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Vilne, Whispering

Rachael Kafrissen
September 1, 2008

by Rokhl Kafrissen
At the end of July, I flew to Lithuania for a month-long Yiddish program at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Right before leaving New York, I learned that prosecutors in Vilnius were investigating elderly Jews, former anti-Nazi partisans, for war crimes against Lithuanian civilians. The news seemed a joke that no one would dare make.
Except this was no joke. A Vilnius prosecutor has been seeking to interview Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, the 86-year-old librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and former partisan fighter from the Vilne Ghetto, with respect to the Koniuchy (Kaniukai) massacre of January 29th, 1944, a raid carried out by Jewish and Soviet partisans that killed at least two score civilians. According to reports in the U.S., two other elderly partisans are also being investigated: Yitzhak Arad, former chair of Yad Vashem and a member of a commission appointed by the Lithuanian president in 2005 to examine past war crimes; and Rachel Margolis, who wrote a memoir about her experiences in the resistance.
Lithuanian Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas had actually been at YIVO in New York for the opening ceremony for the Yiddish Summer Program, just a few days before my departure. I had assumed he was there for the free food, as I had been. Turns out his visit was also meant to answer the fears of American Jewish leaders regarding the continuing investigation of Vilne’s partisans. Clearly, the prime minister is walking a tightrope among constituencies. On the one hand, local Lithuanian politicians have their own agenda, tied to the increasingly nationalistic, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic project of Lithuanian nation-building and myth creation. On the other hand, Vilne, the onetime “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” is a spiritual and intellectual home in the hearts of many, many Jews worldwide, this Jew included, and the story of the brave partisans of Vilne is as much a part of Holocaust education today as the mass murders at Ponar (outside Vilnius). In short, there’s no way that Jews, worldwide, would not take this investigation personally.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for one, stated that the investigation of Jewish partisans was “part of an attempt to establish a ‘false symmetry’ between atrocities committed against Jews and atrocities allegedly committed by them.” Indeed, if one gave a look at the Lithuanian language press this summer, much of the commentary on articles about the investigation express just such a sentiment of ‘parallel victimology.’ It’s easy to find comments such as “Crime has no ethnicity” (from and “When is justice going to be the same for all?” ( Throughout June and July, many articles in the Lithuanian press referred to those resisting the investigation as “radicals” who are making wild accusations against Lithuania.

Rokhl at the Jewish Community Center in VilniusWhat are the facts? Ninety five percent of Lithuanian Jews, some 225,000, were murdered, either by Germans alone or with Lithuanian help (and on some occasions by Lithuanians alone). Seventy thousand of these were murdered in the forest pits of Ponar, near Vilnius. As heroic as the Jewish partisans were, the reality of armed Jewish resistance (and, more importantly, aggression) was ludicrously minute compared with the overwhelming force directed against them. By any measure, Jews were overwhelmingly victims. To look at these facts and cry for “equal treatment” points to something deeply askew in a country’s self-conception.

