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Lithuanian Legacy

In the Choral Synagogue also there are signs of life. American Hasidim now preside here—an irony, when you recall that Vilna was the seat of the Jewish Enlightenment, with its decidedly anti-Hasidic stance—and have taken to their task of "Hasidizing" Vilnius with relish. ("I'm from Boston, but now I'm from Vilna," the young rabbi we met as we left the synagogue said while inviting us to Friday night services. These services, we were told, are frequented each week by about 15 regulars.) The Jewish Community Center has a cultural club, a youth club, a summer camp, a youth group. In stark contrast to this bustle, in the other half of the same complex, is the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania, whose grandiose name belies a collection that, compared with the riches of what was, is poignantly threadbare. On the day we visited, we expressed dismay that there seemed, again, to be so few artifacts in evidence, apart from some photographs of pre-war Vilna in one exhibition space. We were promptly told that there was much more that had been placed in storage while the museum was being renovated. Then we were given a brief look at those hidden treasures, but all we could see were some menorahs, some busts of great Jewish figures that dated to the 1950's and 60's, and some paintings by "famous" Lithuanian Jews from the same period.

A similarly awkward conjunction of the dead and the new, of obliteration and revival, is apparent when you take to the streets of the city in search of its Jewish neighborhoods. More than many Eastern European countries, Lithuania has been assiduous in marking the locations of war-related incidents and atrocities—motivated, perhaps, as much by its desire to join the European Union (which it just did) as by its old, old desire to be seen as thoroughly European. Throughout the city you see a good many plaques, in Lithuanian, Hebrew, and, of course, Yiddish (Lithuanian Yiddish was considered the purestform of that language), announcing the location of one or another roundup or massacre. The official, bureaucratic feel of these is contradicted by the homely mechanics often involved in actually seeing some of the sites in question: in order to view the courtyard where 1,200 Jews were rounded up and deported, you have to approach the manager of the Jounimo Theater box office and ask to be admitted. He's the only one who has a key.

There are few places to be let into. We walked those streets, and looked at those places, for a week. We strolled around Stickliu ("Glassblowers") Street, once the heart of the old ghetto and now the center of a chic new quarter (pâtisseries, couture shops, boutique hotels); we drove out to terrible Ponar, where, during the war, immense pits that had been dug by the Soviets to contain oil were eventually filled with more than 70,000 Jewish men, women, and children; we read the plaques, over and over, announcing nearly identical events. Perhaps it's appropriate that most of what remains of this city of publishers, teachers, disputers, and librarians, is words.

Still, more solid testimony to what was here may be forthcoming: the government of Lithuania has hugely ambitious plans to rebuild a large number of sites, from the Great Synagogue to the Strashun Library, whose scattered contents are being regathered whenever possible. There is, indeed, something stubborn about Jewishness in Vilnius, something that just won't go away. On our last day we met the head of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, Simon Alperovitch, a Holocaust survivor who in so many ways reflects his conflicted city. His dignified office on the sleekly renovated upstairs floors, as well as his own tall and austere frame, seemed somehow at odds with his humorous expression and tart manner. (At one point I asked him whether he really saw a future for the Jews of Vilnius. "Do you really see a future for the Jews of the United States?" he retorted.) "The joke about Lithuania," he told us, "is that there are more Jewish organizations in it now than there are Jews."

And yet, Alperovitch went on, what else should he be doing?"Our task is to keep our community intact as much as possible." His final comment to us summed up the peculiar feel, a kind of morbid optimism or perhaps hopeful resignation, that attaches to Vilnius and its attempts at preserving the "Jerusalem" of a cultural landscape that is, still, largely imaginary, however many wooden houses and plaques and gelatin prints remain. "You know," Alperovitch said, "the president of Israel once came here and asked me, 'How can you keep living here, when the soil is so bloody?' And I replied, 'But all of Europe is bloody. So why not stay?'"

Daniel Mendelsohn is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.

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