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A Litvak-less Birthday Bash

Happy 750th birthday, Vilnius, many happy returns of the day, and thanks for letting everyone share it all with you. Thanks for that memorable summer fest, that near-infinite parade glutting your newly refurbished main drag, Gedimino Prospekt (with a nice McDonald’s, complete with walk-through window); thanks for those three-plus hours of good-natured nationalistic/peasant nonsense, the women in traditional dress, the mustachioed men slamming goat-skin drums, the kids threatening to poke eyes out with those pagan-looking sticks topped with the Lithuanian tricolor. It was a great time.

One question though: Where were the Jews? Remember them? In Yiddish they were known as Litvaks. They were a pretty sizable part of your town’s history, though you wouldn’t know it from the festivities.

Without an official invitation to participate, the Litvaks — the ones who are still here — tended to business as usual. They manned their two small museums, published their homey newspaper, The Jerusalem of Lithuania (lovingly edited by Milan Chersonskij), and hoped for tourists. As for participating in the 750th anniversary celebrations, “No one asked us,” said Emilia Lipshitz, a local resident. If invited, would she have marched in the parade? “Yes. And the community has a choir that should perform there,” she said, mentioning a festival concert series.

Jeremy Jacobson of Seattle, a visiting Jew and fellow parade-watcher, said he wasn’t surprised. “Really, what do you expect?” he asked. “This whole thing is about Lithuania, and remember, Lithuanian Jews aren’t also Lithuanians.”

Yet pre-war Vilnius was one-third Jewish. Since then, a ghetto has been built and razed. The Museum of Genocide Victims has exhibits only on ethnic Lithuanians who suffered under the Soviets. The museum at the Paneriai concentration camp, a few clicks out of the city center, is closed. The original site of the grave of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon, is now a sports complex. So what’s a Jewish tourist to do? I went antiquing.

I turned up a yad, a pointer used for reading the Torah. It looks more than 100 years old, an obvious piece of war loot someone pawned some time after the war. The shopkeeper offered to sell it to me for 300 American dollars, a figure way beyond my means. An argument ensued, antisemitic epithets were hurled and I was out on the street again, in the middle of the parade.

Signs were everywhere, signs of representatives from the Lithuanian diaspora. I saw signs for the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom — even the contingent from Chicago got all dolled up in lace and wooden shoes. On the Lithuanian homefront, Kaunas (formerly Kovno, Lithuania’s second-largest city, birthplace of Emma Goldman and home to its second largest Jewish community) was well-represented. When I asked three emissaries from Kaunas about the lack of Jews in the parade, I received empty stares. My e-mails to the festival office were not returned.

So it’s been 750 years since the founding of this place, 750 years since Grand Duke Gediminas had a dream of a city on a hill, founded it and fought off the claims of the Teutonic Knights. And in celebration, the city is awash in newfound nationalism, an iconography that’s no different from what the Germans and Soviets hauled in. While the Lithuanian dailies advertised concerts (lots of Lithuanian folk music, but nary a mention of native virtuoso Heifitz) and touted literary readings (no mention of Nobel laureate poet Joseph Brodsky, a onetime resident), the quarterly Jerusalem of Lithuania carried articles headlined: “60th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” and “Racism and Xenophobia on the Internet.”

It seems the Litvaks will have to wait for Vilnius’s birthday according to the Jewish calendar. Or maybe they were all stuck in weekend traffic, behind the parade.

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