An extract from
DER LITVAK: A PERSONAL JOURNAL
by Howard B. Zakai
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!”
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
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
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
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;
[Mrs.] Shifra ?;
Toiba Menucha bat Azriel
___esh ? ben/bat Tevye
(A double stone of couple)
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
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
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.