“Why won’t my hands stop shaking, when all the earth is still? When ancient ghosts are waking…”
At the beginning of our study seminar to Lithuania, our teacher told us that Lithuania could be a terrific vacation destination: its a beautiful European country, the exchange rate is pretty decent (they use a currency called the Lita) and it’s fairly conveniently located. However, it is obviously not a place that tourists flock to. Walking around the streets of Vilna/Vilnius where we spent most of our time, I continually noticed this odd juxtaposition. The beautiful architecture reminded me of Prague, the food was good, and we stayed in very nice apartments in the middle of the city. But there is really no visible tourism industry to speak of. There are no shops selling postcards and magnets, no large groups with guides screaming in different languages leading them around, no tour busses. In fact, the entire place was pretty quiet and deserted, save for obvious locals.
This feeling of slight discomfort and large lack of something only intensified as we spent a full and busy four days learning about Jewish life in Lithuania. Jewish life itself exists, although it is tucked away in small corners and you have to look hard for it. Lithuania is comprised of the Jewish past. According to Yad Vashem, before WW2 there were 168,000 Jews there before the War, and it lost 140,000-143,000 of them during the Holocaust. This was very evident; the streets are full of plaques marking institutions that were once there, statues and monuments commemorating tragic loss and empty buildings that at one point contained thriving Jewish life. We also heard that there are 220 mass burial sites throughout the country. Lithuania is full of Jewish absence. This is especially remarkable and meaningful when you realize that over half of our group has ancestors from there (including myself, on both sides of my family).
For three of the days we were in Vilna itself, and we had many incredible experiences lead by our Professor and a Lithuanian tour guide; among other things we walked through the Jewish quarter, saw the space where the huge great synagogue used to be, visited the University, met with the last remaining forest partizan fighter, Fonia Brantsovsky in the Yiddish library in which she works, went to the tiny state Holocaust museum, toured the Jewish ghetto, learned about the Jewish council that worked with the Nazis, met with the Executive Director of the Vilna Jewish community, attended Shabbat services at the Choral Synagogue (where we excitedly heard a familiar Lecha Dodi melody that many of us sing in America), met with a Yiddish scholar, and saw the Yiddish institute and former Rabbinic seminary. Two highlights (although it sounds weird to call them that) were seeing a tiny memorial on the grounds of a sports school that marked the site of the first killing of Jews in Vilna by Lithuanian citizens even before the Nazis had taken over, and visiting Ponar, a collection of pits where 70,000-100,000 people (most of them Jews) were shot and buried, and then later dug up by Jews on Nazi orders so they could attempt to hide the atrocities that they had committed.
We also visited the city of Kovno/Kaunas for a day. On the way there we stopped in Zhezmir and were able to do morning services in one of the last remaining wooden synagogues in the world (I had the honor of reading Torah) which was incredibly powerful. The current caretaker of the synagogue comes from a family that hid Jews in their cellar, and since then have been volunteering to take care of the site since there are no Jews left. In Kovno we saw the ghetto, including the intense experience of standing in the square where Jews were selected to be put on trains, saw the former Synagogue and Gymnasium, and a few memorial sites including a large field under which thousands of bodes were buried.
All of the sites we visited were accompanied by reading texts, mainly written by the historical figures and leaders of the time, and lots of context from our very knowledgeable teacher, both of which incredibly enhanced the experience and provided us with layered perspective on what we were seeing and standing near. They were also accompanied by the aforementioned absence of tourists, and for the most part, anyone at all, and the lack of people combined with the lack of the Jews who once inhabited those places really made it all the more chilling and emotional for me. Why don’t people know about these places? What prevents them from coming?
Something we discussed throughout the seminar was the idea of active or ethical tourism. By visiting these places, we were learning about them, and hopefully will be able to share our knowledge with others. We are hopefully ensuring that the memory of those thousands of people does not die as buildings disintegrate and grass grows over fields. I felt so connected with Lithuania when we visited, because of my family roots there and because of the tremendous loss of my people. Going there and learning about it has inspired me to learn more and teach it to American Jews, and empowered me to be even more proud of my Judaism and my freedom to practice my religion. I would love to carry on the legacy of study and knowledge that the Jews in Vilna, “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” began decades ago. I truly hope that these tragedies will never be forgotten.