Tuesday, July 17, 2012

July 15, 2012 Augustow, Poland to Vilna, Lithuania

July 15, 2012  Augustow, Poland to Vilnius Lithuania

It’s a sad day….   Jakub is leaving us today…

Fortunately, I was totally oblivious when he reminded me in the morning that he was leaving us in Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish).  (Of course, you’re leaving us in Vilna…We’re going to Russia from Vilna).  He meant “I’m leaving Vilna TONIGHT.”

We checked out of our crummy hotel in Augustow, Poland and headed out for Lithuania, first with a stop in Kovno and then on to Vilna for the next two nights.

Wait a minute…  In the time it took to read that last sentence of the blog, we crossed the border from Poland to Lithuania.  We couldn’t even get a picture..  No passport check (No stamp in the passport.  Darn).  Nothing.

I protested and demanded that Jakub turn the car around and just park it in the border area for a few hours so we would feel more at home.  He refused.  (Probably thinking about the drive he would have to make back across that border in a few hours).

This last city is all about my bubbie, Ruth Levy, my mom’s mom.  I was very close to Bubbie since my mom, with 4 kids under age 5 and a husband in residence as an oncologist in NYC, often took us to Connecticut for support from her parents.  My Bubbie never learned to drive a car (I just figured Bubbies didn’t drive).  My Bubbie walked a little hunched over.  (Which was how I thought it was supposed to be) and my Bubbie stuttered which I also will forever associate with what it really means to be a Bubbie.

And as long as Sam, Veronica, Alex, Andrew, Jeff, Debbie or Cynthia aren’t reading this, I was her favorite!  If you are reading this, then Sam was her favorite.

When I did the family history 30 years ago, I recorded an oral history with her, which is thrilling now so that Shayna and Rebecca can hear her voice, and hear her stories. 

She told me that her ancestors came from Vilna.  That was the first I ever heard of that name and its exciting for me to be there…and wishing, of course, that I could share it with her.

We stopped first in a town called Kovno, in Lithuania and on the way to Vilna.  It was the birthplace of my Bubbie’s mom, Celia Sapperstein.  What we thought was a quick stop on the way to Vilna turned out to a GREAT town.  Kovno was not bombed in the war…so we could see what an eastern European city would have looked like had its architecture been preserved…because it was.

The city also has a river meandering through it.

We drove to the top of a hill to get the view, which reminded us of Budapest and the Danube.

Chocolate break..

We went to the top of one of the churches for another stunning view.

Our guide, a Kovno Jewish woman, brought us to her favorite restaurant for lunch, showed us Jewish Kovno, and we walked its old and narrow streets.

We went to the Great Synagogue where Shayna and I filmed another segment for the family history.

This time, we had a photo of my mom (whom Shayna calls “Bubbie”) as an infant being carried by Celia Sapperstein (her Bubbie) in the late 1930s.  So, with Shayna holding a photo of her bubbie, and her bubbie’s bubbie, we rolled the tape.  (Special to my mom:  it was really wonderful to see five generations represented in one frame). 

By late afternoon, we needed to get back in the van for the drive to Vilna.

Our Vilna hotel is set right at the top of the Old Town square, a fantastic spot to be.  From our window we can see all the cafes and shops…

The view from our room..

Another view...

We were stunned to walk around and hear so much English.   Vilna aka Vilnius is a cross between Paris and Florence, lots of old streets, high-end stores with all the really expensive fashions, tons of young hip people socializing.  Every restaurant had English menus and English speaking staff.  We didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  It’s a whole lot more expensive than any other place on our trip (and still only slightly less expensive than home).

While we were supposed to meet with a local academic, Jakub reminded us that he would be leaving this evening to get back to Warsaw and that just stopped us in our tracks. 

Jakub is one special man…  (and I know he’s reading this!)  He is a committed and enthusiastic Pole.  He knows his history frontwards and backwards.  He offered perspective and understanding as we navigated through and across national borders that have been contested for centuries.  He has a marvelous sense of humor, plays “Friends” TV show trivia with the girls…and what else can we say…his cel phone doubles as a WIFI hot spot giving us internet connection whenever he’s around.

We asked Jakub to at least stay through dinner so he could pick a restaurant and we could have a Jakub honorary meal.

We ate, laughed, told stories, played cards, and then went around the table sharing something about Jakub that we appreciate and will miss.

We felt such an emptiness as he left, like the wind was just taken out of our sails.  We are a very experienced traveling family and will do well in these next two days.  Still, we didn’t know what we’d do.

We took a night time walk and then headed back to the hotel.

We had a surprise in store for Shayna.

We told her that we needed to do one more taping, a reflection piece as we end our genealogy tour…   The four of us went down to a lounge on the first floor and set up for the shoot.  Except just as Shayna, as she has done countless times, attached the microphone to her shirt, I took it away.  Marci started filming and I told Shayna about my Bubbie, whom she calls “Big Bubbie.” 

I told her how my Bubbie entrusted me with the care of the family history photos and artifacts that informed our travels.  Then, I pulled out an old fabric case and asked Shayna to open it.

It was a very old pair of t’fillin, which traditional Jews wear each morning when they pray.  I had her take out the paper I placed inside the cloth bag 30 years ago to identify it:  “Samuel Vollowitz.  T’fillin.  1893.” 

The day before we left San Rafael, as I was looking around my closet for whatever I forgot to pack, I saw the t’fillin on my Jewish ritual objects shelf (doesn’t everyone have one of those in their closet?)  OMG.  There's Samuel Vollowitz (my Bubbie’s father) trillion.  He was born in Vilna..where this t’fillin came from.

Right then I realized that we could...and would.. bring the T’fillin back to Vilna and have Samuel’s great great granddaughter carry it to Vilna’s Great Synagogue, where Samuel may very well have used them to pray before coming to America at age 18.

I told Shayna the story, handed her the t'fillin, and asked her to bring it back for a visit to a Vilna synagogue..over 100 years since its last visit.

It was a great moment and we’re looking forward to tomorrow..

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