Last Wednesday, at midnight, Al and I returned from a two-and-a-half week trip to the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. I’m still processing all that we saw and heard and learned. It was a powerful journey that exceeded all our expectations. I planned a complex itinerary: fly to Helsinki, Finland, stay a couple of nights to recover from jet lag, then fly to Vilnius, explore for five days, go on to Riga for four days, then to Tallinn for another four days, catch the ferry back to Helsinki, and fly home the next day. And that is what we did.
We promised ourselves, in making this trip, to honor the memories of family who had perished in the Holocaust. Al was especially committed to commemorating his maternal grandmother’s brother, Avram Itzek, whom he believes was his namesake, and who chose not to leave his home town about an hour from Vilnius, in what is now Belarus, because it was where he felt he belonged. He was killed in the Holocaust. I hoped to uncover traces of my maternal grandfather’s Berlin cousins, who were deported to Riga in 1941 and perished there, though details of their fates are not known. We also hoped to learn more about the vibrant Jewish communities that once flourished in these countries and about what it meant to break free of the Soviet Union three decades ago—a historic moment made all the more poignant and relevant in light of the war in Ukraine.
Geopolitics made it impossible to visit Avram Itzek’s home town of Ashmyany—the day we landed in Helsinki, our embassy in Minsk told all Americans to leave Belarus because activity there by the Wagner Group, which has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, made it too dangerous. The day we landed in Vilnius, Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s plane fell out of the sky, undoubtedly retribution by Putin for his short-lived revolt against the Russian military back in June.
So, even a trip to the border for a glimpse in Ashmyany’s direction was out of the question. But as Al read more of the family history he’d brought along, he realized that before his grandmother’s family moved to Ashmyany, they had lived in the small village of Dieveniškes, located in the far southeast corner of Lithuania. With help from a friend, we traveled there on our last day in the country and found the Jewish cemetery where Al’s ancestors were laid to rest.
In Riga, we took a Jewish heritage tour with a private guide, and at the Museum of the Riga Ghetto and Holocaust in Latvia stood a long Wall of Remembrance with thousands of names. On the wall for Jews deported from Berlin in 1941, I found the name of my maternal grandfather’s first cousin, though not her husband, young son, or mother, who had all come with her. The Museum’s executive director, who sat with me to take all the family information that I had about these lost relatives, gave me a much needed hug and promised to research archives to find out what became of them all.
Not everything on our travels was heavy. A few fun facts: People in this part of the world are TALL. I thought it was my imagination, or a stereotype, but it’s true. In fact, in our Air BnB flat in Riga, I at first wondered why the closet hooks and hanger rod were up so high—then I realized, for tall people it was just right, especially because their longer clothes need more room to hang. Also, although ice hockey is the national sport of Latvia, both Latvians and Lithuanians are crazy about basketball. That, and chess. Everywhere we went, we saw chessboards, in libraries, in courtyards, in parks. And, everywhere we went, the food was outstanding.
The Old Town in Tallinn was the most beautiful of the three we stayed in, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, still with its walls in tact. Much work is ongoing to preserve and restore buildings, many of which, here as in Riga and Vilnius, were destroyed in wars. One of the buildings in Old Town is painted a sugary pink. It is surrounded by metal crowd-control fencing, which is covered with posters protesting the war in Ukraine, as well as occupied lands in Georgia. This is the Russian Embassy in Estonia.
Throughout our travels, we saw Ukrainian flags flying in solidarity, Ukrainian blue and gold everywhere—from the Town Hall in Vilnius on our first night, illuminated as a rippling blue and gold flag on the eve of Ukraine’s Day of Independence anniversary, to an exhibit of new Ukrainian medals for bravery in battle at a museum of knighthood in Tallinn. These Baltic states, all about thirty years old as independent democracies, understand what it means to be conquered by Russia. Stories, of exile to Siberia under Stalin, of authoritarian rule, of always being under surveillance by the KGB, have not faded. And history is tragically repeating in neighboring Ukraine.
Whenever I travel abroad, to countries with much longer histories than these United States, I am reminded that world dominance ebbs and flows like the oceans that separate our continents. Authoritarian forces threaten democracies around the world and here at home. If history is any guide, we cannot take our own democracy’s survival for granted. I came home convinced, more than ever, that we must do all we can, especially this year, to preserve and protect free and independent, inclusive elections, so that the fate of our nation rests in the hands of the many, not of the few who would remake it in their own image.
So, that is what I’ve been thinking about as we traveled through the Baltics, and what I continue to wrestle with now that we’re back home. It was a journey that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Here are just a few images from our trip . . .
In and Around Vilnius, Lithuania
In and Around Riga, Latvia
Ferry to Helsinki