THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Vilnius was like a Mediterranean city!
“Vilnius was like a Mediterranean city. Lithuania before Holocaust was a society of love, full of colourful life and warm interaction between people. Imagine that here, in the street we are sitting, the windows would now be open, the mothers would be shouting to their children, and the street would be filled with joyful people discussing, singing, reading and mingling in a happy crowd of friends, colleagues and visitors.”
Stikliai Hotel’s outdoor café at Gaono Street was the venue for my talk with Emmanuel Zingeris a late September afternoon when the temperature still could remind a lively town on a more southern latitude. The café, however, is located only a few metres away from one of the infamous gates that during the war-time fenced in a whole population of Jews in Vilnius Old Town, reminding us about the incomprehensible tragedy this city was undergoing when 95% of its 80.000 Jewish inhabitants were murdered. No other Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe was so comprehensively destroyed.
Emmanuel Zingeris (53) was born in Kaunas in a family of Lithuanian Jewish survivors. His mother, Polina Tatarski, became a prisoner of a Kaunas ghetto in the year she ended Lithuanian secondary school. From the ghetto she was deported to a German concentration camp in Stutthof. After the war she was engaged as a physician. His father, Mykolas Zingeris, fought against Nazis in Lithuanian division of the Soviet army and was a teacher of English after the war.
Zingeris began his life-long efforts for the Lithuanian Jewish community already as a young student, in 1983, when he attempted to open a show of Lithuanian Jewish cultural heritage at Vilnius University, where he was studying Lithuanian literature. He also became a leading politician in the Conservative party with Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, and has later been elected to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on looted Jewish cultural assets. He has been Chairman of the international Commission for the Evaluation of Crimes Committed by the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes of Lithuania, he is a member of the Lithuanian delegation to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, a member of the Committee on Culture and Education of the Assembly, and has been President of the Jewish Community of Lithuania and Director of the Tolerance Centre in Vilnius.
This is the brief background of the man who for twenty years now has been in the forefront for the Jews in Lithuania, and my first question to him was about who these Jews are.
Rotuses Square, Vilnius, 1905.
These were my questions to Mr. Zingeris, and, even more important, his answers:
You are today one of the few Litvak Jews in Lithuania, whereas the majority of Jews here now are of Russian origin. Can you tell me more about the Litvaks, the people who constituted such a great part of Lithuania’s population and history for hundreds of years?
Litvaks are the descendents of the big migration group of Jews (Ashkenazim) that left from Western and Central Europe, mostly Germany, starting in the 14th century. They were renowned for their strong religious feelings, intellectual rationalism, intellectual approach, learning and spiritual matters as well as to day-to-day affairs. All of that distinguished them from the others and they became known as Litvaks. Litvaks are all Jews who resided in the territories of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In our times, due to the emigration of Lithuanian Jews and their high status, Litvaks and Litvak traditions have spread all over the world, in particular to Israel, South Africa and the United States.
The Litvaks came to the Grand Duchy from Western Europe due to pursuit reasons, but what was it that made Lithuania such a unique place and important cultural centre, carrying a weight far greater than its relative size in Jewish history?
Here the Litvaks found an umbrella for flourishing. Lithuania was cold by temperature but warm in its welcoming atmosphere for the Litvaks. The Grand Duchy represented the safe haven these people hadn’t seen earlier on their wanderings from the German areas, and before that from the Mediterranean shores of the Roman Empire. They brought their Southern European features with them here, which is why Vilnius became such an exotic city over hundreds of years. At the same time they were people with deep religious belief who for centuries had been developing very strong traditions of culture and intellectual activity, and in Lithuania they found the freedom that gave them the opportunity to make these qualities flourish. Lithuania was truly a multicultural paradise where the special mixture of Mediterranean and Nordic features brought really fantastic results – until it all was so brutally terminated during the years of 1940-44.
Do you see any possibility for the Litvak culture to start growing again?
No. There is no chance. There were simply killed too many for that. The parent stock of our people is destroyed forever. Holocaust made an effective end to the Litvak people and its amazing culture.
Have you ever reflected on why the Nazis were so determined to kill the Jews?
I believe it was because the Jews always were in opposition to the Nazis pathetic constructions of a heroic society. Jews represented the best brains in Germany as well as in many other countries, often thinkers ahead of their own time, and the Nazi rulers felt threatened in their attempts to recreate neo-romantic ideologies, like in the Nibelung (Nazi Germany's main defence fortification was called the "Siegfried Line," after the mythic hero in Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung). The Jews were sitting in their cafés laughing at the rulers, and as Hitler said in his famous speech from the 30th of January 1939, that “You are still laughing, but not much longer”.
(What Hitler said in this speech, was: ”During my struggle for power, the Jews primarily received with laughter my prophecies that I would someday assume the leadership of the state and thereby of the entire nation and then, among many other things, achieve a solution of the Jewish problem. I suppose that meanwhile the laughter of Jewry in Germany that resounded then is probably already choking in their throats”).
Already as a young student at the Vilnius University you became active in the Lithuanian resistance fight against the Soviet rulers?
Yes, and I can tell you that it was not an easy task, of several reasons. I was called by my relatives in Israel and South Africa and asked why I tried to help Lithuania when it in this country had been such big groups that had collaborated with the Nazis, helping them in killing the Jews, and it was of course also not easy to convince the West that the time had come for a free Lithuania at the same time as the Soviets used all possible tricks in order to stop our “revolutionary activities”. Let me add that all my people, and also all official Jewish leaders, became very pro Lithuania’s fight for freedom when they understood the importance this country’s fight had for the resistance against the Soviets.
You were fighting against the Soviets side-by-side with professor Vytautas Landsbergis. How would you define him?
I have great admiration both for the person and for his courage. I was with him to Moscow several times, and I saw him moment after moment stand in front of the huge groups of generals and politicians explaining and fighting for Lithuania’s freedom, and in this aspect I am disappointed to see that the people of Lithuania has not shown this man the respect he deserves, trying to understand the importance of seeing his actions by then in a historical perspective.
How would you define today’s relationship between Jews and the native Lithuanians?
Emotions are still not the best. Among some groups of Lithuanians there are still suspicions that the Jews will be coming back to take over their pre-war properties, and Jews are sad to see that there seems to be little grief among Lithuanians about the losses of their former neighbours. But I would also say that I think the antagonism between our peoples now gradually is becoming smaller.
You have the latest years become a politician with the complete world as your arena. How do you see Lithuania in such wider perspective?
The biggest problem for the Lithuanians of today is that they don’t any longer believe in idealism. Politics as well as other spheres in Lithuania are ruled by groups who base their actions on tactical games instead of creating common, visionary strategies for the best of the country. The word idealism is considered more negative than positive in today’s Lithuania, and even young people believe that only losers can be idealists.
The twilight of the Indian-summer evening in Vilnius has embraced us and the Gaono Street Café while we have been talking. Small groups of tourists and individuals are passing us in calmness. But the liveliness of the Jewish quarter this once was, is gone – forever.
The good old days in the Jewish quarter of Vilnius Old Town.
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