- We Are All Here:Facing History in Lithuania
The author of this essay reports on Holocaust education initiatives in present-day Lithuania. She interviews Lithuanian officials, teachers, and activists who are engaging with the Jewish past in an effort to build tolerance, understand the role of bystanders, honor "righteous gentiles," and foster reconciliation. The essay includes interviews with Irena Veisaite of the Open Society Fund-Lithuania and the House of Memory; Ruta Puisyte and Viktoria Sakaite of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum; staff of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes (an organization founded by Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus); and information about the Tuskulenai "Park of Quiet" in Vilnius. The author also describes her experience as a student at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.
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A tfile iz yeder shteyn, a nigun yede vant...
Each stone is a prayer; a hymn every wall…MOYSHE KULBAK, in the poem "Vilna"
Vilna: before the war, the narrow lanes of this age-old city pulsed with a vibrant Jewish life. Vilna was the Jerusalem of the North, the capital of Yiddishland. It was that bygone world I was after when I enrolled in a summer program in Yiddish in the city now known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
I roomed in a flat that was located within [End Page 77] the boundaries of the old Vilna ghetto and filled my eyes with the elegant balconies and the gently curving streets, and over it all, the long summer light of the Baltic sky. In class, the instructors guided us students through the grammatical thickets and the precious texts of mame-loshn, our mother tongue. The last Yiddish speakers of Lithuania—with their memories full of joy and sorrow —came to lead us through the city, pointing out the sites of schools, theaters, and synagogues that flourished here before the destruction.
On weekends, I traveled to the countryside. I visited the village of Vilkoliai, where my great-grandmother Asne had raised nine children while simultaneously supervising the production of milk, butter, and cheese on a dairy farm. In the town of Rokiskis, I located the street where my great-grandfather Dovid-Mikhl had spent his days bent over holy books in a wooden studyhouse. It was from this town that my grandfather Jacob had run away to America in 1911 to escape the Czarist draft. I went, too, to the site of the ghetto in Siauliai (the Jews called it Shavl), where my great-uncle Will had survived the Holocaust.
As I pursued the sounds and textures of the nearly vanished world of my ancestors, I learned that Lithuania as a nation was engaged in a journey into the past. And when I sought out the leaders of this Lithuanian effort to unearth the truths of the mid-20th century, I learned that the land of my ancestors had something to teach about binding up the wounds of the past and moving forward.
Jews arrived in Lithuania in the 14th century. On the brink of World War II, Jews made up one-third of Lithuania's urban population and about half of the residents of every town. During the war, with a swiftness and thoroughness notorious even for that terrible time, more than 90% of Lithuania's 240,000 Jews were killed. While it was usually the German occupiers who issued the orders, in most cases Lithuanians themselves pulled the trigger. Nearly every town has its pit in the forest, not far from the market square, where Jews were assembled, shot, and hastily buried in mass graves.
Nor did the war's end bring peace to Lithuania. In 1940, Soviet troops had moved into the country, and now, with Germany's defeat, Lithuania became a part of the USSR. The transition was marked by economic upheaval and a fierce guerrilla struggle. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia. The deportees included Nazi sympathizers who had participated in killing Jews during the war, as well as a wide range of opponents of the Soviet government, including some Jews. Historians...