There is no question that the Lithuanian people suffered under both the Germans and the Soviets. To understand the depth of Lithuanian suffering, you need only go to the state-funded Museum of Genocide, housed in what was the KGB office in downtown Vilnius. There you can fully understand the deportations, killings and brutalization the Lithuanians suffered under Soviet rule, as well as the heroic resistance they showed. In the Museum of Genocide, however, there is not one panel about mass murder of Jews, and no mention of Ponar. The word ‘Jew’ is found twice in the whole museum, and the Jewish death toll is subsumed within a table of killings of Lithuanian citizens by Nazis. The exhibits on partisans make no mention of Jewish partisans.
The museum is a modern, beautifully designed, multi-media space. By contrast, the Vilnius ‘Holocaust Museum’ is in a tucked-away corner of the city, marked only by a tiny sign, way above eye level. Known as the Green House, it is also state-funded, but there is no comparison to be made with the beautifully maintained Museum of Genocide. The Green House is only six rooms and lacks complete signage in English. Those rooms are crammed with hundreds of years of Jewish history and hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.
The Museum of Genocide is both a monument to Lithuanian suffering and a reminder of the brutality of the Soviet KGB apparatus. The chilling recreation of KGB interrogation cells in the basement is a living reminder of the awfulness of the Soviet regime. But while anti-Soviet feeling may be an official ingredient in modern Lithuanian nationalism, the rawest nerve in Lithuania today, and on the streets of Vilnius, seems to be its citizens’ unresolved relationships with Poles and Jews. The ‘investigation’ of Fania Brantsovsky and others is just one part of this. Before the war, Vilnius was a majority Polish-speaking city, with a large portion of its inhabitants also speaking Yiddish. The transformation of Vilnius into a ‘Lithuanian’ city, and the creation of modern Lithuania, in toto, are works-in-progress, obviously and painfully so.
Vilnius is scheduled by the European Union to be next year’s Capital of European Culture (Liverpool is the 2008 capital), and residents are understandably proud. But that pride seems to coexist with shockingly casual expressions of xenophobia. A couple of my friends on the program at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute are non-Jewish Poles, from whom I heard the following anecdote: They had gone to a pub on Friday night. A young man started to chat up one of them, asking in English where she was from. Poland, she answered. Ah, yes, Poles, he said. Even worse than the Jew.
Hardly the best pick-up line.
A recent poll of Lithuanian citizens found that the majority agreed that they would prefer not to have Polish or Russian neighbors — meaning not neighbors across the border of countries, but neighbors on the same street.
The modern visitor to Vilnius would be surprised to know that the city, not too long ago, was one of the real capitals of the Jewish world. Bookstores in the main tourist areas don’t carry guidebooks to Jewish Vilnius. English signs for major Jewish sites are few and far between, especially compared to the plentiful signage for the many beautiful churches and cathedrals. As for the traditional Jewish ghetto, as well as the wartime ghettos, the situation is even worse. Private homeowners have mostly removed all signs indicating that their street was once a Jewish street. The Jewish community of Vilne does not own any part of the wartime ghetto and its preservation (or destruction) is left to a government which does not view preservation of Jewish history as its problem, to put it mildly.
Vilne speaks only in a whisper.
The Jewish library on Strashun Street, for example, is one of many Vilne ghetto landmarks that are unprotected. The building had already been in use for many years as a library, Mefitse Haskole, when the wartime ghetto was established around it. The library, where ghetto residents patiently waited for their turn to read its books and perhaps regain a bit of dignity in their everyday lives, became the nexus of spiritual and armed resistance. It was where Dr. Herman Kruk, the director, kept his famous diary documenting life in the ghetto, and where the partisans hid their weapons and constructed their bombs in the basement. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the library to the demoralized, terrified residents of the ghetto.
You can still see the door to that basement and then walk through to the courtyard, where you can look up and see Dr. Kruk’s office window. The building is now a music school; the building behind it, in the courtyard, the former ghetto prison, now houses a children’s dance school. No plaques identify the history of either site.
Polish Vilne also speaks in a whisper. It’s easy to find monuments to Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), one of the greatest Polish poets, because he sang so eloquently of Vilnius that Lithuanians claim him as Lithuanian. There is no hint in the city, however, that Mickiewicz wrote in Polish and is today considered Polish. Indeed, if Mickiewicz was Lithuanian, it was in the sense in which he himself would have thought of it — as a member of the multicultural Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Mickiewicz attended what is now Vilnius University, which was named much earlier after its Polish patron king, Stefan Batory. It is somewhat taboo, however, to refer to Vilnius University by this original Polish name. Polish Vilnius has been scrubbed from the streets and walls of Vilnius by the same nationalistic forces that have erased Jewish Vilne.
In New York it has sometimes been difficult for me to understand why so many non-Jews want to learn Yiddish. But the non-Jewish Poles and Lithuanians I’ve met studying Yiddish in Vilnius are the ones who are struggling the most with the history around them. For me, learning Yiddish is a path to Jewish healing from the traumas of the 20th century. For my Eastern European friends, the trauma, and the challenge, are also tremendous. How can they rebuild their cities with bricks and plaques, words and deeds, in a way that relate so many stories of conflict and harmony? The work happening at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, carried out by non-Jews and Jews (including Fania Brantsovsky), is of utmost importance in bringing understanding and hope to future generations in this part of world.