I Often Forget
Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, was once referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North,” where Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews) thrived for centuries. Before World War II, nearly a third of Vilnius residents were Jewish. During the Holocaust, more than 90% of the Jewish population in Lithuania perished.
My parents were World War II refugees who fled Lithuania and eventually settled in Southern California. Our family spoke Lithuanian at home, and my siblings and I spent every Saturday at a Lithuanian Catholic school. We learned Lithuanian history, language, songs, and folk dances, and we spent our summers at Lithuanian Scout Camp. I embraced my Lithuanian heritage and sent my son Matas to the same places. He had many of the same experiences that I had. Growing up in the American public school system, we learned about the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and concentration camps. At Lithuanian school, Nazi occupation was discussed, but the Holocaust was never mentioned. Looking back, I realize how much this disturbs me. It disturbs Matas too.
In January 2021, I arrived in Vilnius on a Fulbright scholarship to study the remaining
Litvak community. Fastening a World War II-era lens to a newly constructed 8x10” camera, I set out with black and white film to explore the streets of what used to be the Vilna Ghetto. Informed by historical diaries and testimonies, I walked the same cobblestone streets and passageways where more than 40,000 Jews were trapped before being systematically killed between 1941 and 1943. Much has changed. Today, their voices and stories are nearly lost, buried beneath layers of renovated facades, charming cafes, affluent boutiques, and buzzing tourist spots.
Upon my return to the U.S. in October of 2021, I reconnected with some of my American Lithuanian friends who could relate to my project. Their interest was inspired by the same lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in Lithuania. My sister Rima told me that, to her embarrassment, she first learned of it from a Jewish friend in her college days.
Pondering it further, I visited my school library and found my Lithuanian twelfth-grade
history textbook entitled, History of the Lithuanian Nation, Volume IV (Lithuanian
Educational Council, Inc. in 1977.). World War II is described over seventeen pages. The word “Žydai,” or Jews, is nowhere to be found. My brother Andrius pointed out that, in fact, Volume III includes information on Litvaks. A chapter simply entitled “Jews” contains only one sentence about the Holocaust.