First person: Encounters with a Litvak past – part 2

By Rhonda F. Levine

The first part of this article appeared in the September 22 issue of The Reporter. It can also be found here.

After two days in Vilnius, we headed to Kaunas (Kovno), which at one time was the capital of Lithuania and a cultural center. Like Vilnius, not much is left of the Jewish past. Prior to World War II, 37,000 Jews lived in Kaunas, with 40 synagogues and prayer houses and a great number of Jewish schools. We were able to visit the one remaining synagogue, the Kaunus Choral Synagogue, that houses a museum of artifacts in the balcony. It is only in the last several decades that there has been an attempt to recapture the Jewish, more specifically, the Litvak, past. Of the 37,000 Jews that lived in Kaunas before World War II, only about 3,000 survived. We visited the site of the Kaunas Ghetto, a small area where poorer Jews had lived before more well-to-do Jews were forced to relocate under Nazi rule. 

The ghetto was one of the longest running ghettoes in Lithuania and one of the most photographed in Europe. The ghetto was turned into a concentration camp in 1943 and burned in the summer of 1944. We saw the monument commemorating the pogrom that took place there in 1941, during which 3,000 people were killed. Another 10,000 were taken to the Ninth Fort, which was originally a defensive fort, then turned into a city prison, then, in 1940, during the first Soviet period, was a political prison and then, in 1941 under Nazi occupation, became a site for mass murder alongside a prison. It is estimated that 30,000 Jews were murdered at the Ninth Fort. 

We visited the Ninth Fort, walked through the prison and also walked by the open areas where the mass murders took place in 1941. We learned that two years after the mass murders and burials, the Nazis organized a prisoner unit that had to dig up the graves and burn the remains in order to leave no evidence of the atrocities. Mass murders at the Ninth Fort continued through 1944. Having learned about the Ninth Fort and the Kovno Ghetto, I could not help but be even more thankful that my grandmother’s parents decided to leave Janova some 40 years earlier. Yet, I wondered how many Salomons who remained in Janova more likely than not perished under the aforementioned horrendous conditions. 

From Kaunas, we traveled to Klaipeda, once known as Memel, the only seaport in Lithuania, and a vacation spot of Lithuanian Jews. We visited the small Jewish Community Center near the Jewish Cemetery that was by and large destroyed during the Nazi period. Fragments of headstones were embedded in a wall that serves as a memorial. We, then, visited the Siauliai region of Lithuania where prior to World War II nearly 40 percent of the population of cities and towns in the region were Jewish. 

In Siauliaiu City, we visited the Chaim Frenkel Villa and learned that Frenkel was a Jewish businessman who owned one of the largest leather and footwear factories in the Russian Empire. In addition to being one of the largest employers in the city by early 20th century, Frenkel had built for the Jewish community a Talmud Torah school, a nursing home, a hospital and a synagogue. In the town of Pakruojis, where 70 percent of the town’s population was Jewish by the beginning of the 19th century, we visited the oldest (built in 1801) wooden synagogue in Lithuania. Prior to the murder of the entire Jewish community in 1941, in addition to the large wooden synagogue, Pakruojis also housed a small synagogue, a cheder and a shtiebel, none of which exist today. 

After World War II, when no Jewish community of Pakruojis was left, the purpose of the large wooden synagogue had changed, housing a theater at one time, later a gym and warehouse of the local education department. It was not until 2017 that the Pakruojis Synagogue received a number of grants and was renovated. And what a site to see! 

From Pakruojis, we traveled to Joniskis where we viewed a former complex of synagogues, a White Synagogue, referred to as the summer synagogue and, next to it, the brick-built Red Synagogue, the winter synagogue. Both buildings are part of the Joniskis History and Culture Museum. Our time in Lithuania and the Pale came to end as we were on our way to first Riga in Latvia and then, a few days later, to Tallinn in Estonia, both beautiful cities with their own interesting Jewish histories.

Our encounter with a Litvak past left me both stimulated and sad, yet inspired. I was stimulated by everything I had learned and I now want to learn more and see more, much more. I was sad to learn how much of a Litvak past was destroyed first by Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators, and then overlooked during the Soviet period. I am not sure if the many monuments, plaques, memorials and restorations we saw are aspects of Lithuanians coming to terms with their past, or merely ways to increase tourism. Still, I am inspired by the work done now throughout Lithuania to recapture parts of the Litvak past that had been lost for decades.

Rhonda F. Levine is a professor of sociology, emerita, at Colgate University.