Preserving the Lost Identity through Memory: The Jewish Victims in the Borderlands

By: Kara McGrane

When visiting city after city, museum after museum, memorial after memorial, it can be easy to forget the importance of what is being remembered; but, that is not always the case when those cities, museums, and memorials forget a part of their own past that is so crucial to their memory and past. There are some places of remembrance that preserve past identities, and bring them to the forefront of society, or at least to the attention of it. Then there are others that wish to sweep that dark part of their history under the rug, hide it from view of tourists, and refuse to open the door to the skeletons in their closet when prying, curious eyes want to take a peek. This seminar was a whirlwind of places of recollection of a past deliberately remembered, or forgotten, but the particularity that stuck out most for myself was the way the cities chose to remember their history and those who decided to share its story.

While in Vilnius, Lithuania there seemed to be a great deal of remembering the past, but not in its entirety.

Walking through the site of the former Vilna Ghetto was a surreal experience. To understand that life still existed within the ghetto was something that I had not thought of before, and probably would not have in the future. But the way the guide, Elia, depicted life brought this humanizing factor to the way of living of which I would never have dreamed. But, at a certain point we walked into a courtyard of an apartment complex and some of the people who live there now came out and sat upon their stoops or leaned upon their windowsill, and I could not help but wonder, do they realize the history of the place where they are living? Or do they live in ignorant bliss? Once we exited the courtyard, there was a building that was the library in the ghetto. There were some pictures of the ghetto residents and a sign that had a map of the ghetto and explained what the building was; yet, it was not the pictures or words that confused me, it was graffiti that covered some of the pictures. Was the graffiti deliberate? Was it anti-Semitic? Or was it just an act of teenage angst on a blank canvas?

Later on we visited a museum on Jewish history called The Greenhouse. It had an accurate representation of Jewish history in Vilnius from pre-war to post-war. Yet, once again, it was not necessarily the museum that really made me think and truly preserved the Vilnius Jewish heritage; it was the guides. Rachel, a woman who wants to spread the word of the whole history of Vilnius’ victims without leaving out the Jewish people, and Markus, an Austrian who volunteered to work at the Greenhouse as his civil service to Austria because it is a way that Austria reconciles with its past and promotes understanding of World War II, were two other people who brought the Jewish story to life through personal anecdotes among other things. The history told by the Greenhouse is a stark contrast to that of the KGB Museum, which is state-sponsored. Compared to the personal narration of those at the Greenhouse, the guide at the KGB museum quickly spit out specific facts and ushered us from room to room without any time to process and absorb any of the information on what we had just seen. Any other visitor may have left the museum with a type of blank space in place of what the memory of the museum would have been because there was so much to process in such little time.

Next, we visited the Tuskelanei Peace Park, where the victims of the KGB prison were buried in a mass grave. Upon entering the memorial, for people of all types of religions, the cement doorframe to the crypt seemed to resemble a cross on its side. That non-religious frame housed a metal gate, which also seemed to be assembled with several crosses every which way. Now those gates make it seem like the crypt is of a Christian religion, thus it does not full accept its entire past. The crosses only speak to the present, dominant religion of Lithuania but do not represent the religion of the past- of those who died there. Even the mosaic inside the crypt has a sense of Christianity with the choice of animal, a dove, and what it represents, peace. But another problem posed by this memorial is whom it memorializes. This tomb remembers not only those Lithuanian partisans killed by the KGB but also their murderers; as the KGB officers were murdered as well because they knew too much at the precipice of the fall of the Soviet Union. How can a country preserve and remember the memories of those who were murdered as their murderers are buried on top of them?

The final stop in Vilnius was the mass-shooting site at the Panarei forest. There is a memorial there, but nothing like what it should be for as many people who lost their lives there. It is on the outskirts of the city and the one left-hand turn to get to the road of the memorial seems like a private, unpaved road. Once in the park, if a visitor did not have a tour guide or a map of the memorial, everything would be lost upon them. Not just that, but also if the non-native Lithuanian visitor was a relative of someone who lost their life there, how would they know what happened where because every sign is solely in Lithuanian. The memorial seemed like an unfinished project, frantically put together at the last minute. Granted, there will be a greater public awareness to the cemetery because there is now a competition to renovate the design of the park, so as to make it friendlier and to properly remember those there who passed.

While in Sejny, we were able to witness some of the workings of The Borderlands Foundation. Though it may not be a concrete memorial to the lost past of the town, it does bring together the community through art, music, and other media. To do this, all the disparate ethnic and national groups must reconcile their past to move into the future together.

Next we went to Krynki, a small village on the border of Belarus. But learning about the history of the town was unlike anything I had experienced before. No certified historians or anthropologists took us on a tour of the town, but members of the community were making sure that the memory of the past stays alive. On a corner of a street lay the ruins of the Great Synagogue. There is no sign stating what the building once was, how it came to be, and why it is still like the way it is. If there were any errant passerby who knew none of the village’s history, they would ask themselves, ‘Why hasn’t the town cleared the rubble of this demolished building?’ A select few members of the community are preserving a history that isn’t necessarily their own, and protecting it as there is no Jewish presence whatsoever in the town today. There is a forgotten Jewish cemetery in a field that is off an unkempt path scattered with beer and vodka bottles that comes from a dirt road up a hill past a couple farms. This cemetery is further proof of the forgotten Jewish history of the town not only because of its not being cared for but also, though it may be a simple coincidence, there was a light up Christmas tree on the side of the look-out which was just past the cemetery. Though that tree most likely had no meaning, to me it just seemed like a continuation of the day: the present day community does not remember the past or does not wish to but nevertheless the past remains because of those in the town who wish to preserve its memory.

Finally, in Lublin, I witnessed a compassion for a past that was not a community’s own but they embraced it as such. While at the NN Theatre, I feel like the experience was akin to that of the Greenhouse in Vilnius. But, the difference between the two cities is that Lublin has accepted its history, and is making moves to involve the community in remembering the past so that they can move as one into the future whereas Vilnius keeps its Jewish history a secret: up an alleyway with only a sign as large as a house number to mark where it is. The NN Theatre beautifully remembers the city’s Jewish heritage through time periods, individual stories, and art exhibitions. But what makes this museum stand apart from the rest was the compassion and sympathy of its employees. Anyone could tell that they cared deeply about what they spoke of. They have the ability to bring the past to life in such a tangible manner that is was not hard to take a step back from the statistics and feel the experience of certain individuals from that time.

In each city we visited there are tangible attempts of remembering the past, even if not in full. With due time, reconciliation, and understanding I believe that the borderlands can accept their pasts through the methods shown by the individuals and organizations who wish to remember a past important to them but also to history overall.