The “Old Country” was never much specified when my sister and I pressed “which country?” The borders were always changing in Eastern Europe, and as my mother used to say, “we were nothing anyway.” When we demanded a name, the short answer was Lithuania.
I was curious to know, when coming to Lithuania this summer, whether I would feel an inkling of roots. Since my Jewish family emigrated to the US in the 1880s, it’s been a long time.
We were riding on a small bus through the forest, melancholy mix of fir, birch, pine on a recent humid, drippy day. I’d been nodding into a deep lull – on learning that we’d crossed over into Lithuania, the name stirred an old panic. My nerves were alerted to a place of being an outsider, a place of danger. The tuning came from deep down – as if the hypnotic sleep brought the opportunity for deep insight.
Seeing the fir forest, I though this isn’t our nostalgia, not our forest. Seeing the villages, I felt what kind of “nothing” my mother had always talked about. I remembered a letter my Uncle Irv wrote to me: “Your great-grandfather was a peddler and pushed his cart from village to village…and your great-grand mother was a beauty. She had coal black eyes like yours.”
I was much fascinated by its curious beauty, but it turned out that landscape was not the landscape of our Jewish history (it was beachy, owned by Prussians). But now we’re leaving the beach, traveling into the heart of the countryside towards Vilnius, into the area where the Russian Empire once pushed millions of Jews.
Vilnius is something different. Once called the Jerusalem of the North, Vilnius had 105 synagogues and prayer houses. It had renowned scholarly and secular traditions, Yiddish newspapers and universities. During the war, ninety percent of the population of 100,000 Jews was destroyed. And a relatively recent archeological dig uncovered a tunnel that survivors dug to escape a joint Nazi-Lithuanian liquidification. The horrific work took place outside the city – a concentrated slaughter over three years whereby some 70,000 Jews were taken by train to the site that would be their grave and shot. Where else, in the forest.