Lithuania’s capital Vilnius was once a thriving Jewish cultural hub, before Nazi Germany wiped out the so-called Jerusalem of the North and murdered most of the country’s Jews.
Now, individuals and state institutions alike are trying to revive the memory of this Jewish heritage by launching a series of interactive Web sites.
It is a way to restore a lost chapter in the history of the country with a controversial past, as some Lithuanians collaborated with the Nazis.
“There is ... a terrible lack of commemoration in modern-day Vilnius,” said Menachem Kaiser, a US Jew who set up a Web site about the Jewish ghetto after spending a year in Vilnius.
“If you’re there, walk around — there is virtually nothing to commemorate the rounding up and murder of 80,000 Vilnius Jewish residents,” he said.
It has been 70 years since the Nazis liquidated the ghetto on Sept. 23, 1943. Learning of its existence prompted Kaiser to create the English-language Web site www.revilna.org, a reference to the city’s name in Yiddish, Vilna.
“Finding out about the ghetto was very difficult, very frustrating, and I wanted to create something so that even the non-scholar could get a sense of what the ghetto was like,” he said.
“By doing this project as a Web site, as opposed to a book, I was able to make something dynamic, that allows the user to quite literally explore,” Kaiser said.
More than 90 percent of Lithuania’s pre-war Jewish population died at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators.
That complicity makes the Holocaust a sensitive issue in Lithuania, which has in the past come under fire for being slow to prosecute collaborators.
Central to the issue is the one-two blow that hit Lithuania during World War II. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 under Moscow’s secret pact with Nazi Germany, and the Soviets killed and deported thousands of its citizens.
Germany then drove out the Red Army in 1941 and its arrival was seen as a relief to some Lithuanians, who believed the Germans would guarantee a return to independence.
Lithuania has taken steps to address its role in the Holocaust. Last year the government approved a special compensation fund for Jewish property seized by Nazi Germany and then kept by the Soviet regime.
“We talk too little about the history of the Jewish community, of its daily life and contributions — and yet that would bring a better understanding of this great tragedy,” says Lithuanian historian Jurgita Verbickiene, who runs the history site www.zydai.lt.
Last month, Israeli President Shimon Peres — who was born near Vilnius — paid a visit to a memorial on the outskirts of the city in tribute to the slain Lithuanian Jews. Peres praised Lithuanian efforts to remember and “educate its youth about this shameful stain, so as [to] never allow it to happen again.”