(JTA) — Legend has it that in the early 14th century, the grand duke of Lithuania set out on a hunting trip. One night, he dreamt of an enormous iron wolf, which a priest would later tell him was a sign that he should establish a city on the site where he had slept.
Whether or not the origin story is true, it’s uncontested that the present-day Lithuanian capital Vilnius was first referred to by its former name, Vilna, in documents and letters in 1323 — making this year, in the government’s eyes, the city’s 700th anniversary.
The city is marking the anniversary year throughout 2023 with various festivals, visual art exhibitions, lectures and more. The organizers of Vilnius 700 stress that they are including Jewish people and themes in the celebrations through a range of programming.
That’s because for a portion of the city’s existence, starting in the early 19th century, Vilnius was also one of the most important Jewish centers in the world, known as the Jerusalem of the North. Roughly half of the city was Jewish, and it was a Jewish cultural powerhouse, a deep well of Yiddish and Hebrew literature. In 1910, the city had over 100 synagogues, along with Jewish schools, publications, and charitable and political organizations.
“The Jewish community is an integral part of Vilnius’ past and present, playing an important role in the city’s day-to-day life,” Tomas Gulbinas, Vilnius’ deputy mayor, wrote in an email.
Yet this weekend also marks a darker anniversary: 80 years since the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, a Jewish ghetto that saw almost all of its over 50,000 Jews die at the hands of the Nazis.
On Saturday, Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte joined others in a march from the city’s former Jewish ghetto to Paneriai, the forest site formerly known as Ponary where the Nazis and their local collaborators murdered 70,000 Jews, mostly Lithuanian, over three years during the Holocaust.
The twin anniversaries have brought into stark relief tensions over historical memory in Lithuania, where, as in neighboring Poland and Latvia, officials have downplayed the role of local collaborators in carrying out the Nazis’ murderous plans. Memorials to Lithuanians who fought with the Nazis against the Soviet Union are plentiful in the city, making that history loom both literally and figuratively over the 700th birthday party.
“There is an unresolvable tension between desire to celebrate and this history that is not much to celebrate,” said Laimonis Breidis, a Vilnius native whose book “Vilnius: City of Strangers” explores the city’s history through the insights of travelers. The biggest challenge, he said, is that “everything told about the city is compartmentalized.”
Almost all of the few thousand Jews living in Vilnius today have familial ties to people who died during the Holocaust, said Faina Kukliansky, chair of the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community. She said in an interview earlier this year that the community was more determined to commemorate the ghetto anniversary than the city one.
“I promise you, we, the Lithuanian Jewish community, will not forget this date,” she said.
How Lithuania’s Holocaust history is remembered became an issue of high drama in 2019, after a Chicago schoolteacher named Sylvia Foti published a book recounting how her grandfather — Jonas Noreika, a general and formerly a national hero — had agreed with the Nazis about the extermination of Jews.
The book caused an uproar. Lithuania’s parliament then voted to remove the head of a national genocide research center, Adas Jakubauskas, after he insisted Noreika had tried to save Jews; 17 historians wrote to the center complaining that Jakubauskas was compromising the quality of their research. For his part, Jakubauskas charged that he was being pressured by Israel and Russia to indict Lithuanian participants without evidence.
Yet the country continues to memorialize the Holocaust without calling attention to the role that Lithuanians played in carrying it out. Dani Dayan, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, said this week in a special session of the Lithuanian Parliament that the country “must consistently acknowledge that many of the Lithuanian Jews massacred in the Holocaust died at the hands of their Lithuanian co-nationals and that Lithuanians also took part in the extermination of Jews in neighboring countries.”
Such an acknowledgement is not a centerpiece of the Vilnius 700 programming, in part because its emphasis on celebration is focusing attention to happier moments in local Jewish history.
Gulbinas listed the Jewish-themed projects the city has undertaken in conjunction with its 700th anniversary: city tours, put on by Undiscovered Vilnius, that highlight the city’s Jewish history; the city’s involvement in the reconstruction of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius, which was mostly destroyed by the Nazis; the renovation of the grave of the Vilna Gaon, a hugely influential 18th-century rabbi, and the upkeep of Jewish cemeteries; and a graffiti art project, “Walls That Remember,” in which artists have painted images harkening back to the era when the city’s Jewish community was thriving.
“Simultaneously, Vilnius honors the present Jewish customs and traditions, for example, by celebrating Hanukkah together with the local Jewish community every year,” Gulbinas wrote.
A pavilion at the National Museum of Lithuania that is open until Oct. 15 recreates Vilnius as it stood 200 years ago — at the dawn of the city’s Jewish heyday.
Meanwhile, the Jewish community has held events tied to the ghetto anniversary outside of the Vilnius 700 umbrella. Earlier this month, in the courtyard of the former Jewish Council headquarters in the Jewish Ghetto, Šimonytė attended an exhibition and concert on the liquidation anniversary.
On Thursday, the city of Vilnius introduced a commemorative route — ”Panerių kelias,” or road of Paneriai, named for the site of a massacre of 100,000 people, many of whom were Jewish, during World War II — along which processions were organized on that same day and on the 24th. An additional exhibition, “Healing Soul Wounds,” which, per an official from the city, “reveals the traumatic experiences and dilemmas of young girls, teenagers and women in order to survive the brutal conditions of World War II and the Holocaust,” opened last week.
In a few cases, the histories — that of Vilnius and that of the Vilna Ghetto — were commemorated together in official Vilnius 700 events. At a concert outside the former Vilna Ghetto Jewish Council in July, Michael Gordon, the American composer and founder of the acclaimed Bang on a Can music collective, whose father grew up outside of Vilnius, debuted an original composition for nine trombones.
The courtyard was Gordon’s idea. The organizers of the music component of Vilnius 700 reached out to him, he said, and sent a list of sites where he could debut an original composition. In his reply, he said, he pointed out that “there’s a big and long and illustrious history of Jewish culture, both secular and sacred, in Vilnius, and none of these sites are Jewish sites. Can we consider a Jewish site? And they said yeah, great.”
Gordon chose the courtyard in part because of its connection to Jewish arts: on one side of the courtyard stood a Yiddish theater; on another, a Yiddish conservatory. And the city also has a personal connection to Gordon, whose father, a Litvak, lived in Vilnius in the 1930s. He called his composition “Resonance.”
Roughly 300 people came to the concert, said Gordon, who spoke a little about the event about “the presence of Jewish culture in Lithuanian history.”
“I was happy about that,” he said. “I kind of felt it was my responsibility…I felt, wow, I have this opportunity to go here and, in a certain sense, honor the Jewish history in this place, in this very important center of Jewish learning and Jewish arts and culture.”
That kind of attention was all too rare in the past, according to Laima Lauckaite, the curator of a collaborative exhibition between the Lithuanian Art Centre TARTLE and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City that is open now. Lauckaite did not grow up fully aware of her city’s Jewish history while a schoolgirl during the Soviet years near where the Great Synagogue of Vilna once stood. Soviet authorities had razed the synagogue’s ruins and erected a school; underground remains were not identified until 2015.
“I never knew about it, that there was the Great Synagogue,” she said. “I got to know about it only 30 years after.”
The collaborative exhibit in New York City displays an exhibition of Vilnius guidebooks that reflect the city’s 19th and 20th century history and “its multi-ethnic, multicultural landscape.” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda visited YIVO last week to pay tribute to the Jews who rescued rare books and documents from the Vilna Ghetto.
Dovid Katz, former professor of Yiddish Studies at Vilnius University, has spent the past 15 years editing Defending History, a site dedicated to fighting Holocaust distortion. He has also participated in numerous events to mark Vilnius 700.
“While it is very nice that authorities have included Jewish-themed programs in the year’s commemorations dedicated to the city’s history, it is shameful that they have not permanently taken down any of the state-sponsored public-space shrines to Holocaust collaborators and perpetrators,” Katz said.
He stressed that the narratives downplaying Lithuanian culpability in the Holocaust emanated from a relative few influential nationalists, not the mass of Lithuanians celebrating Vilnius.
“I love living here. The people of today’s Lithuania are terrific,” he said. “The problem is with a small ultra-powerful, state-funded ‘history fixing unit’ that dominates on these issues in politics, museums, media, arts and academia.”
Katz suggested, as well, that the Jewish community should have focused on a different anniversary — and that its attention to the September dates related to the ghetto’s liquidation reified the country’s Holocaust memory problems.
“Of the thousands of Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust survivors we interviewed over more than three decades, all felt that the appropriate day for commemoration of the Lithuanian Holocaust is June 23rd,” he said. On that day in 1941, “600 years of peace was broken by the outbreak of barbarity, humiliation, slaughter in hundreds of towns across the land. By the end of 1941, all the close to 250 or so storied shtétlakh (shtetls) were destroyed, as were the overwhelming majority of Lithuanian Jews.”
Focusing only on the liquidation of the ghetto, he said, “reflects a state attempt to deflect from the primary narrative via one that focuses only on the Germans (the ghetto history) and not on the thousands of local participants all across the land.”
Vilnius 700 events are scheduled through the end of the year, ensuring that the tensions over history and memory in the city continue to simmer.
But not all see the need to bring up the city and Holocaust anniversaries in the same conversation. David Roskies, chair emeritus in Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, wrote in an email: “I don’t see any intersection between the two anniversaries. It’s pure happenstance. Who can say with any precision when Vilnius was established?”
