History of the Jews in Lithuania

Jewish Kindergarten Being Established in Vilnius

One of the goals the Lithuanian Jewish Community has set for itself is the establishment of a modern Jewish kindergarten meeting the highest international standards in the Žvėrynas neighborhood of Vilnius next to the existing Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium.

LJC Shalom preschool director Ruth Reches, a clinical psychologist working on her doctorate and a Hebrew teacher, is helping plan the future Jewish kindergarten. She said the need for this type of preschool has been long-standing but a number of obstacles have hindered its creation, not least the lack of financing.

“The parents of children of other ethnicities have the opportunity to choose a Lithuanian, Russian or Polish kindergarten. There is no kindergarten meeting the needs of people of Jewish ethnicity. There is no kindergarten where children from an early age have the opportunity to learn Jewish traditions and culture, to celebrate Jewish holidays. At the SHolem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium children are able to grow up in a Jewish environment, to celebrate Jewish values, but it would make sense to begin teaching them earlier, at preschool age,” she said.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Dr. Esperanto Exhibit Opens in Panevėžys

A ceremony to open an exhibit about Ludovik Zamenhof, the medical doctor who invented the language Esparanto, was attended by a number of people including Polish Institute deputy director and Polish embassy chief advisor Pavel Krupka, and bishop emeritus Jonas Kauneckas. Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman also attended the ceremony. The exhibit will run till April 15.

Senator Durbin Visits Exhibit “One Century out of Seven: Lithuania, Lite, Lita”

The mobile exhibit “One Century of Seven: Lithuania, Lite, Lita” created by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and the Lithuanian Jewish Community has gone on display at the Chicago Culture Center. The ceremony held jointly by YIVO and the Lithuanian consulate in Chicago honored senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) for his efforts including the return of Torah scrolls and YIVO archives. Durbin is the most influential Lithuanian-American in American politics. His mother Anna Kutkin aka Ona Kutkaitė hailed from Jurbarkas.

The exhibit illustrates the history of the Jews of Lithuania from their arrival in the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in the 13th century until today. Creators of the exhibit Pranas Morkus and the designer Victoria Sideraitė-Alon were able to show exceptional details in Jewish relations with local inhabitants of other ethnicities and to showcase important Litvaks.

Many Litvaks live in America and many visited the exhibit.

Sabbath Celebration

The Lithuanian Jewish Community invites you to a Sabbath celebration with Righteous Gentile Ona Landsbergienė’s great-grandson Gabrielius Landsbergis. LJC executive director Renaldas Vaisbrodas will moderate.

The Sabbath ceremony will be held on the second floor of the LJC at 6:30 P.M. on Friday, March 23. The number of seats is limited and registration is required. Call 8 678 81514

Lithuanian Public Television Begins Righteous Gentiles Series

Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT has begun airing a series called “Righteous Gentiles,” presenting the stories of Lithuanians who rescued Jews from the Holocaust. Almost a thousand Lithuanians have now been officially recognized as Righteous Gentiles, per capita the largest percentage in any country. According to the national television broadcaster’s site, the series will tell hitherto unknown stories of Lithuanian heroism during the Holocaust.

Video and more information in Lithuanian available here and here.

Academic Ethics Ombudsman Fired for Anti-Semitism

Virgilius Sadauskas has been fired at academic ethnics ombudsman.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community welcomes this win for common sense and is grateful to the 29 MPs from the Liberal, Conservative, Social Democratic and Peasants factions for initiating a vote of confidence in Sadauskas.

The LJC feels the actions by this public servant, offering a monetary reward for collecting information “about people of Jewish ethnicity who contributed to deportations and torture,” incited ethnic discord and fall under the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the European Parliament on July 1, 2017.

We hope this decision becomes an example of best practices in the continuing fight against anti-Semitism and other forms of hatred in our country at the national and community level.

In a secret poll, 77 MPs voted in favor of firing Sadauskas, 17 voted against and 13 abstained. Three ballots were ruined.

Abba Kovner’s 100th Birthday

Loss and renewal, the lot of victim and resistance, extermination and rebirth: these are the themes the writer Abba Kovner (1918-1987) wrote about from his own experience.

The first biography of the poet and partisan leader written by Dina Porat won the National Jewish Book Award for explaining history and bringing it to life.

