Commemoration of Šeduva Shtetl in Lithuania and Abroad

Milda Jakulytė-Vasil,
museum curator,
Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund

The beginning of the Šeduva Jewish community should be dated to the first half of the 18th century when Šeduva, having received Magdeburg charter self-government rights and after becoming a city, underwent rapid development the Jewish population grew remarkably. In 1793 the writer Fridrich Schulz (1762-1798) in his description of his impressions of visits to Poland (Fridrich Schulz “Reise eines Livländers durch Polen,” 1793) described Šeduva as a small town very similar to many he’d seen along the way. The traveller’s eyes didn’t miss the fact that almost none of the homes in the town had chimneys. Of course this sort of observation in a travelogue probably wasn’t intended to kindle the interest of readers and get them to visit the location, and beyond being an observation by the writer and traveller probably only meant that fires could and often did ravage these sorts of towns and cities.

In essence Šeduva wasn’t especially known for anything in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. We can say Šeduva was a typical town where Jews formed a significant part of economically active residents, and if their activities didn’t cause urban development, they at least had an influence over it. There were many such shtetlakh/towns in Lithuania, but upon closer inspection each has surprising and interesting events and stories, and the descendants of these towns are found now around the world.

In the shtetl of Šeduva in the period between the wars, constituted of about 900 Jews, the residents knew (or at least recognized) each other. The historian Saulius Kaubrys found the entire Jewish population Šeduva fit more or less along three streets, and this dense residency led to more intimate mutual interaction. There’s a story which illustrates the maxim that there are no secrets in a small town: “Shlomo had a brother named Nisan, an old man, about 60, but in his father’s eyes he was still ‘the kid,’ so he took him to buy a pair of shoes once. The two entered the shop and the father told the shopkeeper: ‘Give me some kid shoes.’ The shopkeeper looked around, but where was the child? At that point the father pointed to his 60-year-old son, ‘the child.’ Of course the entire shtetl knew about ‘the kid’ (that’s how it is in the shtetlakh)… They also lived in Šeduva.”

Relations between neighbors had their own dynamic, and if we’re discussing the relations between Lithuanians and Jews, this was most intense during market days, and within the confines of the [Jewish] community it was most intense in implementing different religious and social requirements, or in later years in maintaining contact with émigré family members and friends in the expectation of financial aid. There’s an illustrative story about a woman in Šeduva named Khana Grodnik “whose place of birth and education were unknown, although it was clear she had had some schooling because Šeduva residents went to her to write letters for them. She had this reputation, that if she wrote a letter to relatives in the USA, a letter with money would come back. That’s what they said about her. Even if she wrote a letter to the deceased, money still came back.”

Life in the shtetl, especially in the interwar period, was very diverse. Religious and secular, rich and poor, good and bad residents collided and communicated every day, different cultural and political organizations flourished and there was literature in Yiddish, Hebrew and other languages. Although at times some might have felt the shtetl existence was placid and provincial, as Šeduva pharmacist Nokhum Berman described it in one of his letters–nothing in Šeduva changes except the weather–life wasn’t lived in isolation here. People went to larger cities to watch plays, films and concerts and to visit friends. Color was added to daily life by trips during vacation to Palanga, or more distant destinations, such as the wilds of Finland. But still there was a yearning to escape the mundane: “Work at the pharmacy is monotonous and boring. I would like to change jobs and move to a bigger city,” Nokhum Berman wrote in another letter.

Emigration begun in the 19th century in search of better income, security or for other reasons was as natural as it is in our day. As the press at the time reported: “There was no family in Šeduva who didn’t have at least member who had emigrated to Israel, America or South Africa.” For instance, Isaak Pinkus married Miriam Kaplan from Šeduva in 1875 and after a few years the young family along with other family members decided to go to South Africa. In 1901 Isaak Pinkus with son Eliyu bought a farm in Marquard, near Winburg in the Orange Free State. The Pinkus family called their farm Shadova. Although the farm no longer belongs to the Pinkuses, it has retained its name.

Distant from Šeduva and from Lithuania, in South Africa a farm was established named after Šeduva, but a bit closer in Palestine, now Israel, the Shanyder family of Šeduva settled in 1927. Eldest member of the family Eta with sons Reuven and Aharon and grandchildren Rohka, Feyga, Khava and Samuel settled in Kfar Malal. They were farmers. Reuven maintained a farm there. Eta worked on the farm until her death. The remaining members of the family were employed in selling meat. Aharon had a shop where he sold meat and his son Shmuel was in charge of the butcher shop until his death. Kfar Malal was the family’s center because grandmother Eta lived there. The family met there and other families from Šeduva also arrived and spoke and remembered Šeduva. Eta’s great-granddaughter Dina said: “I only know Yiddish because that’s the language in which I spoke with my great-grandmother. There was no other language. Yiddish was the only language with great-grandmother, she didn’t know Hebrew. Eta Shnayder only spoke Yiddish until her death in 1957, and the farm in Kfar Malal was like a little transported piece of the Šeduva shtetl.”

