All posts by Rachel

Holocaust Memorials in and Around Skuodas: History and Locations

One cemetery memorial and three Holocaust memorials are dedicated to the murdered Jews of Skuodas. It’s important to note that some non-Jewish Lithuanians, mostly those accused (rightly or wrongly) of being Communists, were also killed and buried in the places marked by the memorials.

Following is a description of each of the four memorials, its history, and its location.

1) Cemetery memorials


At the entrance to the cemetery stands this monument, with an inscription in Yiddish and Lithuanian, reading “The Old Jewish Cemetery. Sacred is the memory of the dead.” A few surviving tombstone fragments are set into a cement base inside the cemetery grounds, which are presently maintained in good condition by the municipality.


The Jewish cemetery was destroyed during Soviet times and the tombstones used as building materials. The following description is excerpted from “Jews in the Memory of Skuodas People” (see link to the right on this page):

“Hitlerism and fascism destroyed the Jews physically. This work, the destruction of what remained, was continued by Stalinism and communism. Purposefully, the synagogues were destroyed, the cemeteries were torn apart, [and] historical memory was suppressed … The Stalinists planned to build a new marketplace in the Jewish cemetery in the old town. But somewhere, there was a Jew of Skuodas who appealed to Moscow to prevent this vandalism. A market place was not built in the cemetery, but neither was it left in peace. … Broken stones, with their Hebrew inscriptions turned inward, were set into foundations and decorative walls. One such high wall separates the town’s cultural centre from the dwelling house on Gedimino Street, no. 3. There is no doubt that the Jewish tombstones, broken into three or more pieces, are set there; they can be clearly seen. I heard a story that the walls built from tombstones were set by workers with the help of a student building party, which included one Jewish girl. While helping, she read the inscriptions on stones set into the wall, and cried” (“Jews in the Memory” 16-17).

The cemetery is the final resting place of generations of Skuodas Jews. It is also a murder site. The murders were carried out in July 1941, about two weeks after the Nazi occupation, by the Skuodas “Riflemen” militia, under the leadership of Kostas Vasaris. According to Arunas Bubnys, “around 10 July, members of K. Vasaris’ company brought about 20 Jewish men from the riflemen hall [where they had been held prisoner since the outbreak of war] to the Jewish cemetery and executed them in the pits turned up by aviation bombs.”

Date: According to “Jews in the Memory of Skuodas People,” the entrance monument dates from 1992 (18); the tombstone memorial was presumably built around the same time.

Location: The cemetery entrance is at the corner of S. Neries and Berzu streets, about halfway between the town centre and the railway tracks to the west.

2) Town centre memorial (next to Shaul “Riflemen’s” Hall)


Among those buried here are women and children killed on the way to Alka Hill, near Dimitravas (see below). In 1963, eight of the twelve mass graves between Skuodas and Dimitravas (four were never found) were exhumed and the bones returned for honourable burial in Skuodas. According to Hana Shaf-Brener’s “Testimony on the Murder of the Jews of Shkud, Lithuania,” “Everyone from the graves (not including the graves on Alka Hill) was brought to Shkud to be buried in two mass graves to the left of the Shaul Hall, on June 13 1963, in a stately ceremony. There were 30 coffins on 15 trucks with a guard of honour, with many (about 100) flower bouquets, in a long procession. There was much respect and many speeches” (15).  Presumably hundreds of other Jews and non-Jews killed in the early days of the Nazi occupation, either in the fighting between the German army and the retreating Soviets, or by mass murder, are also buried here.

The following description is from “Jews in the Memory of Skuodas People” (link on this page): “Another Jewish genocide site is in Skuodas, in the western part of the town park, not far from the Skuodas Museum and the Riflemen’s Hall. Here stands a sculptural composition made of red granite. In the centre of the composition is a cube made of red granite, standing on one corner. There are inscriptions on two sides of the cube in the Lithuanian and Jewish [Yiddish] languages: ‘In memory of Jews – children, women, and men – as well as Lithuanians and people of other nationalities from Skuodas, who were killed by Nazi invaders and their helpers in 1941.’”

Date: The monument dates from 1963, but the present-day inscription dates from the 1990s. According to “Jews in the Memory of Skuodas People,” the original inscription, in Lithuanian and Russian, indicated that around 3000 Soviet citizens had been murdered and buried there. The surface of the panel was filed down and the inscription was replaced in the 1990s (“Jews in the Memory”18 ).

Location: The memorial is located near the town centre, on the west side of the Bartuva river. Starting from Gedimino street and heading west, cross the bridge and continue west on Laisves street about 100 metres until you reach Sauliu street. Turn left onto Sauliu. You’ll pass the newspaper building, Musu Zodis, and the Skuodas Museum to your left. The monument is just past the museum, at the corner of Sauliu and J. Chodkeviciaus streets. The long building next to the monument is the Riflemen’s Hall, where people were imprisoned and tortured before being shot. The building is currently in use as a sports hall.3 Shaul Hall


3) Kulai

Memorial at Kulai

This monument stands near the villiage of Kulai I, south of Skuodas. The inscription reads, “In this place, helpers of Hitlerists murdered about 800 Jewish residents of Skuodas town and region in July, 1941. Here is a bleeding wound on the land of Lithuania.” Apparently, most of the victims were men; women and children were force-marched out of Skuodas and at the end of July, 1941, and were killed and buried at Alka Hill, near Dimitravas (see below).

Date: The Kulai monument was designed by the Skuodas architect Raimundas Sebeckis and inaugurated in 1991 (“Jews in the Memory of Skuodas People”; see link on this page, 17).

Location: Starting in the centre of town on Basanaviciaus street, which becomes Vytauto street (Highway 169), drive south out of town about 1 kilometre. At the south edge of town, Highway 169 intersects the Kretinga highway, which is signposted. Turn right (west) in the direction of Kulai. After 3-4 kilometres you’ll come to a bridge crossing the Bartuva River. Cross the river. The monument is on the west bank of the river. There is a small car park and a short gravel path leading to the monument.

4) Alka Hill

Alka Hill

Dr. Arunas Bubnys, in his article “Holocaust in Lithuanian Province in 1941,” describes the horrifying murders of 510 women and children from Skuodas at Alka Hill, near the village of Dimitravas. At the end of July 1941, the Jewish women and children of Skuodas, who had been imprisoned in the synagogue, were convoyed in a two-day forced march to Dimitravas Camp, 41 kilometres distant. The march took two days. Those who could not keep up were shot and left at the side of the road. In Dimitravas, survivors were imprisoned in two empty barracks (now a memorial site).

Concentration Camp, Dimitravas

On August 15, auxiliary policemen from Skuodas came to the camp. Leaving the younger women behind, they took the women with children to large pits that had already been dug up at the foot of Alka Hill, 1.5 kilometres from the camp. There, in groups of about 20, the victims were forced into the pits and shot. About 20 participants from the Skuodas squad carried out the killings. “In December 1944, the commission investigating the place of killings on Alka hill recovered four graves. The commission found 510 bodies of killed persons (31 children, 94 teenagers and 385 women). No gunshot wounds were found in the bodies of the children. They were all buried alive” (Bubnys, “Holocaust”).

The article “No one Is Forgotten”, another article by Miniotas and Laurinaitis (at previous link) and Hana Shaf-Brenner’s book, pp. 11-16, provide more information on the killings at Alka Hill.

Location: The mass graves, at the foot of Alka Hill, are about 1 kilometre northwest of the village of Dimitravas.

Don’t try getting there in a small car – you’ll need a vehicle that can handle a very rough road. The last kilometre (and believe me, it seems a lot longer)  is a dirt forest track.Alka Hill It’s extremely narrow and bumpy, and no doubt muddy in wet weather.

Take Highway 218 (to Kretinga) southwest out of Skuodas. About 16 kilometres before you hit Kretinga, cross the railroad tracks and enter Darbenai. Drive on the main road (still on 218) through Darbenai. Eight kilometers after you leave Darbenai, still on 218, turn right at the sign to Dimitravas. Enter Dimitravas and drive straight ahead through the town. After the town, the road becomes dirt. Drive over the creek. You’ll come to a three-way fork in the road. Take the right-hand road. It becomes very narrow and bumpy. There is, I think, one more unmarked fork – keep right. After about five minutes, you’ll come to a fork with a small stone marker bearing a star of David indicating there’s a memorial in 450 metres. Alka Hill Take the left-hand fork. You’ll come to a small clearing with a memorial stone (see above, the beginning of this section, for a photo). Beyond this first memorial, there’s a flight of concrete stairs leading up the hill.


Alka Hill

There’s another memorial at the top.Alka Hill The actual graves are at the bottom of the hill.






