History of the Jews in Lithuania

Jewish Volunteer Soldiers Remembered in Kaunas

Lithuanian military commander lieutenant general Jonas Vytautas Žukas and the Kaunas Jewish Community invited the public to a commemoration on May 30 of Jewish volunteers who fought in early 20th-century battles for Lithuanian independence. Those attending included lieutenant general Žukas, Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, representatives of regional Jewish communities, Israeli ambassador to Lithuania Amir Maimon, commanders of Kaunas divisions, soldiers and representatives of the Kaunas municipality and other organizations.

May 30 is an important date, marking one of the first planned military operations by the Lithuanian military. At the end of May and in early June of 1919 Lithuanian soldiers, including many Jews, aided by volunteer soldiers from Saxony, liberate Utena from the Bolsheviks and seized the initiative in battle against the Red Army.

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky and Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas took part in the commemoration.

Litvak Scouting Revival

Before the Holocaust there were huge groups of Jewish boy and girl scouts throughout Lithuania. Some groups were religious, others Zionist, others secular. The one thing they all had in common was having fun outdoors, learning together the basic skills and fostering a shared Jewish identity.

Now there are plans to revive the Jewish scouting movement in Lithuania, which now has a mostly aging population of just under 3,500 Jews.

President of the International Forum of Jewish Scouts (IFJS) and member of the board of Éclaireuses éclaireurs israélites de France (EEIF) Alain Silberstein arrived in Vilnius to discuss French cooperation in the Litvak revival with Lithuanian Jewish Community leaders.

Parents of children aged 12 to 17 were invited to attend a discussion at the Lithuanian Jewish Community Wednesday. In an underwhleming show of support, several scouting-age Jewish girls, an interested member of the Jewish community in Vilnius and a handful of others came and heard a presentation by president Alain Silberstein and LJC executive director Renaldas Vaisbrodas.

Photography Exhibit Remembers Jewish Rescuers

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky took part in an opening ceremony for an exhibition of photography about Lithuanian rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, part of a joint project by the LJC and the Sovereign Order of Malta to commemorate and provide aid to rescuers. Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė and Order of Malta ambassador to Lithuania Manfred Leo Mautner Markhof also took part at the opening ceremony in the exhibit space of the Tuskulėnai Memorial Park Complex in Vilnius May 29.

The Lithuanian president said the exhibit, which will go on display around Lithuania, documents Righteous Gentiles who saved hundreds of Jews at great risk to themselves. They shared hope, bread and their homes with Jews during the Holocaust. She said by extending a helping hand, they also saved humanity and the dignity of the Lithuanian nation. They have become a source of inspiration in the lives of Lithuania’s people today, she said, adding their attitude towards others and their self-sacrifice is needed daily.

LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky said:

“More than 800 Lithuanians made the fateful decision during World War II to resist the axiomata of hate. Their only weapon was their conscience which, led by the choice to remain human, made these non-Jews an eternal and spiritual part of our people. Our gratitude cannot be expressed in words, nor measured in numbers; it is limitless and intangible, having become as it were a light of God’s being in the imperfect grey ghetto or in hiding in a forest hideout. These are people thanks to whom we were reborn to new life, thanks to whom we gout back our energy for the old faith.

Ceremony to Honor Jewish Volunteer Soldiers

Commander of the Lithuanian military lieutenant general Jonas Vytautas Žukas and the Kaunas Jewish Community invite the public to an event to honor Jewish soldiers who fought in the battles for Lithuanian independence. The event is to take place in Kaunas on May 30. At 12:30 P.M. the ceremony including speeches, a moment of silence, wreath-laying and music begins at A. Mapu street no. 18 at the building where the Union of Jewish Soldiers Who Fought in Battles for Lithuanian Independence was located in the period between the two world wars. A discussion follows at 1:30 P.M. at the Vytautas Magnus Military Museum at K. Donelaičio street no. 64.

