The Holocaust Education Trust is running a teachers’ CPD in Lithuania in early April. As someone who visited the country 5 years ago with the IWM Fellowship, I couldn’t recommend this opportunity enough to teachers who want to enrich their own understanding of the Holocaust as well as their teaching.
As I did in 2007, the four-day HET course will take in Vilnius and Kaunas, two cities which had significant Jewish populations before the war. Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Europe and was the home of the respected rabbi the Vilna Gaon as well as a thriving Yiddish culture of theatre, politics, newspapers and education. The pre-war population numbered somewhere in the region of 160,00, leaping to 250,000 by 1941 as Jews fled east out of Nazi-occupied Poland. As a result of ghettoisation, deportation and the actions of the Einsatzgruppen and local militias, Lithuania suffered one of the highest victim rates in Europe – about 90% perished in just three years.
My own family has some history in the region although they had arrived in England decades before the outbreak of the war. The city I grew up in (Leeds) had a substantial Jewish community, many of whom had originally hailed from Lithuania (a large synagogue in the city was called the New Vilna Synagogue) and so when I visited the country in 2007, I had many expectations of an overwhelming emotional response to what I would see, hear and experience there.
The visit to Lithuania included a tour of the Jewish sites and ghetto in Vilnius, including the synagogue which, I’m very happy to say, is still functioning as a community synagogue, albeit to a vastly reduced number of Lithuanian Jews. We were very lucky indeed to have an excellent guide in the form of Simonas Dovidavičius, a Lithuanian Jew whose mother survived the Holocaust with the help of Christian neighbours. Simonas is incredibly knowledgeable about the events of the Nazi occupation and spoke eloquently and at length about all aspects of life for Lithuanian Jews in this period, answering all our questions in depth.
Lithuania is still some way behind Poland is recognising it’s wartime history and particularly the Jewish element. Nonetheless, there are plaques in the ghetto area and a Jewish Cultural Centre as well as a few other significant sites of interest such as Ponar and the home of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews by giving them visas to Singapore, before he was recalled to Japan by the government there.
In Kaunas (Kovno) we visited the Ninth Fort, part of a centuries-old fortress complex that surrounds the city. It was here that tens of thousands Jews from the ghetto in Kovno were imprisoned and subsequently murdered. Later, Jews from much further afield were brought here to be killed by the SS. A memorial site has been in place here since 1958 but it is striking that there is no mention of the Jewish victims. It is typical however of the Soviet-era memorial that victim sub-groups would not be individually commemorated but instead all came under the heading of ‘victims of fascism’ or ‘victims of Nazism’.
Throughout my visit to Lithuania, I couldn’t help but think back to a fascinating point that had been discussed on the fellowship in London the previous summer, when Christer Mattsson had talked to us about the notion of “the void” that the Holocaust had left in Europe. The country felt, in many ways, to be empty and I couldn’t help but feel the desolation that the Holocaust had left in its wake. Walking around areas that had once been home to large, vibrant, diverse Jewish communities but that were now empty had an eerie feel.
The history of Lithuania is a key part of the history of the Holocaust, and one that I feel Lithuanians themselves are only just beginning to come to terms with. The post war Soviet takeover of the country has undeniably influenced the way in which the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews has been viewed. It is nonetheless a part of the Holocaust story that poses many interesting questions for teachers and students alike and there is a wealth of material that can be used to illustrate the key issues. I have developed some discussion prompts/inspiration based on the events that took place at Ponar in 1941, and will be adding more Lithuania-focused resources in the near future- watch this space!
Ponary (Einsatzgruppen) (Power Point) – can be used as a starter task or to promote discussion for a more critical examination of the events (Einsatzgruppen, Lithuania, 1941) or the limitations of evidence. Download Ponary (Einstzgruppen) resource with additional notes and links here
The Final Solution in the Baltic States from Yad Vashem website – here
Lithuania page from United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum – here