Visit the Lost Shtetlakh, the Jewish Towns in Lithuania

Visit the Lost Shtetlakh, the Jewish Towns in Lithuania

The popular Lithuanian travel page www.lietuvon.lt has been updated and now includes a new group of sites, the shtetlakh, towns which had a large Jewish population before the Holocaust.

The Lithuanian-language internet site is promising to continuously update local and regional Jewish heritage tourist routes (at https://www.lietuvon.lt/stetlai) which are being developed and advertised by local municipalities. tourism information centers, museums, libraries and individual travel enthusiasts.

This project is the fruit of a joint-venture between the Lithuanian Jewish Community and www.lietuvon.lt author Karolis Žukauskas.

The project receives support from the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Department and the Goodwill Foundation.

Parliamentary Cultural Committee Considers Jewish Heritage Issues

Parliamentary Cultural Committee Considers Jewish Heritage Issues

A sitting of the Lithuanian parliament’s Cultural Committee November 14 addressed Litvak heritage. The meeting was held at the Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Musum in Vilnius with committee chairman Ramūnas Karbauskis attending.

Three main issues were discussed:

1. Further expansion and financing of the Vilna Gaon Museum
2. Jewish heritage issues
3. Restoration of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius

MP Emanuelis Zingeris proposed a resolution for the restoration of the Great Synagogue at the meeting. The Lithuanian Jewish Community expressed a different position. LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky said Lithuanian Jews are not asking and never had asked for the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue using state funds. She further noted that currently the LJC is engaged in studying other methods and problems in commemoration and preservation, having been tasked with drafting a study on Jewish heritage by the Lithuanian Government.

Kaunas Jewish Community News for October

Kaunas Jewish Community News for October

In October the Kaunas Jewish Community experienced moments of celebration and painful losses, and commemorated the past.

The most momentous event in October was the celebration of the Community’s 30th birthday with a concert. The Kaunas State Philharmonic hosted the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra accompanied by harpist Gabrielė Ašmontaitė, baritone Stein Skjervold and VilhelmasČepinskis on violin. Orchestra art director Mindaugas Bačkus presented a rich program of well-known and lesser-known works by Jewish and Litvak composers of different times and in different genres. He both played cello and presented the event.

The historian Linas Venclauskas told the audience about the history of the Jewish community and current events. He spoke about the Litvak contribution to Lithuania and together with KJC chairman Gercas Žakas presented thank-you letters from the Kaunas mayor and municipal culture department to long-standing and outstanding members of the Community, including Fruma Kučinskienė, Judita Mackevičienė, Motelius Rozenbergas, Basia Šragiene, Julijana Zarchi, Simonas Dovidavičius and Gercas Žakas himself.

Reflections in a Broken Mirror Exhibit Opens

Reflections in a Broken Mirror Exhibit Opens

The exhibit Reflections in a Broken Mirror detailing Litvak life in the period between the two world wars opened at the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library November 12. Judaica Research Center director Dr. Lara Lempert presented the exhibit, talking about Jewish social life, modern art, literature, books, reading culture, publishing and medicine in the interwar period. The rich collection of multimedia exhibits presents Lithuanian and Vilnius Jewish life including the social welfare and medical system, education, art, learning and literature. It also demonstrates the importance of the Lithuanian and Vilnius Jewish communities in the context of world Jewry.

Commission for Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad Chairman Visits Lithuania

Commission for Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad Chairman Visits Lithuania

United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad chairman Paul Packer has visited the Lithuanian Jewish Community during his trip to Lithuania from November 6 to 8 to discuss Jewish heritage issues in Lithuania and participated in a prayer service at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius where he discussed the need for a mikvah with members of the Community. Chairman Packer also visited the Zavl shul on Gėlių street in Vilnius, currently undergoing renovation.

It was due to Packer’s initiative and concern that an information stand was erected to mark the old Jewish cemetery in the Šnipiškės neighborhood of Vilnius. He and members of the Vilnius municipality discussed future commemoration of the Jewish cemetery during his most recent trip to Lithuania. Packer visited the Jewish cemetery on Olandų street in Vilnius and said it, too, needs more information for visitors. He also visited the only working Jewish cemetery in Vilnius on Sudervės road.

