The Choral Synagogue, Vilnius
It is a short story. The Jews first came to the Duchy of Lithuania in the 15th century, they thrived. They lived their lives alongside their Lithuanian neighbors and then the Second World War came. Ninety percent of them were murdered. That’s it. If that’s enough- skip to the pictures.
Here is the very long story. I separate this piece from my regular travel journal because there is nothing regular about it. Still I fill the need to record it.
The Jewish Gate
On the first full day in Vilnius, Myra and I walk up to the Town Hall Square. The breakfasts are so good, and the hotel so comfortable, that although it is only several blocks away it is almost ten when we reach there. There are two groups of tours forming, Free Vilnius by foot (maybe not so free-it is just about mandatory to tip 10 Euros at the end) and the Jewish Tour of Vilnius-the cost 10 Euros up front. We don’t even discuss it, we join the Jewish Tour.
Milde, our guide, explains she is a Christian Lithuanian but she is a religious studies major in the university and knows much about Jewish life in Lithuania. So we go through an arch, she explains is known as the Jewish Gate. For centuries the Jews lived in the two neighborhoods we visit, but it was always known as the Jewish Quarters. It wasn’t until the Nazi Occupation of Lithuania, that the Jews were restricted to living in these areas, and then they were labeled the Jewish Ghettos. We visit a statue of the Gaon of Vilnius, a revered religious leader who could read the Torah by age four and had it memorized by age seven. According to Milde he was responsible for codifying much of the question, response method of traditional Torah study. I make a mental note to ask friends or the rabbi if this information is in fact correct, but before I even get home a friend comments on Facebook about how Vilnius is the home of the great Talmudic scholar, the Gaon of Vilnius.
We stop at a playground in front of a school. Here is where othe Great Synagogue of Vilnius once was located. Nothing remains but a marker.
Repository of Jewish Information
We stop in front of a one story building. Milde explains it is a registry of some sort. Many people from around the world, stop by and try to trace family members. Our knowledge of our history really begins with our grandparents (and one great parent emmigrating from other parts of the Jewish Pale, to the Lower East Side- but on the map Milde shows of us of the territory of the Litvaks- Jews from the area-includes names I recognize from Eric’s background).
We look at a statue of a happy doctor engaged in conversation with a pigtailed young girl. This is Dr, Shabad, our guide explains, a well known Jewish doctor who treated children as well as their pets. Some think Dr. Doolittle is based upon his story.
We spend the next hour, visiting a library where Jewish books were collected during the War years, looking at courtyards, a couple from California ask how many synagogues were located in the area. Milde replies, more than a hundred, all sorts of shuls for all sorts of groups. She points out a courtyard where once the Tailor’s Shul stood. We see all traces of Yiddish writing indicating where once Yiddish merchants engaged in all sorts of street level enterprises.
The Courtyard where the Tailor’s Shul was located
Milde brings us to the Choral Synagogue, a synagogue that is functioning today. Barbara, at the hotel had told us that a Chabad rabbi leads services there at times. Its ironic that community of the Gaon of Vilnius, who raged against the Chasidic movement of the 17th Century, is led by a Hasidic rabbi who does his best to nurture and grow the fragment of the remaining Jewish community.
At the end of the tour, we gather in yet another courtyard and Milde says it is difficult to discuss the role of the Lithuanians in the process of the extermination of the Jews. She tells us that many Lithuanians (though not all, -more about that later) assisted the the Nazis in rounding up the Jews, restricting them to the ghettos and bringing them to the forests where they were shot to death and buried. She spends a few minutes attempting explanations, like the Lithuanian non-Jews felt the Jews were Soviets and therefore the invaders. She added that it is human nature to want what your neighbor has, and you do not, and that explained why the Jewish possessions were so easily appropriated. Myra spoke up. “It is not human nature.”
I am disturbed to recall an incident in Riga. In the breakfast room of our hotel, I told the Jewish couple, eating breakfast next to us, that a New York Times writer had used the line , “First they came for…'” from the Holocaust poem, to title an opinion essay about Trump’s edict (or as it called -today-tweet) about banning transgender soldiers in the US military,. the husband responded that writers from the Times and the Washington Post like to put ideas in our heads.
“Name one US citizen that has lost his job since Trump became president.”
I should have said , Sally Yates, James Comey, Preet Bharara, but I don’t think fast, so I said, how about all the immigrants that have been rounded up.
