The Uneven Development of Jewish Heritage Tourism in Europe

While every last wooden synagogue in Poland was destroyed either during the First and Second World Wars, it is believed around a dozen survive in Lithuania.

Žiežmariai synagogue
Žiežmariai synagogue

By Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

Earlier this year, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews announced the launch of a new multimedia platform, Jewish Warsaw: a portal through which one can discover the faces who made or make up the city’s Jewish community, past and present. Following on from their project Virtual Shtetl, Jewish Warsaw is one of a number of online portals or apps that use new technologies to broaden the scope of Jewish heritage tourism in Europe, including those published in Basel and by the Jewish Museum Vienna.

The POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw – which was recently and deservedly awarded the European Museum Academy Prize since “the scope of its aims and goals makes it a unique institution with a worldwide impact” – and indeed the humbler Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow are but two neatly and compellingly put-together spaces dedicated to Jewish historical content in Poland. Their resources and presentation contrast sharply, unfortunately, with what it currently on offer in another former metropolis of Jewish life in Europe: Vilnius (Vilna) in Lithuania.

The Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum Holocaust Exposition is located in a green wooden house on a side street at the top of a hill, next to a memorial dedicated to Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese consul in Lithuania who between 1939 and 1940 managed to save 6,000 Jews from certain death by issuing transit visas offering safe passage to Japanese territories. Its exhibition focuses on how it came to be that more than 90 percent of the prewar Jewish population of Lithuania was executed by Nazi death squads largely by the end of 1941, but also encompasses the broader story of Lithuanian Jewry. It is historically thorough but sadly shabbily laid out and in urgent need of modernization. Established in 1989, it does not seem to have had much done to it since, in spite of reported amendments and additions.

Lithuania has a rich Jewish heritage as an important eastern European center of Jewish culture and learning, from the school of Talmudic learning associated with the Vilna Gaon in the eighteenth century forward to its place in the early twentieth century as the Jerusalem of Yiddish language and culture, home to much Yiddish publishing, theatre, music, and the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut or YIVO. (The first seat of YIVO formed part of the Jewish heritage trail in Vilnius, such as it is.) But while Poland has invested – or perhaps been able to invest – in the preservation and museumification of what remains of its own Jewish heritage, in Lithuania much of it has either been allowed to decay and its potential in terms of Jewish tourism remains underdeveloped.

While every last wooden synagogue in Poland was destroyed either during the First and Second World Wars, it is believed around a dozen survive in Lithuania – an unusually high concentration within the context of post-Holocaust central and eastern Europe. Indeed, examples of wooden synagogues that somehow survived mass destruction are being discovered, or rediscovered, unto this very day. Just last January, a wooden synagogue, which has been previously encased in brickwork, was revealed in Kulautuva. Work is currently underway to preserve the roof and façade of a wooden synagogue in Žiežmariai.

Yet Žiežmariai is something of an exception to the rule in a country where many old wooden synagogues are in a state of disrepair and dilapidation or are not appropriately labeled. Whether every last wooden synagogue in Lithuania needs to be restored like Žiežmariai is disputable, but national, local, and European governments in conjunction with the Jewish community who own these buildings do at least have a duty to maintain what remains of them and at the very least mark these heritage sites as a matter
of memory and preservation. Of the project to restore the wooden synagogue in Žiežmariai, Martynas Užpelkis of the Kultur cultural and tourism project said aptly:

“Since there are no surviving Jewish communities in many of the cities and towns of Lithuania because of the Holocaust, one of the greatest challenges is to make it so that local non-Jewish residents to accept the Jewish heritage surrounding them as an important part of ‘their’ living environment, that they would recognize it and perceive the cultural, social and economic potential in it, and that they would try to make use of the opportunities it provides.”

For a decade or more, the Institute for the Preservation of Jewish Culture has been developing the so-called Hasidic Judaism Trail in southeastern Poland. The tours that take place today based on these trails are an excellent working example of Jewish heritage tourism in the absence of Jewish heritage. Lithuania is fortunate, one might say, buy contrast to have a unique Jewish heritage worth preserving and maintaining in the form of wooden synagogues, but as of now whatever potential they may have for Jewish heritage tourism domestic and international among Jews and non-Jews alike is unrealized.

The Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder once wrote of the ‘ignored reality’ of the catastrophe, that Auschwitz as a center of remembrance has in many ways “warped our understanding of the Holocaust.” “An adequate vision of the Holocaust would place Operation Reinhardt, the murder of the Polish Jews in 1942, at the center of its history,” he argued, with reference to the extermination camps at Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibór in particular. But Snyder also went onto note that “as many if not more Jews were killed by bullets as by gas, but they were killed by bullets in easterly locations that are blurred in painful remembrance. The second most important part of the Holocaust is the mass murder by bullets in eastern Poland and the Soviet Union.”

Auschwitz has become central to Holocaust commemoration, education, and tourism, in part because of the imbalance and unevenness in our collective conception of the Holocaust, which Snyder compelling outlined. Lithuania’s Holocaust heritage – and it might argued Jewish heritage in general – is neglected in part because Lithuania and the former Soviet Union in general is neglected in collective historical memory of the Holocaust. But the success of Poland in terms of the preservation and museumification of its Jewish heritage, the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews being but one example, also emphasizes how pivotal governments and historians, entrepreneurs and philanthropists are to the gradual conservation of Jewish heritage and shaping public opinion as to what is and is not important in this regard. It’s a matter of money as much as it is an issue of the mind.