Baltic Women Talk About Being Jewish

If you can do Rome in a day, it’s not unthinkable to do the Jewish history of Vilna in 24 hours. This is the Old Town where the venerated Gaon taught in the 18th century; these are the streets the Jews were forced into in the 20th. Those sweet gargoyles on a smooth coral façade? The remains of a vibrant Jewish theatre. That kindergarten? The location of a renowned Jewish library. At this corner, the Nazis installed a gate to lock in the ghetto’s residents, and this is the spot from which Jews began their march to death in the fields outside Vilna, in open pits at Ponar, on barges in the Baltic Sea.

Little more than a century ago, Vilna was known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” Some 40% of its 154,500 residents were Jewish. Today, about 4,000 Jews remain in all of Lithuania. How do they cope with their country’s Jewish past and present? I began to find out during a short visit there recently.

Fania Brantsovsky, 89, is the librarian of the Yiddish Institute of Vilnius University. She was a member of the communist youth movement in her teens; in the ghetto, she joined the underground. On September 23, 1943, slipping past truckloads of armed Germans, she headed into the countryside seeking Jewish partisans.

“First I went to say good-bye to my family,” Fania remembers. “Mama gave me all she had. Boiled peas, a piece of chocolate, a lipstick and a nice blue shirt.”

The next day, the Vilna ghetto was liquidated. Fania walked through Lithuanian fields and villages for two tense days before locating the partisans. She was given a rifle, then an automatic gun. For almost a year she survived in the forest, in crude shelters of earth. “We blasted trains and bridges, sawed down telegraph poles, placed explosives in the enemy’s equipment,” she recalls. “We shot and killed them. Yes, I killed them. Easily. With each and every shot I took revenge for my dear ones and thousands of others.”

She returned to Vilna after its liberation by the Soviets with her “true love,” a fellow partizaner named Mikhail. Hailed as heroes for having fought the fascists, they had great expectations of Lithuania’s post-war regime. “We believed in our country,” declares Fania, “in socialism, peace and justice.” History, however, is fickle. Their faith in Soviet power was dimmed in the ‘50s by its anti-Semitism, the Doctors’ Plot, and threats to Mikhail. Half a century later, Lithuania regained its independence, and in 2008 Fania confronted another historic aboutface: a Lithuanian campaign against Holocaust survivors — herself among them — who had escaped the ghettos and “committed war crimes” in the anti-Nazi resistance. Only in the past year has international pressure halted the investigation and derailed the campaign.

An icon of Jewish survival, Fania still goes to Ponar frequently with schoolchildren, foreign dignitaries, and tourists re-connecting to their past. Most of the ghetto’s inhabitants, her relatives included, were shot there. “The 100,000 or more Jews who are buried in these pits cannot tell their story. As long as my feet carry me, I will come here to tell it.”

Born in 1945, stage designer and artist Alexandra Jacovskyte is a generation younger than Fania. “During Soviet times, we knew little about the Shoah,” Alexandra observes. But she, and half her classmates, always knew they were Jewish. She had many friends who “didn’t marry Lithuanians, didn’t assimilate.” Most of them eventually made aliyah.

Alexandra, though, had been taught that one’s “national origins” were irrelevant. Lithuanians and Jews alike were brought up as Soviet citizens. “Nevertheless, even in independent Lithuania today, where I am a full Lithuanian citizen, I am not Lithuanian by origin — I am still zyd, a Jew.” Alexandra pauses. “When applying for a passport, Lithuanians now can choose to specify their national origins, Lithuanian or Jewish. I write, ‘I am a Jew’.”

Despite signs to the contrary, such as a neo-Nazi demonstration in Vilna last March, Alexandra maintains there is no anti-Semitism there today. She says she feels totally comfortable in contemporary Vilna. Her ex-husband is Lithuanian; her daughter “feels half Lithuanian, my son feels very Jewish.” Alexandra seems unenthusiastic about her son’s choice, about his attending synagogue, but grants that there is a sense of belonging among Jews.

“I felt it too,” she confesses, “when I came to Israel the first time with my father in 1990.” A smile warms her face when talking about her former classmates in Israel. “Of course we’re in touch, we’re like relatives!” she says. “They are happy in Israel. They are patriots.” Then she adds, a bit wistfully, “I came to visit Israel four and a half years ago. It was very beautiful. Like being at home.”

Israel actually was home for a while to Ruta Bloshtein, a religious woman who works at the Taharat HaKodesh Synagogue, the only one in Vilna open for prayers. Her 40-something face is sad, filled with stories that can’t be told during a brief encounter in the synagogue’s dim vestibule. “I lived in Petach Tikva for five years,” she says in fluent Hebrew. “First as a housecleaner, but then I learned Hebrew and got a job at a health clinic.” Her two children were small; bringing them up alone, in a foreign language and culture, was too much for her, and she returned to Lithuania. Now she is, as far as she knows, Vilna’s only Orthodox woman.

“Write down that I’d like to go back to Israel,” she says. “Write that I’d like to start another family there.” With a glimmer of hope in her eyes, she closes the door of the synagogue.