Vilna without Vilna

On a warm autumn day in November 2017, workers from the City of Vilnius drove up in tractors to a tree nursery on the outskirts of the city where the remnants of roughly 1,000 Hebrew tombstones were stored. The stones were transported to the site of the the city’s old Jewish cemetery and dumped in front of the Soviet-era sports complex that stands on the old cemetery site, where city authorities say they are to be incorporated into a memorial.

The move attracted attention from city residents for a number of reasons. For one, Lithuania has a long, troubling history of using Jewish tombstones as building materials, chiefly during the Soviet era. To this day, in fact, visitors can make out Hebrew lettering on the stairs leading up to the Reformed Evangelical Church in Vilnius. Second, the tombstones were not being returned to their original home. The stones in question did not come from the old Jewish cemetery long known to Jewish residents of Vilnius as ‘Piramont’, but from another historic cemetery in Vilnius, Zarechta. Finally, the site of the Piramont cemetery – or, rather, the part of the cemetery not already covered by the Soviet sports complex – is currently the subject of a heated debate over a proposed convention center to be built by the Lithuanian government with EU funding. Last year, a Jewish resident of Vilnius, Rita Bloshtein, put together a petition on Change.org to build the convention somewhere else that will not, in her words, ‘mock the memory of Vilna Jewry.’ As of today, the petition has over 40,000 signatures, and the support of dozens of international rabbis, Jewish institutions and academics and has prompted a letter signed by twelve members of Congress. The Lithuanian government’s response so far has been to tout the support of the leadership of the Vilnius Jewish community and the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, composed of several Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) rabbis (who happen to have solicited payment for “rabbinic supervision” of construction efforts in the past, calling into question their impartiality), as well as to announce plans to build the aforementioned memorial as part of the convention center complex.

The question of who owns Lithuania’s Jewish heritage is a thorny one to say the least. Does it belong to the millions of Jews around the world with Litvak (Yiddish for ‘Lithuanian’) ancestry? Does it belong to the small population of Jews in Lithuania? The even smaller number of Jews in Lithuania who survived the Holocaust? And how does Yiddish fit into the equation?

Across the Skype connection from his apartment in Vilnius, Dr Dovid Katz’s harangues come through loud and clear. Katz has spent his decades-long scholarly career preserving the heritage of prewar Litvak Yiddish and drawing attention to the status of Yiddish as a living language. Now, he finds himself thrust into the middle of a fight against the Lithuanian government’s use of Yiddish as a tool for nationalist PR. Katz has found himself not just at odds with scattered right-wing groups, but with Lithuanian government institutions themselves.

Katz’s biography is, in a sense, the exact opposite of the typical Litvak immigration story. Katz grew up in Brooklyn speaking Yiddish in an apartment surrounded by Yiddish books. His father, the Yiddish poet and part-time kabbalah expert Menke Katz, though not Haredi (that is, “ultra-Orthodox”) himself, insisted on sending Dovid to Jewish day schools, where he learned in the traditional yeshive style. In 1978, Katz graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Linguistics with a focus on Yiddish. He subsequently moved to England to begin work on his doctoral dissertation at University College London and, that same year, became Oxford’s first instructor in Yiddish. He would go on to found and direct Oxford’s Yiddish Studies program, establish an intensive spoken Yiddish summer course, and hold a Fellowship at St. Antony’s College for 11 years. Katz left Oxford due to what he characterises as ‘a horrific conflict between two sets of donors,’ and in 1998 took a one-year visiting professorship at Yale, a time which he calls ‘a pleasant but the most boring year of [his] life.’ In 1999, faced with a decision to return to Yale or move to Lithuania, where he had been carrying out linguistic fieldwork since 1990, Katz chose Vilnius. (He says his now 96-year-old mother still has not forgiven him.) He became Professor of Yiddish and Co-founder and Director of the Center for Stateless Cultures at Vilnius University, kicking off what he recalls as  ‘11 blissful years’ in the capital of Litvak culture.

Vilnius has a special place in the history of Yiddish letters. The first Jews arrived in Vilna – the city’s Yiddish name – in the 14th century, fleeing persecution and plague farther West. By the 18th century, Lithuania was Europe’s largest Jewish community and Vilna had become known as ‘The Jerusalem of the North.’ Pre-World War II, Vilna was home to roughly 100,000 Jews, nearly half of the city’s total population. Over the centuries, Vilna was the home of luminary religious figures, Yiddish writers like , newspapers, theatre groups and all manner of religious and cultural institutions. When the Yiddish Scientific Institute (or ‘YIVO’, its Yiddish acronym), the language’s international governing body, was incorporated in 1925, Vilna was chosen as the site of its headquarters. In 1935, Max Weinrech, the director of YIVO, wrote, ‘In Vilna there are no ruins, because aside from its traditions Vilna has a second virtue: momentum. It is a city of activism, of pioneering.’

