I love this city and I always say one and the same thing to friends from abroad: Vilnius is a hidden pearl. When you want calm, there’s calm; when you want sound and sprees, they’re there for the taking. There’s beauty to be seen, both static and breathing, be it in the old architecture or in the beautiful men and women. In short there’s something on which to feast the eyes. For a long time what I had to say hit a brick wall of avowed promises of “of course I’ll come some time”, some time being never. Then suddenly things start happening and as if by agreement they descend on Vilnius and ask what it is they should see first.
And so I got the opportunity to take a look at Vilnius not through the eyes of someone who lives here but through the eyes of a stranger to the city and I realised that Vilnius has nothing to offer them. Yes, there’s the Old Town and it is enchanting, but that charm lasts but half a day. On the weekend you can while away the evening in bars. And then? Then they want museums and here one museum is drearier than the other. They’ve already seen old armour, weapons and tiles and the art galleries are focused on what’s local with no world masterpieces – hardly for the true fanatic or tourist keen on art and who’d “devour” all on offer.
One thing that doesn’t disappoint is the theatre. The Vilnius theatres are world class and many a theatre lover comes here just to see the performances of Eimantas Nekrošius, Rimas Tuminas and Oskaras Koršunovas on their home turf. And once they’ve seen them they might just grumble that there were no subtitles but actually they liked them. The performances filled their nights and by day, looking for something new they dropped into the Lithuanian Theatre and Film Museum, convinced it’ll be of the same class as the theatres they represent. But there’s the same old museum dreariness where the staff are knitting and time stands still.
We know (and we’ve had the experience) how easily totalitarian regimes give meaning to the past, and we see (we’ve encountered it) how it’s done in a free society, i.e. talk about monuments and museums without ourselves feeling ashamed and making outsiders yawn. How then do you give meaning to freedom? Erect a separate memorial to it in the town square or exemplify it in the actual town – in its buildings, streets, parks and people? For the time being in my opinion the monument to Frank Zappa is the best expression of our freedom; or the kiss between Trump and Putin. But the one with Basanavicius just doesn’t do it because it’s difficult to combine a domineering patriarch of the nation with what’s contemporary. Imagine him in a conservative way and he’s no different from all the Soviet idols that used to cram Vilnius. The majority of the nation in its reverence for traditional tastes simply won’t allow forging him with crucial license and boldness to express liberty and art.
Defenders of the Green Bridge statues were probably more frightened not so much by the fate of the statues themselves than by the ensuing emptiness once they’d been removed. The flower pots are a just temporary solution, yet going forward what do we replace them with? I don’t know and can’t imagine. Maybe just burn the bridge and build another?
It’s not just we who have encountered this post-soviet dilemma; what do we fill the emptied squares and parks (bridges) with so that they are tasteful, aesthetically pleasing and done in the spirit of freedom? A few years ago we discussed this in Kharkov. Each of the Western artists challenged a local artist with the provocative question as to with what they wanted to replace the recently removed statue of Lenin. For a while they said nothing and then one Ukrainian woman who, while not remembering who she heard it from, said that in one of the capitals of the Baltic States, “maybe Riga” there’s now a field of rye in what used to be Lenin Square.
This is where I rushed to correct her - it’s not in Riga, it’s in Vilnius - and to share with them that extraordinary feeling and commotion of the senses within you when you suddenly smell rye in the middle of the city and then come to that little field of rippling rye, right in the centre of town. It’s all just so captivating in that this is just an interim living installation until such time as a solution is found as to what significance the square must have.
Indeed, the Eifel Tower must also have captivated albeit for a while until it became the symbol of Paris. At times we so lack trust in ourselves and maybe taste and outlook too in that when we appreciate a masterpiece that we’ve created we’re in no rush to replace it with some heavyweight monument of dubious artistic and touristic worth.
About great Vilnius
I think that there’s something else that’s difficult for us to manage when it comes to designing and to find for ourselves meaning in Vilnius. We are settlers here. It’s not easy to find a person living in Vilnius who can trace their roots in the city to further than after the war, they exist but they’re few. Therefore, however much we love and are enchanted by the city’s spirit we still do not entirely perceive it. We are the inhabitants of a small, cosy, European city. If we want to understand Vilnius in its era of nobility we must delve deep and put roots right into its past where there’s another completely different city of Vilnius, a city of a different prominence and bearing and the centre of a great state, the one and only city of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
Even after the partitions and the Russian occupation Vilnius still for a long time remained that centre because despite administrative divisions into provinces, for ordinary Russians “Litva” began near Vitebsk and it stretched up to Bialystok and Brest Litovsk in the west. When speaking about the Lithuanians (us) who live here, the Litvins (today’s Belarussians) and the Litvak (Jews of the Grand Duchy), there’s still a Lithuania and its centre – Vilnius. The first and second generations are all but oblivious to this but that’s no longer the case with the third and fourth generations. Their urban roots try to penetrate the street foundations because they no longer have a sense of being settlers. They consider this city theirs yet at the same time sense that there’s something missing, something that has been silenced.
About the Jews
What then is the situation of our Jews? I will hazard an explanation and put together the Lego.
Last year we were able to make a big breakthrough, an explosion of a Lithuanian sense consciousness. We found the strength to face our Jews, in their graves granted which is all that remains of them, nevertheless… It was something bold and upbeat and in Lithuania if anything it cleared the air. We did on the other hand did something that was long expected of us, something that our country which honours itself and cherishes justice had to do in dispensing freedom and that was to pay tribute to our perished, our murdered, people.
