Dr. Mordechai Zalkin, “Motti” to his friends, is a professor of modern Jewish history at Ben Gurion University. He specializes in Jews in the Baltic Region and has been teaming up with Jerulita Travel for years now, leading expert tours throughout the Baltic States. We sat down with him one afternoon to ask him about his work.
Jerulita: How did you first get involved with Jerulita Travel?
Motti: I first met Yulik, the founder of Jerulita, in 1992 or 93. I was then studying for my doctorate. I’m not Baltic myself—I’m 7th generation born in Israel/Palestine—but in my second or third year at university, there was a seminar about Jews in Eastern Europe, and one of the professors covered the Baltic region, it seemed quite interesting. The rest is history. I feel like a citizen of the Baltic region.
In 1992/93, someone, knowing my focus on the Baltics, mentioned that a student from Vilnius, Lithuania had come to the university. So I met him, and a month later, I traveled to Vilnius—my first time there—as part of my research.
Prof. Mordechai Zalkin in Vilnius
I spent a month in Vilnius, and almost every day I would spend in the city’s historical archives. Every day after work, Yulik would come and join me in the Archives, helping me with translations of Lithuanian or Polish. In the evenings, we used to walk through Vilnius, and we became quite good friends. In that way, Yulik introduced Vilnius to me.
I returned to Vilnius every year as part of my research, and by 1996, we led the first group together—a group of professors of Jewish history from all over the world.
At this time, it was the bicentennial anniversary of the death of the Vilna Gaon. There was a Jewish conference in Vilnius. I had spoken about it with some colleagues and friends half a year earlier; everyone seems quite positive to travel around Lithuania. We visited not only Vilnius but the rest of the country. It was quite a formative tour for all of us; history comes to life. Professor contributed to the journey of his knowledge, either as a historian or professor of literature, languages, or geography. So it was quite significant, I would say.
A year later, in 1997, Yulik established Jerulita Travel. I met his son Daniel as a young boy, and his family, and both of our families became excellent friends.
What kind of tours do you do with Jerulita Travel?
Now I visit Lithuania 3-4 times a year. I try to contribute my knowledge and expertise to Jerulita’s tours. I keep them informed on the most updated research about Jews in the Baltic region. Sometimes, we travel together, either leading groups, or just the 2-3 of us to study more about the area, about Jews, the general population. Jerulita has been a part of my life for the last 25 years.
I’m a university professor. I enjoy my job very much. However, as a historian, I see myself not only as someone who sits in the archives, in my study, reading texts, and so on. But also as someone who shares his knowledge and experiences with the general public. In Israel, I give many lectures about the Baltic region all around the country. Each summer, I gather groups of mainly Israeli students in the Baltic region. People recommend our tours to their friends, it’s now June 2018, and I already have 3-4 reservations for the summer of 2019. At least once a year, Yulik and I combine our groups. We are very close friends and enjoy each other’s company.
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The combination of Yulik and me is, in a way, fascinating. About 11 years ago, I was in Kaunas. We were walking in the streets, and my cell phone rang. It was my wife on the other side of the line to tell me that we have a new grandson. At that point, I stopped guiding for a moment to speak with her. Yulik instantly took over and continued from the middle of my sentence. We are so in tune with each other, and we understand each other by eye contact. We know who is exactly is going to say what at each point. Yulik and I joke a lot. I think quite a lot of tourists enjoy this unique friendship.
What do you think makes Jerulita Travel unique?
Years ago, Yulik and I decided together that tours in the Baltic region shouldn’t concentrate just on Jewish history. We strive to incorporate regional history, economy, geography, culture, weather, even Polish and Russian history into each tour. From time to time, people ask me if I might lead a tour solely on the Holocaust period. And I refuse. I tell them, the Holocaust took place in certain locations, at a specific time, within broader circumstances. To understand what happened in the Holocaust, you should realize the more comprehensive picture and the context.
I admire Yulik and Danny. You should remember, Yulik defines himself as a Homo Sovieticus, that is, someone who grew up in Soviet Lithuania. Then he changed, from someone who matured in a Soviet Communist state, to a capitalist, someone who has his ideas. He initiated this endeavor to establish Jerulita Travel. He risked a lot at this time. Nobody knew how many tourists would come to Lithuania, or who would be interested in Lithuania. As far as I see it, it’s been a great success. I like Yulik and Danny, I admire them, and I hope I have many years to join them and help them.