Like many immigrants, they often think about returning for a visit to their homeland, perhaps with the dream of moving back one day only to realize that when they do return, the idolization was a fabrication.
For years my father had a dream- a wish, not to move back but to see the village where he was born and schooled in Pilviskiai, Lithuania. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. He passed away almost 30 years ago after becoming successful Montreal business who had a comfortable home and raised three children. He came to Canada not to look for the roads paved with gold but to get away from the rampant and growing anti –Semitism. He was still in his teens and when he entered Canada he was sent out west to do what he knew best, farm.
I recall his telling me about his family’s two farms in the small village where everyone knew each other. There were only a few hundred people and a very small percentage were Jews who lived in their “shtetl”, the small Jewish community. Even back those many decades, Jews were considered lower class and certainly not citizens even though many had fought in wars for Lithuania. The community was tight knit and excluded from the others who were mostly Catholics (98% of the population presently is Catholic while only .05% are Jewish.)
Religion was important for the continuity of the Jewish ancestry and they prayed at the small wooden ‘shul’ (synagogue) which was permitted by the municipality to be built with the caveat that it be hidden behind their houses and not visible from the streets. This was an edict throughout the country.
I often thought about going to see Pilviskiai (Pilvischok in English), remembered by my dad as a small farming village.
I admit I had no great emotional input for a country that had murdered 95% of the Jewish population which made up a great proportion of the country’s people. The Jews had achieved such high academic and commerce standards and advanced the progress of many professions in a country that successfully wiped them out. However, seeing where my ancestors lived was always a curiosity.
I had visited my mother’s homeland, Poland, a few years ago. Interestingly, when I mentioned to a Polish friend that my mother was also Polish, he admonished me by saying she may have been born in Poland but she was a Jew, not a Pole. I realized that applied to my father’s homeland too.
We Canadians take for granted how lucky we are. If you’re born in Canada, no matter the religion or colour, you are a Canadian. This fact was always most important to my father who was the ultimate Canadian. He loved his adopted country and what it had given and provided for him especially a family that would be safe and to which he gave back as much as he could.
Not only does my work as a travel journalist keep me on and off planes, in and out of new destinations giving me the opportunity to see the highlights of the world but also the poverty to balance my views. So a visit to Lithuanian was on my ‘bucket list’.
I don’t know a word of Lithuanian other than the few words my manicurist taught me..”thank you, please, hello, good morning, where is and how much is”. This, indeed, pleased many locals who kindly corrected the emphasis and pronunciation of the words
My parents spoke either Yiddish, when they didn’t want us to know what they were saying (a not unusual story but I did learn to understand every word) or heavily accented English which my father never lost. Occasionally they threw in some French since we lived in Montreal and my father’s employees were mainly French speaking. My mother had mastered that language but my dad never really did. So the common languages were Yiddish and less- than- perfect English. In fact, I once asked my father to say something to me in his native language and he had actually forgotten the vocabulary. Imagine not having one perfected language?
There was very little I knew about his early life. However, I have a cousin who was born in Pilviskiai but left with her family to live in Israel (then Palestine) as a the three year old. Being a former Israeli diplomat, she had the connections to find out about our small family, our original name which had been Anglicized when my father came to Canada (another recurring theme for immigrants), as her name too was changed to Hebrew when she moved to Israel. She has no recollection of the village but was able to get some helpful information and even requested and received her birth certificate. Her brother who had various documents like their parent’s wedding certificate, passports was able to obtain a Lithuanian passport.
Now, over the years as a writer, I have a Rolodex of contacts, so I was able to get assistance from the newly arrived Lithuanian Ambassador to Canada who was most helpful in arranging part of this trip..no easy matter since the ‘how to’ in tourism isn’t yet high on the list in Lithuania.
Being the first and so far the only one of the family to ever go to Lithuania, let alone, Pilviskiai, I felt I carried a load on my shoulders, like the wandering Jew, to come back with details.
About 7 hour drive from Vilnius, the capital city, and on fine paved, four lane highways, Loreta, my guide and I, made a few stops along the way. One of the first stops was at the ancient Trakai Castle surrounded by a moat with the mandatory draw bridge built for defense purposes in the 15th century, situated on an island amid wonderful lush greenery. And then there was the bizarre, Hill of Crosses, where 200,000 crosses and more ‘planted’ each day, sits prominently on a hill, looking like an eerie forest which commemorates weddings, anniversaries, births, deaths and hope for miracles.
One of the truly lovely areas is the country’s only port Klaipeda and gateway to the sea. Nida, where we had stayed overnight is the Martha’s Vineyard of Lithuania on the Curonian Spit (a long track of land butting into the sea) a short ferry ride away from Klaipeda. It’s a national park with great flora and fauna, obviously peaceful enough to attract author Thomas Mann who purchased a home and lived there for three years. It’s also where the highest sand dunes in Europe are located from which it’s possible to see a piece of Russia jutting out into the sea, made this an unforgettable few hours. Am I the Canadian Sarah Palin??
For the entire time it had been sunny and warm. Of course, every tree and flower, the Baltic Sea , the old Gothic, Neo Classic, Renaissance and Baroque churches looked amazing counteracting the hideous grey concrete Soviet slab buildings.
But the day we arrived in Pilviskiai, the skies opened and it seemed like an omen. The rain was nonstop. It was cold and the dampness went right into the bones. Seeing the town, no more a village, was even more depressing than it probably would have been had the sun come out.
It isn’t even a bitter-sweet tale. The birds didn’t chirp, the flowers were nonexistent and the people looked sad. All I could come back with was the fact that I had been there and was happy that my father didn’t ever have to travel to see the devastation of his village and see a religion, now nonexistent, that was once so vibrant. Luckily, I had no great expectations since this village with only a few hundred people then, hasn’t changed.
Houses that belonged to Jews and a few still exist still had nail marks from mezuzahs (Holy Scrolls) that had been removed. These quaint small wooden houses were now brightly painted in yellow, blue and orange. But even these hues didn’t hide the fact that this was a town with no soul, no memory. In fact, the Jewish cemetery had been totally destroyed and now in its place are five recently installed headstone on a very small, fenced in piece of land. A few of my father’s 4 siblings moved to Montreal , another South Africa and his parents and one sibling never saw these destinations. They are buried somewhere in the now ruined cemetery.
There was once a small synagogue which no longer exists but a ‘shul’ (synagogue) was in the outskirts near another small town. In total disrepair, this grey weathered, uncared for wooden padlocked shack on the verge of collapse which hasn’t been utilized for decades, is now not even mentioned as one of the few synagogues left in the country.
Each village and town then as now, has a town square and sure enough there is a small one with small shops, a grocery store, some outdoor food stalls and a restaurant that seemed out of place with its grand, albeit, kitschy décor. And the typical food like cepelinai (shredded potatoes stuffed with meat, rolled into balls and boiled)was delicious. Potatoes are a constant on all Lithuanian menus. This comfort food seemed to be the only source of enjoyment on that dreary day.
Ironically, my father had developed a significant trucking company in Quebec and would have enjoyed the sight in Pilviskiai, to see large tankers zoom through the narrow streets of his birth town, probably carrying local produce to the major marketplaces.
Wanting to know more, Loreta had pre arranged a meeting with the director of the city hall in the adjoining town, Vilkaviskio. Although records go back to 1922, and my brother and I think our father left in 1923, there is no record of the family except that the name was known and recorded. That’s all he had come up with. It was obvious he was a Soviet left-over since work didn’t seem to be part of his daily duty. He just shrugged as I questioned him about the environs and various long gone Jewish inhabitants and their history.
I think the only remnants from my dad’s time was that the farm land was still arable, fertile, the soil dark and producing healthy crops of potatoes, corn and beets.
But nothing could delete the memory of what separated the families that felt so rooted to the land, in the country that would eventually forced them to leave or die.
It’s not an original tale since these identical situations happened in many countries in Europe. But knowing this small town may have saved the few of their neighbors (truth is that my cousin’s uncle was indeed, hidden in a cellar so there were a few Righteous Gentiles) who lived in this village, has left me with a most uncanny fear. Can anti Semitism, so strong again in many European countries, ever happen in North America?
The respite was when I visited the ORT Funded Sholom Aleichem School (Canadian ORT chapters contribute to this school). There are about 125 children, not all Jewish but certainly the majority are, sitting in front of computers. ORT was founded in 1880 in Russian to educated and feed Jewish children.
There is an active chapter of ORT in Toronto and most large cities in Canada have ORT offices as does the US. It is now non -denominational , located in over 100 countries and has advanced over 3 million children. The technology knowledge will hopefully help them out of poverty.
Misha Jakobas, born in Lithuania after WW II, a former math teacher and now director/principal, was the most excellent guide one could have. He is extremely proud of the school’s reputation and the accomplishments of the graduates whose entrance into university is above the average. Starting at 7 years old until university age, the standards are much higher than all other schools in Lithuania. Getting children enrolled into Shalom Aleichem School, is no easy feat since there are more applicants than space.
At the first three classrooms I visited, children were working at their computers while a teacher constantly looked over the students’ work. Suddenly there was a crush of the cutest kids. It was noon and time for their complimentary lunch. What a joy to see happy faces after some rather difficult times for the Jewish people of all ages in Lithuania.
The land of my heritage certainly didn’t bring a smile to my face until seeing the youngsters who will be the future of the county.