Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC)

Confronting the Holocaust Fifty Years Later: Reflections on a Visit to Lithuania and Poland

by Michael C. Kotzin

PART I. THE BOOKS OF THE PEOPLE

I had been to Poland before, though never to Lithuania. Still, this was a very different kind of trip from any I had previously been on.

It began with a call from the office of Richard Durbin, recently-installed U.S. Senator from the state of Illinois, to say that during the upcoming mid-February congressional recess he would be traveling to Lithuania and Poland, and I had the opportunity of joining him. Others on the delegation were the Senator's foreign policy staffer Dan O'Grady, his brother Bill Durbin, and Stanley Balzekas and Al Domanskis, leaders of Chicago's Lithuanian-American community. George Landraitis, of a Chicago-based welfare operation called Lithuanian Mercy Lift, was with us the first two days in Vilnius.

One of the purposes of the trip was to deal with a large collection of Hebrew and Yiddish books in Vilnius, Lithuania (known as Vilna in Yiddish and Russian), which had been the object of considerable attention since the appearance of a front-page story in the New York Times a couple of months before.

Durbin's office had been in touch then too, to indicate his interest in the subject and readiness to be of assistance, and we had continued to stay in contact and to work together on the matter. A letter to the Lithuanian prime minister which the Senator had initiated along with Congressman Ben Cardin of Maryland had been signed by 56 fellow senators and congressmen. Among other things Durbin wanted to deliver it by hand during the forthcoming visit.

The books had special meaning to me, as they do to many others in the Jewish community, and the New York Times article had struck a chord even before I had heard from Durbin the first time. Ancestors of mine had lived in the Kovno (now Kaunus) region until the second half of the 19th Century, when they had moved to Poland, and my grandfather had brought to North America a collection of Hebrew texts, many of them published in Lithuania, which have been passed down in the family.

Vilna (where, according to a German language memoir published in 1910, the British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore had stayed with a certain "Reb Michel Kotzen" while on his way to meet with the Russian Czar on behalf of the Jews of the region in 1846), was once a major center of Jewish learning and culture. Known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania", it had housed the great Strashun Library and, in the early decades of this century, was the founding home of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. There were many famous yeshivas throughout the country, with a particularly notable one being in the town of Telz.
When the Nazis occupied Lithuania in 1941, the Jewish population was rounded up into ghettos. As the Jews were slaughtered their centers of prayer and study were destroyed --but not before large numbers of books were hidden, while others were confiscated. During the period of Soviet occupation, many of these volumes ended up in a former church building which became an annex of the Lithuanian National Library.

The Times article, with a Vilnius dateline, had opened by announcing that "tens of thousands of rare Hebrew and Yiddish texts lie in dusty heaps in a Roman Catholic church here, desiccated and forgotten". I represented the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and Senator Durbin at a heavily-attended meeting in New York which was convened by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture shortly after that article appeared. Its purpose was to set the American Jewish community's priorities for dealing with the subject in a coordinated fashion.

I had continued to work with the steering committee established at that meeting, consisting of officials of the Foundation, YIVO (now based in New York), and the National Conference on Soviet Jewry. The trip with Senator Durbin offered a chance to see firsthand what the situation regarding the books was indeed like, and what could be done to deal with them in a proper and constructive manner.

Like a delegation under the aegis of the American Jewish Committee which also included representatives of YIVO and B'nai B'rith which had preceded us, we found most of the items that are kept in the church and in the adjacent building, once a monastery, to be in better condition and better cared for than the New York Times article had suggested was the case.

During a visit conducted by Dr. Regina Varniene, Deputy Director of the National Library and Director of the Centre of Bibliography and Book Science, we learned that there are, in all, close to 125,000 volumes in the Judaica collection of the Bibliography and Book Science Center. Of these, there are a total of 38,476 books which have been catalogued and are currently on shelves, 10,800 of them "first copies" of Hebrew or Yiddish books published in Lithuania which are kept in acid-proof boxes in an "Archive" section in the former monastery. Approximately another 13,000 books, most of which are on shelves in the former church, are still awaiting cataloging. Additionally, there are some 73,409 periodical volumes, all of which have been catalogued and are being microfilmed, and it is suspected that a number of additional periodicals may be mixed with other collections at this time.

