20 October 2016

Was planning to drop off my visa application at the Belarus Embassy, but was anxious I’d miss the bus.

Left the station at 10:00. The bus was small, crowded. I spent the ride exchanging comments in a Facebook debate regarding Russian aggression and American provocation. Putin just moved a nuclear-capable missile to Kaliningrad Oblast. Many young folks here fear Clinton would escalate the conflict.

Vytas picked me up in Svencionys just after 11:00. Vytas Jurkuvenas worked in Birmingham for many years with Michael Kimerling, a close friend of my dad. His career in public health took him around the world: the Caucasus, Angola… Upon retirement he settled in his hometown of Vidutine, 10 miles outside of Svencionys.

I’d expected a simple day in the mountains away from Vilnius, but my interest in Jewish history had preceded me.

We started at the central park in Svencionys. An intricate wooden statue in the middle of the park marked the sight of the ghetto entrance. The Jewish community once accounted for over half of the population.

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At one corner of the park was Naisla, the Ethnographic Museum of Svencionys.

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Vytas kindly translated as a guide walked us around the main exhibit. Perhaps most striking was a section of barbed wire from the ghetto. There was an abundance of Yiddish materials.

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I also learned about the history of the herbal industry in Svencionys. Organized in 1883, the industry prospered under Jewish leadership.

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Just outside the museum stood the Svencioniu Vaistazoles Factory, which exports teas and medicinal products around the world. Herbs are collected exclusively from the regional forests. The industry remains Svencionys’ largest.

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On another side of the park stood an impressive nineteenth century church, the first on sight was built by Grand Duke Vytautas. He also had an estate in the city.

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We traveled a short distance to the Jewish cemetery.

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It was in immaculate condition relative to those I’d visited. I wish my ancestors were buried there.

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Svencionys was the hometown of multiple prominent Jews including Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement, and Menke Katz, Yiddish poet and father of Dovid Katz.

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At 1:00 we made the short drive to Vytas’ home in Vidutine, on the border with Belarus.

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I was welcomed by his wife, Virginia, who is originally of the Klaipeda region. She had prepared an elaborate meal- french soup, chicken Kiev, an assortment of sides and a delicious apple pie. We spoke of our Birmingham connections, Vytas’ career,  my studies and travels. Their home was lovely, quaint.

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With a full stomach Vytas and I left for a tour of Vidutine, which can be described as a traditional ‘one-street-village’. This settlement type was popularized in the early 19th century as a means to organize peasantry into manageable confines.

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The homes were originally situated just along the street. Made of logs, most have been reinforced by slabs of wood. If painted, they were only done so since the sixties.

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The distance between homes was originally quite minimal and the width of homes quite modest. Rather, the bulk of the home lied in its length. The plot extended far beyond the home, but Vytas informed me that it was not enough land to sustain a family.

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Opposing homes generally belonged to the same family. Testaments divided the properties amongst children. Thus, Vytas’ siblings live in the home directly opposite his. I was shocked to learn that there are only five families (albeit extended) in Vidutine, multiple Vytas Jurkuvenas.

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Our walk was not very long as there are only 60 homes and roughly 200 residents in Vidutine.

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Across the street from Vytas’ house stands his childhood home, where his brothers now reside.

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He was kind to let me browse what he described as the ‘ethnographic portion’ where he was raised.

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He even pointed out the bed he was born in.

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Vytas built his current home only since retiring in 2014. He was able to purchase the adjacent plot, which allowed him a reasonable amount of space.

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Vytas drove me back to Svencionys where I boarded a bus at 5:00.

I was very fortunate to have been invited, I otherwise might not have experienced a genuine rural household. It was a delightful day.

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