Personal Journey: Unexpectedly touched by Vilnius' Jewish legacy

David Matz, the writer's husband, with a lulav, used in rituals on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in Old Town Vilnius, Lithuania.
David Matz, the writer's husband, with a lulav, used in rituals on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in Old Town Vilnius, Lithuania.
Posted: December 30, 2013

My husband and I recently traveled to the Baltic capitals and Russia with our cousins. I am a recently retired Jewish educator and a cousin is a retired rabbi. We were on a group trip that included tours in each city. I arranged Jewish tours in Vilnius, Riga, and Moscow - not necessarily to trace our roots, but to see what history is evident.

It is almost impossible for me to trace my roots; my relatives came from shtetls - poor, mostly Jewish villages in the Pale of Settlement in Russia, in what today is Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia. Most of these towns no longer exist and Hitler killed more than 90 percent of the Jews who lived there.

I was most surprised when the regular tour guide in Vilnius, Lithuania, opened her talk saying that before World War II, Vilnius was 40 percent Jewish and that 100,000 Jews lived there prior to Hitler's coming to power. This was the first time I had ever been in a foreign country and heard it acknowledged that Jews had lived there.

Our guide for the tour was a young woman who was very knowledgeable about Jewish life in Vilnius, which dated to the early Middle Ages and included famous scholars and many houses of learning. We wandered the original neighborhood the Jews had settled, past Gaono and Zydu Gavte streets and the site of the early marketplace. We saw the two sections of the ghetto that Hitler imposed on the Jews, and passed many stores that still had Yiddish writing on the walls. We stopped at the monument to the Vilna Gaon, a rabbinic authority considered a genius, and saw the remnants of the hiding places the Jews created for themselves in the ghetto. We drove to the monument marking the second-oldest Jewish cemetery, which the Soviets had destroyed, and saw the sculpture erected by relatives of these long-dead Jews, the many gravestones crafted into a moving memorial wall.

We couldn't go into the one remaining synagogue; it was a Jewish holiday and it was closed to tours. As we walked through the streets of the old town, on the way to the Jewish museum, we saw three young men dressed in religious garb, carrying the lulav and etrog, the ritual items used on the holiday of Sukkot. When we commented aloud, they stopped and shouted to us, "Are you Jewish?" When we replied yes, they came across the street and offered us the lulav and etrog to say the traditional blessings over. There we stood, on a street that was hundreds of years old, where so many Jews had trod before and so many had died at the hands of the Nazis, and we were saying these familiar words. It was truly a farklempt moment.

This was a more moving journey than I had ever anticipated.


Roberta Matz writes from Chadds Ford.

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