E V E N T S / O P I N I O N
by Dovid Katz
For many years, international visitors to Rokiškis (in Yiddish: Rákishok, or less formally: Rákeshik), in northeastern Lithuania, have remarked that the town’s central area seemed to preserve little (or no) trace or commemoration of its erstwhile Jewish population, though a large monument now graces the entrance to the old Jewish cemetery outside town. Before the Holocaust, this town was home to around 3,500 Jews (some 40% of the total population, and the overwhelming majority in its central area). Luckily, a short film of pre-Holocaust Jewish Rákishok survives (from 1937), and is available on Youtube. Thanks to Polish film maker Tomek Wisniewski for circulating the link in recent days.
As for many towns that were on the territory of the interwar Lithuanian Republic, one of the best summary sources remains Berl Kagan’s Yiddish encyclopedic classic, Yídishe shtet, shtétlekh un dórfishe yishúvim in Líte (Jewish Cities, Towns and Villages in Lithuania, New York 1991, pp. 545-547, available online). A full translation into Lithuanian is in progress under the auspices of the Jewish Cultural and Information Center in Vilnius. For much more detailed Jewish knowledge, the yízker-bukh (yizkor-book, commemorative volume issued after the Holocaust) is vital. The massive 630 page Yiddish Yízker-bukh fun Rákishok un úmgègnt (Yizkor Book of Rakishok and Environs), edited by Meilech Bakalczuk-Felin, was published in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1952, and is also available online. There is fine material on the Lithuanian-language site Žydai Lietuvoje, and as is so often the case, the JewishGen page on the shtetl has an excellent collection of links.
Nearly all the town’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania enumerates four local mass graves with a total of 5,415 recorded victims (the number including some people from the surrounding areas brought here for extermination). The Atlas identifies, where possible, the perpetrators at each mass grave. Three of the mass graves contain the remains of a total of 4,434 regional Jews murdered. A fourth, with 981 victims, is a site where suspected Communists and former Communist Youth members were killed, with a recorded ethnic breakdown of 493 Jews, 432 Russians and 56 Lithuanians. See also our map of the Lithuanian Holocaust.
This past Sunday, 6 September, a major advance was made in the context of the European Day of Jewish Culture. Antanas Vagonis, the mayor of Rokiškis was the keynote speaker at a meticulously organized ceremony held to unveil a large, beautifully designed trilingual signpost commemorating the town’s three destroyed synagogues, which had been painted, in turn, red, yellow, and green, to collectively reflect the three colors of the Lithuanian flag during the years of the interwar republic as a symbol of civic solidarity and national loyalty. Let us confidently make one prediction at the outset: For many years to come, this trilingual signpost will inspire young people to find out more about a locally lost civilization from the relatively near past of their own hometown.
The ceremony was opened by a captivating poetry recital by Vilė Sarulienė of a series of poems by Matilda Olkinaitė. The commemoration project per se was presented by Giedrius Kujelis, head of the history department of the Rokiškis Regional Museum. Other local personalities who spoke were the region’s heritage protection specialist Audronė Gavėnienė and the local museum’s director, Nijolė Šniokienė. Architect Aurimas Širvys spoke about the project’s impressive construction.
The event’s Vilnius-based partner was the Jewish Cultural and Information Center, itself a partner project of the Jewish Community of Lithuania and the Vilnius Municipality. The JCIC was represented by a small delegation led by the center’s founder and director, Algis Gurevičius, who addressed the modest but enthusiastic small crowd on the importance for Lithuania of commemorating local and national Jewish heritage in a serious way and with practical achievements. His remarks were followed by my own in Yiddish, which were ably translated by Julius Norwilla. According to the museum’s report of the event, Yiddish had not been heard on the town’s streets for over seventy years. Young people especially were eager to have a copy of the map of historic Jewish Lithuania that Defending History distributed as a symbolic gift to the townspeople.
The moment of unveiling by the mayor and the head of the cultural preservation department brought forth a loud cheer from the assembled, one that seemed to exceed in enthusiasm the number of attendees.
The event was covered by the Lithuania Tribune (English Delfi.lt). A photo album of the event was issued online by the local museum and another was posted by Julius Norwilla. There is a video of Mayor Antanas Vagonis’s speech. An English translation of the mayor’s remarks was prepared by Aldona Sudeikienė Shapiro and kindly supplied by Philip S. Shapiro of Centreville, Virginia, attorney and leading personality in Jewish genealogical circles in America, especially Litvak SIG. His connection to the town and its region goes back a long way. He and associates who hail from the region and are active in Jewish research, commemoration and preservation projects in Lithuania played a major role in the substantial progress made at the local Jewish cemetery. He and colleagues were also active in encouraging and helping the municipality and museum at each stage of the current synagogue memorial project.
The translation of Mayor Vagonis’s remarks:
First of all, I would like to thank the coordinators of our [Rokiškis Regional] museum, who undertook this nice initiative. As you know, the process of reviving Jewish symbols began a very long time ago. And not long ago, when I myself was working for the municipal public works council, the sculptor, Albertas Jasiūnas, told me that he would need help in installing the memorial stone near the gates of the Jewish cemetery. And I told him that we would help, that it would not be a problem, that we could do it quickly, and that there would be no charge at all.
As you know, historically, and my advisor made some research, some time ago there was a large Jewish community [in this town], and the Jewish residents even outnumbered the Lithuanians.
It is very well said that we need to revive historical things. And today I want to touch upon the subject of bridges. Bridges serve not only for remembering and showing these cultural features but those bridges should also serve to invite people to come back over these bridges.
I know that our ethnic groups have been put into confrontation, and not just for one year. And for some things we should feel ashamed before your nation and some other nations. And we are constantly being put into confrontation with the Russians, and with the Poles, and even with our neighbors the Latvians, let alone the Jews.
We have to look at things the way they are now and think. There are no bad peoples, maybe only bad leaders of those peoples. It is not the fault of the Russians that they have such a leader as Putin, it is understood. Neither is it the fault of the Latvians or the Jews that they have been singled out. Indeed, every nation has an outstanding personality.
We are expressing our joy that you have not forgotten us. And I want to say more: Send a message to the whole world that if someone is longing for and would like to get back to their motherland, we are looking forward to your coming back. […] And I believe that, step by step, we have to come back. And, on my behalf, I promise that our people will treat all nations with respect – with great respect.
And now, I thank you, all, and I thank everyone who worked to make this beautiful informational sign.
Following the event, the visitors from Vilnius were treated to an extensive historic walking tour stressing sites of Jewish interest, followed by a tour of the town’s historic palace, now home to the county seat’s regional museum. This was graciously led by the museum’s historian Giedrius Kujelis, who spared no effort to answer all questions with the greatest of care. He was ably assisted by architect Aurimas Širvys. Before return to Vilnius, the visiting delegation was treated to a delicious selection of the town’s famous cheeses, well known to visitors to Lithuania and the Baltics.
Progress in Jewish and Holocaust commemoration, especially the painful first step, can be a psychologically, sociologically, and politically challenging affair for many a town in Eastern Europe, especially in countries with a very high record of actual Holocaust participation. Constructive commentary and open discussion are naturally a sign of respect for Jewish memorial projects, and should not be taken in the wrong spirit. To the contrary, it would be condescending and disrespectful to avoid discussion of the issues. A frequent irony encountered is the readiness, particularly of younger Lithuanian intellectuals, to courageously confront the past and embrace the pluralistic prewar culture of their hometowns, at a time when some foreign Jewish contacts, invariably non-survivors, are on occasion more interested in honors and accolades that can come via participating in historical cover-ups of Vilnius-based nationalist elites in politics, media, academia and the arts. But sidestepping is a disservice to the victims, the survivors and the simple accurate narrative of history. At the end of the day it is an even greater disservice to today’s residents of the town, who are guilty of nothing in its past, and deserve the historic truth as much as any citizens of Europe and beyond.
The historic text on the trilingual plaque does not, unfortunately, even mention the (massive) local collaboration in the Nazi extermination of its Jewish population. The very fact of collaboration is part of the simple truth of the Lithuanian Holocaust, and not unrelated to the 96.4% murder rate in the country, the highest in Europe of any substantial Jewish community. This is not a central European country where Jews were sent away on trains to some faraway “labor camp.” The omission of the collaborators, in a place where anti-Jewish violence broke out in June 1941 before the arrival of the first German soldiers, and where there were vast numbers of volunteer killers and assistants, is tantamount to distortion of the history. As is frequently the case, one distortion begats another. Failure to mention the local killers and collaborators makes it awkward to speak about the amazing local rescuers (Righteous of the Nations) who are the town’s true heroes of World War II, and whose legacy can and should be the greatest inspiration to today’s youth. Happily, this taboo on the truth is slowly being broken across Lithuania, with the town-center plaque in Žagarė (Yiddish: Zháger), inaugurated in 2013, leading the way.
Alas, the Yiddish-language text is replete with embarrassing errors in grammar, spelling and lexicon, and not least, style. The very title uses the “Galitsyaner” / polarically non-Litvak — word for “synagogue” that is a source of hilarity, mockery and mirth in Litvak culture, and here — in the heart of historic Jewish Lithuania, where the synagogues are being solemnly commemorated, not laughed at. Letters and diacritics are jumbled from the title on down. It is important that when including Yiddish in public memorials, municipal authorities consult proper experts. But to to be fair, the town’s cultural affairs experts would not have suspected that Vilnius is curiously rich with bogus experts in the field of Yiddish, a language and culture much abused for political motives by the nationalist camp that seeks to revise Holocaust history while professing “love of Yiddish” as convenient cover. The issue is discussed at length in the final chapter of my book Yiddish and Power, brought out earlier this year by Palgrave Macmillan.
These deficiencies can readily be repaired and must not detract from the huge credit due for this locally historic advance. The architect wisely chose a mode of construction that makes it practical and doable to update the image layer keeping the same stand and base erected, all thanks to the wonders of modern technology.
It is not possible to write about a visit to Rokiškis without mentioning the disturbing monument in the heart of the town square, opposite the massive nineteenth century church at the square’s edge. It is a nationalist statue featuring a statue of an idealized Baltic woman worshipping toward heaven with a swastika above her head and partly between her raised hands. The 1918-1928 inscription, marking a decade of (interwar) independent Lithuania, quickly confirms that it is an interbellum, pre-Nazi-invasion work, from a time when the swastika was one of many symbols toyed with by nationalists and ultranationalists, particularly aryan-purist worshippers, but without the later Hitlerist connotation of obligatory racial hate or eliminationist antisemitism. But alas, this sends the wrong message today, when neo-Nazi marches featuring swastikas of many styles are a very real issue in Lithuania, and where purveyors of racial hatred, antisemitism and Holocaust obfuscation who use the symbol routinely point to this “swastika of Rokiškis” as “evidence” for the symbol’s “kosherness.” In fact, during the 2010 legal proceedings at which the swastika was controversially legalized by a Lithuanian court, the case of the prewar Rokiškis town center monument was prominently cited. It was explained to the visitors last Sunday that during the Soviet period, the swastika was artfully hidden so that the authorities did not suspect its presence, saving the monument from removal or destruction. It was again proudly uncovered after independence.
All said and done, it continues to be a blemish on the town’s international standing that its square continues to flaunt a swastika that inspires today’s neo-Nazis across Lithuania, in the absence of curatorial or historic comment in an accompanying text, and in the ongoing absence of any mention of the town’s Jewish population of 3,500 loyal citizens, or their annihilation (precisely by those who adulated the swastika), in the town square per se. In East European culture, the inclusions and exclusions on the town square speak volumes. Again, the model of Žagarė (Zháger), where a modest trilingual plaque in the town square makes some of the main points, should become better known in other towns across the land.
It might not hurt to move the swastika monument from the town square to the regional museum and supply it with ample curatorial warning about the use of the symbol in the movement that murdered nearly half this town’s population. At the same time, the town square might be adorned with a new monument that would, in the genuine spirit of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, show respect of all the town’s historic peoples, precisely in the spirit of Mayor Vagonis’s address on the opening of the synagogue memorial stand on Sunday.
But these critiques of local realities do not — and must not — obscure or negate the very real progress made on Sunday when the proverbial ice was broken, by the town’s elected leadership, its museum’s academic directors, and the voluntary turnout of dozens of citizens spanning the generations, who were eager to be part of the historic moment when the public space regained something Jewish.
It was particularly inspiring to see the keen interest by a number of young people who had only recently come to realize that their town was home to a people, language and culture of which so precious little remains to be found nearby. What better way to set the ball rolling than a large, attractive, trilingual sign that sets the conversation on its way.