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Lithuanian Time Travel

Rokhl’s Golden City: The Yiddish past, present, and future of Vilnius

Rokhl Kafrissen
January 30, 2023
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia
Inset photo: Wikipedia

I know it seems improbable, but I feel like I’ve watched everything worth watching on YouTube. Not so much watched, perhaps, as half-listened while I go about my day. Until the other night when I came across the complete audiobooks of Douglas Adams’ beloved sci-fi comedy (sorta) trilogy, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Listening to Hitchhikers is like a warm blanket wrapped around a hot bath with a large glass of wine; childhood comfort for a frazzled adult mind.

The Hitchhikers Guide, as described by Adams, isn’t just a travel guide across space, but across time, too. The real problem of time travel isn’t becoming your own parent. No, he writes, the “major problem is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s Time Traveler’s Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past ...”

By coincidence, I happened to hear this particular passage right before doing my own bit of time travel—though Adams himself would probably say that there are no coincidences in the universe, just connections waiting to be discovered.

In this case, I was reading a fascinating, newly translated excerpt from an old guidebook. In 2019, an issue of Colloquia (a journal published by the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore) was dedicated to the 80th anniversary of Toyznt yor Vilne, or Millennial Vilne, Volume 1 of author Zalmen Szyk’s projected three-volume Yiddish-language guide to Vilne (Yiddish), Wilno (Polish), and Vilnius (Lithuanian). The excerpt was translated and introduced by the esteemed scholar of Eastern European Jewish history, David Roskies, who noted: “Although written in Yiddish solely for the benefit of Jewish tourists, Toyznt yor Vilne was designed to be a Baedeker guide equal to any other.” When the Germans invaded in 1941, Szyk fled with the unpublished manuscript for Volume 2 in his possession. Volume 3, which was to be all photographs, was never assembled.

The guidebook isn’t just a guide, but a rich source of juicy folklore and spicy communal wrangling. The translated excerpt, for example, tells us that one of the city’s two Jewish bathhouses was in an appalling condition, a place where cockroaches crawled in your clothes while you bathed and frogs greeted you in the bath. When it was closed down, American philanthropic money was obtained to refurbish it. That went about as well as you might expect. “When the bathhouse was finished, the Kehilla subleased it to a Jew who refused to spend any of his own money and kept running to the Kehilla for subsidies, arguing that the bathhouse was running a deficit. In the end, the Kehilla barely got rid of him, and was happy to place the bathhouse under lock and key. Now the plan is for the Kehilla to reopen the bathhouse.” The irony of course being that if it reopened in 1939, the community didn’t get to enjoy it for long.

Dark irony was also a feature of the local Yiddish vernacular. Szyk tells us that in the Zarzeczie neighborhood “there is a road leading to the [new] Jewish cemetery. This is the source of the folk saying, Men zol dikh firn af Zaretshe (You should be led to Zarzeczie, i.e., drop dead!). And there is also a folk saying, Ale veln mir forn durkh Zaretshe (i.e., All of us will end up going through Zarzeczie to the Eternal Resting Place).”

Roskies tells us that to understand Szyk’s city guide, we have to first understand its context within the Jewish landkentenish movement of the 1920s-’30s, a movement that promoted “touring the Polish countryside in order to instill knowledge of the land and its historic landmarks.” Jews had been excluded from the parallel Polish Local Lore Society, so they made their own. Through excursions and publications, the landkentenish movement wrote Jews and Jewish history back onto the landscape.

Reading Szyk’s book today allows us to do a bit of time travel of our own. In its own serious way, it also hints at the grammatical-existential problems humorously sketched out by Douglas Adams. The very first page of the translated excerpt is headed “Itinerary for Visiting Vilna.” If one has only a half-day to visit, nine of the most important sites are listed, the ninth of which is the YIVO institute. The footnote to number nine, however, comes from the future. It tells us that “YIVO Institute was opened in Vilnius in 1925. In 1933 it moved to its new building located at 18 A. Wiwulski Street (now A. Vivulskis Street). YIVO was closed in 1940 and the building was destroyed by bombing in 1944.” How is it that I feel so attached to a place that was built and destroyed (and reincarnated in New York) long before I was ever born? To be a 21st-century Yiddishist necessarily makes all of into at least part-time time travelers.

