Friday, June 30, 2017

Upstream 25: Week's End--Arriving in Jurbarkas (Friday, June 9, Jurbarkas)

We wake to very heavy condensation soaking our tent.  This has often been an indication of coming storms, so we hustle through our morning routine, with the hope of reaching Jurbarkas before the late morning/early afternoon wind and waves pick up.  I daven very briefly, we pack haphazardly and we're on the river before 9:30.

Rosa and I are looking forward to Shabbat in Jurbarkas.  Our last two Shabbat experiences, in Kovno and Keidan, were both chock-full of Jewish sites, history, memory and deep emotions. Like nearly every town along the Nemunas River, Jurbarkas housed a Jewish community before the war, but unlike our previous Shabbat layover places,  it was not a major center, and I do not have family connections here.  So tomorrow should be less about exploring our roots and more about shear rest and relaxation.  This feels right; three weeks into our journey, I need a real respite to renew and recuperate.   I've been on the cusp of a cold for the past few days, mostly fighting it off successfully with lots of tea and water and Ibuprofon.  But a true break should help, too.


As expected, we have a short morning of paddling.  I'm pretty wiped out, so I appreciate this rare easy stretch.  Conditions are terrific: sunny, warm, tranquil, with just the hint of a tailwind. Around 11:30, we arrive in Jurbarkas, where we meet Osvaldas--our local contact, via Justas--just past the main city bridge on river right.  This is the longest bridge in Lithuania, spanning the Nemunas, which has, by this point, already collected a great deal of water from its tributaries before it reaches the sea another seventy-two miles downstream along the Kaliningrad border.  We pull into one of those tributaries and paddle a few hundred yards upstream to our takeout, where Osvaldas loads our kayak onto a trailer and tosses our gear into his van.  Like Justas, he runs a kayak rental business, so knows exactly what he's doing.  He's kind and helpful, eager to hear about our journey as he drives us to our bed and breakfast in town.


The bed and breakfast is lovely, with a lush garden and very comfortable spaces both indoors and out. The owner/hostess does not speak any English, but is fluent in German, so Rosa's three years of high school German come in very handy.   I'm surprised to find that even I can figure out a bit, from the sprinkling of Yiddish I learned over the years.   Like most of the Lithuanians we've met along the way, our hostess is generous and hospitable. She insists on doing our laundry and hangs all of our wet camping gear out to dry in her yard. We unpack, settle in, do some shopping for Shabbat--"challah" rolls and wine at the supermarket just across the street--then eat a late lunch and nap in the peaceful garden courtyard.

Come evening, we head out for dinner, newly-showered and sporting freshly-laundered clothing. We eat an undistinguished yet satisfying Lithuanian supper, then stroll around town.  It's a pleasant and unremarkable place, a mix of old wooden buildings and Soviet-era concrete monstrosities, with the required splendid cathedral perched on the village square. We notice that even the most modest homes have large gardens, often with sprawling greenhouses. This is a legacy of Soviet occupation, when long lines and severe shortages strongly encouraged residents to grow their own produce. 

We end the evening with a tranquil promenade through a leafy creekside park, which takes us back to the room for Shabbat candles, kiddush, challah--and bed!

Shabbat shalom!

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 transcribed to my blog, but I am starting a new Rite in the Rain notebook today.  This journal is special, because Rosa gave it to me for Father's Day.  

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.  As for Rite in the Rain--it was a great gift.  Thankfully, it works perfectly, and there's been no shortage of rain.


Over the course of this pilgrimage, I've frequently wondered what we gain through the long and often monotonous days of paddling.

Rosa and I could have explored our family's roots in this country far more easily by automobile.  If we had chosen to drive, we'd have had significantly more time to explore our culture and connections in Vilna, Kovno, Keidan,  and even tiny Srednik.  Indeed, had we gone that route, we'd undoubtedly have made it into the center of Srednik yesterday rather than laying over briefly on the  overgrown bank outside town, shivering from the cold and damp.  Traveling through this relatively small country by car would have allowed us to focus more intensely on our destinations.

