The construction of a new museum in Lithuania to commemorate Jewish life lost in the Holocaust began last week, after a ceremony attended by Lithuania’s top officials – including the country’s prime minister, Speaker of Parliament and foreign minister, as well as senior diplomats and Jewish leaders.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 05, 2018
Designed by the same Finnish company which designed the award-winning POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, the state-of-the-art museum, located in Šeduva – 175km north-west of Vilnius – will open in 2020.
The museum complex will include a sprawling Jewish cemetery, which was completely restored and opened in 2015, monuments at three separate sites of Holocaust mass executions and burials, and a symbolic sculpture in the middle of the town.
“It will tell the story of the life of what was once the largest European Litvak Jewish population living in shtetls,” according to the museum’s website. “Lifestyle, customs, religion and the social, professional and family life of the Jews of Šeduva will serve as the centrepiece of the museum exhibition.
“Museum visitors will be taught the tragedy of Šeduva’s Jewish history, which ended in three pits near the shtetl in the early days of World War II, concluding five centuries of the history of the Jews of Šeduva.”
Ex-South African educator Eli Rabinowitz, who now lives in Perth, attended the ceremony and spoke on behalf of the Litvak Diaspora, especially South African Jews. “Many Litvaks migrated to South Africa, aptly named the ‘goldene medina’,” he said. “Jewish life in the small South African country towns often mirrored that of the Litvak shtetl. We often heard stories from ‘der heim’, describing the rich Jewish cultural life throughout Lithuania, which had existed over many centuries.
“Those Litvaks who left Lithuania before the Holocaust were indeed lucky. More than 95% of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, a greater percentage than any other country,” said Rabinowitz.
“In the future, when we visit this museum, we will be able to access the past with a better understanding of history. We will view the collection of objects and artifacts, giving us insight into how our ancestors lived their cultural, religious, work and home lives. We will learn about their values from their daily lives and from the items they kept and used.
“The museum will showcase the richness and the importance of Litvak shtetl life of years gone by. It will also reflect on the Jewish world that was destroyed by the Holocaust.
“The museum will educate Lithuanians and visitors to Lithuania, and so provide an opportunity to learn from our history and strive for a better world.”
Rabinowitz said he thinks the museum is being built now – before, as politicians and historians have realised, this past is lost to history.
He emphasises that the location is important, as “our Litvak heritage stems from the shtetls in this geographical region in Lithuania – not the bigger cities of Vilnius or Kaunas”.
Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaitė said the laying of the cornerstone “heralds the reconstruction of an important part of Lithuanian history, closely interlinked with the history of Lithuania’s large Jewish community and its tragic fate”.
She added: “The Lost Shtetl Museum will bring back from oblivion the names and faces of many families, friends and neighbours, as well as their customs and traditions.”
Said Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius: “This unique museum will capture not only the memory of the Šeduva but also the Jewish communities of Lithuania as a whole.”
I was born in Cape Town South Africa, and my heritage is firmly rooted in this region.
I have visited Lithuania each year since 2011, this being my 8th visit.
In 1811 my 3rd great grandfather, Zalman Tzoref Salomon, was one of the first to leave Lithuania for Jerusalem where he successfully established the Litvak community in the Old City.
Litvaks were resilient and achieved significant successes, and, members of my Salomon family founded the town of Petach Tikva, the first Hebrew newspaper, the Hurva Synagogue, and Teva Pharmaceuticals.
Many Litvaks later migrated to South Africa, aptly named, the “goldene medina”.
Jewish life in the small South African country towns often mirrored the Litvak shtetl. Many of these migrants and their families were happy, successful and safe in their new surroundings.
We often heard stories from “der heim”, describing the rich Jewish cultural life throughout Lithuania, which had existed over many centuries.
Those Litvaks who left Lithuania before the Holocaust were indeed lucky! More than 95% of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, a greater percentage than any other country!
So why do I return from the Litvak diaspora to reconnect to my roots?
It is my journey of discovery, to understand my family in the context of Jewish cultural history and history of the region. By being here, I am able to experience the traces of memory first hand, to find some remnants, clues as to how Litvak life was.
I share these on my blog and on the 35 Lithuanian shtetl websites that I write and manage.
