Monday, August 3, 2009

Jewish Vilna

We began yesterday with a tour of Jewish Vilna led by Fania Brantsovsky. Vilnius went by the name of Vilna prior to WWII, so we will refer to it by that name when talking about that period. Although the tour was in Yiddish, we thought it might help to familiarize ourselves with the words and rhythms of the Yiddish language. While we recognized a handful of words, it was seldom sufficient to get the full explanation. Frequently we felt as if we were watching a foreign film without subtitles. Only with the help of the more advanced students were we able to get the gist of what was said.

Fania is an 87 year old woman with a very interesting history. She survived two years of living in the Vilna ghetto and then became a partisan resisting the Nazis until the war ended. She then had a long career as a statistician and currently works as the librarian for the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.

During the walk we were shown buildings which housed important cultural institutions in what once was Jewish Vilna. These included the Yiddish and Hebrew schools, theaters, a home for the aged, a hospital, a bank, the newpaper “Der Tog,” and the building that housed the first YIVO offices. She also pointed out the building of the Romm publishing house which moved to Vilnius in 1799 and became the leading Hebrew publisher. Fania told us that in the Hebrew school if a student spoke Yiddish they had were penalized and had to contribute to the Tzedakah (charity) box. We saw the actual school that Fania attended and she told us that she has a picture of herself and her classmates in front of the building. The building now houses very expensive condos. She also showed us the apartment that she used to live in and talked about anti-Semitic demonstrations that took place in front of it prior to WWII. People threw rocks from the courtyard because they knew Jews lived there. She also showed us a plaque for “the Righteous,” three people who hid Jews in the Archives during the war.

We stopped at The Choral Synagogue which was quite striking. Originally the city had over 100 synagogues to serve the 45% of the population which was Jewish. This synagogue is the only one remaining. We hope to return to attend services there during our visit. Around the city there were various plaques marking the Jewish history, but they would have been difficult to locate without guidance. Many places were unmarked and their history will fade over time.

After three hours of walking, we were amazed at our guide's stamina as she was in her 80s. We realized her spirit and strength were probably what allowed her to survive such difficult times. We found the tour very poignant in that it gave us a sense of the scope of the vibrant community which had existed here. Prior to WWII almost half of Vilna was Jewish. Today Jews make up 0.1% of the total Lithuanian population. It is often disturbing to us to observe what was and what might have been.

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