Instead, we dedicate most of our waking hours to the journey itself, paddling downstream through the hinterlands, past the expanses of farms and fields and forests that make up most of Lithuania. We're not the first landsmen to voyage that way.  As we've seen, plenty of Jewish river rats preceded us, transporting timber to the Baltic Sea.  But that was not my ancestors' path.   Rosa and I descend 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.  

Our long hours on the river can be arduous, yet despite--or really, because of this challenge--I wouldn't do this journey any other way.  As Talmud teaches, l'fi avdah, sachra.  According to the labor, so is the reward.  The adversity, cliche as it sounds, really does prepare us to better appreciate the beauty.  It's the obstacles that make the trip a pilgrimage rather than a pleasant month of heritage tourism.  Daily life was difficult for the Litvaks, whether they lived in the city or the countryside.  I like to believe that we experience their world a little more authentically when we enter it with some rigor. I am not so naive or self-centered to believe that our challenges even remotely approach my ancestors' travails.  Thank goodness.  Still, I hope that by taking the river route, we are travel in the spirit of Jewish Lita.  For this, I am grateful.  And also stiff, sore, and tired.


We enjoy a leisurely lunch at the pier/park at Ploksciai.  This hamlet was once home to a modest Jewish community: 39 Jews out of 455 total residents in 1923.  Here, as in so many of the shtetlach that lined the the Nemunas, the Jews were merchants and craftspeople, hard workers who tended to embrace the Zionist cause.  The Jews of Ploksciai, and Raudone, on the opposite bank, were historically linked to local aristocratic dynasties; Raudone's large castle still stands.  As we paddle past that riverside stronghold, I'm struck by how much the community's story offers a kind of microcosm of European Jewish history.  Jews arrive in the district at the invitation of powerful landed gentry, whose economic interests are served by Jewish bankers and merchants.  Inevitably, the local peasants grow resentful of the nobility, who keep them in a state of serfdom. Powerless against their true oppressive overlords, the serfs scapegoat their appointed lenders and tax collectors, erupting in a series of murderous pogroms against the Jewish community. 

It's an age-old tale, a cycle dating back to the biblical Joseph, who served as second-in-command to Pharaoh in Egypt--and whose descendants paid the price for the enmity this aroused among the Egyptian populace.  Time and again this ugly pattern repeats itself:  whenever a few Jews gain position and prestige in the royal court, their success provokes a vicious wave of populist resentment against the Jewish people as a whole.  Once that backlash begins, the truly powerful do not hesitate to throw us to the wolves in order to protect their own interests.  It's abhorrent--and it works.

Hence Zionism's enormous appeal to the Litvaks who populated these riverside shtetls.  To be a student of Jewish history is to understand that diaspora Jews are, by definition, vulnerable to horrific forces beyond our control; the only way to take our fate into our own hands is to exercise political sovereignty in a Jewish state in Israel.  Unfortunately the Zionists who lived in Lita in 1941 did not survive the Shoah.

But, thank God, their vision did.


Here's a section of a poem by the great Yiddish writer, Y.L. Peretz, first published in 1888.  It is eerily 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. . . 


Enough philosophizing.   It's a delightful day on the Nemunas.  In another 90 minutes or so, we should reach our destination for the evening, probably near Gelgaudiskis.  We're so grateful for a placid, summer day!



Of course I speak--or, in this case, write--too soon.  The sunshine doesn't not last.  After our late lunch, the clouds roll in, with headwinds and waves and, eventually, rain.  Yesterday, our paddling through the through squalls left us ornery and sodden, so this afternoon we decide to pull ashore and wait out the storm.  We huddle on the sandy bank, curled up in our raincoats.  Twenty minutes later, the downpour eases into a drizzle and we continue downstream.

When we reach Pilis pier, across from Gelgaudiskis, we stow the kayak and walk one kilometer to the Panemunes castle.  Neither of us carries any cash, , so we pass on the five euro, cash-only castle tour. Instead we walk, gratis, through the outdoor courtyard and luxuriant grounds, relaxing amidst the beautifully-tended forest, gardens and fish ponds.  Thankfully, the restaurant on the premises accepts credit cards, so we enjoy an early dinner of borscht and potato pancakes--Lithuanian latkes.  The food is tasty and, mostly, after all of our time on the river, it's a pleasure to eat a meal where someone else cooks and cleans up.


