Most Famous Litvak Ever?

The Zamenhof monument in Veisiejai, Lithuania, recalls how he began as a doctor.

The Polish Institute in Vilnius with the Lithuanian National UNESCO Commission and the Union of Lithuanian Esperanto Speakers are presenting an exhibition on Ludovik Zamenhof, the inventor of the artificial international language Esperanto and the best-known Litvak in the world. The exhibit is on display at the Lithuanian National UNESCO Commission gallery at Šv. Jono street no. 11 and celebrates the 100th anniversary of Zamenhof’s birth. It details the famous Litvak and his family, his life in Białystok, Poland and the birth and popularity of the Esperanto language. Classic literature translated into Esperanto is also on display. UNESCO declared 2017 the Year of Ludovik Zamenhof. In 2014 Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Treasures listed the Esperanto language on its registry of intangible national treasures.

Born in Białystok, he also lived and worked in Warsaw, Kaunas, Moscow, Vienna and Plotsk, and began his practice as a doctor in Veisiejai, Lithuania, in 1885. In 1886 he was an ophthalmologist in Vienna and Plotsk. In 1879 he wrote a Yiddish grammar published in part in the magazine Lebn un visnshaft (Vilna, 1909) followed in 1887 by his book “Lingvo internacia” under the psuedonym Dr. Esperanto, which became the name of the language he invented. He died in 1917 and is buried in Warsaw.

The exhibit is open to the public without admission charge till September 19.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Stories of Vilner Life Accompanied by Music

Arkadijus Gotesmanas, photo from the press release.

Klezmer music festivals are scheduled from August 10 to October 5 in Vilnius, Klaipėda, Kaišiadorys, Joniškis, Merkinė and other Lithuanian towns which will include a nine-concert series called Music for Failed Plays adapted from Abraomas Karpinovičius’s collection of tales The Last Prophet of Vilnius, festival organizers said in a press release.

Avant-garde jazz percussionist and modern music performer Arkadijus Gotesmanas is the force behind the festival. He says he wants to introduce the Lithuanian public to the original writer Abraomas Karpinovičius (1918-2004) who wrote in Yiddish.

His work commemorates the former Jewish life of Vilna, the Jewish drama theater and the Jewish community. Often his characters are odd, for example, Gedalkė Kantorius, who believed melodies could be frozen in a teapot and kept till spring, or the folklorist at the Halle market in Vilnius who collected profanities, or Rokhala who claimed to be a member of the royal court, or the woman who drew banknotes for the future state of Israel outside the Great Synagogue.

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.

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.

People and Books of the Strashun Library Exhibit to Close July 28

Paroda „Strašuno bibliotekos žmonės ir knygos“ veiks iki liepos 28

For those who haven’t seen the exhibition at the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library, People and Books of the Strashun Library will close July 28. Judaica Center director Dr. Lara Lempertienė is planning to lead a tour July 28 for those interesting in learning why the Strashun Library looms so large on the Litvak cultural horizon, to be followed by a discussion. She is inviting interested parties to gather in the exhibition hall on the third floor at the library at 3:00 P.M., July 28.

Yiddish Summer Program Opening Ceremony

The summer program of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University opened with the usual ceremony at a restaurant in Vilnius July 17. This year over 30 students from the USA, Israel, France, Sweden, Poland and Lithuania are attending the intensive language and literature course. The teachers this year include professor Anna Vershik, Abraham Lichtenbaum, Dov Ber Kehler and Vera Shabo.

Vilnius Yiddish Institute director professor Šarūnas Liekis said the summer program is unique for its professionalism, high academic level and because it offers its students the opportunity to communicate with fellow students in Yiddish. It also has an interesting cultural program for students, he noted.

The intensive course with four levels of proficiency will continue until August 11.

Are Russian-Speaking Jews Less Worthy? No Way!

by Arkadijus Vinokuras

You have to have malice to call me a Russophobe. I am addressing several Russian-speaking Jews of Vilnius who are spreading this lie. I have the highest regard for all kinds of Russian art. By personal invitation of legendary clown Yuri Nikulin I performed in his circus in Moscow. Also at the invitation of legendary Taganka Theater director Yuri Lubimov, I performed in his presentation of Master and Margarita at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater. Several of my best poems were written in Russian. Incidentally, I write poetry in Lithuanian, Russian, Swedish, English and Spanish.

So what horrible thing has happened to begin this malicious campaign against my person? Is it that I have foundation to say the Vilnius Jewish Community elections for chairman initiated by Simonas Gurevičius have nothing in common with democratic principles? If that’s it, no one has even attempted to rebut my arguments. So what else is left? To turn my well-founded criticism into the accusation that I am insulting the Russian-speaking Jews of Vilnius. That’s just cheap. But if anyone does feel falsely “suspected” of something, I sincerely apologize.

