If Vilnius was known as the center of education (often referred to as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”) then Kaunas was a trade and commercial center. Its location on the Nemunas (Neman) River, which flows to the Baltic Sea, was advantageous. Kaunas at one time had 38 synagogues; sadly there is just one active synagogue remaining.
We visit the home of Chiune Sugihara who, as the Japanese consul, issued over 2000 visas for Jews to escape Lithuania and cross the USSR via the Trans-Siberian Railway and boat to the Port of Tsuruga in Japan. Dutch diplomats also assisted by issuing thousands of Curacao visas until the Soviets closed the Dutch consulate. Sugihara’s home office has been left intact, on a hill in a quiet residential neighborhood.
Simon Davidovich, deputy chairman of the Jewish Community Center of Kaunas, is also director of the Sugihara Museum.
Ziezmariai: the Last Wooden Synagogue
In the very old village of Ziezmariai, this wooden synagogue is the last of its kind standing. Built in 1782, it is in poor condition, but a kindly caretaker keeps watch. Lludvikas was a child during the German occupation, and watched his parents dress as beggars to bring food to Jewish neighbors hiding in the forest outside the village. He was only 6 years old at the time, and has made it his mission to keep an eye on the synagogue and unlock it for visitors.
We stop for lunch at a traditional Karaite and Lithuanian restaurant, “Kibinine”. After a salad, we’re served vegetable & cabbage soup served in a carved out loaf of black (rye) bread. The next course is “cepelinai”, a giant potato dumpling made from grated and boiled potatoes — appropriately nicknamed “zeppelins”, it’s Lithuania’s national dish. Dessert is pears with cream and bread crumbs.
Downtown area of Vilnius near Novotel Hotel.