Before I start, let me say that a friend suggested that, if you want to learn more about the Karaites (see Part II), the on-line Encylopaedia Judaica has a very completion section dealing with both history and theology. I would say that the Wikipedia section, naturally, is also very informative.
The second largest city in Lithuania is Kaunas, known in Jewish history and the Yiddish language as Kovno. Like Vilnius, Kaunas has an old and complex Jewish history, and in addition, there were significant Jewish communities in Kaunas Province, or Kovno Gubernia.
During the period between the wars, when Vilnius found itself a Polish/Jewish city in Poland (see Part II), Kaunas was styled the temporary, or provisional, capital of the Lithuanian republic. Different from Vilnius, Kaunas has always been a Lithuanian (or Lithuanian/Jewish) city, and has never had a large Polish minority. It functioned well as the temporary capital, although the Lithuanians held on to their dream of an expanded state, encompassing his historical capital, Vilnius.
After World War II, this dream came to fruition, although not the way most of the population wished. Lithuania became the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, a constituent member of the USSR. Vilnius lost much of its Polish population and gained many Russian residents; Kaunas, as well, became a city with a substantial Russian minority.
The forty-five years of Soviet rule (Lithuania became independent in 1991) found the seat of government, and all that goes with that, moved to Vilnius, which also became the cultural capital of the country, while Kaunas was developed by the Soviets to be the SSR’s industrial center.
As to population during this period, the cities were relatively similar, we were informed, each having a population of about 500,000. But after the independence of the country was proclaimed, Vilnius and its suburbs grew, while Kaunas’ population dropped by about 200,000, an enormous decrease, which was explained to us to be largely as a result of the loss of the Russian (or I should say Soviet) market for its manufacturing activities.
We passed a large number of unused or underused industrial buildings as we entered the city, which is spread out along the Nemunas (Nieman) River. We actually made two short visits to Kaunas, first on our own, and then with our guide and our twelve companions.
Kaunas is a comfortable city, and has its share of cars and pedestrians, but does not give the appearance of being a bustling community. It’s long main street, which has a wide grass median strip with a walkway that stretches between two rows of well trimmed linden trees, has fountains, benches, occasional street performers and, in good weather, used book sellers. It has hotels, shops,cafes and restaurants. We stayed at the Kaunas Hotel, reasonable in price and more than adequate in quality, located conveniently on the city’s main street. We had a light meal at the hotel and, for lunch, discovered a type of restaurant we found throughout our travels, what I will call a “pie shop”. I call it that because “pie” seems to be the English term for something that has a different name in each of the languages we encountered.
What are these pies? Well, by another name, they seem to be empanadas, exactly like those sold at Julia’s Empanadas, here in Washington DC. There are meat pies, vegetarian pies, and dessert pies. We shared cabbage and mushroom pies. They were cheap, fast food, and very, very good.
Kaunas has an historic city hall, many churches, and one remaining, and active, synagogue maintained very well, located in the center of the city (and a reminder of the once Jewish majority in this city). It may no longer be an industrial superpower, but it does not appear to be a dying city, either. What its next act might be, we just don’t know yet.
A suburb of Kaunas is Slobodka, a lower middle class residential suburb with an unfortunate name but an illustrious past as the home of the famous Slobodka Yeshiva, where young religious Lithuanian students were schooled not only in the traditional texts but in the process of Musar, a program of ethics and self improvement developed by Rabbi Israel Salanter. Haven’t heard of Musar? Google it. You might find it interesting.
We drove about thirty kilometers north of Kaunas to Kedenai, a small and relatively prosperous village, which had a very prominent Jewish community (my aunt’s father was one of the community leaders in the late 19th century). There are still three standing synagogues, which somehow made it through the war, the oldest of which was the synagogue where the Vilna Gaon studied as a young boy. There is also a unique wooden church in Kedenai, not a small church, but a very large one, one that you would expect to see made out of stone. And it looks to be in excellent shape.
My wife and I each have a grandfather who was born in Lithuania. To the best of our knowledge, my grandfather was from a small town near the Latvian border, Kursenai. We went there – it was quite depressed looking, a tired central square, a sad farmers’ market, a large enclosed meat market. But want to have lunch there? That’s tough. Now what it looked like in the second half of the 19th century, I don’t know. But it does not look very good today.
My wife’s grandfather, on the other hand, came from an equally small community in the east of the country, on the edge of Lithuania’s lake district, a source of recreation and fresh fish. Moletai, unlike Kursenai, seems to be thriving, and we were able to have a meal, talk to people in the community center and the library, to visit the preserved Jewish cemetery (not desecrated, not hidden) where we tried to find, among the 100+ standing gravestones, something that hinted that it might be that of my wife’s grandparents. In that task we failed, but the search was fascinating.
When we traveled to Moletai and Kursenai, and to the even smaller town of Labanoras, east of Moletai where other of my wife’s relatives lived and where we stayed in an unusual 6 room bed and breakfast with an award winning restaurant, we traveled by car. People wondered how driving a car through rural Lithuania went. My answer (as I suspected): it was a piece of cake. Rural Lithuania, to me, looks like rural Ohio, and driving is just as easy.
More to come…..