First Person

Seeking Lithuanian roots, finding insight

The iron curtain has risen, but it has left behind a thick and dirty rust ring.

Old Town in Kaunas, Lithuania (Courtesy Sandra Katz)
Old Town in Kaunas, Lithuania (Courtesy Sandra Katz)

My paternal grandparents, Sol and Helen Katz, left Lithuania in 1905 and 1910. They never talked about their lives there and I have always been curious about my roots. Recently, I decided to travel to the Baltic countries for three weeks to see where my grandparents had come from firsthand.

From Lithuania to Latvia to Estonia, a half century of Russian and German oppression is still evident, including the repressive hand of religion. In any direction, there are church spires looming over the populace. In contrast, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, leaving only one each in Kaunas and Vilnius, which have 24-hour state protection. (In fact, Vilnius was known as the “Jerusalem of the North,” with more than 100 synagogues).

The Baltics have known freedom for a mere 43 years in their 1,000-year history — 1918 to 1940 and 1991 to the present. The powers of foreign occupation seem to have made zombies of an entire nation. Many people walk through the streets unsmiling, expressionless, suspicious — averting their eyes from others. They wait patiently and obediently in lines, not questioning or challenging authoritarian, draconian rules.

Although these people seem joyless, I was told by a French filmmaker who has spent much time in the Baltics that what is seen on the outside is not what goes on inside. At home, the Baltic people love to party with friends and family.

There are constant reminders of Soviet Big Brother, with video cameras everywhere. In the nanny state, no thinking was required: housing, jobs and food (albeit with limited choices and often in short supply) were provided for everyone. This explains why a number of people, mostly the elderly, still prefer Soviet times.

But those who like freedom and creativity want more change and growth. A huge number of young people have left the Baltics, moving to the United Kingdom, Ireland, United States, Canada or France for education, jobs and betterment.

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia all have occupation museums that concentrate on the actions of the KGB, the Soviet state security agency: the horrendous punishments and transports to Siberia of the non-Jewish population. However, the Nazi atrocities were lightly glossed over; in a three-story museum in Vilnius, the “Jewish” story was confined to one small section in the basement.

Kaunas (Kovno) is the second largest city in Lithuania, strategically located at the confluence of two rivers. It was the capital of Lithuania from 1920-39, while Vilnius was occupied by Poland. The Jewish population in the late 19th century comprised 35 percent (25,000) of the 70,000 total. Kaunas is smaller than Vilnius, but also has a charming Old Town and wide pedestrian street.

Since my grandparents were from Kaunas, I began my ancestral research at the computerized archives of public records at the university. However, trying to trace a “Katz” in Lithuania is like trying to trace a “Smith” in New York City. Furthermore, because Jews were allowed to live only on the outskirts of Kaunas, often no birth records were kept.

So although I was disappointed not to be able to trace my family, I gained great insight into my grandparents’ psyche, which I had never understood growing up. My grandfather bought a dry cleaning shop, English Cleaners, in Kansas City, Mo., keeping the “American-sounding” name. My grandparents’ lives revolved around home, family, work, doctor appointments, grocery store and post office. They did not belong to a synagogue, did not send their children to Sunday School for any Jewish or Hebrew education; their two sons never had a Bar Mitzvah.

I was always disturbed and puzzled by their extreme, reclusive lifestyle. I now understand that to them it meant safety; and a home and job meant they had found paradise.

Research shows that primates, including humans, suffer serious DNA consequences if they are deprived of a mother’s love early in life. Do these creatures ever recover? The same question haunts me about the Baltic people. Will those who have been deprived of trust and freedom ever recover, or will the legacy of oppression continue to manifest in future generations? Will Europe —and the world, for that matter — ever find “freedom” from atrocities against those of different races, religions or gender?

How many generations will it take to remove the rusty traces of the iron curtain and restore natural human joy and spirit? Hopefully, with time and future generations, there will be healing from the devastating histories these countries have endured.

Sandra Katz, M.D., J.D., a retired eye surgeon and lawyer, has lived in Tucson for 18 years.