Learning, History, Culture

Extraordinary Guests at Choral Synagogue

An unusual Sabbath ceremony was held at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius last Friday evening. About 150 guests and members of the community sat at a common kiddush table following the prayer service.

Israeli soldiers and officers with colonel Avi Motola, students and teachers from the Vilnius University Yiddish Institute’s summer course with director professor Abraham Lichtenbaum from Argentina and others celebrated an authentic Sabbath at the synagogue together. There were speeches and synagogue board member Jakovas Mendelevskis and cantor Shmuel Yatom performed songs in Yiddish and Hebrew.

Colonel Motola presented several commemorative plaques to the synagogue in appreciation for the work the synagogue does and for hosting the beautiful Sabbath ceremony for IDF soldiers and others.

Condolences

With sadness we report the death of Estera Klabinaitė Grobman who lived in Israel. She lived a long, interesting and difficult life. Born in November of 1920 to a well-to-do Jewish family in Kaunas, she always called herself a Kaunas resident. Her parents had a large bakery before the Holocaust. Imprisoned in the Kaunas ghetto and Stutthof concentration camp, Grobman, who passed away at the age of 98, was an avid reader and shared her memories right up to the time of her death. In May, 2018, the rector of Vilnius University travelled to Israel to present her an honorary diploma.

We share in the pain of her friends and family and send our deepest condolences to her son Aron, her daughter-in-law Ele, her grandchildren Daniel and Saul and too many more to name. Although we seem to know that death is an inevitability, it always hits us painfully and unexpectedly. Rest in peace, Estera.

Arkadijus Vinokuras: Lithuania Doesn’t Need Tainted Heroes

My position is very clear: heroism doesn’t remove responsibility for committing crimes against humanity. On the contrary, this discredits the status of hero.

In this case I’m talking about post-war partisan Jonas Noreika. Several side questions, but they’re to the point: was Christianity abolished during the June uprising in Lithuania in 1941? It was not. Therefore the Ten Commandments had not been rescinded. Do those cleaning their uniforms still remember “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s?” Apparently not. Is there direct evidence Jonas Noreika took part in a mass murder of Jews? No. But there is oral testimony he did. So what’s the problem?

Mikveh Drawings from 1904 Discovered


Geršonas Taicas, left, hands mikveh documents to Jon Seligman, right, at the Great Synagogue archaeological dig in Vilnius, July 24, 2018.

Lithuanian Jewish Community member Geršonas Taicas has discovered architectural drawings made in 1904 and approved in 1908 for the mikveh (ritual bath) complex once located next to the Great Synagogue in Vilnius. The mikveh complex has been the subject of archaeological digs since 2011. Taicas personally brought the old architectural plans to Jon Seligman at the dig. Seligman is one of the leaders of the archaeological team from the Israeli Antiquities Authority. He said he hadn’t known of the existence of these drawings and was very pleased and surprised.

Seligman said the drawing might have been drafted when the Vilnius Jewish community received a grant of $50,000 from the Joint Distribution Committee in New York for building a mikveh for impoverished Jews of Vilnius. The drawings from 1904 showed either what the mikveh should look like, or how it should be modified, he reasoned, commenting the architectural plan approved in 1908 showed the mikveh had electricity, a good stone floor, new rafters and supports and a metal roof. Seligmas said there is a good description in Yiddish from 1930 describing the interior of the mikveh.

According to the architectural drawings, the two-storey mikveh building was 70 meters long and 12 meters wide.

Claude Lanzmann Has Gone

Professor habil. Dr. Markas Petuchauskas, an inmate of the Vilnius ghetto who escaped dramatically and went into hiding, saw every play staged at the Vilnius ghetto theater. While organizing the International Art Days to Commemorate the Vilnius Ghetto Theater event, Dr. Petuchauskas invited Claude Lanzmann to travel to Lithuania and attend. The director agreed and, arriving in April of 1997, presented his film Shoah. This was the Lithuanian premiere of Lanzmann’s film, in the Cinema Program of Art Days. It was Lanzmann’s first and only trip to Vilnius, last only a few days during which he spoke directly with Lithuanian people and gave interviews. We present Professor Petuchauskas’s recollections:

Claude Lanzmann in Lithuania

The news struck like lightning. Claude Lanzmann has gone. The memory of his trip to Vilnius rose up inside me. This is how it was.

