At the beginning of this trip, what seems like eons ago, my father and I attended a conference in Warsaw on transnationalism. At one of the lunches, we sat with Scotsman, a professor at a Swedish university who had spent the previous several years teaching in Vilnius, Lithuania. I knew it would be the last destination on my eastern European voyage, so I asked him how he felt about the place.
His face darkened. “It’s a city of ghosts,” he said.
That’s what I had heard, and read. In this way, Vilnius, formerly Wilno, or Vilna, was not unlike Lviv, formerly Lwow, Lemberg, or Lemberik. Vilnius had once been a mostly Polish and Jewish city, with a small Lithuanian population. In fact, it had been a seat to Jewish intellectual life in Europe, home to the famous rabbi known as the Vilna Gaon, and to YIVO, an academic institution dedicated to the scientific study of Yiddish culture and language, until it relocated to the New York in the 1930s, where it became part of the Center for Jewish history, where I conduct much of my dissertation research.
Indeed, in American Jewish history, a distinction is made among formerly Polish Jews between Galicianers (from Galicia, the region of Poland/Ukraine controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire until WW1) and Litwaks (Lithuanians). They spoke Yiddish with different inflections and pronunciations, but supposedly the differences ran deeper. The Galicianers were supposedly simpler but more pious, the Litwaks more secular but also more educated and enlightened, with YIVO emerging as a shining example of this enlightenment.
The YIVO people who left were smart to get out when they did. Because then the Nazis came and killed all the Jews. And then the Soviets came and exiled all the Poles, and moved the Lithuanians in. And so Wilno/Vilna became Vilnius, a city populated by formerly rural Lithuanians, just as Lwow had became Lviv, a Polish-Jewish city now firmly Ukrainian.
And somehow Lithuania seems even sadder, even more ghostly, than Lviv. For while both cities still have many of their old buildings and charm, the Lithuanians seem ever more removed from the city’s past. True, Lithuania has done a better (though still imperfect) job of acknowledging its Jewish past and the horrors of the Holocaust than Ukraine. It has well-marked monuments that are not defaced. There is a Yiddish-learning program that takes place here every summer. For this, among other reasons, it has been granted EU membership, and, as politically incorrect as it is to say, appears much less backward than Ukraine, if not quite as developed as its neighbour, Poland.
But even Ukraine has something of a heritage it can look back to. It has Chmielnicki, who despite his antisemitism, despite the fact that he didn’t achieve independence for Ukraine but merely union with Tsarist Russia, is something of a hero on horseback. Ukraine was the bread-basket of the Soviet Union. It has 45 million people. It is the birthplace of Leon Trotsky, Leonid Brezhnev, and the heavyweight champion Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Vladimir.
Lithuania has 3 million people. It has had no significant cultural impact on the world. Its food resembles that of its neighbours, though perhaps even less distinctive. Though most of its citizens are Catholic, it claims to be the most pagan country in Europe, but the Scottish professor said that’s merely for the tourists.
Indeed, ever since the Lithuanian nation converted from paganism to Catholicism in the 14th century, its history has been one of occupation and second-class status. That conversion incorporated it into the Polish monarchy, a bond established more formally with the pact of Lublin in 1569, creating the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, which lasted until the late 18th century. Throughout that whole period, however, Polish was the language of the elites, nobles, and intellectuals. Non-Polish nobles were polonized. Lithuanian was spoken by peasants. The same was true after the partition, where these lands became part of the Tsar’s empire, known as Russian Poland, and again between the two world wars. Though an independent Lithuania briefly emerged in the interwar period, it did not include Vilnius. An so Wilno remained a Polish-Jewish city in character. Tellingly, the first Lithuanian language newspaper was printed in the early 1900s, in New York.
Walking along the streets of Vilnius, I saw a happy, relatively prosperous, modern people, enjoying first world comforts in a charming old city. But they seemed to have no connection to the hometown’s past at all. Their primary concern was the evening basketball game, where the national team faced Greece in the FIBA European tournament. Lithuania won, but the victory was pyrrhic, occuring in the loser’s bracket, having already been upset by upstart Macedonia. A fight broke out at the outdoor bar where we watched on the game on television, just seconds before the final buzzer.
That reminded me that Lithuanians had been among the most fearsome, most vicious, of Hitler’s einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units made famous by Christopher Browning magisterial Ordinary Men, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s flawed but controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners. To Lithuanians, as to Poles, the Holocaust was a foreign crime, imposed upon them by Germans. They were twice victims, of the Nazis and Soviets, and much of their identity seemed wrapped up in disassociating themselves with the latter.
I know these comments too are politically incorrect, and I feel badly about them. In some sense, Lithuania is a young country, born in the early 1990s from the death pangs of the Soviet empire. It is in the process of recovery, of building itself up, indeed, of creating a culture. In doing so, it hearkens back to an ancient, pagan past. But something came in between that long-lost pagan heritage and the Soviet era. That’s what the population seems to ignore. That’s what I’m here to discover.
Yesterday I merely got a feel for the city. Today I will do some pagan touring. Tomorrow I will visit Jewish sites. Most of what I have written thus far is based on things that I have read, and very limited first impressions. I have my biases, my preconceived notions, already colouring my visit. Still, I’m curious to see how different Vilnius is than Lwow and Cracow, having been part of Russian Poland rather than the Austro-Hungarian empire. I’m interested to see what remains of the Polish and Jewish legacy of the city. I’ll let you know what I find out.