Litvak Trip Day 9: Kaunas, Vilnius

Our travel group

Kaunas (Kovno)

If Vilnius was known as the center of education (often referred to as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”) then Kaunas was a trade and commercial center. Its location on the Nemunas (Neman) River, which flows to the Baltic Sea, was advantageous. Kaunas at one time had 38 synagogues; sadly there is just one active synagogue remaining.


Sugihara Museum

We visit the home of Chiune Sugihara who, as the Japanese consul, issued over 2000 visas for Jews to escape Lithuania and cross the USSR via the Trans-Siberian Railway and boat to the Port of Tsuruga in Japan. Dutch diplomats also assisted by issuing thousands of Curacao visas until the Soviets closed the Dutch consulate. Sugihara’s home office has been left intact, on a hill in a quiet residential neighborhood.

Sugihara’s House

Simon Davidovich, at the Sugihara Museum

Simon Davidovich, deputy chairman of the Jewish Community Center of Kaunas, is also director of the Sugihara Museum.

Ziezmariai: the Last Wooden Synagogue

In the very old village of Ziezmariai, this wooden synagogue is the last of its kind standing. Built in 1782, it is in poor condition, but a kindly caretaker keeps watch. Lludvikas was a child during the German occupation, and watched his parents dress as beggars to bring food to Jewish neighbors hiding in the forest outside the village. He was only 6 years old at the time, and has made it his mission to keep an eye on the synagogue and unlock it for visitors.

Ziezmariai Synagogue

Ziezmariai Synagogue

Lludvikas, caretaker of the synagogue

Lludvikas and his mother, 1944

We stop for lunch at a traditional Karaite and Lithuanian restaurant, “Kibinine”. After a salad, we’re served vegetable & cabbage soup served in a carved out loaf of black (rye) bread. The next course is “cepelinai”, a giant potato dumpling made from grated and boiled potatoes — appropriately nicknamed “zeppelins”,  it’s Lithuania’s national dish. Dessert is pears with cream and bread crumbs.

Lunch at Kibinine

Soup in a bowl of dark rye bread


Kvass, a drink made from rye & yeast


Downtown area of Vilnius near Novotel Hotel.

Vilnius, view from hotel room

Farewell Dinner

Jonathan Berger, US Embassy and Peggy Freedman, trip leader

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Litvak Trip Day 8: Kaunas Archives, Ninth Fort

The Kaunas Hotel has an excellent breakfast buffet with many traditional foods: local cottage cheese served in slices, hot kasha, blintzes, smoked salmon, herrings, garlic, 3 types of black (rye) breads, and the local soft drink, kvass (made from yeast & rye). Also a plate of decidedly non-kosher pigs’ ears.

Some traditional Lithuanian foods


Kaunas Archives

Kaunas Archives

We visit the Kaunas Archives, located in a building that was once a synagogue. They have a historical department and modern records, but no vital records are kept at this location. All vital records are in Vilnius. Records from the 19th century are in Russian; later records are in Lithuanian. Jewish records were kept for the purposes of taxation and the army. The first overall census was taken in 1895–7. Many records from Kaunas (and Vilnius) have been uploaded to the “All Lithuanian Database” on
Later, local municipalities created “Family Lists” which listed each family by place of administration (town). This became a permanent registration. However, in the 19th century people often moved, confusing the record keeping.

Jews were required to take surnames in 1804 (previously people were identified by patronymic, e.g. David son of Isaac). They did not often comply, this being Russia, and sometimes changed their surname at will. By the mid-19th century surnames became permanent in families. In addition to state and local taxes, Jews were required to pay 2 additional taxes: 1) Box tax: kosher meat and property tax; and 2) Candle tax: candles, used for Jewish education in State schools

In 1894 a “residence permit” became required for travelling on business within the Pale of Settlement. Russia had no internal passports until WWI, when Jews were made to move to Russian and Ukrainian gubernias. After WWI, the newly independent nation of Lithuania had passports for travel outside the country.