One of the first large international art projects organized by the Lithuanian Jewish Culture Club which I founded and directed was International Art Days in 1997, dedicated to commemorating the 55th anniversary of the founding of the Vilnius Ghetto Theater.

I invited Israeli writer Joshua Sobol, well known for his play Ghetto (about the Vilnius ghetto) and who wrote he had never been to Lithuania, to take part in the International Art Days event. Coming to Lithuania for the first time at my invitation, he had the chance to get up on the stage of the theater about which he had written and to tell how he created his play.

The opening ceremony for the Days, dedicated to him, was also held in the former ghetto theater hall.

Famous film director Claude Lanzmann from France, the creator of the globally acclaimed film Shoah, got up on the stage as well. I invited him along with French director Brigite Jaque, who was already known in Vilnius and an acquaintance of mine. It was pleasant to hear Lanzmann, a man who generally avoids lavishing much praise, speak such warm words about my work in holding the Days and about their importance for recalling notable pages in the history of the Shoah.

Sholem Aleichem Hebrew Teacher Finalist in Teacher of the Year for 5778

Our highest congratulations to the teacher Ruth Reches on her victory.

The Israeli Education Ministry and the Hefziba program held an international contest for professional excellence called Teacher of the Year for 5778. Jewish schools in the Hefziba program and teachers at those schools teaching Hebrew, Jewish traditions and Jewish history competed. The goal of the contest was to reveal the potential of teachers working in the Jewish educational system and the creation of conditions for their self-realization.

The contest helps raise the prestige of the teaching profession, encourage Jewish identity in the teaching environment, discover talented teachers and create conditions for transmitting teaching experience and the continued professional development of teachers.

Vilnius Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium Hebrew language teacher Ruth Reches became a finalist in Best Teacher of the Year 5778 and was awarded a diplomat, and a tree was planted in Jerusalem in her honor. The certificate issued to the teacher on this honorary event contained a quote to teach children “each according to his [or her] own ability.”

Chess Tournament

A chess tournament will be held at the Lithuanian Jewish Community at 11:00 A.M. on Sunday, July 29. Tournament director: FIDE master Boris Rositsan. The tournament is open to the public. For more information and to register, call 8 655 43 556 or send an email to info@metbor.lt

Burning Stones at the Slobodka Ghetto Gate

kaunas.kasvyksta.lt

If you drive through the Vilijampolė [Slobodka] neighborhood [in Kaunas] it’s impossible not to notice the brightly-colored house reflecting the sun and car headlights. Artist Vytenis Jakas’s project Burning Stones at the former ghetto gate in Vilijampolė attracted guests to its opening ceremony where the history of the location was recalled publicly. Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon, Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas and “Kaunas: Capital of Europe 2022” ambassador Bella Shirin attended the ceremony.

“About 40,000 Jews lived in this neighborhood, men, women and children. Each was assigned a living space less than three meters square. The territory was surrounded by barbed wire. Day and night the people here lived in tremendous fear they would be taken to be killed… But, despite everything, life went on here. Although it was forbidden, children were born and the people kept the Sabbath important to the Jewish nation. We should also remember what was good, but we cannot forget the pain and hardships people went through. Today, the Jewish people will live through the bright colors of this house,” Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon said enthusiastically standing next to the large outdoor art project.

Kaunas Jewish Community chairman Gercas Žakas also spoke and members of the Kaunas Jewish Community including Kaunas ghetto survivors attended the event, including Fruma Kučinskienė. Justas Ivanauskas, Saulė Juzelėnienė and others from the Kiemas Gallery in Kaunas contributed to the project.

More photos by Justas Ivanauskas here.

Israeli Defense Forces Honor Holocaust Victims at Ponar

Soldiers from the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, visited the Ponar Memorial Complex outside Vilnius to honor the victims of the Holocaust. Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon, Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky and Jewish partisan Fania Brancovskaja were present for the commemoration at the main monument in Ponar, the site where the majority of Jews from Vilnius and surrounding areas were shot during World War II.

My Grandfather Wasn’t a Nazi-Fighting War Hero, He Was a Brutal Collaborator


Jonas Noreika. Photo: personal collection of Silvia Foti

A deathbed promise led to me discovering his complicity in the Holocaust, and what it means beyond my family

by Silvia Foti, July 14, 2018

Eighteen years ago, my dying mother asked me to continue working on a book about her father, Jonas Noreika, a famous Lithuanian World War II hero who fought the Communists. Once an opera singer, my mother had passionately devoted herself to this mission and had even gotten a PhD in literature to improve her literary skills. As a journalist, I agreed. I had no idea I was embarking on a project that would lead to a personal crisis, Holocaust denial and an official cover-up by the Lithuanian government.

