By Jeffrey F.
“How people perished in the ghetto—that I understand; what I cannot understand
is how they lived there,” writes Second World War refugee and esteemed Yiddish
poet, Chaim Grade. When Canadian author Menachem Kaiser arrived in Vilnius two
years ago to begin a Fulbright Scholarship focused on Holocaust research, he
observed firsthand the stark reality behind Grade’s statement.
Click photo to download. Caption: Menachem Kaiser’s digital map of the Vilnius Ghetto. Credit: Revilna.org.
“There is literally
no trace of the ghetto left in Vilnius,” Kaiser tells JNS.org. “Hardly even any clues left behind.”
has since led to the Vilnius Ghetto Project, an online effort to digitally
remap and reclaim the space originally occupied by the Vilnius Ghetto “as a
Debuting this month, the project’s website, www.revilna.org, provides a new platform for virtual
exploration of Vilnius, also commonly known in Jewish circles by its Russian
name, “Vilna,” home of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer),
the foremost leader of non-Hassidic Jewry during the 18th century. Kaiser’s
team of cartographers and historians has produced an integrated tool that uses
latitude and longitude coordinates to piece together the layout of the old city
while integrating textured stories, timelines, biographies, and photographic
Click photo to download. Caption: The site of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius along with, at right, a monument of the famed Jewish leader from Vilnius, the Vilna Gaon. Credit: Julius/Wikimedia Commons.
“I was interested in
the idea of the ghetto not as an entity, but rather how it came into existence,
and in imagining the ghetto’s daily function as a place where 10-20,000 Jews
lived and struggled despite Nazi persecution,” Kaiser says.
Re-imagining ghetto life through today’s electronic media has created educational
opportunities and has helped to rebuild and redefine identities lost in modern
mainstream Lithuanian society.
“The Holocaust is
largely seen as a ‘peripheral’ event in Lithuanian historiography,” says Laimis
Briedis, a consultant to the Vilnius Ghetto Project. “Currently the Vilnius Ghetto
plays only a minor role in Lithuanian culture, and awareness among local
residents is minimal, if not, negligible.”
Briedis attributes this void in Lithuanian cultural memory to the fact that,
prior to World War II, Vilnius was primarily a Polish-Jewish city, with very
few gentile Lithuanian residents. Between the Nazi’s expulsion and
extermination of the Jewish population, and the five-decade long Soviet
occupation that followed, ideology-driven regimes often manipulated history,
denying new Vilnius residents a true understanding of their city’s heritage. By
placing local Holocaust history “on the ground” and tracing events
cartographically, Briedis is optimistic that the Vilnius Ghetto Project will
enable current residents to explore the geography of the ghetto in a much more
personal and intimate way. Ideally, he says, Lithuanians will learn to
acknowledge the landmark as “something less abstract, ‘foreign,’ or resigned to
the pages of history books, but rather as something pertinent to their daily lives
Speaking generally about the Holocaust, Kaiser underlines the enormous
potential of the Vilnius Ghetto Project to reach beyond textbooks, providing a
highly accurate and accessible tool for students of history, one that seemingly
leaps off the page.