Prof. M. Zalkin: ,,To Remember or to Forget – There is no Other Option!”

9 May, 2018

Twenty-three years ago, in a sunny day of late May 1994, I arrived at Vilnius. The purpose of this visit, my first one to this city, was to review historical documents, kept in local archives, as part of my doctoral research. Since I had no idea how I am going to find my way in a city that had just opened its gates to visitors from the west, during the days preceding the trip I had studied the city’s map by heart. Actually, I studied the map of pre Second World War Vilnius old town. Yet, as soon as I arrived at Vilnius, I felt an irresistible urge to get to know the city, to feel her, to see, in my own eyes, whether this is indeed the city I have read and learned so much about. Thus, on the same evening, when the darkness covered the city and just a few lanterns gave off a faint light, I began to wander through its streets. I did not set a clear destination to this wandering, probably because following years of reading many of the city’s sites were “familiar” to me. Yet, even though I felt as if I were walking in the streets of Jerusalem, my birthplace, I still wondered which direction to choose. Will I look for the building of the rabbinic seminary, in which many of the local Maskilim, the heroes of my research, studied? Or would I wander the Jewish street [Žydu gatve], imagining Jews hurrying to pray as they made their way through the many stalls located on both sides of the narrow street? Perhaps I will pay a visit to the Holy of the Holies, the study room of the Gaon of Vilna? However, before I reached a decision about my desired destination I realized that my feet led me directly to the heart of “Jerusalem of Lithuania”, to the Shulhoif [The synagogue courtyard].

Thus, beginning in the crossroad of Zawalna and Trakų gatve, I strolled down Dominikanų gatve, turned right to Stiklų, again right to Žydu gatve, and here I am! Right in front of what once had been the Shulhoif’s gate. I knew, of course, that the great synagogue of Vilnius, as well as the entire Shulhoif that surrounded it, are no longer exist. Nevertheless, in my heart, in my soul, I felt that I am standing in the very heart of Jewish Vilnius.

Since that day I have been visiting Vilnius every year. Usually, several times a year. Over the years I have become familiar with its neighborhoods and gardens, streets and alleyways, churches and museums, and certainly with most of its Jewish sites. Sometimes I found myself walking in Zawalna gatve, watching the unique design of the choral synagogue and imagine the bustle of students playing at the Epstein Gymnasium’s yard. Exchanging a few sentences with Dr. Zemach Shabad at the corner of Mesinių and Dysnos. listening to the monotonous noise of the printing presses at the Romm printing house in Švento dvasios gatve, while hoping to meet the famous owner, Dvorah. But always, on every single visit, I returned to my most favorite site, the Shulhoif. I walk around in its courtyards, imagining every synagogue, every Shtibel, every Kloiz. I walked around just like walking in my own backyard.

I have often thought to myself, what draws me once and again to this place? What was in this place, for which the poem “Vilna”, composed by the poet Zalman Shneur, begins and ends in the old synagogue? Why the poet Moshe Kulbak, a native of Vilnius, finished his famous poem, Vilna, by the words: “On the old synagogue, a frozen water carrier, small beard titled, stands counting the stars”? As I delved deeper into the history of Vilnius, and not only of its Jewish past, it seems to me that I found a possible answer to this question. Ostensibly, the meaning of the term Shulhoif is a courtyard of a synagogue. However, in the case of Vilnius, it was not just the space surrounding the local old house of prayer. There were dozens of synagogues in Vilnius, many hidden in inner courtyards, Hoifs, as local Jews called them. Yet, this special courtyard was unique. It was the beating heart of “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. The point around which the lives of the city’s Jews, scholars, rich merchants and poor peddlers, schoolchildren and students from the nearby university, were centered. Some came to pray, others to beg for the recovery of a sick child. Some rushed to listen to a sermon delivered by a talented preacher, others to meet a friend. There were those who came to support the poor and the disabled who sat on both sides of the path leading to the synagogue’s entrance, others to buy books or to sell some second hand objects in order to support their families. And most probably one could notice a few pickpockets and thieves, waiting for an occasional rich worshipers. This description is not, however, a kind of a nostalgic longing to an imagined past. Despite my fondness for the city and its past, as an historian I always try to focus on a rational examination of the subject at hand. Thus, if we look at the old city road map we will immediately notice that the expression “The city’s heart”, or, in this case, “The Jewish neighborhood’s heart”, is quiet accurate. Whether you came from the south or the north, from east or west, from Žydu gatve or Vockečiu gatve, from Dominikanų gatve or from what was known as Ramailes alley, all the ways of Jewish Vilna led here. When I say “here”, I don’t mean the synagogue alone, but the entire Shulhoif. The most vibrant space of Jewish life. It was the heart, the essence and the symbol of identity of the local Jewish community. At its inception – one building that served as a prayer house, and at its end – a complex of synagogues, study houses, ritual baths, charitable institutions, and above all – a space where anybody could find his own place, could feel at home. A whole world. And up until today it is the most significant testimony to this community’s glorious past.

