Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Scandinavia and the Baltics - Part 12 - the final leg, from Riga to Tallinn

We arrived in Riga on Sunday evening and stayed at our first hotel of the trip, every other night was at an AirBnb. 

On Monday morning, we travelled a short distance out of town to the Rumbula Forest, the site of another mass massacre of Jews in the Shoah. 

It is a horrible place. Here, about 12 kilometres from Riga, 25,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis in just two days, lined up, shot and pushed into an open pit which became their mass grave. Except for Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine, this was the biggest 2 day Holocaust atrocity until the opening of the death camps. The same “architect” of Babi Yar was brought in to Riga to quickly liquidate Latvian Jews and clear out the Riga Ghetto, as Himmler needed the Riga Ghetto to house Jews deported from Germany and Hungary. 

After being in the two forests of Rumbula and Ponar, we are not sure that we can ever visit a forest again without thinking about what occurred here in Latvia and Lithuania. 

While we visited, there was a bus load of tourists from a cruise ship docked in Riga for the day. We assumed that this was a Jewish Group, but when speaking to some of the people, discovered to our surprise that the majority were Americans and non Jewish. 

From here we went back to Riga and stopped at the “burnt shul”. This was the site of the Great Synagogue of Riga built in the 1870’s. On July 4, 1941, three days after the Nazis entered Latvia, they set fire to the shul, after locking the doors from the outside, trapping inside all those who had come to pray.

Next to the remains of the shul is a massive monument to the memory of Janis Lipke, who was a dock worker in Riga and who witnessed the actions that were being perpetrated against innocent Jews. He applied for a position as a contractor for the Luftwaffe, and used his position to smuggle Jews out of the Riga Ghetto. Together with his wife, Johanna, they concealed over 40 Jews in their home until the end of the war. Singlehandedly, they saved 25% of the just 200 Jews to survive the war in Latvia. 

We drove a short distance to the site of the Riga Ghetto. This is a very formal exhibition of the ghetto, the history of Riga’s Jewish community, a display of the miniature famous synagogues of Latvia, built to scale, etc.; this memorial on the very site of the Riga Ghetto is very well done and is packed with information. It also appears to be on the route of tour buses visiting Riga, as while we were there, a number of tours stopped by to visit. 

There was also a very interesting display of old pre WWII pictures with matching paintings, as well as a reproduced Ghetto house with huge wooden Hebrew letters surrounding the house. 

The next stop was the only currently operating Synagogue in Riga to have survived the Holocaust. Like others that we have seen on our travels, it survived because it is in a densely populated area of the city centre and had the Nazis tried to burn this synagogue, neighbouring buildings and close by churches would have been at risk.

Built in the early 1900’s, it is one of the most beautiful synagogues that we have ever visited.

In the bookcase of the synagogue were some old Jewish texts, including what might be first editions of the Chafetz Chaim from 1884. In the front cover on the left side is the word “mugah” which means checked. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chafetz Chaim, being committed to ethics and honesty to the greatest degree possible, would recheck editions after printing to ensure that there were no missing or blank pages and that the purchaser was receiving full value. 

The main sanctuary is only used on the High Holidays and on special occasions; the daily minyan and Shabbat services meet in the small sanctuary in the basement. The Synagogue has a Rabbi; Rav Kalev Krelin; he has also recently been appointed as the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania and is also the mashgiach for the EEK Kashrut Agency in the Baltic States. 

There is also a Chabad in Riga. they hold their own services separate from the local community. 

There is a kosher restaurant next door to the Jewish Community Centre, a short drive from the shul. It is a meat restaurant and is called Cafe 7:40. Not sure of the significance of the name, but the food was good, service was crisp and centrally located. 

By this time in the afternoon, it was time to head to the airport for our very short 40 minute flight to Tallinn, Estonia, where we will spend the final two days of this trip. 

