The complicated case of the Jews of Lithuania

You will never get where you want to go without understanding what's in the other person's mind.

That is what I try, usually unsuccessfully, teaching my children.  It is a lesson that modern Jewry might keep in mind as events play out in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius.  Tensions between Lithuanian nationalists and its Jewish citizens have led to closure of the city's only synagogue.

As The Cleveland Jewish News recently reported:

The Jewish Community of Lithuania temporarily closed the only functioning synagogue of the capital Vilnius, citing security issues that may be connected to a debate about the honoring of Nazi collaborators.

"The Lithuanian Jewish Community has received threatening telephone calls and letters in recent days," Faina Kukliansky, the chairwoman of the community, wrote in a statement Tuesday.  It was a "painful but unavoidable decision" to close Choral Synagogue in Vilnius along with the headquarters of the Jewish community, which is also a Jewish community center.

Why is this happening?  What don't Jews grasp about Lithuania's interactions with Nazi Germany, Lithuanian Jews, and the Soviet Union?

I was in Lithuania in October, visiting Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, and the western Lithuanian village of Kvedarna, where much of my maternal family had lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The story I thought I would find was one of evil Lithuanians slaughtering their Jewish neighbors.

What I found wasn't that simple.

Person after person told me of their family's loss following signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in summer 1939.  By it, Germany and Russia agreed not to challenge each other as they carved up the Baltic.  Germany got most of Poland, while the Soviets got Latvia, Lithuania, and other Baltic areas.

As soon as control in Lithuania passed to Russia, vans began appearing in cities and towns throughout the country.  Many, if not most, of the nation's most successful farmers, as well as its policemen, teachers, and business-owners, were arrested for deportation to Siberia. 

In my family's ancestral village, I was accompanied by an English-speaking Vilnius University student whose family lives in the town.  At the Yura River, he gestured to the thousands of acres his grandfather had owned.  His grandfather was taken away, never to return.

Another woman described for me her great-grandfather's experience: a policeman married to a teacher, he arrived home one afternoon from cutting wood in a nearby forest to see his wife and children being loaded for deportation into a police van.  Armed with nothing but an ax, he hid behind some trees.  Warned that he, too, was being sought, that night, the man fled, making his way to England for the balance of the war.  His wife died from harsh Siberian captivity; he was not reunited with the children until decades afterward.

Every little village was gutted of its brightest and most successful citizens.  Some of those taken were Jews.

There were other Jews who celebrated the onset of communist rule.  Not too many of them, but enough to earn the undying enmity of most Lithuanians — so much so that when the Germans abrogated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, marching in June 1941 into Lithuania, they were greeted by locals as emancipators.  When Germans asked these folks to arrest and kill Jews, many Lithuanians were only too happy to oblige.

Here is the account of my mother's first cousin, Gershon Young, of that day.  His father was my grandfather's brother.

We found out about the war when we heard Hitler start talking on the radio.  We didn't even have a radio.  We used to go to some neighbors.  I think it was frightening, you know: "The Juden, the Juden, the Juden.  The Juden must be taken".  We never figured it would come to such a terrible thing.

I remember when the Germans arrived in Chweidan.  I was 18 years old.  I was in the attic, looking out over what was going on in the town.  I saw they were carrying all the elderly  people in cars and trucks and taking them out of the city.   They were Nazis, dressed in black clothes. 

Then they rounded us up on a Sunday, maybe a day later. That day was a horrible day.  There was a Lithuanian by the name of Kolicius.  He came into our house.  My father was already in the all[e]y.  He told my sister that if your brother doesn't come down, we're going to shoot your father.  My sister said to me, "Come down, Gershon, otherwise they're going to kill Daddy."  I came down. He had a big gun, a shotgun, but he didn't say anything.  He just motioned with the gun for me to go this way.  I walked out and saw in the marketplace women and girls were standing and weeping.  They told us, "Schnell, schnell."  Then they closed the truck.  They took us to a town called Heidekru.  The date we left town was June 29, 1941.

The deportation of Lithuanians in 1939 is why one of its present-day nationalists, M.P. Laurynas Kasčiūnas, wrote on Facebook:

I am ashamed he [the mayor of Vilnius] is unable to separate oppressors and collaborators, who willingly handed freedom of our nation to Communists, from those who, under very complicated conditions, sought to retain our state's independence and who have always been on the side of our state.

In the nineteenth century's last quarter, parts of my maternal family fled Frankfurt am Main for western Lithuania.  They did so, escaping the onset of Reform Judaism, preferring to live in a small town where religious observance was as it had been for hundreds of years.  I was given a picture by the Vilnius University student of the little wooden shul where they worshiped; it had since been burned to the ground.  Here is the picture.

Standing in its place is a totem statue, placed in memory of the Lithuanian villagers taken away 1939–1941.

Here is a picture of Synagogue Street in a nearby Lithuanian village.  No synagogue now, and no Jews.

There is no one with roots in that sad country who is without pain.

You will never get where you want to go without understanding what's in the other person's mind.

That is what I try, usually unsuccessfully, teaching my children.  It is a lesson that modern Jewry might keep in mind as events play out in the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius.  Tensions between Lithuanian nationalists and its Jewish citizens have led to closure of the city's only synagogue.

As The Cleveland Jewish News recently reported:

The Jewish Community of Lithuania temporarily closed the only functioning synagogue of the capital Vilnius, citing security issues that may be connected to a debate about the honoring of Nazi collaborators.

"The Lithuanian Jewish Community has received threatening telephone calls and letters in recent days," Faina Kukliansky, the chairwoman of the community, wrote in a statement Tuesday.  It was a "painful but unavoidable decision" to close Choral Synagogue in Vilnius along with the headquarters of the Jewish community, which is also a Jewish community center.

Why is this happening?  What don't Jews grasp about Lithuania's interactions with Nazi Germany, Lithuanian Jews, and the Soviet Union?

I was in Lithuania in October, visiting Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, and the western Lithuanian village of Kvedarna, where much of my maternal family had lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The story I thought I would find was one of evil Lithuanians slaughtering their Jewish neighbors.

What I found wasn't that simple.

Person after person told me of their family's loss following signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in summer 1939.  By it, Germany and Russia agreed not to challenge each other as they carved up the Baltic.  Germany got most of Poland, while the Soviets got Latvia, Lithuania, and other Baltic areas.

As soon as control in Lithuania passed to Russia, vans began appearing in cities and towns throughout the country.  Many, if not most, of the nation's most successful farmers, as well as its policemen, teachers, and business-owners, were arrested for deportation to Siberia. 

In my family's ancestral village, I was accompanied by an English-speaking Vilnius University student whose family lives in the town.  At the Yura River, he gestured to the thousands of acres his grandfather had owned.  His grandfather was taken away, never to return.

Another woman described for me her great-grandfather's experience: a policeman married to a teacher, he arrived home one afternoon from cutting wood in a nearby forest to see his wife and children being loaded for deportation into a police van.  Armed with nothing but an ax, he hid behind some trees.  Warned that he, too, was being sought, that night, the man fled, making his way to England for the balance of the war.  His wife died from harsh Siberian captivity; he was not reunited with the children until decades afterward.

Every little village was gutted of its brightest and most successful citizens.  Some of those taken were Jews.

There were other Jews who celebrated the onset of communist rule.  Not too many of them, but enough to earn the undying enmity of most Lithuanians — so much so that when the Germans abrogated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, marching in June 1941 into Lithuania, they were greeted by locals as emancipators.  When Germans asked these folks to arrest and kill Jews, many Lithuanians were only too happy to oblige.

Here is the account of my mother's first cousin, Gershon Young, of that day.  His father was my grandfather's brother.

We found out about the war when we heard Hitler start talking on the radio.  We didn't even have a radio.  We used to go to some neighbors.  I think it was frightening, you know: "The Juden, the Juden, the Juden.  The Juden must be taken".  We never figured it would come to such a terrible thing.

I remember when the Germans arrived in Chweidan.  I was 18 years old.  I was in the attic, looking out over what was going on in the town.  I saw they were carrying all the elderly  people in cars and trucks and taking them out of the city.   They were Nazis, dressed in black clothes. 

Then they rounded us up on a Sunday, maybe a day later. That day was a horrible day.  There was a Lithuanian by the name of Kolicius.  He came into our house.  My father was already in the all[e]y.  He told my sister that if your brother doesn't come down, we're going to shoot your father.  My sister said to me, "Come down, Gershon, otherwise they're going to kill Daddy."  I came down. He had a big gun, a shotgun, but he didn't say anything.  He just motioned with the gun for me to go this way.  I walked out and saw in the marketplace women and girls were standing and weeping.  They told us, "Schnell, schnell."  Then they closed the truck.  They took us to a town called Heidekru.  The date we left town was June 29, 1941.

The deportation of Lithuanians in 1939 is why one of its present-day nationalists, M.P. Laurynas Kasčiūnas, wrote on Facebook:

I am ashamed he [the mayor of Vilnius] is unable to separate oppressors and collaborators, who willingly handed freedom of our nation to Communists, from those who, under very complicated conditions, sought to retain our state's independence and who have always been on the side of our state.

In the nineteenth century's last quarter, parts of my maternal family fled Frankfurt am Main for western Lithuania.  They did so, escaping the onset of Reform Judaism, preferring to live in a small town where religious observance was as it had been for hundreds of years.  I was given a picture by the Vilnius University student of the little wooden shul where they worshiped; it had since been burned to the ground.  Here is the picture.

Standing in its place is a totem statue, placed in memory of the Lithuanian villagers taken away 1939–1941.

Here is a picture of Synagogue Street in a nearby Lithuanian village.  No synagogue now, and no Jews.

There is no one with roots in that sad country who is without pain.