However, this complex was unique also from the general urban perspective. You could not find a similar phenomenon in Warsaw or Minsk, Moscow or St. Petersburg, Cracow or Lublin, Odessa or Berlin, Budapest or London. In all these cities, and in many others, the great synagogues stood on the main street. Thus, for instance, the great synagogue of Berlin was known as the Oranienburger Strasse synagogue; The great synagogue of Warsaw stood at Ulica Tlomackie; In Minsk in Volodarskogo vulica; In Kaunas at the crossroads of Ožeškienes and Jeruzales, and in St. Petersburg in Lermontovsky prospekt. This phenomenon was not coincidental. The Jewish communities in these cities wanted to demonstrate a significant presence in the public sphere, and nothing then a large and magnificent synagogue on the main street could better realize this goal. However, Vilnius is neither Berlin, nor Warsaw, Minsk, Grodno, Kaunas or St. Petersburg. The city, as a whole, is fundamentally different. Unlike these cities Vilnius is characterized by its modesty. It has neither magnificent palaces of kings, nor princes’ gardens. Its various communities converged within themselves, each around the shrine that defines its collective identity, may it be of a religious nature, national, or both – Vilniaus pilys, Matka Boza Ostrobramska, and the Shulhoif. Each one of these sites characterized by its uniqueness, surrounded by its invisible aura. Each one of them exists by its own right, and by the grace of those who look up to him. Actually, however, if you watch the city from the Trijų kryžių kalnas, you could easily notice that they were “observe” each other’s as if they were bound together forever. These were the three hearts of Vilnius, a certain type of a “Holy Trinity”, which resembles Jerusalem of the south, whose “blood circulation” flows through three different hearts – the Muslim Al-Aqsa mosque, the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Jewish Western Wall. Take one of these hearts, either in Vilnius or in Jerusalem – you took not only the soul of its community but a part of the soul of the entire city. This holy triangle of Vilnius created a unique model of closeness between the various communities that lived among its three poles, these three sanctuaries. Thus, for example, despite the feeling of alienation, and in times – of hostility, between the Great Synagogue of Vilnius and the nearby Šventosios Dvasios bažnyčia, for three hundred years these two shrines, and no less important – their congregations, stood side by side in a state of a Modus Vivendi. Each community maintained its uniqueness, and at the same time respected the uniqueness of the neighboring community. For both were an integral part of the complex and the delicate fabric of this wonderful city. Yet, the Jewish community, as a religious and national minority group, naturally withdrew into itself, while the Shulhoif, hidden between courtyards and portals, created for this community a separate, unique living space.

Over the years, many conquerors came to the gates of Vilnius, all tried to erase her unique identity, to recount her story. To call its streets by the names of foreign rulers, to silence the voices of prayers heard from its churches and synagogues, to eliminate the city’s soul. Thus, when the great synagogue and the entire Shulhoif were destroyed, this one heart of the city ceased to beat, and a bleeding wound opened wide in the soul of Vilnius.  All these attempts, however, were doomed to failure. The very essence of the city was preserved. There is no way one can totally uproot the city’s  hearts. The city’s sons and daughters would never let it happen, despite the enormous willpower required, the many tears that were shed and the sacrifices that were sacrificed in the struggle to restore the city’s dignity, its identity. And when the sun shone again, and the “Laisves Aleja” reopened, it seemed as if the city restored its glorious days. Well, almost. As long as the Shulhoif stands in desolation, one of the city’s hearts is missing.

Over the past twenty-six years the town surrounded the Shulhoif has been slowly restored. Many of its houses has been renovated, its streets are again full of life, as if the prophecy of the prophet Zechariah was already fulfilled: “Thus said the Lord: There shall yet old men and old women sit in the streets of Jerusalem [of Lithuania], every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets”. Nevertheless, around the Shulhoif, the sigh of the remembering and painful old people overcame the joy of the playing children. As if someone, or something, stopped the flow of life in this site. As if this place has a life of its own. And the place waited. Waited for the time when the city’s fathers and residents would feel that they could no longer bear its humiliation. The constitutive moment that perpetuates the collective memory, for the present generation and for generations to come.

Ladies and gentlemen. We are not exempt from remembering. We are committed to it. The other side of the coin is forgetfulness. We do not have this privilege. When I say “we”, I mean all of us. The residents of Vilnius, as well as those of us who do not live here, but Vilnius is close to their hearts. Not only Vilnius of past times, but also Vilnius of today.

The past, however, can not be restored. And as a matter of fact we do not want to restore it but to preserve its memory. How shall we do that? Memory and recollection need an anchor, a focus, an object that distracts one’s attention from the current course of life and focuses it on a certain figure, a significant event or a specific place. This shift involves a struggle. The mind, the omnipotent ruler of man’s consciousness, is mainly concerned with what is happening here and now. Some people say that the memory should be focused on the catastrophe, the tragedy, the struggle for survival. On the last four years of Jewish life in Vilnius. And in the context of Vilnius, there are seventy thousands good reasons supporting this argument, the number of local Jews who were murdered in Paneriai. Of course, we are obliged to remember these terrible years. However, focusing mainly on this terrible events, means one – placing death and destruction as the main subjects of memory. In other words, forgetfulness, not to say forgetting, of hundreds of years of rich and vibrant Jewish life in Vilnius. As if the streets surrounding the Shulhoif never experienced moments of Joy and sadness, of happiness and of desolation. As if many thousands of Jewish boys and girls never walked through these streets on their way to the Heder or to the school’s classroom. Downtrodden laborers never made their way to earn a living for their families. Yeshiva students did not hurry to their study houses. Young athletes never run to the “Maccabi” boats anchorage on the Vilija riverbank. Enthusiastic socialists did not confront the police protesting against the regime’s injustices. Doctors and nurses could not be seen on their way to the nearby hospital. All these men and women who formed one of the three beating hearts of Vilnius, the Jewish heart. To their memory we are committed. For them, for us, for the city and for generations to come.

We, historians, usually believe that the best way to preserve the past, or, at least, the memory of the past, is through a research and the publication history books. Nevertheless, with all the importance I, as an historian, attribute to this approach, it should be remembered that it does not provide a satisfactory answer to the dilemma of how to present the past, in its various aspects, in the public sphere. Some will say – “That which has been is that which shall be”. Let the Shulhoif remains in desolation as an evidence to what was here and no longer exists. In life, however, and certainly in the public consciousness, there is no vacuum. Desolation is by no mean a type of a memory. It does not “speak” to those who live nearby, and obviously to the passersby. And where there is no memory, forgetfulness prevails. There is no middle way. Where forgetfulness prevails, the story of the place can be reshaped to suit the interest of those who have no real interest in its historical significance. Many are the forces that prefer oblivion to memory, and when given authority they will do everything in their power to materialize it. Not only forgetting the synagogue and the surrounding Shulhoif, but also forgetting the very existence of vibrant Jewish life in “Jerusalem of Lithuania”. In an era when the widespread perception that there is no absolute truth and everything is relative prevails, the curse of oblivion flourishes. I can not imagine that for Vilnius, and obviously for its inhabitants, oblivion is a legitimate option.

Some say, Vilna’s people are her memory. Let us preserve the memory of the unique Jewish men and women that lived in this city. Among them were the Vilna Gaon and rabbi Haim Ozer Grodzinski. The poets Adam Ha-Kohen, Judah Leib Gordon and Moshe Kulbak. Historian and educator Samuel Joseph Finn, and the book collector Matias Strashun. Dvora Romm, the owner of the most famous printing and publishing house, and the most influential cultural agent in nineteenth century Jewish world. The beloved Dr. Zemach Shabad that served his people as the head of the Jewish community, and the girl’s school principle Sophia Gurevich. The musician Yasha Heifetz, the linguist Max Weireich, and Aba Kovenr, the commander of the united Partisans organization. They all represent the different and multi-colored faces of the Jewish public of Vilna. A wonderful and colorful gallery of exemplary figures who were the pride of the entire city, whose deeds are the best memory of the society in which they lived. Others will say, the memory of Jewish Vilnius will be preserved neither by monuments nor by commemorating human beings, since both are ephemeral. As the ancient Jewish saying: “It is imperative for the dead to be forgotten from the hearts”. Therefore, Vilna’s artistic, intellectual, literary, poetic and spiritual works will serve as a testimony of its glorious times.

Indeed, Jewish Vilnius was a place of letters and books. The writings of its sages, the poetry of its poets, and above all – the unique Vilna edition of the Babylonian Talmud, are her memory. However, as time passed by, this wonderful world of spiritual creativity has not only becomes alien and distant to most of its targeted audience. Moreover. By the moment these works were published, they were not considered anymore as the exclusive domain of the sages of Vilna. From then on it was the domain of its customers. Every Yeshiva student is familiar with the Vilna Talmud. Nevertheless, if you ask him what is Vilna? He will most probably mention the name of the Vilna Gaon, and nothing else. Vilna, in this context, is mentioned as an addendum to his name, not in its own right. In this way, Vilna’s memory will certainly not be preserved.

Another memory conservation strategy focuses on the surviving Jewish sites in Vilnius. The Jewish theatre, the seminary for rabbis, the buildings of the Tarbut and Tushia Hebrew gymnasiums, the choral synagogue, the Romm printing house, and many others, all testify to the richness of Jewish life in Vilnius. Why, ask those who are in favor of this option, should we concentrate on the preservation of a single site, of the Shulhoif? Maybe a decentralized preservation may express the nature and the diversity of the Jewish community more intensely. This perception, in my opinion, is problematic for two reasons. The first one is that the dispersion of these institutions throughout the city’s various neighborhoods was a reflection of the settlement distribution of the local Jewish society. As the years passed, and with the changes of the city’s urban-demographic fabric, these buildings, which once served the local Jewish population, have changed their roles accordingly. The Romm printing house, which was converted into a residential complex, is an unequivocal evidence of this inevitable process. Secondly, it is not possible to preserve an entire city as an historical site. It has not been done anywhere, and Vilnius, a vibrant city, is not exceptional. It is possible, however, to preserve a defined site.

The main reason for the problematic nature of all the above-mentioned approaches is that these institutions, intellectuals, sages, artists and poets, important, appreciated and beloved as they were, are all-secondary to the Shulhoif. This site was, and as I feel still is, the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. They, all of them, people, books and institutions, those I mentioned and many others that I did not, were only parts of the great whole, of the site that once represented the very essence of Jewish Vilna, and is supposed to preserve its memory for the future.

In recent decades, we have witnessed various ways in which different cities throughout Europe preserve the memory of the pre-Holocaust local Jewish life. Some built impressive monuments. Other erected new prayer houses on the ruins of the old synagogues, whether in order to restore, partially or completely, the lost ones, like the Oranienburger Shtrasse synagogue in Berlin, or by building a completely different synagogues such as the new synagogue in Dresden, Germany. Others chose to emphasize the absence, such as the one hundred and forty empty chairs, placed on the site of the ruined old synagogue in Leipzig. In addition, there is always the option of a museum as a platform to preserve the local collective history, such as the large museum established recently in Warsaw. In the case at hand, this solution seems irrelevant. Not only because there is already a Jewish museum in Vilnius, but also because museums, attractive as they might be, are closed compounds. By nature, their accessibility to the public is limited. The very idea of preserving the Shulhoif site is to create an element, which will be an integral part of the public domain of the old city of Vilnius, seen and accessible to every passerby.

Ladies and Gentlemen. “All the streams go to the sea”, said King Solomon. All the rivers of memory, longing, sadness and hope of Jewish Vilnius go to only one place – the Shulhoif. Concerning the question at hand, however, there is no third way. Either to remember, or to forget. This is not a hypothetical dilemma. The forgetfulness is already here, on our doorstep. One-generation passes away, and another generation comes. The generation of Holocaust survivors is passing away, and for the next generations Jewish Vilnius will remain a vague memory, if at all. If nothing will be done now it is doubtful if it will ever be done. The task that the people of “Litvak World” took upon themselves is of paramount importance, far beyond the immediate project of the preservation of the Shulhoif. The great deed, whose seeds are sown here today, is an expression of the recognition of the importance of the third heart of Vilnius, the Jewish heart, for this unique city.


Prof. Motti Zalkin, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel


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