Plans for Jewish quarter unveiled

  • 2002-04-18
  • Matt Kovalick

Mayor of Vilnius Arturas Zuokas has announced plans on how to begin rebuilding sections of Vilnius' prewar Jewish quarter. But the idea has not pleased everyone.

Zuokas said during a meeting with the U.S. Jewish Committee's Foreign Office Secretary Rabbi Andrew Baker that reconstruction should begin by the end of this summer and finish by the end of summer 2003.

His proposal is based on a plan developed by Jewish Cultural Heritage Fund Chairman Emmanuel Zingeris and called the "Restoration Program of the Historical Jewish Ghetto Fragments of Vilnius."

During World War II, about 90 percent of Lithuania's 220,000-strong Jewish population were murdered. Most aspects of Jewish life and a thriving Yiddish culture were wiped out. As a Yiddish hub rich in scholarship, culture and art, Vilnius gained the title "Jerusalem of the North."

This included the huge Renaissance-style Great Synagogue first constructed in the 17th century. Heavily damaged during the war, it was completely demolished in 1957.

The restored sections of the Jewish ghetto would pay tribute to Jewish culture and aim to attract investors and tourists. The cost of the project would come completely from outside investors.

Three main parts of the old Jewish quarter would be remade, including the Great Synagogue and the area around Zydu (Jews') Street, a plot between Mesiniu and Rudninku streets, and a square outside what is now the French Embassy, between Svarco and Sv. Jono streets.

"The reconstruction is very important for the Old Town and for the Jewish community of Vilnius," said Zuokas.

He added that the existing plan would infuse the center of Vilnius with Jewish history and an accurate architectural perspective.

It will also "show goodwill" toward the past, and bring back something of the "colorful life" of a lost community.

Zuokas, Zingeris, and the Lithuanian government agree on the reconstruction project's merits and believe in full cooperation. But precisely how the plans will proceed is still evolving.

The issue could be clarified in May if the Lithuanian prime minister's office issues an order of implementation, said Vilius Kavaliauskas, adviser to Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas. The Parliament adopted a resolution in Sept. 2000 supporting the restoration program.

Zingeris originally suggested that empty plots be turned over to the Jewish Cultural Heritage Fund for rebuilding. The fund would then find investment support from Lithuania and abroad. But due to existing laws, the property could not be turned over legally to a private group without a public auction.

The mayor's view, presented to Rabbi Baker, is that Vilnius municipality would issue tenders beginning in July. A joint committee made up of city officials and Jewish leaders would then select a developer.

The initial plot to be developed is located on Mesiniu Street, just behind the Contemporary Arts Center.

As payment for use of the land, the developer would turn over one-third of the property to the municipality, which would then give it to the Jewish Cultural Heritage Fund. With a free long-term lease of the buildings, Jewish groups could then work on revitalizing the area's cultural life and fund the construction of the Great Synagogue.The idea to rebuild parts of the Jewish quarter has stirred up different emotions. Part of the controversy stems from the fact that the project could encompass much of the remaining valuable and undeveloped property in the Old Town.

It will also involve outside investments totaling upwards of $30 million.

Bad feelings

Adding to the tension is the legacy of the Holocaust and some attitudes in Lithuania that remain disturbingly anti-Semitic. Reaso-nable concerns over such a large-scale project have been overshadowed by sensational accusations.

On April 8, controversial MP Vytautas Sustauskas, leader of the fringe party the Lithuanian Freedom League, enflamed the issue by saying, "It won't be surprising if Jewish 'fragments' appear in other cities and towns. Lithuanian businessmen will go bust, and the labor force will be turned into the slaves of the Jews."

Infamous for his anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past, he released this latest statement on World Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, who called the remarks "unacceptable," and MPs from almost every party quickly criticized Sustauskas' outburst. Pauluaskas, leader of the New Union (Social Liberals) party, formed a brief electoral alliance with Sustauskas two years ago.

Leading advocates of the Jewish quarter reconstruction project were disgusted by Sustauskas' statements. Zingeris said he believed such a project would help "liberate Lithuanians from such a Soviet mentality" and enrich the Vilnius landscape. Zuokas contended that Sustauskas' comments "cannot stop the process" of rebuilding the Jewish quarter.

Some local Jewish leaders have raised questions over the way the project will proceed. Simonas Alpernavicius, chairman of Lithuania's Jewish community, said that the community's contribution to the municipality's proposals is still too small. He said he was writing a letter to Zuokas to share these concerns.

"The (Jewish) community must take an active part in this project," he said.

Others concerned with Yiddish cultural life believe additional funding should not focus on rebuilding, but on learning and scholarship.

"My own view is - with absolutely no disrespect to the sterling intentions of the leaders of the project - that it is vastly more important to put resources into the education, research and training of qualified scholars who can perpetuate the heritage of the many facets of Lithuanian Jewish civilization," said Dovid Katz, research director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.

Rachel Kostonian, deputy director of the Vilna Goan Museum, agrees with the reconstruction in principal, but fears key parts of the wartime Jewish ghetto will not be included in the project. Kostonian contends that Zemaitijos Street will be overlooked despite being the location of a Jewish house of culture, library, statistical bureau, and partisan arsenal during World War II.

Tourist draw

Despite the complex issues, proponents stress that an authentic restoration of Yiddish culture is the primary goal. Jews have lived in Vilna (Vilnius in Yiddish) since the 15th century.

Zingeris spoke of visitors coming from Europe and North America who ask, "Where is the Jewish Quarter?" He envisions scholars and academics helping to restore characteristics of one of the most important prewar Yiddish capitals and of a "new renaissance" for Vilnius.

Supporters agree that Vilnius could greatly benefit from additional cash generated from tourists visiting a reconstructed Jewish quarter. Eastern European cities like Krakow and Prague attract thousands of visitors each year to their historical Jewish sites.

"There are very few places to show at the moment," complained Yulik Gurvitch, a tour guide of Jewish sites in Vilnius, who feels that the reconstruction will have an enormous impact on the atmosphere of Vilnius' Old Town and be a great draw for tourists.