The accusation is without basis. When the fascists of any European state murdered our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they didn’t care a bit which language they were speaking. After the 1917 Revolution around 100,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms. When Lithuanian Jews were deported to the gulag by order of Josef Stalin, it didn’t matter what language they spoke. Before and after World War II Russian Jews were subject to “cleansing” and tens of thousands of Russian Jews died in the gulags.

This is my statement which brought on the storm: “There is another problem, that of mentality, afflicting the Vilnius Jewish Community. For instance, the majority of those 260 VJC members who assembled speak Russian exclusively among themselves. They only watch Russian television channels. The don’t understand terms such as democratic elections and democratic election and democratic election campaign procedures.” I am clearly talking only about 260 people and I stress “the majority of them.” In other words, my statement has nothing to do with the 2,000 other Jews in Vilnius, many of whom are Russian speakers. On what considerations was my statement based? I wanted to explain what I believed were the reasons the democratic rules of the game were violated and ignored. After all, 260 people voted in elections which clearly violated the principles of fair elections and the community was divided. The easiest thing to do was to reject my arguments at a primitive and emotional level, shouting “Gospodin Vinokuras padsadnaya utka Faini.” And also by accusing me of belittling Russian-speaking Jews.

Pre-Internet Viral: Songs of the Vilna Ghetto

by Geoff Vasil

The ORT Sholem Aleichem Gymnasium in Vilnius had a special guest Monday. Eli Rabinowitz from Perth, originally Cape Town, tries to make it to Lithuania every summer, and says he’s been here seven times now in the last six years. He comes from a long line of Litvaks in South Africa and has been quietly going to schools around the world to get them to teach their students the Partisan Song.

For those who don’t know what that means, there is a world-famous song which came out of the Vilnius ghetto, one treated as a sort of national anthem in Israel, where people stand at attention when it is sung. Most people in Vilnius and Lithuania today have never heard it, but over the decades before the internet came along, the song went viral in slow motion.

Launch of Judaic Studies Center

The exhibition “People and Books of the Strashun [Mefitse Haskalah] Library” opened May 22 to mark the public launch of the Judaic Studies Center at the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library. Dr. Lara Lempertienė, director of the new center, is the curator of the exhibition and the designer was Center researcher Miglė Anušauskaitė.

The exhibit documents the Mefitse Haskalah Jewish Public Library located on what was then Strashun Street from 1902 to 1940 (and which became the Vilna ghetto library under Herman Kruk until 1943), but also pays homage to Mattityahu Strashun (1817-1885), the bibliophile whose collection was housed at the Strashun Library proper, next to the Great Synagogue, but large portions of which passed through the Strashun street library during the Holocaust. The exhibit includes items from the collections of the Lithuanian national library as well as documents on load from YIVO, the Lithuanian Central State Archive, the History of the Lithuanian State Archive and the Lithuanian Art Museum.

National library general director Dr. Renaldas Gudauskas opened the exhibit at the ceremony Monday. YIVO director Jonathan Brent and Frida Shor, the author of an article about the Strashun Library, were also there.

Meet LJC Chairwoman Faina Kukliansky and Watch the Film Dialogue with Joseph by Elžbieta Josadė

We kindly invite Jewish young people and the general public to a screening of a documentary film by Elžbieta Josadė called  Dialogue with Joseph on at 7:00 P.M. on May 18 at the Pasaka Theater (Šv. Ignoto street no. 4/3, Vilnius). After the film you may meet and discuss with film director Elžbieta Josadė and editor Rareş lenasoaie. Entrance is free to the public.

Dialogue with Josef was honored with a special jury award at the international competition Jihlava IDFF 2016 in the Overseas category and Best Central and Eastern Europe Documentary Film subcategory. The national premiere was November 2016 at the Scanorama film forum.
About the film:
Joseph paints the earth and the sky with no other ambition than to observe and to gain a better understanding of the landscape‘s visual structure. Shyly, the filmmaker follows her father in his work and in this so particular space which surrounds him.
At 6:00 P.M., just before the screening of the film, we invite young people from the Jewish Community to an informal meeting at the restaurant La Boheme (Šv. Ignoto street no. 4/3, Vilnius, right next door to the Pasaka Theater) with Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky. We will discuss Jewish heritage, future prospects for the Jewish community and other issues. 

Lithuanian Jewish Community Celebrates Leonidas Melnikas’s Birthday

The Destinies program of evening cultural events celebrated the birthday of Lithuanian musician and composer Dr. Leonidas Melnikas last Thursday, May 11.

