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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Culture Revisited

They called it the "Jerusalem of the North". By the 20th century, Vilnius had been a renowned center of Jewish culture for more than 500 years.

Worlds away from the poorer, simpler Jewish villages of Eastern Europe, Vilnius - then a Polish city called Vilna - was an intellectual city, a place where scholars gathered in smoky cafes to discuss politics, Shakespeare and the Talmud.

On the eve of World War II, the city had 96 synagogues, one of which was big enough to hold 3, 000 people. Circumventing the law restricting the height of synagogues, the Jews had built the main synagogue deep into the ground; from within, the ceiling seemed to tower majestically.

Today, virtually all that remains of the Jewish world of Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, are a few exhibits and a handful of survivors and descendants who are trying to bring their heritage back to life.

They face a tough challenge. In Lithuania, as in its sister Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, the now resurgent majority nationalities are busy rewriting history and undoing 50 years of Soviet suppression. The Holocaust, and the centuries of Jewish life that preceded it, are something of an afterthought.

"We send announcements to schools asking teachers to bring their students here, but nobody comes", says Rachel Margulis, 70, a Holocaust survivor who works at the State Jewish Museum near the center of Vilnius.

On a clear fall day, the small log cabin housing the museum was nearly empty. With the exception of a Jewish visitor from Minsk and two German tourists with backpacks, nobody was visiting to mark the Day of Genocide, Lithuania's two-year-old annual holiday commemorating the Holocaust.

Margulis begins her tours with what many consider the end of the country's Jewish culture.

"Look", she says, pointing to a hand-lettered map of Lithuania that is dotted with black stars from border to border. "Each Jewish star marks a place where Jews lived and were slaughtered during World War II".

Vilna was part of Poland until October 1939, when the city was transferred to Lithuania under an addition to the Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact. By the next summer, the Soviet Union had completed its takeover of the three Baltic states, which had been independent since World War I.

The nonaggression pact under which Lithuania was annexed by Stalin did not last long, however. The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union through Belorussia on June 22, 1941, and within days launched their attack on Lithuania.

By the end of the war, 240, 000 Jews in Lithuania -94 percent of the country's total Jewish population - had been killed. Of the nearly 60, 000 Jews living in Vilnius before the war, about 600 survived.

The slaughter ended seven centuries of flourishing Jewish culture. Jews first came to the area in the 13th century; they received official permission to build a synagogue in Vilnius in 1573. In the following centuries, Jews were not integrated into Lithuanian life, but they were tolerated and their culture thrived.

Prewar Vilnius was bustling with Jewish shops, theaters and libraries. Six Yiddish newspapers were published every day, espousing everything from Zionism to Socialism. Scholars came from around the world to study at YIVO, the Yiddish Institute for Learning.

All that would change during World War II.

The Nazis destroyed entire villages, often with the help of the local population, which was both Polish and Lithuanian. In Kaunas, where Jewish culture had also thrived, and in Vilnius, Jews were rounded up and forced to live in ghettos. Tens of thousands were taken to Paneriai, a forest outside of Vilnius, where they were shot and piled in mass graves. Thousands more were shipped to concentration camps elsewhere. Lithuanian Jewry was virtually eliminated.

Today, the details of the genocide and the centuries of Jewish life in Lithuania are virtually unknown to thousands of Lithuanians, particularly those educated during the Soviet years, when synagogues were destroyed and Jewish life and culture was strictly suppressed. As part of the Communist's anti-Zionist policies, monuments at Jewish cemeteries, including one at the Paneriai Forest, were removed and replaced with markers that referred to the victims only as "Soviet citizens".

"For 50 years, there was a total vacuum of knowledge of the Jewish landscape and spirit", said Emmanuel Zingeris, a member of Lithuanian parliament and a leader in the Jewish community. "We had two nations under one sky, the Jewish nation and Lithuanian nation. But nobody knows anything about the former".

Egle Praninskaite, 23, grew up in Kaunas, a city northwest of Vilnius. She remembers going on class trips to the Ninth Fort, a prison outside the city that became a killing field during the war. Her teachers barely mentioned the Jewish victims - even though 40, 000 Jews were executed there, according to a State Jewish Museum spokeswoman. Nor did they discuss the involvement of local residents in the killings.

"We were just told that the Nazis killed many people there - Russians, Lithuanians, Jews", said Egle, a university student in Vilnius. "It wasn't presented to us as a Jewish thing".

The lack of education left many Lithuanians to learn about the war through their parent's or grandparent's accounts, stories that were often colored more from personal experience than from facts.

Heightening the color was the reality that Lithuania was trapped between Hitler and Stalin during World War II. Because many Jews, fearing the Nazis, welcomed the Soviets when they invaded Lithuania in 1940, many Lithuanians believe that the Jews delivered an independent Lithuania to the Communists. The Nazis also exploited the association of Jews with communism to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment.

"In the consciousness of the Lithuanian people, the Jewish tragedy doesn't exist as a tragedy of Lithuania", said Irena Veisate, a Lithuanian Jew who was sheltered during the war by a Catholic Lithuanian family. "Only very, very slowly will it come to the consciousness of the nation that the Jews who were killed were Lithuanian citizens and that Lithuanians were responsible for them. They were good Lithuanian citizens and they didn't sell Lithuania to the Soviets".

Veisate, like many in the Jewish community, believes that the Holocaust will find its place in Lithuanian history only when schools begin to educate children about the country's significant Jewish heritage.

The process is beginning slowly. As part of the education reform that was begun when Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union, educators added new information about the Holocaust into high school history textbooks and introduced two Jewish writers to the literature textbooks.

"But now we see that the program is insufficient", said Vanda Zaborskaite, director of curriculum development in the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture and Education. "But it is a very complicated process. Our first task was to erase all the falsifications. Jewish themes are very important, but they are not the only problem with our history textbooks".

Not surprisingly, the participation of Lithuanians in the massacres of the Jews is given short shrift in the textbooks. One sentence refers to the fact that "some Lithuanians were misled by fascist ideology and joined in the killings", Zaborskaite said.

The schools are looking to the Jewish community for assistance in developing new material, but the Jewish community is not only small - there are about 5, 000 Jews in all of Lithuania today - but has little money and resources for such substantial projects.

On an official level, Lithuania has taken step toward recognizing the Holocaust. Since 1991, when Sept. 23 was declared the Day of Genocide, the government has publicly commended survivors and honored Lithuanians who saved Jews during the war. It has also supported the restoration of Jewish cemeteries throughout Lithuania.

At a commemoration at Vilniu's Opera and Ballet Theater on the holiday this year, President Algirdas Brazauskas, echoing a general theme of reconciliation, acknowledged Lithuanian participation in the killings and urged people not to "connect those Lithuanians who were killing Jews with the whole nation". He also reminded Lithuanians not to think of Jews as communist traitors. "We also can't forget that they were fooled by the Soviets", he said.

The commemoration, however, was barely covered in local newspapers. One of the country's most popular papers, Lietuvos Rytas, had no mention of the holiday.

To overcome the "organized darkness" of the past 50 years, Emmanuel Zingeris says, people need not only to learn the facts about the Holocaust but to hear the human stories that will give the facts resonance. But most Lithuanians are now absorbed in discussing other terrors - of the massive deportations by the Soviets, of Stalin and the KGB - that previously they were unable to acknowledge. Contemporary books, art and films reflect these issues, while not a single book by a Lithuanian writer has been published about the Jewish problem, Zingeris said.

His dream is to create a major museum in an old Jewish theater that the government gave to the Jewish community. He already has several researchers gathering artifacts. But seeing the building is to know how bold his ambitions are; the theater is boarded up and crumbling, barely the shell of its former state.

Rachel Margulis has a similar dream. She ends her tours at the Holocaust exhibit with an architect's model of a proposed Jewish museum. The model is elaborate, with skylights and auditoriums; it represents the kind of museum that Margulis does not expect to see in her lifetime and is not even sure will ever exist.

Margulis and Zingeris may be fighting against history, but they want the story of the Holocaust and Lithuanian Jewry to be told before it is too late. They want Lithuania to feel its loss.

"You can only regret when you have knowledge", Zingeris said. "You cannot have regret when you have nothing but a vacuum in your spirit".