Kaunas Lithuania

Our next destination after Riga was Kaunas, Lithuania. The bus seemed like our best transportation option. We were hoping to get another Lux Express since we were impressed with the ride from Tallinn to Riga. However no Lux so we ended up on Ecolines. The cost was 38 Euros for both of us and the ride took about four hours. Ecolines wasn’t as nice as Lux but the ride was uneventful and fine. It got us there on time. Google maps showed the walk from the bus station to our hotel (Best Western Santakos) a little long so we opted for a taxi (3 Euros).

So we were in Lithuania. This is the land of my ancestors, paternal and maternal. I’m third generation American (of Lithuanian descent) and interested in traipsing around the ancestral homeland. Following the common immigrant pattern, my grandparents and parents were busy blending into America and never returned to Lithuania once my grandparents settled in the USA. This is my first time here. Kathy has done a bit of research on my ancestry so we’re hoping to follow up on some of that and maybe find out a bit more about my heritage. I’ve reached out to my cousins, Mick and Karen, who have done some deep digging into the maternal family tree. We’ve gotten some invaluable information from them, including detailed notes from Mick’s trip to Lithuania with his father (my uncle Jay who was my mother’s brother) and Karen’s trips and findings. Armed with the family connection and that knowledge we were excited to explore Lithuania.

every town has a Gedmin street

The Best Western Santakos was inexpensive (about $50 a night with breakfast) but definitely showing its age. The location is great, right off the main pedestrian zone (Liberty Boulevard), with easy access to the old and new parts of the city. The first room we had was spacious but a little shabby. After our first day out when we returned to our hotel we noticed a distinct odor in the lobby and staircase. Making our way up the stairs we were stopped by a maid cleaning up. So we headed back to the front desk where they informed us there had been a ‘small’ fire. Great. Since the stairs were off limits, we took the elevator to our floor. No apparent fire damage there or in our room. Apparently the electrical system had caught fire in a closet at the end of the hall and the smoke affected that whole wing. It didn’t really affect our stuff. The hotel staff were stressing over shuffling folks around since the hotel was fairly full. But they got us into another room. We packed up our clothes and moved to another wing of the hotel. The room was a little smaller and slightly less shabby but fine. Breakfast there was interesting. The room is in the labyrinthian basement, twisting passageways, up and down steps, ducking under low vaults. Once there the breakfast is underwhelming. The hotel caters to groups so it was crowded. The food selection is mediocre and not well restocked by the staff. The single coffee machine is tricky to operate and overworked. But it was enough to start the day.

My mother’s family has ties to the Kaunas area. Mick hooked us up with Linas Zabaliunas of Baltic Holidays (Nemunas Tours) who had assisted him and Uncle Jay with guide and translation services when they stayed at Linas’s parents B&B years ago. We enlisted Linas for an all day tour of Kaunas. Once we got going he remembered lots of details about his time with Mick and Jay even though it had been 13 years before so we were able to pick his brain quite a bit for that knowledge. The tour of Kaunas included an overview of the city from a hill across the river with Linas providing a great history lesson. We drove back into the city for a walk around the castle area, through the market square, and some of the Old Town landmarks. Along the way we chatted about my family history in the area, especially Great Aunt Franciska (my maternal grandfather’s aunt). She was an amazing woman. She owned two major properties in Kaunas – a boarding house (apartment building) and the Hotel Roma – in the 30s and 40s. However Franciska was deemed an ‘enemy of the state’ in 1941 for ‘exploiting the populace’ (ie, employing people), her properties confiscated by the Soviets, and she was exiled to Siberia. She returned to Kaunas in 1946 and lived her life out in Soviet housing but never recovered her property.

We had the hotel and boarding house addresses from Mick’s research. He and Uncle Jay had tried to find the buildings but could only locate a parking lot and an empty lot at those addresses. When we first arrived in Kaunas we walked around and confirmed Mick’s findings. Ah but this is where Linas comes back into the picture. During our day with him we opted to visit the Kaunas government archives office to see if anyone there could help us determine the disposition of Franciska’s properties. Besides Kathy had read that addresses changed during Soviet times so maybe we were looking in the wrong places. We were fortunate to catch the manager of the archive right before lunch. She was extremely helpful and confirmed that indeed addressing had changed. She produced city maps from 1939 that showed the actual locations of the boarding house and hotel. And told us both buildings were still standing. Incredible! She also offered to dig deeper into the property records and let us know the buildings history. We weren’t in that much of a hurry for the additional information so we decided to formally request it later instead of having her drop everything to get it for us right then (for a fee of course). For now we were interested in taking a look at the buildings. Linas took us to each. Hotel Roma is now a government prosecutors office building right on Liberty Boulevard, near one of the main squares. The boarding house is right next to a funicular linking lower and upper Kaunas, and still apparently used for apartments. Even though we couldn’t enter either building it was cool just finding and seeing them. Huge thanks to Linas for his help. There’s no way we could have found all that on our own. The funicular was fun to ride. All the equipment is original, including the cars. The operator ‘drives’ the cars from the control house. He was thrilled to show us the mechanism, including the motor in the basement. It was fun.

Linas and the record custodian poring over records in the Kaunas archive office

the plat showing the actual location of Franceska’s properties

Franciska’s boarding house next to the funicular station

Hotel Roma, now civil offices

funicular riding

inside the original funicular car on the ride

hand-carved angels, we bought five

We also visited Rumsiskes with Linas. It’s an open air museum a little ways outside of Kaunas that’s a collection of 19th century buildings from around the country. It’s divided into four sections that correspond to the four regions of Lithuania. Each region has its own distinctive architectural style and the people in each region have their own characteristics. For instance the folks in the southwestern region (where our family is from) are stubborn.

recreated Siberia exile ‘house’ at Runsiskes

We returned to both of Franciska’s buildings the next day for some pictures and to see what else we could find. Nothing further at the boarding house. It looked like a fortress and there were no distinguishing features on the exterior to indicate its past or its former 15 rooms. However we were able to enter the Hotel Roma building during business hours. We struck up a conversation with the building superintendent who spoke English and explained the situation to him. We showed him an old video Kathy had found on YouTube that depicted the Hotel Roma. Even though we could only look around the small lobby area (the office areas were restricted) we at least got inside. There had been 18 rooms in Hotel Roma and the sup mentioned there are something like 41 offices now. The building exterior was identical to the video to include the wrought iron decoration over the entrance. Of course we shared our findings with Mick since he was the driver behind all of it. A lot of his information (including the property addresses) came from the KGB files on Franciska that he and Uncle Jay had uncovered. Thank you Mick.

near Franciska’s boarding house

Regardless of the family connection we thoroughly enjoyed Kaunas. Walking up and down the pedestrian zone we didn’t notice that many tourists but lots of locals strolling around. We had a couple of great Lithuanian meals at the Berneliu Uzieca restaurant. I was in search of some of the dishes we ate growing up, primarily cepellini (zeppelins or ‘clotzkies’), that are stuffed dumplings, served with sour cream or bacon. The ones we ate in Lithuania were good but somewhat different than the ones our grandmothers used to make. What was very similar another traditional family dish – kugelis, a grated potato casserole. Additionally we had wild mushroom soup in a bread bowl, potato pancakes, pickled herring, fried dark bread, stuffed cabbage. All good but definitely heavy. Every Lithuanian meal left us pretty full especially since they usually included a great dark beer (or two).

first cepellini at Berneliu Uzeica

ice cream on Liberty street

more cepellini

What else in Kaunas? Besides just wandering around the castle and park, we visited the Ninth Fort with Linas. The fort was part of the Nazi plan to eliminate the Jewish population (and other ‘undesirables’). At least 3,000 Jews were killed there, after having been marched up from the town below, lined up along the killing wall, and shot. Though the Ninth Fort murders were the work of Germans, there are indications of Lithuanian atrocities as well. There’s a well documented incident in which the ‘Butcher of Kaunas’ and others brutally beat to death dozens of Jews in a garage parking lot while towns folk (including women and children) stood around and watched and even jeered them on. A dark chapter in human history, showing once again the depths people can be led into, not so unwillingly it appears.

Linas and Kathy at the Ninth Fort memorial

Ninth Fort killing wall

wooden crosses in Kaunas

On a more upbeat note, we rented a car and drove out to a couple of ancestral villages west of Kaunas. First stop Simkaichai, a collection of old wooden houses. We located the church and cemetery in search of Franciska’s family (Dubinski). We found a few markers with her family name (various spellings). We didn’t have Franciska’s birth date but we figured it must have been around 1870 to 1890-ish. She apparently died and was buried somewhere in Kaunas but we thought there might have been parents, uncles, aunts, siblings or their descendants in Simkaichai. We found about 6 Dubinski tombstones but none we could definitely link to Franciska. There were a few people in the cemetery planting flowers on the graves but no one spoke English and we don’t speak Lithuanian so we couldn’t ask anyone for help. The church was closed and no priest around to question either.

maternal grandfather’s village

maternal grandmother family’s village

From there we drove another hour west to Zemaiciu Naumiestis, the apparent home town of my maternal great grandparents. This part of the trip is thanks to information provided by my cousin Karen. The records are incomplete and misspellings abound but she managed to piece things together and trace the family back to this town that she also visited a few years ago. Once again we found a central church however the cemetery was a lot larger so we didn’t search for any relevant tombstones. The town itself was more modern so we checked out the old square with a building that showed up in some of Karen’s old family photos that appears to be a family dwelling.

Between Kaunas, Simkaichai, and Zemaiciu Naumiestis, it was really cool to learn a bit more about my mother’s ancestors and walk in their footsteps. Thanks a million to Mick and Karen for all they’ve done and send along their findings. We’re on the hook now to follow up with the archive office in Kaunas and poke around Ancestry for other pieces of the puzzle.

at the Best Western Santakos

wild mushroom soup

on Liberty Boulevard

Gediminas tower symbol in red

 

 

 

 

 

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