We paddle for one last hour after dinner.  It's blissful, as evening kayaking here tends to be.  The wind dies down, rosy sunlight pours in from low on the horizon, and the once tempest-tossed river is a placid mirror.  We find a cozy campsite on river left, where pitch the tent and play gin rummy on Rosa's blanket spread over our own little sandy beach.  As the Nordic summer sun finally sets, clouds of condensation roll up from the river and a raucous chorus of bullfrogs joins the regular choir of cuckoos to sing us to sleep. 

Tomorrow, on to Jurbarkas for our eagerly-anticipated Shabbat rest.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

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

We're up at 8:00, just in time to pack the tent dry, before the rains blow in.  We gulp our breakfast, I daven an abbreviated morning service, and then we're out, with storms threatening, roosters crowing madly, and a brisk tailwind adding to the steady current carrying us downstream.

Last night, Rosa and I watched a movie downloaded on my tablet.  A Tale of Love and Darkness is Natalie Portman's screen adaptation of Amos Oz's boyhood memoir, ending with his mother's suicide. It's especially poignant to watch inside a tent pitched deep in the Lithuanian countryside.  Oz's father, Arieh, grew up here, raising cattle and vegetables with his family outside of Vilna.  His mother, Fania, came from Rivne, in the Ukraine.  As the young couple struggle to make their way in the parched and parochial desert of 1940s Jerusalem,  Fania still yearns, tragically, for the  lost romantic verdure of the Old Country, recalling her childhood nights sleeping out under the stars in the forests where her family and friends were murdered by the Nazis.   I'd seen the film once before, but viewing it here gave flesh and blood to the pathos of Fania and Arieh's lives.


An hour or so into the morning's paddle, the clouds thicken and the wind begins to shift direction, but we still have fairly decent paddling into Vilkija, where we arrive just as the downpour starts. We pull up at a riverside dock and make haste for a nearby park, where we take shelter under a grove of shady maple trees.  We're a bit nervous about leaving the boat behind, but given the weather,  don't expect many folks to be  out by the river looking to steal a kayak.  So when the rain lets up momentarily, we hike into town in search of the zydu kapines, the old Jewish cemetery.  There are probably fewer Jews buried there than on the forested bluff beyond the edge of town, where the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices murdered residents of Vilkija and several other villages in the region, but that site is too far away to reach on foot, so I plan to leave an extra stone in the pre-war cemetery to honor the victims of the Shoah as well as those who preceded them in death in better, quieter times.

At nearly every turn along the stone pathways that wind through the park, we find splendid, totem-like wood-carvings, mostly sculptures of medieval local heroes and Christian religious figures.  As we exit the park and veer uphill onto the main road into the village center, we spot a distinctive carving dedicated to Vilki's Jewish heritage, featuring an elegantly sculpted Torah scroll and Jewish star and a delicate rendering of one of the shtetl's two shuls.  Here, as in so much of Lita, the local Jewish community divided along socio-economic lines.  Raftsmen, wood cutters, and other blue-collar laborers prayed in a humble wooden kloiz while the rabbi and the relatively well-off merchants worshiped in the much grander building depicted in the wood carving.

But the carving honors all of Vilki's Jews, rich and poor, and tacitly acknowledges the single fate that swallowed them up in June of 1941.  Seeing it standing sentry over the Nemunas against the ashen morning sky moved me to tears. 


Our map indicates that the old Jewish cemetery is around the corner from a well-marked local museum, so we followed signs up a hill and find. . . the museum.  It's a pastoral, fairy-tale cottage, built over 300 years ago as a parsonage.  In the late 19th century, it housed Antanas Juska, a local priest, folklorist, linguist, anthropologist and collector of all sorts of quirky art and memorabilia.  It's now home to both his eclectic collection and a gallery of work by contemporary local artists, currently featuring luminous, folksy prints by a young Kaunas painter).  We walk through, enjoying the idiosyncratic displays of books, bagpipes, dolls, phonographs, photographs, hand tools, and hanging geometric mobiles.  It's fun to see, and, best of all, warm and dry.

