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Finding History—and Myself—in Vilnius

The grandchild of Lithuanian Jews hidden during the Holocaust goes back

Maia Ipp
January 27, 2015
While exploring Vilnius, the author stumbled upon this graffiti that summed up her experience there, for better and worse. (Sarah Heady)
While exploring Vilnius, the author stumbled upon this graffiti that summed up her experience there, for better and worse. (Sarah Heady)

Like many grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, I grew up with the sense that Eastern Europe was a toxic wasteland of suffering and loss. On those rare instances when Lithuania, home to my family on both sides for generations, was mentioned, it was as the backdrop for my grandmother’s stories about the Kovno ghetto: forced labor, humiliations, and deportations. Lithuania became a mythical place in my imagination—cold, gray, hostile, and, most emphatically, empty. I collected the shards of my grandmother’s stories and absorbed the community directive to never forget. But there was also an unspoken imperative that exhorted us precisely to forget—to forget that so much of the Jewishness we still see, hear, and taste around us is a product of those now-trayf places.

Five years ago, I began participating in a group with a dozen other grandchildren of survivors. Over years of often-difficult meetings, I began to form an image of a Jewish identity unlike the one I grew up with: one that didn’t have the darkness of the Holocaust as its central force. But could there really be an alternative, something that authentically celebrates what existed before the war? As these thoughts and questions were coalescing in my mind last spring, I happened upon the website for a writing residency in Vilnius, and I applied.

I was accepted. And, as fate would have it, that same week my father got an unexpected email from Lauras Sabonis—a man we didn’t know, but who was the 27-year-old great-nephew of the Lithuanian family that had saved my grandparents during the Holocaust. My grandparents escaped the fate of their families (and almost 95 percent of the Jews in Lithuania at the time) because a Lithuanian family—strangers—offered to hide them during the last months of the war. This courageous couple, Jonas and Antanina Paulavicius, and their teenage children, Kestutis and Danute, built and sustained an underground shelter for eight Jews, selling property and risking their own lives to provide for them. They ultimately saved 16 individuals in different hiding places.

My grandmother participated in Yad Vashem’s honoring the family as Righteous Among the Nations in the 1980s, but contact had been minimal since. Lauras had been researching his family’s history and was moved by this chapter, and reestablished contact between the younger generations. We began an email correspondence, and then, in July, when I began my residency, we met.

In Vilnius, I experienced delightful shocks of recognition and familiarity. I saw that what I had assumed were staunchly separate “Lithuanian” and “Jewish” traditions had sometimes influenced each other over generations. I saw “Jewish” foods everywhere—sufganiyot (spurgos), latkes (bulviniai blynai), and blintzes (blynai)—and Lauras and I bonded over a home-cooked meal that we realized either of our grandmothers could have prepared.

I discovered that Lithuanians use the word chebra to refer to a group of friends, mostly unaware that it’s a word derived from the Hebrew chevra. I learned that Vilnius had famously been called “the Jerusalem of the North” by Napoleon for its renowned scholars and thriving Jewish life. I spent hours talking with survivors who had stayed in Lithuania, their Yiddish-inflected English much like my grandmother’s. I was confronted by a history of Jewish spiritual, artistic, and cultural life in Eastern Europe that allowed me to see myself as part of a rich lineage, an inheritor of something profound and creative. I talked with other young Lithuanians about how the country is dealing with—and avoiding—the Holocaust, especially in the context of the ensuing Soviet occupation. Every day in Vilnius I had encounters that challenged my assumptions about pre- and post-war Jewish life there.

I realized that reexamining the past isn’t only enlightening for Jews. When I asked Lauras why this history felt so important to him, he looked to the distance and said, “For Lithuania to become a truly modern country, it needs to deal with this past in a way that it hasn’t yet. And the history of Jews and Lithuanians is shared—you can’t have one without the other!”

Here were strangers, in this place I was never supposed to visit, who saw their history as inextricably linked to my own.

Though Jonas and Antanina Paulavicius are no longer alive, I was able to visit with Kestutis, now 87, who still lives on the property where my grandparents were hidden. It was epic, as Lauras would say, to be there with Kestutis and his wife Janina, with Lauras and his uncle, and my father, who joined us for a very meaningful few days.

It’s unusual that Lauras and I developed a deep and lasting friendship, “across 70 years and 6,000 miles,” as he once said. But my grandparents being saved, and Lauras being invested in that history, isn’t the only thing that allowed me to feel connected to Lithuanian heritage. Going there, both metaphorically and geographically, I found a deeper connection to my past and the possibility of a future that isn’t saddled with unconscious, inherited anxieties.

In Lithuania I was able to really feel something new, something alive, alongside a deep acknowledgment of what was lost. I felt connection—to my grandparents, to Jewish life and heritage, and to many individuals, Jews and non-Jews, who call Lithuania home. I couldn’t have started this journey without the courage and support of fellow Jews; but I couldn’t continue it without Lithuanians.

Maia Ipp is associate director of creative writing at San Francisco School of the Arts.

Maia Ipp is associate director of creative writing at San Francisco School of the Arts.