From 26 February to 5 March, I was travelling in Lithuania with my friend Yuliya. Yuliya, who comes from Belarus, lives in Vilnius in exile. On 24 February, Russia attacked Ukraine. Although I did what I always do on such trips – photograph the traces of Jewish life – we found it difficult to focus on our subject. Nonstop, we followed the news, tried to distinguish what was credible and what was not, and tried to stay in touch with our friends in Ukraine and Belarus. Nevertheless, I would like to share this journey with you. On 27 February, we walked through Vilnius.
Much has been said and written about Jewish Vilnius. Vilnius was famous in the Jewish world mainly because of its yeshivot, the Orthodox teaching institutions for higher religious education, but also as the origin of the Jewish labour movement. About a third of the population was Jewish – after the Holocaust under German occupation, there is only a very small community left today. Many material traces of Jewish history were destroyed or neglected under the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Today, many Jewish landmarks in Vilnius have been restored and there are numerous memorial plaques commemorating Jewish life and the Vilna Ghetto.
It was not my first time in Vilnius, but this time everything is different. At noon, we encountered a protest gathering. Ukrainians and Belarusians had gathered to protest against the war, but also against a constitutional referendum aimed at permanently securing dictator Lukashenko’s power. People passing by applauded. Cars honked their horns to support the demonstrators. Yuliya and I went along to the Russian embassy, where the demonstration dispersed. All along the way we saw blue and yellow flags.
It was quite a long walk that day and I don’t want to go into every single detail. Rather, I would like to highlight aspects that seem important to me.
The Soviets’ fury of destruction – as in the entire Soviet Union – did not stop at the Jewish cemeteries. Many of the gravestones were made of the red and grey granite typical of the region and were therefore particularly suitable as a resistant building material. In the meantime, many of them have been removed from the pavement and returned to the cemeteries. They can be seen both at the cemetery in Užupis and in front of the sports hall that was built over the old Jewish cemetery. What is to be done with them is apparently still uncertain. Only at the Contemporary Art Centre there are still tombstones in one of the staircases – at least that’s what a guidebook says.
Renovation work often reveals old shop signs that were painted directly onto the façade. It is nice to see that they are being preserved and that the house owners are obviously interested in the history.
Of particular importance is the Karaite Kenessa. The Karaim came from Asia Minor and converted to Judaism. Their migration can be traced from Ukraine – Crimea, Galicia, Volhynia – to the Baltic States. Especially in Lithuania they left numerous traces. In the coming days we would get to see some of them.
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