Lithuanian politicians, dignitaries, and members of the Jewish community on Friday attended a groundbreaking ceremony as construction began on a new museum dedicated to the commemoration of the country’s now extinct Jewish shtetl communities.
Shtetls were small towns with large Jewish populations, which existed in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust. The Lost Shtetl Museum will focus on pre-war Jewish life in Seduva, northern Lithuania, one of dozens of pre-war shtetls that dotted the Baltic state’s countryside.
The Lost Shtetl Museum, a unique 3,000 square meter facility which is expected to open in 2020, is a project overseen by the Šeduva Jewish Memorial Fund, which recently restored an old Jewish cemetery containing some 1,300 grave sites opposite the site where museum will be built.
The museum will be designed by the Finnish company “Lahdelma and Mahlamaki Architects,” which also designed the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The museum’s groundbreaking ceremony on Friday was attended by Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Speaker of Parliament Viktoras Pranckietis, Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevicius, as well as over dozen ambassadors residing in Lithuania, including US Ambassador Anne Hall.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, in remarks read at the ceremony by her adviser, said that the museum’s groundbreaking “heralds the reconstruction of an important part of Lithuanian history closely interlinked with the history of Lithuania’s large Jewish community and its tragic fate.”
“The Lost Shtetl Museum will bring back from oblivion the names and faces of many families, friends and neighbours, as well as their customs and traditions,” Grybauskaitė said.
Faina Kukliansky, the Chair of Lithuania’s Jewish Community, said that beginning construction on the museum “marks an important moment for Jews and all Lithuanians who care about that history cut short by the Holocaust.”
“When we talk about the past of Lithuanian Jewry, we often say that ‘time was merciless’,” said Sergey Kanovich, founder of the Seduva Jewish Memorial Fund and the Lost Shtetl project manager. “But time is not anonymous. We cannot put all the blame and guilt on it. It depends on the here and now. Memory is the responsibility of all of us.”
“Lithuanian Jews and their legacy cannot live only in commemorations and solemn speeches,” he said.
Jews began living in Lithuania as early as the 13th century, and the wider region was an influential heartland of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic Ashkenazi) Jewish tradition.
Prior to World War II, Lithuania was home to more than 200,000 Jews, whose history can be traced back to the 14th century.
Around 195,000 Lithuanian Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators under the 1941-44 German occupation.
Today there are around 3,000 Jews living in the country of three million people.