I spent part of last summer and fall planning a return visit to Skuodas for Holocaust Memorial Day on September 23, from which I’ve recently returned.
It was an interesting visit – full of the usual highs and lows (sometimes both at the same moment) that I’ve come to expect when visiting a town so rich with family and community history, in which that history ended in horrifying violence and tragedy.
But my main purpose on this visit was to connect with present-day residents of Skuodas, specifically to speak to students about the Jewish people and history of their town.
Sunday, Sept 20
I arrived in Skuodas after a seven-hour long bus trip from Vilnius, where I’d arrived only the previous day. (As an aside for anyone planning to travel across Lithuania by bus: there are no onboard toilets, and stops at stations – few and far between – are VERY short!) The Lithuanian countryside is truly beautiful, epecially in the early morning with the mist lying over the fields and waterways.
I arrived in the early afternoon, checked into my hotel (conveniently across from the bus station), and went for a walk. Passing by the memorial in the centre of town and the Shaul (Riflemen’s) Hall, where Jews were imprisoned in late June and early July, 1941, before being shot in the nearby fields, I was startled to hear the happy shouts of young voices from within. It turns out the hall is still in use as a sports club, and I wondered how any parent could stand to send their children off to play in a site of such atrocities. It occurred to me that I could go inside for a look at the place, but I felt too spooked.
Back in my hotel room – I was too tired and jetlagged to walk far – my young friend Živilė called. She’s now 18, in her last year of gymnasium (high school), and has recently gotten her driver’s licence and a car. She happily told me she’d drive me everywhere and would help me with anything I wanted. Then she invited me to church that evening – she sings in the choir – and to her home afterwards for the basketball finals on TV.
Around 6:00 that evening, I found myself in the Catholic church, next door to the place where my father’s uncle and cousin operated their shoe factory and shop (the house no longer exists and an apartment building stands in its place). I’m sure I’m the only member of my family to have seen the interior of that building. I knew my father would hate it – as a kid, I wasn’t even allowed to join the Girl Guides because the meetings were held in the church basement – but Živilė’s invitation to join in something important to her was too kind to turn down. Also, I felt myself something of an ambassador, and didn’t want to be seen by locals as unwilling to meet them on their own ground. So I observed the ceremony, of which I understood not one word, but it seemed relaxed and informal – the small, youthful choir, 5 or 6 kids and their teacher, sang rather folksy-sounding songs with Živilė’s guitar accompaniment, and the kids took part in the bible readings. Observing the pictures and paintings of Jesus, it occurred to me that he and I were the only two Jews in the whole town, and, watching the ceremony with the bread and the wine, I realized it originated in the Passover seder (only seders are more fun). Obviously the Christian and Jewish religions have little to do with each other as they’re practiced today, by most people, anyway, but it was interesting to reflect on their historical connections.
Afterwards, I went to Živilė’s home for snacks and the basketball game (Lithuania lost to Sweden). Živilė’s mom, Nijolė, not knowing if I kept kosher, thoughtfully made vegetarian snacks in my honour. Jetlagged, I dozed off on the comfiest couch in the world.
Monday, Sept 21
I woke in my hotel room to heavy rainfall, and thought it would be a good day to stay indoors and reread my information on the history of Shkud and the massacres. Although I’ve read it all before, quite closely, and either translated or edited much of it, it was pretty depressing – awful, really – to read about those terrible events in the place where they happened, having just walked in those places yesterday. Now I realize that “between the gymnasium and the Shaul hall,” where huge numbers of people were killed, is the area between the museum (the former gymnasium) and the present-day monument in the town centre. Yesterday I walked “behind the hall, toward the river,” where people were taken to be shot; there’s a little path from the back entrance of the Shaul hall that leads to, and presumably along, the river. “Under the bridge,” where more people were murdered, must be the bridge over the river between the church and the museum. There’s a small swimming beach there now, and swans on the pond where the river widens.
Later that afternoon, Živilė picked me up and we went to the museum. I had a pragmatic goal, to test my Powerpoint presentation for my upcoming talk and to get some help translating the captions into Lithuanian. Živilė and Joana, who works at the museum and whom I know from previous visits, helped me with that.
The museum display on Jewish themes has been expanded. In addition to the display cases I’ve seen before, with a few historical photos and a few present-day photos donated by descendants (my family and the Bernstein family in particular),
there were also a couple of display cases with artwork by schoolkids commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.
Tuesday, Sept 22
Before I’d left for Skuodas, I’d emailed Joana to ask her to arrange for me to visit Alka Hill, where the women and children of Shkud were murdered in August 1941. I knew there was a memorial there, but I had no idea where the place was or how to get there. Today was the day arranged for our visit.
When I arrived at the museum parking lot, I found an SUV with a city logo on it. I wondered why we needed such a large car (I found out shortly thereafter). There were a driver and a young woman along, both municipal employees. Joana came along too, and also Živilė, whose history teacher had given her permission to take time off school for the trip.
I wrote down the route as we went along so I’ll be able to find the place again, not that I’ll return, necessarily, but I’d like to know where it is. No wonder I couldn’t find it last summer; I don’t think it’s on any maps. A few kilometres before you get to the mass murder site, the paved road turns into gravel, then dirt, and quickly degenerates from there, till it’s basically a dirty, muddy, rocky track through the forest, trees right up to it on either side. Hence the SUV – you couldn’t do it in a small car. And the roads weren’t signposted, either, until at one fork, just before you get to the memorial, there’s a small indicator.
The whole time, I was thinking of the women, carrying small children and babies, stumbling over the rocks and roots on the trail, guarded by armed men and no doubt knowing what awaited them ahead.
