Saturday, May 26, 2018

Visit at the American Embassy

             Shortly after our arrival in Vilnius, Lithuania we visited the American Embassy. We met with an American foreign aids officer that works to build political ties and maintain relationships between the US and Lithuania here in Vilnius on behalf of the US Government. There are many ways that the embassy helps both the people of Vilnius and consistently improves relations with the US and other allies. When we were there we sat in a room that was completely decked out in everything America. American games, books, movies, posters, you name it, they had it. The embassy encourages both groups from abroad and student groups in Lithuania to come learn about the embassy and American life, as American life has such a global impact in so many ways.
 As a social work major and as someone who loves to travel, I was very moved and intrigued by his job. To listen to him talk about his work so passionately and how it makes a real difference both here and back in the United States was so inspiring to me. I was so moved, that when he mentioned that American embassies offer student internships all over the world, I decided that I want that to be in my future. I have been looking for a way to encompass my love for politics, social work, and travel and today I think I found it. I was so moved and could not be more excited and open to learning so much more about Vilnius and Lithuanian culture/Jewish life in Lithuania.
-Hannah Kipp

Friday, May 25, 2018

May 23rd

 We started our morning by first meeting the mayors of both Antaliepte and Zarasai at Krakyne. Krakyne is a memorial for the killing site in Zarasai. This site reminded me a lot of Ponarai. Jews from the nearby regions in Lithuania had to march to this location in the woods in the middle of August 1941. Men, women, and children had to strip their clothes and were shot by Nazi soldiers. After they were shot, the Jews' bodies were piled up on top of each other in large man-made holes in the ground. The site was rather small as if 50 trees in the forest were removed and all that is now left is a memorial in the shape of an oven. We read Jewish prayers out loud at this site in remembrance and reflection to the 2,500-8,000 lives that were lost. This site is not very far from Antaliepte, so it was mind blowing to think that some of the Jews that were murdered at Krakyne most likely walked from where we are staying.
 The next stop we made today was at the municipality in Zarasai and met with the deputy mayor. He discussed his role as the "representative" for Lithuania in the European Union. We got to see another branch of Parliament and also try to understand what life was like when Lithuanian was occupied by the Soviets. Our day excursion ended with a historic walking tour of Zarasai. Our tour guide explained how the town has changed over the last hundred years and was able to illustrate this with before and after pictures. We saw where the hub of Jewish life once was, but unfortunately there was only one building that still stands. Our tour guide showed us the beautiful lake in the town, which seems to be a popular spot to enjoy the outdoors for locals. We also got to go to a museum/art gallery that showed off the beauty of Zarasai and its rich history.
 After dinner, we had an evening walking tour of Antaliepte. After staying in the town for a few days, we finally got to explore it and learn about its history. Our guide was a 90-year old local who did not speak any English, so he needed a translator. He taught us about the buildings in view of our accommodation that were once used by the Soviet army. He talked about the Catholic Church in the village and where the Synagogue used to be. This man also took over the village's historic museum and we got to learn more about Lithuania during WWII and Jewish life in Antaliepte.
-Lily Ambrosius

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Education and Hope

Today was a day filled with hope for the future. Today, we visited the school in the neighboring town of Dusetos. The town is about double the size of the current one and has a larger Jewish cemetery, which makes sense. With a larger population comes a greater number of Jewish people. What was extremely striking, however, was the lack of knowledge of the students on the topic of the Holocaust in their town. Sure, they had heard from the female survivor of the town, but there was not as much coverage on the massacre, or Judaism, in general. When we were meeting with them, Rabbi Abbie talked with them and explained what happened in their town and what the basics of Judaism were. This is the most important part of the trip because we are educating a younger generation first on tolerance, then on celebration of those who are different. Most of the younger residents have never encountered a Jewish person before. Without understanding that they are the same as everyone else, the children might grow up to believe that they were different or bad. By educating the unknowing, we can prevent discrimination and violence on the world. Peace is for everyone, and education ensures this.
-Sophia Dallas

A Morning in Dusetos

Today, we traveled to Dusetos with the mayor of Antaliepe to meet a lady named Maria who witnessed the events of the Holocaust in her backyard. We had the honor to witness the retelling of her story, specifically in the context of her town and how it was shaped by the Jewish community prior to World War II. Around ninety percent of the town had been Jews before being murdered, which estimates to over five hundred people, which shows how even the most quaint and small community in the heart of the Lithuanian countryside was not immune to the evil sweeping across Europe. She told of how neighbors turned in neighbors, which meant their deaths. As we walked from the art gallery to the town square, Maria pointed out different houses and buildings that had once belonged to Jews. Now, there is little to no active Jewish life still present in Dusetos.
After our walk, we met the principal of the local school. He took us inside and we were welcomed into a classroom filled with students. Each of the Xavier students had brought gifts from their respective hometowns to present to the school. Rabbi Abie spoke in front of the class about his connection to the Holocaust and the importance of begetting evil from our hearts. Love is much stronger than a leaf blowing on a winters wind because wherever it settles, hopefully it will find a new place to call home or to start over. For many Jewish people, they did not get the choice to live. That fate was chosen for them. Rabbi's story of his parents was very impactful because "God gave me two eyes, two legs, two arms. If he gave me two hearts, I could love with one and hate with the other. But he only gave me one, so you have to make the choice to hate or to love."
That is a choice we all have to make someday- to be consumed by a quest of rage and hatred, or to embrace the humanity and celebrate our differences. It is not rocket science.
-Lauren Dencker

Arrival in Antaliepte

We arrived in Antaliepte in the afternoon of May 20th. The place where we are staying is beautiful. There are two lakes, a treehouse, swings, and plenty of green space. Did I mention that there are also horses? In this rural village, it is relaxing and peaceful; however, there was a lot of work to be done. Upon our first morning here, the mayor of the valley greeted us and thanked us for coming. Soon after that lovely discussion, we all headed out to the cemetery. The fence that will completely surround the cemetery was already being installed. The fence, itself, is brilliant and it has a Star of David at the opening gate. The Star of David is a nice touch; it acts as a reminder that this cemetery is one for Jewish people. People and buildings die and become dilapidated; by restoring this cemetery, these people are remembered and they have their own place in society. Throughout the day, each of us found tombstones that were broken in pieces, covered in moss, and had trees growing in them. At times putting the pieces of the tombstones back together was difficult, but it was nice to know that we are bringing respect back to the person whose name is on the stone. Overall, I believe we left the cemetery in better condition then how it was when we arrived. By the end of one day's work, we have found and uncovered several dozen tombstones.
- Theresa Anhofer

Monday, May 21, 2018

Transformative Experience

Today was our second day in Krakow. We started off the day in the Old Jewish District and it was really powerful to see that Judaism has survived all the trials and tribulations of Polish History. We went to multiple Synagogues, which was a great way to get more of an idea of Jewish tradition. Just walking around, I really found myself reminiscing about the drastic changes that Jews faced. They had such a peaceful life and it was ripped away from them in the flash of an eye. The injustice is scalding and we cannot change the past, but we can create the right type of future.
Lastly, we went to Schindler's Factory New Museum. Seeing all the compiled evidence of this atrocity put me in disbelief that anyone could deny that it indeed occurred. People need to own the part their countries had in these events, and we need to reflect on the past to prevent this from occurring in the future. Overall, the second day was enlightening!
-Jenna Kay

Modern Day Jewish Life in Lithuania

On the night of Friday the 18th our group visited the Orthodox Synagogue in Vilnius. Being the only Jewish student on the trip I was able to do a few special things during the service.  I was able to light a candle and recite some prayers with the rabbi's wife.  Even though I do go to Temple sometimes I am not orthodox so it was still very different for me.  It is always moving to see some traditions that I may not practice but my ancestors probably did.  For the most part, everybody at the synagogue was accepting and pilot.  I was happy to see Jewish life in Lithuania knowing so few Jews remain.  The next morning we went to meet Fania, a survivor of the Holocaust.  She lived in the Vilna Ghetto during the war and lost all her family in the atrocities.  While I have heard the testimonies of many survivors Fania was unique.  She seemed to have a lot of hope in people and the future.  Many times the survivors feel guilt for surviving over others or thinking they caused someone's death.  It shows you the struggles many of the survivors dealt with after the Shoa.  Fania seemed to have found peace with herself which was something I was extremely happy to see.  This trip has meant a lot to me as I am visiting the countries that my Jewish ancestors come from.  While none of my direct ancestries were involved in the Holocaust many cousins died.  Some of my family never talked about  their past so there is a lot we do not know. This trip has brought me closer to my roots.
-Shellbi Malon

Meeting with a Holocaust Survivor

The morning of Saturday, May 19th, was a very special one. We were lucky enough to have the wonderful opportunity to meet a Holocaust survivor, Fania Brantsovsky. Fania shared with us her experience in the Vilinius ghetto and how life was during this time. Living in Vilinius, Lithuania during the Nazi invasion she suffered at the hands of the Nazis. At the age of 19,  the Nazis invaded her home and demanded that she take all of her belongings to the Vilinius ghetto. Living just one street away from the ghetto did not mean things were going to be easier for Fania and her family. However, it did allow her family to bring more belongings because their was less distance to travel. Her life in the ghetto was anything but appealing. The conditions were awful and the brutality from the Nazis and policemen was unnoticeable. Meeting Fania was an incredibly moving experience. It is highly unlikely that I will ever again have the opportunity to meet another Holocaust survivor. At ninety-six years old Fania shares her story in hopes of spreading awareness so another horrific event, such as the Holocaust, never happens again. Her final message to us was, "I wish you never experience what I saw in my life. I wish friendship among the people. Friendship among the people is very important. Never again." Immediately following the talk with Fania, we walked through the ghetto she had lived in. Being able to hear and connect the stories Fania and Rabbi Abie told us to the buildings right before my eyes gave me chills.
-Jacob Murphy

May 18, 2018

Today, the rubber really started to meet the road for us travelers.  I do not mean for our drivers, but really for ourselves.  We walked all over the city of Vilnius today, and I would like to share a couple of my thoughts.
First, I just want to give to you a very brief summary, so you will better understand what the entire day entailed.  We started our day bright and early.  We soon disembarked and made our way through the old city.  Along the way we noted several important landmarks.  Our first destination was the Parliament building, known here as the Seimas.  Here, we went on a tour and learned more about the system of government which they employ in this beautiful country.  After this, we were quite hungry from our walk.  So, we settled in and ate lunch at a small Ukrainian place.  It was quite good, but quite slow, due to 23 people descending upon them.  Following this, we made the trek back to the hotel so that we could prepare ourselves for Shabbat.  We attended Shabbat and Shabbat dinner at an Orthodox Synagogue, and we were given the opportunity to meet several of the Jewish people who call this synagogue home.
I have several thoughts that I would like to share about today.  First, in respect to the Seimas, I found it interesting how close their governmental setup was to our own setup in the United States.  I do thank that this might have in some part been due to the fact that we were seen as the "anti-Russians" as was told yesterday at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Something neat to think about is a point that Ruta has brought up several times.  The government here has taken advice from the United States several times.  However, it does not seem that they ever question what the Americans tell them to do.  She does not mean to say that what has been done is wrong.  She just wishes that their could have been more questioning going on, so that her leaders could have come to conclusions on their own.  I can certainly understand that.
I quite enjoyed the Shabbat celebration as well as the dinner.  As a Catholic, I have always grown up in post-Vatican II church.  So, to me, I have never known a church that considers the Jews responsible for the death of Christ.  But, obviously, this was the case for nearly two thousand years.  So, I can certainly understand any lingering animosity that the Jewish people hold towards us.  Individually, I have nothing but respect for the Jewish community.  I thought that the celebration was wonderful, and I would very much like to attend one again.  One thing that was unpleasant was a man who spoke to Rabbi Abie afterwards.  He was quite upset that the Rabbi had brought a bunch of Christians into their house of prayer.  After hearing this, i disagree with the man.  However, I understand him as well.  And I see that their is much bridge building that is yet to be done between the Christian and Jewish people.  I think that we all are hoping to be a part of that!
-Alex Tokarsky