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!
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!