The archivist confirmed that Revision Lists are not the most accurate because many people would hide from being listed. It was common for families to take steps to remove them or their children from being recorded, since there were taxation and military draft repercussions. People would change a family member’s age or even the family surname. Jews had to serve in the Russian army from 1827 or pay additional taxes. Jews were conscripted from age 12 (non-Jews were conscripted from age 18). The Jewish community was required to produce a list of draftees, and the wealthy could sometimes buy out the son of poor family to keep their own son out. It became compulsory for all men to register at age 21 in 1874. Each would register but the community would draw lots to determine who had to serve. The military draft could obligate a draftee for a decade or longer.

Old Yiddish theatre poster

I walk to the Akroplis, a modern 3-story shopping mall, and return for a great “local” lunch at the hotel: salad of beets and apples, borsht soup, dill potatoes and latkes (potato pancakes) with sour cream.

Latkes (potato pancakes)

Afternoon with our entertaining guide, Chaim Bargman, who speaks Yiddish and Hebrew, in addition to Lithuanian and English. We cross the Nieman River bridge for a view of the city. There was a very rich cultural Jewish life in Kaunas (Kovne) and the Jewish Quarter was by the river. Kaunas and Los Angeles are now “sister cities”.




Our guide, Chaim

We visit the site of the Slobodka Ghetto and Yeshiva; the yeshiva functions today as “Yeshiva of Hebron”. A memorial marker at the ghetto has recently been vandalized.

Slobodka ghetto marker


Ninth Fort (IX Fort)

The Ninth Fort is the site of mass killings during WWII. Jews were selected from the ghetto, brought to the Ninth Fort and murdered during the German occupation. It was originally built as a fortress and soldier barracks. Tunnels are 1 km inside the walls and during WWI it was a political prison. During WWII, a daring escape of 64 Jewish prisoners occurred on Christmas day while the German guards were all drunk. There was snow on the ground and one prisoner held up a sheet to hide the escape of the others.

Ninth Fort

Ninth Fort

Ninth Fort

Escape route tunnel

Rescuers: “Righteous among the nations”


Artifacts from the Kaunas Ghetto


On a nearby hill, a massive Soviet-era monument to the mass killings [as usual] does not mention that the victims were primarily Jewish.


Back in the town, Chaim takes me to see the Kaunas “Sister City” display in a pedestrian area, showing the city seals of about a dozen sister cities around the world, including Los Angeles. It stays light outside until well past 10pm and many young people are out strolling – and drinking.

Kaunas sister cities


In a unique bit of marketing, a dozen walking Coca Cola machines roam about giving out free cans of Coke.

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Belarus, It’s Complicated [part III]

Stork nest, Belarus

Dalhinev, continued

There are two memorials to the Jews who perished here during the Holocaust. A matching memorial is placed outside the cemetery, with a plaque from the Belarus Ministry of Education.

Dalhinev memorial

Dalhinev memorial

Some of Dalhinev’s original shtetl neighborhood is intact, with the typical pattern of Jewish houses near the market square, and Christian houses set further back with a side entrance. A door in the front of the Jewish houses allowed for a small shop to be run, with room for the family on the opposite side.

Jewish shtetl house, Dalhinev

Christian shtetl house, Dalhinev




The fourth shtetl we visited, a few miles down the road from Dalhinev, was Dokshitsy. Our touring group families have roots in both Dalhinev and Dokshitsy. A further coincidence: my great grandfather was a coachman (and cattle buyer) in Dalhinev; their great grandfather was a coachman (and cattle trader) in Dokshitsy! They were contemporaries and very likely to have known each other—and probably shared a drink or two during their long journeys with horse and cart!

Typical Russian horse-drawn cart from 19th century


The Jewish cemetery of Dokshitsy was originally in disarray or destroyed, but thanks to a truly dedicated man, Aaron Ginsburg, and the Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy, the surviving grave markers have been restored and a memorial created. The Dokshitsy district is maintaining the site. Aaron has created a Website dedicated to this shtetl:

Dokshitsy cemetery, restored

Soviet memorial, Dokshitsy

Across from the cemetery is a pit with memorials to those murdered at the site, where Germans shot their victims. The two memorials at this site illustrate the disagreement in countries including Lithuania and Belarus on how best to adequately interpret the mass murders. The Soviet era memorial is in honor of the “Soviet heroes” and does not mention Jewish victims. The Soviets under Khrushchevdecided that Jews were simply Soviets when it came to the victims. The smaller memorial, in Hebrew and Belarusian, makes clear that this was a Holocaust site and specifically explains that victims of the massacre were Jewish. This monument was erected by The Friends of Jewish Dokshitsy in memory of its Jewish community.
On the drive back to Lithuania, we make a stop at Glubokoe, a large town with what appears to be a business district. We request a “shopping stop” to spend our rubles, but end up at a small grocery/liquor store where I manage to buy some boxed Russian chocolates for less than $3. The journey continues through lovely countryside, with occasional rain showers that have turned up over the past two days.


