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Vilna: The Jerusalem of the North

Exhibition set to open at the University of Hartford

By Judie Jacobson

The Great Synagogue 1929

WEST HARTFORD – On Monday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m., a new exhibition entitled “Vilna: The Jerusalem of the North” will open at the University of Hartford’s Museum of Jewish Civilization.”

The event will open at 6 p.m. with a performance by the Heavy Shtetl Klezmer band in the university’s Wilde Auditorium. It will be followed at 7 p.m. by a lecture on Vilna delivered by Dr. Samuel Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College, and welcoming remarks by the Consul General of Lithuania.

In advance of the opening, the Jewish Ledger spoke with the museum’s director Dr. Avinoam Patt, the Philip D. Feltman Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Hartford; and Dr. Richard Freund, the university’s Maurice Greenberg Professor of Jewish History and director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies. Freund also served as director of the university’s Vilna Excavations Project from which the exhibition is derived.


JEWISH LEDGER (JL): Can you tell us what drew your attention to Vilna?

AVINOAM PATT (AP): Vilna is one of the most important cities in Jewish history. Jews began settling in Vilna in the middle of the 15th century and 500 years later the city was renowned as a center of Jewish religious life, Jewish education, Jewish politics, Jewish journalism, and the Jewish enlightenment. As the Jerusalem of Lithuania, the city was famous as an intellectual, spiritual, and political capital of European Jewish civilization.

All too often, teaching the Holocaust focuses on the machinery of destruction, on the manner in which the Nazis destroyed Jewish lives. But the Holocaust was also an attempt to destroy an entire civilization – and Vilna was a symbolic capital of that civilization. In 2015, we had a very successful year-long exhibition on Rhodes, often thought of by Sephardim as the Jerusalem of the Mediterranean, and now to have an exhibition on Vilna, the Ashkenazic counterpart, gives the public a rare glimpse at the history of the Jews in the modern period.

RICHARD FREUND (RF): Why Vilna? For me, it is personal. My great-grandfather, Nathan Ginsburg, came to this country from Vilna at the turn of the 20th century and in a sense, I am a true “Litvak.” It seems now so clear that when my Israeli colleague, famed archaeologist Dr. Jon Seligman (himself a Litvak!), came to me and proposed that we do the Great Synagogue excavation together in 2014 it was a “bashert” (destined) moment! This is the story of why the loss of Vilna is felt so deeply by Jews around the world; it is about the grandeur and depth of a Judaism that was almost unparalleled in Jewish history. To have a hand in restoring that history – my/our history – is what Jewish history is all about.


JL: What can we expect to find in the exhibition?

RF: It is really a combination of the unique technological advances that we have brought to the science of archaeology; it is about the story of Lithuanian Judaism and about the Holocaust. It will feature what I call: “the four M’s”: maps, montages of photos, manuscripts and artifacts, movies and movie clips.

It will be inspiring for people of all backgrounds and ages. Students worked on the excavations; and they helped mount the exhibition and will serve as docents for visiting groups. So this is a celebration of our students and an opportunity to teach about the culture of Vilna’s Judaism.

University of Hartford students Merav David (left) and Josie Bauman wash pottery found at the Great Synagogue excavations in 2017.

The title of the exhibition is itself an interesting example of the significance of Vilna for the general public: “The Jerusalem of the North” is a saying that is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, who upon visiting the Great Synagogue of Vilna in 1812 is said to have used these words to describe the grandeur of the place. The exhibition contains elements of many of the eight projects which the university has done in Lithuania in 2015-2017, including the Great Synagogue of Vilna [which has been rediscovered and is now under excavation in a project involving students and faculty from our research group]. In the case of the Great Synagogue we have already excavated thousands of pieces of ceramics, glass, coins, tiles, metal and wood fragments, walls, stairs, bricks, and of course, the mikvaot, ritual baths, of the Great Synagogue and surrounding bathhouse. At the nearby Holocaust era Rasu Prison we have uncovered unknown burials, and at the HKP Vehicle Repair Nazi Labor Camp, we have uncovered mass burials and hiding places known as malinas that saved hundreds of Jews during the end of the war.

In Kovno, (Kaunas in Lithuanian) we uncovered mass burials at Fort IX, VII, and IV and in a Jewish cemetery we found a mass burial. One of the most interesting projects involved a Nazi POW camp for American airmen in a forgotten corner of Lithuania. The exhibition shows aspects of the Holocaust never before seen anywhere in the USA.

AP: The exhibition includes unique artifacts,  video clips from the PBS NOVA documentary, “Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” interviews with Hartford-area Holocaust survivors from Lithuania (including Abraham Smolar, Florence Post, and Esia Friedman) as well as a new virtual reality view of the sites we worked on. This is an exhibition which in one place amply tells the story of the greatness of the Vilna Jewish life and culture and the Holocaust in Lithuania all through the work of the students and staff of the University of Hartford and its research partners.


JL: Did you have help in putting together the exhibit, as well as the excavations?

RF: I learned a big lesson about who is interested in our work during my travels promoting the NOVA documentary over the past year. The audience for our work is, in short, everyone. When I showed the “Holocaust Escape Tunnel” NOVA documentary in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Israel, and Lithuania, it was clear that this film created a new interest for future study of the Holocaust in a new way.

We have to thank the University of Hartford for really bringing together so many elements together with our research partners, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Duquesne University, and the corporation, WorleyParsons, Inc. (Advisian Division), Vilnius University, and the Israel Antiquities Authority which brought their expertise and equipment to do the work. We received support from the U.S. Embassy in Lithuania, municipalities in Vilna and Kovno, the Jewish community of Lithuania, the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, survivors of the Holocaust and their children, Targum Shelishi Foundation in Florida, the Foundation for the Shoah in France, and the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center, College of Arts and Sciences and many other sources. Locally, our exhibition is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the interview projects that are so important to the background in the museum is a joint project of Voices of Hope, and a number of local institutions and funders.


JL: Why is the museum’s “hands-on” experience so important to understanding the Holocaust?

RF: We have discovered that the “hands-on” experience both in the field and in the museum can change the way people understand historical events like the Holocaust. The idea that students learn better when they can see it, touch, it and experience it has proven to be a great success for our programs all over the world. Often though, not all students can accompany us to our excavations or study-abroad opportunities in Spain, Greece, Israel, Poland, and Lithuania; so, in this case, our museum brings these places to them! In this exhibition there are real hands-on experiences for the museum goer. The unique elements in this exhibition are the original manuscript of a survivor from the Vilna Ghetto and the HKP labor camp, original documents, and original printed works from the famed Romm publishing company of Vilna. One of the highlights is the cutting edge museum technology that we will have for the first time in a museum setting on Vilna. A VR or virtual reality set up [similar to a video game but for our excavations!] for museum goers to experience just like you are there experience excavations at the Great Synagogue, HKP, visits to the main work sites from this past summer in Kovno and Silute in Lithuania, including a virtual reality of a reconstruction of a wooden synagogue.

AP: This past year alone, with the wonderful assistance of our friends and colleagues at Voices of Hope, we have welcomed over 1,000 students to the new “Hartford Remembers the Holocaust” exhibit in the Museum of Jewish Civilization. Students from Suffield Academy, Southington High School, Canton High School, Bloomfield CREC Metropolitan Learning Center, Meriden High School, Conard High School, Hebrew High School of New England, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford, Fairfield Warde High School (scheduled), and Bridgeport St. James School have visited the museum this year, along with students from the university. Each group has had the privilege of meeting with one of the survivors featured in the exhibit – they will remember the stories they have heard from Margot, Tutti, Rabbi, Ruth, Leon, and Abby. They will share them with others in order to learn from the past and teach for the future.

The exhibit opening and lecture will be preceded The exhibit opening and performance are free and open to the public. Reservations are suggested. Call (860) 768-5018. 

CAP: The Choral Synagogue, Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania, 2017.

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