“I said US citizen,” he replied.
My response was weak. What I should have said, was -all those non-documented Hispanics, Muslims, Asians (and I can put so many faces to each of those categories) are no less worthy of living decent, safe lives, than the Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the War were. But I am so eloquent only in hindsight
I cannot understand what happened, but I no longer am unable to fathom why it did. .
Traces of Jewish businesses
In the afternoon, we hike up past the Frank Zappa memorial. Yes Frank Zappa, its a head on a pole, and you are supposed to be able to get a phone call from the statue explaining more about it, by scanning in a QR code. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, so I have nothing else to say about it. Our goal is the Holocaust Museum. It is a green, wooden, house-like structure, that reminds me of the buildings in the woods at our old summer camp. There, in a series of rooms, the low-tech exhibits retell the stories of the Jews in Lithuania beginning with the letter from Duke Gediminas, granting the Jews permission to settle in the area. The final exhibit is a map of Lithuania where lights indicate places all through the country, where Jews were shot and buried. The pre-war Jewish population was close to 70.000 and less than 3,000 Jews remained at the end of the War.
A book on display in the Holocaust Museum
I had downloaded an app, Discover Jewish Vilnius, in New York. There are a series of dreidels all over the map and I click on any one as I walk around the city and more information appears on my cell phone. Clicking, sometimes produces old photos, a few videos, an audio blurb but always some text relating the spot to Jewish Life in Lithuania. On Monday night, when we first arrived, I attempted to figure out exactly how it worked. Near the Town Hall Square were two dreidels. One dreidel, indicated the location of the Jewish Theater. Through the war years, the theater performed to full houses, despite the objections of some to performing theater under the conditions of the ghetto. Yet the theater served the purpose of employing Jewish actors, therefore saving them from the label of “useless” which would have quickly been a death sentence, as well as ticket sales provided money used to buy supplies for the ghettos, Jews, Non-Jews and even Nazis purchased tickets.
The other site we located, was Zalkind’s Department Store. The store opened in 1872, was Jewish owned and the first large department store in Vilnius.
It took a while for me to figure out this geo-locating, cell phone thing, and Myra has a large preference for paper maps, so a lot of Monday night consisted of walking a few feet in one direction, deciding that the blue location dot on the screen was moving in the opposite direction and then making an about face and trying it all again. Then there was the matter of figuring out just how to access the information available. This took some effort and our technology learning curve is not our steepest.
All this to say, on Wednesday, when I decided I would like to find some of the sites on the map that were not part of Tuesday’s tour Myra was not enthusiastic about the plan.
We split up for the morning. I take my cell phone, and my umbrella and am off to the area outside of the old city in search of dreidel -notated sites and Myra is off in a different direction. Walking through the University I am directed to a plaque honoring Ona Simaite. She is one of the Non Jews that risked her life repeatedly to save Jews. A librarian who worked at the University, she repeatedly smuggled food and provisions into the ghetto and Jewish children out. She was arrested three times. Twice her colleagues were able to obtain her freedom, but the last time the best they could do was change her death sentence to imprisonment in Auschwitz. She was liberated there at the end of the war.
Vilnius, was such an important Jewish community, was sometimes referred to as Jerusalem of the North, that the next two sites are places where Moses Montefiore and Theodore Herzl visited and met with the Jewish community.
Gedimo Place with the Bristol Hotel on the left.
I find myself on Gedimo Place next, a large, lively Boulevard filled with non-tourists working and shopping. There I am directed to a lobby where I should have seen a depiction of a bear eating chocolate. Alas, I could not locate these chocolate loving bears. It was once a chocolate shop owned by Jews that provided chocolate for European Royalty. Next I pass the site of the Bristol Hotel, a series of silver colored half domed roofs, it was once the fanciest hotel in Lithuania, now a series of shops, offices and a theater. As the skies open and the rain pounds, I am directed to the music school where Jasha Heifetz studied. I pass a building that housed a collection of Jewish Writing. Through the magic of the app I learn that Vilnius was a major center of Yiddish Texts before the war. In 1925 YIVO, the Yiddish Scientific Institute had a collection of more than 220,000 texts. During the Nazi occupation, “Herman Kruk (1897-1944), philologist and historian Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885–1944), poets* Abraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) and Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908-1954), and few dozens others were tasked with deciding which books could be preserved by the Nazis for the their “institute of Study for the Jewish Question,” and which were to be destroyed.” (Discover Jewish-Vilnius)
The Music School where Yascha Heifetz studied
I am directed to the Vilnius Rabbinical Academy. ” These seminaries were founded as an outcome of the 1844 tsarist edict, which tried to combat the influence of traditional Jewish education and promote acculturation” (the Jewish-Vilnius website) This is the exact opposite philosophy of the Gaon of Vilnius and the great Talmud Yeshivas.
