Inter-Institutional Cooperation for the Preservation of Lithuanian Jewish Heritage

A paper delivered by Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky at the conference “Diaspora and Heritage: The Shtetl” held to mark the European Day of Jewish Culture and the Lithuanian Day of Remembrance of Jewish Victims of Genocide at the Lithuanian parliament on September 25, 2017.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Jewish Heritage Today

According to the census of 2011, there are 3,050 Jews living in Lithuania. Other sources say the number is up to 5,000 Jews, of whom 2,000 live in the city of Vilnius. For comparison, in the mid-19th century there were 250,000 Jews living in what is now the territory of Lithuania. Lithuania lost more than 90% of her Jewish community in the Holocaust.

Today Lithuanian Jews are united in 28 non-governmental organizations which are in turn united in the association the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Heritage, although it is very important, is only one of the Lithuanian Jewish Community’s areas of endeavor. The Lithuanian Jewish Community is actively working in providing constant social support to Community members in seven regions of Lithuania, organizes educational programs, keeps alive the memory of Holocaust victims, is carrying out various project activities and is engaged in human rights advocacy.

Returning to the topic of heritage, Litvak heritage means relics of the cultural landscape created over more than 600 years by the community which once reached a quarter million people, spread throughout almost all the cities and towns in Lithuania today. This includes almost 200 cemeteries, more than 200 mass murder/mass grave sites and more than 40 synagogues which have been declared cultural treasures.

The Need for and Experience in Cooperation

The current, post-Holocaust Lithuanian Jewish Community would never be able to guard and conserve that which has been created over centuries throughout the country without the help of governmental and municipal institutions, NGOs and active citizens.

The majority of the community is concentrated in Vilnius, with much fewer living in Kaunas, Klaipėda, Šiauliai and Panevėžys. In the remaining locations around the country there are practically no Jews left. There is no one to tend to family graves, to protect cemeteries. Most likely many here today understand there is no such thing as a “former cemetery” in Jewish tradition: even desecrated, even without headstones, they will always remain cemeteries and the rest of those buried there must be insured and their memory honored. Thank you to the municipalities and regional administrations who realize the importance of taking care of Jewish cemeteries and mass murder sites. Unfortunately this attitude is not yet universal, not all cemeteries and mass murder sites have been configured and registered as integral plots of land, not all cemeteries have been fenced, not all headstones stolen in the Soviet era have been returned to cemeteries, it is still not possible to find way to all mass murder sites, and still only few of the names of those murdered have been commemorated. We are waiting for this to become the norm, clearly expressed in state policy and actually implemented in practice. We see many good signs and therefore believe that this will really happen sometime. But for now, we are watching how institutions are performing the functions assigned them by law, we are begging and pleading, and demanding, and offering advice and helping. Thank you to all those active citizens who report problems, thank you to the enthusiasts and NGOs from Lithuania and abroad who organize volunteer campaigns and even perform very expensive work to renovate cemeteries. Thank you to the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe for the advice and supervision of their rabbis.

Fourteen synagogues have been returned to the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Several dozen more synagogues listed on the registry of cultural treasures currently belong to the municipalities and private owners. Taking into account the pathetic state of the majority of synagogues and the fact that the majority are in locations where no Jews are left, the maintenance and restoration of these historic buildings is yet another difficult task for the Lithuanian Jewish Community. So I say thank you to national and local government institutions, first of all to Diana Varnaitė, the director of the Cultural Heritage Department under the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, and to the staff of the Chancellery of the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, who understand and help others to understand the synagogues of Lithuania are the heritage of all of Lithuania, not just ours, not just of the Jews. They help others understand there is no way to move these buildings, not to Vilnius nor to Jerusalem (although perhaps it would be possible to move them to the open-air Rumšiškės Lithuanian folk-life museum), and that synagogues without Jews will not serve their primary religious function, and so a different function must be found for them, one corresponding to the needs of the local community. It is solely due to this kind of understanding and joint effort that today we can take pride in the restored synagogues in Pakruojis, Joniškis and Kėdainiai, as well as the synagogues being restored in Vilnius, Žiežmariai and Alytus. We very much hope more Lithuanian synagogues, those in Alanta, Kurkliai, Tirkšliai and Kaltinėnai, along the same lines. And we haven’t abandoned hope the Kalvarija municipality will begin to truly look for and find ways to implement their pledge to themselves to restore their unique synagogue complex, a project which began more than 15 years ago now. I don’t know whether the inactivity is due to a lack of inter-institutional cooperation or insufficient good will, but for more than 20 years the now it seems the Lithuanian Jewish Community hasn’t been returned the Kaunas Hassidic Synagogue, although the building stands unused for a long time now and is no longer needed by the current owner. Unlike other synagogues, the Kaunas Hassidic Synagogue can be used for performing its main function, to satisfy the religious needs of the Kaunas Jewish Community. Another similar example is the plan by the Kėdainiai regional administration, which has taken over management under a use agreement with the Lithuanian Jewish Community of a synagogue, to use the restored synagogue building for hosting informal children’s education activities. They are unable to receive EU funds because they are hindered by certain formalities which the Education Ministry could help solve, but so far they have shown no initiative to do so.

