I meet Ruta, my tour guide, in the lobby of my hotel in Vilnius. She is in her early 40’s by my guess, still young, a commanding presence, tall like many of the Lithuanian women. She is wearing a green velvet jacket with a snazzy handkerchief in its chest pocket and she sports black leather pants. She is native of Lithuania, not Jewish, but she studies Jewish history. Ruta tells me what made her interested in that history was death. Some people, she says, want to contemplate the life of Jews in Lithuania—the details, how they lived, how they prayed, and the like. She feels that such work is ameliorative and what has been forgotten is the brutal murders. She went into this business to find the names of the criminals, the names of the murdered, to tell the stories of the survivors before they die. A commonplace of Jewish tourism is that we are always speaking of death immediately upon meeting.
As she speaks, we walk down the grand Gedimino Street that leads to the massive cathedral, a dominating building with neoclassical lines.The building is a physical statement about this city and this culture—Catholic to the core. From the large, open space surrounding the cathedral, we walk to the Jewish quarter.
Suddenly the streets are narrow, cramped, winding. As we enter, Ruta tells me that this became, under German occupation, the smaller of two ghettos, and that the entrance to the street had been bricked up to create a prison out of a neighborhood. This only gate was patrolled by Lithuanian police on the outside and Jewish police on the inside. “Jewish police” sounds like a contradiction in terms.
How to contemplate the life of Jews in Vilnius? The Jewish quarter now is a trendy and expensive neighborhood. It has gone from being abject to being cute. There are no grocery stores, hardware stores, fishmongers, or vegetable vendors—the vendors of the necessities of life. Now there are only restaurants, cafes by the dozens, chocolatiers, candle stores. The main synagogue, which was built in the 18th century and which formed the center of life here, is gone. The Germans bombed it, and the Russians dismantled what remained. In its place, a bare playground with a single basketball hoop remains.
A one-story building, like a wafer lying on its side, occupies the site of the synagogue complex. Recently some archeologists discovered what they believe was the mikvah (ritual bath) of the synagogue in the grassy space in front of the building. But to the untrained eye, this is just a graveled playground with a dull building. Only signage indicates the lost past. Jewish tourism is an act of contemplating architecture and space. I imagine the synagogue rising on this gravel. I “see” the people bathing in the mikvah. I “hear” the voices of the crowd, “smell” the foods.
Why am I doing this here when I could do it at home? I could look at a basketball court in the Bronx and imagine the Jews of Vilna. We do believe, rightly or wrongly, that the land, even the earth below the concrete, holds some special power of memory. Even though the Jewish quarter is now a tourist spot, the configuration of the streets, the inner courtyards of buildings, still in disrepair, the empty lots filled with rubble, old chipped and scratched wooden doors, seem to bring one closer to the lived experience of the people who were completely wiped out of existence in these spaces.
Ruta tells me that most of the things people say about what happened are difficult to document. Stories fill the void. She’s an academic and so is skeptical. Napoleon never said that Vilna was the Jerusalem of Europe. Napoleon never said the synagogue was the most beautiful thing he’d seen. There is no documentation about the Gaon of Vilna, so anything you hear about him is speculation. We don’t even know what he looked like. The only painting we have would have been forbidden according to Jewish law. To explain how that painting is authentic, a tale was made up of a Christian painter drawing him surreptitiously by spying through a keyhole.
As a younger Lithuanian, Ruta didn’t have any first-hand knowledge of the killings or the ghetto. But she interviewed a lot of survivors, and she talked to her own family. She has her own stories to tell about what people thought of Jews. When we go into a museum, we see one poster depicting the wily and evil Jew in cartoonish drawing slyly winking at the observer under his cap and over his scraggly beard. He looks like a devil. The Nazis published it and distributed it widely in Lithuanian. It lists about 30 terrible things done, asking who did them? And after each one it says “The Jew!” I ask Ruta if people believed these things, and she said that they still do. Her metaphor was that it was like a spoiled jar of food that is sealed and all you have to do is open it and the bad smell comes out. People now know you don’t say such things in public, but in private they might. The Lithuanian government has taken some steps to preserve sites of Jewish heritage, those few left, and there is a law that all the killing sites have to be preserved and maintained. But the law has been more honored in the breach than in the observance. Ruta says sadly “You can’t legislate regret.”
The Lithuanians maintain a silence. I was told many times on this trip that the older generation, especially, has learned that it is better not to talk too much. Under the German and Soviet occupations, the less said the better. The Lithuanians as a group appear, thus, rather taciturn. I attended a jazz concert, an opera, and an operetta during my trip, and what struck me was how quiet the audiences were. In the opera, no wild rapturous applause after the arias in Carmen. Clapping was reserved for the end of the performance, with only a smattering of polite claps for occasional high points. The operetta, Madame Pompadour, performed in a beautiful jewel-box theater in Kaunas, was obviously a farce and meant to be funny. The audience remained stone-faced during the first act despite the frenetic singing, dancing, and high-jinx of the performers. The audience only laughed once when a male actor came out dressed as a female. It’s not a good idea to make vast generalizations about a culture, but I did wonder whether the “don’t talk too much” extended to public life in this way.
What strikes the casual tourist about the two major cities, Vilnius and Kaunas, is how monocultural society is now. In a week between the two towns, I saw six people of color—four people from the Middle East and two from Africa. They clearly stood out against the Lithuanians who seem to be comprised of tall, beautiful blonde women who looked like supermodels and their tall, handsome male counterparts. To be sure there were their less attractive counterparts, tending toward the peasant in physical composition. It is hard to remember that both Vilnius and Kaunas were almost half Jewish. The ethnic cleansing done in the early 1940’s must have both depopulated the region (there are only about 2.5 million Lithuanians in the entire country) and created this homogeneity. Even now, very few immigrants come to Lithuania. Last year 165 applied for admission. As a Jewish tourist, and a short one at that, I am aware of my difference. A dialectic of desire and disgust must have played out between the Jews and the Lithuanian Catholics. I ask Ruta and everyone else about love stories. There must have been forbidden Romeo-and-Juliette scenarios. No one allows that might have been the case. I ask about rapes. Surely there must have been rapes. Very few are documented. No one knows about that. With all the documentation about the killings, there is silence on rape. Was the Jew so despised and denigrated that it was an embarrassment to brag about, an impossibility to complain of, or an act so forbidden by internalized xenophobia that it simply couldn’t happen?
Ruta wants to know if I want to see the only functioning synagogue left out of the 100 that had been there. This one was built in the 19th century and like all such architecture there had to be a decision made about style. Many Jews of the period, like those in Florence, chose Moorish architecture since it evoked Jerusalem. The members of the synagogue didn’t seem to mind the association with Islam, but rather admired their Semitic counterparts for their accomplished architecture and city building. Jews, on the run or living amongst another dominant nation, had never developed an architectural style. This synagogue in Vilnius opted to imitate the Catholic churches with their columns and classical style. We walked in and that familiar gloom and disrepair that I associated with the synagogues of my youth struck me dully. I had to use the loo, and it stank. Clearly it hadn’t been cleaned in a while. The interior of the synagogue was lugubrious but more presentable. In it were not Vilnian Jews, but American ones. They were on a tour being led by Simonas Davidovitch, from Kaunas, who makes his living by hosting Jewish tourism. One got the sense that the local Jewish population, such as it is, barely scrapes by and probably sparsely attends services.
I learned that most synagogues, including the “great” one, now a playground, had to be built low so that they would not upstage the taller churches. In fact the “great” one was dug deep into the ground so the height it presented indoors would not translate to the outdoors. If Vilna had 100 synagogues, most likely they were small, wooden affairs of one story. Different guilds had their own synagogues, so that the butchers might have theirs and the carpenters theirs. An exhibit in the gallery of the synagogue showed such ramshackle synagogues whose bare wood exteriors made the buildings look like small barns or garages.
I instantly felt depressed in the synagogue. I grew up as an orthodox Jew in the Bronx, and I have very few happy memories of going to schul, as we called it. Rather a powerful sadness accompanied by the low, droning murmurs of the congregants, broken occasionally by the tunes in minor chords. Very occasionally a rousing hymn lifted my spirits, but there was too much of the drone and murmur to hold a child’s attention. Nevertheless, I was bar mitzvahed, and then spent an extra year in Hebrew afterschool. I even put on tefillin (phylacteries) at home to pray. After that year, at 15, I stopped praying at home and attending services.
Being Jewish. What is it? I stopped being religious when I went to Columbia University in New York. We were required to read for our first year most of the “great books” of Western literature, philosophy, and politics. It was the first time I was exposed to the writings of Christian thinkers like Aquinas and St. Augustine, and then it dawned on me that it was impossible that the Jews were the chosen people, as I had been told. What about these others? I had stopped believing to some degree, although I had remained kosher. It took till the end of my first year that I became unkosher with the help of a chicken salad sandwich at Chock Full O’ Nuts across Broadway from the campus. Its blandness belied the unkosher taboo attached to it.
So although not religious, and even antireligious, I remain Jewish. It is a heritage, a way of thinking, and a label people will attach you even if you don’t claim it. I have a distinct sense of being Jewish, which for me involves history, culture, questioning, arguing, and of course a strong sense of humor. But I know that none of that would have mattered to the Lithuanians and Germans. From their point of view, you couldn’t undo being Jewish. It was a mark, a sign, that though invisible was thought to be visible.
Again, the thought process of the Jewish tourist who walks through the ghetto devoid of Jews: Wouldn’t I have been smart enough to escape? Or to hide? In the same museum where I saw the poster of the wily Jew (hardly a museum, no more than a store front with a sad, small collection of books for sale and an information counter) Ruta asks permission to take me to the basement. A small door is opened; we bend our heads, and go slowly down the uneven stairs. You can smell that dank, earthy, stony smell of underground. We move in the dark and come to a tiny, even danker and colder room. The museum has made the room into a hideaway for a Jew. Perhaps it had been; perhaps not. But there was a crumpled blanket on the floor made up to be a bed and a few items scattered around. Plunged into total darkness, in bone-cracking cold and damp. I had a feeling of revulsion. I couldn’t stay there for five minutes let alone days on end, perhaps only coming up at night to scurry around. I understood for the first time that I would prefer death to that. But then immediately I had a second thought that perhaps I could get used to it. I could get used to anything to live. And then instantly I knew that was completely untrue.