Lithuania: My journey of return

As a Cape Town-born Jew, my life has come full circle. Although I was born after his death, my zaida, Rabbi Shimon Ze’ev Aysenberg had an indelible influence on my life. My father, Isaac Eisenberg, born in a stable in Mogilov, Belarus in 1922, a medical doctor and writer, spent his life interpreting his childhood memories.
by GARY S EISENBERG | Jul 20, 2016

Pictured: Choral Synagogue in Vilnius

The smell of the black earth, winter tales, the rich Yiddish he spoke, the gerichten of the alter
heim, were the jewels of the past my father polished throughout his life. 

My zaida was a graduate of the Slabodka Yeshiva in Kovno (Kaunas), Lithuania, but fled to Belarus in 1917. His book, Milchomo Shteib (The Dust of War), recalled the period when Germany took control of all of Congress Poland, Lithuania and Latvia and parts of Volhynia and Belorussia - bringing a large segment of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire under the rule of the Central Powers.

This was a bitter period, which ultimately brought my father and his family to South Africa. 

Chopped herring, kichel, kneidel and chicken soup, chopped liver, brisket and tzimmes, the smells, the tastes, the profound reflections of my father’s origins, but living in our hearts, glorify our identities as part of the Litvak world.

I am a Litvak. My friends are Litvaks, my teachers at school were Litvaks, but I never realised until recently that my Litvak community is inextricably linked to a culturally enriched and internationally scattered Litvak diaspora.

About 90 per cent of South Africa’s 70 000 Jews are of Lithuanian descent. Almost a million of us around the world thrive in our communities.

Some of the greatest names on earth are part of the Litvak community: Ehud Barak (previous Israeli Defence Minister); Benjamin Netanyahu (Israeli Prime Minister); Menachem Begin (previous Israeli Prime Minister); Roman Abramovich (owner of Chelsea Football Club); Ben Bernanke (previous chairman of the US Federal Reserve); Michael Bloomberg (owner of Bloomberg and former mayor of New York); Charles Bronson (US actor); Bob Dylan (US musician); Harrison Ford (US actor); Nadine Gordimer (South Africa Nobel Prize-winner for literature); Mendel Kaplan (South African industrialist and past president of the World Jewish Congress); Helen Suzman (South African politician); Sol Kerzner (South African businessman); Michael Marks (founder of Marks and Spencer in the UK); Tony Leon (South African politician); Chaim Soutine (artist); Joe Slovo (South African anti-apartheid politician); Amos Oz (Israeli writer); the Vilna Gaon. This list goes on almost forever.

Jewish life in Lithuania stretches back 600 years; before the Holocaust, Jews were the majority of the population in small towns. In Vilnius alone, 134 synagogues functioned. Napoleon named Vilnius the “Jerusalem of the North”.

Lithuania today only has a meagre 3 000 Jews as the vestige of a large and flourishing Jewish community, survivors from the Soviet invasion of June 1940 and the killings, which took place at the hands of Nazi occupiers from June 1941.

Prior to the Holocaust, Lithuania’s Jewish population numbered almost 250 000. Then came the mass executions in 1941, the establishment of the Jewish ghettos from 1942-1943 and the “Final Liquidation” of the Jewish community from 1943-1944. 

The Jewish massacres of Kaunas, Vilnius and the Lithuanian countryside, are well documented, as is the extent to which 95-97 per cent of the Jewish genocide was assisted by Lithuanian collaborators.

After the Soviets took control of Lithuania in 1944, there existed a prohibition or tight restriction on Jewish education, language and traditions. After the Soviets departed in 1993, these restrictions lifted and Jews were free to pursue their religious and cultural practices and to reinvigorate themselves.

In my first visit to Vilnius in September 2013, I realised that there existed a new trend of collaboration between non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanians to recognise and rebuild its Litvak Jewish heritage. 

One of the most successful of these enterprises was created by Jewish cultural activist Anna Avidan and pre-eminent Lithuanian attorney and art collector Rolandas Valiunas and businessman Antanas Zabulis. These projects are seeking to discover the Jewish past of Lithuania and to recreate it. 

When Lithuania became a full member of Nato and the European Union in 2004, it was brought into the Western world to rebuild and rebrand itself in modern secular terms. The Lithuanian government recognises the importance of the Litvak diaspora, not only in financial terms but also as a way to rehabilitate itself.

Its citizenship laws encourage the descendants of Lithuanian citizens (from January 1918 to June 1940) to reclaim Lithuanian citizenship. This programme is increasingly successful, not only by the granting of EU status passports to successful applicants, but also to encourage Litvaks from all parts of the world to return to Lithuania in different ways. Brian Joffe from Bidvest and Robbie Brozin of Nando’s have both recently invested in businesses in Lithuania.  

On my recent visit to Vilnius, I spent Shabbat with Rabbi Shalom Krinsky, the Chabad emissary to Lithuania and attended the only functional synagogue in Vilnius, the Choral Shul on Pylimo Street, built in 1903. Surrounded by members of Vilnius’ Jewish community and visitors from Australia, the US, and England, I had come full circle. 

The Lithuanian Citizenship Programme is grist to my mill since through the process of acquiring Lithuanian citizenship by reinstatement, a journey of return can be concluded in myriad significant ways.


Gary Eisenberg is an immigration lawyer.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Aubrey Traub 03 Aug
    Could this comment be passed onto Gary
    Hi Gary I have in my possession a copy of your grandfathers book  from my late fathers  collection of Yiddish and Hebrew books As my father and his mother and siblings were exiled from their shtetl in 1915 to Belorussia and then a year later to the Ukraine where they lived in extreme poverty until they were allowed to return in 1920 I have wanted for some time to get the book translated but wanted to get permission from  your family Do you have an english translation if so could I have a copy I will gladly pay any costs involved  


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