Ph.D. Octopus

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Museums of Vilnius

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by David

Castle in Vilnius

In exploring Vilnius yesterday, the whole “city of ghosts” thing seemed to ring true. We walked along the beautiful streets, but the people seemed detached from the beauty around them. We claimed up to a castle at one of the flat city’s highest points, and took in the view. It was truly majestic. But through that castle was a museum, which hardly recognized the non-Lithuanian character of the city for much of it’s history. It’s as if they went from paganism to the Soviet era with nothing in between. And what they truly celebrated was liberation from the Soviets. On the top floor of the museum, a television played clips about Lithuania’s “2009 Millenium Odyssey: One Name – Lithuania.” This country celebrated 1000 years of Lithuanian history by sending a yacht sailing to visit every Lithuanian community in the world. Impressive, but strange. Hearkening back to a pagan past with a worldwide sailing trip for a nation with no real connection to seafaring? Imagined Community anyone? Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh here. Lithuania is a young country, building its own culture and nation. But I think an honest assessment of their history would do them some good.

The Lithuanian “Genocide” Museum, formerly the KGB museum, was even more troubling. The museum’s name begs the question: genocide committed upon Lithuanians, or by Lithuanians? The museum was in fact dedicated to the two Soviet occupations, from 1940-1941 and then 1944-1990. Those occupations were indeed oppressive. But if genocide ever occurred on these lands, it was between 1941-1944. One exhibit, outlining the casualties of the three occupations, noting 240,000 “Lithuanians” died between 1941-1944, and in brackets, that 200,000 of those were “Jews.” Apart from that, there was no mention of the Holocaust, except for a couple of lines at the bottom of one early exhibit, which said something like: “For those interested in the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews, you should check out the Holocaust museum.”

I have no trouble with a museum dedicated to horrors of and resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. As I wrote earlier, I was very impressed with the Warsaw Uprising Museum, which told a Polish story while not neglecting the Jewish element. The Lithuanian Genocide museum had none of that subtlety. Indeed, it had a large outdoor exhibit about the role of basketball is unifying the Lithuanian nation and resisting the Soviets. This exhibit, which consisted of a basketball net and about ten displays, was orders of magnitude larger than any mention of Jews in the museum.

Basketball Exhibit at Lithuanian Genocide Museum

So today, after a lovely guided tour of the sites of the former Jewish neighbourhood/ghetto, I went to check out the Holocaust museum, or rather, two parts of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum: The Museum of Tolerance, and another museum specifically dedicated to the Holocaust in Lithuania. I did not have high hopes. When I walked through the first section of the Museum of Tolerance, I feared that this museum was not for me: it had artifacts from Jewish Lithuania, but nothing I hadn’t seen elsewhere. It seemed that the museum existed to educate native Lithuanians about Judaism, which is great, but I I already knew the basics and didn’t need a refresher course. What was worse, there weren’t any Lithuanians in the museum actually learning this stuff.

But when I went down to the second floor, to an exhibit on the children who survived the Holocaust, and then to a larger exhibit on Lithuanian Jewish history, I must say that I was extremely impressed. The museums texts did not mask the fact that Lithuanians participated in the killing of Jews. The exhibit on Lithuanian Jewish history even had a display titled: “Lithuanians during the Holocaust: Bystanders, Perpetrators, Rescuers,” noting that most fell into the first category, some into the second, and the fewest in the third. And Lithuanian participating in the Holocaust featured in other areas as well.

Though many displays correctly noted that Germans encouraged this antisemitism, and that some violence was due to an association of Jews with the Soviets and communism, it did not ignore home-grown Lithuanian Jew-hatred. It had a display on antisemitism in interwar Lithuania as well as another on historical antisemitism in the region. Though the displays did try to show that Lithuania wasn’t as bad as other places, it did not whitewash the population’s crimes. There was even a display on antisemitism in Lithuania today, lamenting the fact that it still exists, both in public and in private. And as I was walking through this exhibit, I was happy to see a tour group of Lithuanian high school students learning this fairly balanced account of their nation’s Jewish history.

Aron Hakodesh recovered from Vilna Synagogue on Display in Museum of Tolerance

The smaller Holocaust museum, if not as thorough, also recognized Lithuanian participation in the killings. I actually was able to listen to another tour of Lithuanian high school students, whose guide was conducting the tour in English so that the group could improve their language skills. She made a point of discussing the Lithuanian participation, as the class listened attentively (Actually, the class of about 15 had only three boys, two of whom did not seem to be paying attention, were talking to each other and playing with their phones. But everyone else was listening. This led me to believe it must have been an honours class).

And so my sight-seeing concluded with that positive experience. Lithuania seems to have acknowledged its role in the Holocaust, at least officially, and as Tony Judt has written, that is what allows European countries to join the E.U. How much this education has trickled down into the population is unclear. Perhaps the older Lithuanians still ignore it. But  the younger ones won’t.

All this is not to say that Lithuanian identity should be wrapped up in, or even give large emphasis to the Holocaust. Lithuania is not Germany. And even though I’m a historian, I think most countries should look forward, rather than backward. But I think that Lithuania has moved forward by acknowledging these grimmer moments of its past, and in this regard, the country is heading in the right direction.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 19, 2011 at 11:21

One Response

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  1. […] An analysis of some the museums of Vilnius, Lithuania. […]


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