THE ENLIVENING OF CULTURAL HERITAGE

The newly constructed ritual house at the Jewish cemetery in Vilnius

A rich cultural life of the small community is like a reflection of that highly developed Yiddish and Hebrew culture, which made Lithuania and especially Vilnius - Jerusalem of Lithuania - famous throughout the world. It is impossible to foster Jewish culture in Lithuania, without trying to resurrect from the ashes that cultural heritage, which was burned by the Nazi, and then for 50 demolished by the Soviets. The revival of this heritage is also important to the culture of world Jewry, since the litvak legacy was an important part of its mosaic. The complete disappearance of the litvak culture would be the irretrievable loss. It is our responsibility to the world Jewry and, of course, to Lithuanian culture to take care of cultural heritage, who constituted an inseparable part of Lithuania's essence. And finally, it is our responsibility to the memory of our murdered country-fellows.

Our community devotes a lot of attention to the putting in order and signing of the sights of mass killings. There are over 200 of then in Lithuania. We are also taking care of the old Jewish cemeteries.

The Choral synagogue in Vilnius.
Photo by A. Baltrenas

Functioning synagogues are open in Vilnius and Kaunas. There is a small prayer house in Klaipeda. Differently from the experience of the many Western countries, where the whole Jewish cultural life is concentrated in the synagogues of various trends, our cultural life goes on in community.

For many ages Jews were known as the nation of books. Litvaks deserve this name more than any other Jewish community. Jewish publishing houses, libraries were world famous. The Talmud edition published by the Romm publishing house at the end of last century was the most seriously scientifically prepared one, therefore he was known all around the world. 

Israel Mejer Lau, the Chief rabbi of Israel, and accompanying persons examine the Torah scrolls at the Mazvydas library

Books, that were rescued during WWII (special merit in this regard should be attributed to bibliographer A. Ulpis, prof. V. Birzhishka and others) from the Strashun, YIVO, Mefitsei Haskalah, synagogues', yeshivas', and other libraries, are now stored, catalogued and researched at the National Martunas Mazhvydas Library. Among over 50.000 volumes that are kept here, one can find indeed unique publications. These books raise interest among scholars throughout the world. There are also over 300 Torah scrolls stored in the library.

The community continually organizes events of a larger or smaller scale, dedicated to various occasions. These events are aimed at reminding the society about the our history, making the preservation of the legacy more actual. Among numerous events the most significant one was a huge scale celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Death of the Gaon of Vilnius held in September 1997. The Jews throughout the world highly value the great scholar. There is not a single Jewish history text-book where the name of the Gaon would not be mentioned. For 50 years of Soviet occupation there was no mentioning of the Gaon, and even the name of the street named in his honor had been changed. The regime sought to erase his name - a symbol of Jewishness - from people's memory. To a large extent Soviets succeeded: not only Lithuanians, but also the majority of Jews did not know who was the Gaon of Vilnius. Determined to revive his name - a pride of Lithuania - the Community, with the assistance of the Lithuanian government, attempted to organize an extremely significant commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Gaon's death (in Yiddish - yortsait).

Concert at the Opera and Ballet Theater in Vilnius on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of the Gaon of Vilnius

The commemoration lasted the whole week. It can be claimed that Lithuania lived in the spirit of Jewishness. The commemoration was granted the patronage of UNESCO's Director General Federico Mayor, and a letter of greeting from Pope John Paul II. The numerous events, starting with a special meeting in the Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) and ending with a gathering and monumental concert at the most prestigious palace in Vilnius - the Opera and Ballet Theater, as well as numerous articles, TV and radio programs, exhibitions etc. made the name of Gaon famous and understandable not only for Jews, but also for all inhabitants of Lithuania. This name, as a synonime of wisdom is now often mentioned in mass media and elsewhere.

A large international conference, attended by 40 speakers from 10 countries, was held during the commemoration. The conference, according to its participants, became a significant event in the world research of gaonistics. Its proceedings have been published in Lithuanian and English.

The proceedings of the scientific conference "The Gaon of Vilnius and the Annals of Jewish Culture"

Quite a few scientific conferences on the topics of Judaica, history and culture of Lithuanian Jewry are organized. A lot in this field, as well as in research of cultural legacy has been accomplished by Vilnius University Center for Judaic studies. The Center offers courses in Jewish history, culture, philosophy, Biblical Hebrew and other. The lecturers are invited from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Israel and other countries. The Center regularly organizes various scientific events - seminars, conferences. The last of its kind was the scientific conference in March 1999 - "Jews in the Polyphony of Lithuania's culture". There are very few Judaica specialists Jews left in Lithuania, therefore it is very encouraging that an increasing number of Lithuanian scholars take interest in Jewish history and culture. These scientists actively participate in our conferences, as well as organize this kind of events themselves, publish articles. Jewish history is taught in three Lithuanian Universities (apart from Vilnius University, also in Kaunas Vytautas the Great University and Vilnius Pedagogical University). Klaipeda University also conducts highly valuable research in Judaic studies. Several secondary schools devote special lessons to the history of Lithuanian Jews, particularly the Holocaust. Recently, particularly after the publication of Vatican's document: "We remember: Thoughts on Shoa", Lithuania's Catholic Church also began paying more attention to Jewish problems. In October 1998 the Catholic Academy of Lithuania held the conference entitled "The Catholic Church and Lithuanian-Jewish Relations in 19th - 20th Centuries". Based on materials of this conference was a serious book dedicated to Jewish problems. The Catholic magazine "Sandora" also dedicated one of its issues to these questions.

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Jews in Lithuania, Vilnius, 1999-2000