Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Vilnius Jewish Community

After we finished our Yiddish classes we regrouped to walk to the local Jewish Community Center. On the way we were chatting about family history and I discovered another student shared family in Radom. As we spoke, a French student overheard us and offered that she had family from Radom as well. We began to excitedly share family names wondering if perhaps we were cousins. We plan to gather tomorrow to share information on Radom.

Fran also had an exciting piece of news on the genealogy front. Her art instructor is in Moscow and kindly offered to try to locate a long lost relative of Fran’s. Relatives from Paris had come to the United States, but ultimately gone to Moscow. Her mother had maintained a correspondence with them, but the most recent record Fran had was a return address on an envelope from 35 years ago. After Fran provided the patronymics to her friend, she was able to access a database in Moscow to locate Fran’s relatives and speak with them. Now Fran has an address and a phone number so will try to reach them.

Getting back to our day, when we arrived at the Jewish Community Center we were ushered into a room with a panel of speakers from the Jewish community who represented Jewish organizations in Vilnius and Lithuania.

Many interesting points were raised during the presentation including the survival and welfare of the Jewish community, the reclamation of Jewish property, the history and current status of anti-Semitism and the view of partisans.

One of things I did not fully appreciate prior to this trip was the impact that the Soviet occupation had on both the Jewish and non-Jewish community. For Jews, it often offered a double victimization, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Ironically the deportations to Siberia by the Soviets may have saved some Jews from the Nazis. The Lithuanians often viewed the Jews as allied with the Soviets and to blame for their plight. This is ironic in that 7% of the Jews were deported by the Soviets. The historical record is often distorted, with fiction overriding fact. This is best illustrated in continued efforts to prosecute partisan heroes who fought the Nazis. While elsewhere they were lauded as heroes, in Lithuania they have been threatened with prosecution. Only recently the charges have been dropped due to inadequate evidence to prosecute. The concern is that charges could be reinstated at a future date.

We have often wondered about reclamation of property as we wander down the streets, gazing at the buildings in the Jewish quarter. We learned that property can only be reclaimed by Lithuanian citizens which becomes challenging when 95% of the Jewish citizens were murdered.

In discussing anti-Semitism, the panel gave examples of the continued teaching of a childhood nursery rhyme victimizing Jews to slow government response to acts of anti-Semitism. They hastened to add that there were many priests who understood the Jewish community well.

While the panel discussed many serious topics there was also humor. They talked of a show that was held in town on six famous American Lithuanians. Of the six, five were Jewish and they weren't quite sure about the sixth who was a baseball player. They said with a chuckle, if there weren't Vilnius Jews there would be only one famous American Lithuanian. I am guessing that one of the six was Jascha Heifetz, the violinist, who attended the Vilnius School of Music.

We were especially heartened by the energy of the panel and the active involvement of young Vilnius Jews in nurturing the Jewish community. The exuberant and passionate Director of the Center talked of the goals of protecting the well-being of the Jewish population, sustaining Jewish culture, providing a range of services for all ages and fulfilling its sense of moral obligation to honor the memory of those slaughtered here during WWII. It was amazing to watch how easily he translated between Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian and English.

After the presentation several of us met at a local café over cappuccinos as we completed our Yiddish homework. It is a challenge to resume the student role at this stage in our lives, but it is also invigorating,

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