Rūta Vanagaitė’s project “The Paneriai Lullaby”, which lets you interact with Jewish culture for a day, is one of the most successful projects financed by the European Commission (EC).
Rūta Vanagaitė
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

This year it once again received EC support. Rūta Vanagaitė, the initiator and implementer of the concept, told us what it was that most influenced the success of this project.

You said that you know that in your family there were people who, probably without any choice in the matter, collaborated in the tragic destruction of the Jews in Lithuania. You stated also that you have a choice and so started this project. How did the thought come about for this project and what inspired the initial idea?

I always do only what interests me. I don’t know Jewish Vilnius. I used to live in a house that once belonged to Jews. Where are they now? In Paneriai? I knew practically nothing about the Litvak culture or traditions of Vilnius. I am ashamed to say, I was asked by an artist once taking part in the LIFE festival to show him Paneriai and I couldn’t find it. And so the idea of creating this project came about, one that would expand my own knowledge and be of interest to my friends, my children and their friends.

I thought that instead of taking the official way and mourning the victims of the Holocaust on European funds, I would try to convey a real feeling of what was lost and what perished with the victims: their faith, their culture, songs, food and dances. We must love the Jewish life of Vilnius, and feel with full force how horrific the death of the Jews was. In short, experience so that we understand, come to love and mourn it.

Other than “The Paneriai Lullaby” (“Being a Jew”), you’re also organising a project called “A Drama of Survival” that takes place in a Soviet bunker. What is it about these subjects that revive a painful past that interests you?

I am interested in what a person feels when caught in certain historical circumstances. It’s not simply about walking around a museum or listening to lectures and getting bored. It’s about immersing your body and soul in certain historical realities: becoming a citizen of the USSR and being in a Soviet bunker, becoming a Jew in the project “Paneriai Lullaby”. I believe that only through personal experience and strong emotions comes true and profound knowledge.

How did the initial idea of the project then evolve into its final version?

Initially, the project was called “Being a Jew”. Several people from the Jewish community advised me not to call it that based on the fact that there’s no point in trying to be a Jew if you aren’t one. Some kind of game… By the way, this year the project supported by the EU will be called “Being a Jew” – we took a chance.

By the way, during consultations with the Jewish community, most of the initial ideas had to be abandoned. At the start, I wanted actors in the project who would have played the white-scarved Lithuanians who as we know collaborated with the Nazis by killing the Jews in Lithuania. This idea also had to be scratched because once again it would have been a show. I wanted the participants in the project to walk the streets of the Vilnius ghetto just as the Jews had walked them - that means not on the footpaths, where it was forbidden for them to walk, but on the actual street wearing the Star of David on their chests. The Jewish people also found that drastic.

There was a lot of consulting, so that being strangers and not Jews we wouldn’t offend anyone or be overly insistent in that we would be making a show out of a tragedy. I was most of all afraid that the Jewish community wouldn’t accept me, a Lithuanian, and wouldn’t want to work with me. One of the Jews whom I told about the project, which was opening up Jewish culture to non-Jews said to me: why should we open up our culture to you? After all, you aren’t Jews. I then realized how deeply intimidated the Jews are. Afterwards while still collecting material about Paneriai I found a wonderful name for the whole project – “The Paneriai Lullaby”.

Paneriai Lullaby is the name of a song written by an 11 year-old who lived in the ghetto and who was later saved and became a renowned Israeli composer. I have learned the entire song in Yiddish and we’ve taught it to all of the project participants. As I was concluding I must say that the success of this project must be attributed to the support of one person. Not Rūta Vanagaitė, but the managing director of the Jewish Community, Simonas Gurevičius, an unusually tactful, erudite and capable man. He is a treasure. With the implementation of the new project in four countries, his advice and assistance were invaluable.

What do you think the Paneriai’s “significance” is - not only from an historical point of view but also from the point of view of today’s situation between Palestine and Israel and the wave of anti-Semitism that has started to sweep Europe?

Anti-Semitism is a great worry. History moves in cycles. People and nations are inclined to repeat their mistakes. They’re inclined to demonise something that they don’t know. In this case they don’t know the Jewish people, religion or history. They have no idea of the scale of the tragedy the Jews have experienced.

Do you believe that by getting to know this history the youth will be more inclined not to repeat the mistakes of history?

