Exploring the other Vilnius

  • 2009-03-18
  • By Justinas Vainilavicius

LONE SURVIVOR: Only one of the synagogues that has been left standing by war is still active in Lithuania's capital city, which was once a thriving center for Jewish culture.

VILNIUS -  Once a bustling center of Jewish life, today Vilnius can offer only traces of a bygone era's treasures. Yet an understanding of Lithuanian history could never be complete without a strong appreciation of the cultural contributions of Litvaks.

Litvaks, which means "Lithuanian" in Yiddish, is now used as a name for all Jewish people who can trace their origins to the country. The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum acts as a gateway to exploring the heritage of the "Jerusalem of Lithuania," as Vilnius occasionally used to be called.

The museum consists of five major parts. One is dedicated to Jewish History, and is located in the former Tarbut Gymnasium. Another is dedicated to the Holocaust and is in the so-called Green House. The third is known as the Tolerance Center, and operates in the same building as the Jewish Theater once did 's today it offers changing exhibitions. Fourth is the Memorial Museum of Paneriai, where most of the nation's Jews were executed during the Nazi occupation. Finally there is the famous cubist sculptor Jacque Lipchitz Memorial Museum in southern Lithuania's resort town Druskininkai, which is currently temporarily closed for renovation.
The museum itself has a complicated history. It is a continuation of the two other Jewish museums, which failed to carry on their functions because of the challenges past years brought to the country.

The first attempt to collect artifacts from the hundreds of years of Litvaks history was made in 1913. The extremely rich collection survived World War I, but the flames of the next World War destroyed almost everything, with only tiny pieces saved. It was enough, at least, to reopen the museum after the Nazi retreat.
Soviet anti-Semitic politics, however, led to its closing a few years later. The current museum was established only in 1989 after a 40-year absence.

The museum collection consists of both pre-war items and those collected in the past few decades. It includes a wide variety of ritualistic and commonplace items, as well as books, letters, periodicals and various other documents and works of art made by the pre-war Jewish community.
The museum also has an exhibition on synagogues, some of which are standing to this day. Today there are only two functioning synagogues, one in Vilnius and one in Kaunas.

Compare this with the number of active synagogues before World War II 's Vilnius alone had more than 100. Because only about 4,000 out of the 160,000 pre-war Jewish population still live in Lithuania, there is simply not a need for so many places of worship and the majority of still-standing synagogues are not in use. Most are wooden and located in the countryside, waiting for renovation, without which the buildings of lamentable condition will not last long.

Vilna Gaon Museum also offers a broad exposition on the biggest synagogue ever built in Lithuania 's the Great Vilna Synagogue. It was built during the Renaissance and became a symbol and center of Lithuanian Jewry, gaining worldwide esteem. Only photographs and drawings remain of this huge magnificent structure, which was located in the Jewish quarter of the city. The war has left only ruins 's Soviet authorities finished the work by demolishing a significant part of the Old Town in order to build wider alleys and streets.

The museum can only serve as a starting point for the exploration of the old Jewish Vilnius, the one lost forever.