Drove my rental to the other side of the river where I picked up my tour guide for the day: Regina Kopilevich. I met Regina at the various functions hosted by Dovid Katz at the Jewish Cultural and Information Center. Little did I know that she was the preeminent Jewish heritage tour guide in the country. Regina entered my car with arms full of books, maps, records. Needless to say, this is precisely the experience I was looking for.
Our destinations for the day were two towns in the far west of the country (Suwalki Region), so we had quite a drive. All the while, Regina entertained me by searching her records for traces of my family, reading memoirs of shtetl inhabitants, and providing historical insight into the towns.
Our drive took us through the interwar capital of Kaunas, which rivaled Vilnius at times as the epicenter of Litvak life. While the outskirts were largely rebuilt after the war, the old town was beyond beautiful. I definitely want to visit again when I have more time, maybe next weekend.
Our first shtetl stop was Kudirkos Naumiestis, which until the interwar period was called Wladyslawow. The town received Magdeburg Rights (town privileges) in 1643, which Regina explained was very early on. It was named for Wladyslaw Vasa, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. The town was known colloquially as New-Shirvint or New-Sakai.
After stopping for a quick lunch we made our way to the central square, inhabited by a statue of Vincas Kudirka, Lithuanian patriot and town namesake. Kudirka resided in the town for a brief period and is buried there. I remarked that it was probably my petulant ancestors, with whom he contemporaneously resided in Wladyslawow, who made him the staunch Jew-hater he was.
The maternal grandfather of my maternal grandfather (who genetic lore would dictate I receive my hair from) was born Chaim Schneiderowitz in Kudirkos Naumiestis in 1874. He immigrated to Rochester, New York twenty years later and assumed the name Hyman Snider. Along with his father and two brothers, Hyman was a butcher. I have traced his paternal line to one Mordechai (Mortchel) Schneiderowitz, born circa 1750.
From city center we traveled to the cobblestone road where the synagogue complex once stood. I literally followed in the footsteps of my ancestors.
The only part of the complex still standing was the bathhouse.
Immediately behind the bathhouse was the Sesupe River.
One of the many treasures that Regina brought on our journey was a map drawn by a Jewish expatriate of Kudirkos Naumiestis. It lists the home of every Jew from the early 20th century. Surely enough, I found Schneiderowitz.
Regina spotted a plum tree along the cobblestone road. We scavenged for ripe ones, they were the most delicious plums I’ve ever tasted.
We traveled to the site of the Schneiderowitz home to find it was destroyed during the war just like the vast majority of homes.
On the way to the Jewish cemetery we made two pit stops. The first was at the home of Pranas Sederevicius who created concrete sculptures in his back garden.
The second stop was at the border with the Kaliningrad oblast of Russia. Indeed, Kudirkos Naumiestis lied just along the border with Prussia when my ancestors lived there. In fact, the town was occupied by Prussia following the Partition of Poland, then Napoleon for almost a decade, and finally by Russia.
The Jewish cemetery occupied the mass grave, where in June 1941 the hundreds of Jewish men above age 14 were gathered and shot to death.
This included Mordechai Leibovski, his sons, and his grandsons. His wife, Chaia Sarah Schneiderowitz, would suffer the same fate two months later along with the remaining members of her family. Chaia Sarah was the sister of Hyman Snider. In all, about fifty of my relatives were massacred in Kudirkos Naumiestis. I said Kaddish in their memory.
Unlike others I’d visited, the Jewish cemetery in Kudirkos Naumiestis was not completely eviscerated by the Nazis.
We spent the next hour transcribing names and dates from the headstones, which were of varied condition.
Regina located a stone dating to the Napoleonic era.
I was so impressed with her ability to read stones in poor condition- she is obviously very experienced.
With that we began the drive to our second shtetl stop, Marijampole. Along the way I interrogated Regina about her career as a heritage tour guide and genealogist. She is a fountain of knowledge.
It would not be appropriate, Regina informed me, to describe Marijampole as a’shtetl’. Rather, Marijampole is the seventh largest city in Lithuania, with almost 50,000 inhabitants.
Nevertheless, it was over half Jewish when my family lived there. Marijampole is particularly special to me, as records indicate that my great-great-great-grandmother (Sarah Frezynski Shimelson) died there in 1925- the latest any direct ancestor of mine is recorded as having lived in the old country. In other words, I had a direct ancestor living in Marijampole less than 100 years ago. Sarah’s daughter, Bella Shimelson, immigrated to Rochester in 1907 where she married Jacob Abramowitz. Their granddaughter is my Nana.
Affluence has had an ironically negative impact on the historical character of Marijampole, as it bred renovation. Portions of the Great Synagogue still stand, but have been repurposed and entirely renovated.
The old Jewish Cemetery, where my ancestors are undoubtedly buried, has too been refurbished. Headstones not destroyed by the bombings were reorganized around a commemorative stone. In my opinion, some things should be left in their original state.
From the cemetery we traveled to the only standing synagogue, which now serves as a museum.
With that we started the long drive back to Vilnius. Regina read memoirs for me all the way. We encountered dense traffic as we entered Vilnius, so we didn’t make it to the synagogue on time for Rosh Hashanah services.
She generously invited to me to the Chabad dinner at the Town Hall, which was first mentioned in 1432. It was rebuilt by Laurynas Gucevicius (architect of Vilnius Cathedral) in 1799.
The dinner was led by Rabbi Shalom Krinsky. Almost 200 Jews filled the banquet hall. When Regina informed me that Rabbi Krinsky was a Bostonian I immediately made myself known. When I told him that I was originally from Birmingham he asked if I knew Rabbi Friedman. I told him that Rabbi Friedman was my favorite teacher growing up.
Regina kindly accompanied me to the airport to return my rental. I am so fortunate to have found her. It was a delightful evening and extremely successful day.