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?