My purse got eaten by a Lithuanian elevator…

Ok, that’s the least dramatic thing that happened to me in Eastern Europe, but it makes for a good title, right?  And, in the spirit of full disclosure, nothing really dramatic happened this trip, so the title and introductory sentence of this post are already misleading.  So let’s just talk about what actually happened…

Sunday the 21st started with 0 sleep; I mean, not even one little wink.  I had to submit my essay for my Nazi film class (AKA my one and only grade for that class) before I left for Kaunas, and even though I had been working on this thing for months it still wasn’t ready for submission.  And so, I chained myself to the instructive narrative of why I thought the films ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘The Eternal/Wandering Jew’ were representative of radicalizing Nazi policies during their years in power until it was time to fly out.  Really if you think about it, I was just doing extra leg work to brace myself for ghettos and sites that saw the deaths of tens of thousands.  So really, I’m the best student UCL has ever seen.  I expect my thankyou note any day now…

Alright, because it apparently has to be mentioned before I ever talk about the trips I take, we have to talk about my anxiety.  Because, let’s face it-it makes ya’ll feel better about yourselves.  I like to help.  Not having a vehicle here means relying heavily on public transportation, which I love.  Mainly because I have anxiety about parking.  So after pulling the first all-nighter since…well, honestly I don’t know if I’ve ever had a ‘true’ all-nighter before…so after the first all-nighter of my life, I made my way to the Tube to head to the bus that would take me to the airplane that would fly me to Kaunas.  Sounds straightforward, right?  I was to meet Katie at 7:35 AM, as our bus was to depart at 7:48.  So in true paranoid fashion, I got to the station with WAY more time than I actually needed.  And then I waited…and waited…and waited…and then 20 minutes after a train had still not rolled up to the platform, I started to panic.  The panic abated slightly when a train finally arrived to take me one stop so I could switch lines, only to skyrocket again when I found the line I needed apparently didn’t start running until 7:56 that morning.  Are you freaking kidding me.  Somehow the baby Jesus appeared in the form of a disheveled man trying to head in the same direction as myself, so I just slyly stalked him until I got to the next stop to sprint upstairs and call Katie at 7:45 in a high-pithced shrieking voice that should have shattered glass, because I still had 4 stops to go and our bus was about to leave.  She calmed me down, figured out we could take the next bus, and the entire rest of the journey was flawless.  I really don’t know why I still have anxiety, because the amount of ‘exposure therapy’ I’ve endured over the years reeeeally should have nipped this thing in the bud by now.  Oy.

I should also probably take a second to introduce the characters that took part in this journey.  My graduate seminar consists of myself…and 3 other students.  There are the amazing girls who I literally wouldn’t have survived this course without, and then there’s Stuart.  Stuart is an adorable ‘old’ man, who was a gynecologist before he decided to switch tracks and go for his MA; we’ve done the math, and he is 75.  So the 4 of us and our professor met up with the world’s most charismatic and friendly guide in the history of the universe.  Seriously, this man made at least 4 friends with every stop we made, in addition to the thousands of people he already has ‘good relations’ with.  There were plenty of times on the trip that we came across a museum or site that was closed, but for Chaim they ‘made an exception’ and let us in.  It is this generosity that completely amazed me throughout the trip.  After our driver (who didn’t speak a lick of English and made us feel like we were on an old wooden rollercoaster the entire time he was our chauffeur) took us to the town of Čekiškė (now I’m just showing off…the ‘v’ looking thing above letters is an ‘h’ sound, and the dot I think makes the letter into an ‘ah’ noise.  I should really teach languages…I’m basically fluent in Lithuanian after that explanation…) where we got to see what shetl life was like for Jews before the horrific experiences of the Holocaust killed 94% of Lithuanian Jews.  The streets were quiet, and the houses aligned so as to suggest that we were on a movie set.  After this, we piled into the van to meet a couple of Chaim’s ‘good relations’: a couple of friends whose after-hour passions were creating documentaries about the Holocaust in Lithuania.  It was also our first experience in Lithuanian hospitality.  We walked into this man’s home, whose English was fair, to a coffee table covered in treats.  He was so excited to have guests that he prepared coffee, tea, wine, whiskey, pastries, fruit, meats, cheeses…I mean, you name it, it was there.  He and his comrades (our guide Chaim included) were so excited to show us their film that they took pictures of us constantly throughout the night, and were so proud to explain how they had found 5 killing sites that had been forgotten in the sands of time.  They were even more adorable because the kept pouring Katie glasses of champagne in honor of her birthday the following day…

The next day was a whirlwind of traveling, brief glimpses into where Nazi ghettos once stood (although now the tiny houses and horrific conditions have yielded to modern houses and tiny marble columns to mark the ghettos’ borders), and a forest containing 10 mass graves where countless people lost their lives.  All of this was balanced out by an indescribable opportunity that would have never come into being without Chaim.  He took us several hours down the road to a tiny little village to meet a tiny little woman whose kindness and morals are anything but tiny.  You see, as time goes on the number of Holocaust survivors is sadly coming into dwindling numbers.  But there is another group that is experiencing this shrinkage: the group of people who risked the lives of themselves and loved ones to save Jews.  Morta Kalendra is one of those amazing people, and has been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.  We weren’t told much of her story, but we do know that she and her family (Chaim guesses that 8 or 9 of her family members are Righteous as well) saved several when many did not.  In the slideshow there is the famous photo of Morta returning a small boy to his father after the war.  She and her granddaughter set out coffee and tea, cheese, bread, and apples and homemade honey as treats for us during our visit.  They made us feel so welcome as we flipped through photos, and gaze in awe at Morta’s medals given to her for her acts of heroism.  They spoke no English, but were so kind that they gave us two massive bags of apples and honey to take on the road with us.  We were complete strangers to these women, and yet they went out of their way to treat us like family.  They are incredible beings, who make the world a better place with even the smallest of actions.

Many people asked me “Why Lithuania??” when our trip was finally approved.  The two settings that are the Holocaust’s default are Germany and Poland, and that is understandably so.  But it’s important to remember that the Holocaust touched all of Europe, just as World War II touched all of Europe.  And the Lithuanian stage was huge for the Nazis.  Once Hitler and his henchmen went to war with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the infamous Einsatzgruppen and their local collaborators killed more than a million people in the East.  And Lithuania-with its shooting pits, fortresses and ghettos-played a large role in the destruction process.  We visited Ponar (outside Vilnius), where the Soviets had dug massive pits in the forest to camouflage their fuel tanks from impending air attacks.  The Nazis incorporated these pits into their mass execution actions as the tanks were removed, providing graves for those marched into the woods and shot.  We also visited the series of forts that had been built around the city of Kaunas early in the 1900s to defend those living within city limits; the Nazis transformed these as well, and used these forts in the opposite spirit in which they were created.  Chaim’s mother was a Holocaust survivor, forced into labor in what is now called the 1st Fort (there are 10 of them that form a ring around the city).  After the 1st Fort, we visited the largest and most notorious-the 9th Fort.  It has been turned into a museum, but was closed for business on the day we arrived.  Because Chaim has ‘good relations’ with the director however, we got to be the only people touring that day, which made the experience even more ominous.  The weather was a bit chilly outside, but within the fort the temperatures plummeted.  The tunnels are buried beneath the ground, and even with my 4 layers on I was still shivering.  To think that it was this cold in late April with the comforts of sweaters and jackets made imagining the experience of those imprisoned there even more unimaginable.  The bright point of the two hour tour was seeing Morta’s photo on display (Chaim made the comment that the director of the museum probably had no idea that a) this woman was still alive and b) where she lived.  Which is incredibly sad).

The things we saw and experienced would have never been possible without our enrollment in this course.  The ghettos and mass murder sites are marked, of course, but in order to actually get to these markers you need to know where you’re already going and what you should be looking for, which makes people like Chaim priceless; his endless resources and incredible memory provide his visitors things that will never be found within the pages of a guidebook.  So here’s to Chaim-thank you for giving me a once in a lifetime opportunity.  I hope I become half the historian that you have made yourself; neigh, I hope I become half the person that you have made yourself.  So literally and figuratively-l’chaim!

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6 thoughts on “My purse got eaten by a Lithuanian elevator…

  1. What an exciting account Kobi!
    Lithuania is a wonderful choice, of course–Kaunas and Vilnius were inportant places — you may remember that I have argued that Holocaust studies should also make sure that places like Saloniki and Giado, Libya.
    This is an amazing program! And your reports are amazing!

  2. So I feel like I should get some class credits after that history lesson (which I loved btw…because I’m nerd. Which is probably a good thing because how else would we be friends 😉 )

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