The magnitude of what is there is one thing, and it should be added that, in the cavernous old church building, the Jewish texts are joined by hundreds of thousands of volumes on other subjects which together fill the room wall-to-wall, from the floor to shelves accessible only by high ladders. Even more impressive than the amount of volumes, however, is their nature.

There we stood, in the former monastery in the heart of Vilna, holding a book written by one of the foremost scholars of 18th Century European Jewry, known as the Vilna Gaon. It was a volume stamped with the imprimatur of the Strashun Library, the site of which, now an empty space in the center of Vilna's Old Town area, I had sought out just that morning.

There we stood in the chilly former church, some of its decorations still visible, in our overcoats, holding a prayer book stamped with the markings of the Great Synagogue of Vilna; holding another book in which a child had doodled on the inside cover, afraid that we knew but still wondering what had become of that child. There we stood, looking at the pages of periodicals which, week after week, month after month, had told the tales and reflected the lives of a people with a vibrant, centuries-old culture in that country.

There had been Jews in Lithuania even before the country became Christian at the end of the 14th Century. Jews had constituted some 40% of the population of pre-war Vilna, maintaining their own community while playing active roles in the overall life of the city. There had been around a quarter of a million Jews in pre-war Lithuania. And then, in a flash, almost all of them were gone. These books, with their worn covers, some of them falling apart, these books, we recognized, standing there in awe, were survivors in their own way.

Beyond the books and periodicals, there is something else in the National Library's Judaica collection which we asked to see, though this material is even less well-known and less frequently seen than the books and periodicals and was not even referred to in the New York Times story. It consists of some 371 scrolls --mostly Torah scrolls or fragments thereof but some of them megillot, scrolls of the Books of Esther or Ruth or of other books of the prophets or writings of the Bible.

Most of these are badly damaged or otherwise defective, but a number may be usable or repairable. All are stored in the manuscript collection in the main building of the National Library, which they were moved to from the church in the past few years.

We were able to take two of the scrolls off of the shelves and out of their canvas coverings and to unroll them on a table, which we understood was rarely allowed. Again we were moved, this time to speculate on the exact circumstances which had caused the damage (apparently from a fire) that one of the scrolls we looked at had suffered. We marveled at the fact that the second scroll we looked at, which seemed to be in decent condition, had remained that way throughout the Holocaust and after.

In a subsequent meeting with Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius, where we were joined by the American ambassador, James Swihart, we asserted that whatever questions might be raised about the ultimate disposition of the books, the scrolls should be thought of in an entirely different fashion. They are not objects for inclusion in a library of any sort, we said, but religious articles that should be returned to the Jewish community as soon as possible, either to receive a proper burial or to be put in use if still judged acceptable for that purpose by religious authorities.

While the prime minister seemed sympathetic to our arguments, he was not prepared to make an immediate decision in that regard. He did, however, speak positively about his desire for moving forward in resolving the overall situation of the books in a manner which would ensure their preservation and accessibility.

The letter presented by Senator Durbin spoke of exploring issues involved in the ultimate disposition of the volumes. We learned of three alternative venues where the collection might end up that were being promoted in Lithuania alone: the National Library, on to which an additional wing is being built; the (government owned) Jewish State Museum; and a site to be controlled by the Jewish community. Beyond that, some people have spoken about possible locales in America and Israel, while YIVO and perhaps others feel they have ownership claims on some of the books. During the meeting with the prime minister, the idea was floated that an international committee of experts could be established through which all of the interested parties, from Lithuania and abroad, could work together to forge a set of recommendations. It is an idea which we strongly supported and which has been reiterated in subsequent correspondence between the Prime Minister and Senator Durbin.

The books were discussed in various conversations and meetings with government officials and others during our four-day stay in Lithuania. All in all, while much remains to be done, there was, we felt, significant movement on this subject during our visit.

PART II. IN LITHUANIA TODAY

Our group arrived in time to join in the celebration of Lithuania's independence day. Having emerged from over four decades of Soviet domination, Lithuania today is a country proud of its national identity, exuberant in its sense of freedom, committed to democracy, and worried about Russia, which even long before the Soviet era was wont to exert its rule westward. The dominating political topic during the four days we were there was the possibility of Lithuanian membership in NATO. Whenever Senator Durbin faced questioning, which was often, that topic came first.

But there were also personal dimensions of the visit for all of us. Long a champion of independence for Lithuania, Durbin had been there three times previously. His brother Bill, however, had not been there before, and each of them paid their first visit to Jubarkas, the town west of Vilnius where their mother was born. They were extremely touched by the stop there as they discovered not only information about their mother's birth and baptism but the existence of relatives they never knew they had.

As crowded as the Senator's schedule was with political and personal matters, there still was time for relating to subjects with Jewish interest, even beyond the books. Thus, entering Kaunus, we stopped at the Holocaust museum at the Ninth Fort, an outpost built by the Russians in the 19th Century which was used by the Nazis as a prison and a place to murder the Jews from that city and elsewhere.

During our stop in Kaunus we visited with the local Jewish community leadership. Before that, in Vilnius, we had been joined at lunch by the chairmen of the Lithuanian Jewish community and of the Vilnius Jewish community. In both places, I was able to find additional time of my own to spend with these and other members of the Jewish community --most of them survivors, former partisans, people who had spent the war years in the USSR, or children of individuals within those categories.

It is eerily haunting, in Lithuania today, to remember how great and how rich Jewish life was in that center of Talmudic and Haskalah (Enlightenment) teaching, of Hebrew writing and printing, and of Yiddish culture, that place where Zionist and Bundist ideology flowered. It is painful beyond measure to think of how it was that such Jewish life ended. And yet, if one does not remember what was and does not know how it came to an end, there is very little to let you know.

In the Old Town area of Vilnius, where the Jewish community thrived, one street is named after the Gaon, another is still called "Jew Street", and that is about it. There are no explanations of why those streets have those names or why the Jews themselves are no longer there. There are no plaques or markers where the destroyed synagogues or other institutions formerly stood. There may indeed be some Holocaust museums in the country, such as at the Ninth Fort, where the Soviets erected a striking monument on the site of the killing fields and burial pits. But visits to such a place are not, I was told, part of the required curriculum in the school system.

At the same time, as if to rub salt into a still-open wound, there are reminders that anti-Semitism persists. The leaders of the Kaunus Jewish community were dismayed that, just a few days earlier, when scenes of Mardis Gras were on Lithuanian state television, the only masks which revelers were shown wearing were of Jews, Gypsies, and devils. In Vilnius, Jewish leaders described an article written just last summer in which Jews were accused of inviting the genocide perpetrated against them in Lithuania by supposedly having welcomed and aided the Soviets who briefly ruled Lithuania before the Nazi invasion.

Meanwhile, Aleksandras Lileikis, who directed the Lithuanian security police in the Vilnius district during the war and who last June returned to Lithuania after being stripped of his U.S. citizenship by a federal court in Boston for having lied about his role during that period when he entered this country, has yet to go on trial for participating in the Nazi acts of genocide. It is suspected by some that prosecutors are hoping that time will take care of the 89 year old man before they have to deal with him. At the same time, serious questions about the "rehabilitation" of a number of individuals who had been incarcerated during the Soviet era for acting in complicity with the Nazis go unanswered, even though the government of independent Lithuania has admitted that errors were made in their haste to rectify Soviet injustices.

Still, this is a government which has in a number of ways shown its sympathy and understanding for the Jewish community. The well-known chairman of the Parliament, Vytantas Landsbergis, is himself the son of a mother honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile. This past September, as the genocide against Lithuanian Jewry was being commemorated, President Algirdas Brazauskas declared that "there can be no lenience or prescriptive principles granted...those Lithuanian residents who participated in the killing of the Jews". He called for visits to the "memorial sites of the victims", saying: "After all, it is a loss, a pain and an unhealing wound for all of Lithuania's people".

For all of the distress voiced by the leaders of the Jewish community in Kaunus regarding on-going manifestations of anti-Semitism, they are quick to add that, since independence, Jewish cemeteries and the sites of mass shootings have been properly cared for, and to show their appreciation for the freedom which now exists in Lithuania. And they are exceptionally proud of the active organizational life they now direct.

With some 700 members, Kaunus's Jewish community offers an educational program for their youth, a Macabbi sports club, associations of veterans and of survivors, cultural programs, and religious activity headed up by the Chabad. They do this with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, funded in Chicago by the Jewish United Fund, out of a newly rehabilitated set of offices in a former synagogue.

In Vilnius, the director of the Jewish State Museum of Lithuania, Emmanuel Zingeris, who dreams of once again making that city a center of Jewish study, is a member of Parliament and a significant figure in the current government. At the same time, members of the 4,000-person Jewish community are particularly proud of their accomplishments in reviving Jewish life there and are looking forward to next September, when the 200th anniversary of the death of the Gaon will be observed. (How many communities have as their leading native son a scholar known by all as "The Genius?")

Simonas Alperavicius is chairman of the Jewish community of Lithuania and Boris Borisov is chairman of the Vilnius Jewish community. With them and "fellow-traveler" Al Domanskis, who joined me and served as translator, I sat in the home of the Grodnik family one late afternoon. With their 25 year old daughter Liora I did not need a translator, for she spoke a fluent Hebrew learned during a year's stay in Israel.

On the television screen we watched videotapes of Liora performing songs in Hebrew and in Yiddish on the stage in Vilnius. In the room was a cupboard full of menorahs and Jewish art objects. On the table were drinks and sweets with smells and tastes I had not encountered since my childhood, in my grandmother's dining room in Chicago. "We are rebuilding Jewish culture here", said the mother, chairman of the committee established by the local community for that purpose. "We have been here for 600 years", she proclaimed in the apartment where she herself had been born 50 years before.

On my last night in Lithuania Emmanuel Zingeris and I talked for a while in my hotel, then made some stops. First we went to his office in the Parliament, where he gave me several books and articles he has worked on regarding Jewish culture in Lithuania. While we were there he put me on the phone with his brother Mark in Kaunus, a Jewish playwright eager to discuss literature and amazed to learn that I had once had Saul Bellow as a teacher. Our next stop was outside of the massive former Yiddish theatre, now scaffolded, with reconstruction stalled.

Finally, we drove to the small wooden building where that museum's current exhibit on the Holocaust is on display. Near that former house stands a monument to Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat based in Kaunus who had saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust by making travel visas available before he was forced to close the consulate there in August of 1940. Placed in a small lot, the monument, in the Buddhist style, is entitled "Moonlight". Standing together on a snow-covered lot at midnight that chilly evening, we and the statue were ourselves magically bathed in the light of a nearly-full moon which suddenly broke through the clouds above. Nine hours later I was on a Lithuanian plane, headed for Warsaw.

PART III. POLAND

Before leaving Chicago, I had obtained from a cousin the names of the towns in the Kovno area where, according to family records and lore, ancestors and other relatives had lived in the 19th Century. On the way from Jubarkas to Kaunus, we drove through two of those towns, Raseiniai, where my grandfather's father had lived and my grandfather himself had been born, and Ariogala, where my grandmother's grandfather had been an innkeeper. In speaking with the leadership of the Kaunus community I was able to learn that, as late as 1980, a Kotzin had lived in that city.

Flying from Lithuania to Poland, I more or less retraced the route followed by my grandmother and grandfather. In Poland, as in Lithuania before, the senator's itinerary, while greatly focused on international politics and economics, continued to have a significant Jewish component. For me, there were intense personal dimensions to the visit as well.

As in Lithuania, in Poland too there were, repeatedly, signs of the two sides of the coin regarding attitudes towards Jews in that part of the world today. Just three days before we arrived, a Catholic priest named Henryk Jankowski had complained to a reporter that Poland is being ruled by a Jewish minority which has decided to persecute him. He made that statement following court appearance brought about by the fact that local government prosecutors had charged him with group defamation for equating the Jewish star to Nazi and Communist symbols while delivering a sermon in church. A couple of weeks after we left, Polish prosecutors dropped legal action against Jankowski.

At a meeting with our delegation the first day we were in town, a leader of a recently-formed rightist party called the Movement for the Reconstruction of Poland (ROP) opined that the Jewish perspective on matters has been effected by the experiences Jews suffered, while, according to him, Polish suffering during the war has generally not been acknowledged. Asserting that bystanders should not be blamed for what happened to Poland's Jews in the Holocaust, he offered no admission of participation in the Nazi atrocities by any Poles nor even that there was a history of anti-Semitism in Poland.

Walking the streets of Warsaw not long after that meeting, I saw one slogan painted on a building wall calling for the expulsion of the country's "Jewish occupiers" and another calling for that of the "Jewish president". Under the latter was an apparent reaction to it from a critic of the political party we had just heard from, who equated the ROP with the Nazis. Most disturbing of the anti-Semitic graffiti I saw that afternoon were drawings showing a Jewish star at the end of a hangman's noose on a gallows.

