By Elinor Brenner, 25 August 2008
At the beginning of August, Ernie and I went on a cruise of the Baltic. It was 14 days of bliss, a beautiful cruise ship, fascinating countries to visit and a wonderful experience seeing countries that one would never ordinarily visit. The cherry on the top was that our second-last port was Klaipeida (Memel), and fortunately, being close to Skuodas, we booked a guide to take us there. It was the most memorable and moving day that I have ever experienced, and I would like to share it with you, the family.
We docked at Klaipeida on August 14th. Our guide was Eugenijus Bunka, a journalist and lecturer (maybe professor) at the University of Klaipeida. His father is Jewish, and we could not have wished for a better guide. He drove us immediately to Skuodos, 36 miles away, 1 and a half hours drive. The countryside is very pretty, green, lots of small towns and small farms on the way, much of the land under cultivation with fruit trees, vegetables etc. As we left Klaipeida, Eugenijus, who has been fairly quiet until then, said “THE WHOLE OF LITHUANIA IS A CEMETARY FOR THE JEWISH PEOPLE”. As we approached Skuodas, Ernie remarked, “Imagine, your father and your family travelled on this very same road!”
We eventually reached Skuodas, and I had built up to a very emotional state, (which lasted about 3 weeks). The town is larger than I imagined, clean, houses with small gardens – the Lithuanians tend to grow their own fruit and vegetables in their backyards. Eugenijus phoned a journalist friend of his to ask about the street location. Fortunately I had photographs of the house and the name of the street. We drove to his friend’s house, Edmundas, and I went in with Eugenijus. Inside this very simple house was Edmundas and his father, a man of about 85, who remembered the Judelman family. He told me that our grandfather had been in the leather business, and had a warehouse on the outskirts of the town. He told us where the street was, and we drove, Edmundas leading us on his bicycle, about 3 blocks away. As we drove into the street, Langegas, we stopped, and there, without a doubt was the house.
It matched the photograph perfectly, even to the trees growing in front of it.(see attached photos).The plot next door was empty (that is where I expected to see the Spitz’s house) and a few houses down was the river and bridge, just as in the photos I have, although the bridge is new, having been washed away in a flood (as reported by Uncle Sydney). As we stood there, two ladies emerged from the back and we talked to them. I was in such an emotional, excited state, not thinking clearly, that I did not ask permission to go into the house, nor did I look for the remains of a mezuzah. These ladies said that they knew nothing about the previous owners of the house (they probably thought I would want to claim the house back), but directed us to talk to an elderly woman in a nearby house. We walked to the house, went in and there was an elderly woman, very peasant-like, and her daughter. Our guide asked questions about the Judelman family. She replied that they never knew surnames, only first names. So I enquired about Hirsch. She did not remember Hirsch, but recalled Mendel who lived next door. Mendel was a very kind man, a widower who lived with his two daughters. If anyone in the town need help (money) they went to Mendel. He once financed a funeral of a young man whose family could not pay the priest. She then started to cry, and said – those were terrible times, and when the Russians came, it was not much better. All the Jews were taken away at one time. I looked at her eyes and wondered what those eyes had seen 60 years ago. There was not much more she could tell us, so we left. Eugenijus then drove us to the museum, where there was one small file on the Jewish people. The name of Hirsch Judelman was there, listing him as a leather merchant. Next door to the museum was a memorial – it was the place of the massed graves at the edge of a forest (there are hundreds of such places in Lithuania) There was a commemorative stone in Lithuanian, Russian and Hebrew. Behind the memorial was a forest, quiet and peaceful, full of ghosts. Ernie said Kaddish there as that is where our grandfather died (see attached letter). July 1941.
Eugenijus then took us to the Jewish Cemetery, which is just a large piece of land with one large stone commemorating that it was the Jewish Cemetery. The stones have been removed, all but two. They were used as paving stones in the town.
He then took us through the old Jewish section, not really a ghetto, just a Jewish area. He told us something so intriguing – in Lithuania you can recognize a Jewish house because the front door faces the road. The gentile houses have front doors at the back of the house. That says a lot about the Jewish spirit of hospitality, welcoming etc.
A quick stop at the local supermarket (very strange shop) for a drink, and we drove back to Klaipeida. He took us on a route through some very small towns, showed us desolate shuls, and back to Klaipeida.
The journey is not over yet.
In Klaipeida I had the address of the Golden family. Eugenijus took us directly to the street, remarking that the family must have been wealthy because the house was on the main street. The house stands in the main shopping street, on a corner and seems to be a small apartment building with a coffee shop on the ground level. It appears to have been re-built, apparently Klaipeida suffered a lot of bombing during the war. At the corner was the market square and at the back a large building with a balcony. We were told that on March 1st 1941, Hitler stood on that balcony and proclaimed that Memel now belonged to the Germans, and anyone who did not like that should leave. Apparently a woman standing in the crowd turned her back on Hitler, and was never seen again. Fortunately the Golden family heeded the message from Hitler, and left.
Klaipeida is a small, poor city, our friends went to the Synagogue where they found a soup kitchen with elderly Jews being served lunch. These shuls are funded by the Joint Distribution from America (told to me by the head of the JNF in New York). There do not seem to be any young Jews left in Lithuania.
We returned to the ship with such a mixture of emotions – excitement, sadness, anger, elation at our finds and experiences. As I said, I was in such an emotional state that I omitted to ask some very pertinent questions. So I emailed Eugenijus on my return to Johannesburg, and have attached his reply.
There is more.
The day before we went to Klaipeida, (Memel), we were in Riga, and had a wonderful young Jewish man Alexandrs as our guide. The night before we docked, I sat up in bed remembering that we had an aunt, (our fathers’ sister) Kaplan, who died in Riga with her family. I do not know her first name. When we did the tour of Jewish interest in Riga, our guide took us first to a concentration camp, mainly for Russians and locals (that did not include the Jewish population, most of whom were murdered). We had a most startling experience. Approaching the memorial walls of the camp, we walked up a road with forest (again) on either side. Suddenly a snake crossed the path in front of us. We stood back and waited for it to cross, our guide telling us that it was poisonous. What more appropriate thing could happen on an approach to a concentration camp – to me the snake is the epitomy of evil – an evil creature in a place filled with death and evil.
Next to the camp was another place of massed graves, the Rumbula forest. There was a memorial to the people who had died there, and that was definitely the place of death of our aunt and her family. Most of the Jews of Riga were taken there from the ghetto, in 1941, and shot in the forest. There were small stones at the base of the memorial – a menorah made of roots curling around it – and I found 2 stones with the name Kaplan on them.(photo attached) I have no way of knowing if that was the family, but felt we could pay respects to them right there, Ernie saying Kaddish.
That was our Voyage of Discovery, a most meaningful time. I feel so happy to share this with the family, the day in Skuodas answered a lot of questions for me and I felt satisfied that we could pay our respects to our grandfather Hirsch Judelman.