Vilnius Remembers

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

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.

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.”

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.”

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.