Kaunas, Lithuania: Culture celebration confronts Holocaust memory - opinion

For me, an invited Jewish journalist from Israel, most prominent in my mind is how this Lithuanian city would relate to both the multiple achievements of its Jewish community and its Holocaust memory

  KAUNAS VISTA: Liberty Avenue and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. (photo credit: Andrius Aleksandravicius)
KAUNAS VISTA: Liberty Avenue and the Church of St. Michael the Archangel.
(photo credit: Andrius Aleksandravicius)

I’m in Kaunas, a pretty city of 300,000 residents in south central Lithuania. I’ve come for the closing events of Kaunas 2022, a year-long program facilitated when Kaunas was designated a European Capital of Culture. This city is better known to Jews as Kovno, a once thriving center of Jewish life.

Since 1985, executives of the European Union have elected two or three cities each year as European Capitals of Culture. The early winners were Athens, Florence and Amsterdam, but over the decades smaller and less well-known cities have successfully competed for the esteemed title.

Candidates from all over Europe submit detailed plans of proposed themes and cultural activities which they commit to carrying out over a single calendar year. The title carries with it prestige and a boost in public relations and tourism. In Kaunas, by this December when I arrive, the city’s Capital of Culture committee has carried through an impressive 600 projects with organizations from Lithuania and abroad, 500 art events and concerts, including 50 premieres.

Lithuanian city's Jewish memory and Holocaust history

For me, an invited Jewish journalist from Israel, most prominent in my mind is how this Lithuanian city would relate to both the multiple achievements of its Jewish community and its reprehensible Holocaust history. My grandparents, who identified as Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews), lived about 250 kilometers south of here but, thankfully, left long before the Holocaust. “Those Who Stayed” was one of the Kaunas 2022 exhibits, created by an artist whose family left Lithuania for South Africa when mine went to America.

 THE HORRIFYING Ninth Fort. (credit: Grazydas Jovaisa) THE HORRIFYING Ninth Fort. (credit: Grazydas Jovaisa)

A few words about Lithuania. It’s north of Poland with which it was joined in confederation for 200 years (1569-1795). It shares borders also with Latvia, Belarus and Russia, plus a maritime border with Sweden. The country is about the size of Ireland, three times the size of Israel, but with only 2.9 million citizens. Kaunas is located on the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas rivers. A stately tree-lined pedestrian street, the Laisves Aleja, with cafes and European shops, runs through the center of town.

Thumbnail history: After its long confederation with Poland, most of Lithuania was absorbed by the Russian Empire. After World War I, Lithuania became independent, a period reflected upon with pride and nostalgia. In 1940, the Soviet Union conquered the country. In 1941, the Nazis took over. Then, after World War II, the Soviet Union absorbed Lithuania again. In 1990, independence was restored, and today Lithuania is a European country where young people are more likely to speak better English than Russian.

Jewish history: Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael, known by the name Slobodka, was known as the “mother of yeshivas.” Students came from around the Jewish world to devote themselves to Talmud study and the Mussar ethical movement, from the late 19th century until World War II. During the period of national autonomy, an independent government-supported Jewish school system flourished, with instruction in Hebrew and Yiddish. The Russian occupiers confiscated Jewish property, dismantled schools and accused Jews of supporting capitalism. In 1941, Lithuanian fascists blamed the Jews for being communists and organized into murderous militia. Together with the occupying Nazis, they murdered 90 percent of the 220,000 Jews in Lithuania, including those who had fled from Poland which was occupied in 1939.

What was the tipping point in Kaunas’s ascension to becoming a European Capital of Culture? Some say it was UNESCO’s recognition of Kaunas’s modernist architecture. There are indeed dozens of preserved examples of these buildings with their round windows and non-symmetric fronts. Tel Aviv artist Shay Zilberman was invited to a collaboration interpreting modernist architecture in Kaunas and Tel Aviv. A popular catchphrase of Kaunas 2022 is “From temporary to contemporary.”

But I’d like to speculate that a striking element of Kaunas’s successful bid was its willingness to acknowledge its Jewish history, including the Holocaust. The organizers of the Kaunas Capital of Culture included a significant Memory Track as part of their year plan. More than 40 events focused on the Holocaust. Lithuanian youth who took part in the Year of Culture were exposed to this history and heard testimonies from Holocaust survivors. Jewish artists were invited to exhibit. Prominent among the invited artists from abroad was British artist Jenny Kagan, whose “Out of Darkness” interactive art exhibit brings viewers inside her parents’ survival through the Holocaust by living in a box. Contemporary artist William Kentridge reputedly retracted his long-standing pledge never to have his work exhibited in Lithuania, where his family members were murdered, because of the city’s emphasis on the Holocaust in the Memory Track. His exhibit in the National M.K. Ciurlionis Museum of Art is called “That Which We Do Not Remember.” Memory Track curator Daiva Cityyariene came to Israel to interview Kaunas survivors and edited a 200-page hard-cover book, The Jews of Kaunas, published by the city.

I AM invited to see the Kaunas 2022 art installations and music programs, as well as the Jewish history. The organizers agree that I should come early so I can fit it all in.

I fly to Vilnius, the capital, and a driver is waiting to drive me an hour northwest to Kaunas, with fields and forests covered with snow on both sides of the road.

I begin my Jewish sightseeing at the horrifying Ninth Fort. Completed in 1912 as part of the Russian czars’ defensive plan to stop the Germans (similar to the Maginot Line in France), the Ninth Fort has been preserved as a museum. Its construction is considered to have been an architectural breakthrough in the use of concrete. After serving as a fort, it was converted to a Soviet prison. Then, in 1941, it became a site for murdering Jews.

On a snow-covered hill on the outskirts of Kaunas, the fort looks so deserted that my driver asks three women carrying rakes if it’s open. They nod. In the distance, I see a few teenage girls and follow a path up the hill. They’re on a school field trip, they tell me. What was most impressive? The story of the escape of the workers, says one.

I’ve been warned there is no heating, but this cold has a different dimension: soul freezing. More than 50,000 persons, mostly Jews, were murdered here. Concrete cell after concrete cell tells the horrific stories of prisoners. Eyeglass cases, combs and spoons, found when bodies were exhumed, are displayed. Jews transported from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and France were murdered here, too, their bones mixed with brethren from Kaunas. Parents were shot first when families were together so they wouldn’t rebel as their children were shot. Victims were frequently buried alive.

How did 2022 European Capital of Culture organizers react to this? In one of the empty cells, there’s an appropriately appalling installation of bodies suspended in gauze bags from the ceiling, created by Bruce Clarke, a visual artist of Litvak origin whose family left for South Africa before the Holocaust. Another installation consists of 9,200 buttons symbolizing the number of Jews murdered in one day. As part of the Year of Culture, there were also Holocaust-themed plays, and memorial youth choirs performed in this unmistakable venue of evil. The escapees that impressed the high school students were prisoners left alive to exhume and burn the dead bodies to hide the crimes.

Outside of the prison is a massive memorial constructed in 1984 – the largest memorial in the country. As I approach, sculpted faces seem to emerge from the 32-meter high reinforced concrete. I light the memorial candle I’ve brought in my travel bag, cup my hands around the flame until it catches, and stand in silence on the hillside, absorbing the horror.

Below on the hill is a young woman walking a baby in a high carriage. When I get closer, I see she’s remarkably beautiful. She says she lives nearby, although there are no houses in view.

“Isn’t it hard to walk with a baby this close to so much terrible history?“ I ask.

“It is,” she says. “It’s a horrible history, but we have to recognize that it is our history.”

Sugihara

On a quiet residential street in Kaunas stands the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall, the modest house where the brave Japanese consul issued transit visas to Jews seeking a way out of Lithuania, despite instructions from the home office that no visas should be issued to those who didn’t meet the conditions. He’s credited to have saved 6,000 Jews. I’m glad to warm up, literally and figuratively. I sit in the facsimile of the consul’s chair and learn new facts about Chiune Sugihara. He was always a rebel. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, but he purposely failed the entrance exams because he wanted to be a teacher. The family was too poor to pay for his education, so he applied to study abroad through the Foreign Ministry. He passed and was sent to Harbin, Manchuria, to study Russian. Thereafter, he was appointed consul in Kaunas, then the capital and border city, to send intelligence back to Japan. 

Another hero of his story is Yukiko Sugihara, Chiune’s wife, who knew they might lose their livelihood and endanger their family but encouraged her husband to continue issuing visas. Another hero: At the same time, a newly appointed acting Dutch consul in Kaunas named Jan Zwartendijk – a businessman who worked for Philips electronics – provided papers saying ”visas weren’t necessary to enter Surinam, Curaçao, and other possessions of the Netherlands in the Americas.” His role in saving Jews was only revealed in 1963. A Kaunas 2022 concert by the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra honoring the consuls was called “Carrying the Light.”

The ghetto is gone

My taxi driver takes me to the Vilijampole neighborhood on the right bank of the confluence of the rivers, but there was little left of the Slobodka Yeshiva or the Kovno Ghetto to see. We follow a map published by Kaunas and find the simple memorial. Between July and August 15, 1941, here the Germans concentrated 29,000 Jews who survived the pogroms by the Lithuanians. Most of them were sent to concentration and extermination camps or shot at the Ninth Fort.

One last synagogue

One synagogue, the Ohel Jakov Chorale Synagogue, remains of the many that used to stand in Kaunas. I am walked there by a local woman from whom I ask directions. The synagogue is still beautiful, with arched windows and a neo-Baroque exterior. Built in 1871, it also served as a concert hall for cultural events. It’s getting dark. The light is on inside. It’s Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Hebrew month. I have the desire to end my day of touring with the afternoon prayer in this synagogue.