Kovner was born in Oshmyani on March 14, 1918, a Lithuanian town in Belarus about 50 kilometers from Vilnius. After making aliyah to Israel following the war, he was often presented as a poet and prose writer, but Litvaks remember Kovner as a partisan leader who went on to help found the modern state of Israel.

In 1927 his parents moved the family to Vilnius and Kovner attended the Tarbut Gymansium. This building now houses the Lithuanian Jewish Community. He received a Jewish education there, including Hebrew and exposure to modern literature, and began to write poetry while in high school. In 1939 he was admitted as an auditor of classes at the Arts Faculty of Vilnius University. He engaged in illegal Zionist activities during the Soviet occupation of 1940. He became leader of the Ha-Shomer Ha-Tzair Zionist youth movement.

Plaque Commemorating Abba Kovner Unveiled at LJC

To mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of poet and Jewish partisan Abba Kovner, the Lithuanian Jewish Community March 14 unveiled a memorial plaque in his honor. The LJC is housed in the same building where Kovner attended high school until 1935, the former Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium. The ceremony was attended by chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, fellow Jewish partisan Fania Brancovskaja and Israeli ambassador to Lithuania Amir Maimon, among others. Brancovskaja told the small gathering her memories of the Jewish leader.

A Year of the Jews without Jews?

Position of the Lithuanian Jewish Community
March 13, 2018

Today the parliament of the Republic of Lithuania is scheduled to consider announcing 2019 the Year of the Jews. What the Lithuanian Jewish Community thinks about this is apparently of interest only to members of the media, not the initiators of the Year of the Jews measure.

The writers of the measure have not consulted with the LJC, the largest Jewish organization in Lithuania, at any stage of their initiative, which compels us to question the contents of the proposed resolution and its sincerity. The laconic legislation contains nothing that doesn’t happen every other year, except for, one supposes, allocation of funding for a special commission or commissions. We hope if the measure is adopted it won’t turn into the formation of yet another commission which takes students on Holocaust “excursions” through mass graves during Sabbath.

With no prospect of learning the plans and intentions of the authors of the idea first-hand, this strange initiative looks like some sort of atavism of former times, as when Thursdays were fish day. On other days the people were not provided fish, but on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Lithuania, is the issue of Jews really so uncomfortable and uninteresting? A whole slew of important dates for Lithuania and the Lithuanian Jewish Community are yet to come this year, including the 30th anniversary of the reestablishment of the Community; the 100th anniversary of the unification of Lithuanian Zionists, who supported Lithuanian statehood; the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto and the 115th anniversary of the founding of what is now Vilnius’s only working synagogue. We therefore call upon the authors of this Year of the Jews to begin that year this year, to celebrate 100th anniversary of the modern Lithuanian state together with the Lithuanian Jewish Community.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community esteems the progress of the state in solving issues topical for all of us, but political games using the Jews but not including the Jewish community are not an appropriate way to insure effective dialogue between ethnic Lithuanians and Jews.

Lithuanian Jewish Community

Pylimo g. 4
LT-01117 Vilnius
T:+370 5 261 3003

Chess Tournament

A chess tournament will be held to celebrate Lithuanian Independence Day at 3:00 P.M. on Sunday, March 25, at the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Boris Rositsan, FIDE master, will be tourney director. For more information and to register, write to info@metbor.lt or call 8 655 43 556.

Hundredth Birthday of Abba Kovner

Dear members,

The Lithuanian Jewish Community will hold a ceremony to unveil a plaque commemorating Jewish partisan leader and poet Abba Kovner at 1:00 P.M. on Wednesday, March 14, 2018, outside the LJC conference hall on the second floor at Pylimo street no. 4 in Vilnius. Participants will include chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, Jewish partisan Fania Brancovskaja and Punchos Fridberg, who will speak about Kovner in Yiddish.

You are invited to attend a brief meeting in the conference hall following the unveiling.

Rudashevski’s Ghetto Diary Now in Lithuanian

Books link us to freedom, books connect us to the world.
–Yitzhak Rudashevski, December 13, 1942, Vilnius.

Teaching the Holocaust to children is a difficult matter. At what age is it appropriate to expose children to man’s greatest inhumanity to man and the horrible atrocities which took place throughout Europe, culminating in the calculated genocide of millions of people? The Maus comic book was one approach, but children aren’t stupid and they get the full impact of the horror anyway, despite the window dressing.

Teaching adults the Holocaust can be just as problematic. A large body of Holocaust literature including straight histories, survivors’ testimonies and even theological works, not to mention a signficant cinematic canon, can lead to burn-out quickly, the Holocaust hangover syndrome. It is too much to take in all at once, the mind rebels.

Some Holocaust commemoration projects and museums have recognized the old maxim, that a picture is worth a thousand words, and often an object–an abandoned shoe, a lost set of house keys, a broken doll–speaks louder to the soul of the visitor than any text, photograph or video.

Pakruojis Wooden Synagogue Featured on Lithuanian Public TV Culture Channel

“Lithuania is slowly restoring the country’s rich legacy of synagogues. Synagogues are still standing in towns, the former shtetlakh, where not a single Jew has remained. Braver and cleverer mayors and communities, encouraged by the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage Department and the Lithuanian Jewish Community, have begun restoring what has now become the priceless Jewish legacy, wiped out by the Holocaust. The synagogues are coming back and are being used for the cultural needs of the towns.

“Lithuanian public television channel Kultūra is producing a series called Reflections devoted to heritage. On this page you will find and be able to watch a film about restored synagogues. At the beginning you will see the oldest surviving wooden synagogue in Lithuania, restored in 2017. The synagogue operated as such until World War II, when the Holocaust exterminated the Pakruojis Jewish community. The regional administration of Pakruojis has renovated the Pakruojis Jewish synagogue and adapted it for public use. The project was financed by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The restorers did great work and the interior is dominated by characteristically Jewish elements of decor and Jewish ethnic symbols, and the painting is filled with floral and faunal motifs. The former aron kodesh of this synagogue is especially decorative and impressive.

“After the Pakruojis synagogue, you will also see restored synagogues of Kaunas and Joniškis in the film”

Video program in Lithuanian here.

Chess Tourney to Celebrate 100th Anniversary of Lithuania

The Lithuanian Jewish Community hosted a chess tournament on February 25 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Lithuania. Chess players young and old flocked to the tournament. Tournament director and FIDE master Boris Rositsan and Lithuanian Chess Federation president Aleksandras Černovas told those who came the chess player is a person who never abandons hope. Chess player and Lithuanian MP Julius Sabatauskas, who often organizes chess tournaments in Alytus, Lithuania, attended and competed, and said he was very happy to see the Lithuanian birthday celebration at the LJC with so many people there. Former prime ministerial advisor and veteran Lithuanian journalist Vilius Kavaliauskas spoke about Litvak history and former late president Algirdas Brazauskas’s trip to Israel, during which Brazauskas made a controversial apology to the Jewish people for Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust. Kavaliauskas accompanied PM Brazauskas on that trip and recalled how the late prime minister said Lithuania lost her greatest and brightest people to the Holocaust. Where would Lithuania be now if they had lived and worked for her future, he wondered.

Once There Lived Aizik Kanovich

Rokha (Rocha-Samuraj) and Dovid Kanovich, Solomon’s brothers Moshe-Yankel,
Aizik and Motl, sister Khava (from collections of Sergejus Kanovičius and Lisa

by Sergejus Kanovičius

The sky was bright blue. “So clear, almost as clear as the water in the yard of our house in Jonava,” thought Aizik and closed his eyes again. A few soft snowflakes fell from the blue sky. It seemed you could count them. Like family members–snowflake Sara, snowflake Rosette, snowflake Joseph, and snowflake Bernard–one, two, three, four, counted Aizik with his eyes closed.

“Get a move on. Faster, come on, the train won’t wait for you.” One could hear the echo of insistent urging.

“Aizik, Aizik, get up, we’re almost there – one more step and we’re on the train. A little more and we’re home in Paris”, whispered Moris-Moisha Zuskind, bent over his friend, holding his hands under his armpits so they wouldn’t freeze.

In his mind, Aizik was traveling to his hometown, Jonava, and his native Žvejų street. Back to December of 1920 when he stepped over the threshold of his house and proudly announced:

Lithuanian Jewish Community Booth at Vilnius Book Fair

Lietuvos žydų bendruomenės stendas Vilniaus Knygų mugėje

The Lithuanian Jewish Community has participated with its own booth at the Vilnius Book Fair for the first time, launching a Lithuanian translation of Yitzhak Rudashevski’s Vilnius ghetto diary. The booth featured other books about Jewish history and culture published with financial help from the Goodwill Foundation. Purim treats were also passed out. Visitors were interested in the publications, but also had plenty of questions about what the Community does and Jewish culture and traditions. They shared stories from their grandparents about the latter’s childhood spent in common with Jewish children.

Translators Mindaugas Kvietkauskas and Akvilė Grigoravičiūtė signed books.

Tolerant Person of the Year and Donskis Prize Winner for 2017 Announced

According to the Lithuanian Government’s webpage, Marius Ivaškevičius was named Tolerant Person of the Year for 2017 at a ceremony at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. Historian Saulius Sužiedėlis was award the Leonidas Donskis prize at the same ceremony Sunday.

Marius Ivaškevičius initiated a Holocaust memorial march in his native town of Molėtai in late August, 2016. Thousands travelled there to participate and the march is widely considered to have marked a sea-change in Lithuanian Holocaust awareness. Ivaškevičius’s appeal before the march called “I’m Not Jewish” remains the most-read item on www.lzb.lt/en in English translation.

Saulius Sužiedėlis is the Lithuanian-American professor of history who has written numerous works on the Holocaust in Lithuania, including what is still considered the definitive modern treatment, “The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews during Summer and Fall of 1941,” co-authored with German historian Christoph Dieckmann. A recent interview called “Saulius Sužiedėlis Explains Why the Nazis Didn’t Need Gas Chambers in Lithuania” was extremely popular in the Lithuanian original posted at www.lzb.lt

The Return of Samuel Bak

by Markas Petuchauskas

Now that some time has passed since the opening of the Samuel Bak museum, I would like to look back. To remember how this world-famous painter’s return to Lithuania began. To remember what I experienced. And these experiences date back to 1943.

Bak was probably never more open about himself than in the introduction to the Lithuanian translation of his book Painted in Words. He tells how Vilnius “tortured” him, how he sought to forget the city and was never able to do so. For more than half a century the artist placed a taboo on thoughts of Vilnius. On the city of his happy childhood and the land drenched in the blood of his family, where he would never set foot again.

I dare say one of the first unexpected reminders of Vilnius after sixty years was Pinkas. It is very nice that Bak was reminded of Pinkas in 1997 in the Lithuanian magazine Krantai (not speaking the language, the artist believed incorrectly this was a publication from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture). The special third issue of the magazine, this was a publication by the Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Club which I founded in 1994. The magazine was set up at my initiative using club funds, and was intended to commemorate the Vilnius ghetto theater during International Art Days. Lithuanian National Museum employee Simona Likšienė wrote about the pinkas conserved at the museum in the magazine and included the title page.

Lithuanian Genocide Center Faces New Scrutiny

South African Litvak resident in the United States Grant Gochin, a member of the Lithuanian Jewish Community and a Lithuanian citizen, has scored a victory in his legal fight to make the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania back down on their claims Jonas Noreika and Kazys Škirpa weren’t Holocaust criminals.

In a 22-page finding issued by the Office of Parliamentary Ombudsman in early February, the Genocide Center was determined to have violated Gochin’s right to good public administration for failing to answer the points he raised about the Center’s findings on Noreika and Škirpa’s role in the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania. Gochin’s right to a comprehensive answer enshrined in Lithuania law was also violated because the Center failed to use internationally established criteria on the crime of genocide and then claimed to the parliamentary ombudsman they had, although they failed to list these specific documents in their answer to Gochin. At issue was whether Noreika and Škirpa were guilty of genocide: the Center said they hadn’t participated directly in the shooting of Jews in Lithuania, while Gochin said they were guilty under internationally accepted definitions including the 1948 UN Convention to Prevent and Punish Genocide, the Nuremberg Trial Statutes and the work of the International Criminal Tribunal of the UN in Rwanda.

Ombudsman Augustinas Normantas also said the Center had refused the mediation of the Office of Ombudsman, hadn’t taken the ombudsman’s earlier recommendations into account and now had a pattern of complaints over the last three years by dissatisfied members of the public which the ombudsman has investigated. He noted the Center has a culture among its director and staff of not answering the public, although the Center’s main function as defined in the special law creating the agency is to serve the public and corporate entities by providing information.

The ombudsman warned in the finding that if the Center repeats this behavior, the Office of Ombudsman would ask the Center’s bosses–the parliament and office of prime minister–to investigate on-going failures to follow the law and the Lithuanian constitution.

Gochin’s blog has an English translation of the Lithuanian parliamentary ombudsman’s findings here.