History of the Jews in Lithuania

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.

Jewish Attorneys Laid the Foundation of the State

As we mark the day of the restoration of the Lithuanian state and celebrate her 100th birthday, let’s also remember those who built this state, where the law is not just a paper concept but a category forming the foundation of the state and citizens and affecting our daily lives.

Jews comprised a large part of the community of Lithuanian attorneys. The majority of Jews had the experience of both being caretakers of the law and of having their legal rights taken away from them. The textbooks don’t talk about Jewish attorneys and it is only rare archival material which gives us a glimpse of their professional portraits. Very little is generally known about cases at the Lithuanian Special Archive which detail the fate of Vilnius attorneys arrested in 1939.

Full text in Lithuanian here.

Today We Witness Lithuanian Freedom

The March 11th Hall of the Lithuanian parliament had an overflow audience Thursday during a ceremony to commemorate 100 years of Lithuanian independence. The commemoration began with the singing of the Lithuanian national anthem and a reading of the February 16, 1918, Act of Independence and the names of the signatories to that act.

Parliamentary speaker Viktoras Pranckietis delivered a keynote speech and said that we are all equal in the context of 100 years since the restoration of Lithuania.

“Today we all witness Lithuanian freedom. Each person gives rise to a small individual world, merging seamlessly into a community,” he said. The Lithuanian people have always fostered and defended their identity, he said, and noted the Order of Vytis was awarded to members of 15 different ethnic communities for fighting for Lithuanian independence. He said 100 years wasn’t a long time in the life of a nation which recently celebrated their millennium. “Many people and events went into the creation of Lithuania, including the heroic deeds of the grand dukes and of nameless citizens, unions and partitions, occupations and uprisings. The deeds in song of those who proclaimed freedom and the paths trodden by the book smugglers,” he said at the ceremony.

Pranckietis said although only 20 Lithuanians signed the Act of Independence, the entire nation saw Vilnius as their capital. He called for celebrating the present as well as the history of Lithuania.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Lithuania We Built Together, an Exhibit on Lithuanian Minority Communities

The Lithuanian House of Ethnic Minorities presented a new exhibit February 15 called “We Built Lithuania Together,” an overview of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities living in Lithuania, their history and famous figures from these communities.

The exhibit is the creation of students and teachers from the History Faculty of Vilnius University, the Lithuanian State Archive, the Vrublevskiai Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences and the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library, with help from other museums, archives and libraries throughout Lithuania.

Following the launch, exhibit organizers planned to present it all over Lithuania at libraries, schools and exhibition spaces. The exhibit is in Lithuanian and English.

Chwoles Exhibit at Tolerance Center

The Tolerance Center of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum opened an exhibit of artworks by Rafael Chwoles February 17 called “They Watch Us: Portraits of Vilnius Residents, 1945-1949.” The exhibit will run till March 27.

Rudashevski Diary Published in Lithuanian

Knygų mugėje – penkiolikmečio Vilniaus geto kalinio palikimas

The diary of Yitzchak Rudashevski written in the Vilnius ghetto and providing an eye-witness account by the young man has been translated into Lithuanian and is to be launched at the Vilnius Book Fair Sunday. Although Rudashevski was only 14 when he began the diary, many who have read the book in the original Yiddish, English and other languages say he displays both incredible talent as a writer and a wisdom beyond his years. He was murdered at Ponar in late 1943. The original diary is conserved by YIVO with copies made available to other institutions and archives.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community invites everyone to read and learn about the Rudashevski ghetto diary.

The book is to be launched at 11:00 A.M. on Sunday, February 25, 2018, in conference room 1.2 at the Vilnius Book Fair.

LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, Yiddish translator Dr. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Sigutė Chlebinskaitė, Jewish partisan Fania Brancovskaja and Akvilė Grigoravičiūtė are to attend the launch.

Netanyahu Congratulates Lithuania on 100th Birthday

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu sent a letter to Lithuanian prime minister Saulius Skvernelis, a greeting from him and the people of Israel congratulating Lithuania on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the first Lithuanian Republic.

