The Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum (VGSJM)
About the Museum
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
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
Annual Museum's Events
Public Readings of the Holocaust Victims’ Names
Public Readings of the Holocaust Victims’ Names is an open citizens’ initiative from Vilnius that commemorates Holocaust victims and helps to revive our collective memory. It started in 2011 with the readings of the Holocaust victims’ names.
On 23 September 1943, Nazi forces and local collaborators started the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto. Several hundreds were killed in the Paneriai massacre, around 7,000 were deported to the concentration camps in Poland and Estonia. Only 2,000 to 3,000 of the 60,000 Vilnius’ Jews and around 5,000 of the 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were able to survive the Holocaust. On that day Lithuania holds the National Memorial Day for the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews.
On 23 September, the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum together with support of local communities organizes the readings, every year in a different public place. This year readings took part in two places: the courtyard of the former Vilnius ghetto library (which was a cradle of the ghetto cultural life and also a meeting place of the ghetto underground fighters. In a basement of the building, ghetto prisoners hid rescued treasures of the YIVO institute). Readings were also held in the “Skalvija” cinema building where the Vilnius documentary film festival with a special program named „Shoa“ was launched.
We are very pleased that more and more people are joining this event every year. Small initiatives from the small towns all over Lithuania are very welcome too.
“A person is not just a number. Thus by reading the names one by one, the Holocaust is made personal. The informality is important. Anyone can come,” says one of the initiators of the idea.
The President of Lithuania awards local residents who rescued Jews from the Holocaust during WWII
Each September, on the National Memorial Day for the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews, Lithuanian citizens, who saved Jewish people from the Nazi genocide during World War II, are awarded Life Saviours’ Crosses in the Presidential Palace of the Republic of Lithuania.
Unfortunately, 70 years after the World War II, many rescuers of the Jews are awarded posthumously, therefore the awards are presented by the President to their children and grandchildren.
This year, on September 22, President Grybauskaitė awarded 47 Lithuanian citizens with the Life Saviour‘s Crosses, only 6 of them are alive, others are being awarded posthumously.
Since Lithuania has regained independence, 1297 people were awarded the Life Saviour‘s Crosses between 1994-2014 following the recommendations on the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.
881 citizens of Lithuania have been awarded as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for rescuing Jews from the Holocaust.
Unique Artefact enriches the VGSJM Collections
The Holocaust Exhibition of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum was enriched by the unique exhibit – the dark blue headscarf with the white dots. It was Dita Šperlingienė–Zupavičienė, former prisoner of the Kaunas Ghetto and Stutthof Concentration Camp, who presented the headscarf to the Museum. This headscarf symbolizes Dita's strength, it helped Dita to withstand the atrocities of the Concentration Camp.
Official presentation of this precious exhibit, supplemented with the moving video story of Dita Šperlingienė-Zupavičienė took place on 17 September, 2015, at the Holocaust Exhibition. The event was organized in commemoration of the National Memorial Day for the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews and was also part of the program celebrating the 90th Anniversary of YIVO activities.
Photo: Dita Šperlingienė with the headscarf. ©VGSJM
Commemoration events at Paneriai Memorial Site
An annual memorial event and official commemoration ceremony are held to pay tribute to the victims of the Holocaust at the memorial site of Paneriai on 22 September. Representatives of the Seimas (parliament), the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mayor of Vilnius, leaders of Jewish community, ambassadors, and special guests laid wreaths and flowers on the monuments at the memorial site, where 70,000 Jews were murdered.
All interested had a possibility to join a free guided tour of the memorial site.
Research and Education
The VGSJM is one of the main Holocaust history research organizations in Lithuania. Publications, exhibitions, and thematic presentations are the result of long-term experience.
The Museum maintains several projects: the “Jewish Communities of Lithuania at the Face of the Holocaust: (Un)forgotten Names and Fates”. This is an online database www.holocaustnames.lt of Holocaust victims in Lithuania based on archival material and visitors’ shared information is regularly updated with new material. The project “Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania” consists of a website www.holocaustatlas.lt and books in Lithuanian and English. It provides comprehensive information about 227 mass graves of Jews, including the map of the Holocaust sites in Lithuania. The publication contains the map of the sites, short historical information about the mass murder, perpetrators and victims, and the main information about the monuments. The Atlas also contains illustrations. Both projects were launched in 2011.
The historians of the museum contributed with their expertise and research to the EHRI project and also work in close cooperation with Holocaust-related institutions in the United States, Israel, Germany, Poland, Latvia, the Netherlands.
Since 1995, a collection of copies of the most important Holocaust documents is accumulated. Copies of the documents are not only from Lithuanian archives, libraries and museums, but also from Latvian, Estonian, Russian, Belorussian, Polish and German archives. This collection is of great value to researchers who want to receive basic information for the beginning of his/her research. The collection comprises more than 10,000 paper document copies.
Education on Holocaust history
Between 2009 and 2014, the three exhibitions’ departments of the Gaon Museum – the Paneriai Memorial, the Holocaust Exhibition and the Tolerance Center – hosted about 700 organized groups of schoolchildren, who took part in guided tours and educational programs. In total, about 12,500 schoolchildren participated within group visits. One group consist of eighteen pupils on average. These statistics include organized visits of schoolchildren only to the exhibitions of the museum. They do not include organized schoolchildren visits to the events at the Museum – movie screenings, debates, events dedicated to commemorate September 23rd and January 27th, International Tolerance Day, etc.
A new educational program at the Holocaust Exhibition has started for pupils from the 7th to 12th grade. An educator discusses Jewish life in pre-war Lithuania using the example of one family. What does it mean to be a Jew? What is Jewishness? General chronology of the Holocaust is also discussed.
The program “Childhood with a yellow patch. Ghetto children: history, memories, documents” is about children’s life and experiences in the ghetto.
Education in cooperation
In cooperation with the U.S.A Holocaust memorial Museum, the IHRA, Lithuanian Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Commission , the Embassy of the USA, the VGSJM organized a series of seminars for teacher-trainers on European Holocaust History, Human Rights and Tolerance in 2010-2012 in Vilnius, Kaunas and Šiauliai.
Over the last three years, educational programmes on Holocaust history have been developed: Austrian volunteers from the Gedenkdienst organization, who serve at the VGSJM, visited school classes sharing what they knew about Holocaust from their perspective; a school task book on Holocaust history in Lithuania was compiled in 2013.
Furthermore, three documentaries created in 2005, 2007 and 2013 constitute an important tool for education. Unique stories of rescue during the Holocaust years are told by the witnesses themselves. The latest film, The Pit of Life and Torment released in 2013 ( directed by Lilija Kopač and Danutė Selčinskaja), tells a dramatic story of survival of Saulius Kuklianskis, a Pharmacist from the shtetl (small town with large Jewish population) of Veisiejai, and his three children – Moshe (Mošė), Anna and Samuelis. Since January 2013, the film has been shown in Lithuanian schools, film festivals and various events in Lithuania and abroad.
In 2011, the competition for schoolchildren “They lived among us”, named after the Righteous Among the Nations, Ona Šimaitė, was organized. The competition was dedicated to Holocaust history and Lithuanian Righteous among the Nations. 26 schools from different Lithuanian regions participated actively in the competition with their projects.