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Remembering Names in the Vilna Ghetto

Remembering Names in the Vilna Ghetto

Will a neglected building in the old Vilna ghetto become a place that helps to open minds and hearts?

A group of young Lithuanians is trying to make that happen.

One recent afternoon, a crew equipped with brooms and flashlights made its way into a derelict building on narrow, curving Zemaitijos Street in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.

Wearing masks and blue jeans, the volunteers, who are members of a group called Vardai (“names” in Lithuanian), aimed not only to haul away dust and debris, but also to advance a larger mission: “to commemorate Holocaust victims and help revive our collective memory.”

During the Holocaust, Zemaitijos Street was within the confines of the Vilna ghetto, where 70,000 Jews lived under horrific conditions of overcrowding, hunger, and terror.

The building served as the ghetto library. It contained 45,000 books and was used by as many as 700 readers every day. In the basement, members of the underground resistance constructed a soundproof room for testing weapons they had managed to smuggle in from outside.

Only 600 ghetto residents survived the war. For a short time, the building became the site of a small Jewish museum founded by survivors. Later, it housed a music school. In recent years it was inhabited by squatters.

Today, the building stands empty, in a state of disrepair – the roof leaks, the walls are marred by graffiti, and the floors are covered with trash.

But as Lithuania prepares to commemorate the anniversary of the ghetto liquidation that took place on September 23, 1943, members of Vardai hope that the building, now owned by the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, will once more become a cultural center – a place where Lithuanian’s magnificent Jewish heritage can be remembered, mourned, and honored.

Vardai’s first public initiative took place four years ago. To mark the ghetto anniversary, the group led a solemn ceremony inside a Vilnius church. Lithuanians stood in line, waiting to join in reading aloud, one by one, the names of tens of thousands of ghetto residents.

Since then, the public readings have been held every year on the ghetto anniversary. “By reading the names one by one,” said Vardai member Audra Cepkauskaite, “we make the Holocaust personal. The informality is important. Anyone can come. Together with others, we express our grief.”

This year, the names ceremony will take place not only in Vilnius, but also in several other Lithuanian cities.

Other events also will mark the anniversary. The Lithuanian Parliament will convene a special session to commemorate the victims of the Siauliai (Shavl) and Kaunas (Kovno) ghettos. A ceremony will be held at Paneriai (Ponar), the mass murder site near Vilnius.

“Lithuanian Jews were, are, and will be part of Lithuania’s history,” said Faina Kukliansky, chair of the Jewish Community of Lithuania. Although only 4,000 Jews currently live in Lithuania, “our hope is that these events will bring together people of different generations and will aid in the search for our relationship towards what may be painful but which is for all of us a shared part of our identity.”

Anti-Semitism is by no means absent in Lithuania today.  Several ongoing projects seek to combat intolerance, connect Lithuanians to their nation’s Jewish heritage, and educate citizens about the Holocaust.

At the Jewish Museum, an exhibit of 48 panels presents the stories of children who survived the Holocaust, and an additional 20 panels tell the stories of Lithuanians who rescued Jews.

Lithuanian teachers are encouraged to join a national network of tolerance centers. The Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University teaches Yiddish language and Jewish culture. Lastly, the Sholom Aleichem Jewish School in Vilnius, headed by principal Misha Jakobas, has an enrollment of more than 300 students, and helps to keep Jewish history alive.

Yitzhak Rudashevski, a child resident of the Vilna ghetto, was a devoted patron of the ghetto library. “Reading books in the ghetto is the biggest treat there is,” he wrote in his diary, which was discovered and published after the war. “Books link us to freedom; books connect us to the world.”

Once, the building on Zemaitijos Street opened a wider world to trapped ghetto residents. Now, members of Vardai hope that the former library has a future as a place to honor the past and build a better future.

Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (University of Nebraska Press), which begins with her personal journey to the land of her Jewish forebears and expands into an account of how a country encounters its Jewish past. She serves on the board of Yiddish of Greater Washington. Visit her website at www.ellencassedy.com.

Ellen Cassedy
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