Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lithuania -- Sale of Site in Vilnius Thwarted

Vilnius Ghetto memorial, 2006. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

JTA reports that the sale of the building that housed the World War II Vilnius ghetto Jewish library has been thwarted at the request of the U.S. Embassy:
The library building, which the World Jewish Restitution Organization and Lithuanian Jewish community identify as Jewish community property, housed 450,000 books of Jewish literature in Vilnius under the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1943.

Herbert Block, an executive vice president with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a top official with the restitution group, said the embassy in the Lithuanian capital had informed him by e-mail that the Foreign Ministry had acceded to the embassy's request to cancel the sale, which was to have taken place April 8. [. . . .]

The library is on a list of 438 buildings claimed as Jewish property that were taken over by the Communist government of Lithuania after World War II. The U.S. Embassy in Vilnius argued that the Lithuanian government should not be selling disputed properties.

In fact, the sale was not announced to any Jewish authorities but was uncovered by a local non-Jewish American activist in Vilnius, Wyman Brent, who alerted Jewish groups in the United States.

Read full story

I have posted information about Brent's attempts to form a Jewish library in Vilnius.

The Ghetto Library was an extremely important institution.

It was largely put together by Herman Kruk, an activist in the Jewish Labor Bund in Poland who fled Warsaw in September 1939 after the German invasion and ended up in Vilnius (Vilna in Yiddish), which was under Soviet control until the Germans marched in on June 24, 1941.

Kruk kept a diary, which was translated and published in 2002 -- and makes extraordinary reading. It is The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939-1944
(Edited and introduced by Benjamin Harshav, translated by Barbara Harshav. Yale University Press)

The following is my review of the book that appeared in the London Jewish Chronicle in 2002.
This book is the first English translation of what is considered a classic of Holocaust literature: the detailed, day to day chronicle of life (and death) in the Vilna ghetto and the Estonian labor camps Klooga and Lagedi. It is a monumental work, in all senses of the word: emotionally, culturally and – at more than 700 pages – even physically. And it is a monument not only to the millions of human beings killed in the Holocaust, but to rich, complex world of modern, East European Jewish culture and civilization that was annihilated. [.....]

Kruk was among tens of thousands of Jews herded into the Vilna ghetto on Sept. 6, 1941. Highly active in the ghetto’s political, cultural and social life, he built up a ghetto library that loaned out more than 100,000 books. He was sent to Klooga in September 1943 after the ghetto’s final liquidation and was executed by the Germans on Sept. 18, 1944, just one day before the Red Army arrived to liberate the camps.

Unlike most published first-hand accounts of the Shoah, which were written by survivors through the perspective lens of memory, Kruk’s diary tells the story in vivid, brutal, real time.
He did not know for sure that he was doomed, but he suspected he would not survive and regarded keeping his journal as a mission.“I know I am condemned and awaiting my turn, although deep inside me burrows a hope for a miracle,” he wrote at one point. “Drunk on the pen trembling in my hand, I record everything for future generations.”

Kruk’s eye-witness entries, often several made in the course of a day, include brief notes, longer descriptive reports, observations, personal reflections, poems, polemics and even jokes which weave together to form an immediate, relentlessly unfolding picture of a nightmare world within a world.
It was a world, he wrote, where “normal” took on a meaning of its own; where the unthinkable became commonplace; where people adapted themselves and their behavior to conform to unspeakable conditions. He records Nazi atrocities but also the evolution of an artistic and cultural life within the ghetto; he paints portraits of individuals and chronicles personal and even political clashes within the sealed Jewish universe.

Benjamin Harshav and his wife Barbara have performed a herioc feat in their editing and translation and deciphering of pages that over the years had been scattered to three continents. Harshav, born in Vilna, escaped as the Germans took the city and remembers first hand characters, settings and events.
The Harshavs based their work on the Yiddish version of Kruk’s Vilna ghetto diary, published in 1961. But they fleshed this out with hundreds of newly discovered manuscript pages and fragments, including the scrawled, scarcely legible journal Kruk compiled in the Estonian labor camps.

His last entry, “written with a trembling hand and with a thick pen” was made on Sept, 19, 1944. In it, Kruk records that he is burying his last diaries in the presence of six witnesses. One day later, along with hundreds of other Jews, he and five of those witnesses were shot and burned on a pyre. The only survivor went back, uncovered the loose pages and took them to Vilna.

In 1947, confiscated with other Jewish material by the Soviet authorities, they were slated for destruction as recycled paper. They were somehow saved by an individual Lithuanian, and only came to light again half a century later after the fall of communism.

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