History of the Jews in Lithuania

Happy 10th Birthday to Maceva, the Litvak Cemetery Catalogue

Happy 10th Birthday to Maceva, the Litvak Cemetery Catalogue

Photo: Restored Jewish cemetery in Šeduva, Lithuania.

Mazl tov to Maceva, the Litvak Cemetery Catalogue, which is celebrating a milestone: ten years of activity documenting, cleaning, digitizing, and restoring Jewish cemeteries in Lithuania.

“Beit Olam, cemeteries are the house of living. It is the place were our memory comes to life,” the non-profit organization, established in 2011, said in an anniversary statement on its facebook page.

Vatican Says Anti-Semitism Intolerable

Vatican Says Anti-Semitism Intolerable

Photo: Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, courtesy Vatican.

Great strides forward have been in recent decades in Jewish-Catholic relations, with better recognition on both sides allowing for more mutual understanding at the theological but also the social and political levels, Holy See secretary for relations with states Paul Richard Gallher said as part of a campaign by the Israeli embassy to the Vatican called #StopAntiSemitism.

Archbishop Gallagher in a video message posted last Thursday reiterated the Holy See’s commitment against intolerance towards people of Jewish heritage. He said the “Nostra Aetate” [In Our Age] declaration defining relations between the Church and non-Christian religions adopted by the Vatican II Council 55 years ago has helped broaden dialogue between Jews and Christians.

Archbishop Gallagher highlighted two points in Nostra Aetate: its emphasis on the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and the condemnation of anti-Semitism in every form and species.

“In this regard, much progress has been made in recent years,” the archbishop affirmed. “Mutual knowledge has led to a better understanding on theological, social and political levels, including bilateral Agreements by which diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel have been established,” the Vatican reported on its official news website.

Op-Ed: My Grandfather’s Role in the Nazi Occupation Is Forcing a Reckoning in Lithuania

Op-Ed: My Grandfather’s Role in the Nazi Occupation Is Forcing a Reckoning in Lithuania

Photo: Silvia Foti holds a photograph of her grandfather Jonas Noreika at her home in Chicago in 2019. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

by Silvia Foti

A little bronze plaque hanging on a library wall in a city most Americans know nothing about is at the epicenter of a battle over the Holocaust.

In the last six years, this modest plaque in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, inspired 20 legal actions in five courts, vigilante action by a disgruntled citizen with a sledgehammer, a scandal for the city’s mayor and candlelit vigils by protesters seeking to resurrect it in a grander incarnation.

The power of this plaque comes from a question of whether its honoree is guilty of murdering thousands of Jews in Lithuania. Those who want the plaque up say its namesake is a brave patriot who fought against the Communists, took orders from Nazis and had no idea his signature would lead to murdered civilians. By extension, it’s about more than one person’s guilt or innocence–it’s about the guilt or innocence of Lithuania.

Full opinion piece here.

Remembering the Children’s Aktion of March 27, 1944

Remembering the Children’s Aktion of March 27, 1944

For three decades now the Kaunas Jewish Community has been commemorating in the last days of March the horrific operation for the mass murder of children in the Kaunas ghetto on March 27, 1944.

Over one day around 1,700 children and elderly were captured, taken out of the ghetto and murdered. The list of children murdered in the Kaunas ghetto is incomplete, it only contains a few names. The list was drawn up for the 70th anniversary of the Children’s Aktion with information from the Vilna Gaon Jewish History Museum and private individuals.

“We saw a bus. This noisy music was emanating from it which was supposed to mask the screams of the children, the mothers begging and pleading and the barking of the dogs. Drunk and angry Ukrainians (Ukrainian police of vlasovniki) waving axes and crow-bars hunted down the children and elderly people in their hiding places. All the atrocities ended with sundown.

“Returning from forced labor, the parents found the ghetto torn apart. The neighbor sister put a bag of clothes on a shelf and hid her three-year-old daughter inside. A German soldier looking for children jabbed the bag with a bayonet, but didn’t find anything. The cutting raised a cloud of dust and the soldier hurried out of the room. When the mother untied the bag she found her girl curled up with a deep wound in her back. The mother broke into tears but the little one, it seems her name was Gita, said: ‘Don’t cry, mommy, it doesn’t hurt.'” (testimony of J. Corefas’s father, from the book “Išgelbėti bulvių maišuose” [Saved in Potato Sacks].

We remember and we honor the victims of this terrific mass murder operation called the Children’s Aktion, and gathered to do so in a small group in line with quarantine rules in Kaunas.

100-Meter Dash Champion Mykolas Preis Dead at 104

100-Meter Dash Champion Mykolas Preis Dead at 104

Mykolas Preis died at the age of 104 in Israel March 31. He was twice the Lithuanian champion of the 100-meter dash in the interwar period. He was buried at the Har haMenukhot cemetery in Jerusalem next to his wife Olia. Preis’s family emigrated to Israel in 1973. The Lithuanian Jewish Community remembers Mykolas Preis as an outstanding doctor and athlete. Our deepest condolences to his family.

Preis was the last interwar Lithuanian track champion. He took first place two years in a row, in 1939 and 1940, running the 100-meter dash in 11.5 seconds both times.

Preis was the senior medical doctor at the Sports Medicine Center located on Rožių alley in Vilnius in 1948. His contemporaries spoke of him as a great organizer as well as athlete. According to the Makabi records he came to prominence as a runner in 1938. Preis shared his memories of childhood and adolescence in the book “Lietuvos sporto klubo ,Makabi 1916–2016” [Lithuanian Makabi Athletics Club, 1916-2016] and spoke about his many friends and the influence of his caring and warm teacher Rozalija Sondeckienė when he attended the Šiauliai Boys’ Gymnasium.

Symbolic Commemoration of Holocaust Victims at Ponar

Symbolic Commemoration of Holocaust Victims at Ponar


Press Release
April 7, 2021
Vilnius

Symbolic Commemoration of Holocaust Victims at Ponar

A symbolic ceremony to honor victims of the Holocaust will take place at 12 noon on April 8, Yom haShoa, the Israeli Day of Remembrance of Holocaust Victims and Heroes, at the Ponar Memorial Complex outside Vilnius. Adhering to all safety requirements, members of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, diplomats and surviving Vilnius ghetto prisoners will place stones and flowers at monuments and the mass graves and the cantor will perform kaddish, a prayer for the dead.

“The March of the Living traditionally took place on this occasion, repeating the final march of those condemned to death from the railroad station to the Ponar Memorial Complex, but due to the pandemic situation, this year this won’t be a mass commemoration. Only a few of us are gathering, carrying out the responsibility to preserve and pass on to future generations the memory of the Holocaust. This year is the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Holocaust in Lithuania, after all. With us today is an eye-witness to those horrific events, Kaunas ghetto inmate Dovydas Leibzonas,” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky said.

President Rivlin Thanks LJC for Commemorative Coin

President Rivlin Thanks LJC for Commemorative Coin

President of Israel Reuven Rivlin has sent a letter to the Lithuanian Jewish Community thanking the LJC for presenting him a Lithuanian commemorative coin celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Vilna Gaon.

“I was especially moved by this gesture as the President of the State of Israel and as a proud descendant of the Vilna Gaon,” president Rivlin wrote in his letter.

He continued: “The gift, indeed, reflects the strong and everlasting ties between us, Jews in the State of Israel and Jewish communities in the diaspora, and reflects the historic ties between Israel and Lithuania.”

President Rivlin ended his letter by calling himself a proud Litvak and sending warm greetings from Jerusalem to all members of the Community.

This is How It Was Done in Vilne…

This is How It Was Done in Vilne…

Photo: Pinchos Fridberg, the only Jew left in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius who was born there before the Nazis invaded in 1941. By Brendan Hoffman for the New York Times.

by professor Pinchos Fridberg, an alter vilner id [an old Jew born and raised in Vilnius]

Rebe, will there ever come a time when the words Vilne and Yidish will be inseparable again?”
Saydn nor mit Meshiakh’n ineinem.” [Not unless it comes with the Messiah.]

Introduction

The article “Как это делалось ин Вилнэ…” [This Is How It Was Done in Vilne] became the main feature for issue no. 505 of the international magazine “Мы Здесь” [We Are Here] in 2015. More than 7,000 people read it, and I began receiving letters from people whom I didn’t know.

The largest Russian-language weekly newspaper in Lithuania “Обзор” [Review] reprinted this article on its website on March 8, 2021.

