Vilna Ghetto, Lithuanian Jews remembered at Yad Vashem

Vilna Ghetto, Lithuanian

Over 100 people gathered inside the synagogue at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Tuesday evening to commemorate 66 years since the start of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, and the subsequent slaughter of over 100,000 Lithuanian Jews during World War II. The memorial service, which was attended by Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein and Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis, also included musical performances by a choir that was originally made up of, and still includes, many survivors of the Vilna Ghetto and its aftermath. Edelstein, who spent three years himself in a Soviet prison camp in the 1980s, spoke glowingly of the Lithuanian Jewish community's rich history before recalling its tragic fate. "The Lithuanian Jewish community was one of the most prolific in the Ashkenazi world," he said in his remarks to the crowd. "And when we talk about them, it's important that we remember their history and their tragic fate, not just for the people who are here today, but for future generations to come." Degutis took Edelstein's words a step further, telling the crowd that he foresaw a bright future between Lithuania and Israel and hoped that cultural exchanges between the two countries would increase. The ambassador began his remarks by quoting a passage from Elie Wiesel's Night: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp... Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself." "I, coming from Lithuania, will say it like this," Degutis continued. "Never will we forget these things, even if we are condemned to live as long as God Himself." The ambassador went on to say that across Lithuania on Wednesday, which is the date of the beginning of the Vilna Ghetto's liquidation, thousands of schoolchildren would walk out to monuments and burial sites, such as the killing fields at Ponar, and light candles in the shape of a Star of David. "And at 3 p.m., they will all say in unison, 'Remember,'" he said. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post before his speech, Degutis also said he was constantly working on ways to improve ties between Israel and Lithuania. "I'm a big believer in youth exchange," he said. "I encourage Israeli young people to come to Lithuania, and I also encourage Lithuanian youth to come to Israel." He recounted how, at the Third World Litvak Conference in Lithuania in August, he had "met many young Israelis who come from Lithuanian backgrounds. While many of them said that it was difficult to get over the pain and sorrow they had regarding their families' fates there, they were also encouraged by the Lithuania of today, which is a warm and welcoming place to all of its brothers and sisters." He continued, "I think the message of Yad Vashem - 'Remember the past and shape the future' - is exactly what we need to do in Lithuania, and I think, while there's much to be accomplished, we're doing that." But after the ceremony, Uri Chanoch, a Lithuanian Holocaust survivor from Kovno, told the Post that there was a long way to go before such goals could be achieved. "I can still remember the way they came and just jumped on us," Chanoch said. "We were in such shock, because we had great relations with our Lithuanian neighbors, and here they are killing us... It was them at first, not the Germans. And while the Germans knew how to kill systematically - I should know, I was in Dachau - the Lithuanians used whatever they could get their hands on - knives, sticks - to do the job. "If the Lithuanians want to move forward, they have yet to acknowledge the past," he continued, tears welling up in eyes. "Today, almost everyone has admitted to their part in the Holocaust - the Germans, the Polish, the Czechs, but the Lithuanians have yet to acknowledge their role. All they will say is that the Germans came in and did it, but that's not true. I saw it with my own eyes."