Einstein believed that there was no reason to believe that time couldn’t flow backward and forward. But is it possible to have tourism come to you instead of the other way around? In May 2022 a small news item on the Lithuanian public media website grabbed my attention. Vilnius was celebrating the installation of five new Stolpersteine, small engraved brass plaques on concrete cubes. Each Stolperstein, or “stumbling block,” commemorates an individual murdered by the Nazis, a public history art project that originated in Germany. Since 1992, over 75,000 Stolpersteine have been installed, usually at the individual’s last residence.

In 2016, Lithuania was the first Baltic country to install the Stolpersteine. When I visited Vilnius in 2008, however, their official Museum of Genocide, now known as the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, didn’t even contain a mention of the Ponar (Yiddish) or Paneriai (Lithuanian) mass killing site. There, some 75,000 Jews were murdered and thrown in pits between 1941 and 1944, just six miles from where the Museum of Genocide was now located. In 2008, a public history project like the Stolpersteine felt a lot further than a decade away.

Nonetheless, there it was, on my laptop screen in New York City in 2022. The Stolpersteine were designed for specifically this purpose, to grab the attention of passersby and to write history back onto the modern landscape. That it did, and more, even from thousands of miles away.

These five new commemorative blocks would commemorate the lives of Jewish artists, a project overseen by the Lithuanian Society of Art Historians. Among them were some familiar names, like the painters Rokhl Sutzkever and Bentsye Mikhtom, who had also been members of the literary group Yung Vilne.

But what really grabbed me were the two “least known” women artists being honored: one, Lisa Daiches, a puppet theater artist, and the other, “Uma Olkienicka—who mostly worked with graphic design and authored the emblem of the Jewish Research Institute YIVO.” I got up to put a record on the turntable just to needle scratch it off again. This was big news to me.

The YIVO emblem is a circle with highly stylized Yiddish letters in the center. I’ve got it on my favorite drinking glass. I’ve got it on a tote bag, too. Hell, I’ve even got it on a cannabis jar. I attended the YIVO summer program in 2019 and ate, slept, and breathed YIVO for many weeks. But it had never occurred to me that, rather than being sprung fully formed from the forehead of Max Weinreich, the YIVO logo itself had a history, too.

Not only had it been designed by someone who worked there (which seems obvious in hindsight) but it had been designed by a woman, which was absolutely not obvious: Uma, or Fruma, or Fania (depending on whom you ask) Olkienicka/Olkanetski. She has a short biography on YIVO’s “Tale of Two Museums” website, which tells the story of the establishment of two competing Yiddish theater museums in 1926. They dedicate the website “to Uma Olkanetski, who managed the Esther-Rachel Kaminska Theater Museum from 1928 until the Nazis took over YIVO’s headquarters in 1941.” After attending gymnasium in Vilne, she studied art and design in Berlin, which gives the sleekly modern logo a whole new dimension of cool. Perhaps I had read about her connection to the logo at some previous time, but if I had, it had made no lasting impression on me. It was her Stolperstein, though, that had miraculously reached out to yank me back to Vilnius, and stamp her memory permanently upon my brain.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is more of a survival guide and less in the mode of a Baedecker, which is meant to entice and educate you through your travels. This is best encapsulated in its cover, bearing the immortal message of Don’t Panic. I’ll be honest, there were more than a few moments during my 2008 stay in Vilnius when I could’ve really used a big Don’t Panic (cf., my visit to Ponar and subsequent tour of the Museum of Genocide above). I do have some good memories of the city, though, like being able to eat potato pancakes whenever I wanted, without judgment. At the time, I put this down to the obvious mutuality of Jewish and Lithuanian-Polish foodways. But a recent piece of food tourism writing gave me a new perspective on Lithuanian cuisine.

The piece was by my friend (and Tablet contributor) Joe Baur, for BBC World Table, “The chefs reclaiming Lithuania’s cuisine.” According to him, the potato pancakes I remember from my trip were “only scratching the surface of Lithuanian cooking.” Indeed, the historians and chefs he interviewed described how Soviet policies had long dictated what you could cook and eat, as much as what you saw or read, thus wiping out regional variety and culinary genius loci. “Two or three generations of gastronomic knowledge were lost by the time Lithuania gained independence from the Soviet Union on 11 March 1990. Lithuanians had mistakenly conflated their historical cuisine with Soviet cuisine, and the knowledge of how to make traditional Lithuanian dishes was lost.”

