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THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA

23 February 2017
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“If you seek wisdom,
Vilnius is the place to go”

Adv. Marcelle Juliet Saul Sheiman, an attorney to the Supreme Court of the Republic of South Africa and Israeli advocate, who attended the World Lithuania Economic Forum in Vilnius earlier this month. Marcelle Juliet Saul Sheiman (MS) currently serves as Chairman of the Israel-South Africa Chamber of Commerce.

Adv. Marcelle Juliet Saul Sheiman: Lithuanian Impressions 2010

15.05.2010

I am in Lithuania now and described my thoughts last night when I went along to the Shabbat dinner hosted by the Vilna Chabad Rabbi Krinsky: ones of belonging and identity.

I described these thoughts and feelings  to the guests there -  a community of English Jews who came as part of Jewish Journeys, a Canadian Rabbi and his wife, the Israeli now living in Lithuania and studying at its universities, and to the very elderly community members who were there (a meager amount of people). This followed the short lecture by the Rabbi as to Shavuot, and numbers - and how people were and are counted and the meaning of numbers in our life. He spoke of the being part of the Jewish people and how some no longer want to be a part of it and of the many dead.

I started telling the people about my feelings on landing in Lithuania – one of sadness in what was – the rise and fall of Yiddish civilization and how much had been and how many had lived and then also the feeling of belonging, something in me of belonging here. There was a part of me that was here.

I also very much felt a sense of belonging that night – interestingly enough juxtaposed to what was expressed by one person – his sense of alienation in Lithuania.

I may go the synagogue tomorrow. I land up doing things that I did so many years ago and am not sure of the fit anymore. How does this relate to how I am feeling today, personally? It feels strange to know that there is a time for everything, maybe because I always felt timeless. There is a time for everything and there is timelessness to everything and that includes a time to live and time to die. Who makes that choice? In what way are we G-d’s messengers and in what we do, G-d’s will? Is everything G-d’s will? Even the greatest of horrors? And then how can they be horrors?

I spoke of souls to the Rabbi last night – that I believe that when Jewish souls get too many, something happens to the Jewish people, and that our strength lies not in numbers. Everything is as it is meant to be. I question this place then of free choice and then there is this place of natural - of no decision – not to do and not not to do – where it simply is. [Maybe that is the place of free choice]. That is the feeling that I have now – is it the empty, or is it the missing? Is it the abundance or the lack  thereof? There is no sense to anything in the literal meaning of sense.

IT IS SOMETIMES SO DIFFICULT TO KNOW THAT EVERYTHING CAN BE – probably because then we realize just how powerful we are  - that our thoughts do create our reality; that things can lead one way or another based on our thoughts; and that we are the creators of our thoughts and lose touch with what is natural. But if our thoughts guide our reality, then anything can be so why is there so much suffering? Is it because we resist? resist what? How do our thoughts and its influence on reality have anything to do with G-d?

What is the natural way of things?

I looked at the Rebbitzin last night . She looks young, people say and she has 10 children. She is probably younger than me. I see her beautiful children.  When I said to the Rabbi – wow you have 9 children (as I thought) he said – 10, but who is counting. I remember and recalled for him the story of the Palestinian woman whom I met and who was called Enough.

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I went to the Choraline Synagogue yesterday (Shabbat) – the only synagogue left standing in Vilna. I started off my day by going into the Vilnius cathedral, a huge white marble cathedral opposite my hotel. I then walked down the streets on the way to the synagogue. Magnificent little coffee houses and medieval architecture and then arrived at the Gates of Dawn - very ornamental, gold, Christian  - making my way through them to another part of the world it seemed. A part that is old, decrepit and run down, in the direction of the synagogue. It had locked gates but I managed to get in with the help of an elderly man that was also entering. There is a bell though.

I took a prayer book and sat down in the section separated for women by a lace curtain.  I started praying and crying – an overwhelming feeling of being in a place which in my imagination had been filled with so many people. I could imagine my family and then  - all of them being killed. Maybe herded in this shul before being taken off somewhere to die. Life and death together. I could feel the death so palpably interwoven with the life.

The Cantor's wife - came to talk to me. She had on what seemed to be a beautiful short wig. She struck me more like a beautiful doll. She told me of herself, her family. Whereas the Chabad rabbi had told of 1000 people at his Seder, she tells me of the dying community  - mostly assimilated or very old. There are these two old women praying in the Shul. They must be in their 80’s. they must have been very  beautiful and still seem as such – blond but with hunched backs and walking sticks. I wish them Shabbat Shalom and they smile at me through their toothless mouths. There is also this Rabbi (brought in from outside the community) with a menacing look  - a huge beard and everyone seems to be a bit frightened of him. He peers through these round rimmed spectacles and rants and raves in the Shul. I walk on through the Jewish quarter with the UK crowd of people I met Friday night at the Chabad rabbi. We are doing a walking tour  - the one concentrating on the life that was – the Vilna Gaon, the scholastic dynasty. Later on a tour will be taken in the same parts  - the ghetto and the Holocaust. The Rabbi who is guiding the UK troupe on its Jewish journey says that it is very confusing to do the Life and Death parts together. I leave them after a while to go off to Trakas castle on my own.