4) Darbenai.

About 40 teenage girls and young women from Skuodas are probably buried somewhere near Darbenai. According to Arunas Bubnys, “In September 1941, Jewish girls still in Dimitravas (about 40) were taken by the Camp guards to Darbenai Town and placed in the synagogue. In a short while they were also killed.” It is as yet unknown where the girls are buried. For more information on Darbenai and its memorials, see here.

Sixth Skuodas Trip, September 2015: Holocaust Memorial Day

Bus trip to Skuodas

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. Bus trip to Skuodas





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. Riflemen's Hall



 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.  Memorial in town centreYesterday 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),DanBernSkuodaMus

there were also a couple of display cases with artwork by schoolkids commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.

Skuodas Museum Skuodas Museum Skuodas Museum

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. Concentration Camp, Dimitravas

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. Baltic Hilltop party, SkuodasI 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. Baltic Hilltop party, Skuodas (Zivile)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. Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas Holocaust Memorial Day, SkuodasSome 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). Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas 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.

Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas


Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas

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. Holocaust Memorial Day, Skuodas 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.”

After the memorial, a man came up to me, introduced himself to me in good English as Petras Pušinskas, the new Mayor, and invited me to a meeting in his office after my talk. Of couse I accepted.Petras Pusinskas_Mayor





Then we went into the museum for my “official” lecture and Powerpoint presentation. The audience comprised 75-80 schoolkids with a sprinkling of adults.

AudienceI 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,Pranas Vaskys 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.

Then, 10 minutes after I got back to my hotel room, my landlady excitedly knocked on my door: I’m famous! I’m in the newspaper! She excitedly showed me the notice about my talk in the local paper.Announcement of talk

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.

Fifth Skuodas Trip, July 2014

Well, just about everything that could go wrong did. My detailed agenda, weeks in the planning, was blown out of the water – but a few, unexpected events went just right, as you’ll see.

Sophie Davidas

On Thursday, July 10, Sophie Davidas, the great-granddaughter of David Davidov, her friend Simon, and I arrived in Skuodas in our rented car. The GPS that led us around in circles for 10 minutes on our arrival was, as it turns out, an omen of things to come. We arrived at the Skuodas Museum just before the event we’d planned to attend, and were ushered us into a small lecture hall with seating for about 30. I’d been warned that the attendance would be small: in fact, about 28 of those 30 seats were taken up by the speakers, performers, and choir.MusLecHall



The program consisted of a few short lectures, a skit, and the choir’s performance, all in Lithuanian and incomprehensible to us guests, who were entertained nonetheless.

After the event, the performers/audience quickly scattered, and Sophie, Simon, and I, somewhat bemused, left the hall. In the foyer, we found a pleasant surprise: a small display featuring photos and names of a few of Skuodas’s Jewish citizens and descendants of the Mines, Davidov, and Bernstein families.



Outside the museum, Paul, the young filmmaker we had arranged to meet, and his friend Jakobus were waiting. The five of us went to the Vespera restaurant in the town square – aside from the two hotels and a teen pizza hangout, the only restaurant in town – for coffee and a discussion of Paul’s film project on Holocaust memorialization in Lithuania.

Paul and Jakobus
Paul and Jakobus

Sophie, Simon, and I had lots of ideas and advice – maybe too many, because after our coffee, the two young filmmakers bade us a friendly farewell, with promises to meet the next day, and drove off, never to be seen (by us, at least) again.

Unfortunately for me, something had come up for Sophie and Simon, and they had to make last-minute plans to leave Skuodas the next morning, not the day after as originally planned. So we drove to the Jewish cemetery, which they especially wanted to visit, where we had arranged to meet Živilė, a gymnasium (high school) student I’d met the previous year. She was there with her parents, Nijolė and Mindaugas, who had been keen to spend some time with us. Mindaugas drove us to the memorial in the centre of town, where we were touched to find some small stones inscribed with Jewish names, presumably left by students on the Holocaust memorial day the previous SeptemberStonesWNames

We also visited the memorial just south of Skuodas, at the village of Kulai I.Kulai Nijolė, who works at the city hall, told us the memorial’s ironwork was due to be painted; what colour did we recommend? We said repainting the now-rusted yellow was fine.

Then follows a rather turbulent time I don’t remember very well. I hadn’t slept well since arriving in Europe a week earlier; there was a heatwave and a few days ago I’d had heatstroke; I was concerned about our Shabbes dinner plans, which would be thrown off by Sophie and Simon’s early departure; and I hadn’t checked into my hotel in Skuodas yet, leaving me with a rootless, insecure feeling.

Pleased to be hitting it off with Živilė and her parents, though, and still up for a bit of adventure, Sophie, Simon, and I were whisked off to the rock museum in Mosedis, apparently a must-see place for those visiting the Skuodas region. While I initially had my doubts, I must admit it is a stunningly beautiful place: the phrase “rock museum” doesn’t do justice to this botanical nature-garden.








By the time we’d finished exploring, it was past 10:00 and we were hungry. The restaurant in Skuodas was closed. The restaurant in Mosedis was closed. Mindaugas took charge – a former soldier, he’s that kind of guy. We drove an hour to Palanga for dinner, after which Mindaugas saw Sophie and Simon settled into a hotel (they were flying out the next morning, or rather the same morning, as it was now past midnight) and drove me and my baggage – I still hadn’t checked into my hotel! – back to Skuodas, making phone arrangements en route for me to let myself in when we got there. Yes, our ancestral town Skuodas is now firmly established in the digital age!

By the time we got back to Skuodas, around 1:30 am, I was practically catatonic. Živilė and her parents drove me to my hotel, found the key in its hiding place, walked me and my suitcase upstairs, made sure the room was OK, and said goodnight. Despite my exhaustion, I felt very well taken care of….until I unpacked my computer to find a message from my daughter Sarah, who was due to arrive in Skuodas around noon. She’d been delayed in the Frankfurt airport because of bad weather, which meant I’d be on my own all the next day. And thus ended the first day.

In the morning, Živilė phoned me. Would I like to meet the mayor? Yes, I certainly would! She picked me up at the hotel and walked me the short distance to the city hall (according to Živilė, on the site of the former Kontinent shoe factory). We then had an informal, cordial meeting with the mayor, Stasys Vainoras, MayorCardwho, in pretty good English, spoke about present-day relationships between Skuodas citizens and Jews; he’d had Jewish neighbours growing up in Skuodas, and last year, two rabbis, one from Vilnius and the other from Israel, had been in the town visiting the Holocaust memorials. I also briefly met Bronislavas Stasiulis, the city director, who was responsible for organizing the memorials. Mr. Stasiulis doesn’t speak English, but with Živilė translating, I thanked him for his work on our behalf. It was a good meeting, I think, and hopefully will pave the way for future meetings on topics that might be a bit more controversial.

L-R: Stasys Vainoras (Skuodas's Mayor), me, Bronislavas Stasiulis (city director)
L-R: Stasys Vainoras (Skuodas’s Mayor), me, Bronislavas Stasiulis (city director)

After our meeting at city hall, Živilė and I were off to another meeting she had set up for me, this one with an old family friend who remembered the prewar Jewish community.

L-R: Friend, Zivile's family friend, me
L-R: Friend, Zivile’s family friend, me

We visited for about an hour, with Živilė providing a summary translation. I taped the interview and will post the transcription on this site when it’s done.




The celebratory Shabbes dinner planned for that night had sadly dwindled from ten to two people: Živilė and myself. It obviously wasn’t meant to be! Fortunately, Živilė’s parents were free that evening to dine with us, and afterwards they invited me home for coffee and dessert. They live on the edge of town in a spanking-new, super-modern home with geothermal power – who would expect to find such a house in our ancestral town? – and I ponder on the fact that today’s Skuodas, even if the Holocaust had never happened, would be unrecognizable to my father, who was born and raised there.

The next morning I took myself for a walk. Strolling from my hotel towards the town centre, I passed the former cinema, now a youth club;

Cinema/Youth club
Cinema/Youth club





the Catholic church and the site of my family’s shoe factory;

Church & factory site (now apartment building)
Church & factory site (now apartment building)








and crossed the bridge over the Bartuva River where Shkuders used to bathe and present-day Skuodas citizens still do. BartuvaSwimmersIs this the forested place once known as the Vilke Birzhe (“Forest of the Wolf”) described by Leon Bernstein in his memoir?


On the east side of the river, Laisves street begins: the former Lange Gas or “Jewish Street.” I walked the length of Laisves taking pictures of the old, once-Jewish houses, some in sad disrepair and others well-maintained.


By the time I got back to my hotel, my daughter Sarah had arrived, and a few hours later, we continued our tour, with me playing tour guide this time. We retraced my walk of the morning and also visited the Jewish cemetery and Skuodas’s two Holocaust memorials.

Continuing our exploration, we came across Skuodas’s train station, now disused.

Train station 1937
Train station 1937
Train station 2014
Train station 2014







This station was the main transport hub for the town in the interwar years. Here Ber and Ephraim Segal transported passengers by coach and bus between the station and the town centre. My mother’s mother Paula would have walked down these steps TrainStnSteps to marry her second husband in Shkud in 1936, and my father would have walked up them, leaving Shkud to settle in Kaunas around the same time.




There was one last place to visit: the Holocaust monument at Alka Hill, which I have read about in Hana Shaf-Brener’s book and other sources, but never visited. Živilė told us Alka Hill was south of Skuodas, on the outskirts of Salantai. Our GPS, into which we had entered coordinates we found online, gave a different location. We went to both.

Živilė’s Alka Hill turned out to be a suburb. If there is a Holocaust memorial there, it was not to be found, at least by us. The coordinates took us to a different Alka Hill,

The wrong Alka Hill
The wrong Alka Hill

which at first looked promising, but turned out to have a church and crosses on top and a cowfield below – again, not what we were looking for. It turns out that “Alka Hill” (“Alkos Kalnas” in Lithuanian) means “Sacred Hill” and there are a number of them. But I’ll keep looking, and report on any positive results. If you have any idea where the Alka Hill Holocaust memorial is, please let me know!

That wraps up this year’s visit to Skuodas. My next visit, if things work out, will be to address students and other local residents on Holocaust Memorial Day, September 23, 2015. We’ll see what the future brings.

Witness Interviews and a Shkud Memoir

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has on its website a number of oral history interviews, five focussing on the mass murders in Shkud. But given that the interviews are in Lithuanian, and the USHMM has translated and transcribed only one into English, their contents have been pretty well unavailable until now.

My colleague Indre Joffyte at the University of Vilnius has now translated and transcribed two more interviews, and you can read the three English transcriptions and view the videos here. I’ve asked Indre to translate the remaining two interviews, which will be posted on this site when they’re done.

On a slightly more cheerful note, I’ve recently translated Leon Bernstein’s short memoir, “My Little Town Shkud” from Yiddish, and you can read it here.

Before I go…

It’s just a couple of days before I leave for six weeks in Europe, a family history tour which will include three days in Skuodas.

A few updates since the last posting. I heard back from the Skuodas Museum, who, alas, due to short notice, was not able to organize a speaking event for me this time around. I will, however, plan to attend the museum event and hopefully will have a chance to meet and speak to locals afterwards. I’m going to be joined by Sophie Davidas, a Shkud descendant, and a good friend of hers, Simon. We have an exciting itinerary planned: the museum event on July 10; a tour of the Holocaust monuments and other sites on July 11, by which time my daughter will have joined us; and then, in the evening, a Shabbes dinner organized by Sophie at a local restaurant, to which we’ve also invited some local residents. We’re excited by the symbolic significance of the event as well as the opportunity for teaching and learning. I’m also looking forward to meeting Sophie! We’ve communicated over the past few years by email and Skype, but have never actually met. It’s ironic that her family, being the wealthy David family, and my family, the poor branch of the Mines family, would have had very little to do with each other in Shkud. There is something to be said after all for Western egalitarianism, as imperfect as it is at times.

We’ll be joined by a Lithuanian filmmaker, Paul Butkus, who is making a documentary film about Holocaust memorialization in the northwestern province of Lithuania (see his Kickstarter page at I ran across his page by accident a couple of weeks ago, and emailed him to tell him about my family history in Skuodas. He was excited by what we’re doing there, so maybe, if we turn out to be on the same page, we can start planning for some future projects together – maybe a Shkud reunion to be held in conjunction with the Holocaust remembrance day in September 2015?

More as it happens!

