Discovering Jewish Life of Vilnius

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

Nothing. It can be seen if one looks.

Silence. It can be heard if one listens.

In the book “וילנה, Wilno, Vilnius”, author Kristina Sabaliauskaitė says that things in Vilnius are not as they first appear. When one begins to learn about the rich Jewish history of Vilnius, that is certainly true.

A few years ago when my wife and I visited Vilnius, we stayed in a really nice AirBnb in the city. Modern look and feel, safe, and close to everything. One night, it felt different.

That day, we visited the Holocaust Exhibition of the Vilnius Gaon Museum of Jewish History. We read in a diary about the Jews living in the Ghetto during the Holocaust waking up to Lithuanian guards making a loud ruckus. They were hunters looking for their next victims.

In an attic, a baby started to cry. The mother started to shove cotton balls into the infant‘s mouth to stop the noise so they could continue to hide.

Then there was an address: Dysnos 8.

My wife and I looked at each other. That’s the same address as our AirBnb.

We walk back to the AirBnb, there’s no indication of anything happening here. Another map at the museum showed us that we are staying at the former Vilna Ghetto.

We’re still not sure if the building is exactly the same as what we read, but the location is. At night everything is silent.

No strange creaks. No ghosts. Just us.

Like nothing ever happened. But it did.

There was death here, but life too. I want to see remnants of that life. As someone wiser told me while we were discussing Lithuania’s Jewish history, “before death comes life.”

Before death, comes life.

I want to honor that wisdom. I want to understand Jewish life of Lithuania and not just focus on the misery and death of the Holocaust.

When you’re looking for life, life can be found if you’re only willing to look and listen. But the remnants of the Holocaust are felt everywhere.

Walking past a graffitied door, you might have missed the old Yiddish text advertising a long-forgotten lamp oil store. I didn’t even know those existed — shows how little I know of the past.

Faded Yiddish letters mark an old oil lamp store.

Around the corner an old theater squats in abandoned repair. Here the living spirit of the incarcerated Jews of the Vilna Ghetto refused to let the Nazis crush their culture. When surrounded by death, the Vilna Theater never stopped performing plays and concerts.

Can you imagine?

Starving and practicing and you don’t even know if you or your fellow performers will survive until the performance. Then you put up such a show that the imprisoners show up to enjoy your show before your apocalypse.

That literally happened. There are accounts of Nazis coming in to enjoy performances in the Vilna Ghetto Theater during the Holocaust.

Across the street from the now-dilapidated theater, a Star of David is engraved into a wall. As I learned in Lithuania, in Jewish belief, whenever 10 or more Jewish men are gathered in a location, that can be a synagogue. The engraved Star of David is all that remains of this particular community lost.

In a city that once had hundreds of synagogues, now only one last one still stands. I was given the impression that it was closed during the pandemic.

Vilnius’s Choral Synagogue, the last standing synagogue of Vilnius in a city that once boasted hundreds.

It’s the second time I remember the Choral Synagogue closing its gates. Just a few years ago, there was a controversy among the Lithuanian people about particular Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisans previously hailed as Lithuanian heroes, but a recent discovery showed they likely played roles in the Holocaust.

After the discovery, a wave of Lithuanian nationalism spread across many Lithuanians who wanted to defend their heroes. Posters of the partisan’s faces were plastered across the city and security threats were sent to members of the existing Choral Synagogue.

With the Holocaust still raw in the hearts of Vilnius’s Jews, Lithuania’s Jewish Community’s President decided to close the doors of the only existing Synagogue in Vilnius. This lasted two days until Lithuania’s President and Prime Minister reassured her and sent her security assurances.

The guilty doth protested too much.

Their indifference still echoes around the corner.

In a plaza behind Holy Donut, one of Vilnius’s premier bagel spots, sits a large courtyard with a basketball court, some parking spots, and a shut-down school that looks yearning to be repurposed. There are no plaques here, just the site of some construction.

Site of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius

I walk close to the building, and I hear men talking English with English accents about Jewish history. They seem occupied, and not wanting to be awkward, I walk into the building sitting on the site of Vilna’s Great Synagogue to give myself a tour.

Were there apartments here? Flyers on the inside indicated some kind of life.

I leave the walkthrough, feeling like I just trespassed, and find an opportunity to ask one of the English gentleman a question.

“Are you all here because of the Great Synagogue?” I ask.

“Yes. But it’s been a long day and I’m all talked-out. Will you be here tomorrow? I’ll be here all day tomorrow and will give you a tour.”

The next day I return for an unofficial tour. He leads me into one room with a pit excavated. My guide reveals locations indicating parts of the Great Synagogue that once stood here.

“Do you know why they dug down there?”

I have no idea why.

“It was illegal for any buildings to be taller than the Catholic churches in Vilnius. The building was designed as impressive Gothic architecture, which meant the Synagogue would need height. So they dug two meters deep for the ground floor.”

My guide agrees to spend more time with me. He educates me of Lithuania’s rich Jewish history, how initially Jews were invited to all of Eastern Europe by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland, then later were met with a long history of anti-Semitism.

I learned that Jews were prohibited from having buildings, businesses, or homes on the main streets. Redlining, apparently, is not a uniquely American concept.

I want to make amends for my people. I ask about the efforts being done around the Great Synagogue.

There are no plans to rebuild it, but funds are being raised now to create at least a memorial. Right now not even a plaque denotes the location. I ask what the opinions of the locals are about memorializing the Great Synagogue, but outside some government leaders, there isn’t much interest at all.

Despite the lost buildings of yesterday though, Jewish life of today continues in Vilnius.

In the Jewish library of Vilnius — off the main street and in a courtyard — I was graciously hosted by the librarian who happily gave a spontaneous private tour. Some of my readers might find this amusing, but it’s amazing how much information there is in books that doesn’t make it to the internet.

She then invited me to a concert the following night at the library. A Klezmer band was performing to bring to life the sounds of Lithuania’s Jewish past.

Some of the songs performed were even sung at the Ghetto during the Holocaust. Even though their bodies were killed, their voices live on.

If you would like to listen to the same songs sung by the voices of those killed during the Holocaust, artist Maria Karapova performed the songs at the former Vilna Ghetto Theater. You can find those songs on Soundcloud here.

I also found the songs I could and created a Spotify playlist where you can listen to the music too.

Songs of the Vilna Ghetto (Spotify)

Listen to the music, but let this be just a beginning.

Lithuania’s Jewish history and culture is Lithuanian. It’s past time for all Lithuanians to no longer remain ignorant of Lithuania’s Jewish history.

Here are a few ideas to get us Lithuanian-Americans started on our reconciliation

First, events are being held about Lithuanian Jewish life. Those should be shared widely among our communities.

Lithuanian Saturday schools can begin integrating the study of Lithuania’s Jewish past into their curriculums. One prominent teacher of Lithuania’s Jewish history, Roza Bielauskienė, shared with me a number of powerpoints that can give a start to curriculum development. Those powerpoints can be found here.

We Lithuanian-Americans love our song and dance festivals. We have never included a Jewish group. How wonderful would it be to reach out and invite Jewish groups to our song and dance festivals?

Students who travel to Lithuania to participate in internships, especially like with groups like LISS, can incorporate travel to Lithuanian Jewish sites. During these trips, I want to remind how important it is to find life, not just death.

This is far from a comprehensive list, and I welcome any comments for further ideas.

We have to remember that there were two Holocausts. One of the people. The other of the culture.

It’s up to us to continue fighting against the Holocaust.

Wants healing.