By Julie Goell
My grandparents were Jacob Goell, son of Izchak Goell, and Mary Samavitz or Samavich. I think Jacob was born in Linkuva, probably around 1880 or so. He left his Linkuva roots, moved to Daugavpils in search of construction work, and wound up on a boat for America some years later. Mary was from Vilna. I think her family was from Vilnius and had business in Linkuva. Her mother's name was Altman.
In 1993 I went to Linkuva. The schoolmaster in Linkuva took us to the Jewish graveyard a few miles out of town, toward Vashke I think. It was sad and overgrown, ramshackle with stones leaning this way and that. A stark contrast to the well-tended graveyard of the town. I felt sad no one is there to tend the graves, though it appeared it had been cropped with a sykle at least once. I couldn't make out any family names. My Hebrew is nisht, and my Yiddish is pretty good, but barely a word in Yiddish was written. So no luck finding family. The hospitality of the town was so disarming and welcoming, I felt it wasnt the time to go digging in the records of the town hall.
I returned to Linkuva in May 2000 to play at the festival Skamba Skamba KankliaI. The town is finally emerging from the dark years of Soviet occupation and confronting their past. The whole country is trying to redefined what being Lithuanian means. Lithuania had been so immersed in awful years of repression and Soviet cruelty that it hasnt done the same "work" Germany has to try and understand the legacy of its brutality toward Jews. I dont whether anti-Semitism there will ever "go away", but I met many bright, concerned youngsters who gave me hope that someday it might.
The Narrative below is a record of my journey.
by Julie Goell
Copywrite July 2000I had been to Lithuania just after Independance, accompanying my father, who has since passed away. Despite advancing Alzheimer’s, he was determined to see his parents’ homeland. The two weeks in Lithuania were rich, compelling and sad, from a Jewish perspective. I remained in touch with the school principal in the village of Linkuva, where one of my grandparents was born.
Seven years later, I would see Lithuania again, this time to play Jewish music and to learn about this land that once was known as the Jerusalem of Europe, a hub of Jewish life, culture and study. We were curious to trace the roots of our music and find out if any had survived here. If not, we were hoping to bring it back. We were fascinated to learn what Lithuania was now, as it finally emerged from nearly a century of identity deprivation.
As our Klezmer van threaded its way north toward Linkuva, we recounted the whirlwind days of playing concerts and getting to know Vilnius. The Skamba Skamba Kankliai folk festival had organized concerts for us all over the city. We also played for the Jewish Community. Both organizations gave us tours of the city, the Jewish ghetto and infamous killing fields, the forest of Ponar. We spent a day at Trakai, the original Lithuanian capital. The festival and our guides had been so solicitious, we were glad to finally be on our own, on the road to unknown adventure.
Driving through the countryside, dotted with Soviet era collective farms, we reloaded cameras, consulted guidebooks and reminisced about the wonderful, warm reaction our music received. We exchanged addresses of many new acquaintances and marvelled at Lithuanian hospitality. Danny shared his sketches from Vilnius.
We stopped in Ukmerge and Paneveyz, once half-Jewish cities. Rosa, our Jewish guide, had taught us to recognize Jewish-built homes and synagogues. We sleuthed out the former Jewish quarters of these towns. In Ukmerge we found a guide who told us about the dark times, in an emotionally detached voice, as if lecturing on the extinction of dinosaurs. There wasn’t a trace of fully half the population, except the buildings they left behind and the Torah scroll in the museum. We stepped into a school gym which had been the Grand Synagog and were greeted by the pricipal. This is Lithuania now, I told myself, a simple fact. This is where children learn sports. It was if Jews had never existed.
Jewish communities in Lithuania, 94% decimated by Hitler, have further dwindled since Glasnost. Ask a Jew if there still is anti-semitism and you get a wry look, arched eyebrows and a sigh of resignation. When asked why they stay, they either have elderly parents, work for the Jewish community, are too old to move or have no place to go. Many Jews have joined family in Israel or the United States.
Linkuva is a dairy town in the region of Pakruojis the size of Peaks Island. Its Jews, once comprising 46% of the population , were killed just outside of the town. Since Independance, two memorial sites, marked "Jydu Genocidio", have been built where the atrocities occured. Plaques credit the deeds to “Nazis and their local henchmen”. I’m told by Lithuanians that “local henchmen” didn’t even wait for the Nazi’s to arrive. Until Independance, no mention was made of Jewish victims, they were simply generic “victims of Fascism”.
