Friday, June 9, 2017

Upstream 9: The River Jews of Yaneve (Thursday, May 25, Neris River, between Salupiai and Sviloniai)

I'm standing on the bank of the river after breakfast, davenning, as per my usual morning routine.  it's a gorgeous day, the sun warm on my face.  I sing the Sh'ma very slowly, Shhh-----mmmm----ahhh--Listen!  I hear the constant chorus of birdsong, the music of the river flowing pastel--and then the unmistakable sharp percussion of gun shots (and yes, I know the sound of gun shots in the rural landscape--I do not own a firearm, but I am an Idahoan, after all. . . )

It is terribly--chilling--to hear gunshots here.  I cringe and think: "How many were saying Sh'ma, like me, in this very forest, by this very river--as gun shots sent them to their death in the ditches they had just dug?"

I suspect that this was someone shooting targets, or just blasting away with a rifle, as folks are wont to do.  There were too many shots, in too rapid a succession, for this to be a hunter.  The shooter likely has no idea how terrifying this act of firing a gun in this forest can be, how it summons up the most tragic ghosts of history for Rosa and me.  I tremble--then count myself among the lucky ones, listening here and now, at a safe distance, rather than seventy five years ago on a similarly warm summer day.  


The morning paddling was rather mundane.  We set out at 10 and made it into the town of Jonava around 1:00.  We pulled onto the land at a riverside park by the main bridge connecting the town across the Neris.  It was uncrowned, with just a few folks sunbathing and enjoying a late lunch.  We walked up to a bench beside a large cross facing the river--a Catholic memorial of some sort--and gathered our things.  Then I got on Google maps on my phone and did a search for the memorial to the Jews of Jonava--or, in Yiddish, Yaneve--killed in the Shoah.  It was too far away for us, limited by being on foot and reluctant to leave our boat alone for very long.  But with my few words of acquired Lithuanian, I found Zydu Kapines Parkas.  Well, I know that Zydu is "Jewish" and kapines is "cemetery" and figured that parkas is "park": Jewish Cemetery Park, just half a kilometer away.  So while Rosa rested and watched the boat, I followed the Google map (thank you, Google--this tool is a great blessing on this trip!) and set off into town.

Jonava is a pleasant place.  I passed lots of pedestrians, bustling shops, a library and a cultural center advertising a forthcoming Jonava festiva. Finally, I arrived at the Google destination and found. . . nothing.  Old houses, a dilapidated street.   Then I noticed a few stones in the overgrown field.  Well, that field had been the old Jewish cemetery--and it was now a "park" where folks walk their dogs among the crabgrass and dandelions.

I found one very old marker intact, with a Jewish star on it.  Before this journey, I gathered a bunch of stones from the banks of the Boise River, near the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights memorial--with the intent to leave these stones at Jewish burial sites here.  I deposited one, along with a Hamsa bracelet that Jonah and I made.  Then I sang El Malei Rachamim, the traditional Jewish mourners' prayer, right there in the old cemetery, for the Jews of the city buried there, and those murdered in the forests nearby.  I lingered and pondered their fate and my own, how much in our lives depends upon luck and fate, being born in the right--or wrong--time and place.  Then I walked back to meet Rosa, stopping in the market for a little beer and chocolate, which we shared on the riverbank before setting back out on our way.


My Litvak ancestors were rabbis and rebbetzins, pious Torah scholars from the yeshivas of Keidan and Slabodka--in many ways, the images we tend to conjure of Old Country Jews.  But there were many other types of Jews, especially here in Jonava/Yaneve.  

Samuel Goldsmith describes this community in his memoir, "My Yaneve":

It is true to say that Yaneve was never a center of Jewish learning. Some Lithuanian towns, Volozhin, Telzh, Lyda, Slobodka near Kovno (I refer to “Classical Lithuania”) used to be famous as places of Jewish learning. And then there was Vilna. Yaneve claimed no such fame. There were one or two great Talmudic scholars in the place, but they had come from other places and brought their learning with them. There was no Yeshiva in Yaneve. Nor was there a Jewish high school. All Jewish Yaneve had was a Hebrew primary school and a Yiddish school of rather low standing. The rabbis came from outside and so did the teachers. The children of Yaneve usually continued their education in larger towns.
It would be difficult to name a world-famous Jew who hailed from Yaneve. Here and there a scholar; here and there a painter. Neither of them very well known. But the Jews of Yaneve as a group made a profound impact upon Jewish life in the Diaspora. They were profound, devoted to Eretz Israel, stubborn fighters for Jewish rights. Every Jew within this group was a man and a brother. I cannot recall a really bad Jewish character in the town. I still like to say, “We men of Yaneve…”
Before Israel and Zionism and chalutzim kibbutzniks, there were already plenty of tough Jews who earned their living by the sweat of their brows and lived close to the land and its rivers.  Goldsmith adds:

significant part of the Jews of Yaneve drew their livelihood from the river and the dense forests in the district. The trees used to be cut, rolled into the river, tied together into rafts with special ropes, and navigated downstream to Germany. For the Viliya flows into the Nieman, which flows into the Baltic Sea on the German side.  There were several specialties in this trade: the merchants, the navigators, and the middlemen. Some of this timber used to be bought by local Jewish furniture makers. Yaneve was – and still is – a world center of the furniture industry. Many other Jews made a living in subsidiary trades. There were leather merchants, smiths – gold and black -, cobblers, tailors, and grain dealers. My father was a leather merchant. . . There were some poor Jews, of course, but it was not a “Shtetl” as described by American Jewish novelists. Nobody opened up a shop and hoped that the Almighty will send him customers. The Jews in Yaneve knew what they wanted to do, and the craftsmen were well trained. The furniture made in Yaneve used to be sold all over the world.
Best of all I remember the expert navigators, who took the rafts down to the Baltic Sea. They were not unlike British seamen or Norwegian fishermen. It is the influence of long hours on the river or at sea. They used to eat and drink on the rafts. To be a good navigator, you had to have physical strength, agility, powers of observation and endless patience.
On this journey, I realize that I am drawn to both of these Jewish traditions--the scholars, represented by my rabbinic ancestors, but also the Yanover burlakes, the tough Jewish river rats of Yaneve and other nearby towns.  I want to be a rabbi and a river runner, to embrace Yaneve and Slabodka.
And to remember that in the summer of 1941, the tough Jews and the pale Talmudic sages died in the same forests.
We left around 3:30 pm.  The morning and early afternoon were sunny but we could feel the weather changing, with the wind whipping up saves and the gusts of chilly, damp air blowing in from the west carried more than a hint of the Baltic Sea.  I suggested we paddle hard to make some miles before the squalls came in, and we did--but within thirty minutes, the heavens let loose a downpour.  Rosa put on her raincoat; I just got soaked.  We both paddled even harder and picked up speed in the storm.  
Around 6 pm we found a campsite--a real, dedicated campsite, high on the bank, river left.  It was hard work to get the kayak and all of our things ashore, but well worth it, as the weather cleared and we enjoyed a great night in a flat, lovely site and lit a bonfire.  I strung up a clothes line, and our things dried nicely in the 9 pm sun--and we got a good phone signal so we sent text messages and I got to speak with Janet and Jonah.  It was a beautiful evening, the end of an eventful day.

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