We run family roots tour to Lithuania and Poland almost all the time and they all are very emotional and stick in my memory for years. This time I am going to share with you one of the last such experiences.
Making the first contact.
I will not tell you anything new about the way we have got in touch. Use google to find us, if not go to Trip Advisor, type in Private Guide in Lithuania and here we are. We have very good reviews and it makes people confident, that we can make a good job. That is how Rosalie Fox found Jerulita Travel online.
She sends us an email and I did my best to be as responsive as possible. We have exchanged e-mail “Back and forth” to match the program and to incorporate all the little towns into the final itinerary.
This is one of the e-mails:
I’ve finally put together my “wish list” for the trip that my husband and I would like to take this spring. We would fly from … to Vilnius, Lithuania, connecting with an English-speaking private tour guide who can drive us through the towns and shtetls where my ancestors had lived in Lithuania (Panevezys, Jonava, Seta, and Kaunas) and Poland (Merkine/Meretch, Suwalki, and Raczki), with an emphasis on the latter two towns/villages. We plan to explore Vilnius and Warsaw on our own.
Asking some Questions:
Does Jerulita have a guide who knows both counties well — Lithuania and Poland — and is able to read and speak both languages? – Yes.
Do you (or another) have intimate knowledge of Jewish life in the mid-late 1800’s, along with the locations of Jewish sites (synagogues, cemeteries, archives, streets/neighborhoods) in these areas in both countries? – Yes.
Can you (or another) translate plaques and gravestones in their various languages (including Hebrew/Yiddish)? – Yes.
Can a guide pick us up in Vilnius, drive us by private car, arrange accommodations (etc.), and deliver us to Warsaw after touring the above towns and villages in early May? If so, how long would you suggest we spend in the above towns and areas? – Yes.
Our answer to all these questions was yes.
Which means that Rosalie got a right service provider and Jerulita got a right client for the kind of service we are built to provide.
How do you price your services?
Usually, we offer a package price including the accommodation, the guide, the transport and major entrance fees to the Museums. In addition, we can offer extra services as tickets to cultural events or an SPA center. While, sometimes people want to book their hotels independently, which is absolutely acceptable by Jerulita Team. Do not omit the fact that when we offer a hotel package it passes through the filter of our experience.
Meeting at the airport.
To cut the long story short, we shook hands and I had to be at the airport on a certain date. Oh, sorry, my mistake – Rosalie decided to spend one day on her own in Vilnius, so I have met them at the hotel in the morning. We had a conversation with Rosalie, Lee, and Ned in the breakfast restaurant and discussed our plans. From the very first moment I had a feeling that it will be a very nice time with Foxes.
Jewish Vilnius Tour.
On the first day, we had a Jewish Vilnius Tour. Actually, it does not matter what kind and length of a Jewish guided tour you plan to have in Eastern Europe – you can start it in Vilnius and it will be a perfect introduction to the Jewish Heritage and History.
Furthermore, in the morning we had a 3-4 hour walking tour in the Old City. We have seen major highlights of a Lithuanian capital. Afterward, we went to the Jewish Quarter. We have concentrated the guiding themes on the history and heritage and much less on the Holocaust. So we skipped sites like Ponar and the 9th fort.
In the afternoon we drove with a car around the city to visit the first Jewish settlement in Vilnius and a Jewish Cemetery with the grave of the Vilna Gaon.
Family story begins.
Next morning we drove to Trakai. A nice resort area located just 30 km west from Vilnius. Five big lakes surround the Old Trakai. A beautiful insular castle attracts visitors of Lithuania as a historical museum. You can rent a boat or a yacht and sail around the lakes enjoying the beautiful and peaceful countryside.
Our next destination was Valkininkai. This small town is just 30 km drive west from Trakai. Rosalie was reading to her husband and son about the place we were going to visit. Most of the information she had was a translation of the “Pinkas Hakehilot” [The book of the communities”] published by Yad Vashem. She also was explaining to them what part of the family came from the place and what were the names of the other siblings, who lives there. I was adding to what Rosalie was reading if I had some particular story or personal experience.
I felt being a member of the family. You cannot imagine what it does to you unless you are in such a situation. This is one of the wows in my work.
