From Yerushalayim d'Lita
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Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania ~ I cannot even remember a time when I did not dream of making a trip to this historical city of Jewish religious, cultural and political life. Vilna is a city renowned all over Europe, not just among Jews, but non-Jews, as well. But it’s also a city among thousands of other cities in Eastern Europe that was ravaged by the Holocaust, the Jewish population virtually destroyed. However, in the ashes that remained in the aftermath of the Shoah, a few embers still burned, and these embers emitted enough energy and dedication to encourage the nearly annihilated Litvak community to try to preserve the precious treasures that had survived.
|My sister, Cindy Miles, and I arrived in Vilna in September 1999 without knowing anyone personally. At the very top of our list of "things to see" was the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. Thanks to the wonders of email, I felt as if the Museum’s deputy director Rachel Kostanian and I already were acquainted. We had begun a correspondence two years earlier, shortly after I came across her very informative book, The Jewish State Museum of Lithuania, and realized that we shared a similar passion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading all about the Museum (at that time I knew nothing about it), and when I had finished I wrote her a letter telling her how much I enjoyed it. As luck would have it, two days after we arrived in Vilnius, Rachel left with a new exhibition to visit the United States, but not, however, without her first making sure we had a Museum Guide, Irina Guzenberg, who took an entire day out of her schedule to take us on an excellent detailed tour of Jewish Vilna later in our stay. In the meantime, Cindy and I struck out on our own. |
We began at the former Tarbut Gymnasium on Pylimo Street. Even though neither of us speak a language other than English, we had no trouble interpreting the exhibitions we saw. If the Museum staff worker didn’t speak English, we always were presented with a written brochure, which gave a thorough explanation of what we were seeing. How exciting it was to look at pictures and artifacts of the way Jewish life used to be. For a few brief moments I almost believed that when I left the building, I somehow would find that the Jerusalem of Lithuania had magically been restored.
After spending several hours in the Tarbut Gymnasium, Cindy and I walked over to the Green House, to see the exhibition on the Catastrophe, as the Holocaust is called in Lithuania. For someone who was born almost a decade after the end of World War II, I consider myself to be fairly well educated about the heinous crimes committed by Hitler and his henchmen. But I discovered quickly that it is one thing to read about the atrocities in text books, sitting in the comfort of my own home, and quite another to be confronted with the information within a few short blocks of where the terrible suffering actually took place.
The exhibitions in the museum have been skillfully put together, so that the visitor follows the unfolding calamity along with the victims. We first get a glimpse of how beautiful, yet simple Jewish life was in the towns and shtetls of Lithuania. There is a map before us showing that Jews lived in virtually all areas of the country. We see how swiftly and viciously the Nazi invaders took control of Lithuania, and that the Jewish population was doomed almost from the day the first German soldier arrived. The methodical steps taken by the murderers are presented in black and white photographs. We see the faces of the condemned and we feel their bewilderment, their hopelessness, and their terror. We asked ourselves, "How could such calculated, cold-blooded murder take place without resistance from the intended victims, or assistance from the non-Jews, who couldn’t help but see what was being done to their Jewish neighbors?"
We were consoled and reassured to learn that the Jews did resist, and that there were righteous gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews. Yet it all came as too little, too late. A map much like the one we saw earlier, which showed the hundreds of towns and villages where Jews once lived in Lithuania, now shows us the hundreds of places that were turned into mass killing sites. We shiver to realize how similar the two maps are. The numbers speak for themselves: 94% of Lithuanian Jewry fell victim to the Nazis’ plan of extermination; no other country caught in the Nazi vise lost so large a percentage of its Jewish population.
The Catastrophe suddenly was much more than an historical fact, a tragedy that occurred on another continent, far away from America. We were deeply affected by the enormity of the loss of human life, and we realized that the loss is ours, as well. Not only was an entire generation wiped from existence, but a culture, a way of life is gone forever. And we are left with gaping holes in our hearts.
The day after the Yom Kippur services in Vilnius, Rabbi Krinsky and I were discussing the different reactions of people who come to Vilna, and how many of them are deeply disappointed by the small remnant that remains of such a once large and prestigious Jewish community, the one known far and wide as "Yerushalayim D’Lita," the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." I had known in advance about the small community, and knew that many of the present day Vilnius streets bore little resemblance to their pre-Holocaust appearance. For example, the Great Synagogue and its courtyard were demolished by the Soviets, as were portions of Jatkowa Street and Szklanna Street, both of which had the picturesque arches spanning them. Because I knew what wasn’t in modern Vilnius, I was thrilled to see what the current Jewish community has been able to accomplish."That’s Jewish optimism," said Rabbi Krinsky with a smile.