Lithuania: A Notable Facade Display at the Former Mefitzah Haskalah Library in Vilnius
by Samuel D. Gruber
(ISJM) There are many plaques around Vilnius attesting to the Jewish past and the events of the Holocaust. These are easy to pass by: made of grey stone with dry inscriptions, often placed above eye level, and for the English speaker usually in recognizable but incomprehensible languages (Lithuanian and Yiddish).
A big exception to this is the temporary (though now up since 2013) display of photos found in the former Vilna Ghetto that are enlarged to poster size and displayed on the facade of the former (secular) Mefitzah Haskalah Library at Zemaitijos Street 4 (former Strasuna St 6). The building also served as a library and important meeting place in the Ghetto, and from 1944 to 1948 the library was the Jewish Museum in Vilna, so it thus reflects pre-War, Holocaust, and post-Holocaust Jewish history in the city.
The building was subsequently used as a branch of the Vilnius Musical Conservatory until about 1999. Since then it has been empty beginning in 2013 it was cleaned and became a site for Holocaust commemoration which included the posters on the facade. I'm told the building is now owned by the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. Future use is unknown (the museum plans to create a "Litvak center" at the facilities of the former Jewish gymnasium (Pylimo St. 4)).
Presently, few or no buildings in the former Ghetto areas have specific Jewish identities or serve Jewish religious or cultural use. Beginning in 2013, the building has been the site of commemorative events, especially the highly acclaimed "Vardai" (Names) project, which encourages the reading of Holocaust victims' names throughout the country on Lithuania's Holocaust Remembrance Day of September 23rd (read more here in an article by Ellen Cassedy).
The use of large photos to promote history is nothing new, historical societies and museums across Europe (and even America) have been doing this for years. In the Jewish context this is less common, but there have been examples such as on Warsaw's Prozna Street.
The use of anonymous everyday photos to identify Holocaust victims with everyday normality (and this common humanity) began in 1990s, with the exemplary Polish Exhibition And I Still see Their Faces. Using photos or real people - even when the names of these people are not known - is part of a long an continuing process of movie beyond numbers when we talk of Holocaust destruction. Them more we can create personal and community narrative the closer we can come to grasping the substance of what who and what was destroyed, not only the quantity. Photos like these focus on the lives of the victims, not the brutality of their murderers.
"In the first days of the ghetto a public library was opened at 6 Strashun Street on the site of the Mefitzei Haskalah (Disseminators of Enlightenment) library with 45,000 books. 2,500 readers were registered at the library. During the summer of 1942, about 5,000 people visited the reading room every month. The educational institutions and youth clubs also held small libraries.
The library was managed by the Bundist Hermann Kruk. The library also contained an archive of material about the ghetto and a department for scientific research headed by Zelig Kalmanovitch. Thousands of documents were collected in the Ghetto Archive, among them directives from the German authorities, orders from the ghetto management and police and witness testimonies from Ponary. At the beginning of 1942 Gens established a team of writers to record the history of the ghetto.
Today the ghetto library which is supervised by the culture department held a ceremony in the ghetto theatre marking the loan of the 100,000th book. Aside from the celebrations the ghetto book shop presented a display. The artistic display booth showed that despite all the pain and the troubles and despite the difficult situation of the ghetto, a heart of culture is pulsating within it. -- Hermann Kruk, A Diary In the Vilna Ghetto, p.418, 13 December 1942.
Today there was a celebration in the ghetto – the loan of the 100,000th book from the ghetto library. There was a celebration today in the theatre hall. We went… from school… there was an artistic programme. The speakers analysed the reading of the ghetto. Hundreds of people are reading in the ghetto. Reading books in the ghetto is the biggest treat that there is. Books link us to freedom; books connect us to the world. The loan of the hundred thousandth book is a great achievement for the ghetto and the ghetto can be proud of it. -- Yitzhak Rudashevski, A Boy's Diary From Vilna, p77