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


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.

Stephanie Stolin Visits Panevėžys

Stephanie Stolin of Paris visited the Panevėžys Jewish Community August 10 looking for information about her grandfather Leo Berger. He was born in Subačius and studied at the Ponevezh yeshiva, and after reaching adulthood moved to London in 1910, and later to America. Her other relatives remained behind in Subačius. Her grandmother and her children daughter Leya Berger and son Mordechaim were murdered in Subačius in 1941.

Community chairman Gennady Kofman showed the guest old archival photographs and documents in which Stolin discovered the surname of her great-great-grandmother and photographic images of other relatives.

Stephanie Stolin thanked the chairman for his hospitality and aid in her search for traces and roots of her family, and promised to keep in touch with the Community in the future.

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.

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

World Marks Roma Holocaust Victims Commemoration Day August 2

August 2 is a tragic date in the history of the Roma. Seventy-three years ago as the night of August 2 turned into the morning of August 3 in 1944, all Roma at the so-called Gypsy family camp at Auscwitz-Birkenau were murdered in the gas chambers there, in total about 3,000 men, women and children. The event is remembered as the Black Night of the Gypsies.

There isn’t much information available about the Roma murdered in Lithuania during the Nazi occupation, but historians say Roma were murdered as Jews were based on race. During the Nazi occupation Roma were classified as useless people, isolated from society and then murdered. Many were shot and poisoned in gas chambers. Roma were also sterilized, used as slave labor and used in medical experiments. It has been calculated one out of three Roma were murdered in Lithuania. About one half million Roma were murdered in total during the Holocaust.

Roma Holocaust Day commemoration is the initiative of the Roma National Congress and the World Romani Congress. Besides inviting the public to commemorate the day, they also hold ceremonies at Auschwitz where they invite youth from around Europe to attend. The Roma Holocaust isn’t widely known and the organizations seek to educate the public in this way.

The Roma Social Center in Lithuania commemorates the Black Night in different ways annually, holding live concerts, drawing contests, screenings of films and so on. This year they invited the public to attend an exhibition on Roma traditions at the Old Town Hall in Vilnius.

A wreath-laying ceremony has been conducted at Ponar outside Vilnius since 2009. There is information conserved in the Lithuanian archives showing Roma were murdered there.


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.

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.

Litvaks in Love

Professor David Roskies delivered an interesting lecture to a medium-sized audience at the new Judaica Center at the Lithuanian National Library Thursday evening.

“Using the tools of a cultural historian, drawing upon my Litvak identity and turning feminism into a source of knowledge, I think I have successfully cracked the DNA of Jewish collective memory. I know what it is, and I know how it works. Jewish collective memory is organized around saints, sanctuaries and sacred times. In this way, each generation of Jews shape a model life, the model community and the model time. You don’t have to be a Litvak to unlock the DNA of Jewish collective memory, but it certainly helps, because Lite [Lithuania] is where this triple axis, this three-pronged model, emerged in bold relief. The model was so stable that it remained in place even when the world began to change. In Lite things really began to change with the rise of religious revival movement called Hassidism at the end of the 18th century. So long as the hassidim were limited to Podolia and Volhynia which, after all, are located south of the gefilte fish line, and where people spoke a different Yiddish, there wasn’t much to worry about. So there was talk about a new cultural hero named Yisroel Ba’al Shem-Tov, better known as Besht. He was a faith healer, a tzadik or saintly person, a righteous person, who engaged in all manner of non-Litvak behavior. He was an effective preacher and teacher, but he came into conflict with renowned Torah scholars, who were the elite of traditional society. Worse yet, he popularized the study of Kabbalah–Jewish mysticism–, he claimed to have paid periodic visits to Heaven and he encouraged mystical prayer performed with bizarre and ecstatic song and dance at all hours. Then, before you knew it, hassidic prayer houses were beginning to appear in Lite, too. The time had come for the rabbinic establishment to take action,” Rosskies said in a lecture which ranged seamlessly from the drier facts of cultural history to his own personal experiences and thoughts, employing moving Yiddish lullabies to make certain points.

US Embassy Staff Visit Kaunas Jewish Community

The US embassy to Lithuania paid a visit to the Kaunas Jewish Community. Ted Janis, adviser on policy and economics (on left in photo), and US embassy representative Renata Dromantaitė met KJC chairman Gercas Žakas and asked about daily life in the Community, its activities, relations with the municipality, Jewish cemeteries, projects planned and opportunities for working together more closely. The time allotted for the meeting passed very quickly and there wasn’t time to express many thoughts and address many issues, which will be part of the agenda for a future planned meeting. Embassy staff said they would like to and plan to participate in commemorations of the mass murder of the Jews of Petrašiūnai and the mass murder of intellectuals in the Kaunas ghetto at the Fourth Fort in Kaunas at the end of August.

Darius Udrys Uncovered How Unprepared We Are to Discuss Morality without Outrage

Darius Udrys. Photo by Kiril Čachovskij, DELFI, © 2017

by Andrei Khrapavitski

I have written a short facebook comment in Lithuanian regarding the latest meltdown within the local liberal circles, but this story is worth expanding on. The gist of the matter is that Remigijus Šimašius, the liberal mayor of Vilnius, fired Darius Udrys, the head of Go Vilnius development agency and my former colleague at the European Humanities University.

A formal reason for dismissal was lack of results, but this reason looks very improbable, given the short time both Darius and the agency had worked and could achieve those results. A more probable one is the scandal Darius provoked after posting a facebook comment in which he asked whether it was moral for forest brothers (Lithuanian partisans who waged guerrilla war against Soviet rule during the Soviet occupation during and after World War II) to kill organizers of kolkhozes, collective farms put in place by the Soviets on the occupied lands.

Darius raised a lot of eyebrows by simply asking on what moral grounds it was OK to kill the civilians who were organizing those kolkhozes. A group of conservatives immediately demanded his dismissal and put a lot of pressure on the mayor of the Lithuanian capital to do so. It seems quite likely that the liberal mayor gave in to the demands of the conservative members within the coalition and let Darius go. Apparently you can be fired in 21st-century Lithuania for asking a question about the morality of killing. The liberal mayor found neither the courage to stand for freedom of speech nor to acknowledge the real reason for the dismissal. As mentioned above, Remigijus tried to spin it by claiming that Darius lost his job for not demonstrating results.

Full text in English available here.

Summer Dig Ends at the Groyse Shul in Vilnius

by Geoff Vasil

This summer’s archaeological dig at the Great Synagogue site in Vilnius wrapped up in the early evening of Friday, July 21, with volunteers working right up to the last minute.

This summer’s dig is the second by an international team led by the Israeli Antiquities Authority’s Dr. Jon Seligman and Hartford professor of Jewish history Richard Freund. The composition of workers and volunteers was significantly different this summer; only Shuli of Israeli Antiquities appeared again amid a group of others from Canada, Israel and the United States. Mantas Daubaras remained the chief Lithuanian archaeologist at the site and this year there were significant numbers of Lithuanian volunteers, almost all of them apparently university students. This year the focus was exclusively on the Groyse Shul or Great Synagogue site, whereas last year the Ponar Holocaust mass murder site was also part of the project, as documented recently in Owen Palmquist’s good documentary Holocaust Escape Tunnel, which aired on the PBS program NOVA earlier this spring. The lead archaeologists attended a Lithuanian screening of the documentary at the Tolerance Center a week before the end of their work at the Shulhoyf in Vilnius.

When Was Lithuanian Citizenship Rescinded for Jews and Never Reinstated?

According to the Lithuanian Migration Department, Jews with Lithuanian roots are making active use of the opportunity to restore Lithuanian citizenship following amendment to the law on citizenship adopted in July of 2016 to streamline the process. Following the changes, the number of Litvaks restoring citizenship has grown dramatically. The amendment was adopted by the Lithuanian parliament and signed into law by president Dalia Grybauskaitė, and Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky contributed much to the initiative and lobbied heavily for it. The legislation now safeguards the right of Jews who left Lithuania during the period between the two world wars–and their descendants–to restore Lithuanian citizenship.

Many Litvaks died in the Holocaust and others are now spread around the world. Many of them identify themselves with Lithuania, but no longer have Lithuanian citizenship. The issue is not just one of morality, it’s also a legal issue. When we are speaking of Jews who survived the Holocaust and the war, they weren’t deprived of their citizenship in the concentration camps. They were deported, isolated and murdered not as citizens of Lithuania, but as Jews. People were exiled to Siberia because they owned property, or were lawyers, fire-fighters or volunteer soldiers. So the well-founded question arises: when exactly did they lose citizenship?

LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky says: “The doctrine of the Lithuanian law on citizenship remains unclear to this day. State leaders and politicians associate citizenship with restitution. There is a wide-spread but incorrect belief that after granting citizenship or making that process easier, under some sort of reverse discrimination making it easier for Jews, there will be a flood of applications from people of other ethnicities for restoration of citizenship. The fact is often ignored that Polish citizens, arrivals from Poland, were never Lithuanian citizens, because they lived in a territory which at that time belonged to Poland, after Poland occupied Lithuania. Likewise, Germans from the German lands were never Lithuanian citizens because they lived in territories which were occupied by Germany.

“Speaking of restitution, we are talking about a very small portion of Lithuanian Jews who survived the war, who were deported violently and lost all their rights in Lithuania following the occupation. If we base our thinking on legality, then they were deprived of citizenship under the occupational regime and never got it back, or got it back after the deadlines for submitting property claims. This is equally urgent for Jews who left after 1990, they were included the newly drafted law on citizenship presented in parliament. Are they somehow opposed to the Lithuanian state because they live in Israel, which is neither a NATO nor an EU member? Is Israel really considered an enemy of the Lithuanian state?

