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A Triple Play Into History

Visiting Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, looking for similarities and differences in three states scarred by Nazis, Soviets

October 15, 2000|MARTIN HOLLANDER | Martin Hollander is an editor at Newsday

VILNIUS, Lithuania — Given their history, it's little wonder Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians often seem so sour. Bullied since the early 13th century by Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians, they share a past--particularly their Soviet past--that's a much-gnawed bitter root.

Of course, there have been Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians who didn't forgo, especially in World War II, their opportunities to victimize--a thought that lurked in my mind throughout a fascinating eight-day July tour of the republics.

The three sit in a crescent on the east end of the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe, between Russia and Poland. Since their release from the 1940-91 Soviet occupation, the Baltic states have been in revival. But they remain far from the tourist mainstream, which was enough of a reason for my friend Francine and me to visit them after stops in Finland and Russia.

Our Baltics tour, a group excursion found through the Internet, began in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. This city, long a center of Jewish learning, was once the "second Jerusalem" for Jews, but the itinerary included nothing about that. So Francine and I arranged for a guide and a driver to fill this void the afternoon before the organized tour began.

The guide, Rita Petrikiene, met us at the airport after we arrived from Moscow, and for nearly five hours led us through what was left of centuries of Hebraic culture--practically nothing.

Our guide's commentary, amplified by exhibits at the temporary downtown Jewish Museum, was a eulogy: There once were 500 synagogues in Lithuania; now there are two. The Nazis, with local help, murdered most of Lithuania's Jews. Only marble plaques recall Vilnius' two ghettos, which were mostly razed during Soviet rule. Renovation is underway in what is left, sectors of suffering being reborn as restaurants, cafes, shops and upscale residences.

(The Holocaust also was visited upon the Jews of Latvia and Estonia, and there is a commemorative Jewish museum in Latvia's capital, Riga, but we didn't have time to stop there.)

It wasn't all darkness in Vilnius. The postwar Jewish cemetery was not in ruins; it was immaculate, tended for the past 50 years by a Russian Orthodox woman, Paulina Shershnyova. With the help of a passing Israeli couple who spoke English and Russian, she told us briefly about her work.

At the Jewish Community Center there was a "gallery of the righteous" commemorating Christian Lithuanians who protected Jews, and another saluting Jews who fought the Wehrmacht either as guerrillas or in a Red Army unit.

We visited the city's only synagogue the next day. About 25 men were finishing Sabbath services. Some came over to us and expressed either wariness or skepticism about how Vilnius was responding to Jewish revival in the city. For instance, I asked whether they were pleased that the city had put up the ghetto plaques. "Pleased? We paid for them," was the answer.

One of the men was a Hasid, with side curls and broad-brimmed black hat, from Brooklyn, N.Y. Sent by the Orthodox Lubavitcher movement to teach Judaism to the local Jews, he was more sanguine. "Two years ago we couldn't even get kosher food here," he said. "Now we can."

He said he was doing fine: "People don't stop in the streets anymore and stare at me as if I'm a Martian."

On the organized tour, with Petrikiene again as guide, our mostly British group was taken to Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the presidential palace and the university. The Orthodox churches were, to us, fantastically ornate, though we already had seen some in St. Petersburg.

The most interesting sight, though, was a woman watering flowers inside one Orthodox church. Lacking a spray bottle, she simply filled her mouth with water and spat at the blossoms.

From the bus and during our walks, we could see the old city's revival. Scaffolds surrounded dozens of buildings. Restoration work was underway or finished. The presidential palace was crisp. (The incumbent is Valdas Adamkus, who emigrated to Chicago in 1949 and was an administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before returning.) A stroll into the adjacent university campus, built around courtyards, was like a walk into an earlier century.

Exploring on our own, we saw poverty. On the same street as the downtown outdoor market, people--mostly women and mostly silent--stood shoulder to shoulder on both the building side and the curb side of the block, hoping to sell their belongings or packs of underwear or socks or cigarettes. They appeared thoroughly dejected; when we passed down the line, nobody even attempted to get our attention.

On the outskirts of the city, thousands live in ugly Soviet-built apartment blocks. The Lithuanians do not seem as bitter as the Latvians or Estonians about their years under Moscow's rule, partly because the Russian population is a fraction of what it is in the two other nations, but all three have, in effect, lost half a century.

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