First person: Encounters with a Litvak past – part 1

By Rhonda F. Levine

As long as I can remember, I have wanted to visit Lithuania, or what I understood as “the Pale of Jewish Settlement.” I remember my father telling stories of how his mother – the grandmother whom I was named after – barely escaped the Cossacks’ swords as she crossed the street as a young girl during what I took to be the beginning of a pogrom. And he would tell stories about how arguments between the Litvaks and those who he called the Rushishes (I think Lithuanian Yiddish for Russians, and applied to anyone that was not a Litvak, but part of the Russian Empire) would erupt in the shul of his youth in Roxbury, MA: arguments over pronunciations, or over which way to wrap tefillin. 

I knew, at a young age, we were not merely Jewish, but Litvaks. As I got older, I learned I was a Litvak on both my paternal and maternal side. Both sides were from Lithuania; my paternal grandparents emigrated from Vilna Gubernia, what is today Vilnius and surrounding county, and my maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Yanova, Kovno Gubernia, which is today Jonava, in Kaunas County. Unfortunately, no one who may know more about my family’s villages of origin is alive, and the little research I was able to do did not reveal any more specifics. Nevertheless, I wanted to travel to Lithuania and just be in the vicinity, if nothing else, of my ancestors. 

I began researching possible tours a few years before COVID and, in 2019, I came across a Jewish Heritage Tour organized by Momentum Tours and Travel that looked perfect. The tour’s itinerary included several cities in Lithuania, then Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia. I did not know anything about the travel agency and could not find any reviews to speak of, so I gave them a call and spoke with Jan Olofsen, who I have since learned is an owner of the company. He told me that Momentum organizes the trips for YIVO Institute and that was good enough for me to consider booking, even without finding any reviews online. Although of Swiss and German background, my husband, Arieh Ullmann, agreed to explore with me, up close, aspects of an Eastern European Jewish past. We originally hoped to travel in the summer of 2020, but that was canceled because of COVID, and between COVID restrictions and the war in Ukraine, it was not until July 2023 that a tour was once again offered. 

I was finally going to see the places where the Levines and Salomons lived before making their way to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I did not have many, if any, expectations of what I would encounter; all my relatives that could have told me something of what to expect, or even stories from those who had emigrated from “the Pale,” had long been deceased. However, what I did encounter was not fully expected. Let me see if I can explain. 

We arrived in Vilnius a day before the beginning of the tour. We anticipated needing a little time to recover from a long fight before beginning what we knew would be long days with little down time. Our hotel was in the medieval Jewish quarter of Vilna and was in a building that was originally a Jewish-owned glass-making factory. What was originally the Jewish quarter is today part of Vilnius’ Old Town, and is primarily filled with restaurants and shops. 

Without a guide pointing out various plaques indicating where buildings and places of Jewish interest used to be, it would be hard to imagine why Napoleon in 1812 called Vilnius “the Jerusalem of the North.” The dozens of synagogues, including the Great Vilna Synagogue, Jewish schools, the places where important Jewish scholars lived and prayed, including the prayer house of the Gaon of Vilna, the great talmudic scholar, the original home of the YIVO Institute that at one time was the largest center for the study of Yiddish and Jewish culture, publishing houses like the Romm printing house where the Babylonian Talmud was printed along with Jewish literature both in Hebrew and Yiddish, and even Jewish socialist newspapers, no longer exist. Most were destroyed by Nazis during World War II and some after, during the Soviet period. It seemed, to Arieh and me, much of “Jewish Vilna” has been reconstructed after 1991, when Lithuania was no longer a Soviet republic. 

We learned a great deal of Vilnius’ history from our guide as we walked along Zydu g, known as Jewish Street, which was a few steps from our hotel, and walked through what was known as the “little ghetto” (which refers to the neighborhood in the pre-Nazi period), learning how some of the houses were most likely at one time Jewish homes because the door to the house was in the back and opened to the courtyard, leaving the front part of the house to be occupied by shops. We also walked by the site of the Vilna Gaon’s prayer house and the Great Synagogue, and learned because there was a law that buildings could only be so high, the Great Synagogue’s first floor was built below ground so that the height would not be a problem. Although it was destroyed during World War II, there have been excavations and some remnants of the synagogue have been found, and a project of restoration is underway. 
There is only one working synagogue left in Vilnius that we were able to visit. We walked along Jewish Street, with its cobblestones from the “little ghetto” to the “big ghetto,” walking along the street where the butchers were, or the bakeries were housed. We learned about the gates that surrounded what was once a lower-income neighborhood with the understanding that this was a “ghetto” that offered little freedom of movement, high rates of poverty, disease and misery. Jews who lived outside of this area were brought into it in 1941 when the Nazi occupation meant that, within a few months, 40,000 Jews were concentrated and 90 percent of them massacred in the nearby Ponar Forest. 

Visiting the Ponar Forest was extremely moving. And to realize that so many people were shot and then burned so not to leave any evidence, we had to agree with our guide that the Holocaust began in Lithuania, and predated “the final solution” and its concentration camps. The Vilnius Jewish Museum and Art Gallery offered a detailed history of Vilnius and, along with the much smaller Holocaust Museum, gave an eye-opening account of the Nazi period and the willingness of many Lithuanians to collaborate with the Nazis. Our guide was very forthright about the collaboration. She was not Jewish, but her family, specifically her grandmother, was able to save 30 Jewish children. Her grandmother was honored by Israel as being a Righteous Among the Nations. 

Part two of this column will appear in the next issue of The Reporter. 
Rhonda F. Levine is a professor of sociology, emerita, at Colgate University.