KALVARIJA, Lithuania, Dec. 6 (JTA) — On a frosty November morning, I walked around the two massive, ruined synagogues that form a unique surviving Jewish complex in Kalvarija, a small sleepy town in southern Lithuania near the border with Poland.
One of the synagogues was built in the early 18th century. Its roof had fallen in and its bottom windows were bricked up, but it was possible to see arches and other architectural detail and decoration.
The other, built in about 1803, was more or less intact, but crumbling. Between the two stood a red brick building, a former rabbi’s house and a cheder, or Jewish school, with a big Star of David above the door.
As I have done in hundreds of other cities, towns and villages in more than a dozen countries, I took pictures of the synagogues from every angle.
With my eye focused through my camera, I didn’t watch where I was walking. Suddenly, I tripped over a broken brick half buried in the uneven yard and went crashing to the ground.
Trying to save my cameras, I ended up twisting my ankle so that I could hardly walk.
The injury took weeks to heal fully, but everyone told me that my spill was bashert — fated — and maybe it was.
Kalvarija is the town from which my great-grandfather, Pesach Susnitsky, emigrated some 120 years ago, ending up in the small town of Brenham, Texas.
In Brenham, “Pesach” became “Philip.” He was the patriarch of a huge family of children, including my grandmother, who was born in Brenham, and a pious pillar of the Jewish community.
In Brenham, he helped found the Jewish congregation. The little wooden synagogue that was built in 1894 still stands.
When he left Kalvarija in about 1880, Jews made up more than 80 percent of the town’s population. By 1939 the percentage had dropped to about 25 percent, but still about 1,000 Jews lived in the town.
No Jews live there today, and I must say that given the depressing and bloody history of the town and region during World Wars I and II, and decades of later Soviet domination, I am enormously thankful that my great-grandfather had the courage to leave when he did.
Still, the buildings I was photographing were not just fascinating sites of Jewish heritage in general; they were the places where my ancestors worshiped and studied.
The streets of the town, with their small, mainly low wooden houses, and the central square dominated by a big, white church with two ornate towers, were the streets and square where my ancestors walked.
I had driven there with a friend after spending the night near the Polish town of Suwalki, about 20 miles to the south. Until a few years ago, such a day trip from Poland to Kalvarija would have been difficult if not impossible.
For one thing, American citizens today do not need a visa to enter Lithuania. While Kalvarija today is the first town in Lithuania across the border from Poland, the border crossing point was opened only four years ago.
I didn’t have a real genealogical agenda for my visit — I just wanted to see the town. But I had hoped to spend much of the day walking through the quiet streets, poking into corners and possibly talking to local people.
My injured ankle cramped my capabilities, though — and here’s where the “bashert” comes in.
An old woman told us where the Jewish cemetery was located, on the other side of the little Sheshupa River that winds through the town, and my friend and I decided to drive straight there.
Pesach Susnitsky died in Texas in 1939 at the age of 83. Several years ago, I visited his grave in the Jewish cemetery in Brenham.
I had little hope of finding any Susnitsky graves in Kalvarija, but I was eager to visit the cemetery just to see it.
We found a small, fenced-in, triangular plot of ground right in front of a huge electric grid, which contained several dozen simple tombstones, some of them toppled.
Hobbling, I starting photographing the site. Just then an old man came by, wheeling a bicycle.
“I know everything, everything,” he smiled. All his teeth were capped in gold. “I remember everything how it was.”
He propped up his bike and began to talk. He described how the cemetery used to extend much, much further, stone after stone, all the way down to the river, but the Germans destroyed it, and most remaining stones were stolen.
Now on top of the area there are ugly, poor barracks where poor people live — with no indoor plumbing, they have to walk 50 yards or so to toilets. Pigs and dogs frolic around, and a man went by leading a cow.
Of the remaining graves, the only mausoleum type one, he said, was that of a certain “Menashe” who was a “millionaire.”
We asked the old man if he remembered the Susnitsky family — and he did.
“Of course! There were a lot of Susnitskys here, a lot.” Particularly, he said, before the war there were two Susnitsky brothers in town, Alter and Yankel, who must have been some sort of nephews or great-nephews of Pesach. “Alter was a big, tall man,” he said. “Yankel was small, curved over and had a hunch back.” He demonstrated, curving over his own body.
The brothers lived together in a big house on a hill, he said — and then he led us there to see it. Indeed, it was one of the most imposing wooden houses in the village. Undergoing some renovation, it even sported a satellite dish.
Both brothers were killed when the Germans deported the Jews to nearby Mariampole during World War II, he said.
The old man said all the houses on this street were lived in by Jews and he said Jews lived all over town. “So many, so many!” He gestured forlornly.
He was clearly nostalgic for past times — and the disappearance of the Jewish community represented for him a change for the worse. Nonetheless, in describing the Jews in town, he used the Polish term “Zydek” or “little Jew” — a term Jews regard as pejorative.
The Jews in Kalvarija were “good people,” and “wealthy,” he said, they took care of each other and everyone got on with everyone.
“They were called Yankele, Alterke, Menashe, Meyshke,” he said. “They would say, ‘Oy vey, oy vey.’ ”
(JTA senior European correspondent Ruth E. Gruber is the author of “Upon the Doorposts of thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today,” and “Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe.” She has documented Jewish heritage sites in more than a dozen European countries over the past decade.)