Thursday, June 29, 2017

Upstream 24: Castles and Court Jews (Thursday, June 8, Nemunas River, just past Gelgaudiskis)

You wouldn't otherwise know it, reading this after the fact,  transcribed to my blog, but I am starting a new "Rite in the Rain" notebook today.  This one is special, because it was a Father's Day gift from Rosa.  

She has been an extraordinary paddling partner throughout this trip, doing more than her share of the heavy lifting, and almost all of the cooking.  What a privilege it has been to share the journey with her.    And it was a great gift idea: "Rite in the Rain" has been handy, as there has been no shortage of rain.


I have, at times on this trip, wondered what extra dimension the long and sometimes monotonous hours of paddling bring to the pilgrimage.  We could have easily rented a car and driven to all the places where I have roots in this country: Vilna, Kovno, Keidan, even tiny Srednik.  Indeed, had we chosen that route, we probably would have made it into Srednik proper for a look around, instead of passing it by on the bank.  We certainly would have had much more time to linger in each destination.

Instead, we devote most of our daylight hours to traveling along the river itself.  As we've seen, plenty of Jewish river rats did this before us, transporting timber to the Baltic Sea.  But that was not my ancestors' path.   I come from scholars, who spent most of their time studying Talmud, eking out a living, and raising their families in Lita's larger towns and cities.  

Yet although the long hours on the river can be arduous--really, because of this challenge--I wouldn't do this journey any other way.  According to the labor, so is the reward.  The difficulty, cliche as it may be, really does help us better appreciate the beauty.  And I think it is the obstacles that define this trip as a pilgrimage rather than heritage tourism.  Life here was hard for the Litvaks, whether they lived in the city or the countryside.  I think we get to know their world a little more authentically when we enter it with some rigor.  No, I am not so naive as to believe that we are suffering daily as my ancestors did.  Thank goodness.  Still, I hope that by taking the river route, we are traveling in the spirit of Jewish Lita.  For this, I am grateful.  And also a little stiff, sore, and tired.


We enjoyed a long lunch at the pier/park at Ploksciai.  There was once a small Jewish community here--39 residents, out of 455, in 1923.  As in the other shtetlach that line the banks of the Nemunas, these Jews were merchants and craftspeople.  Many were ardent Zionists.  The Jews of Ploksciai, and Raudone, on the opposite bank, were historically linked to large aristocratic estates that invited them in; Raudone's large castle still stands.  Both communities were wiped out in the summer of 1941.

Here's a section of a poem by the great Yiddish writer, Y.L. Peretz.  It was first published in 1888, and it is in some ways, prescient of what would tragically unfold half a century later along these riverbanks:


Life is like a river; we are fish.  
The water's wholesome and fresh 
and we would swim forever, 
but for a black figure 
on the riverbank.

There Satan stands, 
in his hands 
a fishing rod, 
and catches fish.  

With a worm that eats the dust, 
a little lust, 
a moment's pleasure, 
the line is baited.  

Hardly a flick 
and the pike flies in the pan 
to be fried or roasted 
on the flames of hell.  

May his name be obliterated!   
we know whose work it is--
and why it works so well. . . 


Alas, I think, as we pass Raudone castle, the story of this community is a kind of microcosm of European Jewish history.  Jews arrive in a district at the invitation of the landed gentry, the great and powerful whose economic interests are served by Jewish bankers and merchants.  When the local peasants inevitably grow resentful of the nobles, who keep them in a state of serfdom, they lack the ability to overthrow their taskmasters, so they take out their anger on those in their employ--the Jews. The serfs cannot eliminate their real persecutors, the nobility, but they can launch murderous pogroms against their overlords' designated lenders and tax collectors.  And the gentry are happy to let the peasants vent their aggression on the expendable Jews, who are easily expelled and then invited back later after resentments die down.  

This cycle was not limited to Europe.  Late 19th century American prairie populism was also fueled by anti-Semitism, as big corporate and political interests twisted small farmers' rightful anger at economic injustice into rage against Jewish scapegoats.  I fear that we might soon see the same phenomenon at play among Donald Trump's supporters today.  How long will it be until Jared Kushner, Trump's "court Jew", takes the fall for his utterly corrupt father-in-law? This is not to excuse Kushner's own misdeeds.  He is no angel, and I decidedly do not share his politics.  But I expect that he will pay a disproportionate price as a Jew in an administration that, despite Jared and Ivanka, plays fast and loose with many of its supporters' blatant anti-Semitism.

In fact, this story dates back long before Europe, to the biblical Joseph as second-in-command to Pharaoh in Egypt.  Time and again, we see it: Jews gain position and prestige in the royal court--and this provokes a backlash of resentment against us.  Then, when that reaction comes, the truly powerful are more than willing to throw us under the bus to protect their own interests.  It works.

Hence the large number of Zionists who lived here in these small towns of Lita--and today, despite Israel's imperfections, constitute the majority of the American Jewish community, too.  To be aware of Jewish history is to understand that, communally-speaking, we Jews cannot assume any significant mastery over our ultimate  fate without political sovereignty in our own land.  The past proves the wisdom of this notion. The Zionists who remained in Lita did not survive the Shoah.  

But, thank God, their vision did.


Enough philosophizing.   We had a lovely morning, lingering in camp until close to noon, then paddling under warm sun until this late lunch.  In another 90 minutes or so, we will reach our destination for the evening, probably near Gelgaudiskis.  How grateful we are for a sunny day!



Of course I spoke--or wrote--too fast.  The sun did not last.  After lunch, the clouds rolled in, with headwinds and waves and, eventually, rain.  After getting so soaked and chilled yesterday while paddling through the squall, this afternoon we decided to pull ashore and wait out the storm.  We huddled on the sandy bank, curled up in our raincoats.  Twenty minutes later, the downpour eased into a drizzle and we continued downstream.

At Pilis pier, across from Gelgaudiskis, we got out of our kayak and walked one kilometer to the Panemunes castle.  Since I did not carry any cash, we took a pass on the five euro, cash-only castle tour. Instead, we walked, for free, through the luxuriant grounds, with well-kept forest and ponds, then used my credit card to purchase dinner in the castle restaurant.  I enjoyed borscht and latkes.  It was tasty and a real joy to eat a meal that someone else cooked and cleaned.


One last hour of paddling after dinner.  It was a pleasure, as evening kayaking here tends to be.  The wind dies down, sunlight pours golden from low over the horizon, and the once tempest-tossed river is now placid as glass.  We found a nice campsite on river left and played gin rummy on Rosa's blanket, which we spread over our own little "beach."  Then, as the sun set, around 10:00 pm, damp clouds of condensation descended over us and, in addition to the usual cuckoo calls, a loud chorus of frogs chimed in.  

Tomorrow, on to Jurbarkas and some Shabbat rest.

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