History of the Jews in Lithuania

Litvak Literature: Grigoriy Kanovich at 90

Litvak Literature: Grigoriy Kanovich at 90

by Sergejus Kanovičius

My father wrote “Shtetl Love Song” at the age of 84. And he promised himself he wouldn’t write more: “it’s better I not write, and I don’t want to write more poorly.” Over the last six years his books have been translated to and published in English, German and Macedonian. They are being translated now as well, and soon more will appear. No matter how my brother and I have tried to provoke Father to write more, he firmly keeps to the promise he made to himself. Not a month goes by that he doesn’t get a letter from publishers or journalists asking for interviews, to attend a book launch or to travel to deliver a lecture. Very rarely he agrees to answer questions in writing: “I have said everything already, I have written everything, let them read my books.”

It’s not the first time when his name is heard at the bustle of the book fair, when his selected writings are presented, Rūta Oginskaitė’s memoir biography “Gib a Kuk” [Take a Look] and now “Linksmos Akys” [Happy Eyes]. But the author is not at the book fair. And he won’t be at the next one, although there might be a different book. If not at the Lithuanian book fair, then maybe the German, Polish or English. As I recall Father never liked answering questions about his work. It seemed incomprehensible to him how an author could also interpret that which he has created, and he didn’t understand either how one could explain what one has experienced and given birth to. Just take me and read. Father doesn’t like questions about his work. Unless those questions are broader, about a worldview. But this is in the books, too.

Rudashevski Ghetto Diary Wins Main Prizes at Vilnius Book Fair

Rudashevski Ghetto Diary Wins Main Prizes at Vilnius Book Fair

The Vilnius ghetto diary of Yitzhak Rudashevski, translated and published by the Lithuanian Jewish Community, has won the Book of the Year distinction at the annual Vilnius Book Fair currently being held in the Lithuanian capital.

Deputy minister for culture Gintautė Žemaitytė congratulated the designers and publishers, presenting them prizes and diplomas. The book was recognized as the best book in terms of design, taste and art for 2018. The Lithuanian Cultural Ministry has presented the prize annually 26 years now. Over 130 publications competed for the title this time.

Book designer Sigutė Chlebinskaitė won the main prize for sensitive aesthetics and holistic concept. Congratulations to Sigutė for her talent and for dedicating it to the boy from the Vilnius ghetto.

The LJC won in the category of publisher. We are so glad we were able to present this monument to the children of the Holocaust to the Lithuanian reader.

Born in Leviatan’s Clinic

Born in Leviatan’s Clinic

The Lithuanian Jewish Community hosted the launch of the Lithuanian translation of an unusual book on February 21. Professor Uri Leviatan’s book “From Hand to Hand” is unlike the academic works by this much-published anthropologist and sociologist who focuses on the modern phenomenon of the Israeli kibbutz. It is his own story, and that of his parents and grand-parents, which he began writing for his son Lior in 2014, the fruit of personal research stretching back decades, in which the author seeks to answer the question of his origins and what exactly happened to him as a child during the Holocaust.

The autobiography reads like a thriller novel and the author himself describes it as a series of detective stories.

Asked to speak about his experience as a child of the Holocaust at a Holocaust survivor and Jewish partisan conference held in Israel in the ’90s, Leviatan realized he had actually been passed from one guardian to another at least seven times. Initially his parents had him smuggled out of the Kaunas ghetto, where they perished, but after that his path to Israel after the war became very foggy in his own mind. Hardly unusual for a child born in 1939 to not remember all of the horror of the Holocaust in his first few years, but Leviatan’s memory gaps seem to have always bothered him, and he managed over the decades to track down real documentation of himself as a Jewish orphan in Lithuania and later at the Sanhedria children’s home in Israel, now sporting a different first name following what he described as his “almost kidnapping” by a Jewish religious group which gathered up Jewish orphans in Europe. This group changed his name, falsified his date of birth and it was only when his aunt, already in Israel, went looking for him and happened to ask another child from Kaunas about Uri that he was rescued.

Presentation of Uri Levitan’s Book “From Hand to Hand” at LJC

Presentation of Uri Levitan’s Book “From Hand to Hand” at LJC

The Lithuanian Jewish Community kindly invites you to attend a presentation of the book “Iš rankų į rankas” [“From Hand to Hand,” translated from the Hebrew to Lithuanian by Victoria Sideraitė-Alon with an introduction by Dalia Epšteinaitė, who also edited the Lithuanian version] by head of the Sociology and Anthropology Faculty and head of the Kibbutz Institute of Haifa University professor Uriel Leviatan and a meeting with the author at 6:00 P.M. on Thursday, February 21, at the LJC in Vilnius.

