History of the Jews in Lithuania

Happy Birthday to Semionas Finkelšteinas

Dear Semionas,

We are so happy to be able to celebrate your birthday together. We wish you the greatest success as head for 28 years now of the Makabi Lithuanian Jewish Athletics Club. After you completed your studies in economics at Vilnius University, you were one of the initiators behind the reconstitution of the Makabi club in Lithuania and have been its president since 1989. And you have been active in the work of the Lithuanian National Olympics Committee. May athletics always remain important in your life. You have won so many laurels in long distance, as a sprinter and a light athlete, and in the summer of 1990 we remember you together with a group of just over a dozen or so Lithuanians who ran around the Baltic Sea! The years together have been happy and meaningful, and with all our heart we wish success and great health will follow you closely forever!

Mazl tov!

Chairs of Lithaunaian, Kaunas Jewish Communities Visit Kaunas Jewish Cemetery

Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, visited the old Jewish cemetery in the Žaliakalnis district of Kaunas August 15 at the invitation of the Kaunas Jewish Community. She and members of the Kaunas Jewish Community, Kaunas-area religious Jewish community and Kaunas Hassidic Synagogue Community and together they studied maps of the cemetery, toured the territory and learned about recent public controversy occasioned by a cemetery neighbor planting decorative trees in the area. Despite the state holiday, Jewish cemetery administrator Edmundas Mikalauskas of municipality’s cemetery supervision enterprise cheerfully agreed to attend the meeting. KJC chairman Gercas Žakas and other participants outlined their positions on the controversy: not only do they approve of the plantings in the area, but enthusiastically welcome and congratulate the person demonstrating this sort of initiative and their beautification of part of the cemetery, in stark contrast to the weedy bushes growing up in other parts of it.

What seemed to cause consternation and surprise wasn’t the landscaping, but the reaction by responsible parties to the artificial scandal generated by one Kaunas figure who always attempts to draw attention to himself through various destructive actions (all the more so since there are plots of land within the cemetery which have caused much more controversy, for example, people living within the cemetery territory for many years who have gardens and even keep animals next to their homes). The KJC chairman mooted the idea of revising the boundaries of the cemetery because the cemetery, which ceased operating in 1952, is constituted of 8 hectares, a large part of which includes empty plots of grass where no burials were ever made. The cemetery, established in 1861, was expanded several times with a view to the future when the Kaunas Jewish community was quite large to meet future demand. Currently there isn’t great demand for grave sites and the cemetery isn’t operational anyway. There is, however, a working Jewish cemetery in Kaunas on H. ir O. Minkovskių street. The LJC chairwoman said she would examine the information received and make a decision soon regarding the planting of decorative trees there.

Famous Producer Making Documentary about Jewish Vilna

kauno.diena.lt

As US archaeologists continue their research in Lithuania in search of traces of Jewish culture and history, a group of Canadian filmmakers have arrived and plan to release a documentary in fall of next year.

An international team of archaeologists led by professor Richard Freund of Hartford have been working at several sites in Lithuania over the last few weeks, including the Kaunas forts, the Great Synagogue site in Vilnius and the Jewish labor camp on Subačiaus street also in Vilnius, where they are looking for malinas, or hiding places. They also studied a Nazi POW camp in Šilutė, Lithuania. For some of the sites they employed non-invasive techniques enabling them to make discoveries without tearing down existing structures. The archaeologists are wrapping up their work in Lithuania this week.

The archaeological and documentary teams traveled together to Vilnius where the Canadian filmmakers concentrated on the HKP labor camp on Subačiaus street in Vilnius. The HKP repaired Germany military automobiles.

Panevėžys Jewish Community Tours Ventspils, Latvia

Early on the morning of August 5, a group of 36 people went to Ventspils, Latvia. The trip, financed by the Goodwill Foundation, was intended for the Panevėžys Jewish Community and its youth initiative group to meet the small Ventspils Jewish community which had invited them on the day marking the anniversary of the Latvian coastal town’s founding.

