I’ve just returned from two busy weeks in Lithuania. It was a packed and fascinating trip!
Vilnius Book Fair
The annual fair draws 60,000 people. Long lines outside, elbow to elbow inside. For a writer, what could be more heartwarming? Mes esame cia, the Lithuanian edition of my book, is now available in hardback and e-book formats. Order it here.
Students & Teachers
I gave talks at schools in six cities, speaking about Lithuania’s Jewish history, the Holocaust, and the actions and inactions of Lithuanians during the Nazi era. I told students about tolerance leaders in Lithuania today. I described my searing encounter (described in the book) with a Lithuanian witness to the Holocaust in my ancestral town. I asked students to reflect on how they themselves can help build a tolerant society where citizens can stand up and speak up.
I was inspired by the teachers I met who’ve stepped up to teach about these subjects. At the Atzalynas high school in Kedainiai, for example, 15 teachers are leading a school-wide curriculum about the Holocaust. Eighty-five high schools now form a network of official Tolerance Centers.
Activism & Commemoration
I spoke with activists who used Facebook to recruit people to join in commemorating the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto. On the anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto, people came together to read out, one at a time, the names of those who perished. These same activists took yellow stars to the Lithuanian Parliament and asked Members of Parliament to wear them in solidarity with the murdered Jews; many did.
In Vilnius, I saw new exhibits at the Jewish Museum’s Tolerance Center and the Green House (the Holocaust Museum). I visited the new Jewish Culture and Information Center in the old Jewish quarter, and the new Holocaust exhibit at the controversial Museum of Genocide Victims. In the meeting room of the new Vilnius Jewish Library, I spoke to two high school classes, including students from the Sholem Aleichem Jewish high school.
In Kedainiai, I visited the impressive new Holocaust exhibit at the Multicultural Center. I admired the extraordinary commemorative sculpture outside the former synagogue.
I attended a performance of a new play, Night and Day (“Diena ir naktis”), by Daiva Čepauskaitė, which interweaves the Holocaust past with present-day Lithuania, powerfully challenging and educating the audience.
I met a young man who had led the building of a new Holocaust memorial in the center of Zagare, a town that traces its Jewish history back to the 1600’s. He wrote to a Jewish descendant of the town:
My initiative to unveil the plaque is a small step forward to explain the truth to local residents. I do not want my children to grow up in a world of lies. The more I talk, the more response and understanding I get from others, and I slowly achieve small results.
The Jewish spirit is alive, and I and my family want to make it stronger, if there is a way – to do something to ease the pain.
Therefore, from now on, even though I know Zagare will remain the sad recollection for Jews, may I once again call it your home – sad, still bleeding, but the roots are priceless.
Rokiskis: My Ancestral Town
I paid my respects at the grave of my great-grandfather, Dovid-Mikhl Levin, in the old Jewish cemetery. In the local high school, I was warmly welcomed by students, teachers, museum staff, the mayor, and a beautiful player of the kankles (zither). Then, with a museum official, I made my way through the snow to the mass murder site in the forest outside town. A few days later, I spoke to the Rokiskis Club of Vilnius; I was moved as elderly people who grew up in Rokiskis shared their painful memories of the events of 1941.
Looking to the Future
Throughout my visit, I was privileged to engage in long conversations with people who care deeply about Jewish remembrance in Lithuania – people who, in a sometimes hostile environment, are working to build an active, tolerant civil society. As one longtime tolerance leader told me: “We have still a long way to go – but the main thing is that we are going.”
London & Leeds
My talk at the very exciting London Jewish Book Week was sold out. I also spoke at University College London, the Jewish Genealogy Society of Great Britain, and the wonderful Jewish Historical Society in Leeds. A special highlight was a singing tour of London’s East End, the old Jewish quarter, conducted by Vivi Lachs.
Along with winning the 2013 Grub Street National Book Prize and a 2013 Prakhin International Literary Foundation award, We Are Here is a finalist for a Book of the Year Award from ForeWord Reviews.
Help Spread the Word
We Are Here is now in its second printing. Please share your comment on Amazon or Goodreads. So far, 154 libraries have purchased We Are Here. You can help by asking for it at your local library.