As we near the exit, the docent, who speaks excellent English, leads us out to an enchanting sculpture garden.  It's her husband's work; it turns out he is the wood carver who crafted the tribute to Vilki's Jewish community and all the other carvings scattered the village.  She shares stories about Vilkija, this cottage and its residents--but alas, she knows nothing of the old Jewish cemetery.  We walk around in the drizzle, searching the neighborhood, but with no luck and bad weather, we eventually give up and head back to the kayak.  Along the way, we make a brief  stop at a tiny corner market for coffee (for Rosa) and gummy bears (for both of us), and, when the heavens let loose, scurry for shelter at a covered bus stop.  When we reach the boat, we bail out the rainwater and shove off in the Nemunas.


The next ninety minutes of paddling are really tough: pounding rain, with ferocious headwinds churning big waves up and down the river.  Before long, despite our raincoats, we're completely soaked, then exhausted, cranky, and bone-chilled.  We've planned a lunch stop at a spot clearly delineated on the map as the Seredzius Pier; alas, in reality it doesn't exist.  We find the town of Seredzius but it doesn't reach the riverbank; it's set back on a ridge at the forest's edge, separated from the river by a wide strip of marshy fields overgrown with thorns and nettles.  There's no good place to pull over to eat, so we settle for a boggy, weed-infested bank opposite Seredzius's hilltop cathedral. Desperate for shelter from the raw wind,  Rosa ducks behind a patch of brush, while I boil up  tea and soup.  This helps, as does removing our waterlogged pants. Ever so slowly, we warm up and regain our composure.  Thankfully, the driving rain eases into a light mist.

I climbed up a nettle-covered ridge and look across the overgrowth to the village of Seredzius. Known in Yiddish as Srednik, it looks much like the other shtetlach we've passed on the Nemunas: its grand church built atop the bluff, surrounded by small wooden homes and a medieval hill fortress built by the Grand Dukes of Lithuania to defend against the crusading Teutonic Order.  Situated thirty eight kilometers northeast of Kovno, Srednik was populated by Jewish peddlers, craftsmen, and timber merchants in the 18th century.  By 1897, Jews comprised 71% of the local population of 1650 residents.  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, where they kept productive gardens and orchards.  Srednik's Jews traveled to Kovno by boat, as there were no land routes.  Many were ardent Zionists.  All were slaughtered, together with the Jews of Vilki, near the Pakarkles Forest, in August and September of 1941.  


I have a significant 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 grandmother, Janice Gutfreund Fink Denner, only met her in-laws once, very briefly.  I've often wondered: Were  Joe Fink(elstein)'s parents upset with him for leaving the fold of Orthodoxy to become a Reform rabbi? Was my grandfather embarrassed to introduce his progressive,  American Jewish wife and kids to 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 young, at 64, on February 16, 1933.  By then, she was a long time Dayton, Ohio rebbetzin who went by her Americanized name of Tillie.


I leave a Boise river stone for Tillie and her neighbors, then Rosa and I press on, still damp but well-rested, with diminishing wind and rain.  We pass by tiny Kriukai (in Yiddish, Krok) opposite Srednik, on the left bank.  With its dense pine forest, it was, like Kulautova, a favored vacation spot for prosperous 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 late afternoon, the weather, as it so often does toward evening, takes a turn for the better. The sun makes a most welcome appearance and the water, so turbulent during the day, settles down smooth as glass.  This provides for excellent paddling, so radically different from the soggy slog we've been through just a few hours earlier.  

This journey offers a little of everything, often all wrapped up in the same day: relaxation and exertion, laughter, pain, struggle, celebration, kvetching and kvelling, fatigue and renewal.    

In the luminous eventide hours, we paddle gently through placid waters under golden light, with a stop at the Veliuona pier, where we climb to the top of a fourteenth century hill fort.  We revel in the marvelous view over the river: sunny, expansive, filled with European elegance and charm.

Shortly thereafter, we make camp, just past Veliuona. We bathe, eat, play gin rummy, and enjoy a spectacular 10:00 pm sunset, just before the rain returns, with us tucked happily into our tent.  I hear tapping, thmp, thmp, on the rainfly, which does it work with blessed efficiency, keeping us warm and dry through many a deluge.  We're hoping for sun tomorrow--our last full day before our Shabbat layover in Jurbarkas.