Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lithuania -- Report from Vilnius

Plaque recalling the Gaon of Vilna. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The formal topic of the seminar in Vilnius this week was "Vilnius -- World Heritage Site: Values of Jewish Heritage and its Commemoration."

Vilnius's postcard-perfect historic center is a UNESCO site of world heritage, but almost nothing physical remains to be seen of the rich and important Jewish presence that once stood here. The early 17th-century Great Synagogue and its surrounding buildings were severely damaged in WW2 and the ruins were razed by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s. Almost no traces remain except for some plaques, a few monuments and a couple of faded Yiddish wall signs.

Yiddish signage in Vilnius. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The issue of what to do with Jewish heritage and memory in Vilnius has been contentious. It is haunted not just by the memory of the 100,000 Jews who before WW2 made up a third of the city's population, but by other factors, including the collaboration of local Lithuanians in the killing of Jews and the local nationalist narrative that associates anti-Nazi activity with support of the Soviet regime.

It has also been haunted by a huge and highly controversial $32 million project to rebuild (rather than restore) the old Jewish quarter in Vilnius, including the  Great Synagogue, which was approved (at least in principle) some years ago but never really got off the ground. See articles about this HERE and HERE and HERE. This project was promoted by MP and activist Emanuelis Zingeris, but was opposed by others in the Jewish community (and elsewhere).

I was one of three outside experts who took part in the seminar -- the others were Philip Carmel, who heads the Lo Tishkach organization that is creating a data base of Jewish cemeteries, and Vladimir Levin of the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. (Magdalena Waligorska, from Poland/Florence was supposed to have come but she got the flu.)

I was impressed by the number of people who showed up for the formal session, on Dec. 7 -- and stayed throughout a long day of presentations from more than a dozen speakers, as well as the number of people who tuned up the following day for a more informal discussion of the issues. This indicates the intererest, at least in certain official spheres. One of the successes of the seminar, someone joked, was that representatives of all or almost all of the stakeholders in the Jewish heritage issue sat together in the same room and even discussed the situation.

The consensus that emerged was that it is totally unrealistic to even think of rebuilding the Great Synagogue. Even Zingeris (who denied to me that he had ever suggested it) now opposes it -- he would, however, like to see the foundations of the synagogue excavated and used as education/exhibition space, as in Frankfurt with the Judengasse and in Vienna with the Judenplatz excavation of the medieval synagogue there.

People at the meeting talked about restoring "fragments" -- uncovering more Yiddish signs, for example. Also making an archeological investigation to discover exactly where the limits of the Great Synagogue are, and then deciding what to do (this apparently has not been carried out).

During the meeting we learned of several initiatives involving Vilnius and Lithuania in general, where the state of Jewish heritage sites is perilous, to say the least.

Besides the collapse, in a hurricane apparently, of the Red Synagogue in Joniskis two years ago, and the fire that damaged the wooden synagogue in Pakruojis earlier this year, the precious wooden synagogue in Seda has also collapsed. And masonry synagogues (and maybe also the wooden synagogue) in Plunge were recently bulldozed. The wooden synagogue in Ziezmariai, which is one of the few to bear in identification plaque, is said to be under threat and there are thoughts that it should be moved to an outdoor architecture park.

(As I noted earlier, we heard from both a representative of Pakruoijis and a culture ministry official that there was a commitment to rebuild the Pakruojis synagogue, and also that funds have been found to begin restoring the structure in Joniskis.)

During the conference, we heard from the researchers who in 2006-2008 directed the compilation of  a catalogue of all the more than 90 extant synagogues in Lithuania. This massive work is nearing completion, and publication of its first volume should take place within weeks. During the seminar, a photographic exhibition of a small fraction of the material compiled was opened, showing the variety of type -- and condition -- of these buildings.

The project was initiated in 2006 by the Vilnius-based Centre for the Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews, in collaboration with the Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts. The Center for Jewish Art joined the project in 2007, and the  Gediminas Technical University in Vilnius also takes part.  

You can see a photo gallery of many synagogues at the web site of the  Center for the Studies of the Cultur and History of East European Jews.

The catalogue began as research on masonry synagogues but soon expanded  to record all synagogues of Lithuania. Students fanned out throug the country to measure buildings,  make diagrams, pinpoint their locaton and gather archival, cartographic, iconographic and other information about particular synagogues.

There have been many lost opportunities regarding Jewish heritage in Lithuania. One of them stems from the rather abortive -- if loudly proclaimed -- attempt to establish a "European Route of Jewish Culture." There was little coordination of this from its headquarters in Luxemburg, but also, on the ground, it was difficult to gain local support, and it remains difficult to convince some local authorities that the Jewish heritage of their towns and villages is part of their own heritage. 

On this note, there appear to be few initiatives such as those in Poland, whereby local Catholics have taken a lead in delving into local (Jewish) history, cleaning cemeteries, and the like -- efforts which each year are honored by the Israeli Embassy. I suggested to culture minister representatives and also to the representative of the Israeli embassy that some sort of similar honor could be organized in Lithuania as encouragement for local involvement. 


  1. My son will be in Vilna in April for the World Debating & Public Speaking Championships (he is 17). Could you recommend a Jewish heritage tour &/or guide for him?


  2. I have posted the address of a couple people on this blog, including Ilya Lempertas -- look under the Travel Resources sidebar, or search for guides or vilnius.