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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Lithuania Redux 2: Or Jordan Tries To Pay More Attention To The Lithuanians The Second Time Around.


I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the second of nine entries. (Entry one is here). I hope to post a new entry every three days. The next post will cover a disturbing run in with a beggar that revealed the effects of the recent "great recession" on Lithuania.  This post seems to end in the middle and for that I apologize.  It is background information which will allow posts 3-9 in this series to make more sense.  In any case, here is my personal history with Lithuania, why I traveled there twice, lots of information on Vilnius, and some of the history of the illustrious Jewish community of the former "Jerusalem of Lithuania." 

I went to study Yiddish in Vilnius Lithuania in July/August of 2008.  Being there was a lot more difficult for me emotionally than I had expected and partially as a result I spent much of the time behind the lens of my camera filming so that I wouldn’t have to process as much information or interact with people during tours.  The good aspect of this is that I ended up with ten hours of tapes of tours of Jewish and Holocaust related sites in Lithuania which are now on Youtube in their entirety in Yiddish with English subtitles, leaving an invaluable (albeit poorly shot) record not just of my trip but of Lithuanian Jewish culture.  The bad aspect of this is that I spent far more time on my first trip living in Vilna and not in Vilnius and as such missed a great deal of Lithuania itself.  For what I mean by that last sentence, as well as some background information on this city, I’m going to turn this entry over for a bit to excerpts from a letter I wrote to my parents and a couple of friends the first time I went there:

In some ways right now I’m beginning to live and study in two places simultaneously: Vilnius in 2008, the fascinating Lithuanian capital and next year’s European Capital of Culture and Vilna, the once second city of Poland and sometimes Lithuanian capital and one of the cultural capitals of vanished (ahem, murdered) Yiddish speaking Europe.  Although Vilnius and Vilna were located on the same ground and share many of the same buildings and streets, they are really different places in more ways than a name (Vilna is Yiddish, Wilno is Polish, Vilnius is Lithuanian).  Vilnius/Vilna in all of its reincarnations was and still is located in Eastern Europe, in the area that is now called the Baltics. If you look at a map of the Baltic countries today (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania respectively from north to south), you’ll find that they are the three small countries to the south of Finland (across the Baltic Sea).  They are to the northeast of the comparatively larger Poland, and to the west of Belarus and most of Russia. (Strangely enough, just to confuse us, there is a small piece of Russia that is squeezed onto the western half of Lithuania and eastern half of Northern Poland against the ocean that is detached by hundreds of miles from the rest of the country. Although Russia looms very large to the east of here, this detached chunk of Russia is the only part of it that actually borders Lithuania.)

The city of Vilnius, whatever it has been called and whoever has called it home, has existed since the 14th century, if not earlier.  The city has been shuttle-cocked alternately between Poland (or better yet several different kingdoms and republics of Polish speaking people), Russia, Lithuania (like Poland in several different reincarnations) and a Lithuanian-Polish commonwealth over the centuries.  The city even managed to change hands seven times during the years of WW1.  Throughout the past 500 years the city has been home to various combinations of Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Belarusians, Jews and Roma.  While the leadership and main ethnicities/languages of the city have varied, Yiddish speaking Jews were a constant presence for nearly five centuries until during the years of 1941-1944 when they were systematically murdered during the events that have come to be known as the Holocaust in English, H’shoah in Hebrew and Khurbn in Yiddish itself. 

Yerushalim d’lite: 

When Napoleon came to Vilnius, he was so impressed with the local Jewish community that he declared it the “Yerushalim d’lite” (French: Jerusalem of Lithuania).  The name has stuck in Yiddish ever since.  Vilna (the city is always called Vilna in Yiddish), was one of the great centers of Jewish civilization; both religious and secular, right alongside biblical Jerusalem, post-biblical Babylon, and Muslim Spain during the golden era.  Yiddish Vilna was a center of religious scholarship and the center of a brilliant modern secular culture, and by the 1930s was arguably the most important Jewish city in the world (Warsaw and Thessalonica were the only rivals).  In the 18th century one of the Diaspora’s greatest minds, the Vilner Goan, held court and helped solidify the power of Misnagic Jewry in Lithuania.  Interwar Vilna boasted a half dozen daily Yiddish papers, schools, universities, and criminal courts where Yiddish was the sole language of instruction/arbitration, not to mention some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivas.  Vilna was also home to the YIVO institute, which between the two world wars served as the address of scholarship on the history of Eastern European Jews, as well as the Académie française of the Yiddish language.  Vilna, along with Warsaw and Lodz was also the home of much Yiddish political culture and the birthplace of the Bund.  But all of that is gone.  Today is a very different world. The Vilna described in thousands of Yiddish books is no more and will never again be…………

