Architects plan to rebuild Vilnius' Jewish quarter

  • 2000-08-31
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - A year ago the Lithuanian government decided to rebuild the Jewish quarter in Vilnius, an important center of Jewish life before World War II.

Emanuelis Zingeris, a Jewish member of Parliament and an activist in the Jewish community of Lithu-ania, was appointed as head of the state commission for the reconstruction of the historic ghetto district.

He says that a rebuilt Jewish quarter will also be the best monument to the victims of the Holocaust.

"The Jewish community supports the reconstruction of the ghetto. Simonas Alperavicius, chairman of the Jewish community of Lithu-ania, signed a document supporting this idea," Zingeris said.

The Lithuanian Culture Ministry gave 95,000 litas ($23,750) for the restoration projects. Architects from the Institute for Monument Restoration are drafting projects for the restoration of the historic ghetto.

"The average person thinks about the Nazi occupation when he hears the word 'ghetto'. This word itself has no such negative meaning. It is a historic word for the Jewish quarter. It got negative meaning under German occupation. Wladislaw Waza, King of the Commonwealth of Lithuania and Poland, officially granted part of Vilnius land to the Jewish community in 1633, though Jews settled in Vilnius much earlier. The Jewish ghetto has existed since then," said Giedre Mikneviciene, head of one of three groups of architects with the Institute for Monument Restoration that are working on the rebuilding of the Jewish quarter in three empty lots in the Old Town.

There were parts of the historic Jewish ghetto in these three spaces. During the Nazi occupation, inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto were exterminated. Soviet occupants intentionally destroyed most of the buildings of the ghetto in late 1940s and in 1950s.

Zingeris said that Soviets equally despised the heritage of Lithuanians and Jews and the monuments of Catholicism and Judaism.

"I would like to say that at the same time Soviet occupants were exploding the headquarters of Jewish institutions, they were taking sculptures of saints from Vilnius Cathedral, turning it into a warehouse," Zingeris said.

He emphasized that the rebuilt Jewish ghetto will be the best form of Holocaust education.

"Houses throughout the Vilnius Old Town will be covered by inscriptions in Yiddish. So, during the walk, a child will ask his mother what those 'hooks' mean while pointing to Jewish letters. The mother will tell him about the Jews. It would be the best monument to the victims of the Holocaust," Zingeris said.

He stressed the importance of this project to the world.

"Vilnius was the second most important Jewish center after Jerusalem before the Nazis and Soviets wiped off Vilnius' Jewish quarter," Zingeris said.

He just returned from Venice where he was fascinated with the recently renovated local historic Jewish quarter. In fact, the word "ghetto" comes from the Italian language, and the first instance of its usage was in reference to the Venice ghetto.

"The Vilnius Jewish quarter will be just as beautiful as the restored Jewish quarters of Venice, Krakow and Prague," Zingeris said.

Of special interest is the restoration of the Great Synagogue and the surrounding eight small synagogues. They stood in the now empty space not far from the recently built monument to Talmudic scholar Eliyahu ben-Shlomo Zalman, known also as the Gaon.

"The Great Synagogue, one of the biggest and most beautiful accents of Vilnius architecture, got some holes in the roof during fights between Soviets and Nazis in 1944. The entire building suffered not too much then. However, the Soviets completely ruined it several years after the war," Zingeris said.

Mikneviciene showed drawings of possible projects for the restoration of the Great Synagogue. The first variation depicts monumental columns and other marks of the former boundaries of the Great Synagogue. Another variation shows a fully rebuilt Great Synagogue, and another shows something in between.

Zingeris said that he is in favor of a full reconstruction. He said that he would like an absolute copy of the prewar ghetto where possible. "However, I'm not a specialist and the final word belongs to the architects. I'll obey them," Zingeris said.

He said that the rebuilding of the ghetto would be implemented only in those areas that have not been privatized yet. Zingeris said that part of the rebuilt houses would become museums and headquarters of other Jewish institutions.

He also expects to see many buildings that were once historic Jewish shops and restaurants will host the same businesses the way they did before Nazi and Soviet occupations.

An international workshop discussed the reconstruction of the representative elements of the historic Jewish ghetto in the Old Town on July 18-19. "There were architects from Israel, Sweden and France at the workshop," Zingeris said. The workshop issued a declaration fully supporting the initiative of the Lithuanian government and the projects of Vilnius architects. The workshop prompted the World Jewish Community and international organizations to contribute to the project.

"We especially communicate with French architects who have experience in rebuilding their cities after the war," Zingeris said. Implementation of the entire project will cost millions of dollars, but no money will be taken from the state budget, he stressed. Zingeris said that he expects big private investments.

"We'll restore the historic Jewish ghetto in a decade if we get the financing," Mikneviciene said. She expressed hope that Jews from abroad will get interested in the project. Zingeris said that he would appeal to UNESCO and other international organizations for financing.

He said that financing will also be discussed during the international conference "The Vilnius Forum of Holocaust Looted Cultural Assets," Oct. 3-5. "Representatives of the governments of 43 countries will come to this forum held on the initiative of Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. Some Nobel Prize winners are expected at the forum. I just don't want to mention names yet," Zingeris said.

He said that the rebuilding of the Vilnius Jewish ghetto was his old dream. Lithuanian architects also dreamed about it even in the dark times of Soviet oppression. "I remember that some 15 years ago, I and my friends architects were sitting in the cafes and speaking how good it would be to rebuild the Jewish quarter," Zingeris said.

It seems that his dream will come true now.