What’s so fascinating about this process is how tourism and tourists, and cultural exchange in general, can play an unexpected role in the reclamation of national heritage. For example, Rita Keršulytė-Ryčkova is a Vilnius-based chef who has been building a menu informed by her deep historical research into traditional Lithuanian foodways. Not long ago, an American Jew of Litvak ancestry came to eat at her restaurant. Paging through the menu, he was upset to see none of the foods represented the Jewish Litvak experience. The restaurant had “promised a recreation of historical Lithuanian cuisine and he couldn’t find any representation of his ancestors. Keršulytė called the interaction an eye-opening, moving experience. She admitted her mistake and promised him that the next time he came, she would have a dish on the menu that represented his history.”

And where did chef Keršulytė-Ryčkova turn for historically informed Jewish Lithuanian cuisine? To Fania Lewando’s groundbreaking 1938 Yiddish-language Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook. It’s a magnificent bit of edible time travel and it’s unlikely Keršulytė-Ryčkova would have been able to access it at all without Eve Jochnowitz’s also groundbreaking 2015 English-language translation.

The city of Vilnius is celebrating its 700th anniversary in 2023. The year 1323 marks the first time the city is mentioned in a written source, that of a letter from the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas. In that same letter, Gediminas invited Jews and others to the city, making Jews an explicit part of the founding mythology of Vilnius itself. Today, when the Lithuanian government hosts an official event in the United States to celebrate the 700th anniversary, they go to YIVO, where a panel of American and Lithuanian scholars recently took part in an event called “700 Years of Vilnius, a City of Translation.” And when a prestigious art gallery like the Tartle Gallery produces an exhibit like their current Vilnius Forever, it comprises not just Lithuanian-language guides and tour books, but Polish, Yiddish, and more. You can see more of Zalmen Szyk’s (now rare) Toyznt yor Vilne on its website. Public history can still be a difficult, contested practice in Lithuania, especially regarding Jews and the war. But it is also easier these days to see how Jews and Lithuanians (and Jewish Lithuanians) are reconstructing public memory in ways that emphasize not just multiculturalism, but mutuality, past, present and future.

ALSO: Zackary Berger, Yiddish poet and translator, will give a talk for the University of Toronto as part of the Himel Family Yiddish Lecture Series, co-sponsored by the Al and Malka Green Fund in Yiddish Studies. Berger’s talk is called Der takhles fun poezie in umruike tsaytn: notitsn fun a meshoyrer (note: Talk will be given in Yiddish), Jan. 31. More information here … Friend of the column Miriam Udel will be in New York on Feb. 15 to give a talk at the swanky Grolier Club: “When Yiddish Felt Young: Children’s Literature and Modern Jewish Worldmaking.” Grolier Club, 47 East 60 St. Register here … I am beyond excited for Feb. 16, when clarinetist-bandleader Michael Winograd brings his all-star klezmer band to the JCC on the Upper West Side. They’ll be performing what many (including myself) believe to be the artistic peak of pre-revival American klezmer, Dave Tarras and Sam Musiker’s 1956 LP, Tanz! Co-produced by Borscht Beat records. Tickets here … On Feb. 18, the Untitled Theater Company No. 61 will present Cabaret in Captivity at New Yiddish Rep. “The program includes songs and sketches written in Terezin/Theresienstadt. Terezin … served as both an internment camp and a way station for the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Full of satire, bitter humor, and hope, these pieces demonstrate how art became a vital survival technique for the inmates.” Saturday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m. at New Yiddish Rep, 315 West 39th St., Suite 611. Get tickets here … Argentina’s IWO (sister organization to New York’s YIVO) will offer an international seminar, Idioma Ídish y Diversidad Cultural, Feb. 6-24. The online seminar will include Yiddish classes at all levels and Yiddish culture classes en español. More information and registration hereOnce Upon a Time the Fire Burned Brighter: Ballads from the Yiddish Gothic is the newest album from scholar-musician Jeremiah Lockwood. On March 1, I’ll join Lockwood for a lunchtime conversation about the project, inspired by Yiddish ballads sung by Lifshe Schaechter-Widman (1893-1973) and the field recordings of her singing, made in 1954. Co-sponsored by YIVO and Ayin Press. More information here.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.