Memory Office: J. Ridzvanavičius

Jonas Ridzvanavičius, member of the Tartar community of Kaunas District, tells us about Tartar gatherings in Raižiai Mosque during the Soviet times, the establishment of Lithuanian Tartar Community, the recovery of Kaunas Mosque after 1990 and other things important to the memory of Lithuanian Tartars.

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Please tell us about your origins, family and Tartar traditions. Did you use to hear Tartar legends, fairy-tales, stories about your ancestors? What were the celebrations like in your family?

I was born and lived in Butrimonys until I was six. Many Tartars used to live in Alytus District; those were their lands. During the Soviet times, many of them moved to cities: Alytus, Kaunas and elsewhere. My name is Tartar, even though many Lithuanians think that it has Lithuanian roots. The names of my family members are also Lithuanian. My father is Stepas and my mother is Zosė. Father’s ancestors moved to Lithuania from Belarus (Navahrudak) approximately between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. And now Ridzvanačius family lives there. My mother’s ancestors are from Krinickas family, they are also from the Belarusian lands bordering with Lithuania, who moved to Lithuania 200–300 hundred years ago. You may find people with this surname living in Belarus to this day.

In Lithuania, Tartars usually have Lithuanian names and surnames. Even though sometimes it is difficult to trace their origin: whether the last name is Lithuanian, Tartar or something else. One needs to investigate. By the way, one of the most important Muslim prayers is Yaseen. I think that the surname Jasinskas originated from the name of this prayer. There was a leader of the rising that took place in Lithuania in 1795, called Jakub Jasiński. It seems that he was a Tartar or of Tartar origin. I still notice that a lot of people mention that their ancestors were named as Jasinskis and Jasenskis: maybe they have Tartar origins.

Before I turned six, I was speaking only Polish; I learned Lithuanian only when we moved to Kaunas. Even though I do not remember it now, I think I have probably learned it outside playing with other children. Most of the Tartars from Alytus District spoke only Polish up until 1950, now they all speak Lithuanian.

During the Tsarists regime, a lot of Tartars were military men. Their portraits would hang at people’s home. If you asked who this was, they would say that it was some relative, grandpa or grandpa’s brother who served in the Tsar army. The Tartar identity would mostly manifest through religion.

During the holidays, we would gather in Raižiai Mosque. During the Soviet times, this was the only Mosque open in Lithuania, where a lot of people could gather and feel safe that they would not be reported to the authorities. The atheism was prevailing at that time and it was dangerous to show up in the house of prayer. Especially if you are a teacher: if seen, one could have been fired from a job. Those who visited the mosque had to do it in secret. And in Raižiai, people would gather in the mosque and no one would report it. Usually people would meet not only to prey or listen to prayers, but to meet with their acquaintances, family members and be with their own kind. The mosque would usually be full. It is larger than the one in Kaunas. People would usually gather for two main holidays. We called them Kurban Bayram and Ramazan Bayram. But there were others, like, for example, the first Friday under the Moon calendar was a special day. There was also a religious Tartar school in Raižiai, were children learned to read in Arabic.

In our family, the meals would be prepared during the eve of the holidays and prayers were said in the morning. First at home, the at the mosque. The most famous Tartar dish is šimtalapis. I think that it has been some sort of culinary experiment of Lithuanian Tartar homemakers of the 19th century that everyone liked very much. No one bakes it in other countries (Belarus, Poland). My mother would bake it for the holidays. Now Lithuanians know how to make it as well. When we lived in the village, we had a big stove, and my grandmother would put several šimtalapis into the oven at once. They used to be very big and round. We would call them pies. We would eat chebureki, kibinai, but those are also Karaitic dish. I think that a large part of Tartar diet corresponds to the Lithuanian one. For example, Turkish people also make something similar to cabbage rolls (balandėliai), only they wrap the filling with the grape leaves. Maybe after arriving to Lithuania they started using the cabbage leaves instead? I have heard that onions were brought here by Tartars as well.


Please tell us a bit more about the religious moments.

In Muslim religion, everyone can become a priest. During the Soviet Times, the priest of the mosque was elected. We would call him molna, I do not know why. Now the word we use is imam. It would usually be a person most proficient in Arabic. In Raižiai, the priests would usually be men from Chaleckas family. They would pray in Arabic, even though they did not know that language, just knew how to read it. My grandparents would pray and read Koran, while my parents could not do it. They would only listen to prayers. Usually the priest would pray at the mosque, and others would silently repeat his words and did what he did. Translations of religious books reached us only after 1990. Then we saw that our prayers are very similar to those of other religious prayers. During the Soviet times, there was no literature and Koran used to be rewritten by hand from other versions of Koran. Religious manuscripts would be kept in families. There were also kitabs: religious books of Lithuanian Tartars, written in Polish or Russian in Arabic letters.


Was there an unofficial Tartar community or Tartar families that used to interact with one another during the Soviet times?

We used to get in touch with people from Alytus District. Maybe there was also something like this in Vilnius and around it, in the village of Keturiasdešimt totorių (the name of the village literally means “Forty Tartars”, Nemėžis, etc. The communities were established only after 1990: the community of all Lithuanian Tartars and separate ones. We started getting in touch with Tartars from Poland and Belarus. By the way, they are the very same Tartars from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and it is even possible to trace back some of our shared ancestry.


Whose initiative was there to establish a community?

The initiative to rally communities came from Sajūdis (Reform Movement of Lithuania), because its activists understood the problems of ethnic minorities. We first met in Vilnius and established the Cultural Society of Lithuanian Tartars in 1989 under the Lithuanian Cultural Fund. Later names changed, and other organizations appeared, as well as new religious organizations were established. We got in touch with other Muslims from abroad; they would come to us and we visited them.


How did you become the head of the Tartar community? What were the activities carried out by the community?

The mosque that previously belonged to National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum was returned to Tartars in 1990. Someone had to overtake it, and there was no one who could do it. So, this is how I became the head of the community. My activities were mostly related to the mosque, its installation, exploitation and fund-raising. The building had grey walls, sealed windows and did not have any floor. The museum did not use the mosque, but before giving it back to us, it was renewed.

At the beginning, people would actively join the community life. Most were affected by the mood of Sąjūdis. We established a Sunday school at the mosque, with Arabic students as teachers. It was active approximately from 1993 to 2000. My son learned to read in Arabic there as well. We organised summer camps for children. Later the enthusiasm disappeared. To this day, we host meetings, conferences; since 1995, we have been publishing a newspaper “Lietuvos totoriai” (Lithuanian Tartars).

Religion is important to Tartars. Even though we did not have a priest in Kaunas quite for a long time. In 1992, the first Arabic students came from Lebanon. They were very active religious matters. They overtook these functions and sometimes even would quarrel about it. These Lebanese suggested that we should send a young person to Lebanon to study and become a priest. The one who did it was Romas Jakubauskas, a resident of Kaunas who was 20 at that time. When he came back in 2000, he overtook the duties of the priest in Kaunas Mosque. To this day, Romas Jakubauskas is the spiritual leader of Lithuanian Muslim community. At this moment, the religious Muslim community of Kaunas is governed by an Egyptian who arrived from Turkey. The main visitors of the mosque today are not local Tartars but the newcomers. During the Bairam celebrations, so many people gather, that they cannot all fit inside and have to put they prayer rugs outside.

When I left my position as the head of the religious Muslim community of Kaunas, this position was taken by Romas Jakubauskas, while Kęstutis Zenonas Šafranavičius was in charge of the Tartar Community of Kaunas District. Now I mostly participate in the activities of this community. During holidays, Tartars from Kaunas continue going to Raižiai Mosque, because many of their relatives live there. I am not religious, but I sometimes go there as well. However, most Muslims are religious and stay that way. We are a bit different: maybe those who arrive from Muslim countries do not consider us as Muslims.


What places of Kaunas are important for the Tartar memory?

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania maintained relations with the Golden Horde, they had a union ensuring mutual assistance. When the Golden Horde fell in 1502, its last Sheikh Ahmed came to Lithuania, asking its king Alexander for help. However, he did not receive any help and, instead, was imprisoned for a short time in Kaunas Castle, I think. Later he lived in Kaunas for even 20 years and started the family of the Dukes Ostrinsky. I. Kanto Street is important to the Tartars of Kaunas as well. Up until 1930, its name was the Great Tartar Street, and the street which is now D. Poškos Street was called the Little Tartar Street. Many Tartars lived in those places. It is said that there used to be a Tartar village in the current territory of City Garden. At the East side of the city wall, (somewhere around the location of the current Post Office), there were the Tartar gates. We have recently found out that there was Tartar cemetery behind the Carmelite Church in Karaliaus Mindaugo Avenue. During the Tsar regime, a rich Tartar named Iljasevičius bought a hectare of land and built a wooden mosque and a community house in the territory of the current mosque. This mosque was a bit further away than the current one that stands at the corner of Totorių and Trakų streets. 1930 were the year of Vytautas Magnus, and Tartars decided to build a brick mosque for this occasion. And this was what they did. They received much support from the state. The mosque was opened in July 1933.

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Jonas Ridzvanavičius was born in 1943, Butrimonys, the family of Stepas Ridzvanavičius and Zosė Krinickaitė Ridzvanavičienė. In 1948, he moved to Kaunas with his parents, brother and sister, to live in a house which was on A. Puškino Street (now Miško Street). Jonas Ridzvanavičius, former leader of Kaunas District Tartar Community (19902003), Leader of Religious Muslim Community of Kaunas (19952000), chair of the Union of the Lithuanian Tartar Communities (19982003). Associate professor emeritus of Kaunas University of Technology, famous Lithuanian chess player (played in Lithuanian youth team from 1959 to 1963, and Lithuanian adult team from 1963 to 1966).

Data of the interview: 21/03/2018.