Belarus countryside

Each Belarus town has had some things in common: a large statue of Lenin in the town center and a Soviet memorial to the town’s war patriots, with fresh and colorful flower displays.


Dokshitsy Soviet war memorial

As we approach the border Loreta becomes increasingly agitated, though few cars are in line and the wait is much shorter to cross into Lithuania. Border security soldiers, in uniform with rifles, inspect the trunk of our car. Once we’re back in Lithuania, Loreta is visibly relieved. We learn why when she proudly announces that she’s smuggled extra cartons of cigarettes back (which had cost less than half in Belarus).

This visit to Belarus has been fascinating and thought provoking, and I would like to return there. Although it is a poor country with a communist dictator, it is a beautiful country—one can imagine that it did not look much different a century ago. In some aspects there appears to be personal freedom: some homes have satellite dishes, the young people dress fashionably, and I was told that there is open Internet access, in contrast to mainland China which imposes a firewall. On the other hand, the government does monitor access and restricts sites critical of Lukashenko. I’m very aware that there is much that I do not know.

My family members who crossed the Atlantic to Ellis Island may have been shocked at the poverty and overcrowding they encountered upon their arrival in New York City, in spite of their own difficult living conditions in Belarussia. But there is no doubt that they were grateful for the freedom they found in America.


Thank You to Peggy Freedman who was a great trip leader, and Howard Margol who has done so much for the Lithuanian Jewish Community!


Now playing in Volozhin

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Belarus, It’s Complicated [part II]

Volozhin countryside

Typical of the many Jewish shtetl towns throughout the region, Jewish homes were located right along the market square, and the non-Jewish peasant homes were located further back, to accommodate their livestock. Jewish families typically owned small shops and their homes were unique for their front doors facing the street. Many of these very old homes still have a cow or goat in the yard, apple or cherry trees and gardens. As we were to see the next day in Dolginovo (Dalhinev), the old neighborhoods appear as if time stood still for the past century.

Our guide summarized the 3 typical architectural styles we were likely to see in Belarus:

1.      Shtetl: very old wood homes, colorful but unchanged, with peeling paint

2.      Stalinist: very formal government buildings, made from brick with massive columns, uniquely ugly

3.      Krushchevka: the previously mentioned decrepit apartment buildings where most residents live

We continued on to Lida, the somewhat larger town where our hotel (Continent Hotel) was located. Considered to be the finest hotel in the town, the hotel was in a nondescript building with a reception desk manned by a severe-looking woman who held our passports. The building was spooky, with narrow, dark hallways and doors that popped open when the key card was used, but the strangely decorated rooms (Krushchev moderne?) were immaculate. Just 10 rooms, daily rate about $55.

Loreta brought us to a nearby restaurant for dinner which, due to all three of us being on a vegetarian diet, became a scene out of the book “Everything is Illuminated”. The Russian language menu had no vegetarian options and when Loreta explained our request for vegetarian food to the waitress, she looked over at us in horror. Following a protracted series of negotiations, we were each eventually served a plate of steamed vegetables, along with some local breaded fried cheese that looked very much like latkes (potato pancakes). (Unfortunately, the soups, latkes and blintzes were all made with meat.)

After dinner, we noticed a large group of teenagers hanging out by a nightclub next to our hotel. They were dressed just like American teenagers and openly stared at us, but did not attempt to speak to us. I assume that their reticence may be due to the political situation. Loreta spoke some Russian with them and said that they study English in school but they may not be comfortable speaking. It is true that people in this country who fall out of favor with the government may be arrested or “disappear”.