Ongoing projects and upcoming trip to Skuodas

I haven’t written for quite some time, but the various Shkud projects continue. Here’s an update:

  • The Shtetl Shkud Families Pages have made great progress. I don’t believe they will ever be truly finished, as more information is continually coming to light, but with only a few exceptions I’ve now posted a page for each family listed in Hana Shaf-Brener’s necrology and filled it out with information provided by Kehilat Shkud, Jewish Gen’s Lithuania databases, Yad Vashem’s Shoah Names database, and other sources. Wherever possible, I’ve included photographs. If you have information and/or photos of your own family you’d like me to add, please let me know by emailing me or adding a comment to this post.
  • With the help of colleagues at Jewish Gen, I’ve created a Kehila Links site for Skuodas. Besides providing basic information on Shkud, the Kehila Links site also directs interested individuals to Shtetl Shkud where they can find out more.
  • With the help of Indre Joffyte at the University of Vilnius, I will soon post some English-language transcripts of Lithuanian witness testimony to the Holocaust in Shkud.
  • The Bernstein family (Shkud descendants) and I are feeling out the possibility of a Stolperstein project for Skuodas. We’re just in the very tentative research stage of what will, if we go ahead, be a years-long project. If you have ideas or want to contribute, let me know – email me or add a comment to this post.
  • And the best for last – I’m planning to be in Skuodas for three days this summer: July 10-13, 2014. Previous visits, while incredibly rewarding, have been only a few hours. This time, I want to spend some time simply walking the streets, trying to imagine my father and his vanished family and community in that place. It seems important to me to walk through the green parkland by the rivers and lakes and establish a connection to the land itself, that nurtured my father and his family for many generations. Of course I also plan to revisit the Jewish cemetery and the Holocaust memorials, including Alka Hill, where I have not yet been. Alka Hill is where over 500 Shkud women and children were massacred in August 1941, some shot, but many buried alive. A horrible place, but I would like to go.
  • On a more hopeful note, the Skuodas Museum is planning a public event on July 10, and I am making arrangements to give a presentation on the Skuodas Jewish community, in the past and in the present diaspora. It’s an incredible opportunity to educate the present-day Skuodas people on an aspect of their own history they probably don’t know much about, and also, perhaps more importantly, to connect with a real, live Jewish person who is also connected with them. More on that as it develops …

Books for Skuodas

BooksForSkuodasThese books on Jewish themes are on their way to two school libraries and the municipal library in Skuodas.

Thanks so much to Indre Joffyte of the University of Vilnius, who’s been working with me on this project and on many others related to this website and the Shkud project in general.

Holocaust Education in Skuodas: Update

I know that the topic of Holocaust education and memorialization in Lithuania is both complex and controversial, and I certainly have no answers to the many painful questions about the degree of Lithuanians’ responsibilty for the Holocaust in that country. Alfonsas Eidintas, a historian and former Lithuanian ambassador, addresses this issue in his book Jews, Lithuanians and the Holocaust, in which he lays out the various arguments for and against reconciliation between present-day Lithuanians and Jewish communities and organizations locally and internationally (see the link under “Of Interest” on this page).

Yes, I think it possible that some present-day citizens of Skuodas may have relatives who participated, directly or indirectly, in the mass murders of the Shkud community. I have no doubt there are anti-Semites there, and just plain ignorant people. But as an educator, I’m also sure (or at least hopeful) that one of the best ways to address racism is through the admittedly imperfect process of education. In that regard, I’m encouraged by activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, established to research and teach the history of the Canadian residential school system (which has been likened to genocidal in its impact on First Nations children and subsequent generations) “in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect” (from the TRC website).

Last August, when I met with educators in the Skuodas schools, museum, and library, we discussed some steps to further Holocaust education in the town. This is what has been done so far:

Book buy: I’ve obtained a list of Jewish-themed books, published in Lithuanian, from the Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Museum and am in the process of buying books for the gymnasium, the pro-gymnasium, and the public library. I’m considering including a book plate in each book, indicating it is a donation from a Skuodas Jewish family – a small way of letting students know we are still around! This project is also keeping me in touch with local educators.

Contact with local student: I’ve maintained contact with a Skuodas gymnasium student and have sent her material to use in her school video project on the Jewish history of Lithuania. She is a really nice kid who recently reciprocated by sending me pictures of this year’s Holocaust Memorial day on September 23rd. They are stunning photos, and I want to highlight them in a posting of their own.

A small start … we’ll see where it leads!

Fourth Skuodas trip, Aug. 19, 2013

For my fourth visit to Skuodas in the summer of 2013, I had a clear purpose. I had recently read the book “We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust,” written by Ellen Cassedy. Like me, Ellen had been a student in the University of Vilnius’s four-week summer intensive program in Yiddish, though we attended in different years. She also had relatives who had survived the Holocaust in Lithuania. Ellen’s book combines memories of her studies in the Yiddish program with her journeys in Lithuania and the people she interviewed there in an attempt to uncover facts about her relatives’ lives. Excited to find someone whose experiences so closely paralleled mine, I went to Ellen’s website and discovered that her book was being translated into Lithuanian, and Ellen herself was actively working to promote better understanding of Jewish history and the Holocaust among Lithuanians.