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I take a guided tour to Trakas on Saturday afternoon. The guide, a young Lithuanian woman is amazed to hear that as a Jew from South Africa and now in Israel, I had grandparents born in born Kovna (Kaunas) and Ponevys. On the way to this beautiful castle we pass Ponerai. There is such beautiful countryside, farms, trees amidst the difficult pictures I have in my mind.

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16.5.10

This is a beautiful country – they look like cherry blossoms on the trees, I think they may be apple. And then the little beginnings of pines. Everywhere.  A land soaked with blood. It is a big country here – once spreading from the Baltic to the Black sea. There is a declining population and it has a different energy to the one I know in Israel. The Jewish community is also dead.

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17.5.10

I went for a walk this morning to find the Green House. I eventually found it, confusing it originally with the Museum for Genocide Victims, based on Russian atrocities on the Lithuanians during their occupation. I walk up a small hill  and make my way there through a 7 roomed little house. You ring a bell and a woman answers. The first exhibit that strikes me is an excerpt from the “Jaeger report”. I copy it down:

Secret Reich Business:

I consider the Jewish action more or less terminated as far as Einsatzkommando 3 is concerned. Those working Jews and Jewesses still available are needed urgently and I can envisage through the winter will be required even more urgently. I am of the view that the sterilization programme of the male worker Jews should be started immediately so that reproduction is prevented. If despite sterilization a Jewess becomes pregnant, she will be liquidated.

Today I can confirm that our objective to solve the Jewish problem of Lithuania has been achieved by EK3. In Lithuania, there are no more Jews apart from Jewish workers and their families.

These total:   In Schaulen c4,500

In Kauen c15,000

In Wilna c15,000

I  copy down other references to Stahlecker ‘s Reich secret document on Jews. A poem – Never Say by Hirsh Glik. A reference to a book by Solly Ganor – Light One Candle. Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s  - The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry (translation by Y. Leiman).

I have come to the museum although I did want to follow the life of the Jews not so much for their deaths as for their life. But I find them so inextricably interwoven in this place. I read a letter from a woman to her brother in South Africa just before she and as she says – her babies are going to be killed. She is writing to her brother and tells him that her husband has been killed and now she and her children are about to be killed. She asks for blood to be avenged. I read and write various things and some are too sickening to read, so I don’t. I exit the museum and am met by the Cantor's wife. She is in pants this time and dons that beautiful  - what seems like – coiffed wig. She takes me home  - we meet her husband who is on the way out to get a cucumber for our meal. We walk up the stairs and she kisses the Mezuza on the inside of the house. Don’t you have mezuzot on the outside of the door  - No she says – it is too dangerous. Even her husband wears a cap and not a skullcap. His beard also sometimes arouses speculation. He comes home and we talk. I ask him why he still lives here. He is from Minsk. He tells of his wife’s elderly parents but this is not the only reason – he belongs here he says. In this place where the Vilna Goan and a thriving Jewish community lived. It is not always necessary to follow the Kehila he says, even though living amongst a Kehila is also important. There are only old Jews here he says  - they come to Chabad and to the synagogue for help. The rabbi who I described already -  he says -  comes to take the services.. This Cantor is a man who opens the heavens with his singing and comes from generations of Hazans.

We speak of Israel and I mention the calling for our spirit as Jews. And he quotes from psalms – a piece which reiterates the sentiment that  the Jewish spirit is the shtetl Jew and we sit and talk and I eat. Would you believe.. Herring, Chopped Herring  - just as I know it is made – with apple, and onions and eggs. It feels like home. His wife has set us a feast of chopped herring, bread, cheese, eggs for me, coffee and for me especially she brings out the Amarula – South African liqueur.  She accompanies me back to the hotel, past a few more of the forgotten Jewish sites. I tell her that I learnt there was only one tree in the Ghetto – I wonder where that tree is?

I find myself attracted to her vivacity, her liveliness and that of her husband. I am Lithuanian, a Lithuanian Jewess it feels. I don’t feel loved and am wary of being the outsider but in many ways as with the Cantor, we belong.

19.05.2010

I wake up this morning with a frightened feeling. This is not Vilna, this is Kaunas - Kovna for me. This is what the guide on Saturday called the dead place. The bus ride to Kaunas brings me to a station which is replete with older cars, townspeople, something that reminds me of the towns or other cities in South Africa – not Johannesburg. There is even one man dressed in complete Russian soldier attire. It really feels strange – I see  lots of open spaces, greenery, places where I have a sense one could have hid a lot of bones. My imagination.

What was here before? I want to be able to trace back the life and I feel frightened because somehow I feel alienation here [Yet from my few experiences since arriving here, the people appear friendlier than in Vilna].  Then I sit down at breakfast and in another moment I taste the way the omelets are made and I want to tell my father that no wonder he makes such great eggs. He obviously must have learnt that from his father. Does he remember what he ate way back when he was a little boy. Maybe his dad cooked for him. I have to learn to make omelets the way they do here.

I walked quite some way yesterday just to find and then touch some vestige of Jewish life. I come to the Synagogue. The gate is open and I ring the bell. A man who speaks Yiddish lets me in and I take pictures. I am reminded of the Jewish rivalries between the various synagogue factions and am told that “Kalmanowitz” you know, the mafia one from Moscow who was killed, is/ was a part of this synagogue. My "Zeida" on my father’s side was an atheist and a communist, a “difficult” man who was at once, a great artisan being able to carve the most beautiful pieces of wood and at same time, a man who could kill to protect his family. I think at once of the Jews. Those people of whom the Baal Tefila spoke. And I realize just how strong these Jews were. They were educated and strong in spirit. Who has the audacity to say that they went like sheep to the slaughter. Are these the same Jews that have guns and tanks – not that we shouldn’t have guns –– but there is strength in spirit.

I think of modesty and realize the gift of simplicity and modesty. Something it seems I have forgotten or with which I am not in touch in my milieu.  Too much money,  big houses. This place seems denuded of money. It is very much country. I think of my yesterday’s reading up on the flag of Lithuania – Yellow, Green and Red. The colours of the Lithuanian flag – Yellow, green and red – represent sum, light and prosperity; the beauty of nature, freedom and hope; and earth, courage and blood shed in defending Lithuania’s independence. At the moment it has been only green and red for me.

Vilnius – some excerpts:

Before WWII there was a saying among European Jews: if you are keen on earning money, go to Lodz; if you seek wisdom, Vilnius is the place to go.

“I live in this city with a feeling that it does not belong to me and that I have only come here for a visit – as a human being, a poet and a Lithuanian. In this respect Vilnius could be compared only to Jerusalem. Only Jerusalem is the city of G-d, whereas Vilnius is the city of a dream. Trivial as it might seem, it was founded after Gediminas has a dream. It’s as if Vilnius was not created by man – you have the feeling that Vilnius has risen from the ground, from the confluence of the rivers, from the landscape – it rises on its won, possibly with some support by man. It is also in the details that the beauty of Vilnius lies. On the one hand, the Vilnius of the dream lets its citizens merely touch it; on the other hand, Vilnius sucks them in and swallows them”

AIDAS MARCENAS poet

Market day in Vilnius

The soul of a bearded Jew

Is weighing memory

SIGITAS PARULSKIS

POET and WRITER

There is only one Jewish house of prayer in Vilnius at present. Not too long ago, however the Lithuanian capital was called ‘a city of a hundred synagogues’. On the even of WWII, Vilnius, which was then called the Jerusalem of Lithuania, had over 110 Jewish houses of prayer, the majority of which were destroyed during the war.

“I sometimes think that Vilnius was invented by a jolly maiden, that it is a dream she dreamed about – the flood, the boats, the two rivers, the mountain and the temples, lots of temples and little streets.

In the evening, when people disperse into their homes, and darkness walks the streets of Vilnius, I see how, in the shelter of their sleeping houses, their dreams alight – the dreams about something different, about how good it would be if it could be. Wrapped in silence, the streets of Vilnius… are dreaming.

Vilnius speaks with every stone of its cobble roads, every window bathed in soft light at night, every roof of a church, the happy laugh of students: once we were here, it was here that we that we were happy and sad, we built, we searched, we lost and found our path again. I myself am dispersing into the streets and the faces of passerby, I start flickering among the leaves of trees in the park and become a tiny part of the big dream of Vilnius…

They say that there are no stairs to heaven. Yet I can feel them here. Oftentimes in a narrow land, an old courtyard, in the glance of a passerby, in the sweet aroma of fresh bread rolls lingering in the air after the bakery opens in the morning. Sometimes autumnal leaves brush against them gently and whirl upward to our cherished dreams.” 

Category : Litvak forum



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