Lida town

Army recruitment notice

The next morning I woke early and took a long walk around the town. The streets had wide greenbelts and the apartment buildings were set well back from the street. Some people appeared to be walking to work or to the train station, and on every block a woman was sweeping with a straw broom. The place was immaculate, and hanging planters with flowers were on each block. There were few personal cars on the street. I noticed some government buildings and what appeared to be a food market. There was a unique “sidewalk billboard” intended for pedestrians that was an army recruitment notice. I walked to the restored Lida castle (originally built by the Grand Duke Gediminas in the 14th century), which appeared very well kept, although it was closed.

Lida Castle

Pop “culture” has reached Belarus

Upon returning to my hotel, I noticed a preschool directly across the street. A group of children were outside doing calisthenics to taped music, 3-year-olds marching in circles and doing jumping jacks to warm up. Breakfast was another ordeal, with Loreta and the waitress getting into a Russian shouting match. We eventually were served “blintzes” which turned out to be cheese pancakes and sour cream.At this point I should mention that we were forewarned to be prepared for Belarus. Howard and Peggy
e-mailed a 10-page letter to all trip participants with some excellent advice, including:
1.      Bring plenty of snacks to last for a couple of meals, since you may never even run across a restaurant.

2.   Bring toilet paper and antiseptic hand wipes; in the unlikely event that you find toilet paper in Belarus, it will be “rough”.

3.   Be prepared for l-o-o-o-n-g waits at the border.

I don’t think our guide Loreta got this e-mail, as she became increasingly tense, showing contempt for some of the situations and people we encountered in Belarus. I was previously told that many Lithuanian guides refuse to enter Belarus; it is true that the Lithuanians suffered under Russian rule in the past and greatly value their own independence.

We continued our drive to Dolginovo (Dalhinev), the shtetl where both of my paternal grandparents’ families lived for generations. In the late 19th century the Jewish population of about 2,500 comprised a majority in the town. Although my grandfather traveled alone to America as a young man in 1910, his parents and siblings chose to stay in Dalhinev. The Holocaust took nearly all of his family in 1942; a niece survived as a child, hidden in the forest outside the town with her aunt, and eventually made her way to Israel, where she lives today. She was likely part of a group of 200 survivors who made their way to the forest and were protected by a Russian partisan, Nikolay Kiselev. All of the other inhabitants of Dalhinev were murdered. Kiselev, sometimes referred to as the Russian Schindler, was honored by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem as “righteous among the nations”.

Dolginovo (Dalhinev, Dalhinow)

Blue lupine

A single red brick synagogue survives, in poor condition. A small Jewish community in Minsk has jurisdiction over Jewish sites in Belarus, but there is very little funding available to maintain the old synagogues or cemeteries. A famous rabbi of the family surname, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, was from this shtetl and eventually came to the US and founded the highly regarded Ner Israel Yeshiva in Baltimore, which today has about 1,000 students.

Dalhinev synagogue

The Dalhinev cemetery is on a hill overlooking fields and the village in the distance. A fence in need of repair surrounds the cemetery, which has some very old grave markers. Some are tilted or fallen, and some have weathered over the years so that they are no longer legible.

Dalhinev cemetery

Old grave marker

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Belarus, It’s Complicated [part I]

Soviet war memorial

With all of the choices around the world for a vacation (magnificent beaches, World Heritage sites, Italy, India, Australia, etc.) why would I choose to visit an isolated mostly unknown country ruled by a communist dictator who is currently grooming his 7-year-old illegitimate son to assume power one day?

Family! All of my grandparents, with the exception of one grandfather from the Kiev area, were born in what is now Belarus. Labeled the “Bloodlands” by author Timothy Snyder in his excellent book, this region located in Eastern Europe was unfortunately located in the direct path of a succession of conquering armies over the centuries, and its Jewish population suffered an incomprehensible destruction during the Holocaust, losing 95% of its people. My ancestors may have lived in the same homes all of their lives, but they still managed to live in several countries, from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to Poland, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and Belarus. My grandparents (and some great-grandparents) all chose to immigrate to the United States about 100 years ago, and they were uniformly grateful to become Americans. They would probably think it crazy for a descendant to return voluntarily to the land of poverty and pogroms.

There are two important reasons to make this journey:

1. This was their home for centuries. Revision Lists (similar to a census for taxation purposes) show some family surname records going back to the 18th century for a couple of their shtetls (villages).

