Festival digs up Vilnius' Yiddish roots

  • 2002-08-22
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis

As part of a massive restoration of Vilnius' once vibrant Jewish quarter, city authorities have started painting inscriptions in Yiddish on what were once Jewish-owned shops, a poignant monument to a glorious culture and a nearly-lost language.

"A child will point to the Yiddish letters throughout the old city and ask his mother what those hooks mean. She will tell him about the Jews," said Emanuelis Zingeris, a former lawmaker and chairman of Vilnius' Jewish Museum. "It would be the best monument to the victims of the Holocaust and to what was once the second most important world Jewish center after Jerusalem."

While Yiddish may never return as a thriving, working language on the streets of Vilnius, it is getting a major boost this month as the Lithuanian capital hosts its Yiddish Culture Days, a language and cultural program for city residents, visitors and Yiddish students from 15 countries.

Hosted by Vilnius University, the Yiddish summer offers lectures about Yiddish history and culture from professors and experts from Europe, the Baltics and places as far afield as Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

Some 64 students from Europe, North and South America and Asia have already expressed interest in studying in Vilnius University's Yiddish program, said Yiddish Institute Director Sarunas Liekis.

Organizers say the Yiddish month is an important lesson in local history and a way to appreciate Yiddish culture.

"There are no perspectives for Yiddish as a living language," said Ilja Lempertas, a Jewish-Lithuanian historian. "In Lithuania as well as in the rest of the world, Yiddish is becoming a historical language for research in universities. Yiddish speakers are old and on their way out of this world."

But university programs will help ensure that some people continue to learn the language, thus maintaining access to Yiddish books and poems and other cultural riches.

"Some young people have really learned Yiddish well," he said.

Yiddish cultural events have been scheduled throughout the city through Aug. 25, including concerts, film screenings and theatrical performances.

The most emotional event was held recently in the historic Leles Theater where Marija Krupvoes, a Vilnius singer famous for her renditions of local folk songs, sang haunting songs in Yiddish from the Jewish ghetto that were popular during the 1941-44 Nazi occupation.

Once the premiere Yiddish drama theater, the Leles was trapped inside Vilnius' ghetto, which the Nazis sealed off with barbed wire. But actors and musicians continued to perform, even as German troops took groups of performers away daily to shooting grounds in Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius. The courage and high spirits of this theater is a living legend in Israel.

The history of Lithuanian Jewry during the 20th century is a sad story. After first settling in the region in the 14th century and years of relatively peaceful cohabitation with Lithuanians and Poles, 90 percent of the country's thriving, 240,000-strong Jewish community was wiped out by the Nazis with help from some local collaborators.

When Soviet forces displaced the Nazis in 1945, official anti-Semitism crippled whatever was left of Jewish and Yiddish-language culture and traditions. During Stalin's last years, families were terrified of speaking Yiddish with their children for fear of deportation or worse, historians say.

Today, there are just 4,000 Jews in Lithuania, according to official census statistics.

But while the language will never regain a permanent place in Lithuanian society, the spirit and culture of the Jews were never destroyed. Today, Jewish schools, museums and a Center for Judaic Studies at Vilnius University have been established. Nearly 200 students attend a Jewish school named after great Yiddish writer Shalom Aleichem.

In 2000, Parliament adopted an ambitious plan to restore the city's Jewish quarter, thanks largely to the advocacy of Zingeris, then a lawmaker with the Conservative Party.

There's even a community newspaper published in four languages - Lithuanian, Russian, English and Yiddish.