Jewish Šiauliai, the centre of the leather Industry
ROUTES4U FAM Trip Baltic Sea Region vol. 2
We left Riga behind and headed to the next stop on our trip- the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai which lies on the European Route for Jewish Heritage, a certified Cultural Route of the Council of Europe.
As we arrived, the local representatives of the Cultural Route, Tourism Information Centre and to my pleasant surprise also a member of Šiauliai County Jewish community welcomed us in the restaurant Žemaitis where an exclusive degustation of Jewish dishes was already waiting for us.
One dish was changing another- from the pate-like appetizer and the special soup containing the mysterious light-coloured ball inside (hint- this is not meat!) to the main dish made of beef, plums, and potatoes and for the finale the colourful sweets. Everything was delicious and it felt more like a very filling dinner than just a degustation. Sometimes it was not so easy to guess the ingredients of the meals, but our guide Andrius Kvedaras helped us with that. As I learned we tasted something traditional of the Jewish New Year celebration, which usually takes place at the end of September- beginning of October. Interesting fact- right now Jews are counting 5779th year.
The nights in this part of Europe are exceptionally short in June so after the dinner, since it was still light outside, we followed our hosts to explore the Sun city as the locals call it. We went to the main, Vilniaus street which to the great joy of the citizens (I believe) as well as tourists is car-free! Strolling through the boulevard of what it seemed already a sleeping town I was listening to the stories of the guides. They told us about the 20 special museums of Šiauliai (such as Cats, Bicycle, Photography) that they are certainly proud of. I also listened to the history of Šiauliai before and after the World War II after which its center was destroyed and the local Jewish community diminished drastically. And I was intrigued by their efforts in communicating the Jews history in Lithuania, for example, via a project-mobile app Discover Jewish Lithuania which allows travelers to experience over 80 stories of the Lithuanian Jews as they travel. I am looking forward to using it on my next Jewish Heritage trip in Lithuania!
Tired but happy after the first intense day of our trip, we returned for the night to the hotel Žvejų užeiga, an ex-manor located outside of the town, on the shore of the Rėkyvos lake. I was lucky with my room as my windows were facing the serene water. I could fall asleep with the night setting down and observing the mother duck guiding her little ones around the lake.
As I woke up early next morning, the lake was busy with some fishermen lingering on the long bridge already since the dawn, peacefully waiting for their catch. It was nice to have such a peaceful experience knowing another hectic and full of travel day has just begun.
We left the hotel and drove to the famous Jewish Heritage place in Šiauliai- Chaim Frenkel villa. To my surprise, this 1908-year building like many we saw in Riga the previous day was designed in Art Nouveau architectural style! Interesting details both outside and inside, such as colourful floral motifs on the ceilings, exceptional woodwork and the first radiators in Šiauliai (which were also decorated with some ornaments!) clearly showed that this house belonged to the prominent persona.
Our guide began the tour of the house in the exhibition space on the ground floor precisely from telling the history of this personality.
Chaim Frenkel chose Šiauliai to develop this leather tanning company as the town had a recently opened a railway line and thus was a convenient strategic location. He was certainly a very successful business man- Chaim Frenkel started with just 10 men and after 25 years became the owner of one of the biggest leather factories in the whole Russian empire with 48 buildings and 1000 employees! Our guide Andrius noted that in 1911 in Encyclopaedia Britannica this Šiauliai industrialist was described as the ‘king of leather’ and his town as the ‘center of the world leather’.
After the death of Chaim Frenkel, his son Jakob Frenkel continued his father’s footsteps. He joined the two other leather companies of the time which led into the establishment of a common company called Batas (which in English means “Shoe”). Symbolically, in the exhibition room we could see the original pair of elegant shoes of the time!
What left me amazed was how much these businessmen were investing in the workers and the community, something which in our times could be awarded many CSR prizes. The company sponsored the synagogue, canteen and the library for the factory workers, the school for the Jewish community, the elderly care home, and the hospital. There was also a private local firefighters brigade put in place. It seems the idea that if the workers feel good at work, they will do a good job paid off very well.
After the exhibition, we climbed graceful wooden stairs to the second floor of the villa. Sadly there is no record what was the original setting of the house. Rooms are therefore refurbished with the furniture that arrived from the different Lithuanian manors and we went from one space to another, visiting women and men rooms, a library, and a picture gallery. From one of the windows on the second floor looking at the right, I could see the former Frenkel factory which served as a shoe manufacturer even in Soviet times, until 1995. I imagine that maybe Chaim and later Jakob Frenkel were also standing in this exact place overlooking their company.
We walked further, observing beautiful Art Nouveau features and going down the elegant staircases to check the Šiauliai city centre model of the Frenkel time, the cosy cinema room with ongoing Charlie Chaplin movies, and, what made me reflect- the drawings made by the local artist portraying Jewish community of Šiauliai at the time. Probably this artist was not aware of how important his drawings will one day be for the people trying to imagine the life of the then prominent Jewish community which nowadays counts only about 200 members.
We finished our tour outside of the villa, in the beautiful garden full of roses and a fountain, with the sun in the sky, reminding us we are in the Sun City, after all.
We said goodbye to our lovely hosts and boarded the minivan for the next destination on our trip. I took away the story of the great family and the feeling of the Jewish Šiauliai, which, luckily, is still alive, even if in much smaller number.
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