British expat peels layers of Litvak history in Kaunas

Photo: International Centre for Litvak Photography

In its short version, the story of Jews in Lithuania, or Litvaks, goes like this: Lithuania had been home to one of the biggest culturally thriving Jewish communities in Eastern Europe before World War Two, when the invasion of Nazi Germany unleashed the Holocaust, wiping out over 90% of the Jews with the unfortunate help of local collaborators.

Even 75 years after the Nazi invasion, and 26 years after the end of stifling Soviet censorship, Lithuanians still have to come to terms with the part of their 20th century history, one where they are used to seeing themselves as unambiguous victims.

It is equally important to incorporate the Litvak history into Lithuania’s national narrative, says Richard Schofield, a British expatriate who has spent the last 15 years in Lithuania.

“I think 26 years now after independence, we are just turning the corner in Lithuania. And people are starting to do things and talking more openly,” he says. Richard, too, is proposing a small contribution to the debate with a musical composition he envisages to be performed this September when Lithuania will be marking the 75th anniversary of the Kaunas Ghetto.

Although inevitably related to the Holocaust, Richard’s message is that the Litvak history is more than that: it was very much the Jews who brought European modernity to the young Lithuanian state in the 1920s and 1930s. Nowhere are the traces more visible than in Kaunas, which served as the capital of the inter-war republic and is unduly overshadowed by Vilnius as a centre of Jewish life and culture.

“When Lithuania declared independence in 1918, there very very few ethnic Lithuanian architects, or financiers, or bankers. During the ’20s and ’30s, Kaunas was transformed over a period of 20 years from a small village into a modern city, and a lot of that transformation was done by the Litvaks: either as architects, as construction workers, or as financiers,” Richard says.

He himself moved to Lithuania’s second city two and a half years ago (“Vilnius is kinda really fixed in its ways and all the opportunities seem to be in Kaunas at the moment – things happening, ideas going around, a little bit rawer and rougher, like the Wild West.”) and has discovered a rich layer of Litvak history here, quite beyond the usual fare of Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

“The big fabulous 1930s fire station in Kaunas was built by a Litvak company. At least half of the [interwar] architecture has Jewish influence,” Richard says. “There is the brilliant Central Post building, truly iconic. If you go inside and look on your left, there’s a plaque on the wall with the list of all the companies and people who helped construct the building. It’s a really beautiful and simple way of seeing how it used to be here, with Lithuanian, Russian and Jewish names together.”

Kaunas and the inter-war republic play a central role in the Lithuanian national narrative, but unfortunately, he adds, few realize how much Kaunas Jews, who made up almost 30% of the town’s 100,000-strong population, contributed to it.

“There’s a visible Jewish past here, but you have to be an expert to know where it is, because it just looks like everything else. In the 1930s, a lot of Litvaks were studying in Paris and Switzerland, they were playing modern music and they were making modern art, bringing very much of Western influence.”

Richard’s project for the 75th anniversary of the Kaunas Ghetto is meant to highlight the modernity of the inter-war Jewish community in Lithuania. He is cooperating with Ukrainian composer Anton Degtiariov and Lithuanian programmer Rokas Anisas to create the Kaunas Requiem, a musical composition that would take 75 years to perform in its entirety (visit the the project’s crowd-funding page for more details about how it works).

“It’s not a gimmick, its actually quite serious what we’re trying to do. The Litvaks in Kaunas were very contemporary and doing lots of modern things. