June 1, 2018

Vilnius

26 - 28 May 2018

Upon arriving in Vilnius, Lithuania I could immediately sense the city’s old feel. Having come directly from Warsaw, a city that was mostly destroyed and rebuilt after WWII, Vilnius had a very different feel. On our first night in Vilnius many of us decided to walk around and explore the city after dinner. Many of the streets were narrow and the ground not perfectly even due to its cobblestone nature. We were amazed by the beauty of many of the buildings and the ease with which we were able to navigate the city.

On our walking tour of the city the next morning we were able to recognize many of the streets we had walked the night before and were able to form somewhat of a mental map of the city. The Old Town is not huge and after several hours of walking around we had an easier time navigating.

The Jewish history in Vilnius is unique for several reasons. Our first stop on our walking tour was “The Green House” Holocaust Museum. Here we learned about the roots of Jewish life in the city as well as the reality of the Holocaust in Lithuania and the workings of The Vilnius Ghetto. Unlike any other museum we had visited, this museum detailed its exhibits in Yiddish rather than in Hebrew. This fact taught us of the origin of the Yiddish language and the importance that it had in Lithuania. The museum also prepared us for our visit to Panerai the following day, the site of mass burial pits.

Walking through the city made it possible to conceptualize much of the information that we learned about the ghetto from the museum. We saw buildings that were fundamental to Jewish life during the time of the ghetto as well as the division between the ghetto and the rest of the city. Each time we stopped in a particular courtyard or by a street corner, I observed life going on as normal around me. We stood in the courtyard next to a building where a Jewish family lived as our tour guide explained the shape this family’s life took during the Holocaust. At the same time, I watched a man pull into the courtyard and make several trips from his car to his front door to bring home his groceries. I was not observing an unusual event yet for some reason I felt uncomfortable watching life unfold in front of me while I listened to a story of destruction. This contrast speaks to the tension that exists between recognizing the past and simultaneously moving on with life. Should all the buildings where Jewish life existed and was hurt during the Holocaust remain untouchable and strictly a site of commemoration?

Although this is not a realistic nor feasible answer, there is something to be said about the feeling of discomfort experienced here. Most of the stops that we made throughout the city did not have signs or markers explaining or even identifying the building’s history in relation to the Holocaust. We would have no idea that the building was relevant to the Holocaust had our tour guide not explicitly provided us with this information. 

When we as a group reflected on Holocaust commemoration in Vilnius, as compared to in Berlin, Krakow, and Warsaw, we found it to be the vaguest. As we traveled east, posted explanations became more and more brief and there were less signs pointing people to important sites relating to the Holocaust. This left us thinking about the impact of locals’ attitudes and how the shape a city’s Holocaust remembrance.

 

Group 5: Isabelle Bukary, Katie Whitlock, Maddie Noyes, Chris St. Aubin (Author: Isabelle Bukary)