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Vilnius: An Exodus From the Rebirth : Lithuania: Despite a tiny flowering of Judaic culture from the rubble of Soviet repression, Jews make plans to emigrate to Israel while they can.

July 09, 1990|ESTHER SCHRADER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"It's a fantasy to rebuild all Jewish culture here," said Josef Josade, 79, a Lithuanian Jewish writer well-known for his plays and novels in Yiddish. "We can rebuild only the stones on the graves of Judaism here. We can only do our best to be Jewish, but we cannot rebuild here. It is impossible."

Vilnius for centuries housed a Jewish community that was among the most pre-eminent in Europe. It was a center of Jewish religious study, of Jewish learning and literature, of scholarship, publishing and the arts. Jews were less numerous in Lithuania than in Warsaw and Berlin, but Vilnius occupied a position as a center for religious and secular learning.

The city was known as "Yerushalayim de Lita" --the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was crammed with Jewish shops and synagogues and bakeries and schools. It was where the largest Yiddish-language daily newspaper in Europe was published, along with eight others. There were Jewish craftsmen and banks and businesses.

The Jewish community was, Zingeris says, "a state within a state, we had such a clear universe of Jews."

In the years before World War II, however, life for Jews in Lithuania worsened. The government of then-independent Lithuania enacted laws restricting the commercial activities of the economically powerful Jewish community.

In 1940, when Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union, a number of Jews, believing that Soviet socialism would improve their lives and protect them from rising anti-Semitism, supported the change. And Lithuanians, who fought fiercely against the loss of their independence, remembered on whose side some Jews had stood when the republic was occupied by Nazi Germany.

Yeshia Yiuse, now 78, was one of the Lithuanian Jews who fought for the establishment of Soviet power here. In the early 1940s he was the secretary of the largest underground Communist organization in Vilnius. Today, he sits among the mismatched chairs and gilt menorahs in the Jewish cultural center and rests one arm heavily on his cane, losing himself for a minute in the dreams of his youth.

"I fought for the Soviets so that they would put an end to pogroms, " Yiuse said. "But after the war, all my hopes failed. In 1949 I was sitting there, and I thought to myself, 'For what did I fight? Where are the Jewish libraries? Where is the Jewish literature? Why has it all disappeared?' I saw that everything was not what I believed."

When the German army occupied Vilnius on June 24, 1941, the troops were seen by Lithuanians as liberators, freeing them from Soviet rule, and they were greeted with flowers in the streets.

On the orders of the German commanders, Jews were soon herded into a ghetto in the old city, according to an account in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Nazi soldiers assisted by Lithuanian collaborators shot more than 38,000 Jews in mass executions in Ponarai. Tens of thousands were later sent from Vilnius to concentration camps. And many others died in the fighting as the Soviet army recaptured Vilnius in July, 1944.

"We have here more graves than people alive," Irena Varnaite, a Jewish-Lithuanian theater critic, said in an interview as she spoke about the future and past of Jewish Vilnius. "The whole ethnic knowledge has disappeared. You can tell it with sorrow and with pain, but it is a fact. I used to ask myself, 'Why?' But such is our fate. The evolution of Eastern European Jews is all over now."

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