People on the Field

The landscape in the Central and Northern Lithuania is practically endlessly serene. Especially on a hot sunny day of a premature summer. The idyll of our journey has been suddenly interrupted by a short siren while few black limos were outrunning us sharply. “The Prime-Minister”, – said somebody on the bus. Our diver had a special smile on his face rushing his white bus in the same direction, for the same event. He felt belonging. Then another siren, and another mini-cortege, and yet another one. “Looks like the Speaker ( of the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament), – said another member of our group, – “ and the Foreign Minister, too” – mentioned someone else.

Restored Jewish cemetery in Seduva, Lithuania. Photo: (C) Inna Rogatchi.

Entering the town of Seduva, we saw an idyll which one can rarely see nowadays in the centre of Europe: a family of quite Chagallian goats was laying serenely just next to the road; a bunch of pretty happy lambs walking nearby, and gorgeous black cow sitting like a queen with such intelligent expression on her face that we were expecting her to open her mouth and to speak any minute. The streets were empty. Everybody was just outside the town, where on a very green field a few dozens of people have gathered. I bet that Seduva never saw such number of  black limos with state flags of 15 countries on them, including the USA, France, UK, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, Ireland, Armenia, and many others.

We all have gathered at the inviting open field on a May day when the greenery on trees branches is still young but has progressed enough. The branches around us and in the skies were gentle and pretty. It was quite windy, and normally you would be able to withstand such wind for just a few minutes. But we did not care. Nobody of us did, not entire political leadership of the country and many senior politicians, nor all the Ambassadors, not the creme a la creme of the Lithuanian intellectual and cultural elite including the director of the state Museum of Tolerance Markas Zingeris, great film director Saulius Berzinis, or quite many Lithuanian people, both elderly and young ones. There was no hierarchy on the day and the place. All those who came were standing together, shoulder to shoulder, almost literally. The security personnel was very tactful and almost unnoticeable.

The foreign guests who did come specifically for the occasion did not mind a harsh wind either: famous Finnish architect professor Rainer Mahlamäki, senior philanthropists from Australia, top- engineer from Switzerland, senior official from Brussels. We all, almost, wore a sun glasses which happened to be quite useful, and not because of sun or wind. It was the one of those rare occasions when you could note a tough security officer wiping his tearful eyes, despite all his efforts not to make it visible.

Emanation of Love

We all were staying next to a rarely beautiful cemetery. When you live long enough, you start to realise the importance and the role of cemeteries in different, personal way. Especially the Jewish ones, those ones from them that did not disappear, or got demolished. Especially those in Europe. Especially those ones which suffered, in many ways, during the WWII and aftermath of it; the aftermath that went on for decades, in certain respects.

Fragment of the gates of the Jewish cemetery in Seduva, Lithuania. Photo: (C) Inna Rogatchi.

This Jewish cemetery in Seduva had been lovingly restored by the Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund just a few years ago. There are few such noble things in life to be done as to restore the place of the last rest of people of any faith. In our case, in case of Jews, given the history of the XX century, it is a super-mitzvah, consciously carried on good deed of fighting not only natural oblivion, but resisting and overcoming the screaming crimes carried against helpless people so enthusiastically. And even if my friend, poet and writer Sergey Kanovich, son of prominent Jewish writer Grigory Kanovich, would stop his activities in Seduva after completing this task back in 2015, I would feel deeply indebted to him. On my own behalf. On behalf of my family. On behalf of Sergey and mine enlarged family of our brethren destroyed brutally and mercilessly.

It was a very painful process, the restoration of the Jewish cemetery in Seduva. When completed after three years of hard work, the memorial site of the people who were populated the area in an over 60% proportion, and where not a single Jewish person lives for 77 years by now, the cemetery in Seduva had been immediately recognised by receiving Special Mention of the EU Prize for Cultural Heritage a year ago, in May 2017. The experts would tell you that there are not too many, to put it mildly, sites of the Jewish heritage that had received the international recognition in this century. The Seduva one is rather exception, sadly. And it is very important statement, too. Especially in the country like Lithuania, with that boundlessly terrible history of Holocaust there.

No picture, not even impressive ones taken by drone, would give you the impression of this place unless you visit it. Here we were, in the middle of green plains of the geographical centre of Lithuania, Jews, Lithuanians, Finns, Americans, Germans, Swedes, French, British; men and women, of all possible ages between 15 and 85; powerful leaders and simple pensioners, artists, architects, writers and military officers, film-makers and diplomats, philosophers and IT engineers, businessmen and public figures. We all visited that cemetery on our own, nobody organised it. Our feet moved us all there as if on their own, but it fact, it was the other organ that carried us on there. Everyone who went to the cemetery, was doing it on their own way: professor Mahlamäki was staying on his own, trying to measure some other perspectives than a visual ones; the Speaker of the Seimas, Viktoras  Pranckietis who is from this very place, and for whom it was profoundly personal, was washing his hands entering the Jewish cemetery in full accordance with Jewish tradition, doing it simply, without any pomp.

Restored Jewish Cemetery in Seduva. Credit: (C) The Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund.

I did not know what and whom I was watching more at the moment: the cemetery which has returned dignity to my people whose sons and daughters had been wiped off life there; or the people who were visiting it on that sunny day in May 2018 with palpable respect and empathy. I thought that I could stay on that piercing wind indefinitely, without being cold for a moment. Those who visited that big enough cemetery were not in rush to leave it, quite in disaccord with a protocol. It was not the day for protocols, anyway.

The Sense of Place

We all came to the cemetery after just finished ceremony that had brought us all together on May 4th, 2018 in Seduva. It was ground-breaking ceremony for the forthcoming museum and memorial complex of a unique concept, The Lost Shtetl. In parallel with the work of restoring the cemetery, the same group of people led by the same man, Sergey Kanovich, has come to the idea to build a museum in that serene, on the first glance, place and to make it a memorial for the people who were annihilated there – and everywhere in Lithuania. The idea is very simple, actually. When Sergey and I were discussing the things around The Lost Shtetl, I have asked him what about the film-in-making in conjunction with the project is going to be. My friend replied quickly: “About the same what is the museum to be about: it is about a life destroyed”.

The head of the project Sergey Kanovich speaking at The Lost Shtetl ground-breaking ceremony. Seduva. May 4th, 2018. Credit: (C) The Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund.

And it is that vision that had defined the location for The Lost Shtetl – two hour drive from the Lithuanian capital, at the place which has no other special attractions; among the fields of the Lithuanian plain. There are those who did not get the thought behind this location: “Who needs a museum in a middle of nowhere? A museum must be in Vilnius”, – Sergey have heard from some foreign diplomats whose imagination quite clearly did not lead far. But Sergey, his team, the sponsors of the project, and its creators from Finland and the US all knew that the current location is fundamental feature of the concept. That concept can be described quite simply: everything in The Lost Shtetl project has to be authentic. The creators do not allow themselves a luxury of pretension.

According to the incomplete data, there had been 283 shtetls like Seduva in Lithuania before the Second World War. And, as we all know, there are just 3000 Jews  in the country today, in a shocking contrast with 250 000, a quarter of a million people who were forming 10% of the Lithuanian population in 1941. Should this life which had been so thriving and which is an integral part of Jewish heritage, and more generally, human tradition, be left abandoned? If we will succumb to such lenience of mind and soul, what does it tell about us, those who live today and who are descendants of the people who were living in those places in such density and such intense life? The people like Sergey Kanovich who have got the idea of restoring the Shtetl lost, the people like the private sponsors of the project who has put not only their resources, but their souls into the process of its creation, deserve a huge gratitude.  Clearly, there are many projects of a virtual memory on the subject in our technologically advanced age. Those are good for studies and research. But for the memory to become living, it should be materialised. There is no way around it. This is how human perception works.

I would never forget the first impression that the one of the few similar projects of publishing the map of the Jewish Lithuania in a pre-WWII period has left on me and my husband: deep sorrow on the life, talent and human spirit erased. I still remember that feeling today although there are years passed since we were presented with the first publication of such map. It felt like a scar on a soul that is not going to be healed ever.

In a contrast, I also remember the first impression when I have heard about and saw the project of The Lost Shtetl Museum: a wave of warm gratitude over the reassuring understanding that the destroyed life would be restored now; that the Lost Shtetl to be found.

It is no coincidence that the description on the Yad Vashem entrance contains the words from Isaiah pointing on the Name and the Place. In the magnanimity of destroyed lives, so many of them at the places unknown, the very meaning, or rather the sense of the place has a prophetic importance. Additionally, a place is crucial because it still bears energy of events and human presence there, sometimes even throughout centuries. Those are the places where your emotional memory associates itself with your people, and you are becoming to feel your roots.

With  as many as 283 potential places in Lithuania for the memorial to its exceptionally talented, versatile, in many senses special Jewry, Litvaks, defining the place for the memorial was a challenge for the project team. Among many other factors, you should also think about the attitude of the local authorities, and of the local population, too. The positive and open stand from their behalf does not necessarily come automatically in Lithuania, after the  unspeaking crimes committed so efficiently,

The author of The Lost Shtetl design professor Rainer Mahlamäki visiting Jewish cemetery in Seduva. May 2018. Photo: (C) Inna Rogatchi

and following total neglect during decades after that. In the case of Seduva, the Sergey Kanovich’s team did meet the people whose heart is in the right place. They have become devoted partners in The Lost Shtetl endeavour.

There was also meaningful geographical factor in choosing Seduva for the Memorial. After the ground-breaking ceremony, Viktoras Prankievicius, the Speaker of the Lithuanian Parliament, Seimas, was speaking to Rainer Mahlamäki, the Finnish master architect who has designed the building. “Did you realise that this complex will be staying right in the centre of Lithuania, exactly, literally in the geographical centre of our country? It is so very important for us!”, – the Speaker said.  It is, indeed. The Lost Shtetl would extrapolate all those 283 disappeared shtetls all over Lithuania. Both intellectually and spiritually, it would speak for all of them. That’s why we all have had such a good use of our sun-glasses on that windy day in Seduva.

May 2018

Seduva-Vilnius-Helsinki