Monday, July 10, 2017

Upstream 27: Sometimes a Great Notion (Sunday, June 11, Minija River, near Ziaukos)

We launch this afternoon in Gargzdai, on the Minija River.  In Yiddish, the town was known as Gorzd. Like Keidan, it was a village built on land that once belonged to the Radvilla family, a line of prominent Protestant nobles known for their tolerance and entrepreneurism.  Napoleon's army camped here on their fateful march toward Russia in 1812. 

Gorzd's Jewish community was one of Lithuania's oldest, pre-dating the much larger city of Memel/Klaipeda, where we plan to finish our journey at week's end. Documents dating back to the fifteenth century cursorily mention Jews serving as tax collectors in Gorzd.  Still, our knowledge of the community's pre-19th century history  is scarce.   Apparently the Jews of Memel buried their dead here, at least until the partition of Lithuania in 1795, when Memel became part of Prussia, while Gorzd ended up in the Russian Pale of Settlement.  

Here, as in so many other river towns we've passed in the last three weeks, a significant portion of the Jewish community earned a living in the lumber industry, cutting timber and floating it down the river to larger mercantile centers.  Last year, while camping on the Oregon Coast, I read Ken Kesey's novel, Sometimes a Great Notion.  Set in a small Oregon estuary town, it's the story of a logging family running timber downstream, struggling against both natural obstacles of water and weather, and human adversaries: the understandably resentful striking union workers in their own community . The world depicted in the story is often brutal, filled with cruel injuries, human slights, and at least one drowning.  It is a great but also entirely goyish epic.  Kesey certainly didn't imagine Jews in this line of work.  Yet here in Lithuania, lumber was a very Jewish business.

Because of its proximity to Prussia, many Gorzd residents were drawn toward modernist, Enlightenment Jewish trends.  Pinkas Kehillot Lita notes that the Jews of Gorzd were open to the influence of German culture and most of them knew how to speak German.  In the interwar years of independent Lithuania, Gorzd prospered, as the community exported flax, animal hides, chickens, beans, and other merchandise to Germany.  By 1939, Gorzd had essentially become a commuter village, as 80% of the residents went off to work in Memel.  

Then the Nazis annexed Memel and Gorzd suddenly became a border town again.  Too close to the Nazis for comfort, those Jewish residents with the means to leave usually did.  The lucky ones found refuge in the US and South Africa; most fatefully fled east, to other parts of Lithuania, where the Nazis caught up with them just two years later.  In September of 1941, those who remained in Gorzd were murdered in the forest, largely by Lithuanian nationalists.  As Pinkas Kehillot Lita recounts the tragedy:

Only one woman, Rachel Yomi, was able to save herself by pretending that she was dead, and she is the single witness to what happened.  A Lithuanian teacher named Gritzius. . . concealed her during all the years of the war.  After the war, Rachel married her rescuer.


I can't fathom this.  To witness the slaughter of your entire family, all of your friends and neighbors. To be the lone survivor,  left for dead, then hidden--and then to marry your non-Jewish rescuer.  What was this marriage like?  Today--June 11--is my own anniversary.  What would it be like, I wonder, to live in partnership with the one to whom you owe everything?  How could Rachel Yomi endure staying in this place when the war ended, after all she'd seen?  Oh how I wish I could hear her tale! Alas, there is no record.

So in lieu of her words, a poem by Abraham Sutzkever, originally in Yiddish and translated by Cynthia Ozick.  It is dedicated to Yanova Bartoszewicz, the Polish woman who hid Sutzkever in her cellar and brought food to his family in the Vilna Ghetto during a period of mass liquidation in late October of 1941.  Sutzkever later planted a tree in her honor at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem:


And when I go up as a pilgrim in winter, to recover 
the place I was born, and the twin to self I am in my mind, 
then I'll go in black snow as a pilgrim to find 
the grave of my savior, Yanova.

She'll hear what I whisper, under my breath: 
Thank you.  You saved my tears from the flame.
Thank you.  Children and grandchildren you rescued from death.
I planted a sapling (it doesn't suffice) in your name.

Time in its gyre spins back down the flue 
faster than nightmares of nooses can ride, 
quicker than nails.  And you, my savior, in your cellar you'll hide 
me, ascending in dreams as a pilgrim to you.

You'll come from the yard in your slippers, crunching the snow 
so I'll know.  Again I'm there in the cellar, degraded and low, 
you're bringing me milk and bread sliced thick at the edge.  
You're making the sign of the cross.  I'm making my pencil its 


Justas picks us up in Jurbarkas a bit after noon.  He talks and laughs with our hostess, who, as it turns out, he knows from a stay of his own in her B&B a few years ago.  She was a real pleasure, kind and industrious and very welcoming.  Just what we needed this weekend.

We drive about three hours to the put-in, making a few wrong turns along the way.  No matter.  Justas is, as always with us, in high spirits.  He mentioned that he is hoping to line up some media interviews for Rosa and me at trip's end.  This would give him some good publicity--and he deserves it.  I'm happy to help him out with this, as he has been invaluable, and a real mentsch.  He drove hours to reach us today, brought us a much-needed fuel canister, and shared his abundant knowledge of Lithuanian history along the ride, between business calls.  He's always juggling projects, a very lively businessman with diverse interests.  Rosa and I both note that he seems to take great pride in our journey across his country, and his role in it.  This is a source of joy to me, a tiny but real act of tikkun, of healing, in a Litvak history in deep need of such measures.  


We're on the river at 4:00 pm, our last and latest start of the journey.  Justas drops us off at a lovely put-in beside a shady bridge over the Minija in the heart of Gargzdai.  We're heavy-laden, with a fresh supply of food, and, for the first time, over fifteen liters of fresh water stashed in the hull.  We're expecting to need it on the Curonian Lagoon, which is a bay of the Baltic Sea, as salt water does not make for either drinking or cooking.  We take our last leave of Justas, tell him that we'll see him at expedition's end next weekend, and set out.

Very shortly thereafter we hit another dam.  Uztvanka.  Ugh.  We have come to know and loathe this Lithuanian word.  Thankfully, we line the boat through fairly easily.  We're getting good at this.  Then we paddle for another hour or so.  For the first time in three weeks, Rosa and I change positions in the kayak: she takes the stern and I move up front to the bow.  But after just an hour or so, we switch back, both of us preferring our usual set up, where I steer and Rosa provides the power and tells me where to go.  After three weeks of this, we've developed a good rhythm and a solid working partnership, so we're sticking with it.


The evening is gorgeous, my favorite stretch of river so far.  The water is extraordinarily clear, with a decent current (so unlike the Nevezis) and just enough riffles, rocks, and snags to keep things interesting.  After almost a week on the Nemunas, it is nice to be back on a smaller, more intimate stream.  We feel much more "off the grid"--even if we really aren't.  Lithuania is too small and ancient to have any real wilderness left.  Still, both banks are steep and forested, giving the river a sense of wildness.  Rosa puts it this way: the forest is hugging us.  In stretches, we can almost imagine ourselves in Canada or northern Idaho--it is so green and boreal, with the stream dancing through the pines while the birds and frogs sing, vociferously, as usual.  


We make camp around 7:45, cook up pasta for dinner, and enjoy the long, golden evening in our campsite under the evergreens.  It's a peaceful, meditative time, in honeyed light.  Now, to bed. Tomorrow, hopefully, a long and happy paddle all the way to the Nemunas Delta.

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