Imagining an Alternate History in Lithuania: A Jew in the Motherland

The building that once housed the Hebrew high school of Panevėžys (Ponevezh).


I, your faithful correspondent from the Colonial Motherland, just spent six days in the other motherland – Lithuania, the place from which most of my ancestors came. Other than a return in the 1990’s by my Holocaust-survivor maternal grandmother, and a similarly timed visit by my paternal grandparents, none of my “nearby” extended family had been to Lithuania in about seventy years.

What drew me back? In part there is a certain enjoyment I have – despite my complaints about Ashkenormativity – in being a Litvak. Lita brings to my mind a certain sort of rootedness, as well as the rye bread, pickled herring, and peppery gefilte fish (certainly not sweet) my grandparents fed me as a child. There was also a sense of “this is where things started”: before one brave great-grandparent set out 120 years ago to South Africa, my ancestors had been in Lithuania for centuries. Part of me wanted to honor the relatives – including my mother’s half-sister – who had been decimated by the Shoah. Finally, I’ve been entangled in an increasingly drawn-out attempt to gain Lithuanian citizenship by descent, given a new law granting the descendants of Holocaust survivors citizenship of the country. (Obviously, I would keep my other passports.)

So for much of the past few months, part of my mind had been on Lithuania – and when the opportunity came to go, I booked a ticket. Though it was fresh off the heels of a class trip elsewhere, to Morocco, I decided to take advantage of the time – then thanked God very much for the ability to travel so much.

And so I spent six days in Lithuania: three in Vilnius, most of a day in my grandmother’s hometown of Panevėžys (Ponevezh), and two days in Kaunas (Kovno). While there, I did some of the typical Jewish sight-seeing: the Jewish and Holocaust Museums in Vilnius, the destroyed cemetery of Panevėžys, and the Sugihara House and Ghetto Memorial in Kaunas. I met with some of the members of Lithuania’s Jewish community at the remaining synagogue in Vilnius and at the Sugihara House in Kaunas. I left stones at memorials, and stared in interest at restaurant menus as I saw familiar Ashkenazi foods described as “authentically Lithuanian”: kreplach as koldunai, blintzes as lietiniai, and kugel as … kugelis.

In some cases, the Jewish memory of Lithuania is remembered and kept alive. A street is named in Vilnius for the famed theological genius the Vilna Gaon, and my hosts in Kaunas were involved in the preservation of lost synagogues across rural Lithuania. Memorials in Lithuanian and Yiddish or Hebrew pepper Kaunas and Vilnius, marking the sites of Nazi atrocities and the residences of important Jewish figures. Young, educated, urban Lithuanians seemed at least somewhat aware of both Jewish history in Lithuania and the presence of Lithuanian collaborators at the heart of Nazi atrocities in the country.

Yet in other cases the Jewish memory of Lithuania is erased. Almost nothing beyond plaques and a few stone markers remains of the Jewish history in Panevėžys and much of Kaunas; streets are named after the Lithuanian nationalists and Provisional Government that either excluded Jews from the “Lithuanian nation” or, in the latter case, collaborated with the Nazi occupation. The abuses of the KGB and Soviet Union and the Holocaust are made equivalent or twin, and the nationalism in Lithuania is often strong. In short, much of Lithuanian society has yet – as many commentators such as Dovid Katz (no relation) have pointed out – to do a full reckoning of historical and present anti-Semitism. As a poster of the Jewish museum in Vilnius said, “How is a Jewish citizen of the Republic supposed to feel?”

These matters are easily depressing. So I tried something else: imagining my ancestors there. What did Kaunas’ Slobodka or the then-Jewish center of Panevėžys look like in the early 20th century?

And then I came to imagine a second thing: what if we had not been killed or forced to leave? What would Lithuania look like then?

It is horrifically painful to make a counterfactual around the Holocaust while standing on the soil where it took place. This exercise reminds you of how much was lost, how many futures were destroyed, how many of our people were ruthlessly mowed down. But to imagine this idea is to also honor their memory. Would we have still had a flourishing Jewish community in Lithuania? Would we have seen Yiddish street signs and national news broadcasts? Would restaurants advertise Žydų sultinys (Jewish broth)? Would there have been a Jewish head of state? Unfortunately, the answer is probably not – we may have also been shipped off to Siberia like so many others. Perhaps there would have been a whole generation of “Siberians” who had been sent there by Stalin. But to imagine Jews – in kippot, discussing how they stayed up past sha’a zmanit, wondering about the article they read in a Yiddish newspaper, or if there is kosher food in Vievis – in places that were robbed of them is to put light to one small part (imagined, admittedly) of the dreams and futures destroyed by the Nazis.

Lithuania rejoices, in some part, in its national culture – and in the new-found homogeneity and dominance of “Lithuanian” identity after independence in 1991. Yet this homogeneity was only possible by our annihilation. What underwrites the celebration of the new Lithuania – where Lithuanian is spoken, where one Lithuanian culture is celebrated – is the absence of another Lithuanian culture and the Lithuanian dialect of another language. Admittedly, ethnic Lithuanians have a right to enjoy and celebrate their culture, but it makes it no less painful for the Jewish observer to watch. Yet the ghosts of Jews are still present throughout Lithuania today. Words from Yiddish are found in the spoken language, and the buildings built for Jewish communities now house Lithuanians in city centers across the country. Sometimes, one even finds the fading paint of Yiddish signs.

And Jews remain – in small numbers, but they remain. In the Vilnius synagogue, some still speak the Vilnius dialect of Yiddish. The rabbi gives his sermon in Lithuanian. There is a sense of rootedness in the land and the area, pride in the Jewish history of Vilnius and a sense that every prayer is an act of continuity. Perhaps this rootedness provides a hint as to the future of Jewish heritage in Lithuania. We Jews may be mostly “gone,” but as long as even a few Jews remain, a few others continue to remember Lita, and the names of the ghosts are not forgotten, Jewish Lithuania will not be dead. God willing.


Jonathan P. Katz is an American studying at Oxford University.

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