Monday, May 22, 2017

Upstream 5: Vilnius

After my first weekend in Lithuania, in Vilnius (known in the Jewish world as Vilna), my head is spinning.  What have I learned?  Mostly, that humanity is vastly complicated--joyous and tragic, compassionate and cruel, strikingly brilliant and utterly foolish, heroic and evil.  This is not new to me, really, nor is it likely new to any of you reading this.  Yet one feels all these contradictions so powerfully here in the city that was known as "Jerusalem of the North," once the intellectual center of Jewish life and also the place of immense devastation as the community was decimated during the Shoah.  The Vilna that I knew, I'd experienced through black and white photos and newsreels and austere columns of pages of Talmud (published here), so I was quite taken aback by the vibrance and color of the city.  I'd expected a Soviet-looking place, grey and somber.  But Vilnius is far from that image.  It's a beautiful, hip, Baroque and very European place--much more like Prague and Budapest than the Soviet Eastern Europe of my childhood.  It is, in short, charming.  And it's disarming to find such charm in a place that was once a third Jewish, and where the ghosts of the Jewish past lurk around nearly every beautiful corner.  How could human beings enjoy the beautiful parks and concert halls and cafes and culture of such a city and then participate actively in slaughtering their Jewish neighbors, or stand idly by during the genocide?  It is inconceivable to me.  I do not blame the current generation of Lithuanians; they are not responsible for the sins of their parents and grandparents.  Nor do I, as an American, pass judgment.  After all, I live on land that once belong to tribes like the Shoshone-Bannock, and enjoy the fruits of a system that was, for a century, built on the backs of African-American slaves.  In the United States, we have our own genocide and mostly, I think the Europeans have been more honest in facing up to their history than us.

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?

On 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.

They have posted their constitution in numerous languages, including Yiddish!  It begins: "Everyone has the right to live by the river and the river has the right to flow by everyone."  Perfect for Rosa and me, as we prepare to spend a month on Lithuania's rivers.

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.

This juxtaposition of the historical marker and the shoe store was especially striking to me.
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.

In Cathedral Squre, there is a special tile.  It was the starting point of a human chain of 2 million people who linked arms from Vilnius all the way to Tallinn, Estonia in 1989 as a remarkable peaceful protest against Soviet occupation.  Today, people go to this square and turn in a full circle, 360 degrees, while making a wish.  The notion is that if the dream of independence could come true, as it did, then this place has the power to make wishes come true for others. . .

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.  Here's the ending:

You are a dark amulet set in Lithuania.
Figures smolder faintly in the restless stone.
Lucid white sages of a distant radiance,
Small, hard bones that were polished by toil. 
The red tunic of the steely Bundist.
The blue student who listens to gray Bergelson--
Yiddish is the homely crown of the oak leaf
Over the gates, sacred and profane, into the city.
Gray Yiddish is the light that twinkles in the window.
Like a wayfarer who breaks his journey beside an old well,
I sit and listen to the rough voice of Yiddish.
Is that the reason why my blood is so turbulent?
I am the city: the thousand narrow doors into the universe,
Roof over roof, to the muddy-cold blue.
I am the black flame, hungry, licking at these walls--
That glows in the eyes of the Litvak in an alien land.
I am the grayness!  I am the black flame!  I am the city!

And, on the old synagogue, a frozen water carrier,
Small beard tilted, stands counting the stars.

We ended the day by walking in a beautiful garden and then having a bagel at Vilnius' only Jewish bagel shop, with a stop by the Frank Zappa statue.  It was a wonderful, puzzling, beautiful and mind-blowing day, really.

Tomorrow, on to the river!

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