An extract from


by Howard B. Zakai
Summer 2002

Vilnius:  Tuesday 18 June 2002

I had woken up just past seven o’clock, with the bright sun having been shining strongly for many hours already.  Calm and high-spirited, I watched the BBC as I took my time shaving and packing and making sure I left no presents in my business-class VIP room at the Astorija.  It was 8:10 and I was just about to make my way downstairs for a relaxing breakfast when the phone rang.  The receiver produced Howard Margol’s voice telling me Chaim was already downstairs waiting for me.   Somehow I was told to be ready at nine o’clock, instead of eight. I ran downstairs, met Chaim and apologized to him. Understanding the miscommunication, he did not seem to mind and he instructed me to eat.  I inundated myself with orange juice and I ravaged some fresh bread, which I also stole for the road.  We went outside, met the driver up front, and I got into the backseat with Chaim as we got on our way.  It was 8:35 A.M.

Chaim Bargman is a short and overly-friendly math and computers expert who turned his once-hobby of history and touring into his sole profession.  A black cap had the Hebrew words “Moreh Derek” embroidered on the front.  He was a “teacher of the road” – a tour guide.  His demeanor was so congenial, modest and unpretentious, I immediately felt at ease with him and gladly reciprocated in my efforts at conversation.  After I listed the three shtetls I was hoping to visit – Zhving, Shelel, Chweidan -- he remarked, “Ah! So you’re a Samogitian!”  He quickly explained it was the ethno-geographic label of western Lithuania, known to Litvaks as Zamet.  “They’re very stubborn!”  Figures.

On our way....
As we embarked on the major highway that links Vilnius with Kaunas, I anxiously showed him the beginning pages of my great-grandfather Jake’s memoirs that my cousin Cheryl had faxed two nights prior.  I pointed out that the specific location of Jake’s birth was never listed, although the town of Zhving (Zvingiai) was mentioned.  I asked him if he could read a word – known as “the blank” in the diary’s translation – that looked like the name of a town.  As I had previously thought, the word referred to Shelel (Silale), the town in which Jake had lived from age five to age fifteen, when he left Russia to go to Manchester via Hamburg.  Chaim’s knowledge about Lithuanian and Litvak history was astounding; he recognized nearly every place or name I mentioned – even if pronounced incorrectly – no matter how small or obscure. 

He referred me to some good resources concerning genealogy and Litvak history – Dan Jacobson’s “Heshel’s Kingdom,” Professor Bruce Kahn at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York – and spoke about the Ghettos in Vilna and Kovna, the haunting IX Fort and the last minute deportations to Dachau and Stuffhoff (for men and women, respectively), notables such as Garnik and Napoleon, contemporary Jewish life in Lithuania, the Kirrayim, his knowledge of New York City (he knew Brooklyn!), and so on.  He also directed my attention to locales of interest along the road.  At 9:23, just shortly after we had reached the halfway point between Vilnius and Kaunas, we passed by Zezmair [Zhezhmair], which was once a very large Jewish town.  He pointed to the forest on the other side of the road (north side), indicating the murder site a kilometer and a half away.  The original synagogue still stands today, abandoned and boarded up.

Chaim told me more about Samoghitia especially as we passed the Nevezis [Nevehzhis] River, which serves as the geographic border.  I realized the word in Lithuanian was Zemaitija and immediately I recognized the western town of Zemaiciu Naumiestis as meaning “new hills.”  In contrast, eastern Lithuania – Aukstaciai – represents the flatlands.  Vainiai or Mednick used to be the capital of the region, replaced now by Telze (Telsiai), home to the once-famous yeshiva.  The people of Samoghitia had developed a cultural characteristic of being stubborn, especially in light of the fact that they held out against the spread of Christianity longer than most others.  For centuries they served the obstacle to the unification attempts of the Crusader tribes and the Sword of Knights.  In 1410, a very important battle was waged at Grunwald and Tenenberg. 

At 10:20 A.M., we passed by the small Dybsos River - the ethnographic border of Samoghitia.  Chaim then had an idea, and instructed the driver to take Old Samoghitian Road to the town of Raseiniai - the name of an entire district of Kovno Gubernia.  It is a small town of about 13,000, with paved roads, traffic lights, many cars, modern buildings and parks.  We parked the car and went over to the park where Chaim showed me a large white stone statute of “The Samoghitian” conquering the bear - the Heraldic sign of the Germans.  Built in 1933 by Vincas Grybas, a famous classical sculptor from Jubarkas [Yurburg] in the south, it serves as a national symbol of Lithuanian independence in the interwar period that strikes cultural tones going back to the feuds of medieval times.  In contrast to the many Lithuanians who joyfully welcomed the Nazi expansion, Grybas saw Hitler as hazardous to the independence and culture of his country.  Without much surprise, he was killed in June 1941.

The Tubines Forest
It was 11:37 when we passed by the sign that noted Shelel was nine kilometers away.  We took the “exit” – a mere left turn off the highway – and proceeded on the road south.  3 minutes later we reached the tiny village of Tubines [TOO-bin-esh], alongside the road with its gray wooden shacks, barns and farmland.  From the road, it seemed like a town of only 2 structures.  We turned left onto a dusty dirt path that lead into the forest.  It was just wide enough to let a car pass, although we were attacked by the surrounding branches.  Chaim was looking for the murder site, but the sign he was accustomed to seeing was missing.  Assuming it was stolen, Chaim announced, “You see, this is evidence of anti-Semitism!”  We reached the end of the path that hit a slightly larger dirt road that went either right or left.  Fortunately, a tractor was coming from the left and our driver asked the farmer for directions.  We K-turned and proceeded back on the path, turning left onto another path, so much more faint.  We drove some 50 yards until we finally found it. 

Enclosed by a short fence was a raised “flower” bed, surrounded by cement that measured 25 feet by 10 feet, approximately.  We struggled with the rusted gate and I entered, going over to the silver memorial plaque with the Yiddish writing.  Here were buried 500 Jewish men, women and children from the nearby shtetls, including Shelel and Chweidan.  I felt a rush of sorrow and mourning.  Which of my relatives lay beneath my feet?  The thought of being in the spiritual and “physical” presence of people I had never known, but only heard of through stories and through my research, overwhelmed me.  We made our way back to the original path and drove back to the main road. 

A few dozen feet ahead was a sign on the right that read, in Lithuanian:  “Site of the Jewish Victims of Genocide.”  Chaim realized now that the original sign had not been stolen, but relocated to the second murder site, which, holding 700 victims, was larger.  We went down the path so I could have a look and pay my respects.  The gated garden and memorial were identical. 

We went on our way, continuing south, passing by the sign that directed to Laukuva (13 kilometers back north) and entered the vicinity of Balsiai, known to Litvaks as Balsch.  This small village, surrounded by a small glistening lake, some soft hills, and a vast amount of thick pine forest was in the vicinity to which my great-grandfather Jake would escape to play while skipping a day at cheder.  Perhaps one of these hills accommodated his game of rock throwing and “Jews and Romans.”  We stopped for a moment to enjoy the beautiful scenery and so Chaim could take a picture of me by the sign.  We started again and made it the kilometer or two south to Shelel, where we stopped to take a picture of the large sign with the heraldic red and black symbol in the road’s fork.  We passed by the outskirts of the large town, missing the residential sector, and continued south towards Payura. 


Payura - or Pajuris in Lithuanian – is a small farming town of hills alongside the Jura River, from which it gets its name.  It once had a significant Jewish community and served as the administrative locale for my ancestral village of Zhving.  Without a reference in any sign, we stopped to ask directions from a few teenaged boys.  Though Zhving appeared so close to Payura on the map, they had never heard of such a place.  We went four or five kilometers and crossed the river at 12:35 and I admired the vast amount of farmland that spread in all directions and was surrounded, in the distance, by forest.  Six minutes later we came to an end of the road that only went right or left.  At that juncture were a half-dozen locals at a tiny make-shift flea market, who knew of Zhving.  A man with an array of black and gold teeth told us it was about a kilometer or so up the road.  So we turned left, crossed over the Jura River again after two minutes, and within the next minute found the entrance road for Zhving.


We turned left to enter, finding the town’s sign and seeing a woman in her thirties on bicycle.  She informed us that Zhving was a border town.  We had driven slightly into Silute County only to get back into Silale County.  I took a picture of the farmland, the small lake and the forest.  It seemed so quiet and peaceful and the remoteness was extraordinary; I felt I had entered another world.  We drove up a paved road, shaded by some trees and lined with small 1-2 story painted wooden houses with adjoining gardens and small farm plots, a decently looking church, and some occasional decrepit shacks and sheds. 

We found an elderly lady walking and stopped her to ask some questions.  Her name was Maroziene Petronele, born in Zhving in 1920.  She was the typical eastern European babushka, wearing the familiar cloth (of the same name) around her head, a long dark skirt, and a woolen green sweater covering her blouse, despite the strong sun and 80 degree temperature.  She was eager to talk and she informed us that while there had been a Jewish community before her time, there had only been two Jewish families before the Second World War.  She remembers them by their first names (for Jews rarely went by their surnames) – Itzhak and Velvel – who were shopowners.  It just so happened we were standing directly in front of where their house had been.  Only a fenced garden belonging to another dwelling remains, but she pointed to the large stone on the ground that marked the site.  Her family had a good rapport with them.  They would give her tabs when she did not have the money to pay up front.  When the Nazis came, her family helped to hide the Jews of the town, including a man named S. (Shaul or Shmuel?) Seligman, who is now a retired teacher in Vilnius and who returned to Zhving for a visit only last year.  She herself had not been in the town during the War, but her parents and sister “received a medal” for their efforts.  I asked Chaim to ask her about any Jewish cemetery, but she explained that the town was so small, the Jews were considered part of Vainutas to the west and accordingly used its grounds.  I gave the kind lady a small package for her time and help, and wished her much health.  As Chaim translated, she smiled, showing her gold teeth, and rattled off several genuine “thank you’s.”  “Aciu, Aciu!” she said, elongating the A’s in a grateful tone as if she had been pleasantly surprised at my good wishes. 

We continued on the main road, finding the school, a stork and its nest on top of a pole, passing by a couple of small side roads and coming to the bus station where we turned right and went through the town’s outskirts, full of large farms, haystacks, horses and cows.  After a few turns through some backroads and past many acres of greenery, we ventured back through Payura and headed back up to Shelel for lunch.


Alongside the main road that passes by the entrance to Shelel is a very large field that was once the Jewish cemetery.  So large, I easily envisioned hundreds and hundreds of tombstones once adorning the grass.  Envisioned because the green was devoid of such things, save one: Eliezer Arie ben Dov Ber, who died in the year 1863.  It seemed gravely poetic:  One stone of hundreds prevents the cemetery from being ultimately stripped; one stone serves the reminder of what had once been.  But only one.  To the side of the field is a fenced garden with an enclosed memorial that marks the murder of 112 Jewish men, women, and children. 

Today, Shelel (Silale) is a modern large town and the administrative county center.  Most of it was destroyed during the Second World War, caught in the middle of battlefire and burned.  Built up and renovated, little remains of the past.  Besides a few old wooden houses, everything is new.  I took a picture of a large house, painted red, at 2-4 Vytautus Didzioji G.  Chaim believed the house could have belonged to Jews before the War.  I experienced a hollow feeling in the town:  The rich community in which my great-grandfather lived – his “beloved Shelel” -- no longer existed.  Everything was so large and modern, I did not even think to stop an elderly person to ask questions or to look for any places of former Jewish significance.  I sadly felt very little.

We stopped by the town hall center situated on J.Basanavaciaus G. – the main road – and went upstairs to Administration.  I met a few friendly secretaries my age or slightly older who were eager to take down my information in order to send me things.  They claimed it to be interesting to find someone interested in the history of Shelel.  I took out one of my obsolete Binghamton Tour Guide business cards and jotted down my most recent contact information.  We waited a few minutes until we were greeted by a very tall man, who struck me as a bit odd.  He had strange light eyes – perhaps one was of a different color - and a very peculiar ponytail.  He was dressed rather awkwardly in sneakers, jeans and a sports jacket.   He walked with us back to our car and we drove down the road to another large and modern building that housed his office.  We followed him inside and he gave me a few pamphlets about Shelel and Chweidan.  He opened a book of pins and gave me one of Shelel, with its black and red symbol, and I took his business card.  His name was Gintautas Tilmantas.  Chaim explained he was the Director of Tourism for Silale County.  We exited the town, asked a bunch of girls at the bus stop if they needed a ride, took a picture of the sign that indicated Chweidan was 16 kilometers away and we were on our way. 

I found myself battling emotions meandering deep down, trying to ignore this disturbing sense of vacancy and lack of fulfillment.  On the superficial level, I felt the day – the very highlight of my trip – sadly drawing closer to the end.  On a deeper level, I felt an urge to stay longer in each place we visited, to immerse myself in the past and learn as much as possible; each stop was simply not enough for me.  Yet I knew, deep down, there was little more to truly see or learn.  So much to want and so little to get.  I managed to offset such thoughts, however, by focusing on the very next destination.

It was 3:40 P.M. when we reached a collection of farms, barns and sheds congressing at the entrance to the town known as Chweidan [Chvai-don].  The road continued for a short distance until several old wooden houses, painted with one of the assortment of familiar dulls, appeared in the middle of the farming plots.  Unlike the busier Shelel, little effort was executed in building up Chweidan.  Though larger than Zhving, it shared its peaceful quaintness.  We came upon a small intersection – which I later realized to be the T that lays adjacent to the infamous town square – and made a left to stroll down a street routinely lined with familiar wooden houses – some old and some ancient – and their small gardens.  We came upon the most enthralling building in the town: a three-story structure that appeared to be made of stone.  Chaim explained everything was inside this so-called “municipal center.”  We parked in front and were relieved to find the building open.  It was the post office inside, run by two middle-aged women.  Chaim did some explaining in Lithuanian and filled me in that he was getting some souvenirs for me.  They handed me some pamphlets of Kvedarna – the same ones I had received from the tourist center in Shelel – but Chaim was not satisfied.  He asked for something more memorable or personal and pointed to the postage stamps.  The woman took out an envelope and stuck a stamp at the top corner, but Chaim went for more and asked for the postmark stamp.  After the first stamp, he asked for a better one.  By the end of this trivial fiasco, I had received three envelopes, all stamped and postmarked the 18th of June in Kvedarna.  “Now you have proof you were here!”  So exemplified the character of Mr. Chaim Bargman. 

A young man in his thirties- dressed in a casual button-down and some jeans, and sweaty from the day’s heat - entered the office and after a few minutes - after more explaining - led both of us upstairs to his office.  He gave me a few extra souvernirs: pamphlets and pictures and told us about the anticipation of a large book about Kvedarna that will include a significant section about the town’s Jews.  I wrote down my name and address for him so I could receive more information about it.  We exited the room as the man locked the door and we followed him back down the stairs.  I asked Chaim for the man’s title.  “The mayor of course!” he answered enthusiastically.  We were invited dignitaries, I chuckled to myself. 

He followed his pickup truck further down the street, made a right turn around a corner of large farm and another right around the other corner.  We parked on the dusty road and looked at a field wait high in sun worn brown grass.  Through it was a hidden fence and multiple dark objects protruding from the top.  The mayor opened the fence’s gate and we came across the  stone that noted the presence of the old Jewish cemetery.  I looked up after “reading” the inscription and found about 25 tombstones spread over a large expanse.  We went over to the left, where the oldest stones seemed to rest.  I took out my pen and pad and Chaim his chalk.  And so the hunt began…

        Hena Dvora bat Dov, died Kaf Aleph (26th day) of Sivan, in the year 1932.

        Tzira Yehudit bat Avraham, Tet Shin Tishrei, 1935;
        “born in Johannesburg … deeply mourned by her daughter, son and grandchildren.”

        Meyer ben Shimon ARON, 1935;  “deeply mourned by…”

        Dvora Gitel bat Nachman

        Shloma Yosef ben Yehuda; Shvat 1929

        [Mrs.] Shifra ?;  1930

        Toiba Menucha bat Azriel h’Levi

        ___esh ? ben/bat Tevye Meyer, 1936

        (A double stone of couple) ?;  1919

        Shmuel Shalom;  1931


Despite finding several double stones and even a few women by the name Sheva or Shifra, I was unable to find the actual graves of my great-great-great uncle Shmuel Itzhak or his wife Bat Sheva, my great-great-great grandfather Eliash, or my great-great-grandfather Shimon – all of whom may have died in Chweidan between 1910 and 1940.  There were a number of stones quite illegible, sunk into the ground below the tall grass or missing altogether.  Only my imagination could reign free. 