Educational Meeting at Panevėžys Jewish Community for Students from Region

Students and teachers from the Dembava Pre-Gymnasium in the Panevėžys region visited the Panevėžys Jewish Community. They have established a Tolerance Center at the pre-gymnasium and wanted to make contact with the Panevėžys Jewish Community to learn about the history of the Lithuanian Jewish community before and during World War II, Jewish traditions and holidays and also to learn about the Holocaust in Lithuania.

The Panevėžys Jewish Community places special emphasis on the education of young people and teaching tolerance to dispel negative myths about the Jewish people, and to teach what happened in Panevėžys and other Lithuanian cities and towns when so many innocent people were murdered. A special game-show like panel was suggested during which students answer questions.

Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman told the students about the Jews who lived in common with Lithuanians before World War II, often owning joint businesses and living as neighbors. They celebrated holidays together, shared the good and the bad, and often shared their last morsel of bread as well. During Tsarist times and in independent interwar Lithuania, Russian, Jewish and Lithuanian children attended the same school, Kofman recounted.

Jews in Lithuania Experiencing Crisis in Values

by Faina Kukliansky, chairwoman, Lithuanian Jewish Community

Jews as with any people are not homogenous. The history of Jews in Lithuania stretches back almost 700 years and during that time all sorts of things happened, rises and declines, and the effects of the Holocaust were especially painful in Lithuania, and following the attempt at physical annihilation the Soviet occupation attempted to destroy the Jewish people spiritually.

People often ask me, Jews are so united, why is it different in Lithuania? It’s not different in Lithuania, divisions exist in secular and religious Jewish communities in Israel as well as the rest of the world. The wealth of the Jewish people is our diversity, our knowledge, our faith and our ability to remain Jews.

I am proud of my people. Unfortunately, all sorts of things go on inside the Jewish community. It’s sad, but we have only partially passed our “trial by money.” On the one hand, we have the well-functioning Goodwill Foundation, which only adopts decisions by consensus and allocates compensation for Jewish communal/religious properties, and which has been audited for many years now by the Office of State Auditor, the highest auditing institution, and has always received a glowing review. On the other hand, we have over-ambitious community members who believe they can do everything the best, in the most transparent manner and preferably all by themselves. They claim the opinion of the majority is merely a simulation of democracy.

In Lithuania, as in the world, volunteer leaders lead the Jewish communities. This post is for me first of all an honor and a pleasure. Before I assumed responsibility, I learned much from the earlier chairmen, Grigory Kanovitch and Dr. Simon Alperovitch. Much of what is needed for this work I learned from active Community members and intellectuals attorney professor Jurijus Bluvšteinas, Josif Levinson and Maša Grodnikienė.

Happy Birthday to Professor Pinchos Fridberg!

Our best wishes go out to Holocaust survivor, resident of Vilnius, Jewish intellectual, doctor habil. of physics, author of numerous articles, great Yiddish speaker and true Jewish and Litvak patriot Pinchos Fridberg!

We wish you the best health, patience, much happiness, more smiles and a care-free life filled with gentleness and happiness. Your sense of humor is endless and ironic, and everyone has greatly enjoyed your Motke Chabad stories published in Obzor.

Mazl tov! May you live to 120!

March of the Living 2018 at Ponar

For the eleventh time now in Lithuania the March of the Living walked the route from the Ponar train station to the Ponar Memorial Complex to commemorate the Jews murdered there. Among the marchers were Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas, Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman and Švenčionys Jewish Community chairman Moshe Šapiro. Other participants included Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian ambassador to Israel Edminas Bagdonas and Israeli ambassador to Lithuania Amir Maimon, as well as members of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, students from the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium, members of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel and Holocaust survivors Fania Brancovskaja and Sameul Bak.

The Lithuanian foreign minister, the Israel ambassador, representatives of the Vilnius mayor’s office, the LJC and former ghetto and concentration camp prisoners among others laid wreaths at a monument in the center of the Ponar Memorial Complex to the accompaniment of violin music.

