Places To Learn About Jewish History In Lithuania
If you caught my post about the 9th Fort in Kaunas back in late May, you'll have read about the horrific 50,000 or more Jewish and Lithuanian people murdered there from 1941 to 1943 during the Holocaust at the 9th Fort only. Though I feel like Lithuania, and the Baltics in general, are not learned about in history classes in the US, there is certainly an abundance of history and historical sites related to WWII and the Holocaust. And Lithuania has not forgotten this terrible history.
In this post, I'm going to focus on specific sites you can visit in and around Vilnius and Kaunas to learn more about Jewish life, culture, and conflict in historic Lithuania. I'm by no means an expert on WWII history, Jewish culture, or Lithuanian history, so consider this a starting place to begin your foray into this sad period of history. You'll also find information for learning more about your roots if your ancestors happened to flee Lithuania for America or elsewhere to escape the holocaust -- like my husband's did.
The Museum of Genocide Victims, known as the KGB Museum, is a shocking museum that clearly displays information about the daily life and history during the Soviet Occupation in Lithuania. The above ground floors display exhibits, photographs, and artifacts from Lithuanians who were persecuted and fought back for their freedom. The underground floors are very eerie and show KGB offices, prison cells, and killing rooms.
Vilnius Choral Synagogue
The Vilnius Choral Synagogue is the only remaining synagogue in Vilnius that is still in use. All other synagogues in Vilnius were damaged or destroyed during WWII.
Vilnius Gaon Statue
Next to the site of the former Great Synagogue in Vilnius (which is now an elementary school), visitors can find the Vilnius Gaon statue, commemorating Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman. This whole area (surrounding Zydu g. -- translating to Jewish Street), now housing apartments, shops, a playground, and restaurants, was a former Jewish ghetto during WWII. Several informative signs can be spotted providing information in English and Lithuania.
Jewish History Tour
Though I didn't have the opportunity to take the Jewish History Tour (a bucket list item never checked off), my mother-in-law did take a Jewish History Tour and said it was fascinating and sad (it is her ancestors that fled to the US just before the Holocaust). You can learn more about a guided Jewish history tour in Vilnius here.
Bagel Place & Community of Lithuanian Jews
Located on Pylimo g., the Community of Lithuanian Jews and an associated Bagel Cafe are places I'd suggest visiting to get a feel for the present day (and past) Jewish life in Vilnius. I've visited the Bagel Cafe several times, and their bagels are good, but what is really interested are the characters you get to meet during your visit. My M-I-L is a very friendly, chatty person, and struck up a conversation with a group of Jewish people from the UK with Lithuanian ancestry. They were doing a large tour of Lithuania with a focus on learning about their ancestors, and they were happy to share their experiences visiting the associated Community of Lithuanian Jews and the other sites they had seen.
As far as I understand, the Community of Lithuanian Jews is only open via appointment and does have some security. You can learn more on their website.
Center for the Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews
This educational center houses documentation and photographs of historic Vilnius and 27 other towns/cities that had large Jewish populations in Lithuania. From their website and center, you can learn more about historic Jewish life in Lithuania and follow along with their Discovery Jewish Lithuania app and website.
Green House Museum
The Green House Museum exhibits information about the Holocaust in Lithuania. I've not visited it so I can't say if information is in English, but you can read more about it on their website.
Jewish Cemetery Memorial
Formerly, a Jewish cemetery was located on the grounds of the Palace of Culture and Sports, but it was destroyed in the 1950s by the Soviets. There is grass and a small memorial now in its place.
Paneriai is a suburb of Vilnius, about 10 km away from the city center and old town. It was in this site that a massive massacre of 100,000 people were killed, including an estimated 70,000 Jewish people, as well as Polish and Russians -- I can't even wrap my mind around that number or that amount of violence. This is known as the Ponary Massacre.
If you visit today, you can see the killing fields and pits, memorials, and the Silent Forest of Paneriai meant for reflection and remembrance.
Chiune Sugihara was the Japanese consul to Lithuania before the outbreak of WWII. Sugihara was instrumental in helping Jewish and Polish people flee Eastern Europe and safely resettle elsewhere. In Kaunas, on former embassy row, you can visit Sugihara's former house and office -- the exact place where he made the brave decision to go against his government and help people because they needed it.
The 9th Fort was the most powerful place I visited in Lithuania (I haven't visited all of the above mentioned sites). The memorial at the 9th Fort was haunting yet stunning and I'll never forget the feeling of anger and sadness that I experienced while visiting. If possible, I'd recommend visiting the 9th Fort without active toddlers (or take turns with your partner) as I was unable to fully attend to the exhibits inside the museum, which were really bone chilling.
Located north of Kaunas, Kedainiai is one of the oldest cities in the country and has numerous historical buildings that weren't demolished during Soviet times. The city features old cobblestone streets lined with churches, a minaret, and two synagogues. Currently, visitors can find the Big Summer Synagogue and Small Winter Synagogue as well as several memorials and monuments. The larger of the two synagogues is set upon a square where a Jewish market was held. Kedainiai is another spot in Lithuania that I didn't get the chance to visit, but I am still hoping to make it here in the future. You can plan your visit to Kedainiai using the tourism board's website.
As I've said above, I'm not an expert in history or in Jewish culture, but I think many people are as unaware as I was about the toll that WWII and the Holocaust took on the people of Lithuania -- both Jewish and not Jewish.