Vilnius: An Exodus From the Rebirth : Lithuania: Despite a tiny flowering of Judaic culture from the rubble of Soviet repression, Jews make plans to emigrate to Israel while they can.


In a shabby building in the ancient quarter of the Lithuanian capital, Jewish children are learning Hebrew these days, and a state-funded Yiddish theater next door is rehearsing a play about the Vilnius ghetto, where an estimated 100,000 Jews died at the hands of Nazi Germany during World War II.

But the class is not well attended, the theater group is tiny, and in dark apartments throughout the city, hundreds of Jews sit amid packing crates awaiting their turn to leave for Israel.

Today, the once-powerful Jewish community here is small and divided between those who support the development of a Lithuanian state and those who fear what it may bring, and between those who want to build a Jewish life here and those--the vast majority--who are leaving as fast as they can.

The Jewish community of Lithuania was once a major intellectual center of European Jewry. It was nearly extinguished by the Nazis, and then again by the repression of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Now the community is threatened by the easing of emigration restrictions that allow Soviet Jews to leave for Israel.

About 8,000 Jews live in Vilnius. Many are old, many are afraid of the future, and most are eager to flee the Soviet Union while they can. They are largely indifferent to the cultural renaissance--supported by Lithuanian pro-independence groups--that has made it possible for them to practice their religion after almost 50 years of Soviet suppression.

"I think, in three or five years, it will be only old people here. There won't be any Jews," said Emanuelas Zingeris, director of the 2-year-old Jewish Cultural Society of Lithuania and a deputy in the Lithuanian parliament. "Despite the fact that Jewish people can get an education here, can go to synagogue now, they will leave.

"The community is on the verge of emigration now, not because of relations with Lithuanians exactly, but because of the instability of the whole situation. They are afraid. They want to run away. I tell them, 'If you are afraid, it is better for you to go.' "

Zingeris, 32, a linguistics professor at Vilnius University, has almost single-handedly been responsible for the reconstruction of Jewish cultural life in Lithuania over the past few years.

At Zingeris' urging, the Lithuanian independence movement, Sajudis, has helped finance a number of Jewish institutions here. Vilnius now has a Jewish cultural center, religious school, library, musical theater and newspaper. In the past year, Jewish conferences, film showings and concerts have become the norm.

Recently, a street in Vilnius' old city was officially named "The Jewish Way" for the thousands of Jews who once lived there.

Last year, after more than 45 years of Soviet indifference to the Holocaust, a memorial paid for by the state was erected to the more than 38,000 Jews massacred and buried in mass graves during World War II in the Lithuanian village of Ponarai, about 10 miles west of Vilnius.

Vytautas Landsbergis, the new Lithuanian president, gave best wishes to Lithuania's Jews on their recent Passover holiday--the first Lithuanian leader in memory to do so.

But this renewal comes too little and too late for most of Lithuania's Jews, whose flight started well before the current independence movement began.

In the 1970s, Soviet authorities first allowed Jews to emigrate to Israel in large numbers, and many of Vilnius' Jews left. When the Soviet government opened wide the doors of emigration two years ago, Jews began pouring out of the Soviet Union by the tens of thousands--70,000 in 1989 alone, with more than 1,200 Lithuanian Jews among them.

Only a skeleton of Jewish Vilnius is left today. In the sole synagogue that remains in a city where there were once more than 50, it is often difficult to gather 10 men for prayer services, as required by Jewish law.

On the streets once dominated by Jewish shopkeepers, dressmakers and schools, there is not a trace of Jewish life.

And on the second floor of the synagogue, where bakers 10 years ago made 18 tons of matzo, the special flat bread eaten at Passover, the one elderly baker still at work says he only bakes a fraction of that for the few Jews who remain.

"People lived here--it was a shop here, a dressmaker here, a workshop next door," Rachel Dubershteim, 53, said as she walked along the streets of old Vilnius. "Oh, there were a lot of Jews here before the emigration. People lived here. There were children running, riding bikes, playing ball. The main thing, it was Jewish people that lived here. They worked here, they slept here.

"Where are they now? Where are all my friends that used to greet me with 'Shalom' on the street? They are all gone now."

With more Jews leaving here for Israel every day, Zingeris and his supporters say the best that Jewish leaders here can hope to do is to make life a little better for Lithuania's Jews before they go.

"It's a fantasy to rebuild all Jewish culture here," said Josef Josade, 79, a Lithuanian Jewish writer well-known for his plays and novels in Yiddish. "We can rebuild only the stones on the graves of Judaism here. We can only do our best to be Jewish, but we cannot rebuild here. It is impossible."

Vilnius for centuries housed a Jewish community that was among the most pre-eminent in Europe. It was a center of Jewish religious study, of Jewish learning and literature, of scholarship, publishing and the arts. Jews were less numerous in Lithuania than in Warsaw and Berlin, but Vilnius occupied a position as a center for religious and secular learning.

The city was known as "Yerushalayim de Lita" --the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was crammed with Jewish shops and synagogues and bakeries and schools. It was where the largest Yiddish-language daily newspaper in Europe was published, along with eight others. There were Jewish craftsmen and banks and businesses.

The Jewish community was, Zingeris says, "a state within a state, we had such a clear universe of Jews."

In the years before World War II, however, life for Jews in Lithuania worsened. The government of then-independent Lithuania enacted laws restricting the commercial activities of the economically powerful Jewish community.

In 1940, when Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union, a number of Jews, believing that Soviet socialism would improve their lives and protect them from rising anti-Semitism, supported the change. And Lithuanians, who fought fiercely against the loss of their independence, remembered on whose side some Jews had stood when the republic was occupied by Nazi Germany.

Yeshia Yiuse, now 78, was one of the Lithuanian Jews who fought for the establishment of Soviet power here. In the early 1940s he was the secretary of the largest underground Communist organization in Vilnius. Today, he sits among the mismatched chairs and gilt menorahs in the Jewish cultural center and rests one arm heavily on his cane, losing himself for a minute in the dreams of his youth.

"I fought for the Soviets so that they would put an end to pogroms, " Yiuse said. "But after the war, all my hopes failed. In 1949 I was sitting there, and I thought to myself, 'For what did I fight? Where are the Jewish libraries? Where is the Jewish literature? Why has it all disappeared?' I saw that everything was not what I believed."

When the German army occupied Vilnius on June 24, 1941, the troops were seen by Lithuanians as liberators, freeing them from Soviet rule, and they were greeted with flowers in the streets.

On the orders of the German commanders, Jews were soon herded into a ghetto in the old city, according to an account in the Encyclopedia Judaica. Nazi soldiers assisted by Lithuanian collaborators shot more than 38,000 Jews in mass executions in Ponarai. Tens of thousands were later sent from Vilnius to concentration camps. And many others died in the fighting as the Soviet army recaptured Vilnius in July, 1944.

"We have here more graves than people alive," Irena Varnaite, a Jewish-Lithuanian theater critic, said in an interview as she spoke about the future and past of Jewish Vilnius. "The whole ethnic knowledge has disappeared. You can tell it with sorrow and with pain, but it is a fact. I used to ask myself, 'Why?' But such is our fate. The evolution of Eastern European Jews is all over now."

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