Two men answer my persistent ringing of the bell. One of them speaks Hebrew. They let me in to look around. There are stunning golden embellishments and a beautiful dome. But there will not be a prayer service; the synagogue is closed for winter. I’m advised to seek out the Jewish Center if I’m looking for a minyan.

The Jewish Center turns out to be a boon. Located directly behind the Radisson Hotel where I’m staying, I’m welcomed by Israeli Rabbi Moshe Sheinfeld and his wife, Rachel, who aren’t representatives of Chabad or any Hassidic group. They and their five sons have been living in Kaunas for 11 years and provide a home away from home for the hundreds of Israeli students studying medicine, dentistry and veterinary science in English-language university programs in Kaunas. On Shabbat, 50 Israeli students take part in the Shabbat services, the rabbi’s engaging Torah classes and appetizing Shabbat meals. I am invited to speak to them and tell them a story.

Are there other Jews in Kaunas? One evening, I attend a Kaunas 2022 audiovisual concert called “Seven Waters.” The venue is the drained basement reservoir of the Kaunas water company – an example of the creativity of the cultural events of Kaunas 2022. Before we climb down into the basement, we’re all issued shoe covers because the floor is still wet and puddly. Lithuanian musicians, the Tykomos duo, play folk themes using an alpine horn and bells. They’re joined by a superb local choir, while lights in varied colors and shapes or blinding blasts are coordinated with the music. A wow evening in every respect.

After the show, it’s snowing and I seek help from a group of concert goers gathered outside. I don’t have an app for the local equivalent of GETT or Uber, and hilly Kaunas has ubiquitous long – now slippery – stone stairs from one part of the city to another. Of course, I’m asked where I’m from. A woman immediately introduces herself as an active member of the Jewish community and invites me to hear a Yiddish singer, an event of the Jewish community, also connected to Kaunas 2022. The woman says there are some 300 Jews in the city. Then, on the five-minute taxi ride back to my hotel, the driver asks me where I’m from and waxes eloquent about his visit to Israel. He particularly loved Ashdod. His octogenarian aunt lives in Beit Shemesh. “I have Yiddish blood,” he says with pride. He was born in Azerbaijan, but the ride is too short to get the whole story.

Likewise, my hosts from Kaunas 2022 – plus a cadre of volunteer locals who enjoy showing off the city – also point out things Jewish to me. Across from my hotel is a school where Israeli poet Lea Goldberg studied. On my side of the street was once a freethinkers club named after Emma Goldman, the Jewish anarchist political writer. On a pedestrian street there’s a sculpture of the late Daniellus Dolski, a popular musician; and philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s birthplace is marked with a plaque. A Hebrew edition of a children’s book about a contemporary whimsical legend of a Kaunas mythical beast has been published for Kaunas 2022.

The Memory Office of Kaunas 2022 has included a CityTelling Festival to recall the life of the Jews in Kaunas. Large street art portraits of Jews appear on city walls. There’s one of Lea Goldberg, her picture and her poem “Pine” in Hebrew and Lithuanian, in which she expresses her love of her two homelands. A second large wall mural depicts a Jewish mother and child before World War II.

Four-plus-one presidents talk about Ukraine

At Vytautas Magnus University (VMU), a program of Kaunas 2022 is a symposium called “The Idea of Europe.” The presidents of Lithuania (Gitanes Nauseda), of Latvia (Egil Levits), of Poland (Andrzej Duda) and of Romania (Klaus Iohannia) take part, philosophizing about the concept of Europe. Is it a geographic location or a commitment to certain values? At this event, Europe is a grand concept, and there’s no acknowledgment of the blots on all their countries regarding the treatment of the Jews. Their speeches are dominated by condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joins the discussion by Zoom. Later, at an intimate press conference, I find myself sitting a few meters away from the four European presidents as they pledge to stand with Ukraine. The threat of Russian aggression to end their much-loved current European lives is real, and it’s easy to understand the nervousness about falling behind a new Iron Curtain.

I sit among the estimated 16,000 Kaunas residents who attend the final performance of Kaunas 2022 in the Zaligario Arena on the waterfront. The home court of the Žalgiris Kaunas basketball team has been flooded, and much of the action – 160 performers dancing, operatic singing, jousting to a mix of classical and electronic music – is in water. The creative producer, with whom we had met earlier, has coached us not to expect a narrative, but the themes of subjugation and freedom are apparent. The audience is urged to sign a contract pledging “Kaunas Forever.” They’re counting on the spirit of Kaunas 2022 to carry them forward without forgetting the past.

I keep thinking of that woman wheeling the pram on the hill near the Ninth Fort. A new generation. “It’s a horrible history, but it’s ours,” she said.

Facing it can change the future. 

The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.