Many Litvaks, Jews from Lithuania, who survived the Holocaust do not wish to have anything to do with the country where their families perished, says the new director of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, Kamilė Rupeikaitė-Mariniuk, which is why the cases of forgiveness and reconciliation are all the more precious.
Kamilė Rupeikaitė-Mariniuk, who took over this year, remembers becoming interested in the Hebrew culture from reading the New Testament.
While studying at the Lithuanian Theatre and Music Academy, Rupeikaitė noticed how many references to music, musicians and musical instruments there were in the Bible and decided to focus her research on them.
For that, she signed up for additional classes at Vilnius University, studying Jewish history and old Hebrew.
“In those days, there were hardly any books on these topics in Lithuania. One teacher told me: if you're really interested, literature will find you. And it did,” she says.
Her own family played a role in Jewish history. Rupeikaitė’s grandfather, Balius Simanavičius, was posthumously named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
As a kid, she would hear stories from her parents about how, during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania, her grandfather carried out a baby girl from Kaunas Ghetto in a potato sack and gave her to the family of Kipras and Elena Petrauskai. The girl, Danutė Pomerancaitė, survived the Holocaust and became a violinist. Simanavičius rescued about twenty more people.
“When I was a kid, my parents would tell me the story. But you know, when you're a kid, you don't pay much attention. However, my mum – I am very grateful to her for that – asked my grandfather to write down his memories,” Rupeikaitė recalls.
Rupeikaitė started to work at the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum (VVGŽM) in 2007 and soon became the deputy of the museum's then director Markas Zingeris.
She is now overseeing a growing collection of exhibits and ambitious expansion plans. Moreover, Rupeikaitė wants to put more focus on research.
“The collection must be studied. Exhibits are made by their history. Without it, they are worthless, they don't speak to the viewer,” she says.
The VVGŽM collection consists of over 30,000 pieces, only a small fraction of which are currently exhibited.
Some of the others will soon be put on display in the new Memorial Museum of the Holocaust in Lithuania and Vilnius Ghetto. It will be opened in a building on Žemaitijos Street which used to house the Meficei Haskala public library.
One of the exhibits is a plastic model of the city which, Rupeikaitė says, is absolutely unique: “It was made, on the orders of the Gebietskommissar of Vilnius, by a big group of architects, plotters and artists, all of them prisoners of the ghetto.”
Another interesting piece held by the museum is a headscarf donated by Dita Šperlingienė.
“It was worn by a young girl, who’d just graduated from a gymnasium, at Stutthof. For her, it was a symbol of survival and strength,” Rupeikaitė says. The scarf was worn out and its owner would mend it with a needle she got from her dentist mother by a lamp she made herself from a potato, a piece of thread and some margarine.
Memory and reconciliation
No less important are Litvaks’ stories and their achievements, Rupeikaitė believes. For that reason, a new Museum of Lithuanian Jewish Culture and Identity is to be opened in Vilnius, probably some time in 2021. It will tell about literature, painting, theatre, music created by Litvaks. One floor will host a display of paintings by Rafael Chvoles, a Vilnius-born artist.
Rupeikaitė is happy when Litvaks visit the land where they or their families come from. She recalls a visit a few years ago by the renowned South African photographer David Goldblatt. His grandparents came from Papilė, a town in northern Lithuania.
“He had no interest in visiting Lithuania, but was convinced by his children,” Rupeikaitė says. During the visit, Goldblatt took a single photo, of the site where the Jewish residents of Papilė were murdered. “This is where the history of Papilė Jews ended.”
“Due to this tragic past, killed families, many [Litvaks] do not want to come,” Rupeikaitė adds, which is why she values the rare occasions when they do.
Rita Glassman, an American from a Vilnius orthodox Jewish family, told her how after her father came to the US, he would tell stories where Vilna sounded like an ideal place. This was partly why Rita Glassman had not venture to come see it before she was older – she was afraid not to find the city of her father’s stories.
Samuel Bak, a Boston-based artist, went even further – he donated his paintings to Vilnius, the city he was born in.
“The artist has a touching story,” says Rupeikaitė. “He and his mother escaped death in Vilnius Ghetto by some miracle and later conveyed the experience in painting, but also through stories, articles, lectures.“
For the 85-year-old artist, Vilnius is the city of his childhood, but also one where his entire family was killed. The gift is a sign of “reconciliation which is very meaningful,” Rupeikaitė says. “For us, Lithuania, it is a message of possible forgiveness.”