Jews in Vilnius


As I travel about Eastern Europe, I spend a great deal of time paying my respects to the memory of all of those who died at the hands of oppressors during the 20th century, of whom there were far far too many. This is an impossible topic to cover in a medium such as this, but I want to share some brief thoughts and images from my pilgrimages today to locations and museums in Vilnius that bear witness to those terrible times.

The brief overview is, as mentioned below, that Vilnius was, as with the town of Lublin in Poland that I visited last March, one of a handful of centers of Jewish learning and culture in Europe. Jews had lived in this region for centuries; there was a stretch of real estate from the Baltics to the Black Sea, the former extent of the Duchy of Poland and Lithuania which became known as “The Pale.” There they had been given special rights to live and do business by various leaders through the ages. Jews traditionally lived somewhat apart from people from other religions; Lithuanian Jews (or Litvaks) did so out of a sense of high theological purity to differentiate themselves from other Jews, most notably the Hassidic sect.

At the time of the second World War, there was, as so often was the case during this period, a thriving community of nearly 100,000 Jews living in Vilnius (nearly half the city’s population), and the city sported somewhere around 100 synagogues (today there is one) in addition to a whole host of related and supporting civic institutions. The Great Synagogue, built in the 1630s, had looked like this up until the early 1940’s:Grande_syna_Vilna

After the war, after the destruction of the community that had supported it, the building stood in repairable ruins until the Soviet administration decided in 1957 that the time had come for a little urban renewal. When I went looking to find what stands *on this very spot* today, this is what I found: DSCN1038

This is the great challenge for Jewish memory here in Eastern Europe. Most of what once was…is just gone. And what replaces it is many different kinds of things, few of them respectful or reverent. For example, there are ruins (here and there; thankfully some being restored). There is flat unreconstructed ground (as in Lviv). There are open fields and parks (as in Lublin). And then there are multiple examples of reuse, repurposing, and denial, as in the blocks of flats above (and most of modern-day Warsaw). The physical history, on the whole, can only be found in plaques and photographs and guided walks and artifacts in museums. That’s all of what’s left. Beat.

Okay, then, so off to the museums and plaques went I. The Vilna Gaon State Museum is actually three sites, of which I visited two. The first and most accessible in terms of presentation and navigation is the Tolerance Center. This beautiful renovation of a former Jewish theater presents permanent and temporary exhibits as well as conferences, seminars, lectures, movies, and concerts. The exhibition space showcases “three authentic interior details” of the Great Synagogue, and there are paintings by notable Jewish artists as well as the expected historical background material and a very poignant small space dedicated to the children killed during the Holocaust. (See for details.)

The second site is the Holocaust Exhibition, “Malina,” located in “the little green house.”


Malina is the word for a ghetto hideout, the kind of place  where people hid in piping, chimneys, attics, that kind of thing, until the ghetto itself was taken down. There is a indeed reconstructed malina on the top floor of the building and a video to accompany it. The main part of the exhibition is archival, showing everyday life in the ghetto during the period and some information about the unhappy conclusion of the era.

The third site is the Paneriai Memorial, an area containing seven pits near a railway station outside town where it was determined the Nazis killed 100,000 people, 70,000 of Vilnius’s Jewish population and others including resistance fighters, Roma, communists, Catholic priests and other undesirables of the day. It is considered the second biggest place of mass execution in Eastern Europe after Babi Yar in Ukraine. Frankly I do not think I will manage a trip there, so I determined to pay attention to the places I did visit.

That being said, there  was a sculpture and a plaque outside the little green house that initially caught my attention.


Hmm. What’s this?

Nearby signage provided a little insight:


Minor misspelling aside, what this doesn’t tell you is that Sugihara-san, a dedicated career diplomat, was seriously criticized after the first 1800 visas were issued and then promptly fired from his job when he returned to Tokyo after the war. Looking at this memorial reminded me of the feelings I had last summer in Nagaoka when I visited the memorial for Isoroku Yamagato, the Japanese admiral who had been the most unwilling architect of Pearl Harbor. As you may recall from that post, he was a deep pacifist, loved the United States, and actually was trying to inflict the least pain possible under the circumstances. This is not to say that Japanese people have any particular market on extraordinary sacrifice; just that these two souls and their choices of action have affected me deeply this year. Here’s a shot of some of the people Sugihara-san tried to save, standing outside his consulate in 1940:


There are quite a few other diplomats, I’m learning, who took similar actions during this period. (There may be a book in this.)

One always wonders how and why the Nazis were able to marshal so many forces to do so many terrible deeds. This translation of the actions being taken behind the murder of Jews in Lithuania and by extension everywhere else gives one insight:


…that principle being, of course, that Jews were sub-human and at risk of destroying the Aryan gene pool. That being said, if it weren’t enough to eliminate ALL the people, the entire physical manifestation of the community in purely physical terms had to be eliminated as well.

There are many examples of this, of course, but the use of cemetery tombstones is particularly poignant. Here is a whetstone used by a farmer for sharpening knives and other objects:


And if small home appliances weren’t enough, the thrifty Soviets used similar material in their some of their building projects during the post-war era, here for example a fence at a secondary school:


Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the simple fact that there ARE Jewish museums in Vilnius (and other sites throughout the region), a tribute in and of itself to the enormous determination and fidelity of those few who indeed remained or returned. I salute their efforts and wish them well. I leave you with a final image, a sculpture representing those who had to suffer what many of us can not even imagine. May that always be so.





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2 Responses to Jews in Vilnius

  1. Rachel says:

    Poignant and reflective. Interesting about the Japanese historical connection too. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

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