In Kaunas Packer visited the Hassidic synagogue building which, if restored, could serve the needs of Lithuania’s second largest Jewish community and Israeli exchange students living in Kaunas. The chairman expressed unpleasant surprise at the state of the old Jewish cemetery in the Žaliakalnis neighborhood of Kaunas where a number of notable Jewish religious and cultural figures are buried. Many of the headstones are broken and overturned in the cemetery near the city’s center, and Packer said this didn’t serve to demonstrate the city’s pride in its rich Jewish history. LJC representatives also contacted the appropriate institutions regarding technical problems with video surveillance at the cemetery.

Renaissance Photo Exhibit at Pakruojis Wooden Synagogue

Renaissance Photo Exhibit at Pakruojis Wooden Synagogue

by Vilijus Žagrakalys (pictured above)

Renaissance, an exhibition of photographs at the Pakruojis synagogue from November 10 to 30, 2018, with the opening at 5:00 P.M. on November 9.

Everything that’s old comes back around. The 19th century was the period when photography began and flourished. The application of various techniques for forming an image on a plate progressed from wet-plate collodion to silver compound gelatin which dominated until the advent of digital cameras. The silver process gave rise to a surge in photography studios which captured portraits of their time in single and group portraiture. All sorts of visual photo albums were made. Silver gelatin emulsion was relatively easy to get and made this possible.

At around the same time the platinum method was discovered, dated at 1873 in the history of photography. William Willis patented the method in 1881. He received official awards for this in Great Britain in 1885. The method was popular until World War I, when platinum acquired greater value, and the technique gradually dropped out of use.

Around 1970 the technique was revived in the USA. It is now known as the king of the printing process.

When I began to get interested in photography techniques, I attempted to print several photographs. After much experimentation I seized upon the platinum/palladium method. The fragments of photographs in this exhibition were printed using this method.

Exhibit: Reflections in a Broken Mirror

Exhibit: Reflections in a Broken Mirror

You are invited to attend the opening of the exhibit Reflections in a Broken Mirror detailing Litvak life in the period between the two world wars, in the atrium on the fifth floor at the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library at 3:00 P.M. on November 12. Judaica Research Center director Dr. Lara Lempert will present the exhibit. After presenting the exhibit she will also talk about the work of this center and new discoveries in Jewish heritage.

Vilnius Regional Jewish Community

Inside the Swarm on Jewish Street: Poverty and Prayer

Inside the Swarm on Jewish Street: Poverty and Prayer

The current city government talks about the density of population in the city center, but they should look back into history when, before World War II, there were from between 200 and 500 residents living in every building on Jewish Street. The most highly-populated buildings in Vilnius. Although it’s difficult today for us to imagine a building with ten people living in every apartment, that’s how it was in the Jewish Street neighborhood. In the 19th century and the period between the two world wars, Jewish Street was the Jewish center and axis, known not just for the number of its inhabitants but also for its abundance of houses of prayer. The buildings were filled to overflowing with shops and different venues for study and entertainment.

Full article in Lithuanian here.

Holocaust Victims Remembered at Seventh Fort in Kaunas

Holocaust Victims Remembered at Seventh Fort in Kaunas

Lithuanians and Jews remembered the victims of the Holocaust at the Seventh Fort in Kaunas October 31. Kaunas Seventh Fort director Vladimiras Orlovas told the Kauno Diena newspaper said this was the only time Jewish community representatives, in this case the Kaunas Jewish Community, participate in the traditional Lithuanian holiday Vėlinės, or All Hallows’ Day, during which Lithuanian traditionally go to family cemetery plots and honor dead family members.

Discussion on Prospects for Jewish Heritage Conservation

Discussion on Prospects for Jewish Heritage Conservation

The Lithuanian Jewish Community held a discussion October 24 about Jewish heritage protection from the present till 2020, about the priority tasks and goals in the context of 2020 being named the Year of the Vilna Gaon and the Year of Litvak History. The discussion mainly focused on the former Great Synagogue in Vilnius and how to protect what remains of it.

LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, members of the Community, US embassy adviser on political and economic matters Shai Moore and foreign members of the LJC’s own heritage group, including Lyudmila Sholokhova (YIVO), Assumpcio Hosta (AEPJ) and Sergey Kravtsov (Hebrew University), took part in the discussion.

Chairwoman Kukliansky reminded participants Jewish heritage is important to the Lithuanian state and everyone concerned with heritage conservation, as well as to Jews. Discussions have been going on for years about how to protect the Great Synagogue site, the LJC’s role in that process and what to do with the school there, under which archaeologists last summer unearthed a portion of the synagogue’s central bimah. The situation is complex concerning the site: the school was scheduled for demolition but this year it was leased for two years to several organizations. There is clearly a commercial interest in this special location, Kukliansky noted.

It’s difficult to find experts in Vilnius who could be asked how best to commemorate the Great Synagogue, so the arrival of the international group of heritage specialists, their participation in LJC meetings, their perspectives and discussion of these perspectives is an important event.

Neringa Latvytė-Gustaitienė, the head of the history department at the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, said the Great Synagogue of Vilnius is not just a symbol belonging to Lithuania, but to all Jews of Eastern Europe. It is a priority heritage site but sadly there hasn’t been any break through in the cultural community on this issue, she added.

Litvaks in the Creation of Modern Lithuania and Israel

The Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library is to host a conference called “Together towards the Modern State: Litvaks in the History of Lithuanian and Israeli Statehood” on November 13 to mark the 100th anniversary of Lithuanian and 70th anniversary of Israeli statehood.

Speakers are to include Lithuanian and Israeli academics who will present the contribution Lithuanian Jews made in the creation of the Lithuanian state in 1918 and the contribution Litvaks also made to foundation of the state of Israel. Lithuanian students will also present their research on the life of local Jewish communities.

Please register before November 12 by sending an email to gustas.siauciulis@praktika.urm.lt

The conference will begin at 10:00 A.M. on November 13 at the national library.

The library’s Judaica Research Center will also present an exhibit during the conference called “Reflections in a Broken Mirror” presenting the life of the Lithuanian and Vilnius Jewish communities in the period between the two world wars.

Information available in Lithuanian here.

Meeting/Discussion “Prospects for Jewish Heritage in 2020”

You are invited to attend and speak at a meeting and discussion called “Prospects for Jewish Heritage in 2020: Major Tasks and Goals during the Year of the Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Jewish History” at 5:30 P.M. on October 24 at the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Pylimo street no. 4, Vilnius.

Members of the LJC’s heritage protection group will attend, including Lyudmila Sholokhova from YIVO, Assumpcio Hosta from the AEPJ in Spain and Sergey Kravtsov from Hebrew University.

To register, contact renginiai@lzb.lt

Exhibit of Michailis Duškesas’s Document Collection

The third floor of the Lithuanian Jewish Community is now hosting an exhibit of documents to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the Vilnius ghetto. All of the documents relate to Vilnius and the people of the city, including Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, Dr. Tsemakh Shabad, banker Israel Bunimovich, the businessman Isak Shuman and others. The documents are from around the world with the majority from Germany, the USA and Israel.

One interesting document appears in the first display case at the new exhibit. It carries the inscription in Russia “Proyekt ustava dukhovnogo obschestva Vilniuskoy sinagogi” and the date 1888. It was acquired in Israel and comes from the collection of Leizer Ran, a well-known collector of Judaica.

There are many photographs from various angles of the Great Synagogue and the Choral Synagogue.

Document collector Michailis Duškesas says he began collecting pre-Holocaust Lithuanian Jewish documents about 15 years ago, and began collecting stamps since about 1980. He has an extensive stamp collection from around the world featuring the game of ping pong. He says he’s constantly enlarging his Judaica collection and now has a great number of documents concerning Lithuanian cities and towns where Jews lived. His documents have been exhibited before at the Lithuanian parliament, the National M. K. Čiurlionis Art Museum and the Lithuanian Historical Presidential Palace in Kaunas. He says they have also been used in documentary films about Jewish life in Lithuania before the Holocaust.

Lithuanian Public Television Features Program about Litvaks

The Lithuanian Radio and Television television program Misija: Vilnija [Mission: Vilnius Region] about ethnic communities and minority cultures in Lithuania featured Litvaks as the program entered its fourth season at the beginning of October.

