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Sounds of Silence – Traces of Jewish Life in Lithuania

The photographs in the exhibition are a silent eco to a glorious culture that has vanished. 95% of the Jews in Lihuania perished in the Holocaust. In a land that was known for its tolerance towards the ethnic minorities that lived within its boundaries.

Vilna, the Jewish capital of Lithuania, known also as the Jerusalem of Lithuania (Yerusholáyim d’Líto), was famous for its flourishing Jewish culture for centuries and for the achievements in traditional Jewish scholarship that were out of all proportion to the size or wealth of its Jewish population.

The stature of Jewish Lithuania reached a highpoint with the life and writings of the Gaon of Vilna, Eylióhu ben Shlóyme-Zalmen 1720–1797. When the totalitarian Soviet regime decided to dismantle the old Jewish cemetery at Piramónt after the war, permission was given for his bones and gravestone, and those of his immediate family, to be moved.

Traditional Jewish religious culture is the oldest of the traditions for which Lithuanian Jewry became prominent. Its writings were in Hebrew and Aramaic, and its vernacular was a singular Lithuanian Yiddish that became the most prestigious form of Yiddish in Europe. Cultural counter streams within traditional orthodoxy spanned a rainbow that embraced dancing Lithuanian Hasidim in the far east of Jewish Lithuania – the Chabad movement, and the sad-sad stern self-improving ethicism – the Musar movement – at its far west.

On the other hand, there were the modern realms of Jewish civilization, where Lithuanian Jewry also took a lead. The scope was breath-taking. It included the revival of the Modern Hebrew language, and its first contemporary grade literature; the modern Yiddish scholarship and research as a new field of humanistic inquiry; a unique branch of Jewish socialism that stressed the development of Yiddish as a national Jewish language in the context of autonomy for minorities. The Litvak’s love of learning and education became proverbial. One result was a long line of original, maverick creators, among them the philosopher Solomon Maimon, the inventor of Esperanto Ludwig Leyzer Zamenhof, the artists Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine. For centuries, the compact and exalted culture of Lithuanian Jewry never failed to impress. In his 1899 Journey through Lithuania Nahum Slouschz comments: “We are in the Jewish country, perhaps the only Jewish country in the world.”

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