This was a l-o-o-o-n-g journey beginning in LA, a Delta Airlines flight from JFK to Copenhagen, then a SAS flight from Copenhagen to Vilnius, arriving in an airport resembling a bus terminal, with no security or passport inspection. We’re taken to the lovely Hotel Radisson Blu Astorija, located in Old Town. My hotel room has a view of St Casimir Church & Old Town plaza. St. Casimir was founded by the Jesuits and built between 1604–1635 in a Baroque Rococco architectural style.
In spite of days without sleep, I can’t resist a couple of hours exploring, before the group welcome dinner at the hotel. Greeting our tour members in various degrees of jetlag are guests from the local Jewish and Lithuanian community:
Jonathan Berger Public Affairs Officer from the US Embassy described the State Department’s priority as furthering Jewish Lithuanian relations, and identifying the Holocaust legacy as a human rights issue. So far, 70 university educators have been trained. Another priority is restitution to Holocaust survivors; a law was passed June 2011 to mandate compensation but no payments have yet been made. A major problem and point of contention between some Jewish community leaders and Lithuania is the difference in how the Lithuanian government views the Holocaust, and its attempts to see Stalin/Hitler equivalence in the amount of suffering, negating the unique effect on the Jewish community and its losses.
Ruta Puisyte is the director of Litvak Cemetery Project, an organization to preserve Jewish cemeteries and digitalize all graves. This group is based at Vilnius University and the Yiddish Institute. Ruta stated that by Lithuanian law, the government is supposed to take care of cemeteries – but the money has not been allotted.
Peggy Freedman: is the trip leader; Litvak Trip founder Howard Margol and his wife Esther originally came to Lithuania just after its independence. They met Simon Alperovitch, Chairman of the Jewish community of Lithuania, who had a vision for the future of the community. Now there is a real Jewish community center with classes, computers, a kindergarten with 50 students and the Sholom Aleichem school with almost 300 students. Peggy presented Simon Gurevichius with a check from Howard for $50,000 for the Lithuanian Jewish community.
Simon Gurevichius: As director of the Jewish community in Vilnius, he has personal knowledge of many of the elderly and families in need of help. Out of a Jewish community of approximately 3500 persons, one-third are elderly and many are poor; the average income is $300/month. The elderly went through the Nazi occupation and the Soviet regime, when there were Jewish quotas for many jobs. During the Soviet era, a Bris was illegal, and teaching of Hebrew was illegal. The current financial situation for the elderly is especially difficult, as most of their pensions are used solely to heat their apartments in the winter. There are about 1400 elderly Jews in need. The greatest priorities according to Simon are:
2. The need to create a Jewish identity among people who have had little opportunity to learn about their own culture and religion. Progress has been made: in 2011 there were twenty-three Bar/Bat Mitzvahs! The Jewish kindergarten has 50 students, with a waiting list of 50 more.
3. Preserving a Jewish heritage through a Center for Litvak Culture, and through film. Elders are being filmed with the help of the Spielberg foundation.
Simon commented on Snyder’s book “Bloodlands”, saying that it is entirely accurate but is being misused by the non-Jewish Lithuanian community who focus only on the Lithuanian suffering at the hands of the Soviets. He pointed out that right-wing nationalists march on Independence Day in Vilnius. Simon considers the current Lithuanian Prime Minister to be good, but is concerned about the political future. He trained as an economist, but chose to work in community service as a greater priority, and he is a passionate advocate for his community.