A pilgrim is not the same as a tourist. To be sure, pilgrims are no less keen than tourists to visit the celebrated sites, but a pilgrim’s ultimate purpose is to see that which is visible only to the inner eye, to experience a presence that may or may not reveal itself. A pilgrim sets out on an intentional journey into three-dimensional space. Whether travelling alone or in the company of others, pilgrims also tend to rough it. They do not stay in five-star hotels or carry a Michelin Guide.
The pilgrim whose progress you are about to follow cuts a rather unusual figure. His original plan of spending each of the 12 nights of his road trip through Lithuania sleeping in a tent proved to be ‘a spectacularly stupid idea’ once he realised that it was impossible to charge a mobile phone in a field. So in the sweltering August heat he found himself carrying an entirely unnecessary tent and a sleeping bag around in his backpack for roughly 2,500km. Beholden to the kindness of strangers and the generosity of a few trusted friends—mostly expats like himself who were reachable by mobile phone—Richard successfully completed his arduous, at times monotonous and at times momentous journey through Lithuanian space and Jewish time. This is his story as narrated in an almost deadpan manner, accompanied by his unadorned photographic record.
Richard’s itinerary is equally unusual, for a more denuded landscape can hardly be imagined. His journey through Lithuania tracks the ruins of a civilisation that was created over the course of centuries by proud and productive Jews known as Litvaks. On good days, in a matter of minutes he can locate their former synagogues, study houses, rabbis’ residences, ritual baths, and marketplaces once ringed by Jewish stores and stalls. On bad days, it’s hit or miss. On good days, there are local inhabitants happy to show him the way. On bad days, there is a sea of indifference and ignorance. Then there is the detritus of the 47-year-long Soviet occupation, with its collective farms, state-run bakeries, ecologically ruinous factories and so-called houses of culture. Were that not apocalyptic enough, at every turn Richard sees the tell-tale signs of depopulation. Not only was the Lithuanian landscape ethnically cleansed, of Jews, Poles, Tatars, Karaites and Scots, all able-bodied Lithuanians seem to have voted with their feet and quit the country. Some towns, once bursting with life, Jewish or otherwise, are virtually empty. Thank God for the storks gliding overhead like dinosaurs in Veisiejai, the families of swifts attending to their makeshift nests under the eaves of the platform in Kėdainiai, and the beautiful red brick former synagogue that sports an uninhabited wheel for storks on its roof in Lygumai. At least the sky is still alive.
What then does our pilgrim see in his mind’s eye? What are the questions that torment him? What solace does he derive from his ordeal? This is what we, vicarious travellers, are about to discover.
David G. Roskies
Jerusalem, August 7, 2018