The evening began at the Jascha Heifetz hall at LJC headquarters in Vilnius with the airs of a tango, an overflow crowd and the birthday boy smiling on stage. Leonidas Melnikas is a piano player, organ player, musicologist, a tenured doctor, the head of his cathedral at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater, chairman of the academy’s senate and professor. He’s also a member of the board of directors of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. He turned 60 Thursday.

The birthday celebration was part of the Destinies program of evening cultural events initiated and organized by LJC deputy chairwoman Maša Grodnikienė, who used the occasion to honor the memory of Melnikas’s father Isaiah Melnik, who would have turned 110 that same day. He was a well-known pharmacist at the Vilnius Central Pharmacy (on what is now Gedimino prospect) and at the Žvėrynas Pharmacy in Vilnius, where he made his own preparations in his time. He survived both Stutthof and Dachau. He was beloved by all and was a calm and warm person who enjoyed attending all sorts of concerts. His son Leonidas’s musical career began when his mother took him to the Ąžuoliukas school. His first teacher was the famous pianist Nadežda Duksdulskaitė. “My entire childhood was illuminated by my parents, the very best, the very wisest people, and family remains extremely important to me,” Melnikas said of himself before embarking on a performance of tango melodies with violinist Boris Traub, cellist Valentinas Kaplūnas and accordion player Gennady Savkov.

Attend Opening Ceremonies for New Judaica Studies Center

The Judaica Studies Center of the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library was officially established May 3, 2017, but will only open to the public May 22 and May 23 with several events and exhibitions.

The Center’s main function is to further research on the Jewish documentary heritage, carrying out educational and informational projects and publicizing the results. The Center is an open enterprise and aimed at educational cooperation. According to its mission statement, the Center actively publicizes information about the Jewish textual heritage at its events, in the national and international media and on the internet, and also conserves collections of modern Judaica publications.


May 22

1:00 P.M. Opening ceremony (foyer, fifth floor)
2:00 P.M. Launch of exhibit People and Books of the Strashun Library (exhibit hall, third floor)

May 23

1:00 P.M. Samuel Kassow (USA) lecture Uniqueness of Jewish Vilna (conference hall, fifth floor)
2:30 P.M. Presentation The Vilnius YIVO Project (conference hall, fifth floor)

Full announcement in Lithuanian at the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library web page here.

LitvakSIG Delegation Visits Lithuania

LitvakSIG delegation visit Tolerance Center, Vilna Gaon Museum, Carol Hoffman third from left

The Litvak genealogical web site LitvakSIG‘s board of directors have recently been travelling around Lithuania as part of their important work. The board currently includes nine members: Amy Wachs, Barry Halpern, Carol Hoffman, Dorothy Leivers, Garri Regev, Jill Anderson, Phil Shapiro, Ralph Salinger and Russ Maurer. Six of the nine board members visited Lithuania this past week to meet with archivists and members of the Vilnius and regional Jewish communities. We managed to interview Carol Hoffman at the Bagel Shop Café in Vilnius last Sunday.


Tell us something about yourself.

My names is Carol Hoffman. I was born and raised in the United States. My father was born here in Lithuania in 1892 in Kapčiamiestis, in Yiddish it’s Kopcheve. My mother was born in the United States but her mother was born in Kapčiamiestis, in Kopcheve, in about 1858. So my entire family from my mother’s side and from my father’s side are Litvaks.

So, my entire family are Litvaks, they’re from the same place, from the same shtetl, and I was raised with a strong sense of being my brother’s keeper. I came to Israel in 1972 with three young children and a husband and we settled in the northern part of Israel. I worked as a librarian and a teacher of computer science in the university for many, many years, and I retired seven years ago when began working full-time as a volunteer for LitvakSIG. This is my seventh or eighth or ninth trip to Lithuania, I’m not sure. My first trip was in 2000. I had never been here. I met Regina Kopelevich on the border and we went to … Kopcheve and then to Vilnius. So I feel the strong sense of roots.

Goodwill Foundation Project: Jews of the Vilna Guberniya

Jews of Vilna Guberniya: Recruits of the Tsar, Cantonists, Conscripts of World War I

The project contains a rich collection of early 20th-century photographs conserved by the Lithuanian State Central Archive. These are photographs of Jewish young people and conscripts to the Russian army from the Vilna guberniya from 1900 to 1915 with authentic inscriptions identifying the subjects, with surnames written on the photographs and confirmed by stamp and seal. The reverse sides of the photographs contain the signature of a Vilna guberniya police official confirming identity, and an oath to the that effect is sometimes attached to certain photographs.