Tallinn was unlike any of the cities that we had thus far visited in the three Baltic Countries. It was busy and bustling, with many areas of the city under renovation; there were cranes everywhere. Tons of tourists packing the streets of the walled old city, souvenir stores everywhere, with most of the tourists here for a day either on a side trip from Helsinki, a short two hours by ferry, or in port on one of the Baltic Cruise Ships. 

Unlike the cities that we had visited in Lithuania and Latvia whose streets are still lined with buildings held over from the Communist occupation, Tallinn looks like they have taken those buildings and either replaced them with modern new builds or refaced them with a new fresh look. 

From a Jewish standpoint, Estonia never had many Jews. Before the war, there were 4300 Estonian Jews. More than 75% of them escaped before the war to the Soviet Union. The close to 1000 who remained were all killed by the Nazis and local collaborators by 1941.

Very early in the war, the Nazis proudly proclaimed that Estonia was Judenfrei (cleansed of Jews). 

Here is a picture of the Great Synagogue in Tallinn before the war and just after its destruction.

Today, there is a small Jewish community of about 2000 Jews and while almost extinct at the end of WWII, the community has experienced a rebirth in numbers and in Jewish organization and practice. 

We visited the beautiful modern synagogue in Tallinn that also serves as the Chabad house and the JCC. The building has received architectural awards and also houses a mikvah, kosher kitchen and neighbours the Jewish day school, which also accepts non Jews as part of its enrolment. We had a tour of the building by one of the locals and he told us that there was a daily minyan.  

The Rabbi, Rav Shmuel Kot, also gives hashgacha to a local kosher meat restaurant Ruby’s, located in a downtown area undergoing gentrification. 

We ended up eating there twice and the meals were great, delicious, plentiful and inexpensive. 

It is a bit difficult to find; it is located in the Rotermanni section of the city on a narrow pedestrian lane between the TOA (Taste of Asia) restaurant and the Brew Dog Brewery, with its huge Red Bulldog Symbol. 

We spent our time in Tallinn relaxing and browsing through the many quaint boutiques that line the sides of the narrow alleyways in the old city. 

Very early on Thursday, we boarded our flight to Copenhagen from where we connected to our Air Canada flight home.

Reflections of this trip are as follows:

Most of our travel is spent reciting the blessing that Jews say when they witness the beauty of God’s creations; this trip (at least the last half of it) was filled with Kaddish and the Memorial Prayer of Yizkor. The Baltic States bring back horrible memories for Jews. 

And while we appreciate the contributions of so many Righteous Among the Nations from these states, we cannot and should not wipe from our collective memory, the vicious atrocities in which the local communities participated in, and in some cases instigated. 

At the same time, there is a talmundic rule “ayn domeh shmiyah l’reiah”; one cannot equate hearing about something to actually seeing it. And in this case, we believe that despite its difficult and depressing effect on experiencing these places, it is still worth coming here because it simply reinforces the feeling that we must always be on guard, vigilant and determined to ensure that it can never happen again.

It was inspiring to visit the kever of my great grandfather. He was known as a very pious man and he motivated his students to continue the chain of tradition as Torah observant Jews. There are stories of him defending the honour and the sanctity of the synagogue and the Torah Study Hall when more modern elements wished to introduce less religious practices into its sanctuary. To stand and recite the Kayl Maleh Rachamim Memorial prayer at his tombstone, reinforced the family bond that we hold together, even though we never had the chance to personally know him.

It is sad to witness what happened to the Jews of Europe. It is sad to visit empty Shuls, empty shells of buildings that were once bustling with song and prayer and once so full of life. It is sad to realize that whatever is left of the Jewish communities where we visited, in all likelihood they will totally disappear in the next generation.

And why cities and towns are celebrating Jewish Culture Week or renovating synagogues when there are no Jews left is nothing more than a cruel joke. It is almost as though they are celebrating a culture that they tried to make extinct. It has been suggested that this is being done either to capitalize on the Jewish tourist trade or to atone for the atrocities that many local civilians supported. A more fitting atonement in our humble opinion, would be to donate the euros spent on these events to social service agencies in Israel. 

