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Window detail

Its Petrified Imprint

Prose + Photos by Sharon Kirsch

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Lithuania, at first glance, was starkly itself, never more so than in midsummer.

 
In a high wet meadow bordering a spruce forest, a crane disturbed the grasses, then vanished. Alongside a nearby brook, purple and yellow vetch sprouted low to the ground, small dissenting voices in a landscape that was otherwise hushed green and blue. Sky and forest. Forest and meadow. Field and stream. I pulled out my camera, the metallic blue of a beetle, and snapped. My shadow appeared in the viewfinder, the outline of my head sinuous from curls, my left arm bent up to the shutter button, the billow of my dress a misshapen triangle on the road.

Lithuania, at first glance, was starkly itself, never more so than in midsummer, when the abundance and clarity of light exposed all but the most hidden caches and determinedly reticent of life forms—bees’ hives carved deep into the bark of conifers, the interiors of tightly shuttered houses, ticks like flecks of dirt clinging to the underside of pine needles or masked by particles of sand on the forest floor.

My decision to tour this Baltic nation of scarce fences, unhurried rivers, and intact forest had come about suddenly. No one I knew had considered visiting Lithuania, a one-time empire that for several centuries formed a Commonwealth with Poland and later was occupied or controlled by Russia, Germany, or the USSR before declaring independence in 1990. Its past was intricate, its character not easily discerned. Lithuania, country of my forebears, promised to be as mysterious as a life concluded.

In the several years before my mother’s death, she never lost her mastery of words, especially those that mattered. Sleep. Oranges. Confused. My own name, Sharon. The name of her son-in-law. The word Lithuania, if she’d ever known it, was no longer present in her vocabulary. Nor did my mother’s memory loss imply the forgetting of a personal history in Lithuania. She was a second generation Jewish Montrealer necessarily without any direct memories of her family origins in the scrap of Lithuania bordering Poland and Belarus and, even in her prime, only tentatively in possession of the family narrative.

For as long as I could remember, my mother had kept a record of my whereabouts. Call me when you get there. Don’t walk home from school alone. Make sure to let me know where you’re staying. When she first became “confused,” the requirement to be accountable only intensified, with me demanding as many reassurances of her as she did of me. Upon my mother’s death in February 2013, the back and forth of decades came to a halt from one minute to the next, undermining my own sense of belonging. The impulse to visit Lithuania had arisen some months earlier, at the borderland of my mother’s memory loss and the impending loss of my mother. It grew, moreover, from my desire to retrieve a place lost to our family, along with the missing memories of that place, which may deliberately have been forgotten.

Home near Kapčiamiestis, Lithuanai
Home near Kapčiamiestis, formerly the shtetl of Kopciowo, with figures in traditional Lithuanian dress.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
“You’ll be disappointed,” a friend told me when I informed her of my plans. “Everything will have been destroyed—all evidence of Jewish life.”

“That’s fine,” I said. Because really, I was most intent on something else—the recovery of a natural landscape that without the caprices of history would have been mine. My yearning to reclaim this landscape originated in my paternal grandfather, a botanist, a prospector, a developer of land. A man I never knew. His early years were spent in Lithuania, where he was born and as a small boy brushed up against stands of common bracken, the tallest of the fronds rivaling him for height. Once a postgraduate student in Montreal, Simon would examine the entire life cycle of this fern in the fossil record and beyond, beginning with its petrified imprint.

Traditional Lithuanian house
Traditional wooden house in Dzūkijos National Park.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
In June 2013, the memory of my mother’s death still vivid, I arrived in Lithuania. I began my inquiries not in Vilnius—the most obvious destination for Jewish pilgrimage—nor in Vilkomir—my ancestral town some 30 miles northwest—but in Trasninkas and Marcinkonys—villages, or more accurately hamlets, in Dzūkijos National Park, just tens of miles from the border with Poland. My criterion was this: to find the least–tampered with landscapes in rural Lithuania and, in particular, the most undisturbed tracts of coniferous forest.

I wouldn’t see many mammals in this part of the world—a single red squirrel, one deer browsing discreetly in a farmer’s field. Always outside of cities, in nests of sticks, were storks roosting with their young, and my first day in Dzūkijos National Park, sunning on a rock, a snake as flat as an eel.

In the traditional village of Trasninkas, the several houses of unpainted wood sat in a busy meadow of mulleins, pinks, and lady’s bedstraw with a grove of birch, pine, and spruce immediately behind. And though undeniably picturesque, the surrounds were little visible from the houses, which had no windows at all or windows so small that their only purpose was to admit air into the darkened interiors. No human form disturbed the landscape. If anyone had been there, I would likely not have been able to speak to them. In rural Lithuania, communication was possible only in Russian or Lithuanian, and in the one-time regions of Prussia, in German. Aš jūsų nesuprantu: I don’t understand. But I didn’t need words to observe.

Castle mound
The Ancient Castle Mound by the river in Ukmergė, Lithuania.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

Close observation was the instinctive way of knowing for my paternal grandfather born in Vilkomir. The eldest son of Abraham, a goldsmith or gunsmith, Simon immigrated to Canada with his family in 1890 at the age of six. I was the only latecomer among his grandchildren, born more than a decade after Simon’s death in 1949, with no occasion to inquire about his early memories of Lithuania, however fragmentary. Yet before his departure from Vilkomir, he’d have been old enough to attend a Cheder, a religious school for Jewish boys. Old enough to have grasped a pine cone in his hand and wondered whether it was alive or dead. Old enough, perhaps, to understand that his Jewishness set him apart and inspired words from others that were unwholesome, degrading, and should never have been conceived, let alone voiced aloud.

Throughout his near half-century in Canada, my grandfather remained a committed Litvak, or Lithuanian Jew, married to Malca Cossman, a Litvak immigrant and orphan, whom he met in Montreal. In the city of his immigration, Simon dedicated himself to the health and wellbeing of his community, helping to establish a hospital and a sanatorium, co-founding the local B’nai B’rith summer camp, serving on the executive of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. His sense of collective identity inarguably remained intact and informed his vision for the future. Yet his family’s personal narrative from Lithuania—their quarrels or affinities with neighbors, the nicks in the crockery, the gleam of the Kiddush cup, the price exacted for the passage to Canada—were no longer articulated and perhaps even willfully suppressed. My father, son of Lithuanian immigrants, had rarely alluded to his parents’ country of origin, although he favored the Russian Tea Room in New York City and spoke with affection of his mother’s samovar. More than once, too, he mentioned her partiality to mead, the ancient honey wine of Lithuania.

Despite the many belongings I recovered from my mother’s house as I was preparing it for sale, I hold no tangible evidence of Simon’s early childhood in Vilkomir. Measured by possessions alone, my grandfather’s life began in Canada as a young adult, when he acquired a Jug Handle microscope for examining the enlarged cells of plants, along with glass lantern slides printed with ink impressions of wood, stems, and leaves. But in all probability, Simon had lived in just such a house as the ones before me in Trasninkas—a house of wood on the edge of woods, perfumed with resin.

River view near Kapčiamiestis
River view near Kapčiamiestis, formerly the shtetl of Kopciowo.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

If language is familiarity, then I ranked as a stranger in my grandfather’s homeland, and yet my kinship wasn’t put to the test, because I encountered no one. No one in Marcinkonys, one of two park headquarters, where the visitor center was shut down and deserted—as was the central thoroughfare, except for a white mare galloping unfettered. No one by the disused railway bed turned meadow, alive with the thrum of bees and the quiver of butterflies, the tiniest, blue as sapphire, others, the palest apricot dusted with silver. No one at the Museum of Ancient Beekeeping, where the door to the cabin, open upon my arrival, was mysteriously locked after my return from the woodland trail. Children had been here. Their many drawings exhibited bees hovering over red and yellow hives, some delivering rectangles of golden honey like compact lunchboxes, others with long eyelashes and the fan-shaped feet of waterfowl. My mother would have warned me against roaming this deserted place, her sense of threat ever-present—an anxiety perhaps inherited over the generations.

Traditional beekeeping in Lithuania depends on excavating a hole in a tree trunk or branch, depositing one’s bees, and in the autumn securing the cavity with clay and straw. Not merely beehives but everything else in this corner of rural Lithuania was made of wood—plows, houses, ships’ masts, weathervanes, buckets, public signage, icons of the Virgin. And by extraction, could be burned. John Croumbie Brown, an intrepid British cleric, described in an 1885 treatise on Lithuania, the “vast forests, in which are bears, wolves, elks, wild oxen, lynxes, beavers, gluttons, wild cats, &c., and eagles and vultures are very common. In these forests large pieces of yellow amber are dug up frequently… whole forests are at times destroyed by fire.”

Carved wood religious symbol.
Nearly everything was made of wood.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

The online English-Yiddish dictionary produced zero results for “woodland” but a hit for “forest”: Vald. In Russian, nec. In Lithuanian, miškas. My grandfather, for his Ph.D. thesis, had chosen the subject of conifers. And so, I could infer Simon Kirsch in the nec or Vald. Simon Kirsch connoisseur of pine, or pušis. Had any locals observed me, as I believe they did not, they would have said I was entering the miškas. Somehow, The Origin and Development of Resin Canals in the Coniferae, Simon’s doctoral thesis, had found its bearings in such a forest, in the last of the European countries to abandon pagan rites. My grandfather, a Jew, had been born in Russian Lithuania 470 years after the official renunciation of tree worship.

 The Laurentian pineries Simon knew as an adult, though darker and more menacing than the Baltic woodlands, were in recent decades the more innocent of human malfeasance. Here in Lithuania the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators had sullied the forest by shooting Jews and other dissenters in the head, then burning the dead and burying their ashes. Smoke signaled not forest fires but willful destruction and burnt flesh. Had my grandfather remained in Vilkomir, he would have been murdered in the shelter of the trees that became his life’s work.           

This Simon would have learned before his fatal stroke in the bathtub. The damage to his recollection of those woods would have been irreparable. And yet those same woods remained the source of common bracken, and where in springtime resin trickled from the trunks of pine, clear brown and viscous, pooling on the near-frozen ground like maple syrup poured onto freshly laid snow.

Stork nest
Stork’s nest with chicks in Merkinė.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
On my second and last day in Dzūkijos, I stopped at Merkinė, a town celebrated for its black ceramic, an ancient art form in which, during firing, smoke from pine logs dyes the surface of the clay black. At the visitor center, sample wares were embellished with ancient geometries framing the animals of forest and meadow. Fox and heron. Goldfinch and wild boar.

In an upstairs café, beside an empty table laid for 20, I ate a solitary lunch of cold beet soup with hot potatoes and black bread. “Dėkoju.” I nodded approvingly to the waitress. Afterwards I walked out into the main square. Two young storks with beaks like carrots gazed at me from their safe haven atop a concrete pole. Along a narrowing road, snug wooden houses the colors of Easter eggs were coupled with orchard gardens.

Several days later, I paid a visit to the sole surviving synagogue in Vilnius just as the gatekeeper, bearded and too small for his clothes, was preparing to lock up. I pointed to the synagogue, indicating my wish to be admitted. “Rūta,” the man called out. A middle-aged woman in a long pale skirt, loose blouse and faded head scarf, with an equally somber demeanor, led me into the building, which, in its aquamarine and gold opulence, was at odds with its custodians. The day before, I’d noted the synagogue from the top of the castle mound in Vilnius—a single dome in a city of spires.

Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius, Lithuania, the city of spires.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

In the inert streets of Old Vilnius, where almost no built remains of the ghetto survived, and with no trees, no blossoms, no birds, the fracture with the past seemed near complete. In the countryside at least, life innocent of human history—the pressure of fiddleheads against the moist earth, the next brood of cygnets, the first flight of butterflies after winter—reconciled past and present. For me, beguiled at times by the beauty of the Lithuanian landscape and architecture, the family narrative and collective Jewish history fell away and I became like my mother in her final years—without memory.