In the interview with Miša Jakobas, the principal of the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium in Vilnius, he remarked how much freer children have become in Lithuania, which he said has its plusses as well as minuses. He said he never sees students carrying books during breaks between classes anymore and that the current student body was born into a technological society they know better than his generation does. Hostess and interviewer Katažina Zvonkuvienė and Jakobas discussed the sense of loss and sadness in which the post-war generation of Lithuanian Jews lives and which is sometimes unperceived as such. They also talked about the role of the state in guaranteeing the rights of all ethnic communities in Lithuania and the multiethnic and interfaith composition of the Sholem Aleichem school’s student body.

Interviewed at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius, Vilnius Jewish Religious Community chairman Simas Levinas spoke about the glorious reputation for scholarship Jewish Vilna once had, and the slow path to drawing back more Jewish families to tradition and to restoring what existed before.

Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium Hebrew teacher Ruth Reches spoke about the durability of Jewish tradition in the face of assimilation. She said rather than grandparents passing on tradition to children, the reverse process seems to be at work now: children are learning Jewish traditions at school and teaching their parents.

Riva Portnaja, the chief chef and baker at the Bagel Shop Café, recalled her childhood in Žemaitija when keeping a kosher kitchen was the customary thing, and spoke about the great demand in Vilnius for Jewish cuisine among Lithuanians.

A Special Evening in Panevėžys

Professor Rita Aleknaitė-Bieliauskienė, formerly a resident of Panevėžys, invited the Panevėžys Jewish Community to attend an event to present her book “Iškilūs XX a. Lietuvos atlikėjai ir pedagogai Aleksandras Livontas ir Olga Šteinberg” [“Notable 20th Century Performers and Teachers Aleksandras Livontas iand Olga Šteinberg”], a screening of the documentary films “Žmogus su laiko žyme” [“Person Marked by Time”] and “Dainos galia” [“The Power of Song”] and a discussion of other remarkable 20th century performers and teachers. The professor’s book has real historical value, presenting the cultural inheritance and the past through contemporary eyes to readers. Not everyone is able to do this, but Rita Aleknaitė-Bieliauskienė has succeeded, as she always does. Panevėžys poet Elvyra Pažemeckaitė helped organize this cultural event.

It’s impossible to picture Lithuanian cultural life and the Lithuanian past without the Jewish contribution to cultural evolution. In her book the professor describes longevity in the words of the writer Grigory Kanovitch: the development of the individual begins with the number of books he’s read.

Sidney Shachnow Has Died

Kaunas ghetto inmate, legendary Litvak and US military officer major general Sidney Shachnow has passed away. He was born in 1934.

He survived the Holocaust in Lithuania and went on to become a legendary member of US military special forces. After spending three years in the ghetto, he escaped and later resettled in the United States.

His military career there was impressive. He did two tours in Viet Nam and served as a highest-ranking US military officer in West Berlin as the Cold War was grinding to a halt. US Special Forces, the Green Berets, are said to venerate Shachnow to the point of hero worship. He retired in 1994. He passed away at the age of 83 on Friday, September 28. His autobiography is called Hope and Honor.

More information in Lithuanian available here.

The Pharrajimos and the Shoah: The Uncomfortable Photography of Richard Schofield and Andrew Mikšys

by Agnė Narušytė

Two photography exhibits which don’t exist provoked me to write this article. One was supposed to open next week, but will not, and the other ran for just one day in a synagogue full of construction platforms. Neither artist was born in Lithuania but they live here now. Both exhibits concerned ethnic groups who were victims of the Holocaust: Jews and Roma.

British photo-journalist Richard Schoefeld came to Vilnius in 2001 and lived there until 2013 when he moved to Kaunas to work on a project connected with Litvaks. Since then Litvak culture has been his main theme. In 2015 he established the International Centre for Litvak Photography, an NGO which seeks to make Jewish history and culture topical and especially for young people to learn about Litvak culture using photography, art installations, workshops and other means. For several years now he has been trying to convince the intellectuals and government of Kaunas of the need to restore the Šančiai synagogue which is falling into ruin. He hasn’t succeeded.

So then Schofield drew up a list of about one hundred Lithuanian synagogues and set for himself the task of visiting each one. He hitchhiked for 12 days, kept a diary and used his mobile phone to record some of the people he met and the surviving and ruined synagogues. Only a very few had any signs of restoration work: bags of cement, bricks, tools. Many are simply falling down, although they are protected by the Lithuanian state as “monuments of great cultural, historical and architectural value.” As an example, the entry in his diary about the synagogue in Žemaičių Naumiestis reads: “Trees and bushes are growing in the middle of the building. Rays of sunlight shine through holes in the roof. Someone needed some flooring so they just stole it.”

Remembering and Teaching the Holocaust in Panevėžys

The Panevėžys Jewish Community held an event to commemorate Holocaust victims with long-term community partners the Saulėtekis gymnasium, the J. Balčikonis school, the V. Žemkalnis school, the J. Miltinis gymnasium and the M. Rimkevičaitė school of business and services.

In the first part of the event teachers and students from the schools participated in a quiz about history, Jewish culture and the Holocaust. Many displayed a deep knowledge while others heard for the first time about the ghettos in Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai, Panevėžys and other towns.

Next, participants presented posters they had made on the theme of “never again.” Teachers who head tolerance centers at their schools judged the pictures full of pain and suffering.

Every school was awarded prizes, trophies, thank-you letters and souvenirs for the knowledge, initiative, creativity, tolerance, bravery and artistry they displayed. Students from the Balčikonis school won the quiz.

New Book Remembers Litvaks of Greater Kaunas Area

The Kaunas Regional Public Library Monday presented a new book written by multiple authors called “Žydai Pakaunėje” [Jews in the Area around Kaunas]. The collected writings were compiled by Dr. Inga Stepukonienė, a teacher at the Garliavos Jonučiai Gymnasium and associate professor at the Kaunas branch of Vilnius University.

Book authors, historians and members of the Jewish community attended the book launch.

Historical documents show Jews settled in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th century and numbered over a quarter million people by the 18th century.

Litvaks were considered hard-working, talented and creative. Many fought in Lithuania’s volunteer army and participated actively in national life. Interwar Lithuanian and Jewish politicians, scholars and writers forged a common vision for the new nation.

The book features many recollections. Most of the authors tackling the subject of Jewish life in the villages around Kaunas are local residents. Regional historian Antanas Vaičius is from Čekiškė, Algirdas Marazas of Kulautuva writes about Jewish life there and Garliava residents Inga Stepukonienė, Robertas Keturakis and Ovidijus Jurkša pay tribute to the history of the Jews of Garliava.

Some Litvaks from the area around Kaunas even achieved world renown: Leiba and Estera Tile moved to America and became the adoptive parents of Louis Armstrong, aka the jazzman Satchmo.

Who Are Lithuania’s Heroes Today? Škirpa, Noreika or the Righteous Gentiles?

Former ghetto prisoners, members of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, members of international Jewish organizations, ambassadors from Israel and other countries, Government ministers, parliamentary speaker Viktoras Pranckietis and Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius were among those attending a commemorative ceremony at Ponar September 23, 2018, the 75th anniversary of the final destruction of the Vilnius ghetto.

“Nine hundred Righteous Gentiles testify that 75 years ago people had the choice not to commit murder. The only ones without a choice were those selected for death. Even after 25 years of independence, Lithuania continues to bear the burden of that choice. I would like to ask one question: who is a Lithuanian hero today? Is it Škirpa, Noreika or the citizens who rescued Jews in Lithuania, who fought for their independence, worked for the benefit of their country, who risked their lives and saved their fellow citizens from death?” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky asked the audience.

Arie Ben-Ari Grodzensky, chairman of the Association of Jews from Lithuania in Israel, said: “It’s impossible to forget the tragedy of the Holocaust, and we must exert all efforts to make sure the Shoah never happens again. I want to add that our organization, made up of more than 1,500 Litvaks around the world, has officially joined the Lithuanian Jewish Community this year. We are very happy and very supportive of LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky.”

Mickey Kantor, president of the Beit Vilna Association of Vilnius and Vilnius Region Jews in Israel, remembered her relatives murdered at Ponar with great emotion, and told the story of her mother who was rescued.