VILNIUS – “You don’t look Jewish,” the 80-year-old Lithuanian woman said in
English when I told her I was from Israel. She was sitting in her small workshop
in what was once the Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius, skillfully weaving a colorful
In her eyes, apparently, a Jew looks like the statue outside of
the Vilna Gaon, the great 18th-century scholar who carved a unique analytical
approach to Torah study still employed today in yeshivot around the
I wondered if she remembered those dark days beginning in 1941 in
which an estimated 195,000 of Lithuania’s 210,000 Jews were murdered by Nazi
forces and Lithuanian collaborators. Her blue eyes sparkled, but gave no sign of
Like many Lithuanians, if she knew about any massacre, she
didn’t want to talk about it.
Earlier in the day during a visit to the
Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, I had seen an exhibit of the family of Faina
Kukliansky, the head of Lithuania’s Jewish community, which today numbers around
One phrase caught my eye: Her relatives, the text read, were
murdered merely because of “the color of their eyes.”
I looked at myself
in the mirror of the carpet-weaver’s workshop. Unlike most Litvaks (Jews of
Lithuanian origin), I too have blue eyes. Both my maternal and paternal
grandfathers hailed from Lithuania, while my grandmothers were from Latvia and
London. My mother’s Saacks family moved from Lithuania to South Africa at the
end of the 19th century.
My father’s father, Harry Linde, was born in
Kedainiai, 50 kilometers north of Kaunus, and his parents moved with him and his
sister, Sarah, to South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century.
cousin, Chaim Linde, became a pioneer in Ra’anana while another, Ben Blumenthal,
settled successfully in San Francisco, but the remaining relatives perished in
I VISITED Lithuania for four days earlier this month as
part of a seven-member delegation of Israeli journalists invited by the
Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Most were Litvaks too, and we had mixed
emotions. While we wanted to see the Jewish sites, despite the horror associated
with the Holocaust, we were also happy to experience the new Lithuania and all
it has to offer as a tourist destination.
Although we flew to Vilnius via
Warsaw with Lot Polish Airlines, as of next month the Hungarian airline, Wizz
Air, is set to inaugurate direct flights between Ben- Gurion and Vilnius with a
one-way starting fare of just 49.99 euros, including taxes. The price alone
makes Lithuania an attractive destination for Israeli tourists.
being a fascinating place to visit for Litvaks interested in exploring their
roots, the country offers a range of interesting historic, geographic, cultural,
sporting and gastronomic experiences.
In Vilnius, I can recommend one of
the two hotels we stayed at – the Amberton – centrally located opposite the
Vilnius Cathedral and not far from the Ghetto area. It has comfortable rooms and
excellent breakfasts – smoked salmon, herring, eggs and assorted breads, cheeses
and fruit. A room costs about 100 euros in season.
We went on a
fascinating tour with local guides Kornelija Jankauskaite and Renata Titoviene
to the impressive Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum (also called the Tolerance
Center), the chilling Paneriai forest memorial, where up to 70,000 Jews were
massacred and buried, and the Museum of Genocide Victims (better known as the
KGB Museum), which starkly showcases the harsh conditions of prisoners under
“The Russians liberated us at the end of World War II,
and then forgot to leave for 50 years,” the guide quipped.
also uplifting moments during the tour. A culinary highlight was our visit to
the IDW Esperanza Resort, whose president is also Israel’s honorary consul to
Lithuania, Mikhail Rositsan. The luxurious hotel built with cedar logs from
Canada is located not far from Vilnius in the Aukstdvaris park on the shores of
Lake Ungurys. While a room can cost up to 500 euros, the hotel has five-star
facilities – a private beach on the lake, an indoor swimming pool, superb spa
treatments, tennis courts, a bowling alley and a fabulous restaurant.
was there that we had our best meal, hosted by Vytis Mackevicius, the honorary
consul’s adviser, which consisted of beautifully presented fresh fish and
steamed vegetables served with an exotic salad and white cheese.
day we were driven for four hours on a luxury bus westward across Lithuania to
the Baltic resort of Palanga.
Upon arrival, we took a relaxing walk along
the promenade to the beach, visited a fancy hotel owned by basketball star
Arvydas Sabonis and strolled through the magnificent Botanical Park.
nearby Nida, we spent the night at the historic Nidos Smilte Hotel, where many
famous German artists and writers – and even psychologist Sigmund Freud – once
spent their summers.
In the morning, the warm weather we had experienced
on our first two days ended abruptly, and it began to drizzle.
admired the quaint home that Nobel laureate Thomas Mann built for his family,
went sailing on a local fishing boat, bought jewellery at the Amber Museum and
had a traditional lunch of borscht, hot potatoes and sour cream, kugel, latkes
and gehakte herring – a real Litvak meal! On the way back to Vilnius, we stopped
in Kaunus, which was once a key Jewish center, but due to time restraints, I was
unable to visit my grandfather’s home in nearby Kedainiai.
(The best I
could do was take a photograph outside a road sign pointing to the city.) Back
in Vilnius the next day, we met with Markas Zingeris, the director of the Vilna
Gaon State Jewish Museum, and his brother, Emanuelis Zingeris, the only Jewish
member of the Lithuanian parliament known as the Seimas. Both are exceptional,
educated men who are experts on Lithuanian Jewish history, speak good English
and have relatives in Israel.
“In my younger years, I didn’t look Jewish,
but my cousin did, and I had some fist fights,” the affable Markas Zingeris told
us, smiling. “There are still signs of anti-Semitism in Lithuania today. The
Internet is very nasty. But we have learned how to fight it.”
important for Lithuanians to know that Lithuanians participated in the murder of
Jews during the Holocaust, not just the Nazis,” said the eloquent Emanuelis
Zingeris. “It is important for Jews to know that there were other Lithuanians
who risked their lives to save Jews, and that Jews fought in the resistance
against the Nazis.”
THE MAJORITY of Lithuanians we met were polite,
pleasant and welcoming, especially when they heard we came from
“We love Israel,” a young Christian woman told me, and then
turning to her boyfriend, added, “We’d like to come on our
One of my journalist colleagues observed that Lithuanians are
generally very good looking. “Both the women and the men – so many are tall and
“Like basketball players,” another
Incidentally, as we sat in a packed bar in Vilnius one night,
almost everyone held large beer glasses and was glued to the TV screen, cheering
on the Lithuanian national basketball team playing in the European Championships
Lithuania’s charming ambassador to Israel Darius Degitus
once joked that “Lithuanians are a very religious people – but basketball is our
religion.” Speaking at the Lithuanian National Day celebration in Tel Aviv in
February, Degitus pointed out that this is an important year for Lithuania,
which currently holds the presidency of the European Union Council.
also celebrating the 95th anniversary of its restoration and commemorating the
70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto, to which the Fourth
World Litvak Congress now being held in Vilnius is dedicated.
President Dalia Grybauskaite paid tribute in her introductory remarks to the
large number of Litvaks who have made outstanding contributions in many fields
globally, among them Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President
Shimon Peres, who visited Lithuania earlier this year.
“The history of
Lithuania and Litvaks is intertwined with painful memories,” Grybauskaite said.
“As you embrace your historical roots, I would also encourage you to plant new
seedlings of business, culture and science in Lithuania.”
Litvaks from the US, South Africa, Israel and elsewhere, she declared: “Living
dispersed around the world, you are an important and inseparable part of the
international friends of Lithuania, a community that we value and respect
greatly. Be always strong and do not forget that Lithuania remembers
Jewish leader Kukliansky said in her speech that in the past
quarter of a century, “a new generation has come on the scene.”
a hopeful note, she said: “I believe that the Jewish community has its own
future in Lithuania, and that Litvaks will continue creating history in
I returned home to Jerusalem with a better understanding of
why my grandfathers’ families had emigrated from Lithuania.
Lithuania, on the other hand, with its close ties to Israel and the US, seems to
be genuinely concerned about its small Jewish community as well as encouraging
Israelis and Litvak to visit.
Vilnius, the vibrant capital which locals
calls “the Jerusalem of the North” – maybe because of its central cathedral –
was definitely my favorite place.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first trip to
Lithuania, and look forward to returning.
Next time I’ll go to my
grandfather’s birthplace and delve further into the Jewish community’s tragic
past. Perhaps I’ll visit the carpet-weaver to remind her that Jews can have blue
eyes. Ultimately, though, our short sojourn in Lithuania left me with hope for a
brighter future of friendly ties and a jump in tourism.
The writer was a
guest of the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel.