Ninth stop - Vilna, Lithuania, home to none of my relatives but a lovely city in which to rest for a few days
By the time we got to Vilna (now called Vilnius) we were pretty wiped out. The heat in Poland and Belarus was physically challenging, as was being in so many places over such a short period of time. It was emotionally draining to visit the many sites of mass extermination and to witness the toll people and nature had taken on Jewish burial grounds. Vilna was the perfect place to take a breather.
It was a huge relief not to be in the baking sun anymore. We learned that the Lithuanian word for Lithuania is Lietuva, which means land of rain. The weather was similar to what we are accustomed to in San Francisco with one exception, the presence of amazing cumulus clouds. There was a downpour every three to five hours that flooded the old town streets and caused people to huddle in doorways for the 15 minutes or so that it lasted.
We had no particular agenda for our time in Vilna (I promised Susan and Oscar we wouldn’t visit any cemeteries). We explored the city, finding all sorts of interesting things but three things were memorable. It wasn’t until we were about to leave a museum that we figured out that it wasn’t the archeology museum that Susan had wanted to visit (that was around the corner). But we did get to see “Without a Homeland,” an exhibit about the forcible relocation of 18,000 Lithuanian men, women and children to Siberia in June 1941. Many of the men were placed in prisons and work camps while the others and the women and children faced living in the harsh climate with little food and inadequate shelter. Deportations continued after the war culminating in May 1948 when 40,000 people, including 12,000 children were taken from their homes. In 1940-1941 and 1945-1952 approximately 275,000 people were deported from Lithuania to Siberia. More than two thirds of the deported survived the deportation and work camps. By 1960 about 80,000 of these people returned to Lithuania. I suppose I had read about this before but it had never sunk in the way it did after seeing the exhibit.
From many points in the old part of Vilna, where we spent all of our time, you can see a spectacular example of Brutalist architecture – a huge, concrete Viking boat-like structure, on the banks of the Neris River. It looks abandoned, covered with graffiti, boarded up. We walked across the bridge and approached it, grass poking through the plaza and stairs leading up to it, feeling small next to its grandeur. We approached one of the few unboarded plate glass windows and peeked in to see children eating their lunches inside. What a surprise: the building looked abandoned, yet it was in use. We went up to a door and tiptoed in to see a group of high school musicians tuning up their instruments. We walked further in, down unlighted hallways, following the sound of voices. As we turned the corner, we saw a gigantic, cavernous room, a mega-gymnasium with adults and children apparently getting ready for a show or contest of some kind. It turns out that this was the Palace of Concerts and Sports (Sporto Rūmai), built in 1971 primarily as a venue for volleyball and basketball, and “closed” in 2004. It turns out that Lithuania is a nation of basketball fans; who knew? Sadly, I inadvertently broke my promise to Susan and Oscar for the Palace was built on the site of Vilna’s largest Jewish cemetery which had been demolished by the Soviets in the 1950s.
With the almost complete extermination of Eastern European Jews came the virtual extinction of the Yiddish language. Starting in the 1980s there has been an attempt to resurrect the language through new university-based instruction programs, by such groups as the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts and by individuals like Ellen Cassedy. Vilna is one of the centers of this resurgence.
We were advised to attend a meeting of the Yiddish Literary Circle, a group that has met for the past 17 years. Not knowing what to expect, Oscar and I met there and took seats around a table with about four people in their 60s and 70s and one woman who appeared to be in her 20s. We were wondering what we had gotten ourselves into and fearing that it would be impossible to slip out unnoticed should it be unbearable when a large disheveled man with long, black stringy hair who was carrying all sorts of papers and books strode in and seated himself at the head of the table. This was our introduction to Dovid Katz, a larger than life man who has made it his life’s work to encourage the speaking and reading of Yiddish. It was a true pleasure to hear him speak and to admire the efforts of the participants to learn the language. He graciously gave me a wonderful map of the shetls in the area in which Lithuanian Yiddish was spoken.