef had their home, store, and workshop. A three-storey apartment now occupies the site. 

• The areas behind the apartment building, now a parking lot, was where the shoe workshop was.

 

 

 

 

• We also stopped by the house of David Davidas, which is on Basanaviciaus Street near the place where the New synagogue stood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking our leave of Vikoras and Magdalena, we left Skuodas and drove south maybe 15-20 minutes on a level highway through pine forests and farmland – a beautiful, peaceful drive down which the women and children of Skuodas were forced in mid-July, 1941, on a two-day march to the concentration camp of Dimitravas.

On arrival at Dimitravas, a signpost guided us to a monument to those who were murdered. The monument reads, “These people died not understanding that their innocence was their guilt.” Someone seems to have tried to deface it. Someone also has left flowers. 

 

After all these emotional ups and downs, we were in need of a break, so shortly after setting off on our four-hour drive back to Vilnius, we stopped off at this restaurant for a coffee and a plate of pickled herring.

I’m still musing over the wooden sculptures in the restaurant garden. Authentic Lithuanian folk art? Or Disney’s Seven Dwarves? 

Second trip to Skuodas, summer 2008

I knew I had to be better prepared for my second trip to Skuodas than I was for my first, but I had no idea how to go about it. Planning accommodations and Jewish history tours in the other family hometowns I wanted to visit, Riga, Liepaja, and Kaunas, was easy, as I have a cousin in Latvia who speaks English and is well-connected with the local Jewish community, and the hotels in the larger centres have informative websites and online booking. Skuodas was a different matter. In the year since my first visit in 2007, I’d managed to find some general information about the town online, but still had no “in.” Emails I sent to the city administration were not answered, probably due to the language barrier.

One of my Google searches turned up an online English-language resume of a former Skuodas resident. I emailed her, and she kindly put me in touch with an English-speaking friend of hers who lived in another town but visited her parents in Skuodas regularly. Skaidre, the friend, was more than willing to help. She set up an appointment with me to meet one of the coordinators of the Skuodas Museum, Joana Sleiniene, and a retired teacher and translator, Roma Zemaitiene.

So, on a hot July morning, my travelling companion and I left Liepaja in our rented car, and – avoiding the back roads this time – arrived at the Skuodas Museum to find Joana, a tall, solid-looking woman a few years older than I, and Roma, smaller and grey-haired, waiting for us.

After warm greetings – they really did seem delighted to see us – we were invited into Joana’s office, where we were given coffee – boiling water poured into cups over ground beans. (There is a certain knack to drinking this coffee, which I don’t have, and I spent the next fifteen minutes furtively scraping bits from between my teeth.)

Joana showed me a photocopy of a 1939 Skuodas phonebook which stated that a certain M. Mines once operated a shoemaking business, Konkurencia, at 2 Laisves Street. My father, Sender Mines, had also been a shoemaker – “the uppers, not the soles” – he was adamant about that – and so this M. Mines was almost certainly a relation. (Later I found out he was my father’s cousin Michal Mines, who operated the workshop and store with his father Yosel.)

Then we set off for the tour Joana had planned for us. Just outside the museum, we stopped for a photo op. “Make us famous,” Roma joked, and I promised I’d try. 

Still on the museum’s doorstep, Joana pointed out a modest, blue-painted house across the street.

This was one of the few remaining Jewish houses on Laisves Street, once home to a largely Jewish population.

A few minutes’ drive away, we pulled up at another surviving Jewish house, this one belonging to the Mayer family.

[I thought at the time it was my grandfather Mayer Mines’s house, and was tremendously excited until I realized my mistake.] This is one of the only Jewish houses in the area to have survived the town centre’s destruction in WWII, and it is still in use. The well from which the Mayer family drew water is still in the courtyard.

Then we drove to the monuments. First, the Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed by the Soviets after World War II, the tombstones carted away for various building projects. All that remains is a flat cement base, shaped like a Star of David, into which have been set a few largish upright chunks, fragments of tombstones still bearing their Hebrew lettering. I had brought a few pebbles from home, and I placed one on the monument, picking up a few pebbles to put on my father’s grave at home. Aside from the missing tombstones, the cemetery is well-tended: grass cut, litter-free, peaceful. A tall standing stone by the entrance identifies the place in Yiddish letters.

A stork nests in a tall tree overlooking the empty field.

Next we drove to Kulai I, the site of the Nazi massacre of most of the Jewish men of Shkud, an abandoned gravel quarry a few miles out of town. [At the time, I didn’t know about Alka Hill, where most of the women and children were murdered, which I plan to visit next time I’m in Skuodas.] Now, the former murder site is a peaceful place in the sun, guarded with trees, freckled with Queen Anne’s Lace and other wildflowers, overlooking a small blue lake with black and white cattle grazing nearby.

The monument lies at the end of the road. It features a large rock with a flat, polished face, set upright on a concrete base. The rock has been split in two, like the tablets of the Ten Commandments, its two halves joined by a Star of David fashioned of thin metal strips. On each tablet is an inscription, one in Lithuanian, one in Yiddish, honouring the 800 Jewish citizens of Shkud, some of whom were my relatives, who were killed by gunfire at that place. “The wound,” it reads, “will never be healed.” (“The words are quite, quite true,” Roma added.) The site is surrounded by a low metal fence inset with yellow-painted Stars of David. I hesitated for a few moments to step over the fence and approach the monument, but then I reasoned it’s my own people’s place. I stepped over the fence. I placed a few pebbles from home at the base of the monument. I took a few away with me, for my father’s grave.

Then Joana, through Roma, told us a story. She was, she said, in the 8th form. It was 1963. There was a ceremony organized by the municipality. All the bodies from Kulai were put into coffins and brought into town. There was a procession with flowers at the head, then the coffins carried by the people of Skuodas, then some more of the people of Skuodas on foot. Schoolchildren sang songs. Some of them had even learned some Jewish songs and poems. In those days several Jews still lived in Skuodas, and other Jews, relatives and other people, had been invited, and they also participated in the procession. They brought all the bodies into town and buried them there.

“Many non-Jewish Lithuanians helped the Nazis,” Roma added. “We know their names. They were common people. The people who lived in the town hated them. But there were several who helped. They wanted to take over the wealth of the Jews, their property. Any nation has such people. They were not many, but they helped the Nazi armies.”

We drove back to the town, passing on the way the site of the Old Synagogue, now a potato field. 

In the town centre near the museum, behind the tidy rows of houses and their vegetable gardens, at the end of an alleyway of privet hedge, and next to the Shaul Hall, where Jews and other prisoners were held and tortured before execution, lies the final resting place of the Jews who were massacred in Shkud and Kulai.

The monument is a square cube of reddish granite, polished to a high gloss. One corner is set into a flat, circular concrete-and-stone base. It is surrounded by six smaller triangular blocks. I suspect that, viewed from above, the cube and triangles would form a Star of David. In the circular base of the monument are set numerous shards and fragments. Joana said they were the remains of tombstones from the destroyed Jewish cemetery. One side of the granite cube contains lettering. The words are Lithuanian, but the letters, square and blocky, with fat pointed serifs, suggest Hebrew. Roma translated: “To commemorate Skuodas Jews – children, women, and men – and also those of other nationalities who were killed by Nazis and their collaborators in 1941.”  I stood for a long time. A thin grey cat sauntered across the monument’s base. I left a pebble. I took another.

Back in the museum, I felt overcome, bombarded with emotional overload. We had been in Skuodas three hours, and I felt I needed three or four days to digest everything. Joana showed me some cases displaying items manufactured by Skuodas Jews, and I dutifully snapped a few photos, but by that point I was taking in very little. It was only a few hours ago, drafting this blog, that I realized one photo featured postcards made in the printshop belonging to the Davidov family. That is a name I now recognize as one of the prominent families of Shkud.

Before we left, I gave Joana a couple of photos of my father and his family in Shkud for the museum archive. On my next visit, I found them prominently displayed in a case devoted to the history of Jewish Skuodas. But that’s another story.

 

Updates

I knew way back I promised a post on my second visit it Skuodas, but I’ve been too busy with other elements of the page to tackle it.

Hana Brener’s Yizkor book has now been translated, including the names list, and is available on Jewish Gen (see under “Of Interest”). I’m in the process of trying to obtain a copy of the original book (I’ve been working from a photocopy), and when I get it, I will scan its photos to add – and complete – the translation.

I’m working on adapting Brener’s names list for use on Shtetl Shkud so that we can create a “family” page for each family. Over time – months, years – I’d like to work on developing those pages with family trees, photos, and so on.

I’m also arranging for part of the 1948 Yizkor book to be translated into Lithuanian for Shtetl Shkud’s “shadow” Lithuanian site. Again, building that part of the site will take some time.

A few of you have emailed me with family stories, genealogies, photos, etc. Please be patient – I will keep everything and post your info on the site when the “families” sections are set up. There are, by the way, just under 170 surnames on Brener’s list –  a lot of families, and that’s not including families and individuals who left before the Holocaust.

Good news!

I’ve just received permission from the Skuodas Museum to post about 45 pages of archival material, both in Lithuanian and English translation, on Shtetl Shkud. I’m really excited about this, because the information is not available anywhere else. The file contains descriptions of Shkud, memoirs, and interviews with older, non-Jewish Skuodas residents who remember the Shkud of their childhoods. There is also a memoir written by Boris Fogelman, a Jewish Shkudder who was deported by the Soviets just before the German occupation and returned to Lithuania in 1979.

In short, it’s a Yizkor book compiled by Gentiles in memory of their Jewish community, and I think it’s quite a treasure.

I hope to post the archive in English within the next week or so, the Lithuanian originals to follow.

Works in progress

Before I carry on with my visits to Skuodas, I  want to say a few things about working on this site, which has been a very educational and emotional experience.

At the moment, besides the actual nuts-and-bolts of setting up the website and blog, learning the software, and so on, I’ve been working on a number of translation projects which will either appear on this site or be linked to it. I’ve already done some work on the Memorial Book of Skuodas (the 1948 Yizkor book). Upcoming (as soon as I get permission) is a file of material from the Skuodas Museum archive, about 40 pages of memoirs written by the non-Jewish residents of the town, with some other interesting material also.

A second major work in progress is a translation of the 2001 Yizkor book by Hana Shaf-Brener, Testimony on the Murder of the Jews of Shkud, Lithuania. The introduction and accompanying newspaper articles are on Jewish Gen. I’ve recently submitted the completed text to Jewish Gen and hope it will be posted soon.

What I particularly wanted to talk about today is the 55-page list of names that takes up the second half of Brener’s Yizkor book. This is, of course, the list of names of the Jewish residents of Shkud who were murdered in July and August 1941. The list is in Hebrew, and I’ve been working with a translator to put the information into English and edit it for accuracy, spelling of the transliterated names, and so on. The list will go up on Jewish Gen (with a link on this site) when it’s done, though it may take a month or two, because it’s a sloooow process.

Why is the process slow? Well, the sad answer is because there are so many names on the list – about 1200, representing about ½ of Shkud’s prewar Jewish community. Where are the rest? Aside from the few survivors, whose names of course don’t appear, I can only suppose they have been forgotten: lost from the memories of the people who composed the lists and unrecorded in archives. The list itself often carries, beside an individual’s name, the words “and family” or “there were children” – people no longer remembered. And the sad fact is, as I have been working with the list, few names of small children and babies appear, and I can only suspect they, too, have been forgotten.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to Brener and her fellow compilers – quite the opposite, in fact. I can’t imagine the work and difficulty that went into putting together and organizing the names list. It is a tremendous, important, accomplishment, and I’m grateful for it – and I think other Shkud descendants will be, too, when it’s translated and posted (soon, I hope!). It’s sad, though, that the list can never be complete, that so many of our relatives are lost forever, even in memory.

Brener’s names list is organized by family, with husband, wife, and children grouped together. Parents’ names are given (when known), as well as professions, age at death, and place of death. So the list is invaluable in terms of genealogy. My father never spoke about his family, and it’s only through Brener’s list that I learned (and/or confirmed) the names of some of his uncles, aunts, and cousins. I’ve also discovered the surnames of some of the women who married into our family, and a network of associations between families is starting to form in my mind. Of course it’s not the same as having actual, living relatives, but at least I’m developing a sense of what has been lost, and I’m coming more and more to believe that knowing what you’ve lost is better than a blank nothingness.

Besides the odd flash of excitement that comes from recognizing a name or a relationship, though, a lot of what I experience in the hour-by-hour process of translating and transcribing is boredom. Despite the fact that I want to honour the dead by attending carefully to the few scraps of information that are left, time after time I find my mind drifting. It’s scary, and humbling, to think that’s what a life is ultimately reduced to: a horrible, meaningless death, and then, years later, a few words on a page. And there are so many names … murdered en masse, and now barely, if at all, remembered. It makes me sad.

Still, I hope we can rescue some good from the ashes, and I guess that’s what this project is all about. For example, last night I discovered this: Avraham Natanson was an electrician. He was 32 years old, married, with three young children, a son and two daughters. Not only that, but Avraham’s wife, Sarah, a Galgo, was probably the sister of Braina Galgo, who married my father’s cousin Michal, who operated the shoe factory and store that my father, a shoemaker, may have worked in. Yesterday morning, I knew nothing about Avraham; now I can at least imagine him. My picture will be wrong, but it will be something.

Another thing. Using Brener’s list, I’ve been able to confirm – well, probably – that a person I have been emailing for a while, whose mother left Shkud before the war started and thus survived, is my second cousin. So, thanks to Hana Brener and all those who have worked to compile names lists for Shkud and all the other Jewish communities destroyed in the war, some of us can start to rebuild our lost and scattered families.

Now, THAT is something.

 

Welcome to Shtetl Shkud blog

Welcome to the Shtetl Shkud blog. My plan is to use this blog to share our stories, memories, and thoughts about Shkud, our families in Shkud, and present-day Lithuania and Skuodas.

My relationship with Shkud began when I was a kid, when I first saw my dad’s Yizkor book, and in it, a photo of him as a young man with his football team.

My dad, Sender - back row, left

To me, at the time, the book was like a puzzle with no entranceway: a language I couldn’t read, black-and-white photos of people I couldn’t identify, and a town “behind the Iron Curtain” no one could get to. My parents, both survivors (my mom, a Canadian citizen by birth, grew up in Liepaja, Latvia – but that’s another story) told me that all Jewish documents and records had been destroyed in the Holocaust, and that, as I thought, was that.

Fast forward … my dad died in 1982. Lithuanian independence and the Internet arrived about a decade later, but it wasn’t until 2007 that my brother and I had the brilliant idea to find our “roots” in Eastern Europe. Our mom’s hometown, Liepaja, Latvia, was our main port of call, since my mom still had a cousin there, and also, we’d been able to discover quite a bit about Liepaja online. But very little information about Skuodas was available to us – we were thrilled just to be able to find it on a map, a half-hour drive from Liepaja, just across the Latvia-Lithuania border.

Our first attempt, a “shortcut” across farmland on secondary roads, proved unsuccessful. After a brief encounter with a couple of Latvian backwoodsmen, neither of whom could interpret our English, our handwaving or, apparently, our map, we found ourselves on an ever-narrowing lane which eventually devolved to a rutted track through the underbrush, then ended in a swamp.

Their six words of English: "This is my brother! He's crazy!"

Back in Liepaja, we recovered over drinks in our hotel and tried again. This time, we got it right, and after a 10-minute wait at the then-manned border station just north of Skuodas where our passports were checked (paranoically, I half-expected a Lithuanian version of “Jews! Out of the car!” but of course nothing happened), we were in Skuodas.

We had no idea what to expect. For all my online research, I’d found very little information, and some of that obviously wrong (“Its territory covers 911 square meters.”). The night before, raking over our memories of the bits and pieces our parents had told us about the place, I’d observed to my brother, “no matter what we expect, for sure it’ll be completely different,” and it was.

For one thing, my mom used to tease my dad about Skuodas’s wooden sidewalks.

Look, Ma! No wood!

For another, she used to tease him about the goats eating the thatched roofs.

No thatch! No goats!

 

 

What we did find was a quiet town of tree-lined streets, modestly prosperous-looking houses and public buildings, a surprisingly modern town centre that could have been anywhere in North America (“with a bank machine! and a supermarket!” we marvelled), and a populace enthusiastically attending that evening’s pop concert in a beautiful wooded riverside park.

Pop concert

I guess what really struck us was how ordinary the place was, and the gap of decades and cultures between the Skuodas of today and that of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation. We drove around for a while, trying to feel a connection, to put ourselves and our father into the place, and then we went back to Liepaja.

The next summer, I returned to Skuodas. In the meantime, I’d managed to find out a little more about the town and its history, though there still wasn’t much information available. Even better, I’d made online contact with a resident who very kindly arranged for me to meet Joana Sleiniene, a director of the Skuodas Museum. So, on a hot morning in July, 2008, Gene (my travelling companion) and I left Liepaja and headed to our appointment in Skuodas.

To be continued!