I also work with high schools in Kedainiai, Kalvarija and Vilnius to teach students about Jewish cultural history and the Holocaust from the Jewish perspective, and then I lead collaboration classes for these schools and students around the globe. I am expanding this to more schools in Lithuania.
A growing number of articles and books are being written about family stories and Jewish life in the shtetl. This is to keep alive stories that would otherwise be forgotten. I participate in this activity as well as lecture at international conferences.
All these elements will come together when this wonderful museum opens.
It is located right in the heartland of the Litvak world, of the Litvaks I have just described as well as their descendants.
In the future, when we visit this museum, we will be able to access the past with a better understanding of history. We will view the collection of objects and artifacts, giving us an insight into how our ancestors lived their cultural, religious, work and home lives.
We will learn about their values from their daily lives and from the items they kept and used.
The museum will showcase the richness and the importance of Litvak shtetl life of years gone by. It will also reflect on the Jewish world that was destroyed by the Holocaust. The museum will educate Lithuanians and visitors to Lithuania and so provide an opportunity to learn from our history and strive for a better world.
This museum will be a beacon of preservation and attract many in the Litvak diaspora to come and visit Lithuania and their shtetls, and like me, to reconnect with their heritage.
This museum is a most appropriate way to honour the memory of the members of our families who were born, lived and died here!
Finally, the words written by Hirsh Glik in the Vilna ghetto in 1943:
“Zog nit keyn mol, az du geyst dem letstn veg –
Never say that you have reached the end of the road
Mir zaynen do!
WE ARE HERE
“This says that although it looks like the last moments of the life of the Jewish people, it is not, and where the blood was shed, will begin a new, a heroic and a wonderful Jewish life!”
(Quote: Cantor H Fox)
Your Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Guests:
As the project manager, I thank all of you who have gathered here. I am also endlessly grateful to the people of Šeduva for their help and goodwill, the Šeduva eldership and mayor of Radviliškis Antanas Čepononis and the municipality for close cooperation. I sincerely thank all the international team that is working on the creation of the museum – the architect from Finland, Rainer Mahlamaki; Augustas Audėjaitis and his colleagues; the design company, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, from the United States; the Swiss company ECAS and David Duffy; Jonas Dovydaitis, the director of the Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund; the large team of international consultants; Milda Jakulyte, the Curator of the Museum as well as her colleagues; the construction supervision company Ekspertikaand Kastytis Skiečius; as well as the construction company Agentus. A huge thank you goes out to the patrons, without whose hard work and financial support this project would be impossible.
When we talk about the past of Lithuanian Jewry, we often say that “time was merciless”. Merciless to human beings, merciless to things they had created, merciless to heritage and memory. But time is not anonymous. We cannot put all the blame and guilt on it. We create time. It depends on us what time will be like. It depends on the here and now. Memory is the responsibility of all of us.
There is no museum yet. We are only about to start building it. We do this in order to create a “time” the next generations could not call merciless.
Now we are near the restored Jewish cemetery, and beneath its every stone there rests the remains of a person. A person who lived and worked, loved and prayed, sewed and cured. Not far from here, there is a place of eternal rest of those who were brutally murdered, for whom some of their former neighbors showed no mercy.
That is why we are about to build another monument – the Lost Shtetl Museum. To remember all of them. You can abandon a cemetery and steal the remaining gravestones from it. You can kill a person, loot their home, steal their belongings, burn their temple, but it is impossible to kill their memory. Lithuanian Jews and their legacy cannot live only in commemorations and solemn speeches. No matter how beautiful they are. We have left traces under the Lithuanian sky. And this museum will commemorate them.
We have decided to put the following words from the novelShtetl Love Song by Grigory Kanovich into the symbolic time capsule marking the beginning of the construction:
„It was bitter to realize the truth that from now on it was the fate of that dead tribe to be born and live only in the true and painful words of impartial memory in which it was imposible to drown the echoes of love and gratitude towards our forebears. Whoever allows the dead to fall into oblivion will himself be justly consigned to oblivion by future generations .“
Now I would like to invite Giedrius Puidokas, an 11thgrade student of the Šeduva Gymnasium and Gabriela Jeliasevič and Gabika Kondratavičiūtė, 11thgrade students of Vilnius Sholom Aleichem Gymnasium, to place a symbolic time capsule marking the beginning of the construction of the Lost Shtetl Museum.