An hour had expired when the fatigue, heat and allergies had launched a vicious attack.  Finished with my determined, but unsuccessful inspection, and nearly incapable of holding a straight face without my eyes tearing or my nose and throat itching, I knew it was time.  I had Chaim ask the mayor about the upkeep of the cemetery.  He explained it was under the care of the state, which sent someone routinely to cut the grass.  He only apologized that the grass was not cut at the time.  Ironically, it sounded as if it were to be done in the next few days.  We thanked the mayor and he went on his way.  I had the driver stop so I could photograph various scenery and street shots. 

Just as we were about to leave, I looked out the window and down to the pavement of the road: a surreal image had violently grasped my wearied attention.  I had the driver stop and I asked Chaim exit the car with me.  He came around to my side of the vehicle and I asked him to look down.  “What are we looking at?” He could not see it.  I focused and re-focused my eyes and moved at various angles, but kept seeing unnatural marks on the gray asphalt.  While I could not decipher anything specific, my first glance and instinct remained loyal:  I was looking at the Hebrew inscriptions of disassembled Jewish tombstones.  Decades of weathering had faded the print far into illegibility and had removed any previous existing separation of the original stones, although there was symmetrical spacing for each line.  The entire street appeared as if one, exhaustingly long unreadable tombstone.  It was very poetic:  I stood on the nameless gravestone of Chweidan, a dead and near-forgotten community.  The thoughts of my ancestors whom I could not find in the cemetery raced through my head.  I was overwhelmed and at odds.  I was so close:  A week prior I sat at my computer in my air-conditioned house in modern New York, looking at mere names of people generations apart.  But now I had entered a village of small wooden houses, old sheds, and large farms with cows.  I had walked the footsteps of my family, perhaps passed their original houses, possibly walked on the very ground in which they sleep.  So close, and yet so far:  In which house did they live?  Which of these faded tombstones that now collectively serve as a road belonged to GGgma Etta or her father Elie?  Where was GGgpa Shimon or his brother-in-law Shmuel?  Which of these simple local villagers knew them?  Who sheltered their boys and girls when the Nazis came?  Who pointed the finger?  So much had been attained and yet I felt as if I had found nothing.  I was exuberated and disappointed, amazed and saddened.  I juggled with the paradox – one I soon learned to be endemic to those having the experience - as we departed Chweidan.  It was about 5:45 and I wanted to pass out.

Our day’s excursion continued with a quick stop at Baubliai, a tiny outpost near Shelel, that existed only because it was the site of the first historical museum, dated from 1812.   Lithuanian poet, historian and writer, Dionysas Poska encountered a gigantic and ancient oak tree that had been partially hollowed by a fire.  He completed the process with his own hands and constructed his own personal workplace.  The government later donated a second hollowed oak for the purposes of the museum.  Poska is an emblem of Lithuanian culture and national pride and is familiar to the literary curricula of contemporary primary schools in the country.

The evening sun shined with such vigor, highlighting the beautiful and complacent greenery of the surrounding vastness.  There was a powerful serenity about it all.  After speaking with the caretaker of the grounds and Poska’s house, a Samoghitian local Chaim knew from previous visits, we left Baubliai and headed north.


We passed by the road to Kraziai and Kelme, two towns I had seen countless times on maps during my research, and reached Siauliai [Sha-oo-lay] at 7:25 P.M.  It was a bigger city than most – the fourth largest in Lithuania, with a University and the nation’s first pedestrian mall.  Paved roads and sidewalks, sewers, traffic lights and buildings over two stories made me feel as if I had stepped through a civilization teleport; it was a “culture” shock.  When we reached the hotel, I paid Chaim and tipped our driver, who departed for his home in Kaunas.  Chaim and I walked to the pedestrian mall and met half of our group at a pizzeria and restaurant called Bradvejaus – presumably a transliteration of Broadway.  The two of us got a table, ordered pizzas and a couple of jumbo mugs of Baltejos Extra – Lithuania’s domestic beer.  I was so tired and famished, the beer hit me fast.  Chaim and I conversed for over an hour in about the events of the day, Lithuania, history, and a dozen of other relevant and irrelevant things.  I was amazed by his knowledge and universal awareness of things.  He truly taught me a lot.  Additionally, he insisted that I learn Hebrew.  Accordingly, he spoke to me in Hebrew. 

At 22:22, in what was still daylight, I sat on my hotel bed in my boxers, half drunk, and scribbled the exciting events of the day.  10 minutes later I was passed out.



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