The Nazis were pushed out by the Soviets, who occupied the town until 1991. A KGB headquarters/prison was set up to police the town. The KGB martyred several school teachers, landowners and town administrators. The Soviets were as barbarous as the Nazis, just less methodical. Lithuania is still mourning its own victims of the Soviet era and is only beginning to acknowledge the fate of its Jews. There is still much healing to be done.
We were greeted at the school by a delegation of students and the principal, Alexander, with whom I had been corresponding these several years. We were taken to the teachers’ room and given food I always assumed was Jewish but is apparantly Lithuanian. We were taken on a leisurely walk through the town by Alexander and Vaida and Herikas, who were to become our student journeymen and translators during our stay in Linkuva. I marvelled at the many shops that had sprouted since my last visit. We saw many Jewish buildings, recognizeable by their ornamental brickwork, and the more common wooden shtetl buildings, clinging to the roadside. We peeked onto the synagog, now off-limits, and explored the remains of a beautiful convent which the Soviets had trashed during their occupation. The main church is architecturally Spanish and a real source of pride for the town.
We were housed in a dormitory for juvenile deliquents, and retarded children. There were no showers and no hot water. Our four days in Linkuva were low on amenities, but high on hospitality. The next two days were full as we worked all day long at our rezidency in the school. We taught Jewish songs and dances and Jewish culture. The students were clear about what had happened to the Jews of Linkuva. Some of them joined in singing and dancing at our concert in the town.
We played a concert at the Houses of Culture in the neighboring city of Pakroujis. The House of Culture in Pakruojis serves as a gallery, museum and center for classes and concerts. At the end of the concert a woman handed me a bunch of wildflowers. “Flowers from your native soil”, she said. The director also brought us flowers and made a moving speech, welcoming us “back”.
The directors invited us stay and drink Suktines, a Lithuanian mead schnapps. We sampled Charcoutis, a large stalagtite of egg biscuit which is rolled and dripped into a large cone shape. Irene, one of the directors, Irene taught us to dance the Suktines, while Gintas played accordion and Danny sketched. And still the evening carried on, at Alexander’s house, where his wife, Bernadetta, put on a feast and we talked and drank late into the Linkuva night.
The House of Culture in Linkuva, where we played the next evening, is a vintage cinema. Our concert was packed. A costumed “ethnographic” music and dance group opened for us. We were stunned by the director’s eloquence and honesty as she introduced each song to us in the front row. Then it wasour turn. Seeing children sing in Yiddish and do Jewish dances was not lost on their grandparents, who joined in on the chorus. The director brought us flowers after several encores and made a moving speech: “I was born after the war so I never got to meet anyone of your... race. Thank you for not forgetting us. We are so glad you came back.”
An elderly woman took me aside and introduced herself to me as Shulamite. “My name is really Salome, but my teacher used to call me Shulamite. His name was Taube Franck. He was such a good man...” she broke off, crying. Her sister, the director of the folklore group, and Nancy joined us. Shulamite removed a large amber pin from her collar and gave it to me. Her sister did the same, giving Nancy an amber pin set in silver. “So you will never forget us!” said Shulamite. “We will always be sisters and they can never separate us again”.
From the concert, we were rushed to the school cafeteria where a receiving line of twenty female teachers greeted us individually and led us to a long table set out with salads and drinks. After a half hour of ebullient conversation, formality wore off and the games began. A designated “it” chose a “victim” to hug, lift, or bump body parts with. Whoever was left without a partner was now “it”. There was much laughter and blushing as the hilarity intensified. I sidled over to an elderly teacher who had remained seated. She remembered the Jews of Linkuva as “fine, upstanding people who honored their debts, took care of their own, helped their non Jewish neighbors, and emphasized education”. I was tempted to question her further, as there was much still left to ask.
As our student helpers and Alexander helped us load up the van for the last time, snapshots were taken and hugs were exchanged. Vaida said “I have to cry now for many days after you are leaving”. We have will always have sweet memories and now a living link to Linkuva and its people. It will never be just a distant town in Eastern Europe, a tiny speck on the map of my family’s past.
The Casco Bay Tummlers - Link to further articles about the band's tour of Lithuania including performances in Pakroijis, Kaunas and Druskininkai