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Israel Orders More Evacuations in Khan Younis after US blocks UN’s Gaza ceasefire call
Israel ordered residents out of the center of Gaza’s main southern city Khan Younis on Saturday and pounded the length of the enclave, after the United States wielded its U.N. Security Council veto to shield its ally from a demand for a ceasefire.
Since a truce collapsed last week following Hamas’s refusal to release female hostages, Israel has expanded its ground campaign into the southern half of the Gaza Strip by launching the storming of Khan Younis. Simultaneously, both sides have reported a surge in fighting in the north.
Israel’s Arabic-language spokesperson posted a map on X highlighting six numbered blocks of Khan Younis that residents were told to evacuate “urgently.” They included parts of the city center that had not been subject to such orders before.
Israel issued similar warnings at the start of this week before storming the eastern parts of the city. Residents said they feared new evacuation orders heralded a further assault.
“It might be a matter of time before they act against our area too. We have been hearing bombing all night,” said Zainab Khalil, 57, displaced with 30 of her relatives and friends in Khan Younis near Jalal street where troops told people to leave.
“We don’t sleep at night, we stay awake, we try to put the children to sleep and we stay up fearing the place would be bombed and we’ll have to run carrying the children out. During the day begins another tragedy, and that is: how to feed the children?”
The vast majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have already been forced from their homes, many fleeing several times. With fighting raging across the length of the territory, residents and U.N. agencies say there is now effectively nowhere safe to go, though Israel disputes this.
Israel has blocked Gazans from fleeing along the main north-south route down the spine of the narrow strip, and is shunting them instead towards the Mediterranean coast.
THOUSANDS MISSING PRESUMED DEAD
A house in the city was engulfed in a roaring blaze after being struck overnight.
Footage obtained by Reuters inside another hospital in Deir al-Balah, the Jaffa hospital, showed extensive damage from a strike on a mosque next door. The obliterated ruins of the mosque could be seen through the blown-out windows.
There were no new figures on Saturday for dead and wounded from other parts of Gaza, including the entire northern half, where hospitals have ceased functioning and ambulances often can no longer reach the dead.
“We believe the number of martyrs under the rubble might be greater than those received at hospitals,” health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra told Reuters.
An ambulance worker in Gaza City’s Shejaiya district told Reuters by telephone that crews were often unable to respond to calls they were receiving from the wounded.
“It pains our hearts, but we have tried before in the past days to head there and our teams came under Israeli fire,” he said, asking his name not be printed for fear of reprisals. “We believe there are martyrs in some of the areas east of Shejaiya and some other places, but no one can get in.”
Northern Gaza families were posting messages on the internet pleading with emergency crews to venture into Gaza City.
“We appeal to the Red Cross and the civil emergency to immediately go to Attallah house. People are besieged inside their house in Jala street in Gaza City, near Zaharna building. The house is on fire,” wrote members of the Attallah family.
U.S. VETO MAKES WASHINGTON ‘COMPLICIT’
In a vote at the United Nations on Friday, 13 of the Security Council’s 15 members backed a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. It was blocked by Washington’s veto, while Britain abstained.
Israel launched its campaign to annihilate Hamas after the Iran-backed Islamist group’s fighters burst across the Gaza border fence on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people, raping women, and capturing 240 hostages in a rampage though Israeli towns.
Israeli forces say they are limiting civilian casualties by providing them with maps showing areas that are safe, and blame Hamas for causing harm to civilians by hiding among them, which the terrorists deny.
Washington has continued to support Israel’s position that a ceasefire would benefit Hamas. “We do not support this resolution’s call for an unsustainable ceasefire that will only plant the seeds for the next war,” Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Robert Wood told the Security Council before exercising Washington’s veto.
Ezzat El-Reshiq, a member of Hamas’ political bureau, condemned the U.S. veto as “inhumane.” Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority which lost control of Gaza to Hamas in 2007, said the veto made the United States complicit in Israeli war crimes.
Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan said in a statement: “A ceasefire will be possible only with the return of all the hostages and the destruction of Hamas.”
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US Government Uses Emergency Authority to Provide Tank Shells to Israel
The Biden administration has used an emergency authority to allow the sale of about 14,000 tank shells to Israel without congressional review, the Pentagon said on Saturday.
The State Department on Friday used an Arms Export Control Act emergency declaration for the tank rounds worth $106.5 million for immediate delivery to Israel, the Pentagon said in a statement.
The shells are part of a bigger sale that was first reported by Reuters on Friday that the Biden administration is asking the U.S. Congress to approve. The larger package is worth more than $500 million and comprises of 45,000 shells for Israel’s Merkava tanks, regularly deployed in its offensive in Gaza.
