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Rochelle Kaplan's 2003 Visit to


Personal Memories and Impressions
(Note all photos taken by Rochelle Kaplan. Click on any photo to go to photo gallery of her visit.)





















Only after I’d been doing genealogy for a year did my Aunt Rosalie show me an old photo album found at my grandmother’s Brooklyn, New York apartment when my grandmother died. Just a few of the mostly 19th century photographs were labeled but by removing the photos and examining the reverse sides, we were able to extract more information. A photo of the gravestone of my great-great grandfather, Movsha/Moses Solomon Zaks, probably taken shortly after he died, revealed on the back, the name Kraziai. Aleksandrs Feigmanis, my Riga-based researcher, had already surmised that the Zaks family was from Lithuania, based on the surname and the gravestone’s design. I’d heard from my grandmother that her family was from Riga. With the new information and recently discovered cousins, my mom and I decided, in the summer of 2003, to visit Latvia and make a side trip to Kraziai, with Aleks as our guide and interpreter. 

For the trip to Kraziai, my cousin Davis Gersons lent us his yellow Volkswagen van and burly driver, Andrejs. We stopped at Jelgava, formerly Mitau, to examine tombstones and view the old Jewish quarter with its two abandoned brick synagogues. My grandmother mentioned visiting Mitau as a child. We drove on, past chartreuse fields of rapeseed, beige wheat and blue flax, small farms of peas, beans, beets, potatoes, squash, chicory and poppies, wooden farmhouses, cows, a few horses. Aleks recalled that during Soviet times, when coffee was scarce, folks made hot drinks from chicory, hops, even acorns. Jews made wine from a fruit called cidono, from apples, currants and cherries.

We passed the border marking the 1700s division between Livonia and Courland Provinces, and further on, entered Lithuania, stopping briefly in Siauliai to change money and buy stamps. We passed the tannery, leather factory and synagogue buildings that Chaim Freinkl built in 1877, and the mansion he once occupied. In 1939, a quarter of Siauliai’s population was Jewish. Today, only a small number of elderly Jews remain. We pushed on to hilly Kraziai, where farmers drove horse-drawn carts past fields of blue flax and yellow rapeseed blossoms. The hills contrasted with the flat, almost sea-level areas of Latvia we’d traveled. Roosters crowed and I wondered what the Latvian and Lithuanian words are for cock-a-doodle-doo. We drove to the town center where Aleks swore a wooden synagogue stood, a year ago. When he inquired, we learned the place, most recently a dilapidated community center, was knocked down in June. Still Aleks and I wandered about the site, picking up pottery shards. The shul had been on Low Street, just off the main square. Only the foundations remained; the house now used as a storage area for farm tools. 

The Nazis and bombs destroyed forty percent of Kraziai, so many houses date from post-World War II. In 1944, Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators rounded up the Jews and shot them in the main square where we now stood. Some righteous citizens hid Jews. One Jewish woman, after the war, lived in the ruins of the Jesuit College. During the war, forty families lived in various crumbling rooms of the same brick building. 

The museum’s caretaker accompanied us to the small yellow wooden house that is Kraziai’s museum. Inside were assorted items- old photos, a wall notating righteous Gentiles who saved some of the town’s Jews during the Holocaust, weapons including a bayonet, gun, grenades, shells and helmets from both world wars, a history of the Jesuit university and its scholars, a town history, a section about partisans who protested Russian rule and were exiled to Siberian gulags, history books, a plaque donated by Lithuanians in Williamsburg, Brooklyn commemorating a battle between Russia and Lithuania, a four thousand year old stone mortar, wood carvings.  

We then drove to a hill overlooking the town that houses the now abandoned Jewish cemetery.  The museum director said, “Students counted fifty graves last year but only twenty-six are legible.” No one in town knows Hebrew but Aleks read some inscriptions. Some tombstone shapes, rectangular with a triangular top, resemble the monument of Movsha Zaks, my great-great grandfather, who is buried here. We didn’t find his stone. Gravestones are buried in tall grasses, some toppled over, other partially submerged or with worn, barely legible writing, others moss-covered. Clover, campanula and Queen Anne’s lace grow among the graves and I gather some to bring home. The cemetery’s stone gate still stands. We look out at farmers tending their crops. The museum director points out the oak forests where the Germans shot Jewish children after taking them from the schoolhouse. Jews had been in Kraziai for 500 years, until the Nazis entered the town on October 8, 1944. There had been two Jewish primary schools; the town’s high school served both Jews and Catholics. The postmaster was Jewish before the war.

After this sobering visit, we headed to the site of the former Jesuit College, founded in 1614. It functioned as a high school until 1843. Its libraries once contained four thousand volumes, including Hebrew books. The college is being renovated and once completed, the museum will move to the site. We watch the workmen cart bricks. 

The museum director copied the material I brought about my great-great grandfather, Movsha or Moses Zaks and his family, using the photocopier at the acrid, ammonia-smelling Town Hall. He will add the photos and papers to the museum’s holdings. We drove him home then and he offered to sell me a book of old Kraziai photos, with pictures of the wooden synagogue and Jewish school children from the 1930s. We struck a deal. 

Regretting that I could not spend more time in Kraziai to photograph each grave in the Jewish cemetery, I headed back to the van with Aleks, my mom, and the driver, for the long drive back to Riga.





























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 Compiled by Rochelle Kaplan
Copyright © 2007-2009 Rochelle Kaplan

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