Over the past few years, I have also come to realize that connecting to present-day Skuodas is important to me. In the beginning, my aim was to understand my family’s past; then that interest broadened into a general interest in the pre-war Jewish community (hence this website). Since then, inspired by Ellen and her writing, I’ve begun to think that one way to bridge the gap between past and present might be to find out more about Holocaust education in Skuodas: if it exists; if so in what format; and if there’s anything I can do to further the cause. Since I was going to be in Vilnius this summer for a second session in the Yiddish program, I would be able to visit Skuodas again, this time to discuss the present and future as well as the past.

With the help of my friend Indre at the Yiddish Institute (Indre has been incredibly helpful in translating parts of this website), I asked Edmundas Untulis, a journalist I met three years ago in Skuodas, to set up a meeting between me and one or more teachers in the Skuodas school system. A week after the summer program began, Indre let me know that she’d heard from Edmundas, and our meeting was set to take place in the Skuodas Museum the afternoon of August 19.

On entering the Skuodas Museum, my partner Gene and I were greeted by our translator, Roma Zemaitiene. We chatted for a few minutes, getting reacquainted, before we were joined by five others: Edmundas; Nijolė Jazbutienė, who works in the museum;  and two teachers, Irena Nomgaudienė and Rita Lukošienė, from the gymnasium (high school that prepares the student for university) and  the pro-gymnasium (roughly equivalent to middle school). The fifth person was  a gymnasium student, Živilė, who wore a cute “Skuodas” T-shirt – you can see it in the photo – and filmed the entire meeting. Gene and I felt like visiting dignitaries!

Skuodas Meeting 2013
Left to right: Živilė, Nijolė, Rita, Roma, Gene, Edmundas

I began with a brief introduction of myself and my interest in Skuodas. I showed some pictures of my Dad and his family, and also some screen shots of this website. I told my audience that I’d been in Skuodas a few times already and that I’d had a document held in the Skuodas Museum translated into English for this site (See the link to “Jews in the Memory of Skuodas People” in the menu on this page). I also talked about the Families pages on this site (still a work in progress) and my interest in Shkud’s prewar Jewish community. My audience seemed very interested, especially in the family photos and history – a personal touch that’s a great way of connecting with people, I’ve found.

Eventually I came to the topic of Holocaust education in Skuodas. The teachers told me that every  September 23 (Holocaust Memorial Day in Lithuania, commemorating the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto), the pro-gymnasium students have a ceremony at the memorial in the centre of town. Each student brings a memorial stone with the name of a victim. The program includes speeches and poems. Gymnasium students have a class on Jewish themes and the Holocaust in the Skuodas museum. Also, as part of their general education, gymnasium students choose projects on various topics (not necessarily related to Jewish themes) to work on. Živilė, the student who was attending and filming our meeting had chosen to do hers on local Jewish history. She had produced a short film and wanted to show it to us after our meeting.

I had brought two copies of Ellen Cassedy’s book in Lithuanian, and gave one to each teacher; they were eager to accept them and rather reluctantly tucked them away to read later.

We discussed some possible ways Gene and I might participate in Holocaust education locally. Such possibilities included donating books to the school libraries, using the website as a forum for student discussions, and doing classroom visits in Skuodas (if I can work out the logistics). The journalist, Edmundas, said that he was planning to write an article on Shkud descendants, and everyone seemed interested when I mentioned the idea of a possible Shkud reunion.

Edmundas proposed that he act as a middleman for further communication between the teachers and me (with my trusty friend Indre translating our emails), and we ended the more formal part of the meeting with Živilė showing her film.

During coffee afterwards, I mentioned to Živilė that I loved her “Skuodas” T-shirt, and she ran off to the mayor’s office to get me one! Roma and I discussed organic gardening, and she invited Gene and me to stay with her next time we’re in town, which we just might do.

That’s where things stand right now. Since then, Živilė  and I have established email contact – her English is not bad! – and I’m working on giving her some feedback and material for her film project, which is still in the draft stages. All in all, I’m making positive connections with present-day Skuodas – time will tell if and how they develop!