For the first 60 years of my life, I believed that I had Russian heritage. That’s what my Dad told me. He had always said that his family left Russia to escape persecution. After he died, I came across his passport and learned that he was actually born in Molat, which isn’t actually in Russia. It’s in Lithuania. Upon this realization I was a little disappointed, as I loved Tolstoy, vodka, Doctor Zhivago, and beautiful coats. I didn’t know what Lithuania was famous for — I didn’t even know where exactly it was.
Once I started exploring it, I was intrigued with the romance of Lithuania, a country taken over by the Russians (while my dad lived there), Poles, Germans, and Soviets. Lithuanians finally achieved national freedom in the 1990s. I had read the book, Everything is Illuminated and wanted to go see the place of my family’s heritage. The first synagogue was built in 1728. In the 1700s Jews were invited to Lithuania to help bring prosperity to the country. I do not know how many generations back may family lived in Molat. It is one of those questions I wished I had asked.
I learned that there were 2397 inhabitants in Molat in 1897 and eighty percent (80%) of them were Jews. Now, the Jewish population in the renamed village, Moletai is 10 to 100. Currently, residents are not required to give their religion in the census, therefore it is difficult to know the actual Jewish population. When my dad lived there (he was born in 1911), Jews and Lithuanians lived side by side until the Jews were bullied and killed. Later, those that stayed would be murdered by the Nazi influence. My family left in 1917 to save their lives.
If my dad knew, he would tell me not to go, “too dangerous” as he told me when I went to Europe 40 years earlier. Over the months planning the trip, I did feel anxious. Was it safe to go? I bought tickets for my daughter and husband. I read on the Internet only wear black. Do not smile. Do not mention Holocaust, Germans, or Russians. I contacted a tour guide, Simon who lives in Lithuania. He reported that those postings are old. I may wear whatever color I like and I may smile. Relief, as I am a colorful, smiling person. I was feeling more and more comfortable. Simon did not want me to be disappointed so in an email he said, “Don’t expect too much”. Before going, my husband and daughter wondered if it would be worth the time to visit this town of my ancestors. Was it like a family farm that is now a development of houses with nothing there showing its past? Yet, I had to go. Simon picked us up from the Congress Hotel in Vilnius for the drive to Moletai, 37 miles north. In the car, actually a van, he reported that the Russians then Germans had destroyed the village. The four synagogues were burned down. He explained the original Jewish trade houses built in the end of the 19th century were rehabbed and now attract Jewish tourists (my family stands in front of these trade houses in the picture).
When we arrived in Moletai to our surprise and delight we saw original small wood houses still standing and occupied by current residents. The double doors shown in the picture are more typical of Jewish homes. Some houses had traces of holes with layers of paint over them on the right side of the doorpost where a mezuzah (a scroll with verses of the Old Testament) may have hung at one time. While we were there, the open market was going strong. There were colorful mums for sale. On display was a big cardboard box filled with sunflower seeds and visited by birds swooning down to gather their lunch. There were challahs and dark rye breads. There were more cardboard boxes filled with onions and potatoes. Women in their 70s and 80s were selling goods. Walking up and down the streets I wondered where my dad actually lived. Was his house still standing? Where was my grandfather’s blacksmith business? My dad told me that his village looked like the village portrayed in the film, Fiddler on the Roof. Seeing old photos in the Moletai museum of the village in the early 1900s, confirmed it surely did.
Exploring further, I was surprised to find that the Jewish cemetery was still there. Located on a hill overlooking the village where maybe 100 tombstones still stood. The stones that were legible were engraved in Hebrew. Many had a Jewish star at the top. Each stone was made of pink or black granite. There is a movement in Eastern Europe to restore Jewish cemeteries. The Russians and Nazis destroyed many Jewish cemeteries. The Soviets used the tombstones for bricks to build structures. Many cemeteries that remain do not have the Jewish population present to maintain the upkeep. Yet, in Moletai, our guide, Simon believed that this cemetery had been restored because the stones were standing erect and the grass had been somewhat cleared. I had brought 30 polished colored rocks to place on the stones, a Jewish tradition marking one’s visit. However, in my excitement to visit my father’s birthplace, I left the rocks in my suitcase lying on the floor back at the Congress Hotel.
While in Lithuania, I discovered that the foods I love and bring memories of family and Jewish culture were actually Lithuania foods: boiled potatoes that were then baked in oil (now I have the recipe), kasha, potato pancakes, (they actually served us kasha pancakes, delightful) smoked fish, dark rye bread, sunflower seeds, borsht, poppy seeds, farmer’s cheese, and Smetana. Borsht served with hardboiled eggs and Smetana, hot or cold. All this reminds me of meals with my dad and the joy of reminiscing the heritage he gave me.
The Moletai countryside is beautiful. My family came from a place of rolling hills, dense tall forests with birch trees, and many lakes. It is now called the Land of Lakes. Lots of rain in the fall. Is this why I love to walk in rain? Why I sit out on the porch while it is raining? Winters are harsh with cold temperatures and deep snow. I never thought about my dad as a child living in such severe weather. Now, I do. As a child, I dreamed of living in the North Country, somewhere beautiful such as my current home in Montana. My small town in Montana reminds me of Moletai.
As our guide and driver drove us back to the hotel in Vilnius, I sat in silence thinking about my family’s life there. I thought about how my grandmother learned to bake all my favorite goodies in this town. When I was a child, my dad would stop by her apartment every Friday. He brought home her baked challah, cookies with colored candies on top, and kamish bread. I learned that crocheted linens were popular in Lithuania, and it was there my grandmother learned to make all those crocheted handkerchiefs she gave me. I always loved my grandmother. Being in the town where she was born and grew up in really solidified my heritage. Hopefully, it was a week that my own daughter will reminisce in the future with her children showing them photos of where her grandfather and great grandparents were born. The lesson is to reminisce now with family. There are so many questions I have and no one has the answers.
For information about tours of Eastern Europe contact our guide, Simon Davidovich, firstname.lastname@example.org