History of the Jews in Lithuania

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.

Retrospective of Photography by Antanas Sutkus

Retrospective of Photography by Antanas Sutkus

The National Art Gallery Friday opened a retrospective called Cosmos on the work of photographer Antanas Sutkus. It is a comprehensive presentation of the 79-year-old artist’s work and the first exhibit of his work to appear in over a decade. It includes more than 300 items.

Photographer Gintaras Česonis, one of the curators of the Cosmos exhibit, said Sutkus is an exceptional figure in Lithuanian photography.

“Sutkus is extraordinarily important for all time. More than one generation has grown up with his work. It’s not a simple matter to take a fresh look at it. When people delve into Sutkus’s archives many come to the conclusion his creative work cannot be comprehended, it is the entire universe. And this is probably where the name Cosmos came from for the exhibit, the totality of unbounded things and time,” Česonis commented.

Curator Thomas Schirmböck said Sutkus is one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.

An album of Sutkus’s photos of Vilnius and Kaunas ghetto inmates called In Memoriam with the text in English was published two years ago.

The exhibit will run till January 13.

Evening to Remember Pianist Nadežda Dukstulskaitė

Evening to Remember Pianist Nadežda Dukstulskaitė

The Lithuanian Jewish Community will host an evening to remember the pianist and teacher Nadežda Dukstulskaitė at 6:00 P.M. on Thursday, November 15. The evening will feature memories and performances by Rafailas Karpis, Robertas Bekionis, Dmitri Bulybanko and the Ąžuolai men’s choir. Dr. Leonidas Melnikas will moderate.

Nadežda Dukstulskaitė (1912-1978) was born into the family of a musician. In 1918 the family moved to Kaunas where from the age of 7 Nadežda attended private lessons in piano under Herbeck-Hansen. She was graduated from the Stern Conservatory in Berlin in 1926 and from 1926 to 1929 studied at the High Musical School in Berlin.

She was a concert master and soloist on Kaunas and Vilnius radio from 1929 to 1953. She toured Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Sweden in 1934, 1937 and 1938 and performed works by M. K. Čiurlionis, Juozas Naujalis, Stasys Šimkus, Juozas Tallat-Kelpša, Juozas Gruodis and Juozas Karosas.

She escaped the Kaunas ghetto towards the end of World War II with help from the writer Kazys Binkis and his wife Sofija. She hid in different locations around Kaunas for several days and then walked to Vilnius. From 1953 to 1959 she was the concert master of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic’s philharmonic, and from 1959 to 1978 concert master and piano teacher for the Ąžuoliukas choir.

Her students included the opera singer Vladimiras Prudnikovas and the pianists Robertas Bekionis, Dmitri Bulybenko and Leonidas Melnikas.

Demagog Tango with the Conscience

Demagog Tango with the Conscience

Valiušaitis’s article “Melo voratinklyje – antinacistinė ir antisovietinė rezistencija” [“In the Web of Lies: The Anti-Nazi and Anti-Soviet Resistance”] examines the art of Soviet disinformation. A truly necessary topic. But again, “including” captain Jonas Noreika, and again arguing as if there are no documents demonstrating Noreika’s Nazi collaboration, his violation of his oath as a military officer and his close cooperation with the murderers of Jews.

Unfortunately such proof exists, whether Valiušaitis likes it or not. So, in denying the established facts, trampling upon the principles of morality and ethics and human values, he seeks to push the worship of a tainted hero onto democratic society. Whether this is intentional or not, he is demanding the justification of fascist and Nazi ideology. But glorification and justification of these ideologies is forbidden by Lithuanian law.

A half-lie isn’t the truth. Using one historian as a source is not an indication of objectivity. Besides the Soviet sources, there are a plethora of others, just as there are many works by historians unaffected by Soviet disinformation. The rejection of the International Criminal Court’s definition of genocide doesn’t vindicate the crime. Proponents of Nazi ideology cannot claim to be anti-Nazis. During World War II, the “anti-Nazi underground” of the fascist Lithuanian nationalist parties, the LAF and LNP, was so unremarkable in Lithuania that they failed to rescue even a single Jew and failed to kill even a single Nazi. And attempting to whiten the mantle of an officer by presenting, for example, Pope Pius XII’s “silent” policy of rescuing Jews, does a disservice to the Pope. Not only did Noreika fail to rescue a single Lithuanian Jew, but he was responsible for one and a half years for the looting of the property of the Jews murdered and shook hands daily with the murderers of the Jews.

