Tuesday, July 17, 2012

July 16, 2012 Vilna, Lithuania

July 16, 2012             Vilnius, Lithuania

Our last day of the genealogical tour…

We began with an immersion in cultural difference….and sensitivity. 

After breakfast, we met our local guide, a Jewish woman, native to Vilnius, for a day of touring.  The girls were exhausted so I was pleased to see an older woman who reminded me of my bubbie as our guide.  Yeah.  (I actually told the girls it would be an easy day…)  Get the foreshadowing?

Our guide walked at such a brisk pace that we were out of breath just trying to keep up with her.  She raced us through the old Jewish part of Vilna. 

There were really cool old streets, well preserved, and we could get a great sense of what it must have been like 100 years ago to be there.  (There haven’t been too many places like this since so many cities were bombed in WWII and Jewish areas, especially, were leveled). 

A storefront in the old Jewish section of the city.  Note the Yiddish writing...

We stopped at the Great Synagogue, which we are thrilled to say, is still in use.  Since it was built in 1903, and Samuel left in 1900, we know that he never prayed there.  Still, we brought the t’fillin and did our taping anyway.  Shayna stood in front of the Ark, with the tfillin resting on a stand (that usually holds a prayer book), holding a picture of her great great grandfather Samuel Vollowitz in her hands.

Yeah!  Prayerbooks in a synagogue...  That means it's in use..

Shayna with her great great grandfather's photo and t'fillin

Next, we decided to go the archives to search genealogical records and she suggested we take the public bus. Always wanting to immerse ourselves as much as we can (and thrilled to have a local guide to navigate us), our guide walked…and we raced to keep up with her…to the bus stop.

15 minutes later we were in the office of “the best Jewish genealogy archivist in Lithuania.” 

And now, cultural difference.

Our guide was born in the “Soviet period,” speaks English, Lithuanian, Yiddish, and Russian.  It was clear that she identified first as a Russian….  She told us she was “Soviet.”  She said she lamented that Lithuanians now call the Soviet period an “occupation” and every time she met up with someone else who spoke Russian, she lit up.

There’s also a directness in communication, or at least when delivered with a Russian accent, that violates my American sense of personal space.


The best Jewish genealogist archivist in Lithuania (after looking for records of my relatives in Vilna):  “I have concluded after my investigation that you are wrong.”

Marc:  Wrong?

TBJGAIL: I have many people tell me that their family is from Vilna and they are wrong.  You are wrong too.  Your family is not from Vilna.

Marc: Really?

TBJGAIL: There were many shtetls near Vilna.  They lived in one of them. Do you know which one?

Marc: No.  That’s why I’m here.

TBJGAIL: You need to find out.

Marc: OK

That was the extent, and end, of our archive visit.

I was bummed…not only by the abruptness of her tone but also by the fact that Samuel Vollowitz may not have spent much time (or any time) in Vilna.  Who knows. 

Stil, I tried to look at the positive…all information is good and all of it moves our search forward.  Marci was just ticked off at her.

Back on the bus and back to town.

Meanwhile, with all of us huffing and puffing to keep up with our guide, she, from a block away, waits for us.  Then, she says, “I look at you.  I tire you out.  I’m afraid I tired you out.”

We toured the Jewish ghetto (old), the larger ghetto created by the Nazis, as well as a memorial to the Vilna Gaon.

This is the second map like this we've seen.  It's an overlay, in two colors, of pre-war Vilna and then post-war Vilna.  Warsaw is also mapped liked this.

Rebecca in the Jewish ghetto.

The tribute to the Vilna Gaon.

Marci and Rebecca in the Jewish ghetto.

By 1 pm, we couldn’t do it anymore and ended the day of touring, returned to our hotel rooms where I promptly fell asleep.

Later in the afternoon, for the first time in weeks, the 4 of us, and just the 4 of us, went and took a walk through town.  We were aware that this is our last day in this part of the trip and had a nice time reflecting on our experiences. 

It's a Beatles town...

A town Shayna could love..

Shayna spotted a really tall brick tower in the distance and proclaimed: Let’s go there. 

Off we went.  Turns out they have a funicular to get you up the hill.  We climbed a narrow spiraling staircase the rest of the way….until we arrived at the top for a stunning view of the city.

Back at the hotel, we spent an hour or so swimming and enjoying the spa.  This feels like vacation.

Then, we met with the Lisa Lainer Fagan and her family in the lobby and swapped stories of our genealogy tours.

After a really good Indian food dinner, back to the hotel with a promise to the girls that they can sleep tomorrow until they wake up…because then it's off to St. Petersburg, Russia...


  1. I found your blog searching for Lutsk but couldn't stop reading. This sounds like a fascinating trip! The thing with Vilna not having records of your family happened to me, too. Back in the late 1800s, there was a Vilna province of the Russian Empire. Vilna was the largest city in this very large province. So people would say they were from Vilna, meaning the province. Kind of like someone from Albany could say they were from New York--but if you looked in NYC records, you wouldn't find them. You may want to try looking at Lithuanian & Belarussian revision lists from the 1800s to try to figure out your town (the Vilna province straddles both current-day countries). Jewishgen.org has lots of them (not all) indexed.

    I'm also hoping to do a similar trip next summer (my family is from pretty much all parts of the Ukraine--including Lutsk, as well as Belarus). How much can I expect to spend? Can you recommend a good Ukrainian guide? I'll check back in a few days to see if you've been able to answer.

  2. Lara, the Taube center in Warsaw handled all our arrangements. They are fantastic. Contact Helise at helieberman@yahoo.com and let her know you read the Dollinger's blog and we sent you. Good luck! Marc