05 November 2016

Started our day with a long run along the river in a light snow and then grabbed a quick breakfast before traveling.

We left Vilnius via CityBee no earlier than noon. Dad kindly read some context for our destinations as I drove. At 2:00 we arrived in Birstonas, the de facto center of Nemunas Loop Regional Park.

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It took some time to find the information center, where we learned that Birstonas has functioned as a full fledged resort town since the mid-19th century. She flourished during the interwar period in particular, when the only larger resort town of Druskininkai was absorbed into Poland.

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The Nemunas Loop Regional Park boasts a variety of flora and fauna, but her most impressive feature is a series of sharp turns in the Nemunas River.

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We spent some time in Vytautas Park before making our way up Vytautas Hill.

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It was a steep climb up a muddy trail with intermittent crumbling stairs, but managed to talk to Mom on the way.

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Vytautas Hill accommodated a castle as early as the 14th century when it endured repeated attacks by Teutonic Knights, but withstood them all. In the following century it housed a favorite hunting manor of Grand Duke Vytautas.

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In later years it served as one of many royal residences for the Grand Dukes.

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The top of the hill provided for some incredible views of the Nemunas below.

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The bends were partially formed by underground tectonic activity, which also explains the abundance of minerals that made Birstonas famous. The Nemunas is not only the largest river in Lithuania, but also served as an important waterway and natural defense for the nation.

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We stopped briefly at one of the mineral fountains for which Birstonas was famed.

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We started our drive to nearby Punia at 3:00.

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Rose Riches nee Puniansky (literally ‘of Punia’) was born there in 1858 to Chaim-Moshe and Ruth. She lived with her husband and three daughters in Vilnius, where she was widowed at a young age. She immigrated with her youngest daughter in 1894 to Bayonne, New Jersey, where her two eldest daughters already resided (including Ida Lapidus, grandmother of my grandfather). The family later moved to Birmingham, Alabama where Rose died in 1940.

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The homes in Punia were brick, gray, surely not any older than the past few decades. City center surrounded a triangular green plot adorned with a cross.

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Just behind stood the Church of Saint James the Apostle, built in 1863 atop ruins of an early 15th century church ordered by Grand Duke Vytautas.

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An adjacent sign marked the short trail to Punia Mound, one of the largest mounds in Lithuania.

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It believed to have been the sight of the castle of Duke Margris known as Pilenai.

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Legends dictates that in 1336 inhabitants chose death in flames rather than surrender to the Teutonic Order.

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The story was popularized during the 19th century wave of romantic nationalism.

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Like Vytautas Hill, it provided for some incredible view of the Nemunas below.

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Surely young Rose Puniansky would have played there in the 1860s.

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It took a while to find the Jewish cemetery. The twenty year old travelogue that I found online was of no use. I even asked ’zydu kapines’ with inflection to a roadside babushka, who provided extensive directions in Lithuanian. After some more online research I learned that the cemetery was located along a nearby stream. Dad directed me to the stream using Google Maps and surely enough…

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We parked close by and then walked over the stream to reach the cemetery.

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The Jewish community of Punia numbered over 1,000 in 1897.

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At the turn of the century Jews accounted for over 92 percent of the total population.

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By the interwar period that number had substantially decreased to no more than two dozen families due to emigration. The wooden synagogue was as such disassembled in 1933.

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Dad and I tried to find relatives, but turned up fruitless without assistance from Regina.

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We said Kaddish for our ancestors buried there.

Dad graciously drove back to Vilnius as I blogged.We changed and headed to dinner at Neringa Hotel, frequented by Soviet socialites in the 1950s.

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Dinner was delicious and there was even live music. The band, who I thought had a country twang, played ‘Babylon’ by George Ezra- one of Dad’s favorites.

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From dinner we traveled to Amit’s home where she had hosted Havdallah and still had many guests over. I spent time talking to a couple teenagers from Minsk and later to an opera-singer from Moscow who recently moved to Vilnius.

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After a lovely night we traveled back to the hotel.

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