VILNIUS: 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.
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 September 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 Agence France-Presse 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 three 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.
Educating about ‘this shameful stain’
Vilnius was once home to prominent Jewish intellectuals and artists, and Yiddish, the shared language of eastern European Jews, was widely spoken.
The late famous residents included Moyshe Kulbak, writer of Soviet satires; poet Avrom Sutzkever, who testified at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals; violinist Jasha Heifetz and historian Simon Dubnov, who wrote a comprehensive account of the Jewish people.
Lithuanian author Milda Jakulyte-Vasil runs the “Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania,” a bilingual site with an interactive map of where Jews died.
“The website was first thought of as a complement, a way to promote the book, but ultimately it became the main medium,” said Jakulyte-Vasil, who works at The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum.
“The advantage is that the information becomes accessible to everyone, and for free.”
The site www.holocaustatlas.lt, whose exact geographic coordinates help those looking for traces of their vanished kin, was co-funded by the Austrian embassy in Vilnius and the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi atrocity, Jakulyte-Vasil also set up the site www.holocaustnames.lt, which compiles the names of all Lithuanian Jews who died in the Holocaust, as well as those who survived.
Funded by the office of Lithuania’s prime minister, the site will eventually allow visitors to complete the database by adding biographical information and additional names.
The Lithuanian Special Archives, which stores documents from 1940 to 1991, has also joined the trend. Since late August, their website features a virtual exhibition devoted to the Vilnius ghetto.
“It’s mostly a way for us to better disseminate the archives,” co-curator Nijole Maslauskiene told Agence France-Presse.
Last month, Israeli President Shimon Peres—who was born near Vilnius—paid a visit to a memorial on the outskirts of the city in tribute to the slain Lithuanian Jews.
Peres praised Lithuanian efforts to remember and “educate its youth about this shameful stain, so as (to) never allow it to happen again.”