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Monday, July 18, 2016

Back in Vilnius

The view from our balcony

If you've been following this blog, then you know we've been back in Lithuania for a week now since our Independence Day (U.S.)/Statehood Day (Lithuania) trip to Munich. This weekend has been a quiet one, since both the embassy doctor and a local pediatrician diagnosed my daughter on Friday afternoon as suffering from a non-aggressive strain of enterovirus. She's feeling better, though stomach troubles have understandably affected her appetite. Still, the worst appears to be over and now that she's on the upswing (happily playing Animal Jam on her computer all day), I did venture out on my own this afternoon following lunch to see one of Vilnius' Jewish heritage sites. The Tolerance Center (VVGŽM Tolerancijos centras) is only an 8-minute walk from our apartment, and is housed in an attractive old building that once served as a concert hall and a theater:

The Old Town of Vilnius was once home to one of the world's most vibrant Jewish communities (during the years between world wars the city was under Polish administration and was called Wilno). But Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, spelled the beginning of the end. 35,000 Jews, about half of those in the city at that time, died at the hands of the Nazis and their local collaborators in the first three months following the fall of Vilnius. The remaining Jews were herded into two ghettos, which were, of course, eventually liquidated. Only 6000 Jews in Vilnius survived the war (94% of Lithuania's Jewish population of that time didn't). 

Today about 5000 Jews live in Lithuania, with 80% of the community concentrated in Vilnius. The Tolerance Center is administered by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, and is one of its three main branches. Here, the focus is on Jewish culture and history in Lithuania and Vilnius over the centuries, before the Holocaust exacted its terrible toll. I began my tour on the third floor, which focuses on traditional Lithuanian Jewish art:

Pride of place in this exhibit goes to this copy of the Marc Chagall painting, Vilnius Great Synagogue, Interior (1935). Chagall was born into a Lithuanian Jewish family living in what is now modern-day Belarus:

Other Jewish artists are also featured, however, such as this self-portrait by Léon Zack, hanging next to a larger portrait of his wife:

A video installation shows film of life in then-Wilno from 1938 or 1939. Watching it, one can't help but wonder how many of the movie's subjects, depicted going about their daily lives and unaware of the horrors that would soon descend upon them, were able to see it through to the end of the war:

A view looking toward Old Town from one of the museum windows: 

The second floor has more displays from the world of the Litvaks:  

Looking down on the first floor, which currently features an exhibit of works of the Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. There were a couple of English-language guided tours being led through the exhibits while I was visiting the museum today:

The second floor is also where you will find a series of panels in Lithuanian and English, with each one covering a different aspect of the Jewish experience in Lithuania:

The focus isn't only on the past:

That last panel leads to the most moving displays, that of the experiences of Lithuanian Jewish children who survived the efforts of the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators to exterminate them and their families. In some cases, it was because they were sheltered by friends, neighbors and even strangers:

The less-fortunate ones did not make it through the "children actions":

And it was here, in this simple alcove lined with photographs of some of the younger victims of the Holocaust, that I could no longer maintain my composure:

It was also in this part of the Tolerance Center that I overheard a middle-aged woman complaining (in accented English) that these displays were meant to make Lithuanians feel better about their actions during the Nazi occupation of the country, to which her male companion (presumably her husband) strongly disagreed. I had to (silently) side with the gentleman, for I felt the purpose of this particular exhibit was to celebrate those children who survived, especially as many of the panels in the room included photos of their progress into adulthood. These museums seem to provoke strong feelings, as when I first entered the Tolerance Center I came across another middle-aged man complaining (in English) to the ticket seller that the Holocaust Museum (a separate facility also managed by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, and which is even closer to our apartment) was a "joke".

I haven't visited that latter museum, and it might be a while before I do. Last week my family and I traveled to Dachau to see the infamous concentration camp. Since our arrival in Vilnius in early May, we've been to Paneriai and the Museum of Genocide Victims. And in recent years on my own I've visited the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, not to mention the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Too much of man's inhumanity to man isn't good for the soul, so when I returned home from the Tolerance Center I suggested to Shu-E that she and I go for a walk into Old Town:

Which is how my wife and I ended up at Senamiesčio Krautuvė, an atmospheric little shop selling many traditional Lithuanian foods. We bought some turkey dumplings, a few tomatoes and, for me, a caramel ice-cream bar for the walk home. You can see the store's sign on the right in the photo below:

And so I'll end this post with a few random pictures taken this weekend. Treasure life and avoid evil messages and, in particular, those who deliver them:

The plaque explains why the street is called "Iceland Street". Although I should point out that the United States first established diplomatic relations with Lithuania in July 1922 and never recognized the country's forced incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940

One of the more interesting examples of the graffiti plaguing Vilnius' streets

The view from our living room. These spires are especially striking on a late summer evening when the sunlight hits them directly
OK, I admit I don't know what this Old Town statue signifies. If I ever find out, I'll post it here*

*Now I know. See comment below...




  1. Hello, the statue is called žibintininkas- lamplighter, by Vytautas Nalivaika, 1986.