Valkininkai – first shtetl in a list.
In Valkininkai we found a nice Market Square. There was a new put sign about the attraction in the town and around. To the big surprise of my clients, there was a mentioning of the Cemetery and a little neighboring village which was erected by the jews.
Ned helped me find the location and we have found the settlement. It was a strange feeling to drive through one street settlement, knowing that it was hundred percent once upon a time.
A real challenge was to find a Jewish cemetery. We had to drive on a forest path and the chassis of my Toyota Prius were touching the ground. Finally, after few misleading paths, we found an abandoned cemetery. Waking in it and reading the stones was a challenge. I could read names and dates, but we did not find any of the relatives of Rosalie.
Spending some time in Kaunas.
Our next base for two overnights was in Kaunas. It is a second large city in Lithuania and famous in a Jewish world for the Slobodka Yeshiva [religious seminary]. The day we arrived was an opening ceremony of a statue in honor of Abraham Mapu. He wrote the first Hebrew novel in the middle of the 18th cent.
More shtetls on Family roots tour to Lithuania and Poland
And again we were on the road. We have visited Kedainiai, Grinkiskis, Panevezys, Seta, and Jonava in one day starting and ending in Kaunas.
There is an interesting market square in Kedainiai. Once all the houses around it belonged to the Jews, and the two buildings of the former Synagogues are still there. One is a museum today, the other one is an art school.
Grinkiskis and Seta are just small towns with churches and the memory of the Jewish presence. In each place we tried to reconstruct how did the Jewish life look like. And every time it was a matter of each one personal imagination.
In Panevezys and Jonava we could see a bit more of the remnants – synagogues, houses, Jewish cemeteries.
I think that most people, on Family roots tour to Lithuania and Poland, understand that they cannot see the same shtetl 120 after the families have left. I always wonder whether they get disappointed or the visit did match the expectations. Rosalie said that most probably it will take some time to digest all the information and emotions she had on the spot.
A nice break in Merkine and Druskininkai.
Family roots tour to Lithuania and Poland is not only about cemeteries and Synagogues :). We all were glad that Rosalie wanted and planed one day off. Foxes did have some heritage history in Merkine, which we have completed. Afterward, we went to the beautiful observation platform and the tower. The tower elevated us above the pine treetops. It was a breathtaking experience.
Druskininkai has developed as an SPA resort town about two hundred years ago. Most of its population earn from tourism and SPA. It is located on the river Nemunas. Today it has a lot of manmade attractions: Indoors downhill ski park, aquapark, adventure park. We have rented bicycles to ride around the town, a lake, and a river.
Crossing into Poland.
Today we are crossing the “virtual” border to Poland. Our first short visit was in Seiny. You can see there an impressive synagogue and a school. Few pictures and we are back on the road.
Another town on Rosalie’s list was Suwalki. It is a small town close to the Lithuanian border. There are a very nice town hall square and the area of a former Jewish settlement. If you try hard you will also notice a little memorial, commemorating the spot of the Great Synagogue.
We had to be at the cemetery. The gate was closed and the notice advised that the key can be found in the town hall. We looked at each other, it was Sunday. This time I was impressed – Rosalie said no problem and climbed the wall.
This time I was lucky to find the headstone with the name of the family. Despite the low chance, as the only remnants of the headstones were made into a 30 meters wall with the stones on both sides.
The zenith of the family roots tour – Rachki.
From Suwalki we had a short drive to a little town of Rachki. The place which is the most emotional for Rosalie, as her grandmother was born there. The closer the relative is to the traveler, the more important is the visit to the related town. Who could think that coming to the small place where your grandparents spent their childhood could make you feel sentimental?
Unfortunately, we could not find much there. Even the cemetery was devastated and overgrown with bushes. First, I thought that we came to a wrong place, but it was it. There was just one broken stone.
We made a short movie of the streets to show her uncle who is 92 years old and could not join the tour. I have also offered a drone flight over the shtetl to show it to the family.
That was it and we moved on to Bialystok for an overnight. We had a nice tour of Bialystok and a good dinner in local restaurant.
Saying goodbye in Warsaw.