Vilnius Remembers

In Vilnius, Lithuania, preservationists are creating a living memorial to the nation's 225,000 Holocaust victims

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Behind a phalanx of grimly featureless Stalinist-style buildings east of Pylimo—the central boulevard bisecting Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital—lie a derelict playground and rutted basketball court. Several teenage boys, shirtless, wearing baggy shorts and high-tops, dribble a ball, lazily. Achild rocks in a wooden swing nearby. Next door, a sagging chain-link fence surrounds a cinder block kindergarten. The spires of Baroque churches, rising from the hills beyond, shimmer in the summer’s haze in this tiny (about the size of West Virginia) Baltic republic of three and half million people. Lithuania, today a parliamentary democracy, broke from the Soviet Union in 1990; in March of this year, along with Estonia and Latvia, the country joined NATO; in May, the Baltic states joined the European Union.

The semi-deserted downtown lot evokes a vanished world for Rachel Margolis, 83, one of a handful of survivors from the Vilnius Ghetto, where about 100,000 of the country’s 240,000 Jews were living at the outset of World War II. “This was where the Great Synagogue was,” she says, gesturing toward the schoolhouse. “And that [the basketball court] was the heart of the Jewish Quarter. It was once a crowded, busy neighborhood of narrow streets with artisan shops and kosher eateries.”

Margolis leads the way into the courtyard of a red brick, two-story house, typical of the quarter, that dates to the 17th century. An ornately carved wooden balcony extends along one wall. The Moorish-style tile roof features a serrated border of bricks. “This is classical Northern European Jewish architecture,” she says. “It’s one of the last courtyards left pretty much untouched.” Margolis crossed into this walled enclosure for holidays with her parents and brother. “It was dirty and cramped, but so, so alive,” she says.

She is one of perhaps 200 survivors from Lithuania’s once-thriving Jewish community who remained in the country after World War II. (Today she spends part of each year in Israel.) Ninety-four percent of the nation’s Jews died in the Holocaust; only about 15,000 escaped annihilation. Some 70,000 were shot at Paneriai, a wooded hamlet six miles outside the city where today a Soviet-era granite obelisk stands, dedicated to the “Victims of the Fascist Terror.” The dead include Margolis’ parents, Samuel and Emma, and brother, Juzef, killed there in the last days of the Nazi occupation in July 1944, just days before the Red Army entered Vilnius.

Today, Margolis—along with other members of the city’s Jewish community, numbering perhaps 4,000—has begun an ambitious effort to restore the central core of the prewar ghetto. As envisioned, the reconstituted precinct will celebrate Lithuania’s onceflourishing center of Eastern European Jewish culture.

The task of preserving this heritage, virtually obliterated under the Nazis and then suppressed by the Soviets, is well under way. In 1986, Margolis began organizing a small Holocaust museum, the Green House, so named because it is located in a green shinglesided residence in downtown Vilnius. Today, it is an annex of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, which opened in 1989 on Pylimo Street. This past October, a gallery of Lithua- nia-related Jewish art, featuring works by artists from the 18th to the 20th centuries, was inaugurated.

The genocide in Vilnius extinguished a culture that spanned 700 years and produced, in the 20th century alone, such figures as violinist Jascha Heifetz and sculptor Jacques Lipchitz. On the eve of World War II, the city boasted more than 100 synagogues, six daily Jewish newspapers and an extraordinary concentration of Jewish theaters, schools, guilds and political groups. The foremost center of rabbinical learning in Europe, it was known as the Jerusalem of the North; today, preservationists have appropriated that designation as a rallying cry.

Margolis, who escaped the Vilnius Ghetto with a band of partisans just days before the Nazis liquidated it in September 1943, chose to return to Soviet Lithuania after the war, she says, to live in the place that held memories of the family she had lost. The museum she envisioned has its origins in the scores of photographs and documents she collected secretly during the Soviet occupation. Outside the simple, intimate memorial stands a stone sculpture of a menorah; the monument honors diplomat Chiune Sugihara, a figure often referred to as the Japanese Oscar Schindler. (Schindler, a German industrialist, rescued some 1,100 Jewish laborers working in his factory by bribing the SS.) Assigned to the Japanese consulate in wartime Lithuania, Sugihara issued more than 2,000 exit visas for Jews fleeing the Nazis throughout Eastern Europe. Many of those whom Sugihara aided eventually made their way to Japanese-held Shanghai and to Japan, and from there reached South America and elsewhere.

The exhibits in Margolis’ museum include a 1937 daguerreotype of her own extended family, taken when she was a teenager. The men wear dinner jackets; the women, who include a demure, pigtailed 16-year-old Rachel, are dressed in evening gowns. “We were quite wealthy then, and well-educated. But it didn’t do us much good, did it?” she asks, running a hand through her short silver hair.

Emmanuel Zingeris, 48, a former member of Parliament, is the primary driving force behind the plan to rebuild parts of the destroyed Jewish Quarter and to reconstruct the Great Synagogue, a gargantuan Baroque structure built in the 1630s that also contained a library and an institute of Talmudic studies. Luftwaffe bombers damaged it during air raids on Vilnius; from 1955 to 1957, the Soviets leveled what was left of the structure. “We must show the world what a great center of Jewish culture and learning this city once was,” Zingeris says, pacing his offices at the organization he founded, the ToleranceCenter, dedicated to “restoring links between pre-war and present-day Lithuania, lost during decades of intolerance.” The center opened this October in a prewar building where a Yiddish theater was once housed. “Vilnius was vibrant, cosmopolitan, a breeding ground for genius,” he says, as he leads the way up a flight of stairs to an airy attic, where the newly opened gallery of Jewish art is housed. Reeling off a list of artists, “Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz, Samuel Bak, Mark Antokolsky, Marc Chagall . . . ” he dodges between pillars gleaming with freshly applied coats of white paint. “Money, money,” he mutters. “That’s always the problem. But we managed to get it done.” The enterprise cost about $4 million, mostly funded by the European Commission.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus