Under the Surface

July 18, 2019

There is something special about this town, the capitol of Lithuania. It’s quaint, colorful and its center looks like something you would see in a fairytale. It was the meeting place of Byzantine and Latin Catholicism but has a history of being home to many Jews and being a center of Jewish, and specifically Yiddish, culture. Furthermore, having changed hands between Poland, Russia and Germany in a short period, it’s no surprise there is a mish-mash of culture and identity here.

After only 3 days I felt like I was leaving home. A city this small and charming on the surface became comfortable and familiar in such a short time. That being said, each time we passed a certain neighborhood or building, I would be able to point out what is no longer there: the gate of the large ghetto, an apartment building where 6 families would be squeezed into one apartment, the headquarters of the Judenrat, the home of the Vilna Gaon, the site of the Great Synagogue, the former Jewish market, etc. There was so much in this place and without the memorial plaques and reminders there would be almost no trace of Jewish life. In only 6 months, 70% of the Jewish population in Lithuania was killed.

On the surface, Vilnius is this idyllic, beautiful European capitol. Colorful buildings, museums, art exhibits, street music and tourism. But when you look a little closer, (actually you may have to look at lot closer in some places) you get a glimpse of what was. On a former ghetto building that is being reconstructed the windows are boarded up, but also covered with the pictures of people who used to live there, in the ghetto. There are stars of David in unexpected places. There is a painting on a wall of an older Jewish man pushing a cart.

There is one part of the city that is, quite literally, underneath the surface of the ground. The Great Synagogue was only damaged during the war. It could have been reconstructed but was unfortunately demolished by the Soviets after the war. Nothing left. You would never know a synagogue had stood there. However, over the last few years a former colleague of mine, Dr. Richard Freund has been working with other technicians and archaeologists to excavate the site of the Great Synagogue. What they have found is what survived the war: what was built underground. A staircase, the bathing houses (mikveh) and more. Using a now closed elementary school as accommodation for the artifacts they find, this site is becoming alive again. And it is just one of these places that was, in one way or another, buried.

Vilnius is just one example of a place with hidden history. It begs the question: what other histories can we learn if we only dig deeper? If we take history at face value, chances are we will miss so much. From an educator’s point of view, if we can encourage our students to really look past the surface and to think critically about what they see, isn’t that one of the best things we can do for them?