Vilnius Remembers

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

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In October, too, the center opened a permanent exhibition, “The Lost World,” an evocation of pre-World War II life in Jewish Vilnius. Says Zingeris: “We did not want to shock visitors [by displaying] Holocaust images. The tragedy can be presented another way: by showing the cultural legacy which Lithuania lost when almost its entire Jewish population was wiped out.”

Zingeris grew up hearing about this world from his mother, Paulina, who was taken to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, but escaped during a forced march as the Germans retreated in 1944. But he never fully grasped its long and rich history until, as a university student researching an assignment, he came upon archives of the city’s Yiddish newspapers. In their pages he found coverage of a lively arts and political scene, and advertisements for Jewish theater performances, including Shakespeare in Yiddish. “It struck me,” he says, “that we were not merely talking about an ethnic group. This was a rich civilization in its own right.”

Zingeris, once dismissed as a dreamer, saw his ideas gain currency after Lithuanian prime minister Algirdas Brazauskas apologized in 1995 to the Israeli Parliament for his country’s complicity in the Holocaust. In 2000, the Parliament authorized reconstruction of portions of the former Jewish Quarter and the rebuilding of the Great Synagogue.

“Lithuania lost a huge part of its life and cultural heritage with the Holocaust,” says Justas Paleckis, formerly the deputy foreign minister, who now represents Lithuania in the European Parliament. “It’s very, very important to rebuild the Jewish Quarter and right the wrongs of the past.” Paleckis admits that the project could also boost tourism and bring in muchneeded foreign revenues. In 1999, traveling with a delegation of Lithuanian officials, he visited the Jewish quarters of Prague in the CzechRepublic and Krakow in Poland. “The Jewish Museum in Prague is the most popular museum in the city. And this in a capital which boasts numerous historic sites.” It is his hope, he says, “that soon, many of the tourists who visit those places will also include Vilnius in their itinerary.”

It’s already beginning to happen. Visitors from around the world have begun coming to the old city center of Vilnius, a treasure house of architectural styles like 17th- and 18th-century Baroque and Rococo. In 1996, a Lithuanian travel agency, West Express, began offering guided tours focusing on Jewish Vilnius. “We have visitors from countries including the United States, Israel, South Africa and Germany,” says Julius Fishas of West Express. “Some come here to see the country of their parents’ childhood, others because they are interested in the world of Lithuania’s Jews, who were nearly wiped off the earth within a couple of years.”

With the government now backing reconstruction plans, several Lithuanian architectural firms, relying upon archival photographs and old maps of Vilnius, have been drawing up blueprints and competing for the right to manage the project. One firm, the ArchinovaDesignCenter, has already won a contract to begin work on a section of the Jewish Quarter; construction is scheduled to begin this winter. “This is a historic opportunity to restore the face of old Vilnius,” says architect Antanas Svildys of Archinova, who is overseeing the project.

Research conducted by his firm has revealed that the Soviets took some surprising and, as it turns out, fortuitous shortcuts during reconstruction of the OldCity, from 1960 to 1985. “When ruined houses were demolished, the cellars were left intact,” says Giedre Miknevichiene, an architect from the Institute of Monument Restoration in Vilnius. “I’ve spoken to the builders of the kindergarten [the site of the Great Synagogue], and they claim the basement was not touched at all. Hebrew inscriptions on the walls, even some menorahs, have survived.”

Officials hope that discovery will make the restoration project more attractive to investors. Planners envision converting the basements into underground exhibition spaces, while building modern structures above. Anumber of entrepreneurs— including Americans and Israelis—have agreed to finance the project in return for the right to erect hotels, office space and restaurants on upper floors. The scheme also calls for ground floors to be transformed into replicas of the artisan studios and shops that once lined the streets. “Nowhere in the world,” says Paleckis, “have Jewish houses been rebuilt from scratch. This is a pioneer project.”

The undertaking will require a massive, sustained fundraising effort. According to Zingeris, reconstructing 30 buildings will cost about $140 million, plus another $14 million to rebuild the 10,000-square-foot Great Synagogue.

Not everyone embraces the project. Some critics say it draws attention away from a more important mission—fostering a religious and cultural revival. “Our goal is not to rebuild lifeless buildings but to bring people closer to Judaism,” says American rabbi Sholom Krinsky, who has spent ten years in Vilnius as head of the orthodox ChabadLubavitchCulturalCenter. “There’s been a double Holocaust here, first Nazi and then Soviet, and many of the surviving Jews know little or nothing about their religion, not even the significance of the Jewish holidays,” he says. “The Soviets did not like anyone, no matter their religion, thinking about God.”

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