The article concerns the history of Jewish Vilnius.

I think it might be interesting to non-Russian-language readers as well. *

“This is How It Was Done in Vilne…”

As I was putting my archive in order, I came across a small program for a concert to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Jewish volunteer collectives. This program is more than half a calendrical century old. I think the reader might be interested to see “how it was done in Vilne.” The program contains over 30 photographs. I will present a few of them. I believe it has long been time for them to be revived on the wider internet.

Choral Synagogue in Vilnius Opens Virtual Doors

Choral Synagogue in Vilnius Opens Virtual Doors

The Lithuanian Jewish Community is inviting the public to take a virtual tour of the only synagogue operating in Vilnius according to all Jewish laws, the Choral Synagogue. The virtual guided tour will demonstrate the synagogue itself and also offers tourists the chance to learn about Jewish cultural and culinary traditions and the High Holy Days.

The virtual tour covers the synagogue’s interior, the mikva, the kosher kitchen and the only surviving matzo-making machine in Lithuania, as well as Jewish religion, philosophy, traditional holidays, lifestyles and Jewish sacred songs. Virtual lessons are available in the kosher kitchen for those wanting to learn about the Jewish culinary tradition. Over six millennia strict traditions have developed for religious and secular holidays for making certain foods for specific holidays, for example, only round loaves of challa are baked and fish heads prepared for the Rosh Hashanah table, doughnuts and potato pancakes are fried for Hanukkah and hamantaschen, pastries filled with poppy seeds, are made for Purim.

Around 10,000 tourists visit the Choral Synagogue annually, many of them the Litvak descendants of Holocaust survivors living in diaspora around the world, and also local residents, students, and social partners in the field of culture and tourism in Lithuania and abroad. Visiting the synagogue is being restricted because of the corona virus, so a virtual tour has been set up for Lithuanians and for Litvaks living abroad who are able to visit at least virtually the synagogue of their parents’ youth or adolescence.

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky said the virtual introduction to Jewish culture and tradition strengthens the multicultural expression of the city community and popularizes Jewish cultural heritage.

The Lithuanian Cultural Council is financing the project called “Choral Synagogue of Vilnius: Prayer, Kitchen, Mikva.”

Art Creates Tolerance Project Features Samuel Bak

Art Creates Tolerance Project Features Samuel Bak

www.DELFI.lt

The Vilnius Gaon Jewish History Museum and the EZCO creative agency are presenting an initiative called “Art Creates Tolerance” inspired by the life and work of Samuel Bak.

The project’s goal is to use Vilnius-born Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak’s art “to encourage public discussion using modern multimedia on the past and socially-sensitive issues of the present, to find historical signs and to discover the value of tolerance,” according to museum director Kamilė Rupeikaitė.

The project will use the museum’s existing physical and virtual exhibits about Bak and expand them with new exhibits.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Regional Jewish Communities Celebrate Passover and Send Greetings

Regional Jewish Communities Celebrate Passover and Send Greetings

Gennady Kofman, chairman, Panevėžys Jewish Community:

Happy Passover, one of the most important holidays on the Jewish religious calendar.

Passover holiday greetings to all. We wish you a happy time talking with your families.

This is the evening of sacrifice which took place before God led the Israelites out of Egypt. During Passover we eat unleavened bread, matzo. The first, second and last evening are marked with a large dinner with strict traditions: the head of family reads a passage from the Book of Exodus, prayers and a collection of liturgical hymns. A hand-washing ceremony is performed before eating. Before the end of the holiday meal a beautiful cup with grape juice is placed and the door is left open, and this is called “Elijah’s cup.”

The Seder Table: A Jewish Tradition Unchanged for Millennia

The Seder Table: A Jewish Tradition Unchanged for Millennia

Passover, the most important Jewish holiday which lasts for eight days, begins on March 27 this year. The date for celebrating Passover is set by the lunar calendar: the first full moon after the vernal equinox. The name of the holy day comes from “pesakh,” meaning passed over, recalling the story of the Angel of Death which passed over the Israelites before Moses led the slaves out of Egypt.

“The symbolic meaning of this holiday is that it wasn’t separate Jewish families which came out of Egypt, but a single, united Jewish people. The Jewish people throw off the yoke of slavery and leave in order to reach the Promised Land, and there create their nation,” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky explained.