Netanyahu wished the people of Lithuania a memorable and happy holiday. He noted the close historical connections between the people of Lithuania and Israel and the importance of the Lithuanian Jewish community to the entire Jewish people and their religious and intellectual development. The Jewish people who lived in Lithuania earned great respect and included famous philosophers, writers and scholars.

The Israeli PM also noted the current Lithuanian Jewish community and Israeli citizens from Lithuania celebrate a spirit of solidarity and close cultural contacts between the two peoples. Netanyahu noted Israel appreciates highly Lithuania’s promises regarding Holocaust education and in fighting anti-Semitism. He called Lithuania one of Israel’s closest partners in Europe at the present time, and said Lithuania had contributed significantly to fostering constructive dialogue between Israel and the European Union.

Lithuania’s 100th Independence Day was also observed by the municipality of Tel Aviv where the municipal building was lit in the colors of the Lithuanian flag.

Sergejus Kanovičius Receives State Award

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė awarded writer and founder of the Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund Sergejus Kanovičius the state honor “For Merit to Lithuania” February 15. He received the award for his work to preserve the Lithuanian Jewish heritage. The bernardinai.lt website, where Kanovičius frequently contributes, published his acceptance speech:

I share, because I have received. That’s what my Parents taught me. That’s what my Parents learned from their Parents, my grandparents, to share what you get with others. Always, whether you have a lot or a little, and someone else has even less. I share because this is not all my doing. It probably isn’t even mine at all. It belongs to my Parents, to my entire family without whom I wouldn’t be able to work the work I do in Lithuania, it is my brother’s example to share, to support and help, and so it belongs to all of them.

What would I have been able to do for Lithuania alone? How would I have received this sort of award if not for the wonderful people who work with me? How would we be able to work without our hard-working patrons, without whose help we wouldn’t be able to make my vision and our mission happen?

I won’t lie, it’s very nice to be awarded. But it’s even nice to know this award doesn’t belong to me alone. It belongs to all of us. As it does to Lithuania, for whom we all must try to make a contribution, through work seen and unseen. Love and respect for our fellow man, respect for historical truth and justice, for commemorating the past. For commemorating that which has come down to us and must remain after us.

We have all done merit for Lithuania because we are her children. Let’s love her and be loved.

I sincerely believe this award, although it was given to me, really does belong to all of you.

My grandfather, may he rest in peace, the suit maker from Jonava, Shloime Kanovich, always used to ask any customer who came in, “Do you have material?” We have an abundance of material. What’s important is that we sew it together honestly.

Thank you, everyone. And as my Father wrote on a similar occasion and on completely justified grounds, thank you, Lithuania.

Jokūbas Vygodskis: Lithuanian Jewish Affairs Minister, Lithuanian Taryba Member, Polish Sejm Deputy, Vilnius Jewish Community Chairman, Good Man



Jokūbas Vygodskis (Jakub Wygodzki in Polish, Yankev Vigodski in Yiddish) was born in Bobruisk now in Belarus in 1855 and his family moved to Vilnius in 1860, where he received a traditional Jewish education. He completed high school in Marijampolė and attended medical school at the University of Saint Petersburg, additional studies in Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, after which he returned to Vilnius with the city’s centuries-old Jewish community.

Vilnius always had sufficiently capable people who knew how to organize the life of the Jewish community according to ethical standards, providing a helping hand to the poor and weak. Vygodskis organized the Society of Jewish Physicians in Vilnius besides practicing medicine as a gynecologist, pediatrician and medical researcher, as well as writing; initially he published medical articles in Russian and German journals, but later contributed to the Yiddish and Hebrew popular press and wrote at least three books of memoirs in Yiddish.

In September of 1917 the Lithuanian Taryba (national council) was elected in Vilnius with the goal of establishing an independent state. Wygodzki was appointed minister for Jewish affairs. In 1918 he joined the World Zionist Federation and is called a general liberal Zionist in the literature available on him.

Hermann Bernstein: the Litvak Julian Assange

While there are many Litvaks in the world who are known for great accomplishments and high intellect, a recent book in Lithuanian called “Pasaulio lietuviai: šlovė ir geda” (Alma littera, Vilnius 2016) [Lithuanians of the World: Glory and Shame] features a perhaps lesser known Litvak figure whose accomplishments were no less important, Hermann Bernstein.

Arkadijus Vinokuras: Poland’s Way Is Not Lithuania’s Way

It’s not Lithuania alone who has problems with the emotional experience and historical interpretation of the Holocaust, but unlike in Lithuania where there is no idea even to ban by law statements with no basis in historical fact … the right-wing Government of Poland has chosen the path of prosecution.

What for? For wide-spread statements the death camps in Poland were Polish.

Well, there were no Polish death camps, as Angela Merkel has said.

So why this law politicizing the discipline of history and restricting free speech? Supposedly to defend Poland’s honor, the right-wing Government adopted a law carrying penalties of up to three years in prison for those who publicly call the death camps established in Poland by the Germans “Polish.” And three years as well for those who say the Polish people collaborated with the Nazis. Responding to Israel’s concerns on the attempt by Poland to possibly hoax history, the webpage wPolityce supported by the Polish Government has been publishing articles which accuse Israel of engaging in a conspiracy with Brussels, Jewish lobbyists in Washington, D. C., and the Polish opposition to harm the ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland. The state channel TVP on the evening news program showed anti-Semitic inscriptions claiming Israel was exploiting the Holocaust in order to pump billions out of Poland.

Full editorial in Lithuanian here.

Attack on Righteous Gentiles as Lithuania Celebrates 100th Birthday

The Lithuanian Jewish Community for many years now has been posing the question: does Lithuania even know and is she able to name her true heroes? As we begin to celebrate 100 years since the founding of the Lithuanian Republic and look back over all the people who contributed, we cannot forget the noble Lithuanian Jews and the noble rescuers of Jews from the Holocaust who managed to keep the flame of hope alive during the most shameful passage in Lithuania’s history. The Sondeckis family who saved Lithuania’s honor are now forced to defend their own.

At the start of Lithuania’s 100th birthday celebration, the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of the Republic of Lithuania (hereinafter Center) has on their webpage published a journal containing a registry of files on people from the KGB archive.

This list includes Saulius Sondeckas, the son of Jackus Sondeckis, a well-known Lithuanian public figure, a member of the independence movement over 100 years ago and a Righteous Gentile who saved Jews. On February 3, 2018, we marked the three-year anniversary of the death of Saulius Sondeckis, a true aristocrat of the spirit who represented Lithuania and put Lithuania on the world map with his exceptional musical talent and noble deeds. That these allegations of possible criminal activity leveled against Saulius Sondeckis, who is now dead and unable to defend himself, and against his family fall on the 100th anniversary of the modern Lithuanian Republic makes graver the circumstances surrounding the charges and increases the harm done to the family who so rightly deserve the honor of the Lithuanian nation for their contributions. This accusation treads upon the title Righteous Gentile and also inflicts damage on the Lithuanian Jewish Community, which considers Saulius Sondeckis an honorary member.

Possibilities for Cooperation between Lithuanian and Greek Jewish Communities

On February 9 there was a ceremony to celebrate International Day of the Greek Language with recitals of music and classical poetry at the small auditorium at Vilnius University. Greek deputy minister of state Terence Spencer Nicholas Quick attended and met with Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, and old acquaintance. They spoke about the concept for a Jewish museum in Quick’s native city of Thessaloniki and future discussion of possible cooperation and sharing of expertise in building a similar new Jewish museum in Lithuania, as well as ideas for cooperation between the Lithuanian and Greek Jewish communities.

Dr. Saulius Sužiedėlis Explains Why Gas Chambers Weren’t Used in Lithuania

Interview by Ieva Elenbergienė

Professor emeritus of history at Millersville University Saulius Sužiedėlis explains the Nazis didn’t need gas chambers in Lithuania. While 40 percent of Holocaust victims were murdered in gas chambers, this wasn’t the case in Lithuania, where the Nazis discovered sufficient man-power for mass murder. Although there were informal attempts to stop the violence in Lithuania, Dr. Sužiedėlis says there was no universal condemnation, nor public statements against by authorities. Church officials were also silent. Sužiedėlis says we must stop denying ugly things and look our past squarely in the face.

At the end of November Saulius Sužiedėlis was invited by the Lithuanian Jewish Community to speak at the conference #AtmintisAtsakomybėAteitis held in Vilnius.

When people are talking publicly and the topic turns to Lithuanian collaboration in the Holocaust, there is often a defensive reaction expressed as an attack on Jews: “But they did this and this and that to us!”

It’s not just characteristic of us, the human reaction of trying to place guilt on others. For instance, in the USA for a long time the destruction of the Indians was completely ignored, there was talk of the wars of the Wild West, but new studies show these so-called Indian wars were in many cases nothing more than the massacre of peaceful local residents. Of course some people didn’t like this, and accusations came up, for example, “But what did they do to the cowboys?” and so on. I personally, though, have no concern about what Jews have done. I’m concerned with what Lithuanians have done. Of course there were Jews, just as there were Lithuanians and Russians, who were involved in deportations. What does that have in common with, let’s say, Jewish children murdered in Telšiai? I don’t feel personal shame–I wasn’t even born yet–but I do feel a kind of collective shame, that people of my ethnicity were able to act this way in this Catholic, religion-practicing country.

LJC Chairwoman Meets Parliamentary Speaker

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky and executive director Renaldas Vaisbrodas met speaker of the Lithuanian parliament Viktoras Pranckietis Wendesday. They discussed current issues in the Lithuanian Jewish Community regarding protection of Jewish heritage sites and the transfer of the former Hassidic synagogue in Kaunas for use by the Jewish Community, and agreed to work together to mark the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto with an academic conference at parliament.

Photo: O. Posaškova/Lithuanian parliament

Gita-Enta Broidi Sings in Šiauliai

Gita-Enta Broidi performed at an evening of Yiddish song at the Šiauliai Jewish Community February 4. Chaim Bergman of Kaunas attended and said he was pleasantly surprised to learn almost all members of the Šiauliai Jewish Community speak Yiddish well. Many lingered after the concert for coffee and conversation and the vocalist spoke of her work in Israel. She studied under the famous Nekhama Lifshits and has her own reputation and record of accomplishment around the world. She is a past winner of the International Yiddish Song Festival prize.

Verėna Wooden Synagogue Listed as Heritage Site

The two-storey wooden synagogue in Varėna, Lithuania, has been listed on the registry of cultural heritage treasures.

It was listed as being of local significance and important for its architecture and as a memorial. The synagogue has a stone and mortar foundation under the compact wooden building. Some of the original windows have survived.

The synagogue was mentioned in an account by a traveler from the Crimea in 1930, who wrote: “There were three Jewish synagogues and about 600 families in Varėna before the war. Now there are barely 70. There were three public schools, now there is only one. The only synagogue [left] was rebuilt in 1922. The Jews have their own People’s Bank established in 1920 with a turnover of one million litai in 1929.”

Sixth Graders Ask Passers-By about Vilnius Ghetto

A group of students in the sixth grade at the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium in Vilnius decided to make a presentation on the Holocaust and the Vilnius ghetto. Saulius Vinokuras, Danielius Bedulskis, Aleksandras Kormilcevas and Kajus Maksimaitis came up with the idea of asking complete strangers, resident in Vilnius, what they know about the Vilnius ghetto and the Holocaust. The result is a six minute video with captions in English edited by Saulius Vinokuras. Watch it below.