On to Wielka Pohulanka, a section of the New Town where many of Vilnius’s wealthy Jews lived before the War. As the Jews in the early part of the 20 century gained status and wealth some moved from the Jewish Quarters to the wealthier suburbs.
The Vilnius Rabbinical Academy
A clock on the street makes me realize time is up and it’s time to meet Myra. I switch off the Discover Jewish Vilnius App and pull Google Maps. I follow the blue dot back to the hotel Artogonist.
After lunch, Myra and I decide we have had as much Holocaust as we have koyach (that is the best transliteration of the Yiddish version of the word, strength, my mother would have used in this situation). But a little bit of pizza and now we are restored and off to find the Museum of Tolerance.
The director sends us up to the top floor where we are treated to art exhibition of Jewish Artists with Lithuanian backgrounds. Jacques Lipschitz is the one I record and therefore recall.
And then down to the second floor to have our kishkes ripped out again. (I channel my mother’s Yiddish again, kishkes mean intestines literally, but used to mean heart wrenching or extremely emotionally difficult. It was often used to respond to something bad we did, as in you not coming home on time rips my kishkes out.)
While on the topic of my mother, I digress, (as in avoid the next part) for a moment, by describing a photo album of her childhood. Although her family was very poor, we have a collection of black and white photos of her and two sisters growing up in the 1930s and 40s. The pages are full of plump girls dressed in the day’s fashion, as best as could be afforded, romping and smiling through the streets of NYC’s Lower East Side and Brooklyn. Because their parents left Europe at the turn of the 20 century they had the privilege of growing up.
The children who did not get to grow old.
On the second floor of the museum, the walls are filled with photos of children, from the same era, who lacked that privilege. Unlike my grandparents, who worked menial labor jobs and barely got by, these children were often children of doctors, lawyers, engineers and musicians.
Litvak youth before the War
And yet the good life came to a crashing end. On the floor along with the pictures were stories of children who survived. And here, it is important to tell the story of the Righteous Among Nations, the non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jewish children.
Some of these heroes did it because they felt the religious obligation to do so, nuns and priests hid children in churches, some did so because of relationships they had with Jewish families and some, when asked why they would risk everything just to save Jews, responded with, “because they are people.”
On the last day of my trip, because the Vilnius airport is closed we go to Kaunas. We find the still functioning Choral Synagogues as a group of black- hatted Brooklyn young men are leaving. ( Yeshiva bocha the yarmulke-wearing ,Lithuanian tells us) We shtup the donation box and he tells us zai gezundt– go in health. (My old Yiddish is getting a workout today.)
At one time Kaunas was the interim capital of Lithuania, and therefore the place where the foreign diplomats were stationed.
As the hours of my excursion into Lithuania wane, Myra and I head away from Kaunas’s Old City tourist center through the New City up some streets to the old suburbs. There among the once elegant homes (some are still quite impressive, some have fallen into disrepair) is the one time home of Chiune Sugihara. It is currently under reconstruction and all that could be seen that indicates what it was, is Japanese lettering on the door posts. Once many years ago, a member of our Temple’s Sisterhood told the story of how her family escaped Europe as the Nazis advanced. They were issued a Japanese visa and were able to leave overland through Siberia, eventually spending the war years in Shanghai.
The door posts in front of the Sugihara House
Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania and his wife spent three weeks staying up twenty hours a day, signing visas for Jewish Refugees. Japan was aligned with the Nazis and he was ordered not to do so. Nonetheless he continued to issue the visas and is responsible for saving as many as 2,000 Jewish lives. He was stripped of his diplomatic post upon returning to Japan.
And so ends a difficult but beautiful trip to Lithuania. We watch CNN on the hotel’s tv and hear how Trump wants to cut immigration to the USA by half and limit it to well educated English speakers. That, while images of the destroyed cities of Aleppo and Mosul appear in the following segments.
It is all painful.
The signpost translated says “Jewish Street”
email@example.com (our guide for the Jewish Vilnius tour)