Vilnius was once the great Jewish cultural center Vilna, 'the Jerusalem of the North.' Tracing that heritage, Daniel Mendelsohn finds, makes for a bittersweet journey
Christian Kerber

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.

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.

There are no direct flights to Vilnius from North America, but most routes go through major European hubs. Finnair, SAS, Lufthansa, and Lithuania Airlines offer the best rates.

Choral Synagogue
39 PYLIMO ST.; 370-5/261-2523

Jewish Community of Lithuania
4 PYLIMO ST.; 370-5/261-3003

Holocaust Exhibition
12 PAMENKALNIO ST.; 370-5/262-0730

Vilnius Yiddish Institute
Home of the famous international Yiddish Summer Program, held every August, the institute also provides several courses in Yiddish and Eastern European Jewish studies throughout the academic year. It has a growing library and organizes numerous festivals, concerts, and other cultural events.

Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum of Lithuania
A permanent exhibition also housing a Jewish library.
4 PYLIMO ST.; 370-5/261-7907 (MUSEUM), 370-5/261-3128 (LIBRARY)

Paneriai (Ponar)
This mass-murder site is a traumatic but necessary part of any Jewish-related visit to Lithuania. Look for the small museum (open by prior arrangement during the winter), where some 100,000 civilians died at the hands of the Nazis. About five miles southwest of the Old Town, the site is criminally difficult to find, owing to a serious lack of signs. Catch a Trakai-bound train and get off at Paneriai, or drive out on Savanori Street until you reach the E28 highway.
17 AGRASTU ST.; 370-5/260-2001