I recently attended the Fourth World Litvak Congress, dedicated to the 70th
anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto, held in Vilnius,
Lithuania, in September, 2013. A solemn ceremony took place at the Holocaust
memorial complex in Poneriai Forest, in homage to the Jews murdered there and
buried in mass graves.
Participants included dignitaries from the
Lithuanian parliament, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius and
Culture Minister Sarunas Birutis; Israeli Amdassador to Lithuania Hagit
Ben-Yaakov; Emanuelis Zingeris, the only Jewish member of the Lithuanian
Parliament or Seimas; Misa Jakobas, director of the Vilnius Sholom Aleichem Ort
Gymnasium; Fania Brancovskaja, a survivor of the Vilnius Ghetto; and Simon
Malkes, a former prisoner from Vilnius Ghetto now living in France, who said the
Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
There were two, maybe three
participants from the United States, including myself. And I only learned about
the Congress by stumbling across a link in an email sent to me about an entirely
different matter. So it was by pure luck that I ended up at this very important
gathering. The Jewish media in the US needs to do more advertising of such
events, because one need not be a Litvak to attend.
It was a cold and
blustery day at Poneriai, and it was as if the rain represented the tears of
those unable to speak. Their voices were silenced, but their memories and
legacies were being honored by the many who attended that day, including
survivors who now reside in Israel.
Over 300 students lined the walkway
leading down to the memorial, students who have learned about the Holocaust and
participated in the event by walking from the rail station to the forest. They
lit candles and placed stones of all shapes and sizes with names of Jewish
victims painted on them in rows next to the candles, to commemorate those long
forgotten. The presence of these young students added life to the day’s event,
ensuring that the next generations will carry on this legacy. The International
Commission for the Evaluation of Crimes of Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in
Lithuania is responsible for coordinating educational programs for students in
over 92 multicultural centers throughout Lithuania. These centers are overseen
by executive director Rolandas Racinskas and deputy director Ingrida Vilkiene,
who coordinate educational projects, including the participation of the students
at Ponar Forest. I point this out because Holocaust education in Lithuania is
scant, if it exists at all, although many travel to Yad Vashem for
Teachers are responsible only for teaching maybe two hours of
Holocaust education all year long, and what they teach is left up to their own
discretion, with no formal established curriculum to follow. Whereas in South
Florida, where I live, unlike Lithuania, there is a mandate to teach the
Holocaust in secondary schools and teachers receive extensive training
opportunities throughout the school year, including travel to the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
Earlier in the day we were
invited to a ceremony to award the Order of the Life Saving Cross at the
presidential palace, where H.E.
Dalia Grybauskaite, President of the
Republic of Lithuania, greeted us and treated us to a lavish reception. Later
that day, at the official opening ceremony of the Congress, we were entertained
by the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra and world class mezzo-soprano Liora
Grodnikaite in concert. We were once again honored as the evening event was
attended by the president.
A Sunday in Parliament featured the theme of
the conference; “The Litvaks and their Legacy: The Holocaust, Ethical Memory and
Education,” with a welcome speech by Petras Austrevicius, deputy speaker of the
We viewed an opening exhibition of “Educating for Life: Ort
in Lithuania” organized by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, World ORT, and
the Central State Archive of Lithuania. Faina Kukliansky, the chairperson of the
Lithuanian Jewish community, gave the opening address.
It was quite an
impressive line-up of events, wining and dining, concerts, plays, receptions,
speeches, and eating in Succahs.
Chabad of Vilnius, the Jewish community
and the Tolerance Center, and the Choral Synagogue, the only remaining original
synagogue that survived the war in Vilnius, were all involved in commemorative
events. It was a real coming together for the Jewish community and the
Lithuanian government and parliament. What followed were excursions to cities in
Vilnius where Jews used to live; we visited Kaunas and attended a commemoration
of victims of the Ninth Fort, we traveled to Plunge, Siauliai and Kedainiai. We
attended ceremonies where plaques were unveiled; one in the Baltic Seacoast of
Klaipeida and another in Ukmerge. Plaques and memorials, memories and
ceremonies, cemeteries and dilapidated synagogues are all that remain of the
vibrant Jewish life that once filled the cobblestone streets of Vilnius and the
villages and shtetls throughout Lithuania.
A bust and museum of Chiune
Sugihara, the Japanese Consulate to Lithuania during the Holocaust, is a
reminder and testimony to a hero who saved thousands of Jews by issuing visas to
The horrors of the Holocaust juxtaposed with the beauty of the lush
Lithuanian landscape and the unique architecture of the churches is what I
recall most of all. Ripe apple trees, bursting forth with fruit strewn on the
ground, adorn most homes in the Lithuanian countryside. In town, souvenir shops
feature amber jewelry and linen tablecloths to beckon tourists. And antique
stores sell silver Kiddush cups, Torah scrolls, silver pointers to keep place
while reading the Torah, and other artifacts of an everyday life in Jewish
Vilnius that is no more.
The sadness of the week’s events, and the hope
that the young students brought with them that day, gives us pause for
Lithuania is a country of contrasts and contradictions, Jewish
towns both lost and found, where there is now little trace of a once thriving
Jewish community obliterated by the Holocaust, other than plaques and
Oddly, the theme of the conference, “The Litvaks and their
Legacy: the Holocaust, Ethical memory and Education,” seemed a contradiction in
terms. Does the Lithuanian community really know what the Jews contributed to
their society? Do they even care to connect with that part of history? Do they
even know what a Jew looks like? Do they realize who the Vilna Gaon was, or that
Vilna, Vilne, Wilno, Vilnius, was once referred to as “Jerusalem Lite” because
it attracted Talmudic scholars from far and wide? Do they realize that the bars
and restaurants lining the main center of town used to house the former Jewish
Quarter where over 100 prayer houses once graced the earth? The Jewish community
now numbers around 4,000 – 5,000, but many survivors are elderly and in poor
health. As time marches on, Jewish life becomes a distant memory and it seems as
though the Holocaust would best be forgotten by the Lithuanian
The atrocities of the Holocaust stand in stark contrast to
what the Litvak Congress hopes to accomplish.
Having traveled to
Lithuania on five separate occasions, I can honestly say that I learn something
new every time I visit. This time, however, was different. The Litvak Congress
seemed to be an honest attempt to try and mend fences; the sincere speeches of
the dignitaries, the olive branch offered by members of Parliament, the grace
and honor of meeting the president, the student education and participation
organized by the Commission, the involvement of the Jewish communities, the
stunning and emotional ceremony at Ponar Forest.
All of the events of the
Congress seemed to point toward a feeling of hope for the future.
forgetting the past, but acknowledging the Holocaust and making it part of their
history. Of moving forward, by providing Holocaust education and opportunities,
like the Litvak Congress, for reconciliation. Let’s hope it
continues.The author, a clinical social worker, is chair of the Advisory
Council to the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights at Florida Atlantic
University.She is also chairperson of the upcoming 2014 luncheon for the United
States Holocaust Memorial Musuem in Boca Raton.