It was inspiring to participate in the transient medical student community of the Kovno Jewish Student Centre and to see that when push comes to shove Jewish students want to be with other Jewish students even if they are both secular. And Kol Hakavod to Rabbi Moshe and Rebbetzin Ruchie Sheinfeld for dedicating their young lives to ensuring that this place continues. We wish them much success and are honoured that we had the chance to participate with them over the few days that we were in Kovno. 

Once again, we have been privileged to travel and see more of Hashem’s creations and to learn more about our history. Am Yisrael Chai!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Scandinavia and the Baltics - Driving from Kovno to Riga

Early Sunday morning, we were picked up by Meny and began our drive north in the direction of Riga. 

Our first stop would be Kedainiai, a small town with a population of 25,000. In Jewish ciircles, the town was known as Kaidan.

Jews first came to Kaidan in the early 1600s and built their first synagogue in the Old Market Square in the late 1600’s. 

By the late 1700’s, the Old Market Square was the centre of Jewish life and was formally renamed as the Jewish Market Square. A majority of the commercial businesses in town were run by Jewish merchants. 

Members of the noted rabbinic family called Katzenellenbogen were the rabbinical leaders of Kaidan and it was for this reason that the young scholar, Eliyahu Ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer, later to be known simply as the Gaon of Vilna, arrived in 1727 in Kaidan as a young boy of seven to continue his studies. He remained there for several years and married a Kaidan young lady, Chana. 

Back in the days before the Shoah, Jews lived in the centre of this town. It was a hub of regional activity and just opposite the city square stood two synagogues. We all know the joke: 

 A fellow is shipwrecked on an island. Years later, when he is rescued, they notice that he has built two synagogues (shuls). “Why do you have 2 Shuls? You are only one person on this island”, he is asked. “Well one is where I pray, and the other I would not think of stepping into!”. 

Well, the first 2 Shuls of Kaidan were built right next to each other and they are still standing. One was called the Summer Shul and the other was the Winter Shul. In front of each is a artistic memorial to the victims of the Shoah. 

The first synagogue that was built in the Market Square burnt down and in its place, a new stone synagogue, called the Summer or Big Synagogue was built and completed in 1807. It was claimed by local residents that this synagogue was the most beautiful in all of Lithuania. In 1837, right next to it, was built the Little of Winter Synagogue. Not as aesthetically beautiful as the Summer Synagogue, the Winter Synagogue had heating. Between the two, there was a gate and on top of the gate stood a sundial which would cast shadows on a clockface which instead of numbers had Hebrew letters. 

Kaidan was occupied by the German army in the summer of 1941. On August 28, most of the 3000 Jews of Kedainiai, a community that had existed for 500 years and which had great relations with the non Jewish citizens in the area, were killed by the Nazis with the aid of the local Lithuanian population. 

The Summer Synagogue was turned into a stable. When the war ended and Lithuania came under Soviet control, the square was renamed National Square and both synagogues were turned into warehouses.

One of the synagogues was open and after paying the attendant the entry fee, we viewed the interior as well as the small museum upstairs of some of the remnants of bygone days, including old Jewish texts that were published in Kedainiai just before the outbreak of WWII. 

There were famous pictures of the Mir Yeshiva heads Rav Finkel and Rav Schmulevitz featured in the museum, and we learned that the famous Mir Yeshiva was in Kaidan for a period of time during the war. 

In August 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets signed the Molotov Ribbentrop treaty which divided Poland in two. Refugees began to stream to Lithuania and specifically to Vilnius, as at this moment in time, Lithuania was independent and the safest place to be. Among the refugees were groups of students from various yeshivot and they re-established their institutions there. 

When the students of the famous Mir Yeshiva came to Vilna, they found an overcrowded city with no place to settle, and so in early 1940, they arrived in Kaidan. They were welcomed there, local synagogues provided place for them to continue their studies and there was room for housing for the students and their families. 

Kaidan was also the cucumber growing centre of the area, and groups of refugees involved themselves in agriculture to prepare themselves for Aliya to Palestine, where movement was already underway to establish the State of Israel. This experience in agriculture would help them make the adjustment to Moshav or Kibbutz life easier. 

But their stay in Kaidan would prove to be short lived. In June 1940, just months after they had arrived, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets. The leadership of the Yeshiva decided to break up into smaller units and move to small local villages where they could plan their next steps. 

They then heard about the opportunity to acquire Dutch and Japanese visas in Kovno from Vice Consul Chiune Sugihara, and as they say the rest is history. By August 1940, they were on their way to the Far East. The Mir Yeshiva today is one of the largest Jewish schools of Higher Learning in the world. 

Today we talk about the need for stability. Stability in your home, your family, your educational opportunities, the workplace. Just think about the strength of these people and their leaders. 

Flee your home in late 1939; arrive in Vilna; leave Vilna and arrive in Kaidan in early 1940. By June 1940 move to small villages. by August 1940, secure visas for a journey to Kobe and Shanghai thousands of miles away in countries with strange cultures and strange languages. A a few years later sail across the ocean to Canada, the USA, Israel and other countries to begin life yet again in countries with yet different cultures and different languages. How did these people cope? It is beyond the scope of human understanding. 

And yet they built new lives successfully and all the while maintaining their traditions and their family heritage. 

Truly, Am Yisrael Chai. 

There is also a display of the pictures of some of the Israel-awarded designees as Righteous Among the Nations, who were from the Kedainiai area, and bravely, at considerable risk to their personal safety, saved Jews from the hands of the Nazis. 

Lithuanian citizens are remembered on the one hand, for their eagerness in killing Jews and on the other hand, as the country with the highest per capita number of Righteous Among the Nations in any European country. Go figure? 

It was a quiet Sunday morning in this small, seemingly peaceful town, and workers were busy erecting Jumping Trampolines for a street fair to be held just outside the two synagogues later that day. There would be many local children playing there that day, their smiling faces filled with happiness, enjoying the day with their families. 

We could not help but contrast their laughter and joy with the total terror and fear felt by many Jewish children in that same square some 80 years earlier, being taken to their death simply for being Jewish.

This trip continues to be an emotionally draining one for us. 

Our guide is constantly pointing out to us memorials and signs indicating the sites of mass murders of Jews and the sites of Jewish cemeteries and is praising the present Lithuanian government for building and maintaining these memorials and for guiding us to these sites. We are not so easy in giving praise to a people and a nation that brutally decimated entire communities. 

We now continued in a north western direction, and on the way noticed the signs of places that were familiar to us. 

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One was Rietavas, known in Yiddish as Riteve, where my mother’s great grandfather Rabbi Isaac Aaronovitch served as the Riteve Dayan or the head of the Jewish Court in the 1800s, and authored the sefer Kesher Torah. 

Riteve is also the area from where many South African Litvak Jews originated and the kosher restaurant at the Cape Town JCC is known as Riteve. 

Another familiar name was Telsiai, which was the site of the famous Telshe Yeshiva where my great grandfather studied and was ordained. 

The third was our next destination, the small town of Varniai or Vorno in Yiddish, where my maternal great grandfather, Rabbi Nachum Lipa Chananye, (after whom my brother is named) founded and served as Rosh Yeshiva from 1875 until his passing in 1910. 

We were told by a distant cousin, Michael Tiger of Montreal, that he had visited some years ago and that he had found my great grandfather’s final resting place and his tombstone. 

We drove through the quiet town of Vorno and turned onto a gravel road which lead to the small Jewish Cemetery. It was relatively well kept and was surrounded by a low rise metal fence which we had to scale in order to find the location of the grave. 

Most of the headstones were badly faded and unreadable and it was only from carefully studying the picture that Michael had taken some years ago, that we were able to compare the shape and location and eventually find the grave of Rav Nachum Lipa Chananye, of blessed memory. 