As the war intensified, how and where exactly the U.S. weapons are used in the conflict has come under more scrutiny, even though U.S. officials say there are no plans to put conditions on military aid to Israel or to consider withholding some of it.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken determined and provided detailed justification to Congress that the tank shells must immediately be provided to Israel in the national security interests of the United States, according to the Pentagon statement.
The sale will be from U.S. Army inventory and consist of 120mm M830A1 High Explosive Anti-Tank Multi-Purpose with Tracer (MPAT) tank cartridges and related equipment.
“Israel will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense,” the Pentagon said, adding that there will be no adverse impact on U.S. defense readiness as a result of the sale.
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David Ellenson was my rabbi. I can’t believe we won’t learn from him anymore.
(JTA) — It is the 24th of Kislev, one of the darkest days of the year, when we cannot wait to bring in the light of Hanukkah — and I just received the call that my teacher, my mentor, my rabbi, David Ellenson, has died. I was meant to meet with him today. It is hard for the child of a rabbi, who is also a rabbi, and teaches rabbis, to find a rabbi of her own. But David was my rabbi. The moment I choke on the words “Baruch Dayan Emet,” tears fall from my eyes.
I suddenly remember what David taught me in the aftermath of Sept. 11: “Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel said: Do not make monuments for the righteous — their ‘d’varim’ are their memorial” (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 11a). D’varim can mean words, and it can mean deeds, and David embodied the best of both.
The rabbis taught that it is forbidden to delivery a eulogy on Hanukkah except for sages of Torah — and that David was. I know that I am but one of a legion of his students who call him “my rabbi,” and will share their memories of him and continue to transmit his wisdom. David’s d’varim, words and love shared over 25 years, have shaped me as a thinker, rabbi, human, parent, spouse, teacher and friend.
In 2001, my husband and I were a few feet away when a terrorist bomb detonated in central Jerusalem. It was David, then president of HUC-JIR, who sat with me as a first-year student in Jerusalem. He was there on one of his many visits during the height of the second intifada, and he said nothing. Just sat with me, held my hand, hugged me as I shook.
Years later, he was my thesis advisor, and together we struggled with theological questions and the development of liberal Zionism. David had encyclopedic knowledge of where, on an exact page, I might find a paragraph of Rawidowicz or Hildesheimer, and on what volume and page in the Talmud I could find something that would support or refute or confuse my reading of a piece of liturgy. We had arguments over the nature of Jewish Peoplehood, of what makes us a collective body, of God and Torah and Jewish history and Jewish legacy.
Our work together extended into my current role supporting a new generation of rabbis through Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation, where he came on as a rabbinic advisor. Just this Tuesday, in my Google doc — that he had, of course, converted to a Word document — he added this comment in the margin: “October 7th has changed everything. I think it will be a watershed moment in American Jewish identity and American Jewish-Israeli relationships.” This week, with the shared goal of helping our rabbis adapt their leadership to this moment, we were grappling with the shifting nature of individual and public Jewish commitments in a moment when liberalism and Judaism were not necessarily in sync. Intellectual, but also pointed towards the real work that rabbis are doing today.
David was my rebbe. He pastored me through the untimely and sudden death of my father, whom he knew before my birth. He never hesitated to share his paramount love for, pride in and commitment to his wife and family; just this week, he waited to schedule a meeting until he helped send his grandchildren off to school. I know that relative to his family and his close friends, my loss is small, and I pray that this community of his students can support them in their profound grief. Yet David took to heart the teaching of Sanhedrin 19b that one who teaches Torah to the child of a friend is like another parent. David knew that all of us need to feel that type of love, and I am in awe of his ability to offer both validation and instruction, often at the same time. Not only to me, but to many hundreds of us who have lost our rabbi, our teacher, for he was a Gadol HaDor, a great rabbi of our era.
It’s hard to believe that David’s d’varim, words and actions are, as of the 24th of Kislev, past tense. I will not be meeting with him today, or any day. I will never again feel his hug, hear Torah from his mouth between sips of Diet Coke. I will never hear his feedback on this week’s writing; won’t have his ongoing advice as I seek to continue the work of advancing strong rabbinic leadership.
We Jews follow blessings with action, words with deeds. When we soon say “may his memory be for a blessing,” we rabbis can make it so when we learn and build upon David’s Torah; seek to extend his boundless love as we offer guidance with affirmation and pastoral care with empathy; to have open-eyed, spiritually attuned, and proactive care for Israel and the Jewish people; to ensure that our actions and commitments reflect our highest values. I know that my life’s work, supporting rabbis and the future of Jewish spiritual leadership, will always be guided and enriched by his wisdom and his actions.
May we, the students who learned from, who loved, and who experienced the love of our rabbi, David Ellenson, shlit”a (the master), continue to build upon, to share, and to animate his d’varim, his words and deeds, and together strengthen the monument that will serve as his memorial and legacy.
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