Lost Shtetl Museum Construction Begins

Photo: Gintaras Šiuparys

A ceremony was held Friday to mark the beginning of construction work on the Lost Shtetl museum in Šeduva, Lithuania. The museum will be a completely new kind of experience using modern technology to present the history and culture of and to commemorate the former Litvak shtetl.

Marija Dautartaitė delivered a welcome on behalf of Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė, followed by speeches by speaker of the Lithuanian parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, prime minister Saulius Skvernelis, foreign minister Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum director Markas Zingeris, US ambassador to Lithuania Anne Hall, Finnish ambassador to Lithuania Christer Michelson, genealogist and education Eli Rabinowitz from South Africa and Australia, Holocaust film director Saulius Beržinis and Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund founder and museum project manager Sergey Kanovich.

Also attending were ambassadors and heads of mission from the embassies of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, France, Germany, Russia and Romania, as well as members of the municipal and regional governments and interested citizens from all parts of Lithuania.

Lithuanian president Grybauskaitė in her welcome speech said the Lost Shtetl will recreate an important part of Lithuanian history, that of the formerly large Jewish community, and will present their tragic fate. She said Šeduva, as with so many other Lithuanian towns before World War II, was home to both Lithuanians and Jews. “The Lost Shtetl museum project will bring back from oblivion the names and faces of former friends, neighbors and acquaintances, and their customs and traditions. I thank everyone who has undertaken this great work and who are returning the spirit of the shtetl to Šeduva. They will allow us to see the full scope of Jewish history in Lithuania and to experience the tragedy of the Holocaust with our hearts. Let this also be a monument to those who will never return here, and to the eternal values of humanity,” the Lithuanian president said.

Parliamentary speaker Viktoras Pranckietis said: “We must do everything possible so that this story is recorded and underlined, and that life would go on. Let the people of the entire world come here and see this museum.”

Lithuanian prime minister Saulius Skvernelis expressed sorrow the common history of Jews and Lithuanians had been eclipsed by the Holocaust. “This is the pain of our nation from which we learn,” he said, pledging Lithuania would continue to place large emphasis on educating the public about the most painful pages of the nation’s history.

Anne Hall, the US ambassador, noted Lithuania’s great progress in protecting and reviving the Jewish cultural legacy. She said the unique Lost Shtetl project would bring the understanding which had been lost to future generations.

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky delivered the following address:

It is a great honor for me to be here and to offer congratulations in the name of the Lithuanian Jewish Community on the beginning of construction of the Lost Shtetl Museum. Slowly we are able to learn anew the history of the murdered Jewish shtetl, Šeduva, to which the restored old Jewish cemetery testifies, and we can bow our heads before the statues which symbolize our respect for those murdered in the Holocaust. The centuries-long, fascinating and rich history of the Jews of Lithuania was cut short. Today marks an important moment for Jews and all Lithuanians who care about that history cut short by the Holocaust, the story which the new museum to commemorate the Jews of Šeduva will soon tell us. The museum will symbolically revive the colorful and diverse life of the Jewish community.

The Lost Shtetl will undoubtedly become an important symbol of Jewish culture and commemoration at the Lithuanian and European level. I am very proud of the international project team, made up of both young and experienced heritage experts, artists and historians. They, with their sincere attention and work, made this project a success.

Many Lithuanian cities, towns and villages were once upon a time known as shtetlakh, whose contribution to Lithuanian and world culture was no less than that of the world’s largest metropolises.

I believe this project will become an inspirational example and stimulus for other municipalities and local communities. I thank everyone who has supported and contributed to this project in the name of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Thanks to you, the lost shtetl will be discovered again.

Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund founder and Lost Shtetl project manager Sergey Kanovich said museum being created by the most famous museum specialists and architects from around the world would tell the story of Jewish Šeduva, but at the same time would tell the story of all the shtetlakh communities which perished in the Holocaust. He said they were recreating the life of one of the great Jewish diasporai in Europe along with the town.

Sergey Kanovich delivered the following address:

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen and honored guests,

As project manager I would like first of all to thank everyone who has come here, I would like to thank the people of Šeduva for their help and goodwill, and the aldermanship of Šeduva and the Radviliškis municipality and mayor Antanas Čepononys for their close cooperation. I sincerely thank the entire international team creating the museum: Finnish architect Rainer Mahlamäki, Augustas Audėjaitis and his colleagues, the US design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the Swiss construction supervisor enterprise ECAS and David Duffy, Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund director Jonas Dovydaitis, the large team of international consultants and museum curator Milda Jakulytė and her colleagues, Dr. Eglė Bendikaitė, Saulius Kubrys, construction supervision enterprise Ekspertika and Kastytis Skietis and the construction firm Agentus. THank you to the sponsors without whose hard work and financial support this project would not have been possible.

When we speak of Lithuania’s Jewish past, we often say “time was merciless.” Merciless to people, merciless to the work they had accomplished, merciless to their legacy and memory. But time isn’t anonymous. One cannot place all blame and complaints upon it. We create time. What sort of time it is depends upon us. Here and now. Remembering is the responsibility of all of us.

There is no museum yet. Today we only begin its construction. In order to create the sort of time which future generations will not be able to call merciless.

We are right next to a restored Jewish cemetery; under each headstone lies a person. A person who lived and worked, loved and prayed, sewed and healed. A little farther off lie the bodies of those murdered, who were not shown mercy not by time, but by some of their former neighbors.

And so today we build another monument, the Lost Shtetl Museum. To remember all of them. It is possible to abandon cemeteries and steal their remaining headstones. It is possible to kill a person and steal and share out his property, and to burn down his house of prayer, but it is impossible to murder the memory of him. The Jews of Lithuania and their legacy cannot live merely in commemorations and ceremonial speeches about them on special occasions. However beautiful they might be. We have left tracks and traces behind under the Lithuanian sky. And this museum will commemorate them.

We decided to place the following words from Grigori Kanovich’s novel “Shtetl Love Song” in a time capsule to mark the beginning of construction:

“It was bitter to realize the truth that from now on it was the fate of that dead tribe to be born and live only in the true and painful words of impartial memory in which it was impossible to drown the echoes of love and gratitude towards our forebears. Whoever allows the dead to fall into oblivion will himself be justly consigned to oblivion by future generations.”

I invite Šeduva Gymnasium 11th-grader Giedrius Puidokas and Vilnius Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium 11-th graders Gabriela Jeliasevič and Gabija Kondratavičiutė to place the time capsule marking the beginning of construction of the Lost Shtetl Museum.

Cape Town-born Litvak Eli Rabinowitz said the following:

My name is Eli Rabinowitz. I live in Perth Australia and I am a Litvak. I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and my heritage is firmly rooted in this region. I have visited Lithuania each year since 2011, this being my 8th visit.

In 1811 my 3rd great grandfather, Zalman Tzoref Salomon, was one of the first to leave Lithuania for Jerusalem where he successfully established the Litvak community in the Old City. Litvaks were resilient and achieved significant successes, and, members of my Salomon family founded the town of Petach; Tikva, the first Hebrew newspaper; the Hurva Synagogue and Teva Pharmaceuticals.

Many Litvaks later migrated to South Africa, aptly named, the goldene medina. Jewish life in the small South African country towns often mirrored the Litvak shtetl. Many of these migrants and their families were happy, successful and safe in their new surroundings. We often heard stories from der heim describing the rich Jewish cultural life throughout Lithuania which existed over many centuries.

Those Litvaks who left Lithuania before the Holocaust were indeed lucky! More than 95% of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, a greater percentage than any other country! So why do I return from the Litvak diaspora to reconnect to my roots? It is my journey of discovery, to understand my family in the context of Jewish cultural history and history of the region. By being here, I am able to experience the traces of memory first hand, to find some remnants, clues as to how Litvak life was.

I share these on my blog and on the 35 Lithuanian shtetl websites that I write and manage. I also work with high schools in Kėdainiai, Kalvarija and Vilnius to teach students about Jewish cultural history and the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective, and then I lead collaboration classes for these schools and students around the globe. I am expanding this to more schools in Lithuania. A growing number of articles and books are being written about family stories and Jewish life in the shtetl. This is to keep alive stories that would otherwise be forgotten. I participate in this activity as well as lecture at international conferences.

All these elements will come together when this wonderful museum opens. It is located right in the heartland of the Litvak world, of the Litvaks I have just described as well as their descendants. In the future, when we visit this museum, we will be able to access the past with a better understanding of history. We will view the collection of objects and artifacts, giving us an insight into how our ancestors lived their cultural, religious, work and home lives. We will learn about their values from their daily lives and from the items they kept and used. The museum will showcase the richness and the importance of Litvak shtetl life of years gone by. It will also reflect on the Jewish world that was destroyed by the Holocaust. The museum will educate Lithuanians and visitors to Lithuania and so provide an opportunity to learn from our history and strive for a better world. This museum will be a beacon of preservation and attract many in the Litvak diaspora to come and visit Lithuania and their shtetls, and like me, to reconnect with their heritage. This museum is a most appropriate way to honour the memory of the members of our families who were born, lived and died here!

Finally, the words written by Hirsh Glik in the Vilna ghetto in 1943:

Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg— Never say that you have reached the end of the road.

Mir zaynen do!

We are here.

The museum is scheduled to open in the summer of 2020. It will have a total floor space of about 3,000 square meters. It will likely be an attraction for Jewish tourists from around the world and tourists from all over Europe. The Holocaust Memorial Information Center in Berlin has already listed the Lost Shtetl Museum on its list of European memorial sites.

More information available in Lithuanian here and here.