I believe that the youth are very receptive and open. Europe has become multi-national. Lithuania has become a part of Europe. The people of the Land of Mary and the grandchildren of peasants are world citizens. It’s a pity that we are deifying our history, our suffering and speaking little about the experiences of other nations. On the other hand however it’s not enough just to learn history. We have to learn from it and experience it ourselves. One visit to Auschwitz will cure a person for ever from anti-Semitism.

What do you believe this project means exclusively for the youth of Lithuania and then for people throughout the world?

It’s of paramount importance to the youth of Lithuania. Lithuanian youth know nothing about the Holocaust because their teachers are often themselves anti-Semites in my opinion. Lithuania is still competing with the Holocaust by holding up its own history of deportations as a great tragedy. That’s why the Jews cannot be forgiven for welcoming Stalin in 1944, which in doing so, saved them from the peril of Hitler’s death camps.

Every time I went to Paneriai I’d ask the participants in the bus if they had ever been there. Out of 20-30 Lithuanians, 1-2 had. It’s a sin that a visit to Paneriai is not part of the school curriculum. Pupils in Vilnius go to the Horse or Chocolate museum 100 km away but in their 12 years at school they don’t go and see what’s in their own back yard, a death factory. They don’t even know that Vilnius was a Jewish and not a Lithuanian city as by the way almost all cities and towns were. They don’t know that if they are living in the Old Town, they are most likely living in a flat that belonged to murdered Jews, and that when they walk the streets of the Old Town under their feet were countless hideouts, the “maliny”, in which almost all the Jews of Vilnius, starving and suffocating, hid from the Nazis and from which they were fished out.

What response did you get after the first “session” of the project?

People were enthralled. Andrius Užkalnis wrote: after this project I regret that I am not Jewish. Toward the end of this project we couldn’t accommodate all those who wanted to come. People asked to come a second time and asked if they could bring their friends and relatives. At times I would then think that the strongest aspect of this project is not simply its idea but the fact that a lot of money was spent on it.

And everything was done with style – from the kipas for each participant, the concert with 35 performers, the six-dish kosher lunch, the kosher wine and homemade farewell sweets. And I had to hear that every time organisers get European funds they save them well and “take them over”. And the people taking part in the project feel really good whether they are experiencing something real or something done for “fun”.

What does the new project have to offer? Will it be different form the first one?

The new project, “Being Jewish”, is a “transmission” of the project into the other countries and cities of Eastern Europe. The “Being Jewish” events entail a group of people being Jews for a whole day and these events will be arranged in cities in Romania, Poland and Slovakia, and also in Kaunas. We aren’t just going to leave the project to chance because in countries where the events are going to be organised they will have to comply with the standard we have set.

For the end of the project in June we are going to arrange not for the Jewish community only but for all Vilnius a mass “March of the Living”. On this march thousands of people - not just Jews, but Lithuanians too- will walk the road of the doomed to Paneriai where victims of the Holocaust will be honoured. In this way we’d like to start a new tradition in Vilnius for honouring the victims of the Holocaust. On the day of the “March of the Living”, the Vilnius municipality will organise an international conference on introducing the Holocaust as a subject in education. That will add the finishing touch to the project.

Once, when speaking about the legendary LIFE festival, you mentioned that in order to succeed you must do something ridiculous, do something that’s never been done before. Have you ever thought up something that is necessary and must be realized?

I listen to my inner voice when I want to see something that I have never seen, experience something that I have never experienced and I share that experience with my children and with their friends. If my children hear about ideas or come and take a look, they don’t say “it’s ridiculous”. They bring along their friends to the event. That means then that some good has been done. And so it seems not everything that I have done is ridiculous.

What other ideas of yours are waiting to be realised?

At the moment I am finishing my book on ageing parents. It’s a book that is much needed and the likes of which has never been seen in Lithuania. Next year I will be completing my four-year term on the Vilnius Municipal Council and so with a book like this my work there will have had meaning.

I am then going to write another book for those who’ve reached my age, as the publisher says, for “enraged” women. . The name of the book is simple, like everything that I have done: “The Golden Age”. In autumn there’s another project called “The Night of Stalin” and it’s for Lithuanian pupils. 767 Lithuanian pupils will walk the road that the 767 Tuskulėnai victims walked and whom the KGB murdered between 1944 and 1947 (most of them were lone individuals). Their severed heads were stuffed under the ground in the centre of Vilnius, under Tuskulėnai Street under the tennis courts of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. That’s something else that we, the people of Vilnius, know almost nothing about.

Rūta Vanagaitė: Lithuania is still competing with the Holocaust
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