I saw a variation of such a drawing, with the star inaccurately drawn, the next day as well, along with the non-Jewish guide who had just taken our group through the former Warsaw Ghetto. While the rest of the group went to meetings elsewhere, he and I walked alone toward the back of the Umschlagplatz, the site where the trains had departed packed with Jews being sent to the camps. There on the wall was that image.

"I am sorry you have to see this", the guide said with profound empathy. It was shortly after I had mentioned to him that Warsaw relatives of mine had perished in the Holocaust.

A native of that very part of town who has become an academic expert on the Ghetto and who had just completed a study of victims' memoirs found there, this young man conveyed a sensitivity and appreciation for the dignity of the Jews who had lived and died in Warsaw which sent a powerful message about the manner in which some members of his generation are dealing with the past.

Likewise, the schoolteacher who guided us through Auschwitz-Birkenau the next day seemed overtaken by a solemnity and agony of his own. Looking at one of the displays there, he said that for him, of particular poignancy were the shower heads. He noted that whenever he sees them he imagines the feelings of those doomed human beings who had looked up from below wondering and fearing what would be coming from the last object their eyes had focused on.

The current Polish government, we were told, has been responsive to concerns related to the history of the Jews of Poland. Though the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death complex has itself been a subject of controversy in recent years, while we were there the government was working on a proposal for ensuring its proper preservation in consultation with the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and Jewish groups, and since we left a draft of that proposal has been agreed to in principle. During the time we were in Warsaw, one of the chambers of the Polish Parliament approved legislation providing for the return of Jewish communal property. The vote in the lower house was 339 to 34 with 30 abstentions.

Just a few days after we left, as Polish media devoted airtime to reporting on the vote, an arson attack was directed against the lone synagogue still in use in Warsaw, which I had visited during our three days in the country. The Polish president quickly condemned the attack, as well as violence against the Jewish community in general. Two sides of the coin.

In Kracow the night before we went to Auschwitz, we sat in a Jewish-style restaurant called "Ariel", with Klezmer music in the background, joined by Stanislaw (Yitzhak) Zohar, the JDC's local representative in Poland, and his wife. Zohar told us how he had fled Kracow and survived the Holocaust, then had gone to Israel to have an impressive military and diplomatic career before joining the staff of the Joint Distribution Committee. A few years ago he returned to Kracow with his wife to assume his current responsibilities, which include bringing comfort, companionship, and support to the lonely survivors living out their final years and days in Poland.

Three million Polish Jews were wiped out in the Holocaust, out of the 3.5 million who lived there before the war. The experiences of Kracow's Jewry have received widespread visibility through the film "Schindler's List" which, as it happens, received its first network television screening some three days after we were in that city. The street where we had dinner, in the heart of the old Jewish area, was used in the filming. Steven Spielberg himself, we were told, nightly ate in the same restaurant we did while he was working on the movie.

Still, Poland today is a site not only for remembering what was, mourning the lives that were taken, and aiding the survivors. For in Poland too, particularly since the fall of Communism, a modicum of Jewish life is being reborn among a population which is uncertain in its numbers but small by anyone's count.

As described in an article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin which was published only a few days after our return, a conference held in January under the sponsorship of the JDC brought more than 150 Polish Jews together in Warsaw to discuss the future of the community. Young Poles, some of them formerly "hidden children" saved and adopted by Catholics, others children of survivors who covered up their own Jewishness, are only now learning of their Jewish origins. As the Washington Post reported in a recent article, they are coming out of the woodwork as they discover their Jewish identity. Others who have known they are Jewish are becoming more involved in Jewish activities.

The last night in Warsaw, while Senator Durbin and Dan O'Grady attended a private dinner at the American Ambassador's home, Bill Durbin, Stanley Balzekas, Al Domanskis, and I, joined by our driver, went to a new Jewish-owned restaurant for dinner. After eating in the upstairs dining area, we were shown the rest of the establishment, including a section which is designed to reproduce the cellars used formerly in the city for eating, drinking, and listening to Jewish music. On one of the walls leading into this "Karczma", along with messages written by other visiting dignitaries, we unexpectedly saw the bold Hebrew script of the Israeli novelist Amos Oz. It provided a refreshing and uplifting counterpoint to the hostile graffiti I had come upon previously.

