20s & 30s | Town & Village Synagogue
This meeting is focused on the needs of new members of NA. Rr. This meeting has a fixed . Town & Village Synagogue, Ground Floor. Auditorium - Closed. Meet new friends. Expand your Jewish life. Come connect, engage and be inspired by our warm and vibrant Jewish community of 20's & 30's. Join us for social. Join 20s and 30s for monthly Shabbat dinners, happy hours, and other events! Bring friends, colleagues, significant others, or come alone and meet new.
In Veisiejai, where the Yiddish-speaking inventor of Esperanto Ludwik Zamenhof worked as a doctor over a century ago, a middle-aged man smelling of samagonas directs me to the wooden former Beit Midrash where a sign by the locked entrance says it now functions as a Baptist church. Darker than the average Lithuanian, a farmer by the name of Darius stops to pick me up. He has no idea. I climb the stairs and talk a young woman by the name of Viktorija who I find sitting on her own in an office.
She accompanies me downstairs, points me in the direction of the bus station and wishes me luck. After a long wait spent mostly under an umbrella a car full of people stops and I squeeze into the back. The partly surviving walls of former Great Synagogue are about to fall down, the former Beit Midrash is partially renovated and the former Talmud Torah School, a large Star of David over the entrance, is as beautiful as it is depressing.
I walk to the Via Baltica and throw stones into a field as a steady stream of lorries roars past in the opposite direction. Not sure where to go I ask a man standing in front of his house where the former synagogue is and he obliges by drawing a map in the dirt with a homemade scythe. I walk past a rusty plough in a hedge to the deserted former marketplace where I find Pranas pouring himself a beer, the proprietor of—and the only customer in—the only bar in town.
Pranas tells me everyone he knows or knew has either passed away or now lives somewhere else. During a particularly gruesome massacre the killers picked the Jewish children up by their feet and smashed their heads against the trees in a local park. Pranas was seven at the time and remembers it well. I walk to the bus stop. More than enough for today. He knows nothing about the former Beit Midrash or the former Great Synagogue, the drastically altered remains of both I find standing not far away.
Nearby, the former Hakhnasat Orhim Synagogue has been renovated and converted into an art gallery. A plaque by the door remembers its original purpose and shapes where pointy windows used to be betray its original use.
Mark and Jelena are friends from Vilnius on their way to a party on the Curonian Spit. Jelena calls and we arrange to meet. I walk for a while and take a rest from the heat by the side of a long and empty stretch of road bordered by wild flowers and abandoned collective farms. We drive out of town via the empty former marketplace as a car appears out of nowhere and smashes into the side of us.
It starts to rain as Mark and Jelena wait for the police with mixed emotions on their faces. I walk up the hill, throw stones at a sign on an empty stretch of road for a while and walk back to the station to catch the bus. An old man milks a cow in a nearby field as a van pulls into the bus stop and gives me a lift.
Set just back from the road we find another wooden building in the early stages of disintegrating and walk round it as the rain starts to fall again. The money could be better but he stays. Home is where the heart is. A thriving and relatively modern shtetl in its day, Rietavas has since fallen on hard times. Antanas, whose job description I never ask, takes me on a short walking tour before we arrive at the former Beit Midrash, until recently a funeral parlour, a cinema during the Soviet occupation and today empty and abandoned.
Walking out of town a stork blocks the pavement. I wish it luck. Trees and bushes grow inside. Large holes let in sunlight where the roof used to be. Next door is the wooden former Beit Midrash, a corrugated asbestos roof covering what appear to be the original wooden shingles. I cross a small bridge over a stream and walk back to the main road where a young man with a glint in his eye and an opinion or two to go with it picks me up and drives me to Gardamas.
I decline her offer and wish her luck. An elderly man stops to pick me up. I remember the reformist rabbi and famed Torah scholar Israel Salanter, who set the bar for ethical behaviour higher than any Jewish spiritual leader before him, lived in the town at a time when it was alive with Jewish shops, flax merchants, flour mills, shoemakers, tailors, doctors, pharmacists and much more. I remember a rabbinic conference once took place here to discuss the need for educational reform and the publication of daily newspapers in Yiddish and Hebrew as a man on a chair holds up a Lithuanian newspaper to show me some photographs of cats for reasons that I also fail to comprehend.
