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Culture

In Vilnius, School Gives Yiddish a Chance at Revival

Whether searching for their roots or due to academic interest, people from around the world are traveling to Vilnius, Lithuania to learn a language that has all but died out: Yiddish.

Panorama of St. Ann's Michael's and John's church in Vilnius

Little trace is left of the once-thriving Jewish life in Vilnius

On the edge of what was once the Jewish Ghetto in Vilnius, Yiddish -- a language that had been all but left for dead -- is being revived.

Dov-Ber Kerler is part of the revival. In a rabbinic sing-song, he recites stories from a lost world. Fourteen students from six different countries hang on his every word. Many take notes, most of them writing in Hebrew letters.

They are students in the advanced class at the Yiddish Institute at the University of Vilnius.

Woman walking through Jewish ghetto outside Kovno

There was another Jewish Ghetto outside Kovno, Lithuania

Learning the 'mother tongue'

One older student spent seven years in Israel before returning to her home town. In school, she had learned Russian, the official language at the time. But as a child, she had spoken Yiddish exclusively, so she thought she would be able to speak it well.

But "when my parents died, I stopped speaking Yiddish," she says.

Now, she says she realizes that she actually knows nothing at all. It took the Yiddish Insitute to teach her her "mameloschn," or mother tongue.

"Many Holocaust survivors tried to suppress their history," says the acting director of the Institute, Ruta Puisyte. They wanted to fit into their new surroundings quickly. Now, their children or grandchildren find they want to learn more about their family history. They want to ask questions and learn the language of their ancestors.

A menorah in Israel

Many come to Yiddish School in search of Jewish roots

Discovering literature

Annika Hillmann, a 25-year-old German literature student from Hamburg, is the youngest person in the class. Her interest in Yiddish is literary, not personal.

"It is so interesting for me. By learning the language, not only did I discover an entire treasure trove of literature, but I developed an awareness of the history of East European Jews," she said.

The language course is well-situated. The nearly 500 year old university in Vilnius is on the edge of what was once the Jewish Ghetto in that town, where the Nazis once herded together thousands of people.

'Jerusalem of the north'

After the Germans entered the city in 1941, the ring of destruction around the once-blossoming Jewish quarter of the city became ever tighter. Before World War II, Vilnius was known as "the Jerusalem of the North."

In September, 1943 the Ghetto was finally "liquidated." Whoever hadn't fled by then was either driven out of town, shot, or gassed by SS troops and their Lithuanian helpers.

Fania Brancovskaja, 86, was one of those who fled at the last moment. She joined the resistance group that was fighting the Nazis -- and later returned to her homeland. Now she is the institute's librarian. She tells her story in fluent Yiddish, and leads students on tours of Vilnius where they look for traces of a once-thriving Jewish community.

Portrait, Chaim Weizman

Israeli statesman Chaim Weizman was born in Lithuania

"Yiddish school" mostly takes place in the mornings; in the afternoons, th the students are free to go on excursions where they can discover the city's Jewish history. There are courses in music, singing, dancing or literature tied to Jewish culture.

"You get a completely different image of what Yiddish once meant and perhaps -- maybe a little -- what it could become once more," Hillman says.

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