Fania Brancovskaja spoke: “Ponar was a murder machine where from 1941 to 1943 before Vilnius was liberated from Nazi occupation murder was carried out continuously. Seventy-thousand Jews were murdered in Ponar just because they were Jews, all that remains of them is ashes mixed with sand. Not many of us are left, but we are here. I am one of those who went through the entire ghetto and please, do not forget them. As long as we live, we ask you to pass on the information to your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren so that they do not forget the victims who died.”

Busy Week for Kaunas Jewish Community

The second week in May saw numerous events and meetings at the Kaunas Jewish Community.

The hectic and hot week began with a meeting between representatives of the Kaunas Jewish Community and the Denkendorfer Kries für christlich-jüdische Begegnung (Denkendorf Association for Chirstian-Jewish Encounter) from Germany. Association board members Eva and Otmar Vöhringer have been inviting their compatriots for several years now to undertake what are in a sense pilgrimages to Holocaust sites in Poland and the Baltic states and to meet survivors and descendants of survivors in those countries. More than 20 years ago now Dr. Hartmut Metzger began and became the spiritual inspiration behind this initiative. He also worked with late Kaunas Jewish Community member Judelis Ronderis to organize aid for impoverished Jews who had been evacuated to the Soviet Union during the Holocaust.

On May 8 the members of the association of family and friends of deportee convoy no. 73 visited Kaunas and the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. The group comes to Kaunas from France once every two years and warm and friendly friendships have been made with the Kaunas Jewish Community. LJC executive director Renaldas Vaisbrodas attended the ceremony at the Ninth Fort this year. On May 15, 1944, convoy no. 73, a train from Drancy, France, delivered 878 Jews to the Baltic states, most of whom were taken off the train in Kaunas and shot at the Ninth Fort. Others were taken to the camp in Pravieniškiai, Lithuania, and to Estonia.

Sholem Aleichem School Holds Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony at LJC

The Vilnius Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium held their annual bar and bat mitzvah ceremony at the Choral Synagogue and Lithuanian Jewish Community. According to the Torah, boys became adults at age 13 and girls at age 12. The rite of passage was led by Hebrew teachers Motti Feigin and Ruth Reches. Principal Miša Jakobas recalled his own bar mitzvah ceremony 55 years ago in Telšiai. He congratulated each participant individually. LJC executive director Renaldas Vaisbrodas presented the warm wishes of the Community and presented all of the participants presents. Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon also sent a letter of congratulations. The new adults lit candles for their grandparents, parents, for the LJC, Jerusalem, Israel and child Holocaust victims. They also performed skits, scenes from Jewish life, and spoke Hebrew on stage, then performed a final song to great applause.

LJC Chairwoman Delivers Holocaust Diary to Yad Vashem

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky met Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, on May 15. She personally gave him a copy of the LJC’s Lithuanian translation of the Holocaust diary of Vilnius ghetto prisoner Yitzhak Rudashevski. They discussed the influence the book would have in the future on Holocaust consciousness in Lithuania. Avner Shalev praised the LJC and the chairwoman’s continuing efforts and work in raising Holocaust awareness and promoting Jewish culture.

Seeking Todes Family Roots in Panevėžys

Two families from the United States and Israel visited the Panevėžys Jewish Community May 15. Jack and Rose Todes came from Philadelphia and his sister Phillipa and husband Benjamin Segan arrived from Israel. Their ancestors lived on Ukmergės street in Panevėžys. Grandfather Todes was a member of the Panevėžys city council in 1890. The family owned real estate, shops and factories.

Phillipa Segan was greatly interested in archival photographs of the city and promised to keep in touch.

Following the visit, Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman took the guests to the Holocaust mass murder site in Kurganava Forest where 24 members of the Todes family were murdered in the early days of World War II in Lithuania.

