Lithuanian Jewish revival ‘begins with honesty’ – ambassador
In his last public engagement in South Africa, Lithuanian Ambassador Dainius Junevičius focused on the devastating and irreversible destruction of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust, especially in what was once the centre of Jewish life, Vilna, or Vilnius in Lithuanian, known as “the Jerusalem of the North.”
He was speaking at the opening of the exhibition Chayela Rosenthal – Wunderkind of the Vilna Ghetto Theatre in Cape Town on Sunday, 18 June, almost 80 years to the day since that ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis.
“As prominent Lithuanian Jewish writer Grigory Kanovich, who passed away recently, said, ‘Only penance, the truth, and the courage to admit it have the power to revive and strengthen the relations between the Lithuanian and Jewish nations.’ I fully subscribe to these words,” he said.
Among the Lithuanian Holocaust survivors who came to South Africa was the remarkable Chayela Rosenthal. She went on to have a remarkable international career in Yiddish theatre with many stars of stage and screen. She made her home in Cape Town, where she and her husband, Xavier Piatka, had two daughters, Naava and Zola, who continued their parents’ legacy.
The exhibition explores Chayela’s pre-war life, and her extraordinary tale of survival and resistance through her music and that of her brother, composer Leyb Rosenthal, who was brutally murdered days before liberation.
“We welcome the return of Jewish culture from the past to the present, wherever that may be,” said the ambassador. “I hope this exhibition will be seen by the Lithuanian public one day. It speaks of human strength in the face of death and unspeakable injustice [and] reveals [Chayela’s] ability to remain humane in the most challenging moments.”
The ambassador said that “in contributing to this exhibition, we wanted to remember that this year marks the 80th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius Ghetto on 23 September 1943. The Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania in 1994, right after Lithuania regained its independence, proclaimed this day the Day of Remembrance for Jewish Victims of Genocide in Lithuania.”
Looking back, he said “I belong to the post-war generation. I was born only 17 years after the beginning of the war in Lithuania. My mother was the same age as Chayela. I grew up in Vilijampolė during Soviet times. It is a suburb of Kaunas where a ghetto was established during the Nazi occupation. It’s also close to the Kaunas Ninth Fort, where Jews were killed.
“In Soviet times, there was little talk about the Jewish tragedy, and I was completely unaware of the cruel past of this place. When I came to study in Vilnius in 1976, there was almost no trace of the city’s Jewish history. During the Soviet years, not only was there no talk of the Holocaust, Jews were discriminated against and had very few opportunities to develop their culture.”
However, “the Lithuanian national revival movement Sąjūdis and the initial struggle for liberation from Soviet oppression at the end of the 1980s provided conditions for a Jewish national rebirth. In 1989, the Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Society was founded.”
During the following three decades, enormous changes took place in Lithuania, the ambassador said. “Gradually, Jewish culture has become closer and more familiar to us,” he said. “Many publications on the history of the ghetto and memoirs of Jewish survivors have been published in Lithuanian.”
Today, “walking around Vilnius, we see many traces of the Jewish legacy”, Junevičius said. “Signs mark the boundaries of the Vilnius Ghetto, there’s a monument to the victims of the ghetto, memorial plaques mark the buildings of the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre and the Ghetto Council, and a Ghetto Museum on the premises of the former ghetto library is in the making. At the initiative of our foreign affairs ministry, a memorial plaque has been erected on the site of the YIVO [Institute for Jewish Research] building.”
Junevičius reflected on how the exhibition inspired him to remember Jewish survivors of the Vilna Ghetto that he has met in the past. This includes Fania Brancovskaja, born Jocheles in 1922, who turned 101 in May. “She always speaks in the beautiful Yiddish of Vilnius when invited to speak. She escaped just before the liquidation of the ghetto by going to fight with the partisans. In 2017, Fania, an active promoter of Holocaust remembrance, was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Lithuanian State Order.
“Another prisoner of the Vilnius Ghetto I met is Samuel Bak, who lives in Boston. An honorary citizen of Vilnius, Bak says, ‘Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my beloved hometown, Vilnius. Independent Lithuania has recognised the importance of my art, which bears witness to the memory of the Jews who lived in Vilnius and were killed in tragic circumstances.’”
Junevičius noted that at the age of nine, Bak held his first exhibition in the Vilna Ghetto. Later, he was rescued by the Poles and Lithuanians of Vilnius, who hid him in a Catholic convent until the end of the war.
“Professor Markas Petuchauskas holds a special place in my life,” the ambassador said. “When the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre was founded, Mark was 12 years old. He saw all the plays of the Vilna Ghetto and memorised their directors – the famous artists of Lithuanian Jerusalem. In his own words, ‘The theatre turned me into a human being, a citizen, instilled in me a love for theatre, and gave me a profession for life.’”
Petuchauskas escaped and spent the rest of the war in a village in western Lithuania. He studied law and later became a renowned theatre scholar.
In independent Lithuania, “Markas founded the Jewish Culture Club, and in 1996, he started organising the International Days of Remembrance of the Vilnius Ghetto,” said the ambassador. “It was he who discovered the posters and documents of the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre in Lithuanian archives and, in 1997, wrote a comprehensive history of the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre.
“In the same year, under his leadership, the Lithuanian Jewish Culture Club organised the International Art Days in Memory of the Vilnius Ghetto Theatre, the 55th anniversary of the theatre. Five years later, in 2002, on his initiative and with funds raised by the club, a commemorative plaque in Lithuanian and Yiddish was unveiled on the former ghetto theatre building.”
In addition, “Twenty years ago, in 2003, Mark organised Naava Piatka’s concert, bringing Chayela’s music back to Vilnius on the same stage where her mother performed.”
“As I conclude my mission, I want to believe that South African Jews know a little better the Lithuania of today – a modern Lithuania, a member of the EU [European Union], NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation], and the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance], appreciated by its partners for what it has done in addressing issues of the past and perpetuating Jewish history,” he said.
He noted that, “Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė’s visit to Israel earlier this month, when she met with Israeli leaders and participated in the AJC [American Jewish Committee] Global Forum 2023, demonstrated the excellent relations between our countries.
“This atmosphere wouldn’t have existed had it not been for late President Algirdas Brazauskas’s words of apology during his first visit to Israel in 1995,” said the ambassador. “The Lithuanian president apologised in the Knesset to the Jewish people on behalf of the Lithuanian nation for the actions of his countrymen who had participated in the Holocaust.”