The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry and the Lithuanian Jewish Community invited guests and the public to a ceremony to unveil a plaque near the site of the former Vilnius headquarters of YIVO on Vivulskio street in Vilnius June 20. Those attending included deputy to the LJC chairwoman professor Leonidas Melnikas, the heads of YIVO, Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevičius, Lithuanian culture minister Dr. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, Jewish partisan Fania Brancovskaja and the mayor of Vilnius.
YIVO began in Vilnius in 1925 and was originally housed in the apartment of its founder and prime mover Max Weinreich on Basanavičiaus street (aka Pogulanskaya, Pogulnaka and Wielka Pohulanka street) in Vilnius. Dedicated to research on the language, literature, culture and history of Jews in Eastern Europe, the institute collected a large mass of documents and archive material from local Jewish communities before the Holocaust.
Architect and designer Victoria Sideraitė-Alon designed the new YIVO plaque.
Although much of YIVO’s material was lost during the war, some made its way to the provisional war-time headquarters in New York, which became world headquarters following the war.
Professor Melnikas told the audience Yiddish was heard in Vilnius for many centuries and the language symbolizes Litvak identity. He said that although just a few decades ago it was heard throughout Lithuania, it is rarely heard now. He said the plaque near the site of the former building demonstrates memory lives on and the pen is mightier than the sword.
Dr. Kvietkauskas spoke in Yiddish, recalling the time when the language was dear to Lithuanian Jews and which is now a significant part of our legacy. Kvietkauskas has translated numerous works from Yiddish to Lithuanian.
YIVO executive director Jonathan Brent participated in the ceremony, as did YIVO board of directors member Irene Pletka, who was born in Shanghai. Her parents received Japanese visas from Chiune Sugihara. She is involved in preserving and passing on the Yiddish language. She is also the founder of the Kronhill Pletka Foundation which supports secular Jewish culture, Yiddish and the restoration of Jewish communities in Europe and the world.
Pletka told the audience she learned Yiddish from a son of one of the founders of YIVO who was a partisan during World War II. Her teacher, Zheleznikov, returned to Vilnius after the war and hoped to revive Jewish life here, but this was not to be.
YIVO founder Max Weinreich moved YIVO to New York in 1940 whither some of the collections were moved from Europe after the war. The YIVO collections now contain about 385,000 books and periodicals and about 24 million documents, photographs, audio and visual recordings and other items. Just over 20 years ago it became clear some of the YIVO collection had survived in Vilnius, some 10,000 rare and unique publications and about 1.5 million documents.