Eightieth Anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938

Eightieth Anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938

Today marks 80 years since Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass when Nazis in Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland went on an organized rampage murdering Jews and looting, burning and destroying Jewish businesses and synagogues. The pogrom of unprecedented scale was supposed to leave shattered glass in streets around the Third Reich, like crystals, and the staged event even had an official name, Reichskristallnacht. For many Jews and Germans it marked the beginning of the Holocaust, with hundreds murdered, thousands wounded and many women raped by the brownshirts. In leadership circles the Nazis actually called it the Week of Broken Glass. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels issued an order on the evening of November 9, 1938, calling for “spontaneous demonstrations” to be “organized and executed” that night. Reinhard Heydrich, second in command in the SS after Himmler, was in charge of operations at the street level. The Nazis overplayed their hand and forced themselves into a corner: following Kristallnacht, insurance claims threatened to bankrupt a large number of German insurers, leading the Nazis to seek desperately for an early, financial Final Solution.

Nazi Germany’s “break-the-glass moment” led to the seizure of Jewish property and Jews who were sent to concentration camps. In just over two years the Holocaust began in Lithuania as well, where between 140,000 and 150,000 people were murdered in just three months.

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.

Searching for Friend from Gulag

Emilija Dadurkevičienė (Sudvajūtė), born in Sudvajai village in the Alytus district in 1930, is searching for Dora Gershanovitch Kustanovitch, with whom she was imprisoned at a gulag during the Stalin era. In 1961 both women were moved to a gulag in Mordovia.

Fellow inmate Ira Verblovskaya recalled more about Dora in her memoirs:

“In the same construction brigade there was Dora Gershanovitch, from a repatriated family who had returned from America to ‘victorious socialism,’ working towards a new life. How could the family who had left the Ukraine in 1918 fleeing the pogroms live in a foreign country when such great events were taking place at home? People such as Dora’s father were needed as specialists in Moscow, where the family lived safely for several years. In 1937 her father and mother were arrested and shot.

“Dora was left on her own. She had relatives in the Baltic states so when the opportunity arose in 1940 she left for Estonia… She knew Estonian and Latvian well, and English of course as well.

“She made friends with the locals and didn’t differ in her habits from the Estonians or Lithuanians. She avoided strangers and might have appeared arrogant to others. In any event it was understood she had her own narrow circle of relatives and wasn’t prepared to expand that circle. It was only because of unexpected misfortune which overtook her and for which she gained sympathy not just from her friends that she became more open. Dora worked in the construction brigade with other strong and resilient women.

“Once she was cutting a piece of wire with an axe to make a nail and she was injured when a piece of the wire went into her eye. The eye couldn’t be saved and Dora was disabled. She was depressed to be in this state. After the war she went to Tartu where she taught English, and the first chance she got she went to America, although she was old, ill and alone. What later became of her is not known.”

If anyone knows Dora or knows of her, please write communications@lzb.lt

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.

Mysteries of the Žagarė Ghetto

Mysteries of the Žagarė Ghetto

by Evaldas Balčiūnas, bernardinai lt

The history of the Žagarė ghetto is brief, terrific and painful. The ghetto didn’t have any internal Jewish council, so its history is marked by even more brutal slave labor, “restrictions” and murder of the Jews. It concludes with orders for exhumations performed by the Soviets. The Holocaust wiped out the Jewish community of Žagarė. It wasn’t just Jews from Žagarė who were imprisoned in the ghetto in 1941, but also Jews from surrounding communities such as Linkuva, Pašvitinys, Žeimelis and others. About 3,000 people were murdered at Naryškinas Park in Žagarė and another 500 Jews in Vilkiaušis Forest.

The white armbanders began the mass murder of the Jews of Žagarė before the ghetto was established. The best-known event was on a Sunday in July of 1941, when the white armbanders shot eight people at the Latvian cemetery. The Soviets sought to stress the Soviet-ness of the victims and so listed their jobs in a written finding issued after the war in 1958.

Full text in Lithuanian here.

Šiauliai Regional Jewish Community is an Active Community

Šiauliai Regional Jewish Community is an Active Community

September 23 is marked as the Day of Remembrance of the Lithuanian Jewish Victims of Genocide. On that day members of the Šiauliai Regional Jewish Community gathered in the Luponiai Forest near the village of Kužiai in the Šiauliai region where over 8,000 Jews were murdered. A moment of silence was observed in memory of the victims, flowers were placed on the monument and candles lit. Speakers recalled the events of history. From there members travelled to the Šiauliai ghetto to honor the victims there as well.