……..So, this society, which I call Yiddishland in English and “oyf der yidisher gas” (on the Jewish street) or “Yidishkayt” (Jewishness) in Yiddish, and not the Holocaust, is what I came here to learn about. In short I came to Vilnius to learn about the Jewish civilization that thrived here for centuries and to improve my knowledge of its language, not just because of an academic interest but because it is the culture whose remnants I grew up among.  I grew up hearing Yiddish and singing songs that were written on the very streets that I am now exploring.  I read some of the same books (albeit in English translation) that were written here and were bestsellers.  I had neighbors, family friends and relatives who grew up in Yiddishland before the war (and I still know people who did) and learned Yiddish songs on their laps.  So I decided to come here to learn about this stateless culture that thrived here and whose language I now consider my own from some of the people who grew up in it, in their own language, on the ground in which it thrived for centuries, before they are lost to time. 

In addition to meeting with as many survivors as possible and hearing lectures and tours from them, I will be spending the vast majority of my time learning the Yiddish language at an advanced level and reading its literature not only in the original but also taught and explained in Yiddish.  What I learn here, from the place, from the language, from the literature, and most importantly from the people, I am not just learning for academic development or “personal enrichment”.  If I have my way it will be the language that my (future) children grow up speaking and it will be their culture too.  I come here to learn what I can so I can pass it on to them. 

So that’s some of the background on how I ended up in Vilnius the first time around.  I completed most of my goals; I met and got to talk to people who had grown up in the Jewish community before the Holocaust, I got to see many of the places I had heard about as a child, vastly improved my Yiddish and made a half dozen friends I’m still in touch with.  So as Americans like to say “mission accomplished.” Been there done that right?  Well, last summer Vilnius to me still wasn’t a matter of “been there, done that,” among many things I had left out some details in my films and needed to speak to a few people there and corroborate details.  I also had other business to attend to on behalf of a friend that I’m not even going to begin to get into but could only be done in Lithuania, if at all.  Plus, two Vilnius residents I knew had heard that I was in Spain and said that they had wanted to see me.  So without enough forethought I decided to hop on a plane and go. 

Traveling from Valencia to Vilnius is no easy trip.   You have to first get to the Ryanair airport advertised as Barcelona which is really in Girona (six hours from Valencia by bus/train at best) and then fly to Kaunas and from Kaunas find a way to Vilnius and of course because this is Ryanair you have to leave Barcelona at 3am which means you need to leave Valencia the day before and have a hotel room in Barcelona that you only actually sleep in for a few hours. Still it’s certainly a much easier trip than making it from Philadelphia or anywhere else on the other side of the Atlantic for that matter.  So in short, I had a few reasons to delay my return to the US and travel to Vilnius this past June (2010).  But as it turned out two of the people who said they’d be in Lithuania were doing things abroad, one person I stupidly assumed would be there wasn’t and the “business” I alluded to completely fell through, leaving me with a lot more time to kill than I had planned for or knew what to do with.  I soon decided to fill it by trying to spend my time in Vilnius and not Vilna the second time around, by “paying more attention to the Lithuanians the second time around” as I titled an email home.  And in the end this was the only thing that went well during the course of my trip. 

So what’s Vilnius itself like today?  Well, the best description I can give comes again from that 6,000 word letter I wrote to my parents and friends in 2008.  Here are some excerpts: 

You asked me about Vilnius today.  Well it’s not the city I grew up hearing about in old folksongs, in Chaim Grade’s novels or from survivors.  As I mentioned yesterday Jewish Vilna and Lithuanian Vilnius are two different places located on the same ground.  Despite that, (and not in any way holding that against it) Vilnius is a very interesting place.  In fact, to be honest, Vilnius is far more interesting than I had expected. 

Walking around Vilnius you can feel that it was built up in sections at different times by different people.  A river separates the old city (with the University) from the new city.  The new city is very Soviet in every sense of the word.  There are more Soviet apartment blocks than residential neighborhoods, large patches of green earth are splotched along the ground between the buildings as if a dinosaur was allowed to run loose and leave footprints behind.  The colors are dreary like they have been splashed on in titanium grays.  Children play with balls between the big buildings, teenagers watch them and drink vodka out of large bottles.  These are the outskirts of Vilnius.  While in America the poor in cities are packed into neighborhoods of endless row homes that bake on summer nights close to the city centers, in Eastern Europe the poor live on the edges of the cities in a maze of giant soviet era apartment buildings with no neighborhood of which to speak.  Because the buildings are self-contained units, there is little to no interaction at street level.  The stores are far removed from where people live, more cars drive away than towards the buildings.  The graffiti seems so permanent as to be part of the original building designs.  