Vilna (or, in proper Litvak Yiddish, ‘Vilne’) was the capital of the learned, rational wing of traditional Judaism in Europe, as opposed to the more mystically-inclined, emotional Judaism practised by the Galitsyaners (Yiddish for ‘Galicians’ after the region where they lived in Southeastern Poland and Western Ukraine) to the south. Litvaks tended to stereotype Galitsyaners as superstitious country bumpkins, known for strange habits like putting sugar on their fish. Galitsyaners, for their part, thought of Litvaks as cold, two-faced, snobbish city dwellers. When my great-grandmother (a Galitsyaner) told my grandfather about how diverse her new Brooklyn apartment building was because she lived alongside Litvaks, she wasn’t trying to be funny. This was her American Dream.  

Nowadays, when most people think of traditional European Judaism (think Fiddler on the Roof), Galitsyaner culture is what they think of. For the bulk of his career, Katz’s work focused on what he felt was the understudied subject of prewar Litvak Yiddish. His research interacted little with contemporary politics, and drew a firm line between his scholarly work and Holocaust studies. At Oxford, Katz’s pedagogical focus was on reinvigorating Yiddish as an academic language, leading advanced seminars, publishing papers and hosting conferences all exclusively in Yiddish. He continued that work in Vilnius, taking the Yiddish summer program he had established at Oxford with him and setting up shop at Vilnius University.

Nowadays, Katz edits and does the bulk of the writing for Defending History, an online journal focused on Litvak language and culture past, present and future. Its raison d’etre, however, is combating what is known as ‘Holocaust Obfuscation,’ a phenomenon of equating Nazi and Soviet war crimes. He says two developments in 2008 drew him into the thick of Lithuanian politics. The first was a highly-publicised search by Lithuanian prosecutors for two of his friends, Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis, veterans of the partisan resistance movement in Lithuania during the Nazi invasion in World War II: in 2008, the two women, both in their eighties, were wanted for questioning as potential war criminals. The second development was the signing of the Prague Declaration, spearheaded by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which calls on the European Union to treat Nazi and Soviet crimes as equally serious.

‘Holocaust Obfuscation’ is, Katz says, ‘a distinctly Eastern European phenomenon.’ Holocaust obfuscation, he explains, is different from Holocaust revision, in that revision denies or, at best, downplays the facts of the Holocaust. Obfuscation, on the other hand, does not outright deny Holocaust history. What it does do, however, is tries to re-contextualise the genocide of Jews in Eastern European countries like Lithuania as part of a long history of violence between competing ethnic populations, or even explicitly as a response to Soviet and Jewish aggression. The Genocide and Resistance Research Centre in Vilnius, for instance, refers in its permanent exhibition to the Holocaust as ‘repression against Jewish and other populations of Lithuania.’

Though Lithuania had fewer Jewish Holocaust victims by sheer numbers than some other countries, the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry was the most complete. 95% of Jews living in Lithuania at the start of the war were murdered by the time it ended. Adding to the bleakness of Lithuania’s Holocaust history is the fact that the majority of Lithuanian Jews did not die in camps, but near their homes, murdered at gunpoint by Lithuanian collaborators.

This history should not be complicated. But Lithuania’s Holocaust history is extremely contentious because, before the country was invaded by the Nazis, it was annexed by the Soviets, then brutally occupied for over four decades by the Soviets again after the war once the Nazis were defeated. The Lithuanian collaborators who carried out the Nazis’ extermination efforts for them were also, in many cases, nationalists fighting the Soviets. Katz tells me that in his experience, this is not a factor in other parts of Eastern Europe, like Poland, which were invaded by the Nazis at the outset of the war.

This also explains why octogenarian Jewish partisan veterans are painted as war criminals by the Lithuanian state government. Jewish partisans were often fighting alongside Soviet forces, even if they were not communists themselves. Then there is the more insidious charge that Lithuanian Jews aided and abetted the Soviet invasion in 1940. For many Lithuanians, Jewish partisans are not heroic underdog resistance fighters, but Soviet agents collaborating with the nation’s oppressors. (This all raises the question of why the Soviet Union would so vigorously pursue its well-documented anti-Semitic policies in Lithuania after World War II if the Jews were on their side the whole time; but that is a different issue.) There is some equivalence between Jews fighting alongside Soviets and Lithuanian Christians fighting alongside Nazis. However, the well-documented enthusiastic cooperation of the local population in Lithuania with the Nazi genocide casts doubt on the idea that Lithuanian nationalists were merely anti-Soviet.

In 2010, Katz’s contract at Vilnius University was not renewed, which he chalks up to an act of political retaliation. ‘Meanwhile,’ he says, ‘I found myself being the target of a very expensive campaign, to continue to use—or I would say abuse—the word “Yiddish,” the idea of Yiddish. Not a language, or its creativity, or its culture, or people, [but] as a propaganda tool to cover for the Holocaust Obfuscation that was becoming national policy in those years.’ Katz has since documented attempts to harass and intimidate him, mostly online. Using Yiddish, Katz says, gives cover for Lithuanian authorities to say (doing his best impression of a Lithuanian nationalist) ‘We love the prewar Litvak culture that was destroyed forever! We want to invest in more plaques and more memorials and more libraries and more archives: please fundraise, send us money. We just hate the local Jews today because they think that our heroes murdered their families.’

The Lithuanian government began pouring money into promoting the country’s Jewish heritage after the country became independent in 1991. These efforts were spearheaded by Emanuelis Zingeris, a Jewish member of the Lithuanian parliament and co-founder of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, who saw the economic potential of promoting Vilnius as an academic and tourist destination for Yiddish studies and culture. The city is now home to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, a Yiddish library, and the International Yiddish Center of the World Jewish Congress, as well as a research centre established in partnership with YIVO, the language’s governing body. Street signs in historically Jewish neighborhoods of the city contain the streets’ Yiddish names under their Lithuanian names, Plaques marking the homes of famous Vilnius Jewish writers abound.

To its credit, Katz says the Lithuanian government’s plaques do have an impact. ‘Yiddish was being accorded a status it does not have in New York or London or Jerusalem, with state plaques in Yiddish,’ he says. ‘The idea was, we are honoring the Yiddish heritage,’ something that is ‘very unique, beautiful and endangered,’ distinctly Eastern European, separate from American or Israeli or other postwar Jewish cultures. The problem, Katz says, is not that the Lithuanian and Vilnius governments are promoting Yiddish heritage, or even that they are drawing attention to its Lithuanian roots. ‘What’s so obnoxious,’ he says, is that Lithuanian nationalism ‘takes hard fought truths about Yiddish and then abuses them.’

Another truth is that essentially the only ways for a Yiddish speaker living in Lithuania during World War II to survive the Nazi invasion were if they had already been sent to a Soviet gulag, or fought with the partisans. (Some few hundred Lithuanian Christians also sheltered Jews during the Holocaust.) When the Lithuanian government denigrates the reputation of Jewish partisans, they also, in the process, smear the precious few remaining speakers of Lithuanian Yiddish.

Today, there about 3,000 Jews remaining in Lithuania. The majority do not speak Yiddish, and those that do are in their eighties and nineties. Katz’s Yiddish reading group has about 15 regular members, but he says the number is steadily decreasing due to deaths. And though Vilnius’ Jewish population is far from a cohesive bloc (a Lithuanian court had to step in in December 2017 to nullify the results of a contentious community election), there is considerable dissent over the government’s priorities when it comes to preserving Lithuania’s Yiddish heritage. For example, Katz says, the Vilnius Yiddish Institute is closed for 11 months of the year. There is little evidence that the government’s highly-publicised efforts to promote Yiddish are actually resulting in anything like increased Yiddish literacy. ‘It’s very strange that people who work there come to me to ask what a Yiddish word means, because it doesn’t pay for them to hire an all-year-round specialist from abroad,’ Katz says. It is also telling that Katz himself, a Yiddish scholar fluent in the language and with a pedigree that includes names like Oxford, Yale and Columbia, has to scrape together a living in the city doing freelance translation work, giving lectures to tour groups, and doing the occasional international lecture tour. ‘It’s a struggle,’ he says.

What Katz seems in some ways most disturbed by is the way in which Yiddish has been co-opted as a tool in the increasingly international spread of Holocaust Obfuscation. ‘If there were simply a group of anti-Semites, it wouldn’t bother me,’ he says. ‘What began to bother me was the successful export of the revised model via the EU and the big budget for Yiddish and Jewish grants to the West.’ In 2011, for example, the Lithuanian government funded an academic conference hosted by the Institute of Jewish Studies at University College London called ‘No Simple Stories: Jewish-Lithuanian relations between coexistence and violence.’ In the conference announcement, UCL Professor François Guesnet said attendees would hear ‘from specialists in interethnic violence theory, in order to understand the discrepancy between long centuries of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Lithuanians and the short period of extreme violence during World War Two.’

