Lessons from my Bubbe’s doorstep

In what became a formative moment of my life, glaring into my eyes, she punctuated every word with her calloused finger wagging in my face: “We’re not Lithuanians. We are Jews.”

A monument honoring the victims of the Ponary massacre near Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
A monument honoring the victims of the Ponary massacre near Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
‘Bubbe, why do you talk funny?” I asked my grandmother about her accent.
“I’m from Lithuania.” While taken aback by the question, my Bubbe politely responded to the questioner, her four-year-old grandson.
“Oh, so we’re Lithuanians!” I exclaimed as if her response suddenly made sense of the world and as if I had any clue where Lithuania was located on a map.
In what became a formative moment of my life, glaring into my eyes, she punctuated every word with her calloused finger wagging in my face: “We’re not Lithuanians. We are Jews.”
Little did I know that I had innocently touched a raw nerve, or perhaps a wound that never healed. I have spent most of my life trying to understand how you can come from a place but not be of that place. The issue transcends citizenship; it’s about the DNA of a society. The major takeaway from my Bubbe’s strained-yet-brief tutorial was that our family may have lived in Eastern Europe for generations, but the shtetl in Lithuania my ancestors called home was anything but. Consistent with the dividing lines my grandmother drew on the landscape of her identity, this tiny town has two names: Giedraiciai in Lithuanian and Gedrevich in Yiddish.
Recently, I visited Vilnius as part of a synagogue trip to Eastern Europe. Noticing that my ancestral village was only 27 miles away, I arranged to see where my family came from.  A few weeks before the trip, I wondered whether we might find the address where my grandparents lived so I could walk on that street and breathe the same air that filled their lungs. Expectations were low because the only remnant, heirloom really, we possessed of that world consisted of a single photograph of my grandmother, uncle and aunt in front of their compact wooden home that doubled as their business, a general store. The only glimmer of hope was that this picture captured a placard above the store’s entrance with the exact spelling of our family name from the old country, Svailach.
Not only did the local guide find the address, but the house was miraculously still standing! As we approached my Bubbe’s wooden house, I imagined a short visit during which I would take a photo exactly where they stood 100 years earlier in our iconic family photo. Standing there at the crack of dawn, I soon discovered that this simple shack had many lessons to share that could only be seen in context.
The first insight pertained to the doors. My guide, Svetlana, asked me if I could identify houses that had belonged to Jews. I had no idea what she was talking about.
She explained that many shtetl Jews were merchants and their businesses were frequently run out of their homes. In order to welcome business most effectively, their front door would open directly onto the main street. By contrast, Lithuanian architectural styled homes emulated manors on parcels of land that were constructed with entrances away from the road. As soon as you know what to look for, it’s possible to see where the front doors of formerly occupied Jewish houses had been turned into windows, boarded up, or converted into porches.
Standing at what had been my Bubbe’s front door, a second revelation dawned upon me. Easter, my grandmother would tell us, had been the scariest day of the year for her family, for after the morning church sermon, there would predictably be a pogrom – a Russian expression for “wreaking havoc” – punishing the Jews for the death of Jesus. In her wooden house, floorboards could be lifted to hide Bubbe’s children from any attacks that may come their way on Easter day or any other time.
In my imagination, trouble would ride into town on horseback to cause harm, like the wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof. However, a cold shiver ran down my spine when I discovered that the local church was not miles away, but literally across the street from her house. In other words, whenever hate-filled parishioners streamed out of Church of St. Bartholomew into the tiny village square my Bubbe’s home was the first Jewish house in sight.
The third painful lesson I learned from my Bubbe’s doorstep came from the brick building next door. While this brick house looks innocent enough, it was a remnant of a nefarious plot against the Jews. In the mid-1920s local Lithuanian authorities passed laws that businesses could only be conducted out of brick buildings, not wooden ones like my Bubbe’s. Since bricks were more expensive than wood, rebuilding one’s home was unrealistic, especially with the heavy taxes imposed on the Jewish community. Other laws stipulated that businesses could not be open on Sundays, thereby forcing Jewish merchants to be closed for an additional day beyond Shabbat. These economic sanctions were intended to squeeze Jews out of the shtetl to create economic opportunity for local Lithuanians.
In light of these cultural, religious and economic divides, my grandmother packed up and left for the United States in the late 1920s. Visiting my Bubbe’s house in Giedraiciai, I finally understood her terse comments about the treatment of the Jews in Lithuania so many years earlier. The world she left behind reinforced that she was Jewish, but not Lithuanian.
My Bubbe’s unequivocal view of the treatment of Jews in Lithuania was backed up not just from her own experience, but also from the fate of her family who remained behind. The last local members of the Svailach family were murdered by the Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators in August, 1941, in what Father Patrick Desbois called the “Holocaust by bullets.” As much as I wanted to see where I came from, going back felt like a way of honoring their memory.
I wasn’t the only one who returned home to Giedraiciai that morning. The driver randomly assigned to us that day, Vytautas, casually remarked as we pulled into town, “My family comes from here, too.” Until World War II, his grandmother lived in Giedraiciai, where she had worked for a Jewish family. In this one-horse town it’s very likely that his grandmother knew my family. Vytautus explained, however, she moved to Vilnius in 1942 because there was no more work in the area once the local Jews had all been murdered.
Seeing the full picture about Lithuania today is somewhat perplexing. On the one hand, Lithuania is integrating Jewish history into their national story. The coming year will be celebrated throughout the country as the 300th anniversary of the Vilna Gaon. On the other, Vilnius has a street named for a Lithuanian national hero, Kazio Skirpos. The only problem is that he is a documented Nazi collaborator. As I wrestle with what I saw about Lithuanian society today, I’m left with more questions than answers.
With the roosters of Giedraiciai crowing to welcome the day, I reached into my bag for my tallit and tefillin. Wrapped as much in these ritual vestments as the cloak of memory, I prayed openly in front of my Bubbe’s house to remember my ancestors and, in some small way, reclaim my own heritage as a Litvak, a Jew of Lithuanian descent.
In what might have been the first time in nearly eighty years that a Jew recited Shema Yisrael in these parts, the village of Giedraiciai, for just a moment, transformed into the shtetl of Gedrevich again.
The writer, a rabbi, serves as the Director of Congregational Education at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.