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.
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.
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.
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 September.
We also visited the memorial just south of Skuodas, at the village of Kulai I. 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, who, 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.
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.
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;
the Catholic church and the site of my family’s shoe factory;
and crossed the bridge over the Bartuva River where Shkuders used to bathe and present-day Skuodas citizens still do. Is 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.
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 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,
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.