Second trip to Skuodas, summer 2008

I knew I had to be better prepared for my second trip to Skuodas than I was for my first, but I had no idea how to go about it. Planning accommodations and Jewish history tours in the other family hometowns I wanted to visit, Riga, Liepaja, and Kaunas, was easy, as I have a cousin in Latvia who speaks English and is well-connected with the local Jewish community, and the hotels in the larger centres have informative websites and online booking. Skuodas was a different matter. In the year since my first visit in 2007, I’d managed to find some general information about the town online, but still had no “in.” Emails I sent to the city administration were not answered, probably due to the language barrier.

One of my Google searches turned up an online English-language resume of a former Skuodas resident. I emailed her, and she kindly put me in touch with an English-speaking friend of hers who lived in another town but visited her parents in Skuodas regularly. Skaidre, the friend, was more than willing to help. She set up an appointment with me to meet one of the coordinators of the Skuodas Museum, Joana Sleiniene, and a retired teacher and translator, Roma Zemaitiene.

So, on a hot July morning, my travelling companion and I left Liepaja in our rented car, and – avoiding the back roads this time – arrived at the Skuodas Museum to find Joana, a tall, solid-looking woman a few years older than I, and Roma, smaller and grey-haired, waiting for us.

After warm greetings – they really did seem delighted to see us – we were invited into Joana’s office, where we were given coffee – boiling water poured into cups over ground beans. (There is a certain knack to drinking this coffee, which I don’t have, and I spent the next fifteen minutes furtively scraping bits from between my teeth.)

Joana showed me a photocopy of a 1939 Skuodas phonebook which stated that a certain M. Mines once operated a shoemaking business, Konkurencia, at 2 Laisves Street. My father, Sender Mines, had also been a shoemaker – “the uppers, not the soles” – he was adamant about that – and so this M. Mines was almost certainly a relation. (Later I found out he was my father’s cousin Michal Mines, who operated the workshop and store with his father Yosel.)

Then we set off for the tour Joana had planned for us. Just outside the museum, we stopped for a photo op. “Make us famous,” Roma joked, and I promised I’d try. 

Still on the museum’s doorstep, Joana pointed out a modest, blue-painted house across the street.

This was one of the few remaining Jewish houses on Laisves Street, once home to a largely Jewish population.

A few minutes’ drive away, we pulled up at another surviving Jewish house, this one belonging to the Mayer family.

[I thought at the time it was my grandfather Mayer Mines’s house, and was tremendously excited until I realized my mistake.] This is one of the only Jewish houses in the area to have survived the town centre’s destruction in WWII, and it is still in use. The well from which the Mayer family drew water is still in the courtyard.

Then we drove to the monuments. First, the Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed by the Soviets after World War II, the tombstones carted away for various building projects. All that remains is a flat cement base, shaped like a Star of David, into which have been set a few largish upright chunks, fragments of tombstones still bearing their Hebrew lettering. I had brought a few pebbles from home, and I placed one on the monument, picking up a few pebbles to put on my father’s grave at home. Aside from the missing tombstones, the cemetery is well-tended: grass cut, litter-free, peaceful. A tall standing stone by the entrance identifies the place in Yiddish letters.

A stork nests in a tall tree overlooking the empty field.

Next we drove to Kulai I, the site of the Nazi massacre of most of the Jewish men of Shkud, an abandoned gravel quarry a few miles out of town. [At the time, I didn’t know about Alka Hill, where most of the women and children were murdered, which I plan to visit next time I’m in Skuodas.] Now, the former murder site is a peaceful place in the sun, guarded with trees, freckled with Queen Anne’s Lace and other wildflowers, overlooking a small blue lake with black and white cattle grazing nearby.

The monument lies at the end of the road. It features a large rock with a flat, polished face, set upright on a concrete base. The rock has been split in two, like the tablets of the Ten Commandments, its two halves joined by a Star of David fashioned of thin metal strips. On each tablet is an inscription, one in Lithuanian, one in Yiddish, honouring the 800 Jewish citizens of Shkud, some of whom were my relatives, who were killed by gunfire at that place. “The wound,” it reads, “will never be healed.” (“The words are quite, quite true,” Roma added.) The site is surrounded by a low metal fence inset with yellow-painted Stars of David. I hesitated for a few moments to step over the fence and approach the monument, but then I reasoned it’s my own people’s place. I stepped over the fence. I placed a few pebbles from home at the base of the monument. I took a few away with me, for my father’s grave.

Then Joana, through Roma, told us a story. She was, she said, in the 8th form. It was 1963. There was a ceremony organized by the municipality. All the bodies from Kulai were put into coffins and brought into town. There was a procession with flowers at the head, then the coffins carried by the people of Skuodas, then some more of the people of Skuodas on foot. Schoolchildren sang songs. Some of them had even learned some Jewish songs and poems. In those days several Jews still lived in Skuodas, and other Jews, relatives and other people, had been invited, and they also participated in the procession. They brought all the bodies into town and buried them there.

“Many non-Jewish Lithuanians helped the Nazis,” Roma added. “We know their names. They were common people. The people who lived in the town hated them. But there were several who helped. They wanted to take over the wealth of the Jews, their property. Any nation has such people. They were not many, but they helped the Nazi armies.”

We drove back to the town, passing on the way the site of the Old Synagogue, now a potato field. 

In the town centre near the museum, behind the tidy rows of houses and their vegetable gardens, at the end of an alleyway of privet hedge, and next to the Shaul Hall, where Jews and other prisoners were held and tortured before execution, lies the final resting place of the Jews who were massacred in Shkud and Kulai.

The monument is a square cube of reddish granite, polished to a high gloss. One corner is set into a flat, circular concrete-and-stone base. It is surrounded by six smaller triangular blocks. I suspect that, viewed from above, the cube and triangles would form a Star of David. In the circular base of the monument are set numerous shards and fragments. Joana said they were the remains of tombstones from the destroyed Jewish cemetery. One side of the granite cube contains lettering. The words are Lithuanian, but the letters, square and blocky, with fat pointed serifs, suggest Hebrew. Roma translated: “To commemorate Skuodas Jews – children, women, and men – and also those of other nationalities who were killed by Nazis and their collaborators in 1941.”  I stood for a long time. A thin grey cat sauntered across the monument’s base. I left a pebble. I took another.

Back in the museum, I felt overcome, bombarded with emotional overload. We had been in Skuodas three hours, and I felt I needed three or four days to digest everything. Joana showed me some cases displaying items manufactured by Skuodas Jews, and I dutifully snapped a few photos, but by that point I was taking in very little. It was only a few hours ago, drafting this blog, that I realized one photo featured postcards made in the printshop belonging to the Davidov family. That is a name I now recognize as one of the prominent families of Shkud.

Before we left, I gave Joana a couple of photos of my father and his family in Shkud for the museum archive. On my next visit, I found them prominently displayed in a case devoted to the history of Jewish Skuodas. But that’s another story.