Trying to re-create the past


VILNIUS, Lithuania - A small memorial plaque in a quiet residential courtyard in the heart of Vilnius is the only hint of the rich Jewish life that once revolved around this neighborhood in a city formerly dubbed "the Jerusalem of the North."

But it is here, in the Old Town of the Lithuanian capital, that work is about to begin on a highly ambitious and controversial multimillion-dollar project to rebuild Vilnius's lost Jewish quarter.

Before World War II, the Baltic city was a European center of Yiddish learning and home to a thriving Jewish community that made up 40 percent of its population. The city had 100 synagogues and just as many Jewish business, community and cultural organizations.

But it was all lost during the Nazi occupation: 94 percent of the country's 220,000 Jews were murdered and the buildings in the quarter were devastated. What shells remained after the war were finally razed by the Communist regime during the 1950s.

Now, 60 years later, an unprecedented effort has begun to reconstruct more than 20 lost buildings in the former Jewish quarter using old documents and photographs. At the heart of the plan is rebuilding the 17th-century Great Synagogue, which was one of the largest in Europe. The project that would not only cost an estimated $30 million, but would involve demolishing a large brick kindergarten building that now stands on the site.

Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest opposition comes from Lithuania's Jewish Community, which insists such money could be better spent on helping the 5,000 Jews across the country instead of re-creating history.

"We are a very poor Jewish community and this kind of money could do so much more good by supporting our members and helping to fund our cultural programs," Simon Alperovich, chairman of Lithuania's Jewish Community, says.

Noting a worrying rise in anti-Semitism in the former Soviet republic, Alperovich says such funds could also be used to publish school books educating young people about the Holocaust.

The only surviving synagogue seems somewhat lost in a city notable for its huge colorful cake-like cathedrals and churches on every corner, but Alperovich questions the need for more.

"It is a lot of money," he says, "and I don't believe that we need another synagogue or that we should destroy a school to build it."

Roza Bieliauskiene, chief curator of the Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, agrees.

"At the moment there are between 10 and 20 people attending regular services at the synagogue; after decades of Communism Jews are not used to openly expressing their beliefs," she says. "Why would we need another one?"

Members of the community, saying they have been shut out of the planning process, also fear that commercial interests could lead to tasteless activities being set up on the site of what was a Jewish ghetto from 1941 to 1944.

"We cannot agree to a plan whereby nightclubs, bars and restaurants would be set up on the site of a former Jewish ghetto and turn it into an area for joy," says Alperovich.

Although the City Council has approved the reconstruction plan, it says it cannot afford to directly pay for it and must seek private resources instead.

A tender for the first plot of land in the old Jewish quarter has just been held and a developer chosen. Under the conditions of the contract, leaseholders will be bound to rebuild the historic buildings as a residential area according to the original designs and will sublet commercial space in the ground floor of each building.

"We believe it is very important to show Vilnius's Jewish heritage; without it this is a city missing some of its colors. But it is up to the Cultural Fund to raise the money through grants and private funds as we just don't have the many millions needed for it," Dalia Bardauskiene, adviser to Vilnius' mayor, says. Meetings are continuing with the developer to determine what kind of businesses would be housed in the new buildings.

The decision to launch the work comes after years of campaigning by Lithuania's Jewish Cultural Heritage Support Fund, an independent NGO, to win backing for the project.

Under the plan a small row of shops and houses which survived in Zydu Gatve (Lithuanian for "Jewish Street"), next to the site of the Great Synagogue, would also be renovated and turned into a center for Jewish studies and exhibitions, says Emanuelis Zingeris, head of the heritage fund.

Lithuania's admission to the European Union this May makes the project even more crucial, argues Zingeris.

"We must build a proper memorial to Vilnius's rich Jewish history so that people acknowledge the past," says the former member of Lithuania's parliament. "How can we become a real part of Europe without clearly demonstrating our cultural diversity and heritage?"

Zingeris, who lost 60 relatives in the Holocaust, believes the project would educate Lithuanians about the country's little-known Jewish history.

"Most people know very little about how many Jews were killed and how extensive Jewish life was here," he says.

It would also bring a wave of tourists from all over the world, he says.

Before the war, Vilnius was acclaimed by Jews all over Europe for its thriving Yiddish-language theaters, libraries and schools. It had seven Yiddish newspapers and was home to the famed Yiddish Institute of Higher Learning (YIVO) and the Strashum Library, which housed the world's largest collection of Yiddish-language books.

Nearly everything was destroyed by the Nazis.

In principle, Bardauskiene says, the City Council was committed to demolishing the kindergarten and rebuilding a new one elsewhere to make way for a new synagogue.

"But it is a very politically sensitive issue and it will take a lot of money," she says. "Whether it can be rebuilt to resemble the same synagogue on the same scale remains to be seen."

Zingeris says trying to secure private donations for the project is difficult.

"So far we don't have a single penny in our pockets," he says, "but I am determined to see this through even if it takes 20 years or more to complete."

He insists "tasteless" types of businesses would not be permitted in and around Zydu Gatve but concedes there may be less control of what exactly the buildings are used for in other parts of the old town.

Zingeris also hopes that the reconstructed Jewish quarter will attract many tourists. Jews visiting from abroad, he says, repeatedly ask where the former Jewish quarter is.

"This could never be a renaissance of the Jewish community when 94 percent were killed, but we must properly acknowledge the past and show just how important Vilnius was as a Jewish center," insists Zingeris.

Public opinion on the undertaking, however, is divided.

Some pensioners argue that Jewish life was so rich here before the war that something of it must be restored to remind today's generation what once existed. And some local shopkeepers also welcome the extra trade that tourism would bring.

Some members of younger generations, however, disagree.

What is the point of spending so much money re-creating something that is long gone, they ask.

It won't bring anyone back, opponents to the project contend, and history will go on, unchanged.

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