Europe Day Celebration in Kalvarija, Lithuania

The Kalvarija Public Library held events to celebrate Europe Day on May 9, 2018. Historian Alvydas Totoris led a large group on a tour of Jewish features surviving in the small Lithuanian town. The walking tour concluded at the large synagogue complex in Kalvarija where there was an exhibit of old photographs of the city.

More information in Lithuanian here.

Lithuanian Translation of Rudashevski Diary Presented in Tel Aviv


Photo: Milda Rūkaitė

The Beit Vilna association of Litvak survivors from Vilnius hosted a presentation of the new Lithuanian translation of Yitzhak Rudashevski’s Vilnius ghetto diary in Tel Aviv May 16. Rudashevski’s two surviving cousins Sora Voloshin and Golda Rudashevsky attended the event. Voloshin escaped while her family and Ytizhak and his parents was being sent to Ponar to be executed. She later found the diary written in school notebooks in the ruins of a location where the Rudashevski family hid.

The Lithuanian translation was the initiative of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky and Lithuanian ambassador to Israel Edminas Bagdonas attended the event in Tel Aviv, as did Beit Vilna director Miki Kantor and Arie Ben-Ari Grozdensky, the chairman of the executive board of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Isrsael.

Rudashevski’s diary is one of only a few Holocaust chronicles recorded as events happened, and one of even fewer such diaries written by children. He wrote the diary in Yiddish. The Lithuanian edition contains the same Yiddish text in the second half of the book.

Lithuanian Parliament Names 2020 the Year of the Vilna Gaon and Lithuanian Jewish History

“We praise the Lithuanian parliament’s unanimous decision to announce the Year of the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Lithuania in 2020. We appreciate this initiative was discussed with the Lithuanian Jewish Community.

“We consider this significant and a continuation of Lithuania’s pledge to take into consideration the history of the Jews of Lithuania and to pay it sufficient attention at the national level,” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky commented.

The parliament, taking into account that in 2020 we will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon, Eliyu ben Salaman Zalman, the great Lithuanian rabbi and the leader of the Litvak misnagdim school of thought, resolved to name 2020 the Year of the Vilna Gaon and of Lithuanian Jewish History. A total of 92 MPs voted unanimously in favor of parliamentary resolution No. XIIIP-1289(3) to name this commemorative year.

The resolution emphasizes Lithuanian Jews are an indivisible part of Lithuanian society from the time of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and have contributed significantly to the development of Lithuanian statehood, history, culture and learning.

This decision celebrates the more than 700 years of Lithuanian Jewish history as an inalienable part of Lithuanian history and deepens ties with the Lithuanian state among Jews living in Lithuania and those who have moved abroad.

The Lithuanian parliament proposed the Government form a commission for celebrating the Year of the Vilna Gaon and of the History of the Jews of Lithuania which would by February 1, 2019, draft a plan and series of measures for marking the year, and allocate funds for implementing the plan.

High-Profile Ceremony for New Museum in Lithuania

On May 4, 2018, a ground-breaking ceremony for the Lost Shtetl Museum and Memorial Complex took place in the middle of Lithuania, in Šeduva. The project is designed by professor Rainer Mahlamäki and Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, Finland. Professor Mahlamäki attended the ceremony, as did Dr Inna Rogatchi, the author of a forthcoming film and book on Rainer Mahlamäki’s memorial architecture projects.

The ceremony was attended by the entire leadership of Lithuania and a large group of the diplomatic corps. President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė sent a letter of greetings to the ceremony which was read by the president’s special adviser.

The president of Lithuania said in her address: “Today this symbolic capsule marks not only the start of the construction of this unique museum. It also heralds the reconstruction of an important part of Lithuanian history closely interlinked with the history of Lithuania’s large Jewish community and its tragic fate. The Lost Shtetl Museum will bring back from oblivion the names and faces of many families, friends and neighbors, as well as their customs and traditions.”

Full text here.