When I wrote to Michael in Montreal and thanked him for assisting us in locating the location, he replied:

There are many threads in our lives.  I remain touched by the fact that my mother saved an old letter (in Yiddish) from Meina Liebe Chananie to my grandfather Jacob Chananie, dated Oct 1897, Johanessburg. In that letter he mentions his brother Nachum Lipman and wants my grandfather to send letters or pictures to Nachum.  This week, 122 years later, you have visited Nachum's kever and we communicate via Internet.” 

Michael’s note points out that despite the fact that the methods and speed of communication has changed, we as a family have to still remain in touch and connected. Great lesson! 

Many of the readers of this blog will remember my maternal grandfather Yitzchak Zvi Cannon. He lived with us in Toronto after my grandmother passed away in 1955 until his passing in 1976. When he arrived in England in the early 1900’s, he was asked for his family name. He said it was Chananye.  The British authorities renamed him Cannon. Some of the family that came to Canada maintained the name Chananye while others changed it to Kantor. 

We recited the memorial prayer and prayed at his burial place for good health, happiness and success for our family and for  our friends. It was a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand a connection with the past and a link in the chain of tradition in our family. On the other hand, it was sad. One of our patriarchs, here, all alone, with no one in the area to visit on a Yartzeit, to recite a memorial prayer. 

We were back on the road, this time to the town of Telsiai, commonly known as Telz, site of the famous Yeshiva where up to 500 students studied Torah. We parked in the centre of town, across from the entrance to the old ghetto area, and then walked one block to a dilapidated ruin of a red brick building which once housed the Yeshiva. There was a simple metal sign nailed to the front of the building indicating that the Yeshiva which at one time was here, was occupied by the Soviets and had since relocated to Cleveland. 

Our guide indicated that there was a move underway to renovate the building as a remembrance to bygone days. 

Just up the road was the Old Jewish Cemetery and we visited the kever of  Rav Yosef Yehuda Bloch and his wife Miriam. He served as the Rosh Yeshiva. 

We were now back on the road to Riga. On the way we made two more stops. The first was to the town of ┼áiauliai, or as we commonly called it, Shavel. Shavel was a centre of Jewish life, and in the early 1900s, over 65% of the 17000 inhabitants were Jewish. The centre of industry in the town was the leather factory of Chaim Fraenkel, the largest leather factory in the Russian Empire. 

The home is still standing and now serves as the local Museum, with a portion of the displays highlighting Chaim Fraenkel’s Jewish roots.

Behind the home is his huge garden and next door is the manufacturing plant. 

When we entered, we were told by the local guide that we should have been there a few hours earlier. We had just missed the Jewish Cultural Concert. Again, my question was “how many Jews are in Shavel today”. And the same answer, “none”.

Chaim was an observant Jew and he built a Synagogue next to the factory so that his workers would have a place to pray. Below is a current picture of the shul and the original drawings. 

He supported most of the Jewish social services in town.

Across the street from the mansion is a city erected statue of Chaim Fraenkel. 

Later that night when I recounted this to my mother in Toronto, she said that her aunt was married to one of the Fraenkel children and had lived in Shavel and that as a child she was told about the fame and fortune of the Fraenkel family. 

Our final stop before getting to Riga was the small town of Joniskis, close to the Latvian border. 

Here too, there were two restored synagogues side by side in the town square, one the summer shul and one the winter shul, alsocalled the Red Synagogue and the White Synagogue.

Beautiful restored buildings but sadly because it was late on a Sunday evening, we had no way of entering the buildings. Sadder still, beautiful empty buildings that had once served thriving Jewish communities.  

This had been a sad day, empty Shuls, seldom visited cemeteries and ruined Yeshivot standing as a witness to the decimation of Lithuanian Jewry. We remember what once was, in stark contrast to what we see before us today. From the heights to the depths. 

Tomorrow, Riga and then on to Tallinn as we close this chapter in our travels. 

All the best

Fran and David