Soon after we arrived in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, we were struck by something puzzling. Aside from a memorial at the mass grave of Ponary outside of Vilnius and a monument in Kaunas that marks the Jewish uprising there, a lot about the Holocaust is missing amid the public discourse, memorials and monuments.

We visited the Jewish information and cultural centre. Despite the name of the place, it’s really nothing more than a one-room office with tourist brochures, and a small amount of information about Jewish Vilnius. The person who spoke to us about Jewish history in the city is not Jewish. We signed up for a walking tour of Jewish Vilnius. The young woman who led it, though very sincere, was not Jewish and seemed a bit uninformed about Jewish history. To be honest, we were a little stunned.

A centre of Jewish civilization

The Jewish community here was once the centre of Jewish civilization in Europe. Jews had lived in Lithuania since the 8th century, but from the 14th century thousands of Jews from other parts of Europe settled here upon the invitation of the Lithuanian king, Gediminas.

Statue of Lithuania’s first and greatest king, Gediminas.

By the 19th century, Lithuania was the most significant centre of Jewish intellectual and cultural life in Europe. Among Vilnius’s more than 110 synagogues was the one of Europe’s oldest and largest, the Great Synagogue. There were also ten religious schools or yeshivas in the city.

One of the few remaining photos of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius.

 

A Soviet school built on the ruins of the Great Synagogue.

 

The archaeological excavations to find the remains of the Great Synagogue.

Lithuania was also home to perhaps the most influential Jewish figure in the modern era. Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Solomon lived in Vilnius in the 18th century. He is more commonly called the Gaon of Vilna, or simply The Genius. Vilnius was called by Jews “Jerusalem of the North,” a tribute to Lithuania’s influential position within worldwide Judaism.

Statue of the Vilna Gaon, Genius of Vilnius.

The destruction of Jewish Lithuania

In 1939, the Jewish population of Lithuania was estimated to be as high as 220,000. The community was an important part of Lithuania’s wider economic, artistic, cultural and intellectual development for almost 600 years. In just three years, 95 per cent of Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered. The accumulated achievement of centuries of Jewish civilization in Lithuania was wiped out. It was the most complete destruction of Jewish life anywhere in Europe, facilitated by the widespread collaboration of non-Jewish Lithuanians with the Nazis.

Still, many Lithuanians exhibited enormous moral courage. They defended the lives of Jews, at great risk to themselves. Israel has awarded 893 non-Jewish Lithuanian citizens with the honour of Righteous Among the Nations for risking their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Yet, there remained very high levels of support among Lithuanians for the Nazis, even after invasion.

Today there are fewer than 7,000 Jews living in Lithuania. Not much is left of a once-vibrant civilization.

The spectacularly beautiful Chorale Synagogue, the last remaining one in Vilnius.

 

The location of the school in the Jewish Ghetto of Vilnius.

 

The remains of Jewish shops in the Ghetto. Property was confiscated,
but the painted Yiddish store fronts can still be seen.

 

The remains of Jewish shops in the Ghetto. Property was confiscated,
but the painted Yiddish store fronts can still be seen.

 

Once the heart of the Jewish quarter in Vilnius, the street is now home to trendy cafes and restaurants.

 

The Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. The gravestones were once used to pave the steps of Soviet-era buildings. Almost no one was left to protest such callous disrespect. The gravestones have recently been removed from building sites where they were being used as stairs. They now await a decision about what to do with them and they lie in piles on the lawn in front of that abandoned Soviet sports complex.

 

Jewish gravestones lay in piles on the site of the former Jewish cemetery.

 

Jewish gravestones lay in piles on the site of the former Jewish cemetery.

 

The small monument that marks the site of the Old Jewish cemetery.

 

 

 

 

A monument constructed from the gravestones marks the site of the former Uzupis Jewish cemetery.

 

The grounds of Uzupis contain the graves of thousands of Jewish people, most now lie unmarked.

 

 

Lithuania’s trouble with history

We had planned to visit the Genocide and Resistance Centre’s museum to learn more about the Holocaust here. Then we discovered that this ‘genocide’ museum isn’t about the Holocaust at all.

But if the genocide centre in Vilnius is not about Jews, what genocide do they mean?

The Baltic states are only former Soviet states that formally describe the Soviet period of their history as an act of genocide. Early on in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania embarked on a concerted effort to recover and assert its own historical and cultural independence. Any association or collaboration with the Soviet years is viewed as traitorous. The political repression and terror of the Soviet period is now viewed as having been a campaign of genocide against the Lithuanian people. Since the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, Lithuanian Nazi-collaborators have been celebrated as anti-communist heroes. Those who fought against the Nazis are viewed as traitors. This is a big problem.

Any resistance to the Soviets is viewed in this light as heroic. This is how people who collaborated with the Nazis have been bestowed national honours and hailed as freedom fighters, while others who fought the Nazis have been accused by Lithuanian authorities of war crimes, among them a Jew now living in Israel. This means there is lingering resistance to facing history about Lithuanian war crimes against Jews and others under the Nazis. To acknowledge that Nazi sympathizers were acting out atrocities is to question the heroism of many prominent Lithuanians and to call into question the national identity.

 

History here is strangely tortured. The pain of looking in the mirror is too much for many Lithuanians. Although things are changing now and the ice has begun to break. In 2016, a ground-breaking book was published that kickstarted an honest if painful public conversation about the Holocaust and the complex relationship Lithuanians have with their past, whether their ancestors were Nazi collaborators or Soviet partisans, victims or perpetrators. The book’s author is a non-Jewish, non-Russian ethnic Lithuanian. Her own family history is wracked by conflicting emotions that surfaced when she discovered records of her grandfather’s role in aiding the murder of Lithuanian Jews. He was a beloved figure in her family. And he was a considered a war hero for resisting Soviet aggression. But he was also complicit in the racial murder of innocent people.

Confronting lies and difficult truths

Honest conversations like this are long overdue, especially now. Recently, a 93-year old survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust wrote a long piece for the Guardian that serves as a profound warning to all of us amid populism and resurgent nationalism.

Stansilaw Aronson lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He fought with the Polish underground and the Polish Home Army. He participated in the Warsaw Uprising. He has watched the world in recent years and worries we are on the verge of repeating one of humanity’s darkest periods. He urges future generations in Europe to remember his generation as they really were, not as they wish them to have been:

“[M]any people did extraordinary things, but in most cases only because they were forced to by extreme circumstances, and even then, true heroes were very few and far between: I do not count myself among them.

“The same applies to those who failed in their moral obligations during that time. Of course, there were many who committed unspeakable, unforgivable crimes. But it is nonetheless important to understand that we were a generation living in fear, and fear makes people do terrible things. Unless you have felt it, you cannot truly understand it.”

A Torah lies on the balcony in the Chorale Synagogue.

 

Until recently, Jewish gravestones were used as the steps leading up to Tauro Hill in Vilnius.

 

The steps of Tauro Hill.

 

Aronson says the current obsession among many nations for glossing over or re-writing their history carries huge risks for all of us. He makes the case for remembering that nothing is ever black and white.

Although “the Third Reich destroyed my world, it was a German woman who saved my life by introducing me to the men who would recruit me into the Polish underground,” he says. “No nation has a monopoly on virtue – something that many people, including many of my fellow Israeli citizens, still struggle to understand.”

As we simplify the idea of good and evil we can too easily slip into dangerous mindsets that see our own selves as completely incapable of blame and others as equally incapable of good. Fear makes people do terrible things. Fear of the past can justify it. And that will end terribly. Aronson argues that facing truth is paramount. That lies will lead us to hell. “Confronting lies sometimes means confronting difficult truths about one’s self and one’s own country,” he says. “It is much easier to forgive yourself and condemn another, than the other way round; but this is something that everyone must do.”

One of three stolperstein plaques in Vilnius that mark the former homes of Jewish Holocaust victims.

 

We know this isn’t an easy post to read. It wasn’t easy to write. We have really liked Lithuania and all of the people we have met here. But it would have felt irresponsible to ignore the country’s history, especially after we had noticed the conspicuous absence of a public discourse regarding the destruction of its Jewish population. This is a country still struggling with denial of its history.

Learning to be a skillful human being

In the end, the only thing that has ever saved human beings from slipping into darkness is the ability to see ourselves in the faces of strangers; to recognize in the suffering of others, our own suffering.

We are all living in strangely disconcerting times. Most of us feel an acute loss of control over the course of history, a rising insecurity and anxiety about the future. We see this among the people who come to learn meditation, and it is the same everywhere we serve on a 10-day course, whether it’s in Canada, the Middle East or Europe. People are feeling fearful and that fear comes into view very clearly when people sit alone with themselves for an extended period, free from addictive modern distractions.

But it’s precisely the fact that so many people, all over the world, appear to want to learn to face anxieties rather than project them onto others that gives us hope. After all, what the vast majority of people are doing when they choose to attend something like a 10-day silent meditation retreat is making a very deliberate choice to do something wholesome, something good. A very few come looking for some kind of exotic sensual entertainment. They usually don’t stay. But most people know what they are getting into long before they show up. They want to be a better human being, peaceful, decent and compassionate. And they’re looking for training in how to do it.

The meditation hall.

 

A volunteer prepares meals for the retreat participants.

 

A view of the 10-day retreat camp site

 

One of the cabins we used for meals at the retreat.

 

These meditation retreats are not easy. Especially in a world that more and more actively encourages constant distraction and deliberately triggers extreme and unhealthy emotions as a bona fide business model. Watching people become stressed as they are asked to part with their smartphone for ten days is almost heartbreaking. When you watch people struggle to concentrate and to sit quietly for an extended period, you realize that modern society has a big problem.

A meditator heads home after completing the 10-day course.

 

A very happy volunteer at the end of the 10-day Vipassana course.

 

A stunning sunrise on the last day of the retreat.

 

On the other hand, it is inspiring to watch 120 people all undergoing a mostly unpleasant experience in the name of developing peace and control over negative impulses. Unpleasant truths about ourselves can become quite clear as they escape the usual edits we make when presenting ourselves to others. Facing the truth is hard but we all have to learn how to do it. Making skilful choices is an art that takes some practice. We always feel inspired by the people we meet who come to learn how to do this.

We’re now in Tallinn, Estonia. This is a beautiful country, and an absurdly picturesque medieval city. The heat of summer has finally passed into the perfect, mild coolness of autumn.

We’re here for a short break before flying to Ukraine to conduct our last two 10-day courses for this year.  We will post an update about Estonia very soon. We promise that one will be a lighter piece.

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