For quite a long time Mommy1 has been talking about visiting Lithuania, but it was never anything concrete. However when Tal went to work in Riga, as a youth counselor, we decided that while she was so close it would be a good time to go. We had no idea of the situation there, or how to go about organising a trip.
When Mommy was in South Africa last year, she met Joseph Woolf, a nephew of Menke Woolf, both who come from SETA (Shat). Joseph, who now lives in Israel, visited Seta two years ago. I contacted him and told him of our intentions to visit Lithuania and asked for his help. He was very enthusiastic about our trip and was very helpful. He has done a lot of research about the Jews of Lithuanian and especially about Seta.
We arranged to go visit him at his moshav in the north. He had prepared a lot of material for us, which included maps and background. Also the most important thing was that he connected us with a Jewish garage owner, who lives in Kaunas (Kovno), owns a car, and would be our guide. I phoned him and he agreed to take us wherever we would like to go. He had been to Seta before, with Joseph, which was very helpful. Also he arranged a flat for us which belongs to a Jewish family and is in the centre of Kaunas.
While we were making all the arrangements, passports, airline tickets and insurance, Mommy started to get cold feet and wanted to back out. One of the men who swims with her at the sea every day, scared her, telling her that there was nothing there and that it would be a waste of time and money. Anyway after talking and soothing her the trip was on.
We flew to Vilnius on an Air Lithuania flight which goes every week direct. Arriving in Vilnius was quite a shock, as the terminal is very old and dilapidated. (They are busy building a new one now.) Simon, our guide, met us at the airport and took us to Kaunas to the flat that he had arranged for us. The flat was on the fourth floor in an old looking building, but was very central. We paid the flat owners $50 a day rent and Simon $50 a day for taking us wherever we wanted to go. (The average monthly wage in Lithuania is about $60 a month. Everybody seems to be doing something on the side.)
Later in the afternoon Simon came to take us on a trip around Kaunas. We went to where the ghetto was and from there to where the Jews walked to their deaths at the Fort #9. Fort #9 is one of many old forts surrounding Kaunas. The Nazis converted them into killing grounds. There are signs and stones all around saying how many thousands are buried in each mass grave. All in all the Lithuanian government is looking after all these places and is taking good care of the sites. At Fort #9 there is a museum and a huge andarta commemorating the dead. We drove around Kaunas seeing all different places where Jews were killed.
The next morning Simon picked us up early and we drove to Kelme where my father comes from. I had with me directions of whereabouts the family lived. They lived in a yard next to the Shul and had a big stable which had been converted into a garage. When we got to Kelme we started asking old people where the old Jewish quarter was, but nobody seemed to remember exactly where it was. They pointed here and there, but we couldn't find a thing. Eventually Simon went to the police station to try and get some information there. They were very helpful and a policeman took us to the house of the head of the Jewish community (there are about three Jewish families in Kelme). The parents were away but their daughter who is a medical student was at home. She took us to her grandparents. The grandfather was Jewish, but was not originally from Kelme. However, the grandmother though not Jewish was from Kelme and they were able to help us.
When the Germans invaded Lithuania there was fierce fighting in Kelme and most of the town was destroyed with the Jewish quarter being burned down. All that remained was one small building which was in the middle of a new shopping centre. After taking us there they took us to the old Jewish cemetery which looks reasonably well tended. From there they took us to the mass grave where the Jews from Kelme and surrounding areas were murdered and buried. We lit candles in both places. We said goodbye to the family and left Kelme a bit disappointed.
From there we drove south to Taverig (Taurage) where my father's cousin Meir Berlson comes from. He now lives in Beer Sheva and he had given me the information about my father's house as he used to visit them as a youth. He gave me the address of the house where his family had lived in Taverig and asked me just to photograph the Jewish cemetery in there. We found the address quite easily and the house was still standing there. We asked about the Jewish cemetery and we were told that the area was now a large residential suburb, with no trace of the past. I photographed the house and we headed back to Kaunas. In Lithuania in many places along the roads there are many sign posts to mass graves of Jews killed in the war.
The following day we went with Simon to his flat, where we confirmed our returned bookings, contacted Tal and told her where to get off the train near Kaunas. We then drove to the old city of Kaunas. We went past Mom's old school but it did not make any impression on her at all. We tried to find the place where Mommy worked before she left Lithuania, from the address of the reference that her old boss gave her, but she couldn't recognise the place. An old woman there told us that the buildings used to belong to Jews but she didn't know what happened to them.
In the afternoon Mommy went to visit the family in whose son's flat we were staying, and Simon and I went to get Tal. We had arranged with her to get off the train from Riga at Janova (Meir Tenny came from there.) The station at Janova had flowers and wreaths around it. Today was the anniversary of the beginning of the transporting of Lithuanians by the Russians to Siberia in 1941. Janova was one of the main stations for the transports. It was great seeing Tal again as she had been away for more than two months.
Early next morning Simon picked the three of us up and we started on our way to Seta (Shat). Our first stop was a train station in Zeime (Zeimiai). This was the closest station to Seta and was its link to the rest of the world. From there Mommy would go to school or work in Kaunas and her father Orchik would take and fetch her in the horse and cart or snow sled depending on the weather. Mommy was very exited as the station was exactly as she remembered it. We walked around a bit with Mommy telling us about the place. As we left we met some old farmers and asked them about the Jewish farmers who used to live in the area. They said that the Russians sent them to Siberia. All in all, Jews carried on as usual during the Russian occupation from 1939.
As we approached Seta from Zeime the tension rose a bit. We stopped the car before going over the bridge into the village. We had with us an old postcard of Seta and compared it to the sight we saw now. We could clearly recognise the church and one house which Mommy said she thought belonged to the village photographer. But there the similarity ended. We crossed over and started walking around trying to get our bearings, using the church as a base. But everything was changed and Mommy was completely lost. We started asking about different buildings like the school, but we couldn't find anything. In the meantime a few locals were walking around with us trying to help. From old photos there were lots of big buildings where our family had their shops, and lived upstairs, around a huge square where the markets and fairs were held. This was all opposite the church, which now is quite run down and dilapidated.
After a while the locals took us to Polanski, an old woman who had worked for a Jewish family, Greenblatt, and was supposed to know all Jews from Seta. She sat on a bench outside her house, looked at the photos and tried to remember. She couldn't recall our family but recognised some of Mom's Christian school friends, one of who died just recently. When she saw the photo of our shops she recognised them at once. She sent for another old lady, who had lived about one of our shops. When the Nazis came to Seta the locals threw the Jews out of their houses and moved in. This woman had lived in our house until 1960 when a new Russian governor decided to tear down all the old buildings and build a new center.
When we left Israel Mommy was sure she didn't remember of a word of Lithuanian, a language that she had studied in and worked with sixty years ago. From the first reunion with the language on the plane going over more and more words kept coming back and by the time we left after one week she got around. By the way very few people speak English there, so without a translator it is impossible to get around.
From Polanski's house we walked to the site of the Jewish cemetery. Nothing remains of the gravestones but the place is fenced off and there is a big stone commemorating the dead. We lit a candle there and walked to the center. Now we had more information and with the help of the locals we found the exact place where our shops had been. Now it was a grassy area in front of the post office and police station. They said that if we dug into the earth where we were standing we could uncover the cellars of the houses. The locals then gave us medallions of Seta which really impressed Ma.
After being away for sixty years, Mommy found the distances very muddling and couldn't really get her bearings.
From Seta we drove to Kedainiai which is the main town in the area. We went to the Jewish cemetery that is quite well looked after. We know that one of Mommy's brothers, Shaike, who died quite young from meningitis, is buried there. We walked around a while but couldn't find his grave. From there we went to the mass grave where all the Jews from Kedainiai and the surrounding areas including Seta were killed and buried. The site is off the main roads and quite hard to find, but when we found it we were surprised to see how well it is looked after. The grave is fenced off and at one end there is a stone telling of the 2076 Jews killed and buried here on the 28th of August 1941.
We lit candles and had very hard feelings. It was difficult to absorb everything in such a short time. Mom has a letter from one of her sisters written in May the same year which tells us that one of the brothers just got married and his new bride is not so clever, but the mother-in-law has already managed to grab some money from us. They were also worried about the family in South Africa as they had not heard from them for a long time. At the end of the letter there is a note in his own handwriting "From me Orchik". It is taking a long time for me to digest all what I saw and felt. By going there and through the places and photos these people have become very real and I feel as if I know them.
The following morning, Friday, we went to the market in Kaunas. Anything can be bought, from expensive imported goods to very cheap handmade things that local farmers produce. We strolled around and bought a few things to take home. In the afternoon Mommy wanted to go back to Seta, so we went there again. We walked and drove all around the village but Mommy couldn't recognize anything, which was very frustrating. Simon pointed out houses which he could tell, by the style in which way they were built, had belonged to Jews, but none were familiar.
On Saturday morning early Simon picked up Tal and took her to the bus to Riga. Later he came and fetched Mommy and me and took us the Shul. Until a few years ago the Shul was closed. It was in very bad condition, with broken windows and in need of a lot of repairs. A Jew came from South Africa and donated $30,000 to repair the damage. He also left a sum of money to give to those who were very poor for bus far to come to services on Saturday mornings. On Friday nights there are no services as people don't go out because of the crime. He also left money for a "Tish" (meal) after the service.
There were about 40 people there, most of them old men. They used to have many Torahs, but they were either destroyed or stolen and now they only have one small one. Most of the congregants don't know how to read Hebrew so they have cards in Russian to pray from. After the service we all sat down next to long tables for the "tish". There were plates of bologna (not kosher), cheese, eggs, herring and lots of bread. Also there were enamel mugs for cola and vodka. Everybody got stuck in, and you could see that some of the people were very very hungry. One of the men at our table wore a peak cap with Hebrew writing on it. I asked about him and they told me that he is a Christian who is married to a Jewess. During the war he saved lots of Jews by sneaking them out of the Ghetto and hiding them away. Now every few years some of the survivors bring him to Israel and take him around. He comes to Shul every Saturday.
On Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning we toured a bit and on Sunday afternoon we drove to Vilnius where there is a much bigger Jewish community. We had a meal in a kosher restaurant, and from there went to the airport, said goodbye to Simon and flew back home to Israel.
I'm writing this about four months after the trip and I still have not been able to get all my thoughts in order and to digest the whole experience. What I do know is that it was very important that we went. For Mommy it was important to see once and for all that there is nothing left of our family. For me it gave me a glimpse into a part of my life that has always been missing. Most of all I think that for me and Mommy it was important that Tal was with us. It gives me a feeling of continuation. I'm sure that we all benefitted from this trip and it will leave an impression on us for the rest of our lives.