Vilnius Remembers

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

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Simon Alperovitch, 76, president of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, is also critical of Zingeris’ ambitious plans. “There’s too few of us to start acting grandiose,” he says in his cramped and dusty office dominated by a large portrait of the Gaon of Vilnius, a famous Talmudic scholar from the 18th century. Alperovitch believes that the emphasis on buildings only stirs residual anti-Semitism. “The dialogue between Jews and Lithuanians is still very painful,” he says. “The rest of Lithuania is still very Catholic and conservative,” he adds.

But Sharunas Liekis, executive director of the Yiddish Institute at VilniusUniversity, says that despite the carping, the project will go forward. “Vilnius was a pretty fractious town before the war, with Zionists, Communists and Imperialists all vying with each other,” he says. “These petty disagreements are quite normal.”

But even before the reconstructed Jewish Quarter becomes a reality, visitors to Old Town can glimpse the city’s grim history. Ahandful of dingy courtyards have remained unchanged for the past hundred years. Here and there, among the glitzy bars and luxury hotels that are beginning to spring up in OldTown, one catches a glimpse of a charred Star of David on an exposed brick wall. From houses along Zemaitijos Street, once a main thoroughfare and now just around the corner from the new Jazz Rock Café, Jewish partisans, armed with pistols they pieced together from melted-down wristwatches, fired on Nazi troops storming the streets. “The Nazis blew up those houses later, and Wittenburg [the leader of the resistance] was handed over to be shot,” Margolis says. “But at least someone was brave enough to fight back instead of just waiting dully for his death.” She adds: “Write this down so that the world knows.”

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