Pre-World War II Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, was known as the “Jerusalem of the North” and Jews living in the area had enjoyed the freedom practicing their lively Jewish culture and traditions, even their religion.
However, the dawn of the Second World War all but eradicated that picture. In the hands of Nazi Germany and numerous local collaborators from the country, more than 90% of the Baltic nation’s Jewish population which were estimated at about 200,000 were annihilated.
This year’s marks the 70th Anniversary of that gruesome event.
State officials and survivors of the Holocaust gathered together to remember and honor the countless Jews who died through a memorial service. National flags along with black ribbons stippled the capital’s skyline.
“A grim and terrible reality can never be left in the past – it must forever remain in our memory,” Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite stated in her speech during the memorial.
She also commended the individuals who acted as the Jews’ saviors during the carnage referring to them as “icons of humanity to be role models for us all”.
Vilnius’ Jewish community roots back during the 16th century and by the Second World War, there were about 70,000 Jews in the capital alone, about one-third of the whole city’s populace. It was also the heart of Yiddish intellectual life. However, the war nearly destroyed everything Jewish in the area.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance group, rewarded over 800 Lithuanians with “Righteous among Nations” titles for saving and sheltering their Jewish neighbors in those trying times.
September 23, Monday, also saw a gathering of Vilnius’ small Jewish community in the only synagogue which survived the Holocaust for the reading of the names of the ghetto victims.
91-year-old Fania Brantsovskaya is one of the ghetto survivors. In an interview, she recalled how she was able to escape the September 23, 1945 event.
“It was a matter of five minutes. As we left the ghetto, we saw the military coming. But at that time, we didn’t think it would be liquidated,” she recalled.
During the gathering, she read out the names of her father, mother and sister. She added that she is one of the five ghetto survivors who chose to stay in present Vilnius.
Others are already residing abroad. Simon F. Malkes, 86, is one of them. He has stayed in France since the 1950s only deciding to fly back to the city for the memorial.
He recalled how he was able to live through the massacre – hiding in a Nazi labor camp, where he was moved weeks before the ghetto liquidation, cellar for 48 hours.
“The hiding place was built by my father and some friends in the cellar. It was made for 12 to 15 people. In the end there were 37 of us. You had no air, you had no water, it was just horrible,” he said remembering the events with tears in his eyes.
He then managed to hide in a cornfield and a local hospital for a number of weeks until the Soviets were able to topple the Nazis from the Baltic states in July 1944.
Nevertheless, as he was an anti-Communist, he again fled to the West and only came to visit Lithuania after Soviet control over the country broke down in 1990.
Currently, there are about 5,000 Jews who live in Lithuania, a nation of three million people.
–The Journal reports