On the face of it, the side trip we took that day was a long shot. Like most American Jews traveling to Eastern Europe to reconnect with their roots, my friend—a Holocaust scholar with whom I was traveling—had only the sketchiest information to provide our guide. She knew the name of the town in Lithuania that her great-grandfather had left nearly a century earlier and she had one sepia detail: her great-grandfather's inn had stood at a crossroads, in front of a church. Crossroads?As we looked around what I suppose you couldcall downtown Salcininkelai—a dirt road separating a tiny, definitely modern brick church and a ramshackle wooden house, bordered by some willows under which a peasant in a horse-drawn cart was slowly moving—even "crossroads" seemed wildly cosmopolitan. When we asked the peasant if there had ever been an inn near here, he shrugged. He suggested we ask the inhabitants of the old house. This we did, and when our interpreter explained to the stout woman who answered our knock what we were looking for, she brightened. Some rapid-fire talk ensued. The interpreter turned to us, beaming. "This is the place," he said, gesturing generously at the gabled structure, with its barnyard and outhouse and smoky windows. "She says her grandfather bought it from a Jew who was going to America." The woman disappeared into the house and returned with some yellowing papers: the original bill of sale. Proof.
Much of our trip to Vilnius would be like this. During the 10 days we spent seeking remnants of this city's once-great Jewish heritage, our frustrating, almost dreamlike pursuit was every now and then punctuated by brief flashes of concrete evidence of all that Jewish Lithuania had been.
Vilnius, the capital of this small Baltic country, today presents a determinedly tourist-friendly, and indeed very pretty, face to those who visit it. Although the city dates back to at least the 14th century, the current Old Town, which buzzes with tourists, hawkers, local teenagers, and vendors of the ubiquitous amber jewelry, looks more than anything like the potent Counter Reformation hub it once was. It used to be said that you couldn't look anywhere in Vilnius without seeing four churches, and it's obvious why. Everywhere, Baroque and Rococo churches crowd together—in squares, at the corners of improbably angled intersections—in a rainbow of candy colors that suggest the hand of some Martha Stewart avant la lettre: pistachio, coffee, teal, lemon, old rose, mauve. It's precisely the kind of charm that many newly revived Eastern European cities are eager to sell to visitors. On a typical summer's day, Traku, the street that winds through the narrow center of town, is almost impassable.
But the friendly pastel face is only part of the story. Among the colorful reconstructions we must imagine the ghosts of other buildings. For here there were once as many synagogues as churches—including the Great Synagogue, built in 1573, a vast complex of prayerspaces and schools. Here were the innumerable yeshivas, with their famously erudite scholars (it was said that at one time there were 333 Jews of Vilna who could recite the Talmud by heart). Here, in the 18th century, lived one of the greatest Talmudic experts of all time, the legendary Gaon of Vilna, to whom congregations from as far away as Portugal would send questions about matters of religious law or textual interpretation. Here, too, was the birthplace of the world-renowned Yiddish Scientific Institute; here was the Strashun Library, with its tens of thousands of volumes containing irreplaceable incunabula of Hebrew texts. Here flourished the most distinguished publisher of Hebrew books, the Widow & Brothers Romm, whose multi-volume Talmud, each page a masterwork of scholarship, composition, and design, was considered the pinnacle of Jewish publishing. Here, in a word, was the greatest city of Diaspora learning, "the Jerusalem of the North."
What happened to all this is a matter of grim record. Of the 250,000 Jews in Lithuania in 1939, between 12,500 and 17,500 survived; of those, only 200 remain. The cultural devastation was commensurate. Every synagogue in Vilna was destroyed. (With one exception: the handsome Choral Synagogue, so named because it featured a well-trained choir. Built in 1903 with broad brick arches and vaguely Romanesque columns, it stands near the complex on Pylimo Street where the Jewish Community of Lithuania, now the country's principal Jewish organization, has its offices.) The Strashun Library was first looted by the perversely bibliophilic Nazis and then destroyed. The printing plates of the Romm Talmud were melted down. After the war, Stalin completed what Hitler had left unfinished. The great cemetery was bulldozed to make way for a sports complex; the tomb of the Gaon was moved to a new site, beyond whose ugly concrete wall loom dreary, vast, rectangular Soviet-era apartment blocks. In the remaining front part of the cemetery there is an empty expanse, rather optimistically awaiting its future tenants—the last few Jews of Vilnius.
To walk the streets of this city today is to be confronted by this odd combination of the heartbreaking and the heartening—green shoots of intense activity among expanses of devastation. The Holocaust Exhibition, a modest dark-green clapboard building, consists of not many smallish rooms filled mostly with photographs: pictures of famous Lithuanian Jews (Jascha Heifetz, Chaim Soutine, Jacques Lipchitz), pictures of pre-war Jewish life (theatricals, school graduations, a group photo of the Vilna Jewish Writers & Journalists Union, circa 1938); many pictures of the famous band of partisans who, during the period of the Nazi occupation, fled to the surrounding forests and organized a resistance movement, bombing Nazi trains, felling phone and power lines, and burning factories and warehouses. (From Vilnius you can drive the 20 minutes or so to the Rudnitsky Forest and see the carefully restored, moss-covered bunkers where they hid out.) As you wander through the museum, it's hard not to feel their youthful presence still; sometimes, that presence is very real. On the day my friends and I were visiting, we overheard a vigorous white-haired old woman lecturing to a small group of tourists in Yiddish and broken English. It turned out that she was Rachel Margolis, one of the partisans. She held aloft a photograph of the young man who'd written the partisans' song—he had not survived—and sang it, loudly, for us.