Though on an entirely different scale, the small revived Jewish communities in Poland and Lithuania, like the state of Israel which was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, constitute a rebuttal to Hitler. They are evidence that, successful as it was in many ways, in the long run the Nazi's evil program failed. They are, in their fashion, affirmation of the fact that Jewish life goes on, that the Jewish people live.

PART IV. A FINAL WORD: THE DEAD HAND

The week we were traveling, the international editions of Time and Newsweek ran cover stories entitled, respectively, "Echoes of the Holocaust" and "War Without End: Why World War II Still Haunts Us All", while an article in the New York Times elaborated on what its headline called "World War II's Unfinished Business".

As these reports indicated, while Switzerland and France have been drawing the greatest attention, nearly a dozen European countries, confronted by facts which they had ignored, denied, or distorted, have been taking new looks at their pasts. What we were witness to and involved in on our trip was, in its way, an aspect of a development which is increasingly and dramatically being brought to the fore.

As today's world is propelled forward to the new millenium there is, it seems, a countervailing pull back to the past. It is a pull which brings to mind what the 19th Century British writer George Eliot evoked with the phrase "The Dead Hand" in "Middlemarch", her novel about change.

The Holocaust was a defining moment in our century and for our civilization. It is a moment which most of the countries involved in failed to come to grips with factually and morally before moving on. The rapid arrival of Communist control for some, and of Cold War involvements for others, facilitated their failures to face up to that earlier period. With the passage of 50 years and the fall of Communism, archives are being opened, old information is coming to the fore, and many countries are finding themselves unable to avoid realities long kept under the carpet.

Though some commentators may have seen the fall of Communism as an end to history, it has instead revealed itself to mark a return to history. Released from the yoke of Soviet oppression, nations in Eastern and Central Europe are reaffirming their national identities. As they and Western countries attempt to forge new relationships and to move forward, they all seem fated, want to or not, to have to face that cataclysmic dark age which marked the fourth and fifth decades of this century.

Some nations acted cravenly and viciously then; some acted nobly and heroically; most had mixed records. Now there are myths to defuse, historic facts to acknowledge, and moral conclusions to be drawn. And it seems as though this simply must happen before the world can move forward.

Europe is haunted by the ghosts of its Jews, a people who were practically wiped out during the Holocaust, a people who, even when living out their separate minority existence were also part and parcel of a more diversified mix than what now prevails in many of those countries. (Ironically, in an age when heterogeneity seems to be a fact of social life, some countries in Eastern Europe today are, internally, even more homogeneous than they once were.) And thus, there are many countries which need to look at what they were, at who used to be part of their national demographic makeup but is no more, and at why that is the case. And they need to recognize and to embrace the reemerging communities made up of remnants of that people of the past who are now part of their present too.

Hitler's goal was to annihilate the Jewish people and to eradicate Jewish culture. A fitting way to remember the millions who perished and to ensure the ultimate defeat of Nazism would be not just to establish museums with relics of the past and to erect memorials at the places where Jews were slaughtered, but to support the modest revival of Jewish life now taking place in those cities and countries with respect and with understanding for Jews and Judaism, along with recognition that the center of global Jewish life has shifted.

As this happens, the countries which are involved must deal honestly with their own behavior at that earlier time. They need to do that not only to guarantee the civilized world's victory over the evil of Nazism but for the redemption of their own national souls. The Nazis brought death as they transformed themselves and those who aided them in the pursuit of their goals into monsters. The forces of life and humanity must confront the past lest they continue to be pulled back by its dead hand.

In this context, the books currently housed in that former church in Vilnius and the adjacent building take on added significance. There is something both tangible and symbolic about those volumes, those repositories of Jewish wisdom and emblems of the personal and communal existence of the People of the Book. For the Jewish people they are links with a time which is no more even as they have continuing meaning and value. For the Lithuanians they are reminders of what their country once was like, and of who once lived with them.

The manner in which the situation involving these books is resolved will do and show much. Hopefully, the visit paid to Lithuania this February by a new American senator from Illinois and the delegation which traveled with him was helpful in moving matters toward a positive solution.

Originally printed in the February 1997 issue of JUF News