For over [three] years now, I have been working to create a project known as the Vilnius Jewish Library in Lithuania. Lithuania before World War II was a haven for Jewish people. The capital city of Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. There were more than 100 synagogues. Now there is only one remaining. You can guess what happened to the rest of them thanks to first the nazis and then the Russians. Unless of course, you don’t believe the Holocaust ever happened. I won’t even go into that.
Anyway, I am not Jewish and I am not of Lithuanian descent. So why is a non-Jew interested in creating an English language library dedicated to all things Jewish in a country not his own? Having traveled extensively throughout Europe, I have seen the results of how the war changed the lives of so many. Cities throughout the continent were destroyed and rebuilt. Yet the cities are still there even if in a changed form.
Certainly the Jews were not the only people to suffer at the hands of the nazis. Millions upon millions were killed in Europe alone. This includes the Gypsies, the Russians, the people of Great Britain, Poland, and many others. The disabled and homosexual were done away with. People with opposing political viewpoints were put to death. Clearly not being Jewish was no guarantee of safety during this time. Even people of other nations fought and died in Europe, including Canadians, Australians, and the Americans.
So much death and destruction in such a relatively short period of time. Yet with all of what the war wrought, you can now find the disabled, the homosexual, the Gypsies. They all live throughout Europe. Whether each individual thrives personally is another story. However, you will not have any trouble finding each over all of Europe. The Russians who lost such massive numbers of people have rebuilt and repopulated decimated areas. These are all as it should be.
What then of the Jews? Why is it so hard to find the synagogues and centres of education which once existed across most of Europe? The Jewish people have certainly not returned and rebuilt in any substantial way since the time of the war. Large numbers emigrated to either Israel or the USA. Even a centre of Jewish culture and education, such as Lithuania, now has an approximate 8,000 Jews out of a total population of 3.6 million. That number used to be more than 200,000.
There will never be a return to the shul (synagogue) and shtetl (village) days of the pre-war period. Those days are long past. So what is the point of a Jewish library in a country with a population composed of about 99.8 percent who are Catholics, Russian Orthodox, or Episcopalians, anything but Jews?
My fondest wish is to promote tolerance and understanding. This is not just for acceptance of a people who are largely gone from Lithuania. Events in Europe and elsewhere prove time and again that sometimes others are despised for either their religion or skin colour or some other equally meaningless reason. Will this ever change? I would love to think so, even if I am not holding my breath in anticipation of that day.
Will the average person be drawn into a library filled to overflowing with books about Jewish life, culture, humour, and much more? I am not that foolish as to think so. The draw of the library will be on many levels. There will be ESL (English as a Second Language) classes available. Many times a week it will be possible to attend poetry readings, music concerts and art exhibitions. Downstairs you will find a cafe unlike any other in Lithuania designed to bring people in. The library will be set up so that when you walk in it feels like home. Look around and you may well see cats running from place to place or sleeping in a corner.
Build it and they will read? The lure of a library unlike any other in Lithuania and perhaps the world will be what draws people inside. Will some only come for the concerts or the kitties? That is a given. How many will enjoy a meal and a conversation in the cafe without ever setting foot in the library? The bet is that it will be a fair number.
Yet some will look beyond the facade and delve into the heart of the building and that is the books. Yes, the books will have a Jewish theme. Yes, there are many others who have suffered throughout the ages. Even so, the understanding which will hopefully be gained of the Jewish people will lead others to apply the same principles of newly-found acceptance to anyone who has ever been discriminated against. Here’s hoping that it is possible to breathe new life into the Jerusalem of Lithuania.