Dancing with ghosts

Living between an overbearing neighbor’s thickening shadow and a murdered population’s whispering remains, Lithuania struggles to seize the future and overcome the past.

A monument honoring the victims of the Ponary massacre near Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
A monument honoring the victims of the Ponary massacre near Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
Tall, handsome and beaming like the office tower he inhabits, Mayor Remigijus Simasius escorts a visitor to his 19th-floor suite where a panoramic window overlooks Old Vilnius’s picturesque alleys, castles, river and spires.
Recently reelected for a second four-year term, the former justice minister fans his hand from the gently flowing Neris River’s White Bridge to the University Planetarium’s silver dome, and promises that by the end of his current term the waterfront beyond those landmarks will morph into a six-kilometer stretch of footpaths, bicycle routes, picnicking areas, bathing beaches and recreational parks.
The optimism, energy and can-do spirit underpinning this vision unveil but one of post-Soviet Lithuania’s three vistas, the one that sprawls above its ground, unlike the second, which emerges from under its ground, and the third, which looms menacingly beyond its horizon.
Above ground, Lithuania is a tale of beauty, defiance, and success.
Hardly three decades after braving Red Army tanks that killed 14 and injured more than 700 anti-Soviet demonstrators, this Baltic nation of 2.8 million citizens is a proud member of the European Union basking in its defeat of the communist scourge.
Sporting broad highways that run through lush farmlands and thick forests while brimming with modern cars and lined with glitzy shopping malls, Lithuanians’ average annual income has climbed to $16,500 following a decade of nearly 3% average annual GDP growth.
Lithuania’s prosperity, underpinned by a healthy debt-to-GDP ratio of 24% and a minimal 0.7%-of-GDP budget deficit, is saluted by a cohort of locally stationed foreign corporations, from NASDAQ and Western Union to Moody’s and Danske Bank. This is besides emerging as a functioning democracy and a respected member of the European Union.
Yes, a great deal remains to be done, like replacing the decrepit, Soviet-built housing blocks where more than half the capital’s inhabitants still reside, but the general economic direction, from destitution to wealth, seems clear. As senior diplomat Ramunas Davidonis sums it up in a conversation with the Jerusalem Report in the decorous Foreign Ministry building: “Compared with 1990, a miracle has happened here.”
Such, in brief, are the momentum, pride and hope that dominate the view above ground. The view underground is the inversion of all this, as the government itself readily concedes.
HARDLY ONE kilometer across the river from the mayor’s office stands in silent solitude the statue of the broadly bearded Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo (1720-1797), atop a granite pillar overlooking a patch of barren earth. On that patch stood the house where the monumental Judaic scholar spent his days and nights studying, teaching, praying, and writing.
The Gaon was revered already in his lifetime, but his sway multiplied after his death when his disciples cast a network of Talmudic study centers that sprang from Volozhin, 100 km southeast of Vilnius, whence it spread as far as Brody, 500 km south of Vilnius; Shklov, 200 km to its east; and also 230 km to its northwest, to Telz, whose yeshiva stood to the west of its peers in Ponovezh and Slobodka. It all added up to a Judaic Ivy League rivaled only by the yeshivas along the Euphrates whose scholars produced the Babylonian Talmud.
The Gaon’s house was razed by the Soviets, a cultural atrocity in its own right, but one that dwarfs compared with the erasure of the imposing shrine that stood alongside it, the greatest of Vilna’s 110 prewar synagogues. Looted, sacked, and torched by the Nazis, the building’s remains were fully razed in the mid-1950s by the Soviets, who planted in its place a kindergarten that later made way for the faceless school that now stands there eerily unused.
As dusk descends on the Gaon’s dumbfounded statue, on the adjoining Soviet-built school and on the quaint Zydu (Jewish) Street abutting them, this writer can’t help hearing the resounding singing, whispered prayers, and lively Talmudic debates in which this place was once awash, and which now murmur in Lithuania’s loaded sub-terrain.
So buried is Jewish Lithuania’s past that its research has spread prematurely from history to archaeology, whose scholars have recently begun digging here, soon unearthing parts of the great synagogue’s elaborate cantor’s podium and ritual bath as well as a dedication tablet dated 1796. With the school no longer functioning, Simasius promised last year to raze it and build in its place a memorial site for the city’s Jewish past, obviously incorporating the synagogue’s excavated remains.
Having spent years searching after traces of this vanished Jewish star and the hundreds of communities that orbited it, local tour guide William Zitkauskas points to a garage in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city, which Jews called Kovno. Leading to its rear, he points to a row of walled, arched windows, and then to a blocked staircase that leads to another corner of Lithuania’s sub-terrain.
“A synagogue, no doubt,” he rules, according to the blocked window frames’ unique structure and arrangement, and judging by the location of the stairs that led to its ritual bath.
The unearthing seems repeatable wherever one goes: from a removable piece of roof atop a rusting shack – clearly designed for a Sukkah – abutting an abandoned house in rural Kedainiai, 50 km north of Kovno, to the nude interior of a wooden synagogue now under renovation in Ziezmariai, a former shtetl 60 km to that forlorn tabernacle’s south.
The most common protrusion rising from Jewish Lithuania’s netherworld is its array of graveyards.
“I am the lone guardian of 250 cemeteries and 250 murder sites,” Jewish Community President Faina Kukliansky says wryly to the Report in her Vilnius office, tucked in a former Hebrew high school whose graduates mostly ended up in the killing fields she now labors to preserve.
The most notorious among those murder sites, Ponary, is a bewitchingly tranquil thicket of pine, birch, and spruce trees some five kilometers southwest of where the Gaon’s house once stood.
With some 100,000 mostly Jewish men, women, children, and babies mowed down in this location alone, any human standing in this wood can hear, between its innocent birds’ gentle tweets, God’s cry to Cain: “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
THE EXTENT to which ordinary Lithuanians hear their brothers’ blood is debatable, but there is no debating their government’s quest to look the past in the eye.
In stark contrast to neighboring Poland’s recent ban on mentioning Polish individuals’ wartime atrocities, the memorial monument at Ponary’s entrance plainly fingers, in Yiddish, Hebrew, Lithuanian and Russian, “the Hitlerist occupiers and their local accomplices” for “annihilating 70,000 Jews.” So does a plaque by a pair of synagogues preserved in the town of Kedainiai.
As if somehow breathing, the Jewish sub-terrain repeatedly challenges Lithuanian leaders. Last July, for instance, Simiasius removed a plaque that the National Academy of Sciences had planted on one of its walls commemorating Jonas Noreika, a martyr of Lithuania’s struggle against the USSR, but also a Nazi collaborator who helped dispossess and isolate his locality’s Jews prior to their massacre.
However, before the mayor’s move, the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania – a taxpayer-funded museum – resisted lawsuits for the plaque’s removal, arguing in court that Noreika committed no war crimes.
Such commemoration feuds can pop up almost anytime and anywhere in Lithuania, from remote Sukioniai, which named its school after its native son Noreika, to the capital’s Trispalves (meaning Tricolor) Street, which was renamed by the city council last summer. The riverside street’s previous name passively legitimized Kazys Skirpa (1895-1979), an antisemite who from his location in Nazi Berlin led the Lithuanian Activist Front, whose members took part in Lithuanian Jewry’s extermination.
The municipal quest to come to terms with the Jewish past is shared by the government, which made the Holocaust part of the school system’s curriculum, and by the legislature, which last year named 2020 – the Gaon’s 300th birthday – the Year of the Vilnius Gaon and History of the Jews of Lithuania.
It is all part of an ongoing effort to recall, unearth, and salute seven centuries of Jewish history in a land that entered World War II with more than 200,000 Jews, and emerged from it with at least 90% of them slain – the highest such ratio in any of the Holocaust’s many realms.
This, in brief, is the second Lithuanian vista, the one unveiling its Jewish netherworld while Lithuanians learn to separate between their past’s anti-Soviet heroes and its anti-Jewish beasts.
Unlike Lithuania’s second vista – which is mostly about the past – the third vista invades the present, and in fact dominates the Lithuanian horizon, which the Russian Bear has returned to obstruct.
THE VAST forestland outside Rukla looks much like that of Ponary, an hour’s ride to its southeast, only here nature’s tranquility is once again disturbed by submachine guns’ crackles, and the people behind the triggers are not the Wehrmacht’s but NATO’s, Belgian infantry in red-and-green fatigues in this particular location facing jumping targets some 100 meters ahead.
No, these are not the echoes of World War II, but they sure are the sounds of Cold War II, the ghost-dance that began with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and then escalated with its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Lithuania was thus thrown back, overnight, to its traumatic past. “The Russians want to increase their influence, or to return here at a later time, so we will once again be their marionettes,” says Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis in an interview with the Report.
Lithuania’s most immediate fear is that the Russian army would sever it from the rest of NATO by overrunning the northern side of its border with Poland. Named the Suwalki Gap after a nearby Polish town, this 100 km strip is wedged between Vladimir Putin’s armor to its west, where Russia’s military presence in the coastal enclave of Kaliningrad is heavy, and the gap’s Belorussian east, where local troops routinely train with their Russian ally. Lithuania fears a Russian pincer movement here that would sever the Baltic republics from Poland and the rest of NATO.
Driven by this sense of vulnerability, Lithuania restored in 2015 the military draft (nine months, for men) that it had canceled in 2008, and at the same time prodded NATO to expand its presence and intensify its activity in the Baltic theater. NATO complied.
Now the American-led alliance of 29 states has battle groups permanently stationed in Lithuania and its two Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Estonia, commanded, respectively, by the German, Canadian and British armies, forming a continuum with Poland’s American-led force.
“We have a lot of stuff here,” says Lt.-Col. Rouven Habel, a German flag stitched to his sleeve above a NATO badge. That “stuff” includes 155-mm Howitzer batteries and Leopard-tank units, whose training takes place 90 km east of here, in Pabrade, hearing-distance from Belarus.
The German army, which during Cold War I never left German soil, now uses the new situation to drill trans-European logistics, leading six train loads carrying 12,000 tons of equipment into and out of Lithuania every six months, explains Habel’s colleague, Lt.-Col. Karsten Dyba.
Some 5,000 NATO troops exercise in the Baltics every weekday, in formations ranging from squadron level to division, says Dyba. This is beside larger, seasonal exercises, like a naval one last June that deployed 50 battleships and submarines as well as 40 aircraft led by the US Navy’s Second Fleet, to one that deployed 4,000 troops at the same time near Lithuania’s Belorussian border, spearheaded by Lithuania’s small but growing military.
“After Crimea, we decided to modernize our army,” says Karoblis, referring to Lithuania’s expansion of its defense spending from 0.77% of GDP, or $268 million, in 2013, to 2%, or $1 billion, today, to 2.5% ($1.25 billion) projected by 2030, and from 20,000 troops today to 40,000 by 2030.
The Russians, meanwhile, have multiplied their tanks and bombers in Kaliningrad and intensified exercises in Belarus, and also stung with cyberattacks that according to Karoblis, targeted Lithuanian banks and also himself, through Internet trolls, including some who tried to defame his as a Russian spy.
“That they are targeting me means I am doing my job,” says the burly, 51-year-old lawyer and former diplomat. Then he turns somber, and after counting some of what he is accumulating – self-propelled howitzer battalions, mechanized battalions, mid-range anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles – he asserts: “The mood here is that, if attacked, Lithuania will fight until the end.”
Col. Mindaugas Steponavicius, a graduate of the US Army’s War College and now commander of the Iron Wolf Mechanized Infantry Brigade, agrees. “We are approaching a future in which people understand that the good life in the West demands also responsibility,” he tells the Report in his office in the Rukla base, referring to Lithuanians’ response to the draft’s return.
Ironically, all this creates a renewed role for the Jews in Lithuania, albeit Jews that the Vilna Gaon and the rest of the rabbis and students of Lithuania’s yeshivas would not be able to recognize.
LOOKING ACROSS their European surface into their Russian horizon, Lithuanians meet their vanished Jews’ descendants as makers of the arms they buy, builders of an army like the one they crave, and the former confronters of the mighty neighbor they now face.
The heavy machine gun this writer saw firing in the thick of Rukla’s forests was operated by an Israeli-made Samson Remote Control Weapons Station, part of a deal with Rafael worth an estimated €100 million, which reportedly included Spike anti-tank guided missiles, and Boxer armored vehicles.
Israel’s experience is even more valuable than its industry, since it built an army that defied larger armies’ quantities. This tells Lithuanians that there is a way for a small population to organize, equip, and train a big army, which is why they are also curious about Israel’s reserve-duty system.
Diplomatically, the Israeli formula of confronting the Soviet Union while backed by Washington is pretty much how Lithuania is bracing for the current Russia’s unpredictability.
This, in sum, is the context in which a Lithuania of defiance, diligence, poise, and modernity is now preparing to mark seven centuries of one of the most creative, influential, and tragic communities the Jewish people ever produced.
Next year’s commemorative events will for most people be about Lithuania’s second vista, the one that emerges from under its ground unlike its other two vistas, the one above the ground and the one lurking beyond the horizon.
However, for some of the Israeli academics, literati, clergy, and politicians who will arrive here for next year’s conferences and exhibitions, the journey to Lithuania will be about a fourth vista, one that looks neither above nor below or forward, but backward, like Lot’s wife in her flight from her birthplace, transfixed by beauty they cannot deny, nostalgia they cannot resist, and longing they cannot explain, like poet Leah Goldberg’s painful lines about the land where she jotted her first Hebrew lines.
“My homeland,” she wrote looking back from Tel Aviv to her native Kovno, recalling the “land of beauty and poverty” where the poor “lift their pale faces toward the good light,” the light of a land where “the candles are blessed,” a land whose ”sons and daughters are grooms and brides,” a land where “the king has no home” and “the queen has no crown,” a “miserable land, impoverished and bitter” tarnished by “infamy and shame,” and yet one where she longed to wander “from town to town” armed with “a song and a music box,” a land where she yearned to “visit every street and corner, every market, and courtyard, and alley, and garden,” so that “from the rubble of your ruins I’ll gather little stones, to keep for souvenirs.”