In the Ruins of Vilna
Vilnius, capital city of the independent Lithuanian Republic, is at the easternmost edge of the European Union. This year it will be the EU’s “cultural capital,” a rotating honor intended to showcase the continent’s glorious heritage. Vilnius, indeed, abounds in culture as well as in lovely architecture and in historical associations. Formerly isolated from Europe by force of Soviet arms, the Vilnius of Adam Mickiewicz and Czeslaw Milosz—great Polish poets who came of age there—and of the resplendent Lithuanian baroque are no longer hidden from view or hard to visit.
A small city, Vilnius will share the distinction of being cultural capital with Linz, a medium-sized Austrian town. The justification for pairing the two is detailed in a report by an EU selection panel that met in 2005 and appears to have arrived at its decision without much debate. Linz, an unspectacular place, was evidently deemed worthy because it has given priority to “its rapidly changing work environment, its worldwide networking capabilities, and the themes of social and economic justice; and natural resources and ecology.” In similarly strained syntax, the EU panel describes an urban ethos “based on equality, migrants enriching cities and regions and European integration including peace, solidarity, and diversity.”
The opaque language obscures a grotesque irony. Before the Holocaust, Vilnius was a center of East European Jewry, while Linz, though not technically the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, was the city where he spent much of his childhood and wanted to locate the cultural center—the cultural capital, one might say—of his Thousand Year Reich; according to the historian Mark Mazower, the city was “known officially as the ‘hometown of the Fuehrer.’” In its willed indifference to this irony, the EU document goes beyond satire, insinuating mildly that “it would be a real benefit if the Linz program included material referring to the city’s history in the context of the Third Reich.” As for Vilnius, its place in Europe should be defined, in the panel’s view, by emphasizing Lithuania’s “historic links with Poland, the Jews, etc.,” thereby achieving “a balance between national pride and [the city’s] ancient role as a European cosmopolitan meeting point.”
In thus consigning “the Jews” to the status of a separate (geographical?) entity, the panel lets 500 years of history disappear in a flash. Evidently it would violate today’s mainstream European sensitivities to think of Vilnius as a Jewish city, past or present. The memory is too hard, too un-European; better to represent Vilnius, on Linz’s terms, as a pleasant “cosmopolitan meeting point,” its stubborn Jewish presence shaded into Jewish absence.
The city that was home to five centuries of Jewish life, a city where the architectural evidence of that life is still in evidence, dominates From That Place and Time, an extraordinary memoir by the late Lucy S. Dawidowicz that was first published in 1989 and has been newly reissued.1
Born in 1915, Dawidowicz was an American Jew whose Yiddish-speaking parents had come to New York from Poland in 1908. In From That Place and Time she describes her adolescent self as “afflicted with a sense of mission.” A youthful flirtation with Communism supplied a fleeting remedy for the affliction, to be followed by a more abiding preoccupation with “the public sorrows of the European Jews.” Moved by those sorrows, she decided at the age of twenty-three to accept a scholarship for a year’s study at YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research in the city she would have known, by its Yiddish name, as Vilne. Russians called it Vilna, Poles Wilno, and Lithuanians Vilnius, suggesting by this linguistic multiplicity its many different political arrangements over the centuries; in the interwar years, it happened to lie within territorial Poland, and Poles and Jews constituted the majority of its population.
Dawidowicz’s parents rightly considered a journey from New York to Poland too dangerous: in 1938, traffic was flowing, when it could, in the opposite direction. Drawn to this “fabled Jewish city,” she persisted on her “contrary journey” to the 20th-century heart of darkness. In her academic year abroad, Dawidowicz formed close friendships. She had dates, went dancing, drank vodka in Vilna’s cabarets, and pursued her studies of Yiddish at the highest level. In Vilna, she could encounter pre-modern Jewish life in the streets around the Great Synagogue and simultaneously mingle with Jews who “wanted to break out of the economic and intellectual confines of the ghetto and enjoy the benefits of modern society.”
Dawidowicz wrote her late-life memoir—she would die in 1990, a year after its publication—not merely from memory but by using the letters she had sent home in her year abroad. Empirical in their observations, the letters describe a “relentless poverty,” which, coupled with anti-Semitism, gave her the “sense of being suffocated in a Polish milieu.” This, she felt, was a city of dead ends as much as of cultural beginnings. She was an eyewitness to the progressive immiseration of Vilna’s Jews and their exclusion from Poland’s body politic; she felt she “was watching the end of the world I had come to love.”
From That Place and Time is not a literary work, and the references to hopelessness and decline are not a species of foreshadowing. War was in the air when Dawidowicz arrived in Vilna, and by the time of her hurried return to American soil—via Warsaw, Berlin, and Copenhagen—the vise was closing. Still, in no sense did Dawidowicz know what she was eluding by sailing back to New York in the summer of 1939.
Dawidowicz lost her Vilna, and the tragic finality of this loss reactivated her sense of mission. In 1946, she went back to Europe to work with survivors and displaced persons, inhabiting the “shadow world of murdered European Jews.” She also helped to transfer to New York the YIVO archives, discovered—miraculously intact—in Frankfurt. And she would become a distinguished professional historian, gathering copious documentary testimony to the lost life and thought of East European Jewry in The Golden Tradition (1967) and chronicling the Holocaust in The War against the Jews (1975), The Holocaust Reader (1976), and The Holocaust and the Historians (1981). To readers of COMMENTARY, she was well known for her many essays on European and American Jewish history and on matters of contemporary Jewish culture and politics.2
The Jerusalem of Lithuania, a name said to have been given to Jewish Vilna by Napoleon as he passed through on his Russian campaign, was always a city within a city. Fleeing persecution in Western Europe, a significant Jewish population had settled in Vilna in the 1600’s. Over the following centuries the community grew to prominence while also enduring periods of extreme violence. By the 18th century, the Jews of Vilna were joined to some two million Jewish subjects in the Russian empire, incorporated into its Pale of Settlement. By the end of World War II, those who did not leave their native city were citizens of the Soviet Union.
As a cultural center, modern Vilna did not preside over any one synthesis of tradition and change, but it did demonstrate how creative the combination could be—and no-where more strikingly than at YIVO, the focal point of the city’s modernizing Jewish life. Founded in 1925 by scholars in Vilna and Berlin, its birth blessed by Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, YIVO placed a crown of scholarship on the head of Yiddish culture. Many of the first Yiddish grammars and textbooks came out of YIVO, as did a great deal of statistical information on Jewish life in Eastern Europe. YIVO self-consciously preserved Jewish tradition at a time of unrelenting assimilation and secularization, becoming a locus for the collection of books, documents, and artifacts, often sent to Vilna by collectors from across Eastern Europe.
At its best, YIVO was simultaneously modern and conservative: its scholars were cosmopolitan partisans of the critical intellect, devoted to preserving a material and intellectual connection to the Jewish past. This was a project that, in the early decades of the 20th century, could better be carried out in Vilna than in Berlin or New York—which was why in 1938 it still made academic and spiritual sense for an aspiring Yiddish scholar to go there from New York.
But not thereafter. Hitler sought the total extermination of East European Jewry, and in Lithuania he achieved over 90 percent of his goal. Most of Vilna’s Jews were not sent to death camps but were instead shot or worked to death, at times with the assistance of Lithuanian collaborators. The destruction was bottomless.
Still, as Dawidowicz writes, it was the Soviet Union that closed the book on Jewish life in Vilna. Stalin did what he could to complete Hitler’s work, not through physical genocide but through the persecution of those who returned after the war, the elimination of Jewish sites from the city, and the suppression of what remained of Jewish culture. The Great Synagogue, built in 1573 and rebuilt in the 1630’s, was bulldozed by the Soviets in the 1950’s; other synagogues and Jewish buildings met a similar fate. If Vilnius was to be a Jewish Atlantis, better not to leave any islands of memory.
By 1950, the Soviet authorities had shut down all Jewish educational and public institutions, banning newspapers and books. The Yiddish language was forbidden. By 1959, there were, according to the Soviet census, a mere 25,000 Jews living in all of Lithuania. Many left for Israel in 1971 and 1972, and there was another wave of emigration in the second half of the 1980’s. Today the countrywide number hovers around 9,000.
Dawidowicz did not see herself as a living link between New York and Vilna. Once the Nazis and Soviets succeeded in eviscerating East European Jewish culture, her Vilna had ceased to exist. She makes this point repeatedly in her memoir. Vilna, she writes, “had been reduced to fragments of paper and fragments of memory.” It had entered the list of lost cities, “buried beneath the debris of history, beneath layers of death and destruction.” Even the physical remnants had mostly vanished:
Nothing has remained of Vilna’s Jewish culture and spirit. Hardly anything has remained of its buildings—the sticks and stones of Jewish architecture. A visitor to today’s Vilnius can no longer find any trace of what had once been the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
Today, this definitive judgment needs to be somewhat corrected. It is true that, in the words of Milan Chersonskij, the editor of the contemporary newspaper Jerusalem of Lithuania, the Soviets inflicted “cultural genocide” on the Jews of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. Yet some embers flickered back into life. After World War II, Jews began to form art collectives in Lithuania, reviving traditions of dance, song, and theater. These collectives gave their first performance on December 27, 1956. By 1965, they had earned the status of an officially recognized Folk Theater, performing in Soviet cities that had once been thriving Jewish centers: Leningrad, Riga, Tallinn, Minsk, Kishinev, Grodno, Vitebsk, Bobriusk. In this sense, and on a small scale, Vilnius retained its status as a leading city of East European Jewry.
Vilnius would also eventually gain an official Jewish community, founded in 1988 in the final months of Soviet rule. Emanuelis Zingeris, first chairman of this body, is today a noted political figure in Lithuania, and with his brother Markas has created a network of Jewish museums. These museums document the vicissitudes of the Jewish past, integrating that story into the story of the formation of a post-Soviet civil society.
Lithuanian Jews are also now in touch with the outside world in ways impossible under Soviet rule. Many visitors come to Vilnius, some of them with a claim on the city’s past. Students arrive each summer to learn Yiddish at the Yiddish Studies Institute, run by an American but housed within the local university. The city has a Jewish cultural calendar, its events attended by Lithuanians and foreigners alike. On June 10, 2003, a ceremony took place at the Old Town Hall to celebrate the translation into Lithuanian of From That Place and Time. Reviewing the book for Jerusalem of Lithuania, Izrael Lempertas politely disagreed with Dawidowicz, by emphasizing the survival of Jewish life in postwar Vilnius.
It would be pleasant, and it would help confirm the EU’s determined optimism, to conclude on this note. The reality is more mixed. A tourist’s day in this Jewish Atlantis might begin with a seemingly ordinary brochure, Vilnius: 100 Memorable Sites of Jewish History and Culture. Divided into places of cultural note and places of “catastrophe,” this ghostly pamphlet recalls Herman Melville’s 1849 novel, Redburn, in which a traveler to Liverpool, armed with his father’s guidebook, learns less about the actual city than about the passage of time. Similarly, to follow the route mapped out by this Vilnius brochure is to walk the outlines of an earlier era and another city.
• In the center of today’s Lithuanian capital, at number two Sv. Dvasios Street, stands a long brick building, industrial and neoclassical at the same time. It is under scaffolding, and one can imagine it in three or four years’ time as a bit of Tribeca in Eastern Europe. Between 1900 and 1940, the building was the Romm publishing house, already a century old by then and world-famous for its monumental edition of the Babylonian Talmud as well as works of modern fiction and poetry.
• At number eight Rudninko Street is a nondescript structure that between 1918 and 1941 was the Jewish Gymnasium for Mathematics and Natural Sciences. During the war, it served as headquarters of the Jewish Council, the Judenrat, responsible for the administration of the ghetto. In the courtyard of this uninteresting building, 1,200 Jews were condemned to death for not having their “yellow certificates.” It is Site 60 in the brochure’s “catastrophe” section.
• The space where YIVO once stood is Site 67. Described by Dawidowicz as elegant and opulent, the YIVO building was destroyed in the war. Afterward, “a bath-house was put in its place.”
• At the very center of Vilnius is the Jews’ Street, given its name in 1592. This is where the Great Synagogue stood. After destroying it, the Soviets built a kindergarten, still there. In front stretches a forlorn basketball court. Nearby is a monument to the Vilna Gaon, the towering 18th-cenury figure who to vast rabbinic erudition married a fascination with scientific knowledge and a fierce commitment to reason and law. The pedestal beneath is discolored by graffiti, and a plaque stating that the Gaon once lived in this area is red with hooligans’ ink. The entire area betrays a spirit of neglect, as if the renovated post-Soviet city had to do something to recognize its Jewish past but could not muster the energy to honor or cherish it.
The story of Jews in post-Soviet Lithuania is, in short, ambiguous. Lithuanian politicians regularly support the Jewish community, the government has put up plaques commemorating Jewish life, and in many respects Lithuania is a better place to be Jewish these days than, say, Russia, where anti-Semitism plays a role in official politics.
The real situation is one of benign neglect, which is not without its own dangers. Contemporary anti-Semitism bubbles up from the bottom of Lithuanian society, expressing itself in vandalism and crude jokes and appearing at times in political and cultural life. In February 2004, a major Lithuanian newspaper, Respublika, known for its anti-Jewish caricatures, published a series of articles titled “Who Rules the World?” The answer was self-evident. Those seeking still rougher varieties of Lithuanian anti-Semitism can find them on the Internet.
The organized Jewish community regularly collides with the Lithuanian government over questions of public memory and private property. There are countless Jewish cemeteries and Jewish buildings on Lithuanian soil that have yet to be incorporated into the contemporary Lithuanian narrative, fashioned since independence in 1991 and colored by 19th-century ideas of nationalism and by a hunger for Lithuanian purity. Some stolen property has been given back to its Jewish owners, but some, including sites of great antiquity and significance, has been treated like conventional real estate, to be bought, sold, or developed regardless.
The population of Vilnius was once over 30-percent Jewish; it will never be 30-percent Jewish again. Having shed its authoritarian past, Vilnius will be a city in Europe: a symbol, in the thinking of the EU selection panel, of a pacific European multiculturalism, darkened somewhat by the Holocaust. So long as the shadows are mentioned, they need not inhibit anyone from enjoying the pleasures of a capital city and “cosmopolitan meeting point.” Nor are these shadows long or dark enough to prevent the coupling of modern-day Vilnius with Hitler’s Linz.
Lucy Dawidowicz likened postwar Vilnius to ancient Troy, accessible only to archeologists of one kind or another. That was too categorical a judgment. A number of institutions arose from the modest Jewish life that persisted in Vilnius after the war, and their success will encourage further ventures. Nurturing them is a worthy task, but it must be undertaken in sober-minded honesty and not in the spirit of ignorant and dishonest multiculturalism. One can best begin by reading From That Place and Time.
1 From That Place and Time: A Memoir, 1938-1947. Introduction by Nancy Sinkoff. Rutgers, 376 pp., $24.95 (paper).
2 See Neal Kozodoy, “Lucy S. Dawidowicz: In Memoriam,” in the May 1992 COMMENTARY.