“So I again ask, when were Jews deprived of certain rights and property by the laws and bylaws of the local or occupational government, and when did they lose Lithuanian citizenship? If they didn’t lose it, because the occupational regimes and the actions they carried out were illegal, then when should these people be issued documents testifying to their citizenship in Lithuania, and when should their illegally seized property be returned? The Lithuanian law on citizenship doesn’t address these issues.

“Reviewing the history of the first independent Republic of Lithuania and its sad fate, we find a lack of legal judgment regarding the occupational Soviet government, the Lithuanian Provisional Government, that of Nazi Germany, the second Soviet occupation and finally of the current independent Republic of Lithuania. So it remains who deprived Jews of citizenship, property and other civil rights, and when they did this, and whether these have been restored. I don’t deny there are a number of studies on this issue, but how do they affect the legal verdicts being issued now or those which will be issued in the future? I’d like to remind everyone we are not talking those who perished in the war, but about the Jewish citizens of Lithuania who were persecuted and murdered in the territory of the state of Lithuania.

“So far the state hasn’t been able to solve issues surrounding Jewish history and culture as well as legal status. Perhaps these matters need to solved serially, one after another: the problem of education, of Jewish history and issues around restoring rights violated. These matters are not for NGOs such as the LJC to solve, but for the state. The issues enumerated were solved long ago throughout Western Europe. They remain unsolved only in the former Soviet Union. We cannot forget Lithuania is in the lead among all former republics in the Soviet Union–the issue of restitution for Jewish communal property has been solved–but the cynical view of the individual’s civic, political and social rights as being of secondary importance remains more what it was in the USSR than anything else.

“I have heard rebuttals that Russia has also failed to make restitution with Lithuania, but this point of view and social attitude can hardly be expected to lead to further progress not just in restitution, but in a host of economic, social and other issues.

“The Lithuanian Jewish Community is concerned with all issues surrounding citizenship and restitution. This is a problem and a great injustice of urgency for Litvaks living abroad. The European Commission recently adopted a declaration again emphasizing remembrance and justice, which is what we seek and invite all Lithuanians to pursue with us.”

Panevėžys Jewish Community Youth Meet

Susibūrė Panevėžio m. žydų bendruomenės jaunimas

Children of members of the Panevėžys Jewish Community and their parents gathered July 12 to consider the formation of a Panevėžys Jewish Community youth organization. They discussed how to stimulate organizational, cultural and athletic activities among youth. The goal of the meeting was to encourage more Community youth to learn Jewish traditions. The Community building includes a room with religious regalia, literature, albums, magazines and multimedia equipment for screening films and holding lectures. The proposal was made to use the room for youth activities, specifically for personal study of Judaism.

The meeting made plans to travel to Ventspils in Latvia on August 5 and 6 and learn about the former Jewish community there. The trip would include an excursion into Joniškis, Lithuania, to view the newly restored Red and White Synagogues there. The trip to Ventspils is to include meetings with the surviving Jewish community there and the conclusion of a cooperation agreement between the two communities. The trip is supported by the Goodwill Foundation and members of the Panevėžys Jewish Community. Members are invited to participate.

Israeli Choirs Big Hit

Izraelio chorų koncertas

The concert by choirs from Israel in Vilnius July 24 was a great hit. The Vilnius Old Town Hall was full to overflowing for the concert mainly in Hebrew but with some Yiddish and even a Yemeni song.

The Israeli embassy to Lithuania sponsored the free public event and ambassador Amir Maimon reminded the audience the Old Town Hall stood right next to the big and small Vilnius ghettos where almost all prisoners were murdered during the Holocaust.

Jewish Unity: Call Me Naïve

Blogger and CEO of the American Jewish Committee David Harris explores the tortured route many Jewish couples are forced to take towards marriage.

Jewish Unity: Call Me Naïve
by David Harris

When I was growing up on the West Side of Manhattan, I recall elderly men from Jerusalem ringing our doorbell a couple of times per year. They were pious, and they were raising money for their institutions in Israel.

My mother and I lived alone, and, as a working woman, she had very limited disposable income, but she never let them leave empty-handed.

When I asked her why she would give money to people who, it was obvious, lived a very different lifestyle than ours, and why she never asked probing questions about the organizations they represented, she would simply say, in effect: “They’re Jews. We’re Jews. We need to support one another. Hitler made no distinction among Jews. We all were targeted for annihilation, irrespective of our beliefs, clothing, dietary habits, whatever. Why should I make a distinction?”

My mother survived the Holocaust. I took her words seriously. Indeed, I took them to heart and have sought to put them into practice on a daily basis. If we really are one people, then, whatever our differences, we need to act as one people.

Forty-two years ago, I joined the Jewish communal world, getting started in Rome and Vienna, the two transit points in Europe for Jews able to leave the Soviet Union and plan new lives beyond the grasp of the communist world.

Full text here.