Guesnet, Katz says, ‘was manipulated from the very moment he formulated the premise for the conference,’ which ‘legitimised the Baltic model.’ The use of the phrase ‘interethnic violence’ implies that Jews were equally to blame for their fate during the Holocaust, and referring to the extermination of 95% of the country’s Jewish population as ‘a short period of extreme violence’ seems an understatement. On the one hand, Jewish Studies departments are not immune from the funding shortfalls that humanities departments around the world have faced in recent years. On the other side of the argument, as he seems to often find himself, is Katz. ‘All I can say is, living among the last very poor Jews in Eastern Europe and seeing the genocide’s results first-hand on ground zero of it, I have little sympathy for tenured professors in the west who can’t say no to a pot of lentils to change history.’

In an email exchange with Professor Guesnet, he said that the ‘No Simple Stories’ conference ‘had no connection to “Yiddish promotion” of the Lithuanian government, or none I’m aware of.’ When I replied with a Jewish Chronicle article that refers to the Lithuanian government’s co-sponsorship of the event, he admitted that the Lithuanian embassy had contributed ‘a quite limited amount of money’ toward travel expenses for Lithuanian participants. He also said that receiving such funding ‘is good practice in academic cooperation with foreign colleagues,’ and that his workshop was funded entirely by the Rothschild Foundation Europe without any government assistance.

Katz emphasizes that he is not motivated by any personal animosity or jealousy. ‘A lot of the work that gets done’ at the Yiddish cultural institutions in Vilnius ‘is good work. These are good people.’ What’s more, Katz expresses pride in his adopted home of Lithuania, which he calls ‘a delightful democracy.’ As for Yiddish, he says he has little concern for the future of the language, if not  the future of Yiddish Studies departments. On the one hand, as more and more Yiddish departments and academics become absorbed into larger, more general Judaic Studies departments, the spread of what Katz calls ‘Yiddishless Yiddish’ seems probable at least in the short term. Yiddish itself, on the other hand, is ‘thriving as a living language,’ with over a million speakers, primarily Haredi Jews in the United States, UK and Israel. And, he says, ‘Excellent work is being done in Yiddish studies by relating fields,’ like Slavic Studies and Germanic Studies. ‘You never know where the next wonderful professor is going to come from.’ What the field needs, in his opinion, are more endowed chairs with an explicit focus on living Yiddish, rather than a nostalgic, solely historical approach.

As for Holocaust Obfuscation, for the time being it does not seem to be going anywhere in Lithuania, or in Eastern Europe, for that matter. The Lithuanian government has declared 2018 the year of Adolfas Ramanauskas, a Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance fighter. This past year, the best-selling Lithuanian author Rūta Vanagaitė was blacklisted in her home country for saying that she had found evidence that Ramanauskas was a KGB informant. There is also some evidence to suggest that, while serving in a Lithuanian militia during World War II, Ramanauskas helped round up Jews to be slaughtered, even if he did not personally pull the trigger. Lithuanian ‘memory laws’ prohibit speaking ill of nationalist heroes (Vanagaitė could be the target of state prosecution). In neighboring Poland, the government is on the defensive after the country’s legislature passed a bill making it illegal to talk about Polish atrocities committed against Jews during the Holocaust. The ‘International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania’ – what Katz calls the ‘Red-Brown Commission’ for short – continues to move ahead with its investigations. If Lithuania is  truly to come to grips with its ugly history of Nazi collaboration, that would require knocking their patriotic heroes from their pedestals, much as slaveholders’ names and statues are being removed across the United States. Lithuanian nationalism is a tenuous thing. The small democracy has been independent for less than thirty years. Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union twice, the Nazis once, and there is a non-zero chance of another Russian invasion in the future. It is understandable, then, why the country’s politicians cling so tightly to nationalist narratives. If Yiddish is a useful tool to promote a narrative of a thriving multicultural past, if ‘Yiddish heritage’ projects can deflect attention from Lithuania’s collaborationist past, and can provide cover for the creation of a version of history that keeps their heroes in the best light, they will continue to use it.

In Abraham Karpinowitz’s short story ‘Vilna Without Vilna’ an elderly Holocaust survivor returns to his home city. He recalls his boyhood in Vilna as a pickpocket, and reflects on the fact that now, settled in Canada, he is ‘a big shot.’ ‘After all my years in the wide world,’ he thinks, ‘I’ve become a gentleman.’ As his mind wanders over the streets he knows so well, and as he remembers the cast of characters that used to inhabit them, he begins to realize more and more the awful reality that there is no one left who would remember him. ‘Now I’ve become respectable. But who will listen to me brag?’

The immensity of personal and intellectual devastation is the cloud that will forever hang over the history of the Yiddish language, nowhere more so than in Vilnius. And while any efforts to keep the language alive in any form should be applauded, those efforts must be made with respect to history as it happened, and to the few remaining survivors who carry on its legacy. Otherwise, Lithuania’s rich Yiddish heritage risks becoming nothing more than an empty display of mute plaques and tombstones, the language itself a prop to be used as others see fit.