2. The historical Jewish presence goes back centuries more, to the 15th century when Jewish tradesmen and craftsmen were invited into the country by Grand Duke Vytautas. The region of the Lithuania then corresponded roughly to the center of Jewish culture, religion and education known to Jews as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania” with the capital city of Vilnius (Vilna). The current independent country of Lithuania is smaller, and all of my ancestral shtetls are in present-day Belarus.

On June 25th three of us set off from Vilnius to Belarus with a driver/translator, as part of an extraordinary “Litvak Trip” arranged by Howard Margol and Peggy Freedman, in its 18th year. Alexander Lukashenko, “the last dictator in Europe”, is not exactly an ally of the US, to put it mildly. The visa process involved obtaining a letter of invitation and mailing an application (and my passport) to the Republic of Belarus embassy. At one point I wondered if I’d ever see my passport again.

Crossing the border from Lithuania to Belarus was a lengthy process, and we waited at the border for over 2 hours. We were also required to buy Belarus health insurance for 2 days, total cost $3. Once across the border, we noticed a 2- to 3-mile-long line of trucks waiting to enter Lithuania. Our guide, Loreta, told us that a wait of several days was common for truckers, who are sometimes caught smuggling goods such as cigarettes and liquor, known to be considerably cheaper in Belarus.

Trucks waiting at Belarus border

Old Russian Lada car

On the road to visit our group’s shtetls (Smorgon, Volozhin, Dolginovo & Dokshitz) the vast difference between Belarus and Lithuania (or for that matter, anywhere else I’d ever visited) became evident. The roads were single lane and the countryside was farmland (large collective farms, we were told) and forests, with no sign of commercial development—no billboards, no signs other than town markers, no advertising of any kind. We passed an occasional horse and wagon. Cows, horses and goats were grazing alongside the road; one cow managed to settle in under a bus stop! There were tall storks’ nests, and we were informed that children are still told that babies were brought by the stork.

The countryside, mostly flat with rolling hills, was beautiful. Potato and corn crops were evident, though we were told that due to the short growing season the corn was only fit to feed to livestock. Extensive pine and birch tree forests and blue lupine were everywhere; road stands showed up from time to time, selling mushrooms and berries from the forests.


“Kruschevka” apartment building

Our first stop was the town of Smorgon. We visited a small bank to change some money from Lithuanian litas to Belarusian rubles. With an exchange rate of $1 to about 8,200 rubles, the bills seemed like Monopoly money. Smorgon has little remaining of Jewish interest; its entire Jewish community, and its homes, were destroyed in the Holocaust. The housing consists of 4- or 5-floor apartment blocks built in the 1960s during the time of the Soviet Union and sarcastically nicknamed “Krushchevka” by the locals. These hastily and poorly built apartments began to deteriorate almost immediately, and the decay is quite obvious. They are still occupied to this day.

Our next stop was Volozhin, the home of my maternal grandmother and her family. This town has an especially attractive center (which used to be the market square), due to the influence of Duke Tishkevich, who built palaces for himself and his two sons here, along with a church on the main square. (The palaces are now police headquarters for the town—a significant police presence for a small town.) We were told the Duke had a good relationship with Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and permitted him to build the Volozhin Yeshiva, about 200 years ago. Rabbi Chaim, a student of the famous Vilna Gaon, also owned a wool knitting business. Among the Volozhin Yeshiva’s students were Israeli President Shimon Peres’s grandfather and Israel’s national poet, Chaim NahmanBialik.

Volozhin Yeshiva, founded 1803

The Volozhin Yeshiva was famous throughout Lithuania and although it is no longer in use, it appears to be in the process of restoration. A local guide told us that the Yeshiva had 3 floors, with student classrooms in the basement. The reasoning was that since the basement was cold, students would stay more alert during the long days of studies. During Soviet times, it was used as a café, and it is now owned by the Minsk Jewish community. It is located in a prestigious spot near the market square on Vilna Street, which is now a wooded park.

Shtetl house

Shtetl house

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Litvak Trip Day 5: Trakai Island Castle, Karaite Town of Trakai

Trakai map

Trakai Island Castle

Trakai Island Castle is a Gothic-style red brick castle built in 1410, mostly destroyed 400 years ago, and recently reconstructed. Trakai was the historical capital of Lithuania and the castle was once the home of the Grand Duke Vytautas of Lithuania. In a town of lakes, the castle sits in a storybook setting, surrounded by water.


