February 1, 2004
A New Coat of Paint
Lithuania’s past complicates the restoration of its capital’s historic center.
“We have forgotten all about Communism,” says Benita Vertelkiené, rector’s assistant at the Vilnius Academy of Art, about the changes in Lithuania since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. She’s being a bit sarcastic. An estimated one-third of the population was executed or deported to Siberia during the Nazi occupation and the early years of what is referred to as “Soviet time.” But although a few museums scattered around the country document the horrors of the period—there’s even a campy totalitarian theme park dubbed Stalin World—in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, signs of the past are being rapidly covered over with a new coat of paint as the nation prepares for entry into the European Union this spring.
Investment has poured in since the city began restoring facades and public spaces. In a model of capitalist entrepreneurship, every dollar of public funds spent on redevelopment has attracted four times the amount in private investment. Vilnius’s young mayor, Arturas Zuokas, is repositioning the city as a regional hub for culture and information technology. “Our strategic plan is to become the most modern city in Eastern and Central Europe,” says Zuokas, a former war correspondent for the British network ITN who later opened the first McDonalds in Lithuania. “We would like to have cultural centers on the international level in our capital,” says Zuokas, who visited New York last fall to persuade Thomas Krens to build the first Eastern European Guggenheim in Vilnius.
The city’s enormous historic district, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, is central to its new image. “In Soviet times the Old Town was in some ways gray, if you look at how these buildings were colored historically,” says Gediminas Rutkauskas, director of the Vilnius Old Town Renewal Agency, a nonprofit set up in 1994 to implement the city’s regeneration strategy. “Only a few public buildings were properly maintained, and others were more or less abandoned. If you went deeper into the courtyards, you would find a lot of buildings that were collapsing.”
The revitalization of the historic district is mostly complete on the facades exposed to the central thoroughfare that runs through Vilnius’s Old Town. Pastel-colored exteriors and new brick pavement make an idyllic setting for shopping in the out-door market, and designer boutiques occupy store-fronts on most of the main streets. But the rush of capital into the historic district has not always preserved the city’s history. “At the very beginning, there was a wish to see a shiny city without understanding the technology used for historic buildings or the particular value of each building,” Rutkauskas says. “In 2000, when national allocations for Old Town projects were cut radically, I even said that it’s very nice that happened because we’ll have less money to destroy—or improperly treat—historic buildings.”
But inside the courtyards that open up at the end of every archway, there’s still plenty of evidence of the pre-independence state of decay. It’s here, behind the renovated facades, that a handful of plaques memorializing the Yiddish-speaking culture of Lithuania can be found. “For me, Vilnius is empty,” says Emanuelis Zingeris, a prominent Jewish political figure and initiator of plans to reconstruct the Jewish quarter. “During Soviet times, it was forbidden to mark the memory of Jewish people here. Now, with the Lithuanian renaissance of Vilnius, it’s important for the past to reemerge. For Jewish people, Vilnius was the Jerusalem of the north—like a Jewish Oxford and Broadway put together.”
Anyone with a sense of the Jewish history of Vilnius—around 40 percent of its citizens were Jewish before the war—is bound to feel slightly haunted by the new Old Town. Almost half of the city was destroyed during the German and Soviet occupations, along with nearly every trace of Jewish life. Entire blocks were razed and tombstones mined from cemeteries to pave sidewalks. A Soviet sports stadium—now used for rock concerts—sits on top of one Jewish cemetery. It’s a problem that other cities in the region have addressed in their own ways. In Berlin there are numerous state-supported museums, and Krakow, Warsaw, and Prague have created Jewish historic districts in the last decade. In Lithuania redevelopment vies with the paltry salaries of teachers and pensions for state funds, and even nationalist projects like reconstructing the castle of Gediminas, who founded Vilnius in the fourteenth century, have been received with skepticism.
In 2000 the Lithuanian parliament approved a novel strategy to recreate elements of the Jewish ghetto without relying on public funds. Private companies will be allowed to redevelop historic sites, and five percent of the property will be donated to the Jewish Heritage Fund to house cultural programs. Part of the property will be leased by the fund to generate revenue for the rebuilding of Vilnius’s Great Synagogue, a 3,000-seat temple demolished by the Soviets—currently the site of a Khrushchev-era kindergarten. “When the Soviets blew up these buildings about four or five meters was left, so after the excavation you will be able to see parts of what was the most holy place in Europe for Jews,” Zingeris says. Apart from the symbolic value, the mayor envisions a possible source of revenue. “The Jewish quarter was very important for the history of the city,” Zuokas says. “These parts of the Old Town now look empty, like a scarred place. We would like to bring this history back to life. And it will also increase tourism in the city,” he adds, “especially from the Jewish society around the world.”
There are a few unresolved issues, however. Last September, on the 60th anniversary of the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset made an accusatory speech at the Pan-eriai forest, site of the mass executions, calling for the return of Jewish property. The result was a neo-Nazi reaction, particularly in less-developed areas of the country, with swastikas appearing on abandoned buildings and anti-Semitic rants posted on the Internet. “Every nation has complicated issues in its history,” Zuokas says. “When we think about the future we should not forget the past. But many changes have happened in Lithuania, and we shouldn’t always only think about the Second World War period, which was complicated, not just for Lithuania but for all Europe.”
“It is not the most liberal place in the world here,” Zingeris says. “This is not Amsterdam, not Rotterdam—but some level of new, more mild liberal attitude exists. We are starting with small things. The reconstructed buildings will be preserved and dedicated to Jewish memory, not sold like simple potatoes. They were at least saved from privatization, in the rudest commercial sense.” Still, there are some skeptics in Lithuania’s small Jewish community. Asked about the usefulness of reconstructing a synagogue that once served a Jewish population of 60,000, one Litvak commented with more than a touch of irony, “We will have to bring more Jews.”
In 1892 the Lithuanian poet Maironis wrote of the now reconstructed Trakai castle, even then a symbol of national resistance to German and Russian invasions: “You walls, dark and ruinous, covered with grime, Defenseless, unpeopled and dumb! …Shall we see your revival? Or shall you like youth just in dreams find survival?” Before the modern era, churches and castles towered over marketplaces in the geography of Old Europe, but on the right bank of the Neris River, Vilnius’s new commercial skyscrapers already rise several times higher than any of the Old Town’s restored churches and castles. The Jewish population played a key role in the expansion of European cities during a time when Christianity frowned on banking and commerce. As Lithuania consolidates its national identity and Yiddish disappears altogether as a living language, it may be fitting that historic districts are cropping up throughout the new Europe whose only commercial value is rooted in nostalgia for one of the continent’s lost peoples.