I set off to find the former synagogue and ask a man standing next to a square wooden building with a pointy roof if he knows where it is. Protected by the Lithuanian State and owned by the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the building is a sad-looking sight on the outside. As evening approaches I sit on the balcony of a pizza restaurant in the city centre and remember the lack of traffic today, and that tomorrow—Sunday—will be even worse. I cross the former marketplace where on October 2, a detachment of SS Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian accomplices began the slaughter of over 2, Jewish men, women and children, a job that was completed later in the day in a nearby park.
Across the street a plaque on a surviving pre-war building remembers where the mikvah used to be. Next to the fire station, the former Great Beit Midrash is now a sports hall, and, so I later learn, a school for children with special needs.
She phones a friend and eventually we work out where it is. The former marketplace is huge. Many of the buildings that surround it have brass plaques fixed to the walls remembering the Jews, Poles, Russians, Lithuanians and others who once lived and worked in them.
Many are empty and abandoned. Piles of firewood are visible through a small window round the back and I remember the Jewish slaves who were forced to dig up and burn the corpses at the Ninth Fort, the notorious mass murder site on the outskirts of Kaunas where on one day alone in October almost 10, Jews, among them over 4, children, were murdered and where today people walk their dogs, have family picnics and—if you can believe it—dance.
We talk about the Litvaks and like most people I meet on the journey he knows little about them. Hungry, I order and eat a kebab. Ian arrives with a smile on his face and we leave. High up on a gable is the Hebrew date of its construction, A heritage protection plaque hangs pointlessly on the wall and several tyres lie in the long grass round the back.
Between the wars almost every shop in town was owned by a Jew. We drive to Pakruojis where the wooden former synagogue is a patchwork of old and new timber having recently been restored. We leave for Lygumai where the beautiful and privately-owned red brick former synagogue sports an uninhabited wheel for storks on its roof. Trees grow dangerously close to its foundations.
Rozalimas is a deserted village with orange marigolds lining the sides of its otherwise lifeless streets. Back towards the Catholic church a yellow wooden house stands where the rabbi used to live. A few doors down, and unlike the children who once studied inside it, a building that once housed a Jewish school survives.
I walk through an unlocked door, let myself in and find no clue to its original purpose. A sleepy village of less than residents, its former synagogue, a meat-processing plant during the Soviet period, is as exquisite as it is forgotten, a plaque on the wall providing a potted history of the Jews who once made up almost 70 percent of its population in just 40 words. The former shtetl of Pasvalys, once home to a substantial Karaim or Karaite community, is one of the oldest towns in Lithuania and possibly the only settlement in the world featuring a building supplies shop with preserved bimah columns inside.
I wonder where they are today. Just round the corner from the former marketplace in Vabalninkas are the former Great Beit Midrash and the former Shamashim Kloyz, today a funeral parlour and sauna respectively.
Both are locked and the surrounding streets are completely deserted. I sometimes joke that Lithuania is empty, and as I travel through one desolate landscape after another I start to believe that there may be some truth in what I say. The former Hasidic Synagogue itself is divided into flats and looks like any other domestic dwelling in town.
One retains much of its original beauty and reveals a sports hall when I look through a window. The other, the former Great Beit Midrash, is a tastelessly renovated block of flats, a ghastly shade of yellow with a brown plastic roof. She disappears through a door and returns with an armful of old black and white photographs, including one of an anonymous Jewish owner of a windmill, another profession not normally associated with Jews, Ashkenazi or otherwise.
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I decide to come back in the morning and spend the evening enjoying cold drinks on the hotel terrace with Ian and Harry, the latter an Australian citizen with Litvak roots who spends his summers in the town. Exhausted from another weird and busy day and with 17 destinations still to go, I say goodnight and climb the hotel stairs to bed.
The corpses were spread out at the bottom of a pre-dug grave before a group of Soviet prisoners of war covered them with soil and lime—the latter to prevent animals from digging them up—in preparation for the next layer of victims. It was reported at the time that several tractors requisitioned for the slaughter ran their engines at full power to cover the noise of the gunfire and the screaming. I pay a quick visit next door to the former Great Synagogue whose doors are still locked and receive a text message from Harry wishing me luck as I walk out of the old town and head towards the bus station.
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I spend two hours on the edge of town trying to get a lift to Jonava, throwing stones at nothing in particular and watching a horse rolling on its back in a nearby field. A combine harvester gathers crops and an old man walks out of the village to watch the show. A bus finally arrives and takes me to Jonava, the former shtetl where over 80 percent of the population was Jewish a century or so ago. The former Great Beit Midrash on the other hand is a large and empty former factory with no clue to its original use.
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