Growing up in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood–the neighborhood that had the largest population of Lithuanians outside the homeland–I’d heard about how my grandfather died a martyr for the cause of Lithuania’s freedom at the hands of the KGB when he was just 37 years old. According to the family account, he led an uprising against the Communists and won our country back from them, only to have it snatched by the Germans. He became chairman of the northwestern part of the country during the German occupation. According to family lore, he had fought the Nazis and then been sent to a concentration camp in retaliation. He escaped that camp and returned to Vilnius to start a new rebellion against the Communists, had been caught, taken to the KGB prison and tortured. I’d heard how he was the lawyer who had led the defense for 11 rebels before the KGB tribunal, was found guilty and had been executed. His nom de guerre was General Storm. It all seemed so romantic to me.

That is the book I started to write. My mother had collected a trove of material that included 3,000 pages of KGB transcripts; 77 letters to my grandmother; a fairytale to my mother written from the Stutthof concentration camp; letters from family members about his childhood; and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. A few months into the project, I visited my dying grandmother, who lived a few blocks away. She asked me not to write the book about her husband. “Just let history lie,” she whispered. I was stunned. “But I promised mom,” I said. She rolled over to face the wall. I didn’t take her request seriously; I thought she was simply giving me a pass because she knew how taxing the project was for my mother.

Full text here.

Congratulations to Sholem Aleichem Graduating Class

The graduation ceremony at the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium this week was filled with congratulations, warm wishes, music and jokes. There were sad moments when graduates bid farewell to their beloved school, friends and teachers as they set out on their own. The ceremony seemed to affect everyone–students, teachers and parents–who shed tears of joy and traded happy smiles.

This year the graduating class consisted of 18 young men and women. Principal Miša Jakobas passed out the diplomas. The head of one of the best schools in Vilnius, Jakobas said all the graduates were well-prepared for their exams and passed them all.

“The graduation ceremony is an opportunity to take pride: our graduate Daniela Mindelevič got the three highest scores, 100 points each! Three hundred is a great achievement!” Jakobas noted. She received a letter of commendation at the ceremony for her excellent work from Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius, and she will take part in a national ceremony later in July to honor top graduates held by Lithuanian prime minister Saulius Skvernelis. Graduate Arina Kac also scored high with two perfect scores of 100 each.

Five graduates passed the English language test with perfect scores of 100. Six also scored perfectly on the Russian test. Thirteen graduates received perfect scores on the state Lithuanian language test. Graduates also scored high in math. “Of course this makes us happy, because these kinds of achievements are not just the result of work by students and their parents, but also the great work of our teachers,” principal Jakobas said.

Yad Ruth Reps Visit Kaunas

Yad Ruth representatives Barbara and Dieter Maier of Hamburg visited Lithuania in June. The Lithuanian Jewish Community and Yad Ruth began working together back in 1994. Members of the organization are Israeli patriots, enthusiastically support Jewish culture and history and study Hebrew and sacred texts.

The idea to start Yad Ruth began in 1980 from personal meetings with Holocaust survivors. The association was formed in 1994, allowing the organization to expand financial prospects and other activities. Yad Ruth means both “Ruth’s hand” and “Ruth in memoriam” in Hebrew, and both phrases fit the organizations activities and goals which are aimed especially at Holocaust survivors and Jews in hard times. Members say as Germans of the post-war generation they feel a special responsibility for the welfare of Jews and for the state of Israel. One of their main tasks is fighting anti-Semitism in Germany and educating the public.

Yad Ruth is active in Germany, Israel, Estonia, Ethiopia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova.

Recommendations for Fighting Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania, 2018

Attorney and Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky on the project “Preparation and Publication of Recommendations for Fighting Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania”:

I am truly glad the Lithuanian Jewish Community was given the opportunity to implement the EVZ project “Preparation and Publication of Recommendations for Fighting Anti-Semitism and Romophobia in Lithuania.” Appreciating the great importance and appropriateness of inter-institutional cooperation, the Community carried out the project with experienced and trusted partners: the Roma Social Center, the Lithuanian Human Rights Center, the Women’s Information Center and a specially formed group of experts.

Speaking of expressions of anti-Semitism in Lithuania, the positive changes are obvious. Celebrating 30 years since the restoration of our organization, the Lithuanian Jewish Community is experiencing a real, contemporary cultural renaissance. Our organization is stronger than it was, and interest in Jewish topics in Lithuania is greater than it has been ever. The Community has contributed at least partially, within our powers, to this positive breakthrough. Since 2013 we have been carrying out the Bagel Shop tolerance campaign which to the present has attracted more than 7,000 friends and followers on social media. The year 2017 also saw several important achievements in the field of human rights and the commemoration of historical truth: a jubilee March of the Living at the Ponar Jewish mass murder site, Lithuania’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, and the LJC taking the leadership position in the international memory campaign We Remember, which culminated in a commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry with high state officials, members of the LJC and various public figures. In February of 2018 the Community published our Lithuanian translation of Yitzhak Rudashevski’s Vilnius ghetto diary. This publication, an authentic primary source on the history of the Holocaust, attracted great public interest, and we hope it will be accepted as an aid to teaching the Holocaust in the nation’s public schools and educational institutions.

Despite the evolving discussion by the public and the political class regarding these important issues, the fight against discrimination continues. The history of Lithuanian Jews, spanning 700 years, is still not integrated appropriately in the Lithuanian educational system, the Lithuanian experience of the Soviet occupation is often equated with the Holocaust and the internet is full of expressions of hate directed against Jews as well as Romani.

I am convinced the successful implementation of this project will contribute significantly to the further expansion of human rights and the fight against anti-Semitism and Romophobia, and to encouraging dialogue between distinct communities who share similar problems and institutions in the state and non-governmental sectors.

Recommendations 2018


Condolences

Vidmantė Jasukaitytė, Lithuanian Independence Act signatory, poet, writer, dramaturge and public figure, passed away July 14 following a long battle with illness. She had just turned 70 on July 10.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community express our deepest condolences to her children and friends. Jasukaitytė for many years lived at what was the HKP Nazi labor camp during World War II and created a number of works about the location. Her multimedia poetry installation “Subačius Street. Ghetto” was performed on September 24, 2015, the culmination of a week-long commemoration of Holocaust victims with events held around Vilnius.

Her event was held at the square outside her home where there is a monument to the Jewish inmates and victims of the HKP camp. Moving and still images were projected on the bare brick walls there as professional actors read selections from her poetry, testimonies of HKP camp inmates and Žeraldas Povilaitis’s oratory “Voice from Underground.”

Jasukaitytė had a number of plans for more Holocaust commemoration events including with musicians from the Lithuanian Jewish Community. Today we have a lost a talented writer, a good politician (who personally challenged Gorbachev about locking up Lithuanians avoiding Soviet military duty as mental patients) and a friend, and so we say, may you rest peacefully in the Lithuanian earth.

On Holidays at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius

Many events have taken place recently at the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius. Besides daily prayer services and Kollel Torah studies, seminars, traditional Jewish holidays, Sabbath and kiddush with many visitors from around the world as well as Women’s Club activities, there is a growing demand for traditional Jewish rituals.

We can take pride that this year there were two circumcision and 3 bar mitzvahs as well as a traditional huppah or Jewish wedding ceremony held at the Choral Synagogue.

Last week two families from the USA held bar mitzvah ceremonies at the Choral Synagogue. The young men were born in America but have family roots in Lithuania.

The boys had been prepared well for the Torah reading. Their gratitude to their parents and their parents’ stories about the footsteps taken on the way to adulthood and how much they love their children moved the large audience of friends, relatives and guests.

Lithuanian Jewish Community Asks Pope Francis to Remember Holocaust Victims in Lithuania

The Lithuanian Jewish Community values the upcoming visit to Lithuania by His Holiness Pope Francis as an important gesture of recognition and an historic event as our country celebrates 100 years of independence this year.

The Pope’s visit coincides with the National Day of Remembrance of the Genocide of the Jews of Lithuania, September 23. Seventy-five years ago on this day the final liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto was carried out: men, women, children and the elderly were deported to concentration camps in Poland, Germany, Estonia and Latvia and sent to the Ponar Forest to be shot. The destruction of the Vilnius ghetto is a symbol of the Holocaust in Lithuania. This tragedy not only cost thousands of Lithuanian residents their lives, but also ruined the great intellectual potential of society and deprived us of an important part of the identity of our state.

The Lithuanian Jewish Community calls upon the Lithuanian public and the leaders of global Jewish and Catholic communities and organizations to join us in asking Pope Francis to pray for the lives lost in the Holocaust and for the Righteous Gentiles of Lithuania, and to remember the innocents unfairly condemned and murdered at the Ponar Memorial Complex Jewish mass murder site on September 23, 2018.

Association of Italian Jewish Communities president Noemi Di Segni has called upon Pope Francis to commemorate victims of the Holocaust during his visit to Lithuania on September 23.

Alanta Synagogue Hosts Memory Exhibit

by Vaidotas Žukas, Bernardinai.lt

Jews constituted the majority of the population of the towns of the Molėtai region before World War II. In 1941, however, the Nazi regime issued a verdict against the Jews, the descendants of David were to be abused, tortured and shot… And only God knows how many people from this beautiful lake country contributed to the rescue of their neighbors and vice versa, informing upon them, betraying and shooting them. The Nazis only sent a few Germans to Molėtai. Lithuanian lowlifes performed all of the arrests and shootings of Jews.

There is a bright side, though, to this tragedy: there were also several hundred rescuers of Jews in the Molėtai area, since it took the conviction, daily work and risk-taking in the face of death of several dozen people to hide and protect one Jew. Respect to them!

The Alanta synagogue is one of only several surviving wooden synagogues in Lithuania; it hasn’t been destroyed and wasn’t burned down, but it’s still not in good order and unrestored. During the Soviet era grain and fertilizer were stored there. The cut-up wooden walls of the synagogue and the tin roof still with bullet holes from the war witness to both the Holocaust and the continuing reluctant position taken towards Jewish religious and historical heritage in Lithuania.

Ona Šimaitė Dedicated Her Life to the Welfare of Others

by Rasa Baškienė, Bernardinai.lt

Ona Šimaitė was named a Righteous Gentile in 1966 for saving Jews from the Vilnius ghetto. She constantly risked her life from 1941 to 1943, when the Vilnius ghetto existed, saving Jewish children and adults and seeking out shelter and support for them. Vilnius University rector Mykolas Biržiška, his brother Vaclovas Biržiška, the director of the Vilnius University library, and professors and staff at the university helped Ona Šimaitė, as did the writer Kazys Jakubėnas and the clerics A. Lipniūnas, M. Krupavičius, M. Vaitkus and others.

Vilnius Ghetto


Rūdninkų street in the Vilnius ghetto.

On September 6, 1941, after the Germans had occupied Vilnius, 57,000 Jews were marched to the two ghettos in the Vilnius Old Town. They included many Vilnius University students and teachers, famous professors and scholars. Rector Mykolas Biržiška, university leadership and head librarian Vaclovas Biržiška tried to think of a way to help the Jews condemned to death. Finally a seemingly innocent way to do so was found: they would send two university librarians–catalog department director Ona Šimaitė and reading room director Godliauskaitė into the two ghettos to collect unreturned library books from Jewish readers.

Full story in Lithuanian here.

Jakov Bunka Wooden Sculpture Exhibit

Folk artist and celebrator of Žemaitijan Jewish history Jakov Bunka’s (1923-2014) wooden sculpture exhibition “Moses of Plateliai” is being shown at the Lithuanian National UNESCO Commission gallery at Šv. Jono street no. 11 in Vilnius on occasion of the 95th anniversary of Bunka’s birth.

Bunka was unique. He was the only Jewish folk artist in Lithuania who commemorated Jewish characters within the Lithuanian tradition in wood, he was the last Jew to remain in Plungė and he was rider in the cavalry of the Don Cossacks. After reaching Berlin in 1945 he dedicated his life to commemorating the communities of his fellow Jews annihilated in Lithuania between 1941 and 1945. He made the Kaušėnai memorial to the exterminated Jews of Plungė, wrote a book about the history of the Jews of Plungė, was an honorary citizen of Plungė and was awarded the honor of Knight of the Cross of the Rider of the Order of Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas. As Grigoriy Kanovich put it so fittingly in his inscription in his book he gave to Bunka: “To a Žemaitijan Jew, to a Jewish Žemaitijan.”

Jonas Rudzinskas, the chairman of the Union of Lithuanian Folk Artists, said of Bunka: “Jakov Bunka’s aesthetic views, mentality, optimistic nature and work ethic formed in the Žemaitijan environment. … In creating large or inside sculpture, the master did without trifles and insignificant detail. … His responsible, sincere attitude towards creative work and unique style set Jakov Bunka apart from others and he joins the ranks of our greatest folk artists who set the development of folk art.”