As Lithuania dedicates 2020 to the country’s Jewish heritage, Ada Alejūnaitė presents the remarkable story of Eunice Blecker and her Litvak family that survived the shifting sands of the 20th century.
The history of Lithuania‘s Jews has always been relevant to me, raising many questions as we know so little about it.
During my childhood, I often visited the old Jewish cemetery in Šiaulėnai and I kept wondering – are there any living descendants of Šiaulėnai Jews and where are they. The crumbling, old written tombstones still gave me no peace. So, I decided to find Jewish descendants of Šiaulėnai (Shtetl of Shavlan).
About 10 years ago I found Eunice Blecker on the World Jewish Genealogy website. Once I dared to contact her, the friendship between myself, a dreamer from Šiaulėnai, and Eunice from Baltimore was born.
Eunice Blecker visited Lithuania with her husband in 1996. Years later, she embarked on a quest to write a book inspired by her grandmother’s stories about Jewish life in Šiaulėnai, or Shavlan in Yiddish.
Shavlan - A Woman‘s Journey to Independence is about the author’s grandmother, Sarah Gražutis, and her family in the 19th and 20th centuries.
During the turbulent times, the family was engulfed by the First World War, deportation, pogroms, and stories about life in America.
Gražutis, who became an orphan at the age of nine, had to endure the most difficult challenges in her life – she had to bury her children, see her son go to war from which he never returned, take care of family alone and survive deportation.
Thef family's story begins in 1877 in the town of Šiaulėnai with amazing Jewish architecture and bustling life. Yet in 1915, all of the town’s Jews were forcibly deported to Dnipro in present-day Ukraine, known as Yekaterinoslav until 1926.
The first Jew who returned to Šiaulėnai after the declaration of Lithuania's independence in 1918 was Eunice's grandfather, who had departed to faraway South Africa to work with his best friend even before the troubles began.
Yet, telling of the times to come, anti-Semitism took place even before the Second World War in light of the different political ideologies. When the Second World War began, the Jews of Šiaulėnai were taken to Žagarė on the border with Latvia and executed.
Those who left Europe in the interwar period, including Eunice's grandmother, grandfather, mother and other relatives who migrated to the United States 93 years ago, survived.
Shavlan is therefore more than just a book. It’s a treasure chest of lost Jewish history in Lithuania.