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Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum

The Lithuanian Jewish Museum Rises from the Ashes
By Howard Margol,

A Jewish museum has been established in Vilnius three times. The first one opened in 1913, when a group of intellectuals established a Society of Lovers of Jewish Antiquity, along with a museum. The greater part of its collection of Jewish folklore, art, music, published and unpublished materials, was destroyed during the first World War. The Society was revived in 1919 and, soon thereafter, the museum.

On the eve of the Second World War, the museum had accumulated more than 6,000 books, thousands of historical works and documents, various publications in eleven different languages, and a rich folklore collection. Additionally, there were ancient coins, including Jewish ones from the last Hasmoneans and the Bar-Kochba Period, as well as 3,000 works of art. The unique contents of this first Jewish museum were nearly all destroyed during the Second World War.

The second museum was started in 1944, after the Soviet liberation, by survivors of the Nazi occupation. They extracted damaged paintings, sculptures, books, letters of famous Jewish writers, the diary of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, as well as other valuable documents out of cellars, attics, and pits. Unfortunately, approximately thirty tons of invaluable documents which had survived, were sent to paper mills by the local Soviet authorities. Even with that, there remained thousands and thousands of extremely valuable items and artifacts scattered about and stacked as high as the ceiling in the former Ghetto jail. This second museum had a very short life. The Soviet authorities closed the museum on June 10, 1949. Its collection was scattered among other Lithuanian museums and archives.

The late 1980’s saw a strong revival of a Lithuanian national movement, and of a Jewish national cultural movement. On October 1, 1989, the Soviet Lithuanian authorities permitted the opening of the third Jewish museum in Vilnius. Emanuelis Zingeris, a young academic, was the first Chairman of the Museum. He later became the first Jewish member of the Lithuanian Parliament and still serves in the Parliament today. The main responsibility for maintaining the museum, and and building its collections, fell on the shoulders of Rachel Kostanian, the present Director. Rachel has devoted her life to the museum. In addition to taking visitors through the museum, Rachel fills many speaking engagements in various European countries. Twice, she has visited and spoke in Atlanta.

The Jewish Museum continuously researches, collects, and exhibits material on Jewish history and culture in Lithuania. The Museum staff assists the Lithuanian population, and visitors from abroad, to acquire knowledge about the history, destruction, and contemporary life of Lithuanian Jews. The museum receives a small amount of monetary support from the Lithuanian government which is augmented by contributions from individuals. The museum has a continuous struggle to acquire enough funds to maintain itself , increase its collection of materials and artifacts, and put on major exhibitions.

Occasionally, the staff includes one or two volunteers from Austria’s Gedenkdienst program. Gedenkdienst is the German word for "memory work" or "memory service". Under the program, Austrian youth who conscientiously object to compulsory military service, are given the option to assist the remnants of the Eastern European Jewish communities. At the museum, the Austrian youth give tours in English and/or German. They also travel to other parts of Lithuania, speaking to adults and school groups, about the Holocaust. Their most moving contribution is guiding German and Austrian visitors through the Museum and showing them photographs and other documentation of the destruction of 94% of the Pre-World War II Jewish community of Lithuania.

Two years ago, one of the Jewish female workers in the Museum, discovered the 1942 Vilnius Ghetto list of Jewish residents which was stored in one of the archives in Vilnius. This Ghetto list had lain undiscovered for fifty-four years! The Jewish Museum workers painstakingly keyed in to their computer the entire list of 15,000 names, their year of birth, their occupation, and the ghetto address they lived at. A book was published by the museum containing the entire list of names together with extremely interesting information about what life was like in Vilnius after the German occupation. In July, 1998, Volume II will be published. This book will contain an alphabetized list of the ghetto Jews and also the names of all of the Jews who were in various work camps in the area around Vilnius. The Museum workers also discovered the original 1942 census list of the Kaunas (Kovno) and Siauliai (Shavel) ghettos. Books containing the list of the residents of these ghettos will be published as soon as the Museum has the necessary funds.

The main office of the Jewish Museum is located in the Holocaust Museum, Valstybinis Vilniaus Gaono Zydu Muziejus (The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum), 12 Pamenkalnio, Vilnius 2001, Lithuania. A branch of the Museum is located in the Jewish Community Center building in Vilnius. Here is displayed Torah scrolls, talits, Torah shields, menorahs, a circumcision chair, an etrog box, and other items - approximately 250 items in all.

Visit the museum site and support it.

about the author
Howard Margol