Concluding my talk on synagogues, I would like to say a few more words about the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, one of the most lucid cultural and sacral symbols of the Jews of Lithuania which has received much public attention recently. The commemoration of the Great Synagogue site, as with any other issue concerning Litvak heritage, cannot be considered without the inclusion and participation of the Lithuanian Jewish Community. The Lithuanian Jewish Community has the right and the duty to exert all efforts to insure the appropriate commemoration of surviving artifacts, still being discovered and examined by archaeologists, of the temple, and that the seriousness of the site be maintained and due respect paid to it. This is at its base a project to preserve heritage and memory, and the Great Synagogue cannot become a commercial site. The rebuilding of the synagogue would also be an unfounded measure for preserving its heritage if it didn’t serve the community’s needs. And in the end there are an abundance of investments requiring no special measures which could be made immediately: let’s clean up the surrounding area, let’s erect a real information board, and let’s perhaps put some of the archaeological finds on public display.

Once we do clean up the site and commemorate the Great Synagogue, we will have another site attracting visitors (both domestic and foreign) helping educate the public on Litvak history and presenting our rich legacy. Along with many other successful initiatives whose number and diversity have mushroomed recently. I will mention just a few: the YIVO archive digitization and public access project, the new Judaica Center at the Lithuanian National Martynas Mažvydas Library, the marking by almost half of all Lithuanian municipalities and regional administrations of the European Day of Jewish Culture, the Jewish calendar published by the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the unique culinary heritage Bagel Shop café operating under the Lithuanian Jewish Community’s roof, the revival of klezmer traditions, new exhibitions, educational programs and a plethora of events.

But in this area we also see a number of discouraging things. We have repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the ineffectively operating Vilnius Jewish Culture and Information Center and the inappropriate use of premises entrusted to them, whose second floor isn’t being used according to its function. We propose establishing a Vilnius Jewish History Museum there, whose concept was presented to the Vilnius municipality, although there has been no movement in considering the proposal.

Also, the Lithuanian Jewish Community this year joined the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage which is coordinating the European Route of Jewish Culture and the European Day of Jewish Culture initiatives, and we place great hopes in the development and perfection of the association’s activities.

Although we cannot resurrect the pre-war Lithuanian Jewish community, although we cannot return the human remains disturbed during construction of the Palace of Sports to their places of eternal rest, we do have access to civilized dialogue which can help us solve the challenges history poses us, to discover the best ways to present future generations if not perfectly restored Jewish heritage sites, at least a clearer understanding of their significance.

Jewish history in Lithuania didn’t begin or end with the Holocaust. The Lithuanian Jewish Community as the successor to this history expects to be included in all Jewish heritage preservation initiatives.

I would like to underline that although Jewish heritage preservation is a priority for the Lithuanian Jewish Community, it is actually most important to Lithuania herself. The Lithuanian towns and cities which have struck the balance with Jewish heritage preservation are able to provide their residents and visitors the opportunity to get to know personally part of the vanished past. The good examples show investments made in heritage pay for themselves: they are beneficial to the social, cultural and economic life of cities and towns facing shrinking population, they help residents understand their own local history and their connection with the past, the continuity of obscured traditions and prospects for the future.