On the demise of a blossoming culture | German-Jewish cultural heritage in Lithuania | DW | 29.11.2012
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Lithuania

On the demise of a blossoming culture

The history of Jews in Lithuania is six centuries old. It stretches from its early beginnings in the 14th century to its heyday in the early 20th century - before its bloody end during the Nazi occupation.

Emanuel Zingeris is despondent when he thinks about the Jewish past in his home country.

"The end of the history of 'Yiddishland,' the end of the cross-border Jewish culture, of the proud Yiddish language, is a tragedy to this day," says the Lithuanian member of parliament, who still speaks Yiddish with his mother.

Zingeris has a dream: He would like all that is left of Jewish culture - the traces, the fragments and all that remains around the world - gathered together in Vilnius. And with that, all that modern Jewish-Lithuanian artists have achieved.

Lithunian politician Emanuel Zingeris before the historic barricades outside of parliament

Lithunian politician Emanuel Zingeris before the historic barricades outside of parliament

He is well aware that it could only ever be a tiny reflection of earlier times.

Looking for fragments

The Lithuanian politician, who used to be the director of the Jewish Museum, stands before the parliamentary building. There, a barricade is situated behind glass, a memorial to fight for independence from the former Soviet Republic.

The historical site is also significant for the 55-year-old. It was only after the political break-away in 1990 that it became possible to overcome the greatest taboo in the Soviet Union as people began to remember the Jewish victims and the wiping-out of their culture. It was a painful process, which is by no means finished, Emanuel Zingeris explains.

From here it is not too far from the quarter, what was once the Shtetl - the Jewish area - which became a ghetto after the Nazi invasion in 1941. The search for fragments of the past is difficult today because practically nothing survived other than a few, barely detectable signs.

Isaiah Urken, a photographer and a young member of the Jewish Association of Vilnius, knows the few remnants that do exist and helps decipher them.

A small Star of David on the wall of a house in Vilnius

Easily overlooked: A small Star of David on the wall of a house in Vilnius


A long history

The history of Lithuanian Jews is a story of ascendency, blossoming and brutal extermination.

It began with Grand Duke Vytautas the Great. In 1388, the Jews who then lived under his rule were given their own rights and privileges for the first time. But around two centuries passed until a large number of Jews settled in the kingdom and they could develop communities, infrastructure and a certain level of affluence.

The first period of blossoming and differentiation of Jewish culture began after the mid-18th century. On the one side there was the famous and influential scholar Rabbi Elijahu, the "Great Gaon from Vilna," a controversial authority on religious questions.

On the other side, the Haskala ("Enlightenment") movement emerged after the West European paradigm and under the influence of the German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, which promoted a modern Jewish faith, secular education and integration into wider society.

Hostilities and infighting developed between different groups.

Hebrew scripture remains on the facade of a house in Vilnius Old Town

Hebrew scripture remains on the facade of a house in the Old Town

Jerusalemof the North

At the same time, a rich Jewish cultural and spiritual life with scientific, academic and political institutions, religious centers, theaters, publishing houses and newspapers unfolded there until the beginning of the 20th century.

With its 110 synagogues, Vilnius became the "Jerusalem of the North," a glittering metropolis whose appeal shone far beyond the borders of Lithuania, attracting Jews from other European countries, including from German-speaking regions.

A effigy of the famous scholar Rabbi Elijahu, the 'Gaon from Vilna'

A effigy of the famous scholar Rabbi Elijahu, the 'Gaon from Vilna'

In 1925, the YIVO Institute (Vilnius Yiddish Institute) for research into Jewish culture and the Yiddish language was founded.

For the "Litvaks" - how Lithuanian Jews describe themselves, even today - their native language, "mameloschn," an idiom formed from an amalgamation of Middle High German, Hebrew, Slavic and other influences, was spoken across Eastern Europe until the Second World War.

Great writers such as Abraham Sutzkever, Scholem Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer and many others contributed to its development. By 1928, a PEN Club of Jewish authors had been founded in Vilnius.

A passageway in the former ghetto in the Jewish quarter of Vilnius

A passageway in the former ghetto in the Jewish quarter of Vilnius

Language and power

Yiddish written using Hebrew characters was a product of thousands of years of Jewish history in Europe, says Argentine professor Abraham Lichtenbaum: "It was a proud, cross-border European language. Whoever wants to know today how the Jewish people thought needs to know this language."

Vilniuswas a gleaming cultural capital; Lithuania was the cultural land of Jews in Europe in which 250,000 Jews lived and from which the most important artists in the world emerged. From here came violinist Jascha Heifetz, painter Chaim Soutine, sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, Esperanto inventor Ludwig Zamenhof, linguist and Yiddish researcher Max Weinreich and many others who contributed to the advancement of European culture.

Despite all the historical and political influences, the region was forced to subordinate over the course of the centuries.

Brutal end

Catastrophe arrived in June 1941 with the German occupation. Ghettos where established in Vilnius, Kaunas and in other regions which became places of unimaginable suffering. Jews were hunted, imprisoned, tortured and consigned to forced labor.

The SS and the Wehrmacht murdered innocent people on the streets or in specially constructed shooting ranges. Lithuanian collaborators were willing helpers. In total, 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews did not survive the persecution. In summer 1944, when the Red Army invaded, the country had become a mass grave.

The synagoge in Vilnius

The synagogue in Vilnius survived the Nazi occupation and the devastation of war

Double loss

The two histories of the country make historical discourse difficult. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians, Jews and non-Jews, fell victim to the Soviet Regime after 1945. Even today, many Lithuanians see no reason to memorialize the fate of the Jewish people in the collective consciousness.

A small museum remembers the genocide, the modern, bright Tolerance Center, with exhibitions and large education program aimed at the younger generation. The issue is dealt with in schoolbooks and at academic conferences.

A memorial to the thousands of Jews murdered in Paneriai during the Holocaust

A memorial to the thousands of Jews murdered in Paneriai during the Holocaust

The Jewish cemetery in Vilnius is a quiet place. Sometimes, English, French or Hebrew can be heard there when relatives of "Litvaks" come to visit the graves.

But Emanuel Zingeris not only mourns the past. "After the Holocaust, the demise of Jewish culture is the second greatest loss," he says. "Nevertheless: I would like for the important and rich culture to be made visible again today and in the future."

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