may 2012: vilnius

When I moved to Finland there was an official organization for foreign students called Finland Alumni ry, sponsored by the Centre for International Mobility – a relic of the Cold War and state visit management. I was one of the last officers of Finland Alumni and in this capacity organized trips to Lapland, to Åland, to Turku and Tampere, and assisted my fellow officers in doing the same. It was like conrunning without the programme and the egos. But surely my greatest feat as a tour guide must be the Baltic trip with my father. He visited me during my last year in Finland and I took him to St. Petersburg, Vilnius (Vilna to us Jews, where his mother, my grandmother, was born), Riga, and Tallinn before sending him back to the States, in one piece, via Iceland. The trip was mainly by public transportation, including some very rickety buses, and we stayed in youth hostels. He was 85.

I first visited Vilnius around Easter 1997 with some other foreign students from Finland Alumni. Since it was abroad, it was of course an unofficial, self funded trip. We were visiting a Lithuanian friend from the year before, Rita. Over several days Rita gave us the grand tour: the university, the amber market, the statue of the Grand Duke who founded the Lithuanian state. We watched an outdoor rock concert standing in the rain. A very important stop was the memorial at the television tower where demonstrators were killed in the independence struggle circa 1991; one or two of them had gone to her school and she knew their families.

Rita’s family lived in a big old apartment building in the suburbs. I remember that eyeglasses were very cheap in Lithuania and her family had a basket in the front hall with all different styles of glasses in them and they just shared them and took whatever they felt like wearing that day. (They must have all had fairly simple prescriptions.) I think the next time I was back in the city was around January 2002, coming back from Berlin, and I had more time on my own to look around and contemplate family connections. Then with my father in 2012.

Tuesday 29 May – Up and to the airport for the Air Baltic flight to Vilnius, with a plane change at Tallinn. The plan was to fly to Vilnius to make sure we made it there, and then come back by bus through Riga and Tallinn, ticking off all three Baltic capitals. Going by land in the other direction, I had myself several times aimed for Riga or Vilnius but failed to achieve escape velocity from Tallinn.

Trains do not connect the three cities well, or at least they didn’t then. I don’t know if this was deliberate design by early republics to make themselves harder to invade, or by the Soviets to minimize communication between the republics. Lithuania is best connected to Poland and Belarus, Latvia is best connected to Moscow by rail and central Asia by air, and Estonia is best connected to St. Petersburg and Finland by ferry. The rail route from Poland eastward crosses Lithuania at Kaunas, not Vilnius.

The Vilnius airport was fairly remote and we had a long wait for the airport bus to the center, then walked to the hostel and checked in and had a pizza and coke. We took a long walk up a hill that had a view.

Then we walked down to the Jewish quarter and had another drink, and then back to the hostel to crash. There was a supermarket nearby, open 24 hours or close to it (such “nonstop” supermarkets are common in ex-Soviet bloc cities – they have fewer hangups about sacred vs. profane time), so we knew getting food later was not a problem.

The center of town was very quiet. Vilnius is the most countrified of the three Baltic capitals, all low rise and old buildings at its core, not much commerce or tourism. It resembles a medium sized old Polish town with extensive suburbs. It has been part of Poland intermittently. Things are a bit mixed in the western Baltics; I had one friend among the foreign students who had a Russian father, Polish mother, grew up in Latvia, and we never knew which of the three spelling systems he was going to sign his name in; he married a Lithuanian woman and they went to live in Kaunas. I don’t know how many languages they are raising their kids in, probably all of them, and I have just learned that she has a Moldovan grandmother. 

The Jewish quarter was clearly marked, with a plaque showing the street plan as well as a display of photos of how it used to look. Now it was almost deserted. Spooky. Like visiting Harlem but all the African Americans have vanished and there are just white people left and not many of those. Or some former, bombed out Chinatown. Or most of the US, to Native Americans.

The former Grand Synagogue (above and below) was destroyed jointly by the Nazis and the Soviets. The Nazis started the job and the Soviets finished it. It held 5000 people and was the last synagogue on a site that had housed shuls since at least 1440.

The only visible Jews besides us were a few statues. It had been the same on past trips. It is only Vilnius, not Vilna anymore.

Wednesday 30 May – We found the first of the two Jewish Museums, the Holocaust Museum, in an old wooden house up a hillside, hidden from the main road. No signposting there that we could see.

In 2002 the Holocaust Museum was just a few rooms in another Vilnius museum, with memorial plaques to the Lithuanian individuals who protected Jews as the main exhibition and then behind them some dark rooms about the Jews themselves. I also remember in 2002 searching through lists of names of the murdered for anything resembling my grandmother’s family name (Bagraim, but the spelling is uncertain) and finding nothing, which I guess is more good than bad. I’ve also searched for that branch of the family on online Holocaust name sites and the closest I came was a Polish possible spelling of Videtsky, which I think was the family name of her mother Dina, my namesake.

There were some other Americans visiting, and a tour group of Lithuanians with a guide. The history of the ghetto was worse than I remembered. Having a baby was illegal. Books were pulped. Livelihoods forbidden. They had a symphony and school assemblies, the parents trying not to cry. There is now a lot of material about the resistance – workers tunneling out near the end of the siege, and joining partisan groups in the woods. The “righteous among nations” (the Lithuanians who helped Jews) are duly honored but no longer the main event. Both museums were part of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum which seems to have been expanded further since our visit.

We had lunch at a cafe (this one – Kibin Inn / Pinavija) serving mainly pierogi with different fillings, Karaite style Karaites are a peripheral tribe of Jews in Lithuania whose relation to the main strands is unclear. Delicious food. It had a strangely elaborate children’s playroom.

One of the staff at the museum said we could get family information in the state archives
and gave us the address. We took a tram down there and learned that we could get records from the nineteenth century, also for Jews, but the archives were open only certain hours and certain days, and were closed the last few days of the month which is when our trip fell. We could also search by mail for a fee (some hundreds of dollars I think). I took the information but haven’t done anything with it. A tram had broken down on the track back to town and was blocking movement in that direction so we walked back. There was not much difference between the landscape and parts of Toronto, except for the shape of the windows and the detailing on the older buildings.

We found the city’s one remaining synagogue was closed, as it has been on every one of my visits (always midweek). It’s a bit of a shock coming from North America that north European synagogues typically do not have supermarket signs in front with the rabbi’s name and the times of services and other events. They don’t want to attract attention or reveal when there are people in the building. Still they have Mogen Davids and Hebrew so you can see they are synagogues, and the Jewish tourism guides and websites have the contact details. European synagogues tend to be quite orthodox in their requirements regardless of the members’ lifestyles outside them, so to avoid disappointment one needs to be correctly dressed and not carrying anything, which can be hard when traveling.

At the university, which is open to the public, I looked for but did not find the Yiddish department and got locked into a courtyard, which took a while to escape.

For dinner we walked out to an Uzbek restaurant (possibly this one) which was sensational.

Thursday 1 June – The second Jewish museum was called the Tolerance Center, and it was part of a small art museum near the station. There were some posters from Yiddish theater in the lobby but the main Jewish part was on the top floors. Lovely folk artefacts from wooden shuls, silver menorahs and Torah covers.

Below that were text panels explaining the community, more clearly than the ones at the Holocaust museum, and photos showing people in both Jewish and general activities. Many poses were no different than you would see in family snaps in Finland or Canada or Britain: ice skating, cycling, road races, tea-time.

There were many portraits of sad looking women with black hair, very like my grandmother, and one drawing of my father as a senior Jedi Knight.

On the ground floor, there was an annual Lithuanian art show without a Jewish theme – it was rather good and we got the catalogue – as well as some posters for other events.

Then we went to the bus station to go to Riga and Tallinn. Riga currently seems to have the strongest present-day Jewish presence in the Baltics owing to the fact it had and has the largest Soviet/Russian presence. The synagogue and school there seem very active. Riga is also my favorite of the three capitals; it’s the biggest and has varied yet harmonious buildings. Tallinn has a lot of medieval and Art Deco buildings and is also very nice, with dramatic hilltop views; my father liked it the best. It was also less triggering to contemplate the past there, although Estonia had a Jewish population with a similar history to elsewhere.

I cannot leave this on a down note. Here some cats we saw in Vilnius, possibly descended from cats who might have brushed past family members and friends in centuries past.

Written for my cousins Judy, Janine, and Nicole