New Partner in EHRI: the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum

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Monday, 21 September, 2015
In its new phase, the EHRI project has 23 partners, of which 11 are new. In this article, one new partner, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum (VGSJM) from Lithuania, introduces itself.

The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum (VGSJM) is a national institution under the Ministry of Culture of Lithuania that collects, conserves, investigates, restores and exhibits the historical, material and spiritual heritage of Lithuanian Jews, traditional and modern Jewish objects of art and documents and objects connected with the Holocaust. In 1989, the government of Soviet Lithuania permitted the re-opening of the Jewish Museum after 50 years of non-existence (history of Jewish museums in Lithuania goes back to 1913). Part of the artefacts were returned to the re-established State Jewish Museum in 1991. In 1997, on the 200th anniversary of the death of the renowned Torah scholar the Gaon (genius) of Vilna, the institution was renamed the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.

Today the museum has three operating exhibition departments: the Tolerance Center, the Holocaust Exhibition, and the Paneriai Memorial. Two exhibition departments – the future Center for Litvak Culture and Art (in the former Tarbut Gymnasium building) and the Jacques Lipchitz Memorial Museum in Druskininkai – are both closed for renovation. The Center for Litvak Culture and Art, which is planned to open in 2018-2019, will be dedicated to artworks of world famous Litvaks – visual arts, literature, music, science. In three floors of the building, art works, documents, photographs, video material from the collections of the museum and other institutions in Lithuania and abroad will be exhibited.

One more building belongs to the museum – this is the former Vilnius Ghetto library, which currently is in deteriorating state. The vision of the VGSJM is to arrange a spacious Holocaust history museum in this building (transferring the exhibition from its current location which is small and also needs major repair), as this is the best possible space in the city – a historical building which was a witness to the rich cultural life in the Ghetto.

The Tolerance Center

Located in the former Jewish theatre on Naugarduko St. 10, the Tolerance Center is the venue for permanent and temporary exhibitions on Litvak history, culture and arts, and on the Holocaust. In the cosy theatre hall, thematic presentations, conferences, seminars, lectures, movie screenings, concerts, and educational programs are being organized. Once a month, the Tolerance Center invites families to educational mornings on different subjects of Jewish culture and history.

The renewed two-part exhibition from the museum collections is open on the second floor. The exhibition “The Lost World: Echoes of Traditional Lithuanian Jewish Art” has on display several unique objects of the Lithuanian Jewish heritage that were rescued during the Holocaust and that are now part of the museum collections. The exhibition highlights three authentic interior details of the Vilnius Great Synagogue. The part of the exhibition “The Lost World: Encounters” is devoted to the works by the Litvak artists of the 20th and early 21st century.

The permanent exhibition “Rescued Lithuanian Jewish Child Tells About the Shoah”, which was partially funded by the IHRA, was opened in 2009. It shows fifty authentically documented and abundantly illustrated stories of rescued Jewish children. Unique is the interactive memorial dedicated to the murdered children during the Holocaust. With special light, video and sound effects the visitors become actual participants of the presentation. All the material of the exhibition is accessible on www.rescuedchild.lt, and is constantly supplemented with new and additional material and information. (Photo at the top: Memorial for the Murdered Children; Exhibition "Rescued Lithuanian Child Tells About the Shoah" ©VGSJM)

More than 6,000 visitors per year visit the Tolerance Center.

The Holocaust Exhibition and the hideout malina

The history of the Holocaust in Lithuania is presented at the Holocaust exhibition in the old green wooden house on Pamėnkalnio St. 12. The house which was given to the museum as a temporary premises in 1989, was known as the place of the first illegal constituent congress meeting of the Lithuanian Communist party.

The first exhibition, mounted by the Holocaust survivors, was opened there in 1991. A partial renovation of the permanent exhibition “The Holocaust History in Lithuania“ was done in 2010, partially funded by the IHRA. The exhibition was supplemented with new documents from the collections of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, Lithuanian and foreign archives, with audio and video materials, and with artefacts acquired by the Museum during the last years. In 2011, the comprehensive catalogue of the exhibition in Lithuanian and English was published. It covers the history and culture of the Lithuanian Jewish community from their arrival in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania up to the WWII massacres, contains authentic photography and document copies from the museum stocks, as well as Lithuanian and foreign archives. In September 2013, commemorating the year of the liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto, the interactive malina (a ghetto hideout) was equipped in the premises of the Holocaust exhibition. This helps to attract more visitors, especially young people, to the Holocaust exhibition. In the recreated malina hide-out, visitors can hear extracts from the diary of Ichok Rudaševskis (1927–1943), telling about what he, in his early teens, has gone through while hiding in the malina in one of the warehouses on Šiaulių Street in Vilnius. Among the exhibits, there are authentic photographs that were discovered at the Vilnius Ghetto right after the war, which now are kept in the museum. The malina arrangement is a good example of a cooperation between the museum and a private initiative (company „The Northern Jerusalem”, which funded the project).

More than 6,000 visitors per year visit the Holocaust exhibition.

Photo's: 1. Malina Green House; 2. At the Holocaust Exhibition: Survivor Rachel Kostanian leads the guided tour. ©VGSJM 

Paneriai Memorial

Before the Second World War, the beautiful forest around Paneriai was a very popular recreational area for residents of Vilnius and its surroundings. After Lithuania regained Vilnius and the environs in 1939, the country was forced to admit Red Army forces, for whom fuel tanks and ammunition stores were set up at Aukštieji Paneriai (Upper Paneriai). When Germans entered Vilnius in 1941, they took notice of the unfinished liquid fuel tank base next to the Paneriai railway station. At that time, seven pits were dug. The Nazis used these for mass extermination operations.

Paneriai can be counted as the second biggest (as per number of people killed) place of mass execution in all of Eastern Europe (after the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine). In August 1944 the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission determined that about 100,000 people were killed at Paneriai. Nowadays the number of murdered Jews is estimated to be about 60,000. In total around 70,00 people were killed. The other victims were Lithuanian soldiers from the Lithuanian Local Squad, Roma, communists, Polish resistance fighters, Catholic priests, Soviet POWs, and local residents.

The monument at Paneriai for the exterminated Jews was erected by Holocaust survivors in June 1945. Unfortunately it was demolished by Soviet authorities who instead build a Soviet style monument for all Fascism victims in 1952. The museum was opened in 1960 at the mass murder site and was a branch of the ¬Vilnius Regional Museum. In 1985 a new museum building was constructed and the exhibition overhauled. The land belonging to the memorial was also renovated. In 1991, the memorial museum in Paneriai was given over to the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum; in 2013, the memorial land was also placed in charge of the museum.

At present, a new concept of the memorial in Paneriai and the immortalisation of the victims is being developed.

Photo: Panerai Memorial. ©VGSJM

Read more about the VGSJM Annual Events, and Research and Education.

Kamile Rupeikate, Neringa Latvyté