Community members also honored the victims at the Bubiai and Žagarė mass murder sites. Historical sources say two ghettos were established after the Germans entered Šiauliai. The prisoners there were murdered, some in the Luponiai Forest while others were sent to the Žagarė ghetto. Aleksandras Rabinovičius located the mass murder site in Luponiai Forest with the help of locals. The people of Šiauliai erected a commemorative obelisk and signs and built footpaths there.

On October 21 members of the Šiauliai Regional Jewish Community met Roma Mačienë, a pioneer in ecological bee-keeping. She related much new information to members about bees, bee species, that bees have five eyes and they also have a keen sense of smell. In the world of bees it’s important to have a good, strong family which is able to reproduce to insure the continuity of the line, the basis of all life. The bee-keeper called bee products a miracle of miracles. Members learned about honey but also pollen and other products produced by bees.

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.

New Exhibit at Ponar Memorial Complex

New Exhibit at Ponar Memorial Complex

A new exhibit will be unveiled at the Ponar Memorial Complex on October 31. Ponar was a place where residents of Vilnius, including Jews, liked to go in the summer, but which became infamous as the site of the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania. The exhibit features the history of Ponar and the mass murder of Jews there. It was made by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum and financed by the Chancellery of the Government of Lithuania.

Although Ponar is now synonymous with the mass murder site where Nazis and Lithuanians murdered the Jews of Vilnius and surrounding areas, before World War II the forest near Vilnius was a frequent destination for those seeking a proximate location. In 1939 the town was even named an official vacation destination. When the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, they began to exhume more than a dozen pits for aviation fuel tanks and munitions stores there. Between 1941 and 1944 from 50,000 to 70,000 Jews were murdered there. Most were Jews from Vilnius and the surrounding region, but also included Polish resistance fighters, some Lithuanians, Soviet POWs, Roma and others.

The first monument to the victims at Ponar was erected in 1948, but was swiftly removed by Soviet authorities, and until the restoration of Lithuanian independence in 1990 the site was officially commemorated as a site where Soviet citizens were murdered by fascists. In 1991 the Ponar site was given over to the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. In early 2014 a project for maintaining and updating the Ponar Memorial Complex began along with comprehensive studies of the killing field which wholly changed ideas about the site. Different new sites were located there: mass murder sites, a tunnel for prisoners, guard posts, the location of former buildings and gates. It also became clear that the mass murder territory was significantly larger than it had been thought before: it probably spanned a territory of 70 hectares.

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.

Happiness Is Not Found in a Goat (Or Is it?)

The tailor Mendel Katz lived with his prolific family in a small village together with other tailors, cobblers, poor musicians and strange and wise rabbis… They lived in poverty and as head of the house Mendel worked from early in the morning to late at night, sewing shirts, vests and trousers. The work had to be done very carefully and peace and quiet was required to concentrate, otherwise all sorts of things happened: a sleeve was sewn to trousers, or a pant-leg to a shirt. Mendel often made such mistakes. Why? For several reasons. His wife Sonya was a great village gossip. The children–five girls and even worse, ten bone-headed boys. And wife Sonya also had a spinster sister, a mother dissatisfied with everything and a father who was going deaf. This was reason enough for someone to be driven out of their mind.

The entire family lived in a tiny house. Mendel’s sewing machine stood next to a dark window. How can one possibly work when the scandals never end from the morning onwards? But, as the local wise man Josef said, an end comes to every person’s patience, even that of a Jewish tailor. And one morning Mendel’s patience ended.

This is how it happened. Mendel began sewing in the morning, the entire famished family sat around the table, the children banged their spoons waiting for the porridge to be ready. Sonya put a pot of porridge on the table and stood there in silence, but not for long. The eldest daughter, blue-eyed Riva, a real boss, pointed her finger towards, she told the youngest daughter, a fly which had alighted on the ceiling, and this young fool of a girl turned her head upwards and began searching for the fly. You understand that this was exactly what Riva had wanted. As soon as the youngest understood she had been tricked and her porridge eaten, she began to howl so that even the deaf father-in-law was awakened from his slumber, the mother-in-law in fright and the unexpectedness of the thing sat on the cat. And so it began… Mendel’s wife grabbed the broom and began chasing the eldest daughter through the small house with it. The brush flew off the handle and hit the wedding dress which Sonya’s quiet spinster sister had been sewing.

Remembering Victims of the Great Aktion in Kaunas

The Kaunas Jewish Community will remember the victims of the Great Aktion in the Kaunas ghetto with a candle-lighting ceremony and honor Holocaust victims with a prayer at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas at 12 noon on October 28. The largest mass murder of Jews in the Kaunas ghetto on any day took place on October 28 into October 29, 1941, when about 10,000 people were killed. Over 4,200 children were murdered during the Great Aktion.