The second half of the “new city” on the opposite side of the river from the old city doesn’t feel particularly Soviet but more like an American east coast city’s downtime.  There are a lot of high-rises and skyscrapers and long avenues with stores.  Trackless trolleys and the occasional bus ferry people along in a spider web of routes.  The buildings, at least at ground level, seem entirely commercial although some may double as apartment complexes, I can’t tell due to the language barrier.  There a lot of trees placed around this part of the city, more than you’d see in a typical American city.  But the key word is “placed”, they don’t seem to belong, they seem just as manmade and out of place (albeit much more organic) as the buildings themselves.  This part of the city is known by the locals (and the guidebooks) to have different neighborhoods, types of stores and styles (unlike the more Soviet section which is much more uniform), although the differences are not perceivable to a foreigner on a short trolley ride. 

The third section of the city is what the tourists, students, diplomats and wealthier Lithuanians are supposed to see.  It’s known as the “old city” (what I’ll term “old city proper” is actually a much smaller subsection of the old city that I’ll talk about later) and as I’ve already mentioned it is separated by river from the “new city.”  In a bizarre attempt to reduce the tension between the two sides of the river, the local authorities have painted giant words on both sides of the river.  One set says “I love you” and the other says “I love you too.”

The old city is divided into several different residential and commercial districts.  The University itself is on the edge of “old city proper”, a series of stunning centuries old buildings, all freshly painted, with a maze of alleyways and roads closed to traffic (or with limited traffic) where tourists congregate and stores and restaurants cater to them.  Music from street musicians wafts through the air, polite multilingual beggars beg and sell trinkets and tchochkes, there are dozens of beautiful cafes that extend out along the main street.  Most of the buildings double as both stores and high-end apartments.  Many of the buildings seem built to look deceptively small from the outside, upon entering you discover that they seem to go on and on and on (they extend far further back than in the states).  These are the most beautiful traditional European buildings I’ve ever seen in Europe except for perhaps in Prague and among the nicest to have survived the two World Wars.  (The only thing I’ve ever seen like it outside of Europe is Quebec City, which having been undisturbed during WW2 is much more traditional architecturally than most of Europe).  

(My photo 2010, part of “Old City Proper”)

In between “old city proper” and the more residential areas of the old city is downtown, filled with commercial districts and main avenues, it looks and feels like a nicer version of most American cities.  The center of downtown features a large square that borders city hall.  Bars and nightclubs comfortably share territory with banks, museums, hotels, bookstores, cafes and residential apartment buildings.  On the edge of “old city proper” and downtown is the section of the university where the Yiddish Institute is housed.  My classroom overlooks the presidential palace, where the president works (but does not live).  Unlike the White House in America or the Prime Minister’s Residence on Downing Street in England, you can actually walk right up to the presidential palace, touch it and take a picture (in the US you’d have 50 bullets in you before you got within two or three blocks of the Whitehouse today).  Walking to class across the steps of the presidential palace does not seem to raise the least bit of alarm.  The palace, as the name implies, is actually a palace and not a house like its American or British counterpart.  There is a guard unit but like the guards at Buckingham palace they seem to be there much more for the tourists’ cameras than for actual security.  A block away is another large white stone building which is the defense ministry. 

(My photo of the Cathedral, 2010). 

(My photo of the Cathedral up close 2008). 

Three blocks away, the boundary between “old city proper” and downtown is composed of the main cathedral and its adjoining square.  The cathedral is a centuries old architectural marvel that is one of the most famous in Europe because of its architecture.  The square, however, is more famous as the symbolic center of post independence Lithuania due to its role in the independence movement of the late 80s and early 90s and for it being often credited as the starting point of the international movement that brought down the Soviet Union.  In the late 80s, the first Lithuanian human chain started on a single cement square outside of the cathedral and traveled up the country for hundreds of miles.  After the event (and the enormous publicity it attracted), human chains were attempted throughout Eastern Europe.  About (or perhaps exactly) a year later a single human chain that stretched the entire length of the Baltics again brought world attention to the plight of the local populace under Soviet rule.  The small square yard sized chunk of stone where the last person in both lines stood is marked and is treated by both locals and tourists from throughout the world as holy ground, perhaps even more so than the famous Cathedral itself.  There is a local superstition that if one walks around the marked stone three times, whatever they wish will come true.  I did this and wished for world peace…. I’m not holding my breath. 


(Part of Vilnius University, photo I took in 2008). 

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