Passover Traditions over the Millennia

Keeper of Jewish cultural and religious traditions Natalija Cheifec said although the exodus from Egypt occurred more than 3,300 years ago, Passover traditions have remained almost unchanged over the many centuries. The main feature of the eight-day holiday is the seder dinner when the Hagada is read out, prayers are made and people sit at the seder table and eat from the seder plate, or ke’are.

Maša Rolnikaitė, Girgoriy Shur Holocaust Books to be Given to All Lithuanian Schools, Libraries

Maša Rolnikaitė, Girgoriy Shur Holocaust Books to be Given to All Lithuanian Schools, Libraries

by Eugenijus Bunka

When you speak with those who aren’t there, it’s called Memory. Therefore Maša Rolnikaitė’s book “I Must Tell” [Turiu papasakoti] and Grigoriy Shur’s “Entries: Chronicle of the Vilnius Ghetto, 1941-1944” [Užrašai: Vilniaus geto kronika 1941-1944 m.] are books of Memory. And in memory of those whose lives were cut short, as they began or half-way through, who were consumed in the flames of the Holocaust.

Not one of the people mentioned in these books died a natural death. That inherent human right was taken from them.

They died without notice in World War II, but Maša and Grigoriy who had stood with them spoke loudly.

If a Red Army soldier hadn’t found Maša frozen, lying in a snow drift on the final death march from the Stutthof concentration camp, this book would not exist. The diary she kept hidden on her person would have been buried with her. But she survived and now in eighteen languages her story tells the world what humanity may never allow to happen again.

LJC Makes Virtual Sabbaths with Global Communities a Regular Thing

LJC Makes Virtual Sabbaths with Global Communities a Regular Thing

The Lithuanian Jewish Community has been using the Zoom platform to hold virtual Sabbath celebrations with Jewish communities around the world, including lessons on Jewish subjects and meetings with Liberal or Progressive Judaism congregations.

On March 19 the LJC held a joint virtual Sabbath with Rabbis Alexandra Rait and Igor Zinkov at the London Liberal Synagogue.

Rabbi Alexandra’s ancestors came from Plungė, Lithuania. Her great-grandfather N. Levit was also a rabbi. Her grandfather left Lithuania for New York, but ended up in Dublin instead. It seems the ship’s captain lied to the young man about their final destination.

Rabbi Alexandra Rait said her family visited Lithuania several years ago and toured Vilnius, Kaunas and Plungė. She recalled ushering in the Sabbath in an abandoned synagogue in Plungė where her ancestor had led prayer services. “There was no electricity and we read the prayers by candle light. There was loud thunder, and it rained. … We also visited the mass murder site in Plungė. My cousin was working with the Tolerance Center in Plungė.” She recalled how her family financed a commemorative marker at that mass murder site. “We also met the last Jew from that shtetl, the famous woodcarver and sculptor Jakovas Bunka, and his son Eugenijus,” Rabbi Rait said during the virtual Sabbath last week.

Rabbi Igor Zinkov was born in Chelyabinsk to a family of secular Jews with roots in Odessa and Kiev.

History of the Alytus Synagogue: From House of Prayer, to Salt Storehouse, to Poultry Hatchery

History of the Alytus Synagogue: From House of Prayer, to Salt Storehouse, to Poultry Hatchery

Cultural Infrastructure Center

The Cultural Infrastructure Center of Lithuania is completing renovation work on the synagogue in Alytus. Emergency preservation work followed by renovation led to a fuller restoration and the building is now housing a section of the Alytus Museum.

The old synagogue on Kauno street in Alytus, Lithuania, appeared in total ruin just five years ago, with boarded-up windows and bricks falling from the walls. Experts saw even worse things at work.

“The condition of the outer wall was poor… In spots several bricks were missing, and in some places even larger sections of bricks had fallen out. The mortar on the lower portion was visibly damaged by moisture or salt which it will still take several years to drive out of the building walls. The façades on the southern side of the building were especially damaged. We found the interior also deeply damaged, with the floor dug up and windows and doors removed,” Cultural Infrastructure Center acting deputy director Viktoras Vilkišius said.

Strong Jewish Community Formerly Lived in Alytus

The first wooden synagogue was built in the western section of Alytus in 1856 apparently at the same site the currently restored synagogue occupies. It was a small building heated with a stove and housed a school and the rabbi’s living quarters.

Sabbath Lesson on Branches of Judaism

Sabbath Lesson on Branches of Judaism

Viljamas Žitkauskas held an internet Sabbath discussion called “Differences and Shared Features of Branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Modern, Progressive” last Friday as part of the continuing series of internet Sabbath meetings and discussion. He spoke about the unprecedented decision by the Supreme Court of Israel March 1 following 15 years of hearings recognizing conversion to Judaism in conservative and reform communities, and that every convert has the right to move to Israel.

Žitkauskas thought this decision and the recent joint Sabbaths the Lithuanian Jewish Community has held with Reform synagogues in Johannesburg and Minsk would be a good starting point to talk about the different schools of thought and differences among the currents in Judaism.

He began by defining the terms “Jew,” “Jewish people,” and “our sons, the pride of Israel.”

Community members from Vilnius, Panevėžys and other Lithuanian towns and cities participated in the Zoom conference. Participants learned about the origins of Judaism, what the words Torah and Tanakh mean, what the religious significance of being a Litvak is, that misnagdim means orthodox, how misnagdim differ from chassidim, how reform Judaism arose and more.

The lecture/discussion concluded with the havdalah ceremony, distinguishing the Sabbath from the working days of the week.

Forgotten History: How Jews Fought for Lithuanian Independence

Forgotten History: How Jews Fought for Lithuanian Independence

lrytas.lt

The Lithuanian Jewish Community held a virtual lecture on contributions made by Lithuania’s Jews in the battles for national independence. Journalist and history researcher Vilnius Kavaliauskas presented to the wider audience little-known historical facts about Jewish volunteer soldiers who fought for the independence of the young Lithuanian state one hundred years ago.

“This is an undeservedly forgotten story which we want to tell everyone today. In 1918 Jews consciously chose to be citizens of the independent Republic of Lithuania then being born, were active participants in public life and introduced many important innovations.

“All of that is being forgotten now. Our goal is to remember their stories and their names, and I personally hope this will lead to an end of talking about Jews as foreigners, as ‘others.’ We were and are the joint creators of Lithuanian history,” said LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, who initiated the discussion.

Journalist and author Vilius Kavaliauskas, who has taken a keen interested in the period of the battles for independence and has shared the information and discoveries he’s uncovered, agreed: “Researching the lists of the Lithuanian volunteers who were awarded for contributions to the Lithuanian state during the first republic, I find many Jewish surnames. Some also have a date of birth and a date of death, while others lived on and continued to contribute to creating a better Lithuania later on. The Jewish histories are especially interesting in that they were and our suppliers, medics and organizers for our military, which goes to show the volunteer Lithuanian military was well-organized, highly-qualified people served in it. This is extremely important to take into account; Lithuania has always appreciated competence and knowledge.”

Lithuanian Jewish Community Marks Sabbath with Johannesburg Rabbi Julia Margolis

Lithuanian Jewish Community Marks Sabbath with Johannesburg Rabbi Julia Margolis

Julia Margolis of the Beit Luria Progressive Shul in Johannesburg led a Sabbath celebration with the Lithuanian Jewish Community last Friday via the internet. She was the first female rabbi to open a progressive synagogue in South Africa along with others from the South African Union of Progressive Jews. The synagogue is the eleventh progressive synagogue in South Africa and the first in Gaunteng province in many years.

Tull Eckhart provided music during the virtual meeting.

Trans-Atlantic Dialogues II: Teaching the Holocaust in Challenging Times

Trans-Atlantic Dialogues II: Teaching the Holocaust in Challenging Times

U.S. Department of State | Thursday, March 18, 2021 | 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. EDT

The State Department’s Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues cordially invites you to a webinar on the challenges European and American educators face in teaching about the Holocaust to a new generation of learners. Holocaust educators will compare educational landscapes, discuss best practices and areas for cooperation, and speak to the challenges presented by rising anti-Semitism worldwide as well as the greater reliance on virtual schooling in a (post)-COVID world.

Please register by completing the form below.

This Zoom webinar will be in English. Participants will have an opportunity to submit questions in writing during the webinar or in advance by email to: SEHI-EVENTS@state.gov. This invitation may be shared with trusted colleagues and friends.

Featuring: