by Markas Zingeris
Rachel Kostanian-Danzig, one of the founders of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, is celebrating her venerable ninety-first birthday. She belongs to the generation that survived the horrific years of the Second World War as well the times of the Soviet regime, and saw the fall of the Iron Curtain: the geopolitical “earthquake” that allowed Lithuania to take back control of its own history.
During her youth in Soviet times, Rachel completed a law degree at Vilnius University and qualified as an English teacher at the city’s Pedagogical University. Her field was not history, until the breakup of the Soviet Union and the rise of Lithuanian liberty gave her the freedom to immerse herself in the history and culture of her Jewish people. But no historian’s diplomas could match her relentless, painstaking and passionate desire to meaningfully fill the gaps in Lithuanian collective memory. Today’s young professionals could envy her enthusiasm and “engagement.”
Former Deputy Director of the Museum and Head of the Holocaust Exhibition, she now resides abroad, but whenever I visit the museum, I can still hear her voice in the corridors: “Markas, we must establish an exhibition of the ghetto theater posters”, or “And how about the heroes of the Vilna Ghetto Markas, its cultural workers? They were the spiritual resistance, after all!”; and when I visit, as Rachel named it, “the little Green House”— the Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition — I still expect to find her in her corner office, leaning over rare books, of which she had a full closet; or guiding Lithuanian schoolchildren around the exhibition.
As these changeable times fly by us, even the people, who at the turn of the twenty-first century tried to restore history, are themselves becoming history, both in the sad and in the figurative meaning of this word. Rachel has been a torchbearer, she has always been in the first ranks of these indefatigable educators, she has, figuratively speaking, wiped the ashes off so many Holocaust victims’ faces…
The brushstrokes of Rachel Kostanian-Danzig’s portrait are best seen when looking at her past. Back in 1989–1990, Rachel was one of the founders of the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History. She is of the generation that found it personally and vitally important that Lithuania would recognize Jewish history as its own and the destruction of the old Jewish community as its own catastrophic loss. Nowadays, this recognition seems obvious, but back in the day, when the totalitarian concrete was cracking and crumbling, it had to be fought for, both with one’s elbows and with one’s intellectual powers.
When writing her book Spiritual Resistance in the Vilna Ghetto, Rachel collaborated with the world-famous historian, author of great books on the Holocaust and Winston Churchill’s biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert, who also wrote the foreword for her book. She has also constantly collaborated with famous historians of the Holocaust in Lithuania, including Millersville University professor Saulius Sužiedėlis and former Fritz Bauer Institute researcher Dr. Christoph Dieckmann, preparing exhibitions, writing books, and taking passionate care of adequate memorialization of the Paneriai (Ponár) mass murder site. One of her most famous and successful works, which took a lot of time, diligence, and collaboration, is the monumental, detailed, and multilingual volume she coedited,Vilna Ghetto Posters.
She felt she had to take up fundraising (I remember one of her letters that ended with the words “All that we do here, we do for the nation and history”), publishing catalogues and even periodical almanacs. This would all be done with the help of her colleague museum workers, whom she would gather around herself and inspire.
As an activist of global Jewish organizations and by developing ties with the diaspora and global centers of Jewish history New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem have been at the forefront), she has organized international financial support for and promotion of her own Green House museum’s activities around the world. For thousands of visitors from Lithuania and elsewhere in the world, Rachel Kostanian has even become a sort of a symbol of the museum generally. We can see and hear her in many TV shows, interviews, and publications. (Groups of people from Britain, North and Latin America, and Israel would travel to Lithuania to look for their families’ roots. Most of them would visit Rachel, too. One of them, English writer Howard Jacobson, winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, wrote a book about his journey, and dedicated some of its memorable lines to Rachel: a kind of literary yet playful “selfie” from his trip.)
I remember Rachel in her office at Pamėnkalnio St. 12 — the Green House — where she would repeat to me the lines written by poet, member of the Yung Vílne circle, author of the Partisans’ anthem, Hirsh Glik, who was shot while escaping a concentration camp: Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey (We come with our pain and our woe), and Mir zaynen do! (We are here!).
It has been a long time now since she first came to work in Vilnius’s Jewish museum. those were the days of when my brother Emanuelis Zingeris was founding director. Already then, Rachel was not a young woman back then, either, with gray hair on her head, she brought with herself her personal life story, temperament, and the energetic powers that few youngsters could match. Instead of retiring, she embarked on the most meaningful new life.
Rachel, Your contribution will never be forgotten.
Together with the Vilna Gaon Museum of Jewish History, you managed to kindle many sparks in the collective memory of Lithuania.
Happy Birthday, Rachel Kostanian!
Markas Zingeris, a major Lithuanian author, is former director of the Vina Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania.