Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Upstream 23: Family, Wood and Water (Wednesday, June 7, Nemunas River just past Veliuona)

We woke at 8:00, just in time to take down and pack the tent, dry, before the rains came in.  Quick breakfast, abbreviated davenning, then out, with storms threatening, roosters crowing crazily, and a brisk tailwind adding to the steady current pushing us downstream.

Last night, Rosa and I watched a movie on the I-pad.  "A Tale of Love and Darkness" is Natalie Portman's screen adaptation of Amos Oz's memoir of his boyhood, ending with his mother's suicide. It's a tragic narrative, and especially poignant to watch inside a tent pitched deep in the Lithuanian countryside.  Oz's father, Arieh, grew up here, raising cattle and vegetables outside of Vilna.  His mother, Fania, came from Rivne, in the Ukraine.  Throughout the film, she dreams of the Old Country, of sleeping out under the stars in the verdant landscape where all of her family and friends were later murdered by the Nazis.  She struggles with the contrast between her green, fertile homeland in Europe and the parched desert air around her refuge in Jerusalem.  I'd seen the film once before, but viewing it here really brought aspects of Fania and Arieh's experiences to life.


Around 9:00, the clouds and wind blew in, but we still had fairly decent paddling into Vilkija, arriving just as the rain started to fall in earnest.  As we pulled the boat up by a riverside dock, the showers intensified, so we hastened into a nearby park, taking shelter under a grove of large maple trees.  We were a bit nervous about leaving the boat behind, but given the weather, we don't expect many folks to be hanging out by the river looking to steal a kayak.  So when the rain momentarily let up, we hiked into town in search of the zydu kapines, the old Jewish cemetery.  There are probably fewer Jews buried there than there are in the forest, on the bluff beyond the edge of town, where the Nazis and and their Lithuanian accomplices murdered residents of Vilkija and several other villages in the region, but that genocide site is too far away for us to reach on foot, so I planned to leave a stone in the pre-war cemetery in honor of the victims of the Shoah as well as those who came before them.

The park was full of beautiful wood-carvings, mostly sculptures of medieval local heroes and Christian religious figures.  Then, as we turned up the main road, into the village center, we spotted another piece, by the same artist, dedicated to Vilkija's Jewish heritage, with an elegiac Torah and Jewish star and a carving of one of the shtetl's two shuls.   Here, too, the Jewish community was divided along socio-economic lines.  The raftsmen prayed in the humble wooden kloiz; the building in the wood carving is the much grander synagogue where the rabbi and the shtetl's wealthier men came to worship.  

As elsewhere, all ended up in the same forest ditch. 


This carving, standing sentry over the river, through the grey, misty cloud cover,  moved me a great deal.


An old map indicated that the cemetery was near a well-marked folk museum, so we followed signs up a hill and found. . . the museum.  It's a pastoral, fairy-tale cottage, built over 300 years ago as a parsonage.  In the late 19th century, it was the home of Antanas Juska, a local priest, folklorist, linguist, anthropologist and collector of all sorts of quirky art and memorabilia .  It now houses both his eclectic collection and a gallery devoted to the works of contemporary local artists (currently, a series of lovely pieces featuring native birds by a young painter from Kaunas).  We walked through, enjoying the displays of books, bagpipes, dolls, phonographs, pictures, hand tools, and hanging geometric mobiles.  The warmth and dryness felt good, too.

Then the docent, who spoke excellent English, led us out to an enchanting sculpture garden.  It turns out that her husband is the wood carver who crafted the tribute to Vilki's Jewish community and all of the rest of the sculpture scattered throughout the park and the rest of the village.  She showed us around and shared lovely stories about the history of this cottage and its residents--but alas, did not know anything about the location, or even the existence, of the old Jewish cemetery.  We set out and looked a little more, but had no luck, so we decided to head back to the boat, with a stop at a small corner market for coffee (for Rosa) and gummy bears (for both of us), and a brief respite from the rain beneath a bus shelter.


