Thanks for tuning in again to my summer blog about my experiences travelling through Eastern Europe this summer. I am writing from my dorm room in Vilnius, Lithuania as I have just begun my four week program at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Reflecting on the trip I just completed with the Helix project – I leave the program with fantastic memories and amazing friends.
The people I met on this trip were warm, vibrant, caring, and extremely intelligent. The amount of vocabulary words I picked up over the past three weeks would blow you away. Above all of those things – I think what attracted me most to the Helix group was the passion that each member of our group had for studying Eastern European Jewish culture. I plan to keep in touch with all members of the group and I’m sure I will be seeing some of them in the future. Each member of the group was special, driven by an individual interest and a passion for knowledge.
It showed me places that most Americans, even more, most people just don’t see. I walked through tiny rural towns in Belarus, I visited crumbling buildings and deserted cemeteries in Poland, I spoke to a living former Partisan in Lithuania, and let me tell you – I learned so much and was inspired to take this new knowledge and do something.
From these experiences with Helix and my future experiences living Vilnius, I hope to write a historical fiction novel within the next few years about a teenager that is trying to survive the Holocaust without losing herself or her Jewish identity. It will be a dramatic narrative taking
readers through the timeline of Jewish life in Eastern Europe during a period where it was not safe to be who you really were. I hope that this story will allow young readers to see the harsh truths of the Holocaust, while promoting cultural and religious tolerance – emphasizing the purpose of hope for future generations.
Anyways, now that I’ve shared my “reflections” on Helix with you, I’d also like to share one discovery I made on this trip. For me, this discovery made this trip significantly bigger on an emotional level. Here’s the story:
Several days ago, the Helix group drove into Lithuania, ready for the last leg of our 2 week adventure. One of our first stops was in the city of Kaunas (the former capital of Lithuania) which used to have a very significant Jewish population before WWII. To this day, Kaunas (“Kovno” in
Yiddish) houses one of the largest (and only) surviving synagogues from before the second world war as the Nazis burned down most Jewish houses of worship.
What this plaque says is that the Kadensky family donated the furnace to this synagogue. I guess it was such a big deal that a plaque was made about it. Super cool right? I called my group leader over and told him about this find and he said casually – “Oh yea, the Kadenskys? They must’ve been from Kėdainiai (pronounced: Kay-dey-ney) – it’s a major town in Lithuania.” Right then my jaw dropped.
Here’s a little back story.
Supposedly, when my great-great-grandfather on my Dad’s side came to America, he came with the last name of “Kadensky” – except that when he got to the immigrant center in the USA, they chopped off the “sky” and his last name became just “Kaden.” Thus, my last name was formed.
However, while my family really does not know where my great-great-grandpa came from, it seems that Kėdainiai fits. I know this because when most people back in Eastern Europe lived in a town, let’s use Kėdainiai for example, they took the name of their town, added a “sky” and used it as their last name when they moved to a new place. So if my great-great-grandfather lived in Kėdainiai, when he moved somewhere else, let’s say America, he would’ve taken the last name Kadensky.
Thus, I have a hunch that my family may have roots in this known Lithuanian town.
Even if we are not from this place and its all a coincidence, I think it’s pretty darn awesome
to go to a country not expecting much and then to find a town with your last name in it! I always felt thatmy last name was generic, boring, and not special. Now, things are different. Every time I tell
people here that my last name is Kaden, they say, “oh, like Kėdainiai?” and I just shrug and smile. I mean, we even have roads and pancakes named after us. It’s pretty cool.
time, I think I’d like to visit Kėdainiai!
Anyways, thanks so much for reading. In my next post, I will explain more about what I am up to in
Vilnius and about my studies at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. I will be studying here for a month, and after just three days, I have already learned so much. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
All the best,