Restoring heritage of Lithuanian Jews
By Marielle Vitureau, AFPVILNIUS, Lithuania--Lithuania's capital Vilnius was once a thriving Jewish cultural hub, before Nazi Germany wiped out the so-called Jerusalem of the North and killed off most of the country's Jews.
September 29, 2013, 12:03 am TWN
Now, individuals and state institutions alike are trying to revive the memory of this Jewish heritage by harnessing the global reach of the Internet and launching a series of interactive websites.
It is a way to restore a lost chapter in the history of this Baltic country with a controversial past as some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis during the 1941-1944 occupation.
“There is ... a terrible lack of commemoration in modern-day Vilnius,” says Menachem Kaiser, an American Jew who set up a website about the Jewish ghetto after spending a year in the capital.
“If you're there, walk around — there is virtually nothing to commemorate the rounding up and murder of 80,000 Vilnius Jewish residents.”
It has been 70 years since the Nazis liquidated the ghetto on Sept. 23, 1943. Learning of its existence prompted Kaiser to create the English-language website www.revilna.org, a reference to the city's name in Yiddish, Vilna.
“Finding out about the ghetto was very difficult, very frustrating, and I wanted to create something so that even the non-scholar could get a sense of what the ghetto was like,” he told AFP in an email.
“By doing this project as a website, as opposed to a book, I was able to make something dynamic, that allows the user to quite literally explore.”
90 Percent of Jews Perished
Jews settled in Vilnius in the 16th century and accounted for around one-third of its population before World War II.
But around 200,000 Lithuanian Jews — more than 90 percent of the country's pre-war Jewish population — died at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators.
That complicity makes the Holocaust a sensitive issue in Lithuania, which has in the past come under fire for being slow to prosecute collaborators.
Central to the issue is the one-two blow that hit Lithuania during World War II. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 under Moscow's secret pact with Nazi Germany, and the Soviets killed and deported thousands of its citizens.
Germany then drove out the Red Army in 1941 and its arrival was seen as a relief to some Lithuanians, who believed the Germans would guarantee a return to independence.
Lithuania has taken steps to address its role in the Holocaust. Last year the government approved a special compensation fund for Jewish property seized by Nazi Germany and then kept by the Soviet regime.
Today, some 5,000 Jews live in the Baltic state of 3 million people.
“We talk too little about the history of the Jewish community, of its daily life and contributions — and yet that would bring a better understanding of this great tragedy,” says Lithuanian historian Jurgita Verbickiene, who runs the history site www.zydai.lt.