You don’t have to be born in Lithuania to call yourself a Litvak. There were many years in which Lithuania’s borders kept changing, so that many Jews born in any of Lithuania’s neighboring countries or in any of the countries that had ruled or occupied Lithuania, consider themselves to be Litvaks – especially if they can also speak Yiddish.
At meetings in Vilnius this past November, the first question put to the journalist from The Jerusalem Post by both Faina Kukliansky, the chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish community, and Fania Brancovskaja, Vilna’s last Holocaust survivor, was “Do you speak Yiddish?” The interview with Brancovskaja, 96, was entirely in Yiddish, even though she is fluent in a half-dozen languages, including English. Kukliansky is also multilingual and even though the interview with her was conducted in English, every now and again, when she wanted to emphasize a point, she reverted to Yiddish.
During the Second World War and afterward, Lithuania was known to be extremely antisemitic. One of the darkest chapters in its history is the massacre in the Ponary Forest by German SS and their Lithuanian collaborators of more than 70,000 Jews, some 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian PoWs.
The train route from Warsaw to St. Petersburg includes the Ponary train station, which leads to the huge forest, where nearly 80 years later, there is still a smell of burning.
There are several monuments honoring the murder victims.
It took time for Lithuania to confront its past. No nation wants to admit the evil it wrought. Moreover, during the years in which Lithuania was under Soviet rule, most Lithuanians had never heard of Jews. Jewish memorials that had been erected were either destroyed or the plaques replaced; instead of commemorating the Jews who were massacred, the plaques paid tribute to Soviet citizens who were massacred.
When Lithuania regained its independence and began probing its history, it became aware of the Jewish contribution to culture, medicine, law, economics, politics and more. Jews had been integral to Lithuanian life. There are maps indicating the ratio of Jews in cities, towns and villages all over Lithuania. Cemeteries, synagogues and other Jewish community properties are being restored in places where there are no longer any Jews.
Darius Junevicius, ambassador at large in charge of Jewish issues at Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would love to report that there is no antisemitism in Lithuania – but he can’t. Officially, Lithuania has a policy of zero tolerance toward all forms of racism, but Junevicius admits that there are fringe elements that engage in antisemitic activities, adding that there is legislation against antisemitism, racism, and hate speech. There is also informal education against antisemitism, he says.
JEWS HAVE been living in Lithuania since the 15th century. In January 1941, there were some 208,000 Jews living in Lithuania, with the ratio of Jews in Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of the north, standing at 47%.
Percentage-wise, Lithuanian Jewry had the greatest demographic losses during the Holocaust. 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered or died fighting the Nazis. It is not known how many survived by fleeing to the USSR, escaping from ghettos or being rescued from concentration camps but estimates vary between 12,000 to 13,000.
Today, Lithuania’s Jewish population is about 3,000, although not all who identify as Jews are halachically Jewish. Most participate in Jewish community activities, which were revived after Lithuania regained its independence in 1990. The state provides financial support to the Lithuanian Jewish Religious Association, the Kaunas Jewish Religious Community, the Jewish Religious Community of Pasnevezys Region, the Vilnius City Jewish Community and Chabad.
Although directors of Chabad centers around the world do not compromise in terms of their personal religious observance, circumstances often demand a degree of compromise in their operations. Chabad in Lithuania is no exception.
Headquartered in Vilnius’s old city in a former hotel, Chabad is directed by Rabbi Shalom Ber Krinsky and his wife Nechama Dina. They travel all over Lithuania, providing religious services. Krinsky is a nephew of Rabbi Yudel Krinsky, one of the most influential rabbis in America, formerly a member of the personal staff of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson in charge of communications and educational publications.
The Krinskys arrived in Vilnius in 1994, in response to a call for a congregational rabbi. They never imagined that it would be a permanent arrangement. They had not come to set up a Chabad House, but simply to help a Jewish community regain its identity. They have 11 children – most of them boys – and in December, celebrated the first family wedding. The young bridegroom was considering an Australian girl, but ultimately married a girl from Copenhagen at the Choral Synagogue, the only one of Vilnius’s 200 synagogues that survived the Holocaust. The father of the groom was somewhat relieved that the wedding was in Lithuania; airfare for his family to Australia would have been prohibitive.
During the first years that the Krinskys lived in Vilnius, a trip to America was considered going home. But a little over a decade ago, as they were returning to Lithuania, he and his wife looked at each other and realized that Vilnius is home.
THE CHABAD House was not always as large as it is now. A guest in its former premises suggested that Krinsky get in touch with a particular South African philanthropist of Lithuanian background. It took a few months for Krinsky to succeed in making the connection with the busy publicity-shy philanthropist who has donated handsomely to other projects in Lithuania, but who does not want his name to be associated with any of them. When Krinsky finally reached him by phone, the man asked him what he wanted. Krinsky insisted on a face-to-face meeting. When they met and Krinsky explained his plans, the benefactor told him that he would need a much bigger building and told him to find an appropriate location. Krinsky spent 18 months searching before stumbling across a hotel for sale. Five weeks later, in time for Passover 2010, it became the Chabad Center of Vilnius.
The Chabad Center houses a co-educational school teaching both secular and Jewish subjects, in addition to a community-run Jewish school, of which Kukliansky is very proud. The Chabad school started with grades one and two, and now goes all the way to 12. The standard is high; the school came second in the country in the English examination results.
In addition to the school, Krinsky runs summer camps on the premises, paying special attention to children from dysfunctional families, though all children in the camp get quality time from the organizers. The summer camps were launched in 1994. The following year, 18 boys attending the camp opted to be circumcised. They were all from non-observant families. In the interim, 60 adult males have also asked to be circumcised.
There were seven bar mitzvahs over the summer and one wedding.
Krinsky travels extensively around the country to lecture, teach, counsel and officiate at services. On Passover, he is aided by a dozen or so students from Chabad yeshivot in the US and elsewhere; they conduct community seders attended by 1,000 people.
“Our goal is not to build a Chabad community but to work with the local community and help the people to return to their Litvak roots,” said Krinsky. This is evidenced by his daily attendance (when in Vilnius) at the Choral Synagogue services, which are unlike those of Chabad, which follows the manner of the 16th century Safed kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as Ha’ari.
Nonetheless, when Krinsky leads the service in the absence of the regular cantor Shmuel Yussem, who also travels around Lithuania to give non-Jews a taste of cantorial singing, he uses the Litvak rite and not that of Ha’ari.
When asked about the availability of kosher meat, Krinsky’s eyes lit up. After Poland outlawed kosher slaughter, thus ending a €500 million a year industry, Lithuania legalized shechita. Kosher slaughterers come from Israel every few months to ensure the access to kosher meat.
Knowing that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, the Choral Synagogue hosts 60 to 70 people for dinner every Friday night. On the High Holy Days, Krinsky says the synagogue is packed.
THE REKINDLED Jewish life provides great satisfaction to Kukliansky and Brancovskaja. I meet the merry-eyed but petite Brancovskaja at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University. Founded in 1579, it is the oldest university in the Baltic states.
The VYI was founded in 2001 by American and Israeli scholars, together with Lithuanian academics who had studied Yiddish language and literature in the US and Israel. Oxford University’s Yiddish summer program was transferred to Vilnius in 1998 after 16 years. Its funders include George Soros’s Open Society Foundation.
Since 2001, the Institute has been offering courses with university credits on all aspects of Yiddish culture in Lithuania and Eastern Europe. Many of the students who come from around the world are not Jewish, says the Institute’s deputy director Ruta Puisyte, who likewise is not Jewish, but is dedicated to the preservation of Yiddish culture. Many of those students focus on Holocaust history and want to read it in Yiddish.
Brancovskaja, described as a living legend, has been with VYI since its inception. We meet in the institute’s well-stocked library. Brancovskaja helped to acquire and catalogue many of the books, working in the library three days a week. Books and periodicals were sent from different parts of the globe continue to arrive.
Brancovskaja completed high school before the outbreak of WWII. After the Nazis established the Vilna Ghetto in 1941, she joined the partisans, serving under poet and partisan Abba Kovner. She said that the real hero in the family was his wife, Vika Kempner, who was born in Kalisz, Poland. After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, she fled with many of her relatives to Vilna, which was occupied by the Red Army. Later, as a member of the partisans, she was instrumental in transferring Jews to different hiding places. She was also active in blowing up a Nazi munitions train. Moving through the sewers, she led some 60 Jews to the safety of the Rodnicki Forest when the ghetto was liquidated in September 1943.
After the war, the Kovners were members of Nakam, a vigilante group that killed Germans to avenge the Holocaust. They also helped evacuate Jews to Palestine, where in 1946, they themselves settled on kibbutz Ein Hahoresh. Abba Kovner, who was awarded the Israel Prize for literature and was the initiator of the Diaspora Museum, died in 1987. His wife, a clinical psychologist, died in 2012.
Brancovskaja fought alongside Vika. She met her husband, who died in 1985, while they were both partisans. She has one daughter living in Lithuania, and another in Israel. They have provided her with six grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Like most Holocaust survivors, she sees her progeny as the greatest revenge against the Nazis. She has many cousins in Israel on her mother’s side of the family and her grandfather is buried in Jerusalem.
Because she has celebrity status in Lithuania, she was among those who met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit in August. Her relatives in Israel saw their meeting on television, and excitedly telephoned Vilnius to tell her.
Brancovskaja is in regular contact with Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania, Amir Maimon.
When members of the IDF visit Lithuania and are taken to Ponary, she goes with them to emphasize that the Jewish people no longer have to depend on partisans for defense because Israel has an army.
Several years ago, Brancovskaja used to run a Yiddish speakers circle for senior citizens. To her regret, most of those people have passed away and the circle died with them.
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