The town of Trakai has a street of old Karaite houses, painted in various colors, all with the same delicate lace curtains. Grand Duke Witold brought the Karaites (Karaim) from Crimea to settle in Lithuania in 1392; their religion is based on Judaism’s five books of Moses and dates from 8th century Iraq. Their house of worship is called a Kenesa, and their original prayer books were written in Hebrew script. A tiny community of Karaites remain here; they observe the Sabbath on Saturday, and celebrate Passover, making their own matzah.

Karaite street, Trakai

Karaite street, Trakai

Kenesa, Karaite house of worship

19th century prayerbook, Karaim language in Hebrew script

Karaite Food

Karaite restaurant Kybynlar

We had lunch at Kybynlar, a Karaite restaurant in the town, dining on a delicious soup made from kale, potatoes and vegetables. We also were served kybyn, a half-moon pastry (resembling a Cornish pasty according to our British tour members) typically stuffed with meat, but for us vegetarians a cabbage/vegetable filling was substituted.

Kybyn and vegetable kale soup

I did not sample the Karaite national drink that resembles beer — krupnik, which is made from cloves, roots, spices and alcohol.

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Litvak Trip Day 4: Choral Synagogue & Jewish Quarter, Vilnius

Choral Synagogue

From our hotel, we walk to the Choral Synagogue for morning Shabbat services. This is the only synagogue remaining from a total of over 100 synagogues in Vilna before the Holocaust. It was founded by Jewish intellectuals who followed a secular Haskalah (enlightenment) philosophy. Built in 1903, the building is a Moorish architectural style with a balcony and a center bimah. The Jewish Haskalah movement was inspired by the European Enlightenment.

A group of students from a Jerusalem teachers’ college also showed up for services and we enjoyed talking with some of them. These Israeli students prepare for either a regular or special education credential. They were in the middle of a 10-day trip to Latvia and Lithuania as part of a program to teach educators how to present the Holocaust to young students in Israel, as young as 5 years old.

Jewish Quarter & Ghettos

After lunch at the hotel, we split up into small groups for a walking tour of the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish ghettos. I choose to be with Roza Bieliauskiene, a native Yiddish speaker with extensive knowledge of the history and culture of the old Jewish community of Vilna. She also has designed special tours for those interested in YIVO or the books of Lucy Dawidowicz.

Roza was trained as a mathematician and electrical engineer, and she made two important points regarding the horrific history of this region and its treatment of the Jewish community:

1.       To save a single person, it took more than one person willing to help; a hiding place and food for an extended period of time was required. Based upon the tiny number of survivors (under 5% of the total prewar Jewry survived), some Lithuanian claims of the number of rescuers was not possible. Ironically, it only took a single person to kill dozens or hundreds of people in a single day.

2.       The two Vilna ghettos were surrounded by narrow streets and extremely close densely populated apartment blocks. Thousands of people were likely to have witnessed what was happening to their Jewish neighbors, all civilians, including children and the elderly. Nearly all of the expulsions and atrocities were committed by the local Lithuanians.

Roza pointed out that the German bombing completely wiped out the Jewish ghettos. Much of the remaining city was also bombed and suffered extensive damage. Leading us through narrow neighborhood streets and courtyards, she showed us examples of the types of buildings that people were likely to have lived in, pointed out the typical cellars that sometimes offered a hiding place, and discussed some of the local personalities.

Vilnius (then known as Vilna) was often referred to as “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”, as it was a center of Jewish learning and politics. By the 19th century, the Jewish enlightenment movement (Haskalah) was active here; a large number of educators, scientists, writers, artists and Yiddish theatre actors lived in Vilna

Site of the Great Synagogue, built 1630, destroyed by the Germans WWII

Map of the Vilna Jewish ghettos

Typical dwelling with cellar

Ghetto marker

Location of Jewish high school

Location of Yiddish theatre in ghetto



There is a Jewish Cultural Center exhibiting a typical “malina” – hiding place used for shelter during the German occupation that some ghetto residents were able to use for escape.



I was in awe of Roza’s knowledge and energy – she knows every square inch of Vilna.

Roza Bieliauskiene









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