The next ninety minutes of paddling were tough: driving rain, with powerful and unceasing headwinds, whipping up big waves all down the river.  Before long, despite our raincoats, we were thoroughly soaked, then exhausted, cranky, and chilled to the bone.  We had planned to stop at the Seredzius Pier, which is clearly delineated on the map, but does not, in fact, exist.  The town of Seredzius doesn't even reach the riverbank; it's set back on a ridge at the forest's edge, separated from the river by a sizable strip of marshes and fields overgrown with thorns and nettles.  Failing to find a good place to pull over for lunch, we settled for a ragged spot on the right bank,  beneath Seredzius's hilltop cathedral.  Eager to take shelter from the frigid, howling wind,  Rosa ducked behind a patch of brush, while I boiled up some tea and soup.  This helped, as did removing our sopping wet pants. Ever so slowly, we warmed up and regained our composure.  And then, thankfully, the driving rain eased into a light drizzle.

I climbed up a nettle-infested ridge and looked out over the village of Seredzius.  Known in Yiddish as Srednik, it looks much like the other former shtetlach that we've passed on this trip: church atop the bluff, surrounded by small wooden homes and a medieval hill fortress near the river, built by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania to defend against the crusading Teutonic Order.  Situated 38 kilometers northeast of Kovno, Srednik was populated by Jews in the 18th century.  Most were peddlers, craftsmen, and timber merchants, including raftsmen who ran the logs down the Nemunas.  By 1897, 1174 of the town's 1648 residents were Jews--71% of the local population.  Yet here, as elsewhere, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many left for the US and South Africa.  By 1914, only 800 Jews remained.  Most of them owned their own homes, with gardens and orchards where they grew fruit and vegetables.  They traveled to Kovno by boat, as there were no land routes.  Many were ardent Zionists.  And all were murdered with the Jews of Vilki, near the Pakarkles Forest, in August and September of 1941.  


I have a family connection to Srednik: my great grandmother, Toba Nakka (Tillie) Kagan was born here in April of 1868, to Reize and Notel Kagan.  At 17, she married Rabbi Mendel Finkelstein and moved with him to Kovno.  I wish I knew how they met!  Perhaps it was an arranged marriage. My father never met either of his grandparents and even my own grandmother only met her in-laws once, very briefly.  I've often wondered: Were they upset at Joe Fink(elstein) for becoming a Reform rabbi? Was my grandfather embarrassed to have his progressive, German-Jewish American wife and kids see his Old World parents?  Alas, I will never know.

Toba and Mendel had four daughters while living in Kovno: Fannie (born in 1886), Leah (1890), Helen (1891), and Sarah (1893).   Their first, and only, son, my grandfather, Joseph, was born in Springfield, Ohio in 1895.  Two more American-born daughters followed: Clara in 1898 and "change-of-life" baby Rosella in 1909.  Toba died at the too young age of 64, on February 16, 1933.  By then, she was a long time Dayton, Ohio rebbetzin who went by her Americanized name of Tillie.


I left a Boise river stone on an outstretched branch outside Srednik, for Tillie and her neighbors, then we pressed on, still damp but with diminishing wind and rain.  We passsed tiny Kriukai (in Yiddish, Krok) opposite Srednik, on the left bank.  With its dense pine forest, it was another favored vacation spot for Kovno Jews who came in droves each summer by steam boat.  As Pinkas Kehillot Lita notes: 

Almost everyone who lived on the river banks owned a little boat, and for a payment of two kopeks carried people across the river to Seredzius on the opposite bank and back.  A few lived by providing services to the vacationers who came in the summer.


Thankfully, by evening, the weather shifted.  The sun made a most welcome appearance and the water, so turbulent during the day, grew smooth as glass.  This made for excellent paddling--so wildly different from the soggy slog just a few hours earlier.  

We get a little of everything on this journey, often on the same day: relaxation and exertion, laughter, pain, struggle, celebration, kvetching and kvelling, fatigue and renewal.    So it went this afternoon.

In that luminous evening hour, under golden light, on placid waters we stopped at the Veliuona pier and climbed to the top of the local hill fort, which offered a marvelous view over the river.  It was gorgeous: sunny, expansive, charming.   

Then we made camp, just past Veliuona, around 7:00, where we bathed, played cards, and enjoyed a spectacular sunset around 10:00, just before the rain returned, with us tucked happily into our tent.  I hear it even now, tapping on the rainfly, which does such a service, keeping us warm and dry.  We're hoping for sun tomorrow--our last full day before our Shabbat layover in Jurbarkas.

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