And still, I just don't understand. One walks down these lovely streets, sees culture and kindness and beauty and it is just hard to reconcile with the brutality of seventy-five years ago. I want to remember the past and also to enjoy the present, to honor the martyrs and also celebrate the joys of spring and music and art with those who live here and share it with me.
Enough generalities. What have I done and seen?
First of all, this weekend was a festival of street music and dance. Kids and teens were playing instruments and singing at every corner, and the entire city seemed to be dancing! The weather was glorious, and the sight of hot air balloons flying over the Old Town was stunning. There was even beach volleyball! Who knew?
I Sunday afternoon, I took a walking tour with a great group called Vilnius By Locals. The guide, Milda, was young and enthusiastic and very knowledgeable. We spent much of the tour in a section of Old Town known as Uzupis--or, by the residents' own reckoning, "the independent Republic of Uzipis." They declared their independence, elected their own president, and wrote up their own constitution. And every year, they celebrate their Independence Day--fittingly on April Fool's Day--by issuing visas and drinking beer. This is the Lithuanian version of the "Conch Republic" in Key West or the People's Republic of Berkeley. Uzipis is the artists' corner, hip and progressive and beautiful.
The symbol of Uzupis is this angel, who rises from the central town square and watches over the citizens.
And, per "people's republic" and the whole hippy thing, there's even a miniature "Tibet Square" which the Dalai Lama visited a few years back!
Milda also walked us through the Jewish Quarter. There are streets like Gaona Gatve (Gaon Street, named for the Vilna Gaon--more below) and Zhydu Gatve (Street of the Jews). Very little remains, of course. Before WWII, the city was 1/3 Jewish--around 100,000 people. The history of Jews in Vilna is incredibly rich--I'll write much more on this when I return to Vilnius at the end of our paddling and we take a tour specially devoted to Jewish sites. For now, I'll just note that we saw the site where the Great Synagogue stood (there were scores of smaller shuls where most people davenned, often organized by profession and neighborhood courtyards) and the memorial to the Vilna Gaon. The Gaon--Rav Eliyahu of Vilna--lived in the early 18th century and introduced a method of Talmud study that became the foundation of the great Lithuanian yeshivot established by his students. He believed in using reason and current knowledge to get at the plain meaning of the text. He was a strict rationalist, and Litvaks--the Jews of Lithuania--followed his path and took great pride in his astounding knowledge. The street named after him has a marker noting where the Ghettos (large and small) were located during the Shoah. I suppose that for most contemporary Lithuanians, living on Gaon and Zhydu streets is not so different from the way we in America live in all sorts of places named after the Native Americans that we exterminated. It is a strange feeling to walk here, to see the beauty and know the tragic history, too.
Walking through Old Town, we came to the Cathedral, and its square, which is at the center of town. Just above it is a castle, built by Grand Duke Gediminas, who established the city in the 14th century. The view from there is spectacular.
We walked through Literatu Gatve--a street honoring literary figures with a connection to Vilnius and Lithuania. It's a marvelous place. I was drawn to the square honoring Moishe Kulbak, whose Yiddish poem "Vilna" is a classic--I'll share some excerpts later.
Tomorrow, on to the river!