The first stop on the trip was actually Joniškis in Lithuania, where members of the community toured two newly restored synagogues there. Before the war Joniškis has a population of about 8,000, of whom more than 4,000 were Jews. Jews constructed the White Choral Synagogue in the town center in 1853 with financing from affluent Jewish industrialists. The Red Synagogue was built next to it later. After World War II the synagogues were used as a gym and for storage. Now they have become some of the town’s major historical monuments and host cultural events, concerts and seminars.

The next stop was Žagarė, Lithuania, where members of the group visited a Holocaust monument.

Genovaitė Gustaitė Has Died

Following sudden illness noted historian, long-time editor at the Mokslas publishing house and biographer of historical Lithuanian figures Genovaitė Gustaitė passed away on Tuesday, August 15.

Over the last several decades Genovaitė Gustaitė has dedicated her work to the life and deeds of beatified Roman Catholic priest Jurgis Matulaitis-Matulevičius who served as the bishop of Vilnius from late 1918 till his resignation in 1925 and who rescued Jews from the Holocaust.

Genovaitė Gustaitė helped prepare commemorations of Matulaitis and his work at the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Community held the highest opinion of her work. We are deeply saddened by her passing and extend out condolences to her many friends and family members. She was a sincere and profound person and an outstandingly good and wise woman.

Rest in peace, Genovaitė.

Radio Interview on Palace of Sports Reconstruction Project

On Monday the daily news talk and interview program Sixty Minutes hosted by radio journalist Deividas Jursevičius on Lithuanian Public Radio discussed a letter sent by 12 members of the US House of Representatives to Lithuania president Dalia Grybauskaitė. The following is an unofficial translation of the program.

US congressmen call for a halt to the project for the reconstruction of the Palace of Sports in Vilnius and not to disturb the graves of the old Jewish Šnipiškės cemetery. Lithuanian leaders are rejecting these complaints. Prime minister advisor Deividas Matulionis said the letter from the congressmen was a surprise to him because there was already agreement with Jewish organizations on the territory of the Šnipiškės cemetery back in 2009.

“We are taking this letter seriously, but I think some sort of misunderstanding has happened. Actually that problem no longer exists. Back in 2010 we, together with the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, reached an agreement, the essence of which was that we identified the territory where there is no disagreement that there were Jewish graves, the parking lot was removed and a monument was erected, and it was resolved to plant grass there and that no work can take place there. But around, and the Palace of Sports itself falls into it, is the so-called gray zone, or disputed zone, where we agreed there will be, from beginning to end if such work takes place or if we reconstruct the Palace of Sports, there will be consultation and discussion with the same Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and the Lithuanian Jewish Community. So we have adhered to that position and will continue to adhere to it. So I’m not sure why this problem has come up now and why it is being treated so emotionally, but really we haven’t done any such thing. We really need to talk with the Jewish Community and with Jewish organizations to make it clearer what we actually want and what the Jewish organizations want, and to find a solution. We made an agreement then we would coordinate with the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe and we truly haven’t rejected that idea. If it turns out it’s unacceptable and graves are discovered in the Palace of Sports site, then we could say yes, we need to go over everything again and come up with different solutions. We truly want to find a way forward in the spirit of good will, and not at any cost, either, let’s say, if there is a problem we will not ignore that problem. We really will not do anything to violate the essential, fundamental Jewish religious interests and our historical legacy,” advisor to the prime minister Deividas Matulionis said.

Lithuanian Leaders Dismiss US Congressmen’s Fears about Snipiskes Cemetery

Lithuanian Leaders Dismiss US Congressmen’s Fears about Snipiskes Cemetery

VILNIUS, Aug 14, BNS – Lithuania’s leaders say that Snipiskiu Jewish cemetery would not be affected by the reconstruction of the derelict Sports and Concert Palace in central Vilnius, dismissing the fears voiced by a group of US Congressmen as ungrounded.

The country’s leaders say that the reconstruction project would be further coordinated with the Jewish community of Lithuania and the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, which both have given their approval to the reconstruction.

“All Jewish cemeteries should be preserved properly, therefore, the decisions on their preservation are made in cooperation with the Jewish Community of Lithuania and the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe,” Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite said in a comment provided to BNS by her press service.

She spoke in comment to the call made by 12 US Congressmen to tear down the Sports Palace in central Vilnius and give up the plans of building a conference center there.

