Sunday, August 9, 2009

Conversation, Cats and Crosses

Today we decided to venture outside of Vilnius to Siauliai (formerly known as Shavel), the fourth largest city in Lithuania, a two and a half hour train ride away. Fran and I, together with our classmate Marna, left early this morning for our day’s journey. The prior day Marna and I had walked to the train station to purchase our tickets. We had asked for three seats together, but once on board we discovered that we were in two different compartments. As one compartment had open seats we all moved to there where Fran had already begun to engage in a conversation with two journalists from Moscow.

We found them to be very charming, intelligent and open. As they were very conversant in the political issues of the day, we had a fascinating conversation about the long lasting effects of the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Our conversation covered the standard of living in Moscow, conflicts between various ethnic groups, the impact of the global economy, the Russian health care system and the challenges and risks of being a journalist there. We talked also about American politicians which evoked laughter at the mention of Sarah Palin and her latest comment that Obama’s recommended health care reforms were "downright evil". They kindly offered their assistance to Fran in helping her connect with her recently located relatives in Moscow. We traded contact information and will try to meet with them when they come to Vilnius before we all conclude our travels. Our discussion with them provided a good start to what proved to be an interesting day.

The friend that met them pointed us in the right direction to begin our day in Siauliai. Fran was particularly interested in this town because she knows people who came from there. As we walked towards the city center, the area seemed quite desolate and run down. We were wondering how we were going to spend seven hours there. We found the information center and soon got our bearings. Here we asked about visiting the old section of the town and were informed that there were no old buildings left. We later learned that during WWI 65% of the buildings were burned down as well as the city center. WWII resulted in 80% of the buildings being destroyed.

Our first destination was the Cat Museum, which we dubbed the Cat House. Our long trek took us past a large beautiful lake and the striking Chaim Frenkel House. We knew we had arrived when we found a house with stained glass cat windows. The Cat Museum was the life’s dream of a retired pharmacist who had a deep love of cats. We entered through a staircase with wrought iron cats and were greeted by the founder who sat at the entry desk and welcomed us in Lithuanian. Her cat Philomena came out to oversee her domain. It consisted of figurines, bookplates, international cat birthday cards, and artwork all around the theme of cats. After visiting several rooms of the museum, the founder motioned us down a smelly corridor to enter another room. In it we found a menagerie consisting of an albino python, owls, monkeys, birds, iguanas, crocodiles and a variety of rodents. We wondered if the rodents were dinner for the cat or the python. This ranks among one of the strangest museums I have ever encountered.

On the way back we returned to the Chaim Frenkel house and found the ubiquitous Saturday wedding party in front of it. After their departure, we entered and began our tour. Chaim Frenkel was a Jewish Russian immigrant who ran the major industries in town, a leather tanning business and shoe factory. The downstairs exhibit in this magnificently restored 1908 mansion described his successful life as a businessman, influential citizen and generous philanthropist. He and his family resided there until his death in 1920. It then converted to a Jewish School until 1940. The Germans occupied it during WWII as a hospital. That was followed by the Soviets. In recounting the history of the family, there was no mention of what happened to them during WWII leaving us to wonder about the fate of Chaim's son Jacob Frenkel. The museum had wonderful displays of household items and furnishings used during that period. It is also the current home for the local museum’s art collection from many periods including an Asian room with incredible Japanese woodcuts. We also found a collection of drawings of the Jewish community by the same artist we had admired at the Tolerance Center.

As we walked around Siauliai, we realized we had passed the synagogue (see photo) Mr. Frenkel had built as well as a hospital now converted into a university building. When we later began an internet search for more information, we stumbled across a link which recounted the story of Siauliau during the war:

Of the 8,000 Jews before WWII, only 500 of them survived. Many of the survivors were considered essential workers in the town’s main industry of leather tanning. In the above link, there is a first hand account about the brutal treatment of the Jews by first the Lithuanians and then the Germans. This is again another sad and wrenching story from the past.

We ended our visit to Siauliai with a taxi ride to The Hill of the Crosses.Here we came upon thousands of crosses of various sizes, styles and materials, all bedecked with yet more crosses. Crosses first began to appear on the hill in 1831 after the suppression of an uprising against Tsarist Russia. The number of crosses continued to grow until the Soviets hacked them down in 1961. When they continued to appear they bulldozed the site. Again they appeared and this time they bulldozed the site and poured sewage on it. Still they appeared and finally it was left in peace. Now it is a religious site for the general public and tourists, as well as bridal parties and families with newly baptized children. We observed grooms, surrounded by their wedding parties, planting crosses, followed by brides who then added personal small crosses to commemorate their significant day. It was quite impressive to walk among the millions of crosses at this site. We found one lone Star of David together with a cross which appeared to be a memorial to Auschwitz.

We then returned to the train station for our ride back to Vilnius delighted with the various discoveries of our day. Our initial concerns about how to spend the day had disappeared. Instead we found we had run out of time to visit the Bicycle Museum which we had passed along our trek. The town had required only a little exploration to uncover its many charms.

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