Between September 9-13 I had the pleasure of exploring the beautiful city of Vilnius, Lithuania while simultaneously getting the opportunity to learn about the oppression and destruction of the Jewish culture that occurred here.
Our first stop on day 3 of our stay was the Jewish Museum Center of Tolerance. The center was started about 20 years ago and is owned by the state. They hold many concerts and talks and their main activities include education, culture and arts. Despite being named the Center of Tolerance, I felt that it was more of a museum of Jewish culture. As we walked through the different floors, we were met with many pieces of work done by Jewish artists and artifacts of old synagogues. I really enjoyed one room in particular that allowed you to take a memory stone (a part of Jewish culture) and leave it by the picture of a child. When you placed the memory stone by the picture, the room lit up and a song written while in the ghetto played. It was beautiful.
Upon leaving the Center of Tolerance, we walked farther into town to head to the Jewish Museum also known as the Green House. The Green House is a small building hidden from the main road as it is set far back in an alley, shaded by the trees.
As we walk up to the museum, the tucked away location automatically gives you a feeling of secrecy, as the Lithuanians have yet to fully accept their role in the Holocaust. When we get to the museum, we are shown through the rooms by our Austrian guide, Marcus, who is there fulfilling his required military duty.
When you walk into the first room of the exhibit, you are immediately hit with the hard facts of the Holocaust in Lithuania. Lithuania was the first German occupied country in 1941 with an original population of about 220,000 Jews. By the end of WWII, 90% of those Jews will be killed. Unlike other countries, there was massive Lithuanian collaboration to kill the Jews and the Lithuanian Nationalists helped the Nazis. Perhaps the most striking incident of this is the mass murder of Jews in Paneriu Forest, where about 70,000 Jews were shot, killed and left in pits. (I will go more into this later).
The second room we enter is reminiscent of the the Tolerance Center as it displays the culture of and the famous Lithuanian Jews. We had already received a lot of the information between our walking tour and the Tolerance Center.
In the next few rooms we learned more about why the Jews in Vilnius were targeted, the Kaunas ghetto, and the spiritual resistance within the ghetto. One of the reasons that the Jews were targeted in Vilnius was because they celebrated when the Soviets invaded in 1940 because they viewed the Soviets as safer for them than the Germans. Due to this, the Lithuanians stereotyped the Jews as communists. The Kaunas ghetto was established in 1941 and was ultimately liquidated in 1944. The Vilnius ghetto, established around the same time, was liquidated after two years. Despite the horrors of the Holocaust and the ghetto life, spiritual resistance was strong within the Jewish community. The partisans wrote many songs during this time and a theater was even established within the ghetto.
While thousands of Jews were killed during this time period, many were saved by Lithuanians that hid or otherwise helped them. The Righteous Gentle award (which is given to anyone who saved a Jew’s life during the Holocaust) has been given to 793 Lithuanian citizens as of 2010.
We finished our tour of the Green House with a discussion with Rachel, a survivor of the Kaunas ghetto. Rachel, speaking with conviction and clearly full of wisdom, spoke of the spiritual resistance within the ghetto and of the number of witnesses to this tragedy that did nothing but idly stand by. Our time with Rachel was incredibly touching as she left us with the insistent purpose to “don’t be indifferent.”
After leaving the Green House with heavy thoughts on our minds, we were given the afternoon to explore Vilnius once again. The first thing that my group did was go to lunch. We headed toward the center of Vilnius and found a cute Italian restaurant with outdoor seating. I ordered a small Bambino pizza, which claimed to have cheese, tomato sauce, and fried potatoes (potatoes are the best). This is what I received.
French fries on pizza should really become a thing in the US.
With sufficient food in our stomachs, we carried on with our exploring of Vilnius. Today we went much further and found more of the touristy areas of the city and went off the beaten path as well.
We ended our exploring with some ice cream and cheesy touristy photos in Town Hall Square.
Despite the fact that today was only my second full day in Vilnius, I feel as if I have already learned at least two week’s worth of information. I know that we have another heavy day in Vilnius tomorrow, but I am looking forward to continuing to get a better understanding of the Lithuanian Holocaust and the roles that identity play in this tragedy.
Look out for Part 3 of Vilnius in a few days!