Conference to launch Volume 25 of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry

Antony Polonsky


On Tuesday 18 November a conference was held at University College London to launch volume 25 of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry. The conference was preceded by an afternoon event and evening reception at the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania on Monday 17 December and followed by a concert on the evening of Wednesday 19 December at Sandy’s Row Synagogue.

This volume of Polin is the first to contain a core of articles devoted to the history of the Jews in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (in Yiddish, Lite) in the modern period. That this is now possible is the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of an independent Lithuania, which was followed by a revival of many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities which languished in the conditions of Soviet censorship. One of the areas which benefited from the new freedom was the history and study of the Lithuanian Jewish past. The Holocaust and Soviet rule  completely destroyed earlier Jewish creativity. During the entire Soviet period between 1940 and 1990, Jewish studies did not exist as an academic subject in Lithuania, as was the case elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

The revived interest in the Jewish past of the country not only evoked scholarly interest but also presented Lithuanian society with a challenge. Jewish studiesin Lithuania is a central topic in thedifficult conversation on the history of Jewish-Lithuanian relations and is closely linked to the broader transformation of historical memory of the post-Soviet era and the problem of coming to terms with the widespread local collaboration in Lithuania during the Holocaust. This complex and painful issue was aired in a number of international scholarly conferences in the 1990s. which also saw the establishment in Lithuania of a number of academic institutions devoted to the Jewish past in Lithuania.

Initially the two sides were very far apart but groups of scholars soon began to emerge in Lithuania, in Israel, Europe and North America who began to investigate in a dispassionate and scholarly manner the history of a once great community of which now only small traces remained. New works appeared on the anti-Judaic policies of the Catholic Church and the emergence of modern Lithuanian antisemitism,the development of Jewish-Lithuanian relations between the wars, and the crises which led to foreign occupations in the 1940s.The years of the First Republic (1918-1940) came to be seen as a significant period of transformation: the first modern polity dominated by ethnic Lithuanians decisively impacted inter-communal relations, especially those between Lithuanians and Jews.

The chapters in this volume reflect this new research and deal with a number of different themes: the specific character of Lithuanian Jewry, the way relations between Jews and Lithuanians developed in the years after 1772, first under tsarist rule and then in independent Lithuania, the devastating impact on the Jewish community and on Lithuanian-Jewish relations of the Soviet and Nazi occupations of the country between 1940 and 1944, the further negative consequences on Jewish life of the reoccupation of the country by the Soviets between 1944 and 1990 and finally the slow revival of Jewish life since the independence and the attempts which have been made since then both to investigate the Lithuanian-Jewish past and to come to terms with the difficult legacy of the Holocaust. 

The history of Lithuanian-Jewish communities has been marked not only by a continuity of religious tradition, but also by cultural dynamism. The conference attempted to offer insights into Lithuanian-Jewish culture, sought to throw light on the complex history of Lithuanian-Jewish relations, including their cruel and traumatic disintegration during World War Two, and attempted to assess the contemporary situation in a European


The conference was organized by the Institue for Polish-Jewish Studies, Oxford, and the Institute for Jewish Studies at University College London. It was made possible by the the support offered by the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania, the American Association for Polish-Jewish Studies, the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University, the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe, the Polish Cultural Institute, London and other well-wishers.

The event at Lithuanian Embassy was a continuation of the set of events held in February 2011 under the title ‘No Simple Stories: Jewish-Lithuanian relations in historical perspective’. It was opened by Her Excellency Ms. Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania. In her address, Ambassador Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene drew attention to what is being done by the Lithuanian Government in preserving the culture and memory of the Jewish people. She presented the three main objectives that the government is pursuing, namely: ensuring historical justice, uprooting anti-Semitism, and preservation of and research into the Jewish culture and heritage. ‘We are committed to establishing historical justice and fighting anti-Semitism in all its forms’ the Ambassador said. In the spirit of the 2009 Vilnius World Litvak Congress, the Ambassador reiterated, ‘Lithuania will always be home for all Litvaks all over the world’. She also described the recent adoption of the Law on Good Will Compensation for the immovable Property of Jewish religious communities by the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament).

Mr Vivian Wineman, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, added words of welcome and encouragement. As someone with Litvak ancestry himself, he was proud of his connection with Lithuanian Jewry, which had historically been committed to a rational understanding of religion. He said he was heartened to hear of the work being done by the Lithuanian government in overcoming the legacy of discrimination and worse. That Holocaust education is being promoted in Lithuania he described as ‘wonderful’. A welcoming address was also delivered by Ms Faina Kukliansky, Deputy President of the Jewish Community of Lithuania. She pointed to the ‘rainbow of diversity’ which characterises the spectrum of opinions among its members, but emphasised the overarching importance of cooperation between her organization and Jewish organizations worldwide.

The conference then proceeded to the launch of two important recent books, that edited by Vladas Sirutavičiusand DariusStaliÅ«nas, APragmatic Alliance: Jewish-Lithuanian Political Cooperation at the Beginning of the 20th Century(Central European University Press, Budapest-New York, 2011) and the recent volume of Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung, Technical University Berlin which was made up of the proceedings of the first conference ‘No Simple Stories: Jewish-Lithuanian relations in historical perspective’. The first book was presented Dr Darius Staliunas of the Institute of History in Vilnius and the second by Dr. Francois Guesnet of University College London. Among the discussants were Professor Antony Polonsky of Brandeis University and the United States Holocaust Memorial Musuem, Dr. Klaus Richter of the University of Birmingham, Dr Lionel Kopelowitz, former President of the British Board of Deputies and Professor Evan Zimroth, Queen’s College, The City University of New York. The discussion was lively but friendly and all difficult questions were aired. Dr. Kopelowitz stressed that we were all part of the same family and therefore should speak frankly. He insisted that the memory of Lithuanian antisemitism and collaboration with the Nazis not be forgotten, but discussed and examined. He was hopeful that this would be possible given initiatives such as that of organizing this conference.

Presentations were also made by Anna Avidanon ‘The Northern Jerusalem’ Initiative and by Neringa Latvyte-Gustatiene on the proposed Centre of Litvak Culture and Art  of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum. 

The conference to mark the launch of volume 25 of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry was held on the following day in the J Z Young Lecture Theatre, Anatomy Building, University College London. It was opened by Mr Ben Helfgott, Chairman of the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies who described the work of the Institute and presented HE Ms Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, Ambassador of the Republic of Lithuania with an inscribed copy of volume 25. Replying, the Ambassador pointed out that ‘for hundreds of years, the Lithuanian Jewry was part of the educated and the intellectual elite of the society.  90 years ago they took the most active part in the process of creating the Republic of Lithuania. They were elected to the Lithuanian Parliament, took up diplomatic posts, served in the army…

After regaining independence, Lithuania assumed the work on the historical justice and the memory of the victims. We acknowledge the responsibility of those who collaborated with the Nazis and killed thousands of Jews.  Back in 1995 the Lithuanian President speaking at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, apologized on behalf of the country for those Lithuanians who took part in killing Jews. There can be no pardon for what they have done. We honour the memory of the Shoah victims – each year the day of the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto is commemorated in Lithuania as a symbol of annihilation of the once vibrant Jewish community. And we are very proud of those 800 Lithuanian men and women, the Righteous Among the Nations, Hasidei Umot Ha-Olam, who saved the lives of their Jewish countrymen.

Today in Lithuania there is a small but very active Jewish community. I am glad that the President of this community from Vilnius is among us today and is participating in this Conference.

She concluded her remarks by referring to one of the topics to be discussed at the conference ‘What is a Litvak?’, quoting the Israeli President Shimon Peres himself a Litvak. ‘Some years ago we celebrated anniversary of the Israeli-Lithuanian diplomatic relations and Shimon Peres was a guest of honour.  He said: “You cannot be Jewish unless you are Lithuanian.”’

 Mr Helfgott then read a letter from Sir Sigmund Sternberg, President of the Institute forPolish-Jewish Studies. He wrote that the embassy’s participation should be ‘regarded as a positive development.

I am well aware, as are we all, of the distress felt by some Lithuanian Jews – survivors or the children of survivors of the Nazi-fascist Holocaust – of what they regard as blatantly antisemitic acts against them.We share their hope that this conference - with its wide view of a bitter-sweet relationship which has spanned the centuries – will go a long way to improving understanding between all the democratic elements in Lithuania and demonstrate the concern of the government to combat bigotry and prejudice wherever it manifests itself.

The theme of the conference was ‘Jews and non-Jews in Lithuania: Coexistence, Cooperation, Violence’. These topics were examined in three sessions. The first, chaired by Professor Michael Berkowitz (UCL) was devoted to the topic ‘What is a Litvak’. Dr Benjamin Brown (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) gave a paper with the title‘From “Habit” to “Heart”: Spirituality and De-routinization in the Musar Movement’.

Professor Antony Polonsky (Brandeis University) examined ‘The Origins of the Litvak Identity’ and Dr Irena Veisaite (Open Society Fund Lithuania, Vilnius) discussed ‘Lithuanian Jewish Life after War and Communism: Personal Reflections’.

The second session investigated ‘Aspects of Lithuanian-Jewish Interaction in the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’. It was chaired by Professor Antony Polonsky The speakers were Dr Darius Staliunas (Institute of History, Vilnius), ‘Antisemitism in Lithuanian Political Culture in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’; Dr Vladas Sirutavicius (Institute of History, Vilnius),‘ “A close, but very suspicious and dangerous neighbour”: Outbreaks of Antisemitism in Inter-War Lithuania’ and Professor Saulius Sužiedelis (Professor Emeritus of History, Millersville University of Pennsylvania): ‘The Holocaust in Lithuania: The Main Historiographical Problems’.

The final session was a round table discussion chaired by Dr. Francois Guesnet on the theme‘Contemporary Lithuanian-Jewish Relations in the European Context’. The main participants were Mr Roger Cohen (New York Times), Dr Leonidas Donskis (Member of the European Parliament), Professor Šarunas Liekis (Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas), Professor Andrzej Żbikowski (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw) and Ms Faina Kukliansky, Deputy President of the Jewish Community of Lithuania.

The conference concluded with a moving Yiddish documentary, ‘Jewish Life in Vilna’ produced by Yitzhak Goskind in Poland in 1939. On the following night, there was a concert given by Duo Versus (Abe McWilliams, violin; Martynas Levickis, accordion) in Sandy’s Row Synagogue in the East End. Welcoming the audience to this performance, Mr Harvey Rifkind, president of the synagogue, explained that it had agreed to host the concert after long and also difficult discussions, and thus hoped to contribute to a new phase in the Lithuanian-Jewish dialogue.

The conference was attended by more than 120 people and was marked by a serious and determined effort to understand the tragic nature of the experiences of Jews and Lithunians in the twentieth century and why the relations between them had disintegrated so tragically during the Second World War.