Litvak Trip Day 2: Vilnius

Holocaust Museum (Green House)

Rachel Kostanian, Director of the museum and a Holocaust survivor explained that under the Soviets, all mention of Jews as victims of the Holocaust was removed and they only were referred to in records and memorials as “others”, along with Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc. Upon Lithuanian independence in 1990 a group of 23 intellectuals petitioned the new government to recognize Jewish historical suffering, in which 95% of the Jewish community perished. The latest project their group is working on is to collect the remnants of Lithuanian Jewish culture into a museum: Center for Litvak Culture and Art. Over the years the Jewish community has bought items that were originally stolen from Jewish families; there are now 30,000 artifacts.

Some of the exhibits include a wall map of all Lithuanian Jewish towns originally in existence before the Holocaust. There are copies of German einsatzgruppen reports of executions in 1941 to Berlin. The “Jager Report” details executions carried out by “Lithuanian partisans” under the command of Obersturmfuhrer Hamann. Total recorded 137,346 Jews murdered. There are also copies of German reports of Jewish revolts, which occurred very often, and documentation of the Grand Duke Gediminas inviting Jews to live in the Duchy of Lithuania in 1388.

Cultural exhibits include photos of writers and journalists, people active in YIVO and intellectuals from the 1930s. There is a Haskalah exhibit about the poet Judah Leib Gordon, Samuel Finn, Joshua Steinberg, Isaac Meir Dick (Yiddish writer), Abraham Mapu (1st Hebrew novelist) and others.

Holocaust Museum “Green House”

Monument to Chiune Sugihara, Japanese consul during 1939-40

Rachel Kostanian, Director of museum, on the left, Peggy Freedman, trip leader, on the right

Tolerance Center

This museum is located in a former Jewish theatre and has two components:
1. Cultural history of the Lithuanian Jewish people
2. Memorial to the children who perished in the Holocaust

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was a guest of this museum, speaking after a meeting with members of the Belarus opposition. The Tolerance Center is involved in the plans to open a center for Litvak culture and art in the future. There is a history exhibit including religion, Grand Duchy and early Jewish communities. The Lithuanian language (an old, notoriously difficult language related to Sanscrit) has added many Yiddish words, similar to Yiddish terms absorbed into English today. There is a flag commemorating the Jewish volunteers in the struggle for Lithuanian independence, a Torah ark from an early 20th century synagogue, Bible story folk art by Aaron Chajet of Kelme, 18th century red & blue Torah shield from the Great Synagogue, memorial to children who perished, Yiddish theatre poster from 1919.

Flag of Lithuanian independence

Yiddish Theatre Poster from 1919

Memorial to children who perished

Paneriai (Ponar) Memorial

Ilya Lemperz, a historian and tour guide for 35 years, led this tour. There were up to 100,000 victims murdered in 9 pits at this site in the midst of a forest, including 70,000 Jews. The Lithuanians were reluctant to assign blame to anyone other than Hitler, but due to overwhelming proof that local Lithuanians also were implicated, the monument sign had a middle stone added in 1990.

1. Murderers were revised from solely Nazis to Nazis and “local helpers”
2. Victims revised from “citizens” to “70,000 Jews – men, women and children”. Jews were 95% of victims in this area, although according to Ilya, the total number of victims at Paneriai was probably lower, as the Soviets were known to exaggerate.

Jewish Cemetery and grave of the Vilna Gaon 

The Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, is buried in a mausoleum in this large old cemetery.

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