Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Baltic States, the frozen north, and particularly in Lithuania, home to great Jewish communities — now these communities are gone and only memories remain. I share these memories — my grandparents trod this ground 70 years ago.
And so it was with great interest and a deep feeling of nostalgia that I was assigned to the Baltic States, where I have become a regular visitor over the past three years to certify plants for OU Kosher.
This is what a typical trip is like.
Departing from my home base of Antwerp, Belgium, my Sunday evening flight from Brussels to Riga, the capital of Latvia, is an uneventful two hours on Air Baltic. In Riga, I head for Latvijas Balsams, which produces vodka for SPI. SPI is the company that produces the world-renowned Russian vodka Stolichnaya, certified by the OU.
With its modern machinery and the quality of its products, this plant could very well be found in the United States or Western Europe. My work there complete, I take a one-and-a-half hour drive to Valmiera to visit a large dairy plant, Valmiers Piens, which manufactures kosher certified cream for the German company, Best Milk Products.
Heading in the other direction from Riga, I proceed to the newly OU certified Pure Food SIA and its modern plant, which makes fruit preparations for the ice cream and yogurt industry. Its large list of kosher products is sold in Latvia, Estonia, Lituania, Russia, Finland, Belorussia, Germany and the United States. The company’s fruit and berry fillings are produced using equipment that retains the maximum degree of natural aromas, colors, flavors and forms of the fruits and berries. Pure Food uses the latest technologies in the production process, which allow for a high-quality end result and finished product.
That evening, I take a one-hour flight from Riga to Vilnius, formerly Vilna, in Lithuania. The OU certifies a milk powder plant, Marijampoles Pieno Konservai, which also produces for Best Milk in Germany. The plant manufactures spray dried milk powder of high quality.
It is a one-hour drive to the small town of Alytus where the OU certifies JSC Pienalita, also a producer of milk powders for worldwide export. Under the direction of Senior Rabbinic Coordinator Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz, the OU is now in the process of arranging certification for a large, modern ice cream company in Kaunus (formerly known as Kovno). Once all the ingredients are approved, the OU will be certifying Lithuanian ice cream for the first time. (And believe me, there is plenty of ice in Lithuania.)
With time permitting, before leaving Lithuania I make a point of visiting the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius where the Gaon of Vilna, one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, lies, as well as my great uncle Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, one of the greatest rabbinic scholars of pre-World War II Europe.
That evening, I fly from Vilnius to Tallinn in Estonia, where the OU has three plants. Genovique is a very large chemical plant producing benzoates and benzoic acid for export to the United States. (By the way, the firm is based in the United States, near Chicago. They also have a plant in China. That’s not on my route.) From Genovique I drive to Jaarva Jani where we certify a large modern milk plant, Epiim, which makes both spray dried and roller dried milk powder as well as whey powders. In order to be able to certify the whey powders, I must visit Eppim’s cheese plant of Eppim in Poltsama, two hours away, to make sure that the liquid whey which they send to Jarva Jani for spray drying is kosher.
Then it’s back to Tallin for the flight home to Belgium, after having spent three days in three different countries in the Baltic States. I know I’ll be back soon.
Rabbi Yisroel Hollander has roamed Europe for the Orthodox Union for more than 10 years. Born in London, he resides with his wife and eight children in Antwerp, Belgium, his base for his weekly travels around the continent. Rabbi Hollander studied at the Gateshead Yeshiva in England for four years before going on to Yeshivas Yad Aharon in Israel.