Professor Leviatan was born in Kaunas. His grandfather Isaac Leviatan was a renowned gynecologist in prewar Lithuania. The birthing clinic he created on Miško street in Kaunas in 1926 is still operating. Isaac Leviatan was a talented doctor and an active figure in Kaunas public life. He became chairman of the Zionist party Zionim Klaleem in 1935 and was the long-time representative of that party at Zionist congresses held in Europe.

Of the family of Isaac Leviatan renowned in Kaunas and throughout Lithuania, only Uriel survived through a kind of miracle. His parents sensed the coming liquidation of the ghetto in 1943 and made sure three-year-old Uriel was smuggled out of the ghetto…

Jewish Scouts Hike to Synagogue in Žiežmariai

Jewish Scouts Hike to Synagogue in Žiežmariai

The Lithuanian Jewish Community invited Jewish scouts for a winter hike on February 17. The delegation left by train for Žasliai where they were welcomed by the town alderman and local students. The scouts presented the community and the school with a gift, the ghetto diary of Yitzhak Rudashevski in Lithuanian.

The hike began through Strošiūnai Forest where the scouts learned how to build a fire and had a snack.

Hikers later visited the Jewish mass murder site in Strošiūnai Forest where everyone laid a stone in memory of the victims. The hike concluded at the Žiežmariai Cultural Center where the scouts, along with Kaišiadorys regional administration head Vytenis Tomkus, they raised and viewed the traditional Žiežmariai haShomer haTzair scouting flag, generously donated for the occasion by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

Launch of Book about Jews of Švėkšna

Launch of Book about Jews of Švėkšna

Monika Žąsytienė, a Bagel Shop project volunteer and museum specialist, has written a book called “Švėkšnos žydų bendruomenė XVII–XX a.” [The Jewish Community of Švėkšna from the 17th to the 20th Century].

The Bagel Shop Café will host the launch of the new book at 6:00 P.M. on February 19. Register here.

According to the author, the book makes no pretense of being an historical work. Instead, Monika Žąsytienė sought to bring together local lore and regional history for future work on the subject. She made use of material from Lithuanian archives, Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C. Some of the information–testimonies, memoirs, correspondence in Yiddish, Hebrew, German and English–appears for the first time in Lithuanian in her book.

Liova Taicas Memorial Tournament in Šiauliai

Liova Taicas Memorial Tournament in Šiauliai

An athletics tournament in memory of Liova Taicas (1952-2009) has been held annually in Šiauliai since 2010.

Chess, ping-pong, basketball and inside soccer matches were held this year with 123 contestants from the city and region of Šiauliai, Vilnius, Kaunas, Panevėžys, Klaipėda, Ukmergė, Žagarė and even Israel. Israeli ambassador to Lithuania Amir Maimon, Lithuanian MP Viktorija Čmilytė Nielsen, Rabbi Kalev Krelin, deputy mayor of Šiauliai Justinas Sartauskas, deputy head of the Šiauliai regional administration Algis Mačiulis, chairmen of the regional Jewish communities and many other members and friends participated.

Liova Taicas and Oser Gleizer were active members in Šiauliai of broader a group who sought to resurrect the Makabi athletics club in the 1988-1989 period, as Lithuania was breaking away from the Soviet Union. Both became directors of Makabi in Šiauliai and organized sporting events, mainly involving the then-large Lithuanian Jewish communities.

Following Taicas’s death, Gleizer proposed holding annual sporting events to honor Taicas and his contributions to the Jewish athletics movement. The 10th Liova Taicas memorial tournament was held on February 10 of this year.

Aaron Garon’s Book Vilnius Jewish World Presented at LJC

Aaron Garon’s Book Vilnius Jewish World Presented at LJC

Aaron Garon (Garonas, 1919-2009) was born in Vilnius and most of his life was associated with his beloved home town. He moved to Israel in 1992 but always looked forward to the summers when he would return to Vilnius.

Garon became a witness to the phenomenon of the Vilnius Jewish world at a young age and harbored a life-long and deep love of Jewish culture and his native Yiddish language.

A reserved and proud Litvak, Garon painfully witnessed, too, the decline of Yiddish: “How can we erase a thousand years of Jewish cultural history?”

Garon’s terse tales of his home, parents and school–all of which he adored–served as a kind of return to paradise lost for him: “If there is anything positive in me, I must thank my parents and school and our wonderful principal Sofia Gurevich for this,” he wrote.

The Jewish world of Vilnius thrived for centuries but was wiped out in the Holocaust, although survivors continued to speak Yiddish with their families for decades. Most of them made their way to Israel, and Yiddish was no longer heard on the streets of Vilnius. This book–a Lithuanian translation of select articles by Garon the journalist and writer–is more than just vivid memories, it is a testimony to and a painting in Yiddish of a lost world which might teach future generations just how much the city lost. The new book is in both Lithuanian and Yiddish.

Exhibit by Kaunas Collector at Choral Synagogue in Vilnius

Exhibit by Kaunas Collector at Choral Synagogue in Vilnius

An exhibit of items in the collection of well-known collector Michailis Duškesas regarding pre-war Vilnius Jewish organizations is on display at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius showing the rich and active life of Vilnius Jews before the Holocaust.

Thank you to Michailis and Natalija Duškesai of Kaunas who made the effort to organize and set up this unique exhibit in Vilnius.

The second floor of the synagogue is still hosting an exhibit of photographs of wooden synagogues as well. The photos were donated by Daumantas Todesas, director of the Jakov Bunka support and welfare fund.

Fate of Litvaks in the Holocaust in Yad Vasherm Documents and Projects

Fate of Litvaks in the Holocaust in Yad Vasherm Documents and Projects

Serafima Velkovich from Israel delivered a public lecture at the Chaim Frankel villa on February 14, 2019, called “The Fate of Litvaks in the Holocaust in Yad Vasherm Documents and Projects.” The event was intended to mark the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Šiauliai ghetto. The lecture was in English with simultaneous translation to Lithuania. Velkovich works in the archives of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial institute in Israel. The event was attended by members of the Šiauliai Regional Jewish Community, Lithuanian MP Stasiys Tumėnas’s advisor Nerijus Brazauskas, representatives of the local municipal and regional administrations, employees from the Aušra, Joniškis and Pakruojis Museums, high school students from Šiauliai and local public figures and members of the public.

The event was organized by the Šiauliai Regional Jewish Community. Partners included the Goodwill Foundation, the International Commission to Assess the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania, the Aušra Museum in Šiauliai, the Klaipėda Jewish Religious Community, the Kaunas Jewish Religious Community, the Conference of European Rabbis, descendants of Litvaks abroad, the Panevėžys Jewish Support Association and the Jewish Cultural Heritage Route Association.

Dobrė Rozenbergienė: Before I Could Turn Around Mother Was Gone

Dobrė Rozenbergienė: Before I Could Turn Around Mother Was Gone

by Jurgita Lieponė

“It’s impossible to tell of that horror and hunger,” Kaunas Jewish Community member Dobrė Rozenbergienė said. Her story along with the stories of those who suffered a similar fate are buried deep. And if you encountered these people on the street or at the store, next to the dairy products, you wouldn’t even think that standing before you is someone who survived the impossible. Or that for him the word “action” isn’t associated with a sale at a shopping center at all, but with the some of the worst memories. Sometimes words are more than just words.

Dobrė Rozenbergienė was born in Jurbarkas in 1928, where she lived with her parents Motel Most and Brokhe Fidler and her brother Israel until World War II. The Most family shared the home with her mother’s cousin’s family. The war left its mark on the family’s fate and as a child Dobrė experienced the loss of her closest family members. She shared her memories with the curators of the Memory Bureau project of the Kaunas as European Capital of Culture program.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Launch of Aaron Garon’s Vilnius Jewish World

Launch of Aaron Garon’s Vilnius Jewish World

The Lithuanian Jewish Community will host the launch of Aaron Garon’s (1919-2009) “Vilnius Jewish World” at 3:00 P.M. on February 17.

Participants are to include his daughter Tamara Garon, son Eugenijus Garon, Fania Brancovskaja, Simas Levinas, signatory to the Lithuanian Restoration of Independence Act Česlovas Juršėnas, Faina Kukliansky, publisher Stasys Lipskis, Maša Grodnikienė and Milan Chersonski.

“Vilnius Jewish World” is a collection of articles published in periodicals in Yiddish by famous journalist Aaron Garon illustrated with archival photographs. Most of the texts in the book are eye-witness accounts of Jewish Vilna in the interwar period.

Garon was born in Vilnius and most of his life was connected with his beloved city.

For more information call (8 5) 261 3003.

Hike for Scouts

The Jewish Scouts of Lithuania invite children, teenagers and parents on a hike from the synagogue in Žasliai to the synagogue in Žiežmariai. If your child is 14 or older he/she may participate independently, but all younger hikers need to be accompanied by their parents. The event will include scouting entertainment, a bonfire, a guided tour of the newly-renovated synagogue in Žiežmariai and snacks. The hike will take place on February 17. The start of the hike is reachable from both the Vilnius and Kaunas central railroad stations and the plan is to return hikers to the Vilnius and Kaunas central bus stations. More information is available in Lithuanian here and you may also contact Renaldas at renaldas@lzb.lt for additional information. Parents need to sign a permission form here and send it to renaldas@lzb by February 11.

The Catholic Priest Who Discovered He Was Jewish

The Catholic Priest Who Discovered He Was Jewish

by Kostas Kajėnas

Since his birth Romualdas Jakubas Veksleris-Vaškinelis was raised Catholic and grew up to become a Catholic priest. He discovered later he was Jewish and travelled to Israel where he met his ultra-Orthodox relatives for the first time. The return to his roots was difficult. On the one hand there was the joy of discovering them, on the other: a confrontation on the rights of Jews to move to Israel.

The unusual life of this person with two names and two surnames began in World War II. He was born in Švenčionys, Lithuania, and became the only person in his family to survive the Holocaust. The infant survived because he was rescued by a Polish couple, Piotr and Emilia Waszkinel, who accepted him into their household when his parents Jakub and Batya Veksler asked them to during the destruction of the Švenčionys ghetto. The Polish couple baptized him and raised him as a Catholic.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Lithuanian Conference on Stories of the Children of the Holocaust

Lithuanian Conference on Stories of the Children of the Holocaust

The pre-war and Holocaust experiences of Jewish children from Lithuania were the topic of a conference held January 25 in Ariogala, Lithuania, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A large group of students and teachers from over 25 Lithuanian schools with their own Tolerance Education Centers told stories of Jewish children and adolescents, making use of the recently translated ghetto diary of Yitzhak Rudashevski, the memoirs of Trudi Berger and others, a book about children rescued from the Kaunas ghetto, the work of Grigory Kanovitch and others. Ronaldas Račinskas, executive director of the International Commission for Assessing the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania, which organized the conference, said it was important to tell the stories from before the war but especially during. Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas said the performances by the young people gave him hope their generation wouldn’t be afflict by ethnic and religious stereotypes

Photo: Gustė Adamavičiūtė

Synagogues: The Difficult Road to Revival

Synagogues: The Difficult Road to Revival

by Kazys Kazakevičius

Of the almost one-and-a-half thousand synagogues in Lithuania before World War II, only about 80 have survived to the present. Only two are operational and all other buildings are being used for other purposes or stand empty. It takes a lot of money to revive a synagogue for new life. The Jewish communities don’t have it, and neither do the municipalities which often become the owners of synagogues where there are no Jewish communities. Some EU support helps, at least.

An opportunity for fully restoring a former synagogue in Alytus, Lithuania, has come up; after the war the synagogue became a salt storehouse and a chicken hatchery. In January the city mayor’s office signed an agreement with a contractor for the further capital renovation of the synagogue built in 1911 which has been undergoing some repairs for three years now. The plan foresees a year-and-a-half’s worth of work for 400,000 euros. Around half of that cost will come from EU funds with the municipality picking up the rest. Specialist Ingrida Leskevičienė of the Alytus mayor’s office’s department of finance and investments reported the building is to house a visual arts center as a branch of the Alytus Regional History Museum. The first floor is to be used as an exhibition hall to host exhibits, conferences, seminars, lectures, book launches and showings of films.

Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky said, however, there are still synagogues whose fates are causing great concern. Renovating or rebuilding them, even if funds were available, wouldn’t make sense if there was no on to use the buildings.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Chiune Sugihara Remembered on Mount Zion in Jerusalem

Chiune Sugihara Remembered on Mount Zion in Jerusalem

Photo: Rolan Novitsky

A special ceremony to honor WWII Japanese diplomat in Lithuania Chiune Sugihara (杉原 千畝 “Sempo”) was held in Jerusalem on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27.

A memorial plaque to Righteous Gentile Sugihara was unveiled at the Chamber of the Holocaust or Martef haShoah on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Sugihara was Japan’s vice-consul in Kaunas, Lithuania, from March, 1939, to August, 1940, during which time he issued transit visas to Lithuanian and Polish Jews fleeing the approaching scourge of Nazi Germany, saving more than 6,000 lives. In 1985 the Yad Vashem Holocaust authority in Israel awarded him the title of Righteous among the Nations. A Russian Orthodox believer, Sugihara is also honored by that church and is a saint in the Japanese Orthodox Church. Sugihara passed away in 1986.

At the ceremony on Mount Zion the song Way of the Samurai by Natella Botyanskaya dedicated to Sugihara’s memory was performed to the audience of relatives of Jews who survived because of him, Japanese embassy staff and organizers including representatives of Limmud FSU, the Claims Conference and March of the Living.

Synagogue in Pušalotas Receives State Protection

Synagogue in Pušalotas Receives State Protection

Lithuanian minister of culture Dr. Mindaugas Kvietkauskas has placed four cultural treasures under state protection: Petras Klimas’s villa in Kaunas, the synagogue in Pušalotas in the Pasvalys region, the former Lithuanian Foreign Ministry building in Kaunas and a building in Vilnius which formerly housed Jewish cultural institutions.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

International Conference Held in Vilnius for Holocaust Day, Fighting Discrimination

International Conference Held in Vilnius for Holocaust Day, Fighting Discrimination

The Lithuanian Jewish Community and the Lithuanian Department of Ethnic Minorities held a conference in Vilnius January 25 both to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and to look at new ways of fighting discrimination and anti-Semitism in Lithuania. Speakers included Vytautas Magnus University professors, members of the Lithuanian Government, diplomats and academics from abroad. The conference concluded with a presentation of the exhibit “Lithuania, Lite, Lita: One Century of Seven.”

Lithuania’s foreign minister Linas Linkevičius, Ethnic Minorities director Vida Montvydaitė and LJC chairwoman Faina Kukliansky gave welcome speeches.

Foreign minister Linkevičius spoke to the significance of Holocaust Remembrance Day: “Anti-semitism, discrimination against Jews, is a scar on my country. Making apologies will no longer help make anything better. Discrimination led to the Holocaust. Currently in Lithuania there are many signs for Jewish mass murder sites which we can visit and say: never again. We have to remember the Righteous Gentiles, of whom there are about 900 [from Lithuania]. Each year as we honor the victims who were murdered, we cannot guarantee that similar mass murders will not be repeated in the world. In order to stop this, Jewish history and the Holocaust must be part of educational curricula,” he said.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Holocaust survivors remember the painful loss of their families on this day and usually go to the local Jewish community center or synagogue to light a candle in memory of the victims, calling them by name. The ceremony is often bitter and moving. Mina Frišman talked about it with us.

Mina Frišman was a child during the Holocaust and always lights a large candle in memory of her murdered family, recalling the Kaunas ghetto and the Stutthof concentration camp. When the Holocaust began in Lithuania, Mina belonged to a large family with six children. Both her parents worked at the Inkaras factory in Kaunas. She and her family along with all Jews in Kaunas were forced into the ghetto in the Slobodka neighborhood there and made to wear a Star of David. She’s now 86 but still remembers the transport of Jews to Stutthof.

“This year I’ll light a candle remembering the Stutthof concentration camp where my family and I were sent from the Kaunas ghetto. I remember my twin sister whom I loved very much. My sister died in the concentration camp. They murdered my brother and father there. I light a candle in memory of all my family members who were so dear to me, for my father, for my mother, for my brother. In my family there were five sisters and one brother. I was 9 when I ended up in the Kaunas ghetto. Before the war my father supported the family. He worked at the Inkaras factory designing models of shoes. My mother sewed leather at the same factory. They separated the men and women at Stutthof, and they separated the children and murdered them in the gas chamber. My littlest sister died there. Mother was with us. We worked hard and we starved. They gave us a metal bowl and poured what they called soup into it with a small piece of bread. My mother, sisters and I lived to see liberation.