There was a time, during the interwar period, when Lithuania was independent (1918-1940), that it could be said that the cities of Jerusalem and Panevežys were closely linked. That was of course due to the important status of the local yeshiva in the heart of the Lithuanian city, which had been established by Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Rabinovich in 1908. Among the students it attracted was my great uncle Rabbi Efraim Zar, whose name I bear. Like all the yeshivot in independent Lithuania, it was closed down by the Soviets, who occupied Lithuania in June 1940, and most of its students and “graduates,” including my great uncle, (and his wife Beyla and two sons Hirsh and Eliyahu), were among the more than 200,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators during the Holocaust.
Despite the tragic fate of so many of the rabbis and students who had studied in Panevežys, that institution was not totally obliterated, since its rosh yeshiva during the years of World War II and afterwards, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman was able to leave Lithuania before the Nazi onslaught and to reestablish the yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael, where it flourished until several years ago, when internal dissension among its leading roshei yeshiva adversely affected its status and renown throughout the Jewish world.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Panevežys for the second time in my life. The first visit was more than four years ago, in the framework of a mission to visit several dozen places where Lithuanians murdered Jews during the Holocaust, a mission which became the basis of the book Mūsiškiai, on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and the ongoing efforts of successive Lithuanian governments to hide or minimize those crimes. My partner on this mission was popular Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, who had previously discovered that her own grandfather and her aunt’s husband had participated in the persecution of Lithuanian Jews, and she was looking for a way to at least symbolically atone for their crimes. Our itinerary was based on our biographies, and since Ruta’s uncle had been the police chief of Panevežys until the end of August 1941, and my great-uncle had studied in the local yeshiva, it was one of the more important stops on our trip. As could be expected, we encountered the usual combination of ignorance and apathy regarding the fate of the community. Surprisingly, the building of the yeshiva was still standing, but none of the people working in the bakery/café which replaced it had a clue about its origin, nor was there a single mention of the Jewish community, which had flourished there for almost 300 years, in the local municipal museum.
Thus, I doubted whether I would ever visit Panevežys again, but a very surprising development spawned a return visit with much more encouraging results. If anyone would have told me that I would one day travel 4,528 miles from Jerusalem to Panevežys to see a play by the local state theater, I would have categorically rejected any such possibility. As the popular saying goes, however, life is full of surprises, and this one was absolutely remarkable. Contrary to the very negative attitude to our book by Lithuanian officialdom, and by large segments of local society, one of the country’s most creative young directors, Arturas Areima, and the artistic director of the theater Andrius Jevsejevas, joined forces to produce a play based on Mūsiškiai, written by promising Polish playwright Michal Walczak.
Thus, I found myself sitting in a theater in Panevežys watching a distinctly avant garde production, which very successfully conveyed the message of our book in three sold-out performances.
The heart of the play revolved around the question of political indoctrination, and the incredible ease with which young people can be brainwashed to adopt the most problematic political ideologies.
Whether the state was occupied by the Nazis or the Communists, but even to this day in ostensibly democratic Lithuania, the dominant trend remains to ignore the Holocaust crimes of local Nazi collaborators, a policy which the play warned could ultimately pave the way for a repetition of those atrocities. The venue of the dramatized events was taken right out of our book, in which we revealed that the site of the very first mass murder of the Holocaust, the Seventh Fort in Kovno (Kaunas), where 5,000 Jews were murdered shortly after the Nazis invaded Lithuania, had been privatized. And contrary to all logic, human decency, and respect for the victims of the Shoah, it was currently being used for Christmas parties, treasure hunts, and even weddings. The play portrays a couple seeking to get married there, little realizing what a Pandora’s box of violence and terror their request will unleash.
I cannot conclude this article without a few personal comments. One is that it was very strange for me to see a young actor portray me, especially since his character was very reserved, calm, and practically docile. The same can be said for the older actress who portrayed Ruta. Perhaps the director wanted to show the audience that we were not the vicious, ruthless and traitorous enemies of Lithuania in the service of Russian propaganda (personally working for Putin) which those opposed to the book and the play constantly claim that we are.
The second remark is that coming to the play gave me an opportunity to correct several mistakes regarding Jewish practices that were part of the drama. Thus, for example, I brought Andrius Mockus, the actor who played me, a nice knitted kipa to lend additional authenticity to his character. And more important, explained to him that the prayer he was saying was not “Shlomo Yisrael, but rather “Shma Yisrael,” and that Jews generally do not pray on their knees like Muslims, but rather sway back and forth.
These personal comments, however, pale in importance to the impressive success of the play in conveying its important message to a society in deep denial of its Holocaust past and the highly significant scope of the complicity of its nationals in the mass murder of their Jewish neighbors. Now, we must hope that this will not remain in Panevežys, but will reach audiences all over Lithuania, as well as abroad, hopefully even in Jerusalem.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the Center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. The English translation of Mūsiškiai will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in March 2020.