We got to the memorial site. There is a stone marker near the mass grave and another at the top of the hill, which is accessible via a cement staircase set into the side of the hill. You can see the photos and read more about the memorial and the horrific events of that August here. I’d brought some flowers, which Živilė and I laid on the markers. Somebody had visited before us and left candles; I don’t know who. Visiting Jews? Christians living in the nearby town of Dimitravas?
On the way back, we stopped in the town of Dimitravas, where the women and kids from Shkud had been held in a concentration camp, apparently a former barracks which was later used for political prisoners. Despite its tragic past, the camp is now a strangely beautiful, peaceful ruin. It’s set into a rural community; there are houses almost on its doorstep, and cattle tethered nearby, including this inquisitive calf.
That evening, back in Skuodas, Živilė and her parents invited me along to a Baltic hilltop party – an ancient tradition dating back about 15 years, commemorating a Lithuanian battle victory in (I think) 1259. People gather on their local hilltop fort (of which the country has many, though any ancient structures are long since gone), light bonfires, eat, and drink. I suppose the tenor of the event is different everywhere you go, but in this particular place, it was a family event, with 20-30 adults and kids, a huge cauldron of soup over a portable stove, various potluck goodies, a flask or two of homemade brandy, and a bonfire. There was a quiz game with prizes (of which I understood not a word), and then people talked and ate and drank until the bonfire died down.
Then we went back to Živilė’s and had a perfectly normal, non-Holocaust-related chat about dogs, cats, local wildlife, and edible wild plants. Her beautiful white cat decided she liked me and spent the whole time lying beside me on the couch, begging for pats, with the result that my one black sweater got totally covered with very visible cat hair. I felt right at home.
Wednesday, Sept 23: Holocaust Memorial Day in Lithuania
I was pretty nervous that morning, as per usual before a presentation, maybe a bit more this time as I really didn’t know what to expect. I got to the memorial just before noon. After a few minutes, the schoolkids started appearing along the paths, through the trees, in little groups, some of them holding yellow paper stars. Some older folks also started coming in, one guy in a military uniform, which made me a bit suspicious at first, then a few others who turned out to be town dignitaries (more on that in a minute). After most of the attendees gathered around, I was introduced (in Lithuanian, so I can only guess what was said), and then Zivile opened the proceedings with a song. The students with the stars gave a sort of recitation. Zivile gave a summary translation – they spoke first about the Skuodas Jewish community from the Lithuanian point of view, then switched and spoke as if they themselves were Jewish. Then they recited a short list of names. Apparently this ceremony has been going on all over Lithuania in recent years; it’s called Vardai, remembering Jewish names. After that, students placed rocks on the ground at the base of the memorial, on which they’d written names and drawn stars of David.
Then it was the speakers’ turn. The first man who spoke was the older man in the uniform, the one who looked a bit dodgy to me, and I wondered if I was about to have my first encounter with Lithuanian antisemitism. But not at all. He started speaking in a very emotional, tearful way. Zivile told me he was talking about his best childhood friend, a Jewish boy, who may have been hidden in or escaped to a nearby village. He was appealing to anyone who knew where his friend was. He was hoping to find him again, after all these years.
Then it was my turn. I spoke in English, which I was told the kids, who’d been studying the language in school for years, would understand – and I hope they did! I talked briefly about my father’s family’s fate at the hands of Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators. Then I segued into it being Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday for remembering the past and resolving to do better in the future, tying in the idea with both community and personal wrongs. I explained that Yom Kippur is also a day for remembering the dead, and ended up by reading them an English translation of the Yom Kippur prayer, which Leonard Cohen rewrote as his song “Who By Fire.”
Then we went into the museum for my “official” lecture and Powerpoint presentation. The audience comprised 75-80 schoolkids with a sprinkling of adults.
I focussed my talk on the prewar Jewish community, not so much on the horrific details of what happened. I wanted the audience to get a personalized picture of their former neighbours. I showed a lot of slides of families and individuals, with a few details on each, including one girl, Esther Zelikovich, who was rescued and hidden by a local Skuodas family. I ended up by linking the fate of European Jews, so many of whom were stuck in Europe without the possibility to emigrate, to the fate of Syrian refugees today, and hinted that we must use our knowledge of history to reach out to others who are in trouble today.
In the Mayor’s office afterwards, I was introduced to Pranas Vaskys, the city manager, who’d been present at the memorial and my lecture, and, in fact, has asked a question afterwards. I was introduced to an artist whose name I didn’t catch. And then we launched immediately into a discussion about various ways Skuodas can commemorate its Jewish past, and everyone wanted my opinion.
The artist wanted to do a names project: local Jewish family names making up an installation to be placed in a public venue – details to be decided, presumably. When asked what I recommended as a second project, I suggested finding the tombstones that the Soviets had removed from the cemetery and replacing them. Mr. Vaskys remembered the tombstones from his youth, before they were stolen, and was enthusiastic about the possiblility. He was also interested in finding out what had happened to his father’s childhood Jewish friend, Michel Fogelman, and I showed him the Fogelman page on this site.
Mayor Pušinskas wanted to know what else I’d like the town to do. I suggested putting a plaque on the Shaul Hall, where Jews were held prisoner and atrocities and murders took place. He seemed open to the idea of a plaque, and, in fact, all the ideas that were discussed.
As we were leaving, Pranas Vaskys rather embarrassedly admitted to me he’d never met a Jewish person before. “See, and I’m perfectly normal!” I said, and he just laughed and shook my hand in a very warm way.
All in all, it was a rewarding visit: personally rewarding for me, because I feel that I’m starting to rebuild a bridge to my personal and family past: a connection that most people, at least where I live, take for granted, but one that I, like many children of Holocaust survivors, never had until recently. I’m also excited to be part of an ongoing memorialization project, one that affirms the educational value of history, no matter how tragic, and that attempts to honour, in a small way, our friends and families of Shkud.