Supporters of the reconstruction emphasize that the burials that were in the site had been destroyed during the construction of the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace during the Soviet rule, and the building along with the cemetery around it is listed in the register of cultural values and cannot be razed to the ground.

However, some Rabbis of ultra-orthodox Jews and supporting organizations say that the conference would vandalize the holy site, noting that taking the palace apart would be the only solution.

Congressmen: Palace Needs to Be Torn Down

Concerns over the government’s plans of reconstructing the Sports Palace were voiced by 12 members of the US House of Representatives.

In their words, the very presence of the existing structure, which was built during the Soviet rule more than 40 years ago, “desecrates” the Jewish cemetery and “conflicts with the respect for human dignity, which forms the basis of Western civilization.”

“By contrast, moving the convention center project to another site, and permitting the dismantling of the abandoned Sports Palace it was to replace, would affirm the Lithuanian government’s commitment to basic human rights,” reads the letter.

Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius says that the concerns of the US legislators is ungrounded.

“The fears about disrespectful behavior or something done in the burial sites are ungrounded. This will not happen,” the minister told BNS on Monday.

He said he could understand that various Jewish organizations may have different opinions, however, emphasized that the government would coordinate all issues that may come up with the Jewish community and the London committee, which are seen as the biggest authorities.

Deividas Matulionis, adviser to Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, said the letter from the Congressmen came unexpected, as agreements on the territory of the Snipiskiu cemetery had been reached with Jewish organizations back in 2009.

In his words, the government is not discarding its plans of building the convention center, and dismantling the building “was never discussed.”

Algimantas Degutis, deputy director of the Cultural Heritage Department, said that the Sports and Concert Palace was a cultural value, therefore, destroying one value in an effort to preserve another would be unfair.

“Under the current laws, it cannot be torn down, as it is a value of cultural heritage,” he told BNS.

The reconstruction project has been put on hold amid suspicions of lack of transparency in the tender. The conference center’s completion is expected by 2021.

On the Radvilėnai Cemetery in Kaunas

Yesterday was a strange day. As if by prior agreement, Jewish residents of Kaunas and Vilnius called to ask the opinion of the largest Jewish religious community in Lithuania, the Vilnius religious community about “a botanical garden being built” in the Radvilėnai Cemetery in Kaunas.

I was caught by surprise and took a look on the all-powerful facebook. Actually, saplings and flowers are being planted in the cemetery, a sprinkler system has been set up and there is even a garbage dumpster on site.

For Jews cemeteries are a place of extraordinary respect and commemoration. This Jewish ethical position has been followed for centuries. This reminded me of the spiritual Holocaust which came in Soviet times, when Jewish, Christian and Orthodox cemeteries were “beautified” and “put to cultural use” as parks with fountains and benches for relaxing and reading Pravda.

Will Kaunas, which today is known for its innovative solutions and beautiful reconstruction, really let this happen? Will the city famous for its cultural traditions remain apathetic in the face of this malicious vandalism? It’s time to answer that question. Since my opinion was asked, I give it here.

The Kaunas city landscape is not a matter for the Jewish religious communities. We the living say: we are responsible for the memory of our dead and martyred brothers and sisters, for their rest and respect. Even a crooked, toppled, broken matseva (headstone) is extremely dear to us.

If someone is bothered by the view onto “unaesthetic Jewish graves” from the window of their home, let them install frosted windows. Or they should demonstrate civic pride, invite friends, invite the Jewish community, grab some brooms and rakes and clean up the cemetery. The unborn children and grandchildren of the victims of the Ninth Fort and the Lietūkis Garage in Kaunas have no opportunity to tend the graves of their relatives, no way to insure their eternal rest. Only we can do that now. Jews and Lithuanians. Citizens of the Republic of Lithuania.

Shmuel (Simas) Levinas, chairman
Vilnius Jewish Religious Community

Golda Vainberg-Tatz Concert

The accomplished pianist Gold Vainber-Tatz is returning to Vilnius and will perform at 6:00 P.M. on August 10 at the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Her performance is to include works by Bach (Busoni editions), Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Chopin and others.

Stories of Vilner Life Accompanied by Music


Arkadijus Gotesmanas, photo from the press release.

Klezmer music festivals are scheduled from August 10 to October 5 in Vilnius, Klaipėda, Kaišiadorys, Joniškis, Merkinė and other Lithuanian towns which will include a nine-concert series called Music for Failed Plays adapted from Abraomas Karpinovičius’s collection of tales The Last Prophet of Vilnius, festival organizers said in a press release.

Avant-garde jazz percussionist and modern music performer Arkadijus Gotesmanas is the force behind the festival. He says he wants to introduce the Lithuanian public to the original writer Abraomas Karpinovičius (1918-2004) who wrote in Yiddish.

His work commemorates the former Jewish life of Vilna, the Jewish drama theater and the Jewish community. Often his characters are odd, for example, Gedalkė Kantorius, who believed melodies could be frozen in a teapot and kept till spring, or the folklorist at the Halle market in Vilnius who collected profanities, or Rokhala who claimed to be a member of the royal court, or the woman who drew banknotes for the future state of Israel outside the Great Synagogue.

LJC and Israeli Embassy Thank Makabi Athletes

On August 4 the Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Israeli embassy to Lithuania held a special thanksgiving event to thank Makabi athletes who competed so well at the Maccabiah Games in Israel from July 4 to 8. The Lithuanian Jewish delegation won six medals at the so-called Jewish Olympics this summer.

Maceva Summer Camp to Study Kaunas Jewish Cemetery

This year Maceva has been invited to join the international project Oppression and Opposition: Opportunities of Civic movements in Europe’s Past and Present. Lithuania is one country along with three others–Greece, Italy, Hungry–who are hosting a special kind of summer camp this year. From the 6th to the 20th of August, 25 international volunteers from Germany, Austria, Ukraine and Lithuania and including Maceva representatives will be participating in various activities in Kaunas and Vilnius. The main activities of this summer camp will be complete documentation of the Žaliakalnis Jewish cemetery–who exactly was buried where and when–and the elaboration of all findings.

Maceva’s main partner in the summer camp project is Germany’s Action Reconciliation Service for Peace and this will be the third such summer camp organized by Maceva (www.litvak-cemetery.info) in Lithuania. Results from all four countries participating this year will be presented in Germany this November.

After successful participation last year, students from Vytautas Magnus University will be joining the summer camp again to help preserve the historical cemetery. We have and are receiving significant support from the Kaunas municipality who are paying close attention to the cemetery and doing their best to bring it back to a respectable state.

The Jewish cemetery in the Žaliakalnis district of Kaunas was established in 1861 and closed in 1952. It is listed on the registry of cultural treasures and is protected by the Lithuanian state as a cultural heritage site. Many famous and notable figures are buried there, including politicians, scholars, religious leaders and cultural figures such as the writer Jacques Lipchitz and the vocalist Daniel Dolski. The graves of more historical personalities will likely come to light after successful inventory and documentation this summer.

Besides the work in the cemetery, volunteers will have an opportunity to get to know more about Lithuanian Jewish history and culture. We look forward to meeting people from the Judaica Research Center, the International Center for Litvak Photography and Bella Shirin.

Maceva is an associated member of the Lithuanian Jewish Community.

International Communications Specialist Appointed Executive Director

At a meeting of the Lithuanian Jewish Community executive board August 3, chairwoman Faina Kukliansky appointed Renaldas Vaisbrodas exectuvie director. The board approved the appointment.

Vaisbrodas, 36, earned a master’s degree in international communications at Vilnius University. He served as foreign policy advisor to Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė and was senior secretary for the Liberal Union party. He began his political career as foreign policy advisor to Guy Verhofstadt, chairman of the European Alliance of Liberals and Democrats faction in the European Parliament.

Vaisbrodas comes from a mixed Jewish and Lithuanian background.

Call for Information

The Lithuanian Jewish Community received a letter from Kaunas with a request for information about former Kaunas resident Piotr Šoichet Haimovič (Pyotr Shokhet Haimovich, Chaimowicz or possibly Ben-Haim now). The request came from people now resident in the man’s former apartment.

“We acquired space at Gedimino street no. 48-5 in Kaunas. Until 1989 Piotr Šoichet Haimovič lived in this apartment, according to the former owner, who bought the apartment when Haimovič and his family left to settle in Israel. His profession was doctor and military officer.

“The building and the apartment are heritage sites, meaning the façade and interior details are protected. We are hoping Piotr Šoichet Haimovič or members of his family have photographs of the building or the apartment interior and can tell us more in order to help us recreate the original interior and provide historicity to the building. We want the building to be entered on the list of European cultural heritage treasures, and the stories of all the residents of the building are very important.”

The authors of the letter were Karolis Banys and Petras Gaidamavičius and they can be reached by telephone at +370 640 23 677 and by email at banys.karolis@gmail.com and gaidamavicius.petras@gmail.com

Keen Interest Surrounds Archaeological Work at Kaunas Mass Murder Sites

The archaeological research being conducted by an international team led by Hartford professor Richard Freund in Kaunas is getting wide coverage in the Lithuanian press. The team studying the Holocaust sites at the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Forts and the Žaliakalnis Jewish cemetery in Kaunas has been visited by US embassy staff and is working closing with different departments in the Kaunas city government and the Kaunas Jewish Community. They plan to announce their finds in fall and to present a comprehensive study to Klaipėda University archaeologist Dr. Gintautas Zabiela, who is accompanying the group and whose certification will be required for the discoveries to be recognized officially in Lithuania. Dr. Zabiela promised to present his report to the Kaunas Jewish Community as well.

Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas showed the team an area in the Žaliakalnis Jewish cemetery where an Israeli archaeologist five years ago determined there was a mass grave. This could be the place where the victims of the Lietūkis garage massacre were buried. Residents in the buildings around the cemetery gave testimony they witnessed trucks arriving with corpses who were buried there in late June of 1941.

Many of the team members have Jewish and Litvak roots. Professor Freund is in communication with Avraham Gol, who has roots in Kaunas. Gol’s father Shloma Gol was one of the eleven prisoners who successfully escaped Ponar by digging an escape tunnel and testified at Nuremberg.

More about Gol’s testimony here.

International Roma Holocaust Day Marked in Lithuania

Paminėta Tarptautinė romų Holokausto aukų atminimo diena

Solemn ceremonies marked International Roma Holocaust Day commemorations August 2 in Ponar and at the Old Town Hall in Vilnius. A wreath-laying ceremony was conducted for the victims at the Ponar mass murder site and a new exhibition called Traditions, Customs and History of the Romani of Poland opened at the Old Town Hall.

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Image of Roma and Jews: Brighter or Darker?

Romų ir žydų paveikslas: šviesiau ar tamsiau?
by Ieva Elenbergienė

Few Lithuanian people personally know real Jews or Roma, so their image is painted for us by the most accessible sources of information. This is an interview with Monika Frėjute-Rakauskiene who has researched how ethnic communities are portrayed in the Lithuanian media and on the internet. The interview is about the power of the media to paint their subject in a brighter or darker light.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

New Jacques Lipchitz Museum to Open in Druskininkai


photo by Romas Sadauskas-Kvietkevičius, courtesy DELFI

Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum museum specialist Aušra Rožankevičiūtė speaking Tuesday at the exhibition by SPA Vilnius in Druskininkai, Lithuania, called “From Druskininkai to Jerusalem: Moments in the Life and Work of Jacques Lipchitz” announced a new Lipchitz memorial museum could open in the Lithuanian spa town within two years.

Rožankevičiūtė, who hopes to exhibit Lipchitz’s work in Druskininkai, noted the Vilna Gaon Museum had managed to accomplish an ambitious plan last year on the 125th anniversary of Lipchitz’s birth to bring his work to Vilnius.

“Of course the works worth millions can’t be brought to Lipchitz’s hometown Druskininkai because there is no where to show them. Our goal now is to, within two years, although the legal issues involved are moving ahead slowly, open a Jacques Lipchitz memorial museum on Šv. Jokūbo street in Druskininkai,” she said.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

American Team Examining Mass Murder Sites in Kaunas

A group of researchers led by Hartford professor Richard Freund are scanning the ground in Kaunas to determine the exact extent of Jewish mass murder sites recorded in testimonies and historical accounts. They are checking the ground around the Fourth, Seventh and Ninth Forts in Kaunas and the Jewish grave site on the Radvilėnai highway. Freund’s team includes specialists from a number of fields.