Monday, July 10, 2017

Upstream 26: Shabbat in Jurbarkas (Saturday, June 10, Jurbarkas Bed and Breakfast)

We woke, well-rested, at 8:30, and enjoyed a marvelous fresh breakfast--fruit and vegetables, eggs and cheese, and our hostess' delicious homemade sour cherry jam on toasted whole wheat rolls. We're joined at the bountiful table by five other guests: a family of four Lithuanians ( attractive thirty-something parents, their eleven-year old son, and the paternal grandfather) and an unrelated Irishman. As it turns out, the young Lithuanian family lived in Dublin for six years, where the father worked with the Irishman and made him his son's godfather.  They are traveling through Lithuanian together, and currently visiting the grandfather, a retired engineer who directed the reconstruction of most of post-war Jurbarkas during the Soviet era.  As we ate and chatted, he passed around a collection of old pictures of local places and residents.  I wanted to ask him about his memories of the Jews who lived here when he was a young boy, but his English was not good and it seemed a bit too heavy a topic to broach with his family over a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast at the B&B.   Not everyone considers brunch and talk of genocide compatible matters, so I kept quiet.

The Irishman decidedly did not.  He was funny, lively, personable--and talked a blue streak, offering a non-stop stream of snarky comments, jokes, and stories.  Rosa and I laughed at how everyone at this meal seemed to live up to their national stereotypes: the stoic, somber Lithuanians keeping their eyes turned downward while the glib Irishman regaled the company.  I wonder what they thought of the crazy American kayakers.


Jurbarkas--Yarburg in Yiddish--was a border town, influenced by both Germanic Prussia and czarist Russian Lithuania.  In 1862, 2550 Jews lived here.  As elsewhere in the region, many were involved in the timber trade, floating lumber downstream to Baltic seaports.  

The close proximity to Prussia/Germany influenced the local Jewish community, which was more inclined toward Haskallah/Enlightenment ideas and innovations than some of the more traditional Lithuanian shtetls.  In 1884, residents established a forward-thinking Talmud Torah that taught Hebrew, mathematics, grammar, and Russian in addition to the standard religious subjects.  One of the teachers there was Abraham Mapu, the Kovno Jew who would become known as the first Hebrew novelist and an important proto-Zionist figure.  Pinkas Kehillot Lita notes:

Yarburg was famous in Lithuania for its nationalistic atmosphere and Hebrew culture that dominated it.  One of the two public parks was almost officially called "Tel Aviv" and the Hebrew high school was called "Herzl". . . The Maccabi sports organization with about 100 members, an urban kibbutz of HeHalutz  named "Patish" (hammer) and branches of all Zionist parties were established.

Of course none of this remains in today's Jurbarkas.  From June-September of 1941, the Germans and their Lithuanian accomplices killed about 1900 Jews.  Only a tiny handful survived, hidden by righteous gentile Lithuanian locals.


After breakfast, we walk all over town.  This is easy, as Jurbarkas is not very big.  Wood sculptures are scattered through the park at the town's center, as they have been in nearly every village we've encountered on our journey.  Lithuanians love wood.  This is a forest nation, the last country in Europe to be Christianized, and thus, even with its omnipresent churches, a place where vestiges of sylvan paganism remain strong.  Today, many of the carvings are explicitly Christian--lots of saints and scholastics--but the pre-Christian roots show through in the images and aesthetics.  


We eat lunch at a cheap and excellent pizza place, outdoors, in a rain that moves from mist to drizzle to downpour, then return to the bed and breakfast for a Shabbat afternoon nap.  It's challenging for me, as a vegetarian, to get enough protein in this meat-loving country, so I'm often tired by mid-afternoon. The nap feels great.  Then we walk some more.  We don't see any clearly, unequivocally Jewish sites here, as we did in Kovno and Keidan.  But we do pass numerous old wooden homes and storefronts, including one marked Vaistine, which is Lithuanian for "pharmacy."  I suspect that many of these places were once Jewish houses and workplaces--and even if these specific places were not inhabited by Jews, they give us a good feeling of what local Jewish spaces would have looked like seventy-five years ago.  We stop outside these buildings and linger a while, trying to imagine how our landsmen might have lived.


Tomorrow we will head back out for our final week on the river, first on the Minija (from Gargzdai/Gorzd to the Nemunas delta) and then up the Curonian Lagoon to Klaipeda/Memel.   We've had some long paddling days, but for the most part, our time has gone quickly.  I am most grateful for these Shabbat rest days, which renew and rejuvenate us.  

Shavua tov.  May it be a good week.

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