Eleventh stop Batakiai, Lithuania - home of the Millers and Rubensteins
My great grandfather Morris Miller emigrated to the United States in 1888 at the age of 15. We think that his older brother Abraham, known as Abbe, came with him. They were both naturalized in October 1893. Shortly thereafter, Abbe returned to Russia, now Lithuania, married Sheine Rubenshteyn and in quick succession had two children, Sore (Mary) and Hirsch (Harry). By 1897 he had returned to Brownsville, Brooklyn, where Morris, their mother, Dora, and a third brother, Samuel, were then living. He left Sheine, Sore and Hirsch with Sore's parents in the shtetl of Batok or Batakiai.
Harry, in a letter written to his US-born brother, Leonard, in the 1940s, explained that he started religious instruction at the cheder in Batok at an early age. Soon his knowledge outpaced the local melamed (teacher) and the family decided to move to Tavrik (Taurage), the nearest large town, for him to obtain further education. It was from there that Sheine, Sore, Hirsch and Gitte (Ethel) emigrated to Brooklyn in 1902. Unclear about Gitte's birth in 1900 since Abbe was in Brooklyn then...
When planning our trip to the ancestors, I had been told that the best person to guide us around Lithuania was Regina Kopilevich. I contacted Regina before our trip, but never received a definitive answer about whether she could accompany us. I knew we could get around Kovno on our own, but because of the car rental snafu we had no transportation to the last three places on our itinerary—Botok (Batakiai), Taurage and Simne (Simnas). Besides, if Lithuania was like Poland or Belarus, finding cemeteries, synagogues and sites of mass extermination would be impossible without the help of someone who spoke Lithuanian. Time was running out, so I emailed Regina again when we got to Vilna. By the time we left Vilna it still wasn’t clear whether she was going to be able to accompany us, so I contacted her again after we reached Kovno. Fingers’ crossed….
On the Friday morning before our departure back to Warsaw on Monday, more than a little anxious, I called Regina to see whether or not she was coming. She answered the phone and said that she and a driver were leaving Vilna and would be at our hotel in Kovno in an hour! I said we’d meet her in the lobby. She insisted that I wait in our room, which I thought was a bit controlling but figured there was some explanation for her request. I rushed to wake Oscar and told him to get ready.
An hour later, Oscar and Susan were waiting in the lobby and I was in my room when the room phone rang. It was Regina, who asked me whether she could come up. Once again, I thought it a bit odd, but agreed. Soon there was a knock on the door and in walked Regina, wearing a floor length brown dress, and without any chit-chat asks whether she could take a shower! Clearly, this was going to be an interesting day.
Regina took a quick shower and soon we were off to Batakiai. Shortly after we set out, Regina asked whether any of us knew Hebrew, which none of us do. I grew up in an environment that was largely Jewish—all of my and my parents’ friends were Jewish and my school was overwhelmingly Jewish as well. Although both of my parents were sent to Sunday school, neither of them felt that religion had anything to offer them, and I wasn’t raised with any religious instruction or practice, and had never been taught Hebrew. Regina proclaimed that American Jews were lazy if they didn’t know Hebrew, and then proceeded to make three copies of the Hebrew alphabet so Oscar, Susan, and I could immediately start learning. Regina had a great many opinions on a variety of topics that she shared with us through out the day.
We reached the town of Batakiai to find that it consisted of a small cluster of single-family dwellings, one store, and a new multi-purpose building housing a post office/convenience store and the town offices.
Regina took me by the arm, marched into the town offices, and sat down at the desk of a woman who appeared to be the town’s sole employee. She and the woman talked for a bit before the woman picked up her phone, spoke briefly with someone, got up, and motioned for us to follow her. Oscar, Susan and I followed her and Regina down the street until we reached a small house. She knocked on the back door. A very old woman answered and soon we were sitting in her living room, having said goodbye to the town employee.
Pranè Barauskiene was born in Batakiai in 1919, although her passport gives her birth year as 1921. This discrepancy reinforced my experience, researching my family history, that written documents, even legally significant state-issued documents, are frequently inaccurate. I could not help but think of my recently deceased father. I was there he died, about 11:30 pm on March 27, 2016. The hospice nurse didn’t arrive at his apartment until after midnight, and filled out the official death certificate with March 28 as his date of death. That’s a small difference in my father’s case, but it drove home how documents don’t always accurately reflect what actually happened.
Pranè’s father was once the manager of Batakiai’s mill, which had been owned by a Jewish man. Pranè went to school with Christians and Jews alike, and was friends with both. She remembered being taken by Jewish girlfriends into the synagogue, which was right on the town square adjacent to the church, and seeing that the men and women prayed separately. She was not Jewish but could speak and write some Yiddish. It was fairly common for non-Jews in shtetls to speak a little Yiddish, because people were living in close proximity and had commercial dealings with each other. But Regina told us it was very unusual for Christian women to learn written Yiddish.
Pranè fondly remembered going to dances with people of both religions and dancing with Jewish boys, which was acceptable by community standards. She said she preferred Jewish boys to the Christian ones, whom she felt were often coarse. As the daughter of a mill manager, Pranè may have felt more commonalities with Jewish children whose parents were artisans, craftworkers or storekeepers, than she did with those from rural Christian farm families.
While Pranè talked about Jews and non-Jews peacefully co-existing, just four years before her birth, in 1915, Jews were forced to leave Batakiai after being accused of throwing a dead cat in the town well to poison its occupants. It is a mystery to me how the Christians thought the Jews would get untainted water from the allegedly poisoned well, but prejudice is not logical.
After completing school, Pranè was apprenticed to a local Jewish seamstress to learn tailoring. In June 1941, when she was 23, the invading Germans rounded up the Jewish men of the area and shot them to death. The remaining Jewish women, children and elderly people from Batakiai and nearby shtetls were forced into guarded barracks near the train station. Pranè brought food to them, but in September the ghetto’s 800 occupants were taken to the Gryblaukis forest and murdered.
Pranè managed to survive the war, get married, and have two small children before she and her family were exiled to Siberia in 1948. Her husband was in prison while she and the children lived in a nearby town. Eventually her husband was released and joined her, but it wasn’t until 1960 that they were allowed to return to Batakiai. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians shared Pranè’s experience of deportation and exile.
After half an hour of interviewing, Regina announced that it was time to take pictures, which we did under her direction. Pranè generously told us that we should take anything growing in her garden since it was too difficult for her to get down the steps to harvest her crop. We went down and tasted her delicious red currants, and gazed at the beautiful millpond just behind the house.
Without the help of Regina and the town clerk I would have never met this amazing woman who spent her childhood and adolescence in the village where my family had lived just 15 years earlier. We said our good byes and took off for the cemetery and then to Tavrik (now called Taurage, pronounced tor-ah-gay), where Sheine and her children, Sore, Hirsch and Gitte took off for America.
In November 2016 I was contacted by Egidijus Gaidauskas who spent his childhood in Botok and is interested in the history of the community. Now living in Vilnius, he is a wealth of information about Batakiai and we traded emails:
- I know Pranė Barauskienė from my little childhood - she was the best dressmaker of all surroundings. My grandma Marija Gaidauskienė used to visit Pranė very often. The Mill of Batakiai belonged to Mendel's family - the foundation of it can be seen today, close to Mr. Kanzleris' house, near the Jewish cemetery. The Mill was on the small river Ūkis (in Lithuanian it means the river of nebula or fog).
The old barn in your picture belonged to Kobrin's family before WWII. They were Jews and were murdered in the Gryblaukis forest together with 1800 women and children (the men were killed in the Pužai forest in July) in September 1941. Only Kobrin's daughter survived. Her son Dovydas Kobrinas, as his teacher Stasė Vilienė told (she is 85 now), lives in Kaunas (former Kowno). The hill, on which stands the house and the barn, people still call Klurke's hiil - it is distorted farmstead owner's first name.
I know the exact place of Jewish Skala or Schala (ritual house) in Batakiai. I think you where very close, but you had to go a bit further on East-South. Sadly, today is a private house in this place.
My grand grand mother Rozalija Kairienė became an orphan at six years, but only Jewish family took care of her. Being a Catholic child she lived in a Jewish family for several years in Skaudvilė (Skudwill). She told that no one of other children of her age had shoes, only she - so much they loved her. So, when the Nazis took her son to guard the Jewish women and children, who where closed in barques near Batakiai, she tried to help as she could, especially with food and dresses. And she was crying loudly, hearing shootings in Gryblaukis forest that terrible September morning.
- Šliomas Mendelis (Yid. Shlomo Mendel) was a well known businessman in Batakiai. Together with his wife Base they had the Mill and a Sawmill too. Also they were trading wood in all the area. Šliomas Mendelis was 40 years old when he was murdered together with other 4 or 5 men in the first days of the War [June 1941]. As I know, they were buried separately in a bomb hole in the Gryblaukis forest. Their wives didn't know about this fact and were looking for their men, but nobody wanted to say the truth. People where shocked of this brutality. Only later it became routine. But not for all of them, I think.
- There are other Batakiai Jewish families who perished in the Shoa: Kobrins, Zilberis, Lipcisas, Kaplanas, Kleinikas, Berkis, Levitanas, Glezeris, Grinbergas, Faivus, Faifushas, Bereloviczius, Brinas, Shapiras, Grolmanas and others. And there are other Batakiai Jewish businessmen: Leja Izokienė (she had wool carding) and Jankelis Shatensteinas (store of kolonialwaren). There was Jewish bakery too, but I don't know the name of the owner. My grandma told she worked in a sawmill of Gitkin and Beichowitz., which was somewhere in a forest closer to Tauragė and Prussia (Germ. Preussen).
- I asked him why he thought no one would tell the wives of the murdered men what had happened. He said "Yes, no one wanted to say such terrible truth to wives, because they didn't know how to do this. No one was ready for this cruelty. For a long time people lived peacefully. They were neighbors, they helped each other, they lived in one community. How can you say to a woman, that your husband was shot, because he was Jew? On the first days of war it seemed unbelievable. As my grandma told, people were compassionate with these wives."
Now a city of 25,000, Tavrik in 1897 was a Prussian-Polish border town that was over half Jewish. The Germans largely destroyed the town in WWI, and by 1923 Jews constituted only a third of its 5500 inhabitants, the rest having been exiled to the far reaches of Russia after the war. Being so close to Prussia, Tavrik was home to many Lutherans who were almost entirely wiped out by the Soviet Union after WWII, through murder, deportation, and exile. The Soviet Union tried to remove all traces of the Lutherans’ existence and demolished their cemeteries, just as they had done with the Jewish ones. We learned all this from Regina while driving through the nondescript city. Our only stop there was at a single stone marking the location of the former Jewish cemetery, now surrounded by a residential neighborhood. We ate lunch at a cheesy history theme park whose restaurant made surprisingly good borsht, before heading to Simne.