Looking at the diaspora of the descendants of Jews of Šeduva in the world, one encounters them in Israel, the USA, South Africa, Australia, Uruguay and a very small number in Lithuania. The majority of these people have never been to Šeduva or Lithuania. They often have only heard of the shtetl from grandparents who left Šeduva at a very young age. Regardless of the distance in time and space, the location occupies a special place in their hearts and lives.

I’ll tell another story which illustrates this. Around 1990 former Šeduva residents living in Israel Yehuda Grodnik, Baruch Gofer and Alter Kaplan met. They were over 80 then. It wasn’t their first meeting; they had maintained long-term contact. On that day, however, they decided to write everything down so their memories and knowledge wouldn’t be lost forever when they were gone, and they made a list of the Jewish residents of Šeduva who lived in the shtetl before the war. They wrote down the names of the main streets and squares and recreated from memory stories about the people who lived on specific streets. Let me quote a few excerpts from the list:

1) Goldin’s hotel and cloth shop. Mother: Khaya Kahan, widow, her daughter and son-in-law ran the business. Their children were Ada (Adka) and Meir. Mr. Goldin had been unsuccessful in business and apparently went bankrupt, and burned down the hotel because it had fleas. Later he jumped from the window of a moving train hoping to receive compensation. When that didn’t work he committed suicide, allegedly drinking poison. All of that was Goldin.

2) Moshe-Itza Bret. (grandfather of Knesset speaker Dov Shilansky). Had a son Shleime Bret with three children. Eldest daughter (Shilansky’s mother) was the only girl who knew how to play piano. He sold lumber.

3) Non-Jew Savickis. A Lithuanian. He had a tall two-storey house.

4) Shabtai Hak was a disabled butcher. He had 4 or 5 children and there was a shoe shop on the first floor which belonged to the electricity plant owner Sidorov.

5) Two-storey house, Ramanauskas was a non-Jew and anti-Semite, an iron shop. His son was a participant in the little ghetto mass murder operation, the murder of the Jews of Šeduva, the sharp-shooter commander.

6) Yekhiel Shtayn had a hunchback son. His son-in-law Bendel transported the dead with a white horse. He had a well which had the best water in town. The well was wooden, the water was limited.

7) Nakhum Kaplan was a farmer. He had a large garden and sold grain, Passover wine and food products. He had a child and a wife, Sara. Once Nakhum was so hungry his wife ran to the market to buy food for him wearing only her apron, she forgot to put on a dress.

The economic activity of the Jews of Šeduva which took place mainly on the market square differed little from that of other shtetlakh in the interwar period. Jewish doctors, a dentist, a pharmacist, photographers, barbers and bakers as well as other professionals provided their services to the town community, and the Jewish People’s Bank’s doors were open to all clients regardless of ethnicity or religious belief. In the summer of 1941, however, the entire Jewish community of Šeduva was murdered.

After the Nazi occupation began in 1941, there were attempts to save the families of the merchants Samuel Nol and Yankel Kuper and the family of the town’s senior doctor, Moise Paturski. The three families survived the mass murder of the town’s Jewish community on August 25 and they were baptized by father Mykolas Karosas on September 16. Their godparents were honored and respected members of the community, including Saulė pre-gymnasium principal Ona Butkienė, former town mayor Petras Linkevičius, photographer Stanislovas Tautkevičius, pharmacist Boleslovas Šeikus and others. Nonetheless, the attempts were insufficient, and 10 of the 11 people baptized were murdered over the following months.

Why were there attempts to save these families? The Šeduva Jews Nol and Kuper along with other residents fought in the Lithuanian battles for independence from 1918 to 1920 and in 1936 were recognized as volunteer-founders of the Lithuanian military and were presented medals. Today on the wall around the church in Šeduva there hangs a plaque commemorating the volunteer founders of the Lithuanian military from Šeduva. Neither Nol nor Kuper are mentioned on this plaque and very little is known about either of them, as is the case with many other Jewish families who lived in Šeduva.

So remembering this varied life is not an easy task; one practically has to piece together a mosaic from the tiny fragments, the different sources of information, such as memoirs and testimonies, books, oral history, the press of the period, archive documents, and so on. And this is what the Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund, founded in 2012, has been trying to do, carefully and using various means.

One of the first tasks for the Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund was to put in order that which remained as an integral part of the shtetl and recalled the lost life of the shtetl, i.e., the restoration of the old Jewish cemetery in Šeduva. The abandoned cemetery, 1.3 hectares hosting a dense and tall jungle of weeds, was restored in 2014.

The photograph you see is an inventory map of the cemetery. The map marks every grave with unique coordinates. To the surprise of many, 1,349 headstones and fragments of headstones were discovered. Prior to removal of the weeds and bushes, when visibility was poor, it was thought perhaps half that number would be discovered. Eight hundred headstones were restored and set back in place. Each grave was photographed. Dr. Lara Lempertienė translated all legible inscriptions from Hebrew to English and Lithuanian. So now we have a list of names of Jews who lived formerly in Šeduva indexed to corresponding photography. We also know the earliest and latest burial dates, 1779/1780 and 1933.

Besides the restoration of the headstones and the cemetery territory, the Fund also restored surviving parts of the authentic stone fence around the cemetery. A large part of the fence had to be recreated but was done so exclusively by hand. A new metal gate with a star of David was also installed. Customarily Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania are surrounded by a fence which serves on the one hand to protect the cemetery from desecration, wild animals and people, and on the other delineates and separates the ritually unclean territory.

Unfortunately not all headstone fragments could be identified. The decision was made to place all the unidentified fragments into a sculptural composition/lapidarium in the shape of the star of David.

In 2017 the restoration of the Šeduva Jewish cemetery was noted in European Union awards for cultural heritage conservation. Although it didn’t receive an award, the Fund’s work received honorable mention as a noteworthy project. In this way we also brought attention to Jewish cemeteries as an important part of culture and history for everyone.

The cemetery restoration project was prepared by the Algimantas Kančas Studio.

The second major project the Fund implemented was the clean-up and erection of memorial monuments at three mass murder sites. Mass murder sites don’t constitute a natural thematic line in the history of the shtetlakh. On the contrary, it was the Holocaust which annihilated the shtetlakh, when the Nazis and local collaborators murdered about 90% of all Lithuanian Jews and more or less erased the memory of the Jews. In attempts to recreate, remember and reconstruct the past of the shtetlakh with their flourishing culture, we can’t avoid mentioning and commemorating specific dates and specific locations when and where the local Jewish communities were exterminated. In Šeduva this happened on August 25 and 26 and the locations were the Pakuteniai and Liaudiškiai forests, located 8 and 15 kilometers from Šeduva.

At the end of August 664 residents of Šeduva–230 men, 275 women and 159 children–were murdered at two pits in the Liaudiškiai forest. New monuments by the sculptor Romas Kvintas called Door and Ray-Star were erected here in 2014 and 2015.

A little while before Liaudiškiai, about 20 Jews were murdered next to the village of Pakuteniai, including the last rabbi of Šeduva, Mordechai Henkin. Romas Kvintas’s sculpture Abode of the Star of Light was erected at this site. The territory around the mass murder sites was cleaned up and road signs were erected so that it is no longer difficult to find and drive to the mass murder sites.

In 2015 a monument commemorating the Jews of Šeduva was unveiled at the edge of the former market square there. The Fund has sought to include local residents and students in the unveiling of monuments and marking commemorative Holocaust dates to encourage them to take an interest in the history of the town and to honor the memory of the Jews of Šeduva. For the second year now the names of Šeduva Jews murdered have been read out in public at the monument on September 23.

Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund founder Sergejus Kanovičius has frequently emphasized it is not only by standing next to the killing pits where a large part of the Jews of Lithuania were murdered that we can begin to comprehend the tragedy which befell our citizens. We must first of all see the people who died, to learn how they lived, what they built, what they left behind. At the current time intense work is going on connected with the architecture and exhibitions of the Šeduva Jewish museum. The project includes international partners, beginning with the architectural team led by Finnish professor Rainer Mahlamäki, Ralph Applebaum Associates taking care of the museum’s design, and ending with consultants from around world providing suggestions on the creation of exhibitions. The Lost Shtetl Museum across from the old Šeduva Jewish cemetery is scheduled to open its doors to the public in 2019.

This is a photograph of a model of the future museum and cemetery.

The museum’s goal is to teach visitors about the little-known history and culture of the lost Jewish shtetlakh mainly through telling the true stories of Jews who lived in Šeduva. There were many shtetlakh in Lithuania with a life, traditions and religion similar to those of Šeduva. Exhibits will talk about Jewish settlement in the town, the traditional family, holidays, educational institutions, economic activities, professions and cultural, social and political movements, among others. It will also talk about the Holocaust and the experience of descendants of Jews from Šeduva.

Two more projects are being implemented in parallel. One is a monograph being prepared by the historians Eglė Bendikaitė and Saulius Kaubrys on the Jews of Šeduva. This is a multifaceted and complex historical study attempting to reconstruct the infrastructure, public space, community institutions, traditions, people, communal interactions, relations between neighbors and transformations in relations over the course of centuries within the shtetl. The other is a documentary film by Saulius Beržinis and Sergejus Kanovičius called Suakmenėjęs laikas [Petrified Time] which superimposes two different periods, the fragmentary and difficult-to-read past of the Jews of Šeduva and the current time with the current residents of Šeduva (some of whom are living in the homes of murdered Jews).