A Litvak in Lithuania

Vilnius compels one to confront its dark past, while showing promise as a top tourist destination.

By
September 21, 2013 21:53
A young Lithuanian couple pose for a photograph.

A young lithuanian couple 370. (photo credit: Steve Linde)

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 carpet.

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 world.

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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 knowledge.

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 5,000.

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.

A cousin, Chaim Linde, became a pioneer in Ra’anana while another, Ben Blumenthal, settled successfully in San Francisco, but the remaining relatives perished in the Holocaust.

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.

Besides 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 Soviet occupation.

“The Russians liberated us at the end of World War II, and then forgot to leave for 50 years,” the guide quipped.

THERE WERE 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.

It 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.

The next 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.

In 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.

Still, we 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.”

“It is 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 Israel.

“We love Israel,” a young Christian woman told me, and then turning to her boyfriend, added, “We’d like to come on our honeymoon.”

One of my journalist colleagues observed that Lithuanians are generally very good looking. “Both the women and the men – so many are tall and attractive.”

“Like basketball players,” another commented.

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 in Slovenia.

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.

It is 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.

Lithuanian 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.”

Addressing 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 you.”

Jewish leader Kukliansky said in her speech that in the past quarter of a century, “a new generation has come on the scene.”

Sounding 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 Lithuania.”

I returned home to Jerusalem with a better understanding of why my grandfathers’ families had emigrated from Lithuania.

The new 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.


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