We didn’t in actual fact do anything, we simply felt it. It still remains to name the murderers and instigators of massacre, topple them from their pedestals and cleanse the partisan movement of them so that those criminals, thriving as they are no longer sully the entire postwar Lithuanian resistance. Only then will justice be served. I trust that it will all happen quickly because these are unavoidable steps on the road of Western values. But there is a step further we can take which will surprise ourselves and the world, one nobody would expect us to take.
So finally I dare to say it. Vilnius needs a big and modern Jewish museum. Not just a museum to the Jews of Vilnius but to the Jews of the Grand Duchy, to all Litvak, to their history and life. A museum the likes of which Warsaw and Berlin have. They are museums unlike any other, museums which are themselves works of art and many works of art in one and which are remarkably interactive, using state-of-the-art technology. It is not for nothing that crowds of visitors, both locals and tourists alike, flock to these museums. And it’s not simply a single penitential gesture, a tribute to the Jews for their suffering and for travellers to these cities these museums have already become the very first and one of the most visited sites in Berlin and Warsaw, be they travellers who are stopping over, spending the night, buying or eating. It’s pragmatic and far-sighted.
They are of course memorials, the best that they can be and a reminder of that catastrophe. It goes without saying that they are museums of Jewish life and death in those countries. However, you get the eeriest of feelings on entering the section that tells of the Holocaust; a terrible envy arises. It is also a tribute to those nations – the Germans and the Poles – because they speak openly and in remarkably effective ways. And it’s not just about their Jews.
The most difficult thing was to see photographs of the executions that took place in Lithuania, in Paneriai. And you think - why are those photographs here and not in Vilnius. It’s as if your cover will be blown and you’ll be recognised as a Lithuanian, pinned against the wall and asked “why were you silent?” And where is your museum built with the spirit and the fervor with which you killed the Jews?
That’s obviously just a phobia, nobody would never dare say that, at least not we ourselves. None the less these massacres are something karmic and that karma must be cleansed. This is what I mean: Warsaw and Berlin, by having museums like these seem cleaner than we who do not have them. Now don’t start whining that Vilnius these days is too small and that Lithuania is too poor and too weak to bear the burden of building a museum like that. It is not Lithuania alone that needs to bear that burden. There are in the world not only fabulously wealthy Litvaks but also fabulously wealthy other people for whom supporting such a museum should be not only an honour but also an act of life; a museum that tells of their forefathers in a land that still exists and where they lived and died and right in the middle of that place. And so being namely in the centre the first thought that comes to mind in the debate is where would could the museum be? How about where the Great Synagogue used to stand?
I am clearly being very outspoken here because I am an amateur, a dreamer talking nonsense and I don’t know if it’s at all possible to squeeze a museum like that into a courtyard in the Old Town. And if I may just point out, it’s too narrow and cramped for a museum there. So how about an open place in the centre, near the Sports Palace where the old Jewish cemetery is; or where they’re planning to put the Guggenheim museum. Call in world-class architects among which by the way are quite a few Litvaks making waves with masterpieces of modern architecture that for a long time coming could become Vilnius’s calling card; like the famous Sydney Opera House, Dubai’s “Sail” and London’s “Gherkin” and the Guggenheim museum itself in Bilbao. Yet it must be agreed on from the start that we actually need a museum of this kind, a museum that well tell of Jewish history and of the Great Synagogue and of all the history of the Grand Duchy - that history of a mysterious Grand Duchy that sank into oblivion and the people of which were made up of three tribes – Lithuanians, Litvinians and Litvaks. The fate of the latter was itself tragic: nothing of them remains here, they have disappeared and so it’s firstly all about them. And then about what’s left.
It’s a pity that I’m just a writer and not a magnate because in my mind I imagine those spacious halls telling of the legacy of famous Litvaks; there’ll be Romain Gary’s manuscripts, a donated painting by Marc Chagall, Doctor Zamenhof’s notes on the founding of Esperanto, the story of the Gaon of Vilna, arguably the most famous inhabitant of Vilnius. And there’ll be music everywhere, one side will be playing Bob Dylan, the other Leonard Cohen and somewhere else Jasha Heifetz. And alongside there’ll be the story of the Jews of Lithuania, in whatever places they lived, how they lived, what they believed, what they ate. You’d be able to enter any Lithuanian or Belarusian village and have an all-round experience and then go off to the restaurant for authentic Litvak food.
Utopia? I don’t think so. If they can do it in Warsaw and Berlin what’s to say we can’t do it? I believe we can.
In our all too short period of freedom we’ve built so many shopping centres and recreation facilities and so maybe the time has come to have a museum, one that wows everybody. Lithuanians, you are however stubborn! We don’t have hope. We have dreamed for so long about Lithuania as a regional leader and here’s the chance to take moral leadership into our own hands. And there’s finally the economy, a new image of Lithuania attracting investment. With a museum like this the world powers would see Lithuania with completely different eyes because it’s more than a museum, more than a memorial. It would be a statement.
For the time being it’s just a dream, pie in the sky. There aren’t any funds for and there no interest in a museum like this. That means it belongs to nobody but by the same token it’s everybody’s who caught up in this dream. To all of those then who have the ideas and especially to those who have the power to decide and shape the face of Lithuania - come on and build it, because Vilnius without a museum like that will always be missing something.
This is something that hasn’t finished and has not been engaged with. Our Jews didn’t simply live here. They, along with others, founded and built this city and so like it or not severed roots constantly come to the surface and the only way out is to grow our own roots. That does not mean that we should all become Jews, rather we should rebuild firmer and deeper, with more of a conscience and no longer as settlers.
It will therefore no longer be a museum to them. It will be a museum to US. In the words to the people of Vilnius and to those who came before them.