Kaunas was the interwar capital of Lithuania. Jews fought for Lithuanian independence. They brought their talents and assets and built Kaunas into a remarkable city of art and culture. The uniqueness of those gifts are the reason for Kaunas being named the 2022 European Capital of Culture, and for Kaunas today applying for UNESCO Heritage Status for the unique building that are only found elsewhere in…… Israel. These small facts have been forgotten by Lithuanians who claim to be focused on memory.
The single, most momentous event to ever happen in Kaunas is the genocide of their Jewish citizenry starting in 1941, ending in 1944. Any other memories in that city pale into relative insignificance. Had one to be forced to select a second, it would be the widespread participation in the plunder of Jewish property by their fellow Lithuanian citizenry. i.e. the most prominent memories are their murder of their Jews and their thievery of the Jewish possessions.
Kaunas is a moderate size city and it’s difficult to examine all of it. And all the parts of Kaunas, like separate shtetls, have their own histories. It’s just that some of them are mostly forgotten.
Today Kaunas is perceived as a single city which has given birth to different city neighborhoods. It wasn’t always like that. Following the Russo-Swedish war which practically destroyed the city, it wasn’t able to recover until the 17th century. After that the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also partitioned Kaunas. The section of the city on the right-hand side of the river went to Prussia while the larger part of the city at the confluence of the Nieman and Neris Rivers was taken over by the Russian Empire. Following two more centuries of destruction the city began to grow again in the mid-19th century when it became the seat of the Kovno guberniya within the Russian Empire. But even then Kaunas wasn’t a whole and seamless town: on the opposite bank of the Neris there loomed the separate town of Vilijampolė, also known as Slobodka, inhabited mainly by Jews. In terms of economic power and learning it surpassed Kaunas. On this side of the Neris there was what was then a suburb of Kaunas called Žaliakalnis, literally Green Mountain, where Jews also set up homes. The Jewish Quarter acquired its own features, building a synagogue in 1858 (it survives and has been turned back over to the Kaunas Jewish Community) and establishing the Žaliakalnis Jewish cemetery in 1861. The Jews of Žaliakalnis along with the rest of Kaunas thrived despite all the misfortunes, wars, uprisings and revolutions. But then the World War I came along, and 1915, when the Russian grand duke after a series of defeats at the hands of the Germans blamed his failures on the Jews, and decided to deport them deeper into Russia within the span of a few days. These were hard times for Kaunas Jews.
After WWI concluded and the revolution began in Russia, a large number of Kaunas Jews returned to their former residences. The Jews of Žaliakalnis were no exception. Not all came back. Those that did struggled, as did all of Lithuania at that time. A significant number of Jews volunteered as soldiers for the Lithuanian side in the battles for independence (my own grandfather included). The Jewish cemetery in Žaliakalnis contains the graves of 14 such volunteer soldiers who died fighting. Kaunas became the provisional capital of independent Lithuania and developed swiftly. The city expanded, planning and building new streets, and giving them names. The Žaliakalnis synagogue ended up on Vaisių street. Vaisiai is Lithuanian for fruit. The street names in the surrounding quarter were also named after fruits and berries:
Vyšnių or Cherry, Braškių or Strawberries, Obuolių or Apples, Kriaušių meaning pears, Vašoklių or currants, Serbentų means a different kind of currants, Putinų meaning Viburnum opulus or European cranberry and Šermukšnių street, meaning Mountain Ash Street.
Kaunas residents used to jokingly call this neighborhood the Žaliakalnis Compôte, alluding to the beverage made of fruits stewed in sugar water. Deportations carried out by Russia and the large emigration to Palestine and elsewhere reduced the density of the Jewish population of Žaliakalnis. Kaunas continued to expand and ethnic Lithuanians also made their home in Žaliakalnis. They increased in numbers a little bit further away from the synagogue. Many poor Jews lived in the quarter. Then came the month of June in 1941. There is no official information about pogroms in Žaliakalnis, but one frequently hears from Jews that the white arm-banders of the Lithuanian Activist Front took many Jewish residents of Žaliakalnis to the Seventh Fort in Kaunas. What actually happened?
It was a shock to Jews to see their neighbors, in some cases even their former classmates, who were now chasing Jews down in the street and in their homes. Lithuania so far has been “unable” to count how many of the more than three thousand Jewish volunteer soldiers in the battles for independence were murdered during the Holocaust. It is not known how many doctors, scientists, musicians, children and elderly people were murdered. Lithuanian academics have only been successful in manipulation of numbers taken from Nazi propaganda, according to which there were more Jews in the Lithuanian Communist Party than actual party members. (Determinations of Lithuanian Government research results often come before research begins).
It isn’t known how many of the Jews from Žaliakalnis were murdered at the Seventh Fort, but it is known that hundreds of Žaliakalnis Jews did try to flee the city in those days. An approximate figure of the number of Jews murdered in the first days of July of 1941 is also known, from 3,000 to 5,000. In the end the Žaliakalnis Jewish community was doomed to be murdered by the directive to remove themselves to the ghetto set up in Vilijampolė or Slobodka by August 15.
Some historians believe the Jews murdered during the Lietūkis garage pogrom were buried in the Jewish cemetery in Žaliakalnis.
Why are we writing about this? Mainly because most the Jews who lived in the “Compôte” were poor, hard-working people sincere in their religion and adhering to their traditions. They didn’t leave behind them monuments such as the houses and buildings in the Kaunas Old Town and New Town built and managed by more affluent Jews, by Giršas Šapiro (Rotušės alley no. 26), I. Levis (Ožeškienės street), Abraomas Kacas (Vilniaus street no. 34), the Rozenbliums (Daukanto street no. 15) and Ozeris Finkelšteinas (Kęstučio street no. 9). These and other buildings are now shown to tourists as architectural monuments. In terms of its beauty and renown, the synagogue at Vaisių street no. 30 doesn’t compare to the Choral Synagogue on Ožeškienės street in Kaunas. No, the Jews of the Compôte were neither rich nor famous. But it’s still important to remember them. These people worked in Kaunas and contributed mightily to the city’s success.
We tried to look for some sign of a memory of them in the Lithuanian press. Recently, in 2019, the newspaper Lietuvos Rytas, which calls itself the largest daily in Lithuania, actually devoted an article to the Jewish quarter in Kaunas called “Even Tourists Are Discovering the Neighborhood the Locals Call Compote” [“Kompotu vietos žmonių pavadintą miesto rajoną atranda net turistai”] (see:
https://www.lrytas.lt/kultura/istorija/2019/09/03/news/kompotu-vietos-zmoniu-pavadinta-miesto-rajona-atranda-net-turistai-11645410 ). The article is odd in that it does not contain the name of even a single Jew.
The daily newspaper Kauno Diena reported on a European Heritage Days event in 2012 when a small group of people walked around the Compôte seeking “the Žaliakalnis spirit.” In fact their efforts were limited to searching for traces of Lithuanian artists who had tried to settle there in prior times. There is much sorrow expressed over the sad state of the home of the artist A. Galdikas, and in sorrow it is also mentioned that in the pre-WWII years “mainly Jews lived in Žaliakalnis. [Ethnic] Lithuanians only came here to work for them. (see: https://www.diena.lt/naujienos/kaunas/miesto-pulsas/istoriniais-menininku-takais-ieskota-zaliakalnio-dvasia-325923?full ).
Artists began living in the quarter because the Art School established there in 1922 became a hub for artists. But this school was next to the Compôte, and now Lithuanian memory is playing a strange trick, it is trying to recall the artists but to forget the Jews who lived there. The Žaliakalnis Jewish quarter is being deliberately forgotten.
Hopes that the events of the Kaunas Capital of European Culture 2022 program might expand the pathetically short memory of Lithuanians are not great. Yes, Jews will also be remembered, those who were notable for their deeds or wealth. Today these long-dead people are being used by Lithuanian memory policy as “useful Jews:” they are famous, and Kaunas and Lithuania are exploiting their names for tourism promotion. But there is a shameful silence concerning their Jewish neighbors who lived nearby and who were also robbed and murdered. The same sort of shameful silence as when the majority remained silent from 1941 to 1944 when barbaric armed men looted and murdered the Jews of Kaunas, not just in the Compôte but throughout Kaunas. Some even lent their approval to the pogromniks when they carried out their bloody pogroms at Lietūkis, in Slobodka and elsewhere. And only a few individuals rescued Jews, the Righteous Gentiles. The City of Kaunas has a street named Insurgents of June 23, all sorts of commemorative sites dedicated to these insurgents, the white arm-banders of the Lithuanian Activist Front, but so far there is no memorial to the Righteous Gentiles, although the city began talking about one in back in 2008. They keep saying they can’t find the right location, or that the municipality doesn’t have enough money (see: https://www.delfi.lt/news/daily/lithuania/kaune-iskils-pasaulio-tautu-teisuoliu-memorialas.d?id=15800562 ). Even so, we can’t claim the Righteous Gentiles are completely forgotten in Kaunas. On the far side of Žaliakalnis stands the Chiune Sugihara House museum. As Japan’s consul, the Righteous among the Nations issued tens of thousands of visas for Jews to leave Lithuania, thus, saving them from Lithuanian murderers. Many Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Poland made use of these visas. The museum’s main visitors are tourists from Japan. This way, Lithuania is able to sell “murdered Jew Tourism” to Jews and Japanese alike.
During the celebratory events, Lithuania will avoid any mention of the monuments and street names they boast for murderers of Jews. Only local Lithuanians are supposed to know what those celebrate, it isn’t necessary for foreigners to know internal Lithuanian values. They might not “understand” the glory they brought to Lithuania by murdering their Jews.
Searching for the Spirit of the Artists:
This article was co-authored by Evaldas Balčiūnas and Grant Gochin.