Friday, June 20, 2014

Suwalki and western Lithuanian Jewish memorial sites ~ Friday, June 20, 2014

The gravestone of a learned Jewish man 
Our day began with an early departure from Gizycko.  We drove eastward into the small town of Suwalki, rich with history, where we found the pre-war Jewish cemetery.  While we waited at the gate for the key to enter, a local boy from a nearby home approached us in the rain and very excitedly shouted “Hello!” and ran back inside. He repeated the process every few minutes, delighted to have company.  Adam provided us with a history of Suwalki from its first Christian settlers until its current state. In the last hundred years, Suwalki has been the possession of Germany, Russia, or Poland.  This cemetery contains graves of seven different religions.  The Jewish one was the most in ruin – it was destroyed by the German army in World War II.

Running in the rain towards the wall 

We accessed the Jewish cemetery, which was mostly an overgrown field, by walking through its neighboring Russian Orthodox cemetery in the down pouring rain.

The wall of broken tombstones 

We huddled under rain ponchos and umbrellas behind a wall plastered on both side with fragments of Jewish gravestones that appeared to have been harvested from the ground and combined into one massive memorial.  The Jewish section also contained a memorial to the Holocaust victims but there were no post-war graves.

Jonathan quietly thinking "I could climb this." 
After we left the cemetery, we made our way to the border.  Our first stop in Lithuania was in the small border town of Kalwarija.  Here, with the help of some of the town’s locals, we managed to find the old Jewish ruins with only one photograph and no address.  These were three abandoned and ruined buildings, at least one of which had been a synagogue in a once-lively Jewish community.  It was a dark reminder of the events that the Jewish people faced at the time, and there does not seem to be any chance that the Jews will return to Kalwarija to renovate it. 

Now it was time for a brief lunch break and an exchange of currency.  We learned that ATMs dispense large bills that restaurant cashiers are not able to break.  They demonstrated remarkable patience as many students placed their orders and walked outside in search of smaller bills.

The beautiful bend 
Our next stop was in the nearby town of Marijampole.  Here, we searched for the memorial at the mass grave in the bend of the river.  We relied on our maps to reach the monument, but were unable to find it until a woman in her house came outside in curiosity.  Prof. O’Sullivan spoke with her in Russian. Before we knew it, this kind woman was walking us down the monument and leading the way. It was a short hike down the hill.  Professor Myers read a first-hand account from a witness of the mass murder of about 7,000 Jews and 1,000 people of other backgrounds.  They were rounded up by the German Einsatzgruppen (soldiers of the assassination squads) who arranged for Lithuanian high school and university-aged students to carry out the murders.  We all found it so disturbing that the murderers were people our age!  It was hard to be in the place where so many had been massacred.  Prof. Myers translated the message on the memorial stone, and we gazed around at the lush grassy area, dotted with cottages, along the beautiful river bend. 

Kaunus Old Town Square 
Our day concluded with a drive into Kaunus, the former capital of Lithuania that contains many tall and nice buildings.  After settling into our hostel, we embarked on a short walk to Old Town. In the city’s main square, which is home to many old churches, we learned town’s historical significance before our group dinner.  This was our introduction to the Lithuanian cuisine, which included a main course of a chicken breast stuffed with a grilled plum, vegetables, and for dessert a delicious vanilla ice cream with a raspberry topping.

This very long day included beautiful scenery, two cemeteries, ruins, a solemn mass grave site, and the big city of Kaunus.  We slept well in preparation for the next day’s full tour of the city.

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