The collection is comprised of 1,222 portrait photographs. This is the largest portrait-photo collection preserved in the archive and is important part of the historical legacy of the Jews who lived in Vilna guberniya. The photographs are very expressive, young men dressed in their finest clothes, looking with hope and aspiration to the future. The fate of many is unknown: did they serve in the Russian army, were they cantonists, or did they manage to avoid serving? This unique period of Jewish history has been little studied and very few publications about it exist. Research on the origins and fates of the people in the photographs is a subject for a separate historical study.

Most of the portraits were taken in Vilna, but others were done in Warsaw, Minsk, Kiev and St. Petersburg. These century-old photographs taken in the salons of famous photographers of the period (Rembrandt, E. Binkovich, A. Straus, S. Fleri and others) are both cultural and historical treasures and an important part of the history of photography about which the general public knows very little at the present time.

Old Jewish Cemetery in Šeduva Receives Special Mention in Europa Nostra Heritage Protection Awards

Šeduvos žydų kapinių įamžinimą įvertino Europos Komsijos įkurta Europa Nostra!

Work in Šeduva, or more precisely work already completed, hasn’t gone unnoticed by Europa Nostra, the heritage protection organization established by the European Commission.

Europa Nostra under a jury selected by the European Commission awarded the Lost Shtetl Project special mention.

Special mentions in the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards 2017 were made public today by Europa Nostra and the European Commission. This year the jury granted special mention to 13 heritage achievements from 11 European countries taking part in the EU Creative Europe program.

Special mention goes to outstanding contributions in the conservation and enhancement of European cultural heritage which are particularly appreciated by the jury but did not make it into the final selection to receive an award.

Old Jewish cemetery in Šeduva, Lithuania

In restoring and maintaining the Jewish cemetery in the town of Šeduva, the local community has succeeded in its efforts to restore, commemorate and respectfully maintain the memory of members of their community who, since the Holocaust, no longer live in the town.

For more information, see:

Happy Birthday to Gercas Žakas

Sveikiname Gercą Žaką, Kauno žydų bendruomenės pirmininką su gimtadieniu!

Happy birthday to Gercas Žakas, soccer referee, trainer and expert and chairman of the Kaunas Jewish Community! Our warmest wishes for the birthday boy! May health remain ever with you, may you also enjoy such energy, may your activities remain always so interesting and may your nice big smile continue forever!

Mazl tov!

Veisiejai Commemorates Jewish Resident and Inventor of Esperanto

At the invitation of his old soccer friends from Veisiejai (Vishai, Vishey), Lithuania–Viesiejai alderman Zenonas Sbaliauskas and true Veisiejai patriot Linas Masys–Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas personally visited this once predominantly-Jewish town. Žakas said he was impressed by how well the town is kept up and by its silence and romance, provided by Lake Ančia, which divides the town into two parts. He was also pleasantly surprised by how seriously the small town takes the commemoration of its one-time resident, Dr. Ludowik Lejzer Zamenhof, the Jewish doctor and linguist who gave birth to the artificial language of Esperanto. The town is also taking excellent care of the Jewish cemetery, although its appearance has changed, and the Jewish homes still standing there, Žakas reported.

Kaunas Community Marks One Year since Death of Yudel Ronder

A year has passed since the Kaunas Jewish Community lost one of our most senior and most honored members, Yudel Ronder. His memory was honored with a prayer before Sabbath began, and later over dinner many shared their memories of the extraordinary man. Highly intelligent, cultured, warm, sincere and honest, his bright wit and wisdom accompanied him even during grave illness at hospital until the last moment of his life. He was extremely active and interested in a broad range of subjects. He began many projects and activities. Even in the dark Soviet era, he sought out rescuers, told their stories and concerned himself with making sure they were honored and taken care of. He also looked for Holocaust perpetrators and without fear met with them, trying to get inside their consciences and disturb their peaceful sleep. He was one of the first Jews involved in volunteer club activities during the Soviet era, the enthusiastic director of a drama group whose performances attracted scads of viewers. The performances were in Yiddish and he sought out actors fluent in the language. The current chairman of the Kaunas Jewish Community, Gercas Žakas, who knows Yiddish well, was invited to join the troupe and became one of main actors there. Ronder took care of his people and organized welfare for the poor. He made contact with German welfare organizations, earned their highest respect and received funding for material aid for members of the Kaunas Jewish Community.

Originally from Kėdainiai (Keydan), he lost his family and relatives in the Holocaust. He survived by being evacuated to the Soviet Union and served in the 16th Division. Ronder dedicated all his energies and devoted his heart to others. People who had the opportunity to make his acquaintance have never forgotten him and his warm stories about his grandfather. Yudel’s grandson Dovydas remembers them well and he came from Germany especially to mark the one-year anniversary of Yudel’s death. Kristina, the daughter of Yudel’s long-time care-giver Stefa Ancevičienė who became very close to him, also remembers his stories well.