Silent no more

The atrocities of the Holocaust stand in stark contrast to what the Litvak Congress hopes to accomplish.

The Holocaust memorial at Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
The Holocaust memorial at Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
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 training.
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 Parliament.
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 them.
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 thought.
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 memorials.
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 community.
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.
Of not 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.