Rūta motioned for me to approach a wooden table spread with a map. “You can look at this,” she said, pointing to a map of Lithuania in the late 19th century. A pie chart illustrated the population breakdown for each settlement, the slice for Jews in lilac mauve, the slice for everyone else the insipid brown of cooked trout flesh. Place names appeared both in Yiddish and Lithuanian. Ukmergė/Vilkomir 55 percent Jewish, Vilnius/Vilne 45 percent, Merkinė/Meretch 75 percent. Of the 753,173 Jews recorded in Lithuania’s General Census of 1897, their descendants now number between 2,700 and 6,500. The Jewish population of Ukmergė itself is estimated at 12.

Vilnius Choral Synagogue
The Vilnius Choral Synagogue.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
The Tolerance Centre in Vilnius inhabits a one-time Yiddish theatre, the framed playbills dotting the walls. As I was perusing silver ritual objects in glass cabinets, a man approached me, quickly, purposefully. “Where are you from?” he asked, the simple question concealing a hundred assumptions. He was sixtyish, solidly built, not tall, with wire-framed glasses and close-cropped curly gray hair.

“Montreal. But I live in Toronto. You?”       

“South Africa. My brother’s here with me. We’re traveling all over with a guide. This fellow, he took us to Kovno, to the old ghetto, and to a wooden synagogue. It was incredible, like a barn, just an old guy sitting there.”

“I wanted to visit one of those,” I said, momentarily regretting my decision to travel unchaperoned, to see less, more accidentally. “I won’t make it to Kaunas. My grandfather was from Ukmergė. Vilkomir, as they called it.”

“Our family came from Kaunas. What’s your surname?”

“Kirsch, like cherry in German. But I’ve discovered it was originally Kirz.”

The man’s head was still turned in my direction as his feet were beginning to lead him elsewhere. “My brother”—he pointed to another man vanishing around a corner. “I’ve got to go.”

Stained glass from Vilnius Choral Synagogue
Stained glass fragment in the Vilnius Choral Synagogue.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

More than by the silver ritual objects, I was captivated by an entire wall of doll-sized wooden figures. Gilt lions erect on two legs with their forepaws crossed. Eagles or ravens with their wings pressed flat. A single cockerel with a fine wattle. The human figures, predominantly male and invariably bearded, were more often seated. In pale blue silks or black and gold brocades, their heads in swollen turbans, their dignity was compromised only by their foreshortened legs. One figure had no feet at all, his lower half culminating in a wisp of silk.

These were early 20th-century biblical representations by Aaron Chajet, a folk artist from Kelmė, but with many figures missing. I could recognize only one scene: Abraham in the land of Moriah as he prepared to sacrifice Isaac, the son of his old age. The Bible tells us that Abraham gathered wood before the journey to Moriah and, in obedience to God, laid Isaac on an altar atop that wood. Here Isaac, his father’s only son, was hewn of wood as was Abraham himself. Abraham’s sword tilted upwards from its halter, broader at the tip than the base. His cheeks were the pink of his epaulettes. On the ground beside him lay Isaac, a small parcel wrapped in linen and lace.

Like his namesake on the museum wall, my paternal great-grandfather, Abraham Kirz, didn’t refuse the sacrifice. For Simon, his first-born son, and his later succession of sons and daughters, Abraham surrendered his language, his country, his youth. In Montreal, his was a life of numerous addresses, the sale of goods not his own, packages traveling through his hands, chicken, prunes, and pike consumed as soon as they were bought, logs in the fireplace quickly turned to embers. The inscription on his headstone in Montreal was unreadable, his narrative obscured. Abraham’s story as understood by his descendants might have been one told by a dementia patient, marked by lapses in memory, discontinuities, and repetition of the same few episodes.

Figurines
Early 20th-century biblical representations by Aaron Chajet, a folk artist from Kelmė, Lithuania.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
The first photographs I ever saw of Vilkomir were my own. I’d saved the visit for my final full day in Lithuania, uncertain whether my travel to Simon’s birthplace would amount to a recovery from amnesia—a retrieval of my ancestral past—or, more prosaically, a satisfying of ignorance with knowledge. For Simon, I had the same question in reverse, and others. Was his entire life in Canada a prolonged instance of dissociative fugue, a forgetting of personal history and identity provoked by his childhood departure from Lithuania, or had he continually paid tribute to Vilkomir, discerning in the magnified cells of common bracken the glades and meadows of his early boyhood, repudiating through each land purchase the entitlement that had been denied his father, fulfilling through every Jewish child well-nourished the hunger he might have known. More likely there was a place of subtlety in between amnesia and willful re-enactment. A halftone.

For months I’d longed to visit Ukmergė, and now so close, I manufactured a diversion—a stop at the World Heritage Site of Kernavė. That I was traveling on midsummer’s day, the longest day of the year, was sheer coincidence. When planning my trip, I hadn’t reckoned on the allocation of light.

Hill fort at Kernavė, Lithuania
Hill fort at Kernavė, Lithuania’s most sacred pagan site.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

Kernavė, with its ancient grass-covered hill forts—Castle, Lidzeika, Aukuras, Mindaugas Throne—was Lithuania’s most sacred pagan site. Grass aside, the hill forts weren’t unlike the sand dunes familiar to me from the coast of southern Maine. The gentle grades, the flattened wind-blown summits, the way, at the base, one agreed with another. And so, the hill forts of Kernavė produced in me a sensation not unfamiliar in Lithuania—that because of the near sameness of meadow, hill, or forest to home, mine counted as a return visit, a repossession.

On Midsummer’s Eve at Kernavė, market stalls supply rough hunks of dark rye bread, handfuls of wild strawberries bleeding their juices into glass jars, poppy seed cakes with black paste so fresh that it glistens like mud newly harvested from the river bed. From a woman in dull clothes, I bought six woven placemats the burnished purples, yellows, and oranges of autumn meadows. She received my payment with a question. Ir iš kur tu?”

Without understanding, I understood. “Canada.”

“Ah, Kanada.” She pointed skyward, then flapped her arms.

The day was the warmest, the light the most intense, of my two weeks in the Baltic. I felt hot and faded, uncomfortable in the mosquito net jacket I’d worn when exploring the woods, my face still sticky with repellent, my lips parched from having climbed the mounds at Kernavė in the full sun, on the brightest day of the year.

Monument to Vilkmergė
Monument to Vilkmergė, forerunner of Ukmergė.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
Ukmergė, the flatlands beyond Kernavė. Vilkomir, a thrush in the dust. Ukmergė arose from Vilkmergė, the original name for the settlement, thought to mean “she-wolf” and understood in turn as a girl raised by wolves, a girl in the guise of a female wolf, a huntress with a consort of wolves whose duty is to safeguard the forest. Wilka, celebrated in the legend of the town’s origins, were equally in Simon’s time decried as the “enemy.”

A wolf with a maiden astride his back announces the town limits. The young woman’s arms are flung skyward, in a gesture of freedom or exultation. The wolf, a male, appears neither threatening nor cowed but alert, his eyes the more human of the pair’s, his legs their locomotion. The backdrop to the statue is Soviet apartment blocks, the windows hung with blue chintz and cheap lace.

Having so recently buried my mother, I now assumed the lonely task of being the first in my extended family to chance rediscovering where we came from. I was returning as a never-possessed grandchild, the curator of my grandfather’s objects and heir to his interests. The natural world, for me, as for Simon, had long been compelling. Throughout my mother’s decline and final illness, paying attention to birds, naming them, became a daily practice. Not least among its attractions was the birds’ indifference to me. As my mother was suffering from a disease too often defined by absence, I discovered relief in my own willed oblivion.

In Lithuania, the physical evidence of Jewish life has largely disappeared and in turn has broken free from collective memory. Jewish tombstones were even repurposed as paving stones, the Hebrew letters eroded and evident only upon close scrutiny. Now here, I wished to restore the awareness of this place that had also been lost or deliberately erased from my own family’s memory—for me a place imagined, for Simon a place remembered. The place itself was impartial, as place must always be, but my grandfather, even if unwittingly, must have transmitted something gleaned from this place to his son, my father, and my father in turn to me. This unknowing inheritance might amount to no more than a collection of small preferences: a liking for mushrooms or a susceptibility to meadows. Or maybe the continuities ran deeper: to a disdain for injustice or a suspicion of compromise.

Eastern Orthodox Church in Ukmergė
The Eastern Orthodox Church by the river in Ukmergė.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

Will you immediately cede this land? A phrase from my grandfather’s real estate correspondence. I could see the river now and the bridge leading over it. On the far side stood yellow houses and an ancient castle mound beyond. Children, mostly boys, were wading ankle deep in the river. Tall grasses, almost marsh, grew by the banks and in the water. Behind the bathers appeared a scatter of wooden houses, yellow and malachite green, against a grove of willow, pine, and larch. The roofs of the houses were unpainted, angled to repel snow.

Heat imparts stillness. The boys on the opposite bank seemed far away, their laughter muffled. I walked along the river path to the castle mound, taller and more vivid than the Eastern Orthodox church beside it—the copper roof, spire, and unpresuming onion dome still turquoise, the white wooden walls peeling freely. I saw no one, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t seen. And had I been, I’m not certain what the citizens of Ukmergė would have made of me—a dark-haired woman in middle age with a notebook and a point-and-shoot camera in oversized boots and a tangle of mosquito netting on the hottest, brightest day of the year.

Fresco
Fresco at the University of Vilnius by Lithuanian artist Petras Repšys.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.

Inadvertently, I made for an allusion to the frescoes at the University of Vilnius by the Lithuanian artist Petras Repšys. Originating in Baltic folklore, a hunter wearing a mesh over his face carries a stork on his back, its legs red and rigid, its feet pointed like the arrows in the hunter’s quiver. Elsewhere a cow is caught in a series of hoops joined by netting, only its tail and muzzle disengaged.

More of Ukmergė awaited me—the central square, the town hall, the remains of the Jewish cemetery—but the castle mound and river were all I chose to see. There was no moment when I decided to go no farther, nor a single discernible motive for renouncing the rest. That the heat was oppressive, yes. The driving in the town centre a hardship, most certainly. Because the centre, once ravaged by fire, might disappoint, the river and castle mound being more primal, which, in hindsight, I chose to believe. Or perhaps because I am my grandfather’s granddaughter and all I needed to know I found in the detail.

Boys wading in river at Ukmergė
Boys wading in the river at Ukmergė, formerly Vilkomir.
Photo by Sharon Kirsch.
Throughout the pandemic, unable to travel far, I’ve revisited time and again a single photograph of Ukmergė. Here are the boys ankle deep in the river by the confluence of the Vilkmergė and Šventoji, a grove of willow, pine, and larch behind. This image, more than any, I commit to memory.

The magnification of my image, neither a lantern slide nor a microphotograph, merely an ordinary digital photo loaded onto my laptop, falls short. At half my age, my grandfather enlarged his objects of study by 200, even 230 times, splintering off identities all the while. Simon Kirsch. Simon Kurz. Also, Simon Kuropatkin, Daffy, The Terrible Armenian, names conferred on him by his classmates at McGill University. For Simon the slights and deprivations came early—his experience of not having enough translated, two generations later, into my own sense of loss. The inevitability that I will remain for my entire life my grandfather’s sole unclaimed grandchild. The knowledge that on my single and perhaps only visit to Ukmergė, I neither spoke nor was spoken to.

I don’t need to guess at the surrounds of my image. Fields of rye silver as poplar. Plantations of conifer. Nor do I doubt that my grandfather, born, by his own account, in late November or early December, the near-darkest days of the year, originated in color. In the saturated blues of the rivers and greens of the willow, larch, and pine. Simon himself isn’t discernible in my photo. Neither is common bracken, but I know that it’s there.

 

 

Sharon KirschSharon Kirsch is most recently the author of The Smallest Objective, a mother-daughter memoir and family history set in Montreal and winner of a 2021 Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature. Her earlier book of literary nonfiction, What Species of Creatureswas inspired by historical writings about unfamiliar birds and “beasts.” Sharon’s short fiction, flash, and essays have appeared in subTerrain and Room magazines, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post, among others. She lives in Toronto and can be visited at www.sharonkirsch.com.

Header photo, detail of traditional wood house in Dzūkijos National Park, by Sharon Kirsch. Photo of Sharon Kirsch by Joy von Tiedemann

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