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A Hole in the Heart
Holocaust Education at the Kedainiai Regional Museum
By Tamar Dothan (Jerusalem) and Olga Zabludoff (Washington, DC)
Before the Holocaust it used to be a shul for the Keidan Jewish community. Today the restored building houses the Multi-Cultural Centre of the Kedainiai Regional Museum. On September 27, 2012 the Museum hosted an event which may well be the first of its kind in Lithuania – the opening of an exposition commemorating the lost Jewish community of Keidan.
Rimantas Zirgulis, a historian, is the director of the Kedainiai Regional Museum. In the past few years he has erected memorials in front of the shul and at the site of the massacre of the Jews from Keidan, Shat (Seta) and Zhaim (Zeimiai). In addition to these significant initiatives, Zirgulis now wished to create a permanent exhibition depicting the pre-war Jewish community – how they looked, how they lived, who they were by name. With modest grants and sponsorship from the Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews and the Task Force of International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, Zirgulis set out to collect names of those from the Keidan region who had perished in the Holocaust. He also sought pre-war images of the faces and lives of the lost Jewish world.
Rimantas Zirgulis (right) at the unveiling of a sculpture to memorialize the Holocaust (2011). Titled “The Eye of God” and designed by a local artist, the sculpture stands in front of the shul.
Erected in 2011: Metal memorial at the mass grave inscribed with known names of victims
In 2011, along with Ada Green, we had worked on compiling the names for the metal memorial. Now the two of us volunteered again to help Rimantas Zirgulis with the preparation of the 2012 exposition scheduled to open in late September. With painstaking care we worked for more than six months, culling names of Keidan region Holocaust victims from a variety of sources. Tamar learned new techniques for mining to its fullest capacity the Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony (PoTs) database. Olga used the vital records from the Lithuanian State Historical Archives to verify surnames, find dates of birth, parents’ names and missing given names since frequently the PoTs would not provide the given names of children. Adding to the difficult process of gleaning complete and accurate information was the fact that PoTs are submitted in a variety of languages and frequently provide sparse details.
Detective work was often the key to success when several PoTs existed for the same individual or family. Were they different individuals with the same names or multiple submissions for the same individual? On several occasions we contacted the submitters of PoTs in an effort to solve mysteries. It was always a triumph to locate submitters still alive and lucid somewhere on the globe! Generally they were eager to help, contacting relatives or friends if they could not answer our questions. Occasionally they ended up acquiring more information from us than they were able to provide.
Because PoTs do not exist for all those who perished in the Holocaust (Yad Vashem has about three million names of the six million murdered, a number which includes duplicate entries), we publicized our quest on the Keidan discussion list website for names of victims in the Keidan region for whom PoTs had never been submitted. A number of individuals rose to the occasion and submitted names of their relatives or friends who had been murdered in Keidan.
The work was not without its tensions and fears. When Zirgulis informed us that all names would be written in their Lithuanian form, we felt that this was a betrayal of the “Jewishness” of the more than 3,000 murdered. Were we working for the wrong cause? However, we agreed to compromise on this point when Zirgulis explained his rationale: Lithuanian visitors to the exposition would not be able to acknowledge that the murdered Jews had been Lithuanian fellow citizens if their names appeared in their Russian-Jewish form. They would be perceived as foreigners that Lithuanians would not relate to. In order to create the desired effect – historical truth about the Lithuanian Holocaust – the victims had to be portrayed as the Lithuanian citizens they had been. Lithuanian citizens murdered by their fellow citizens.
The heading above the names reads: “Fellow citizens Jews of Kedainiai killed during the Holocaust. During the Holocaust carried out within the World War II, local collaborators led by the Nazis killed more than 3000 of their fellow citizens Jews of Kedainiai Region. Below it is provided more than 1000 known family names grouped by families.”
We had organized the list of names by families, entering first the parents’ names followed by their children in chronological sequence. When we learned that Zirgulis had planned to display one alphabetical list irrespective of family relationships, we were disappointed after having labored to reconstruct the family groups. Zirgulis immediately conceded, stating that he realized “the immense tragedy of the Holocaust” becomes much more apparent when the viewer sees entire families that were annihilated.
The top portions of the walls are flanked with lists of names arranged by families. Here Rimantas Zirgulis, director of the Kedainiai Regional Museum and creator of the exhibition on the lost Jewish community of Keidan, explains the tower of photos to visitors to the exposition. Zirgulis makes a point of lecturing on the Holocaust in Lithuania to visitors. He plans to host tours for school groups so that the youth of the nation will be educated about the history of the Holocaust in their country.
Zirgulis had been skeptical about the likelihood of acquiring sufficient images of the pre-war Keidan Jewish community. He was pleasantly surprised when scores of photos and documents came pouring in after a request for such materials had been publicized on Andy Cassel’s Keidan email discussion group website.
The four-sided tower of photos: One side depicts the Jews of pre-war Keidan. The second shows their homes and graves. The third side is dedicated to Lithuanians who saved Jews—a display of the certificates issued by Yad Vashem and the Lithuanian government. The fourth side tells the story of the Yeshiva Mir, a group of 80 Jews who escaped from Byelorussia in 1940 and found sanctuary in Keidan.
Zirgulis wanted to include a story with a “happy ending.” So he devoted the fourth panel of the tower of photos to the story of Yeshiva Mir. Located in Byelorussia which in 1940 was occupied by anti-religious, anti-Semitic Soviets, the Yeshiva housed 80 students. All of them managed to escape from Byelorussia and made their way to Keidan, where they found sanctuary and acceptance. Their good fortune escalated when they received the last forged visas from Japan which helped them to leave occupied Lithuania. Traveling through Russia they finally arrived in Japan. After World War II, the Yeshiva group divided into two branches, one settling in Brooklyn, NY and the other in Jerusalem.
In addition to the names on the walls and the photographic displays, the exhibition includes books, candlesticks and other memorabilia from the vanished Jewish community that once had called Keidan their home.
Rimantas Zirgulis intends to further expand the exposition with a computer program in which visitors will be able to zero in on the names on the walls. In preparing the list of names we provided additional information on each victim, such as year and place of birth, names of parents, occupation, age at death and circumstance of death. All the data will be stored in the computer program. Visitors will also be able to add additional facts which they may know if they are relatives or descendants of the named individual.
Zirgulis plans to invite and host school groups to the exhibition so that the youth of Lithuania can learn the true history of the Holocaust that destroyed forever a vital segment of the Lithuanian population.
The exposition will serve to educate about the Holocaust as a unique phenomenon in the history of World War II in Lithuania. It is our hope that the current Lithuanian government will be spurred by the exposition to move away from its Holocaust education program which equates the crimes of the Nazi regime with those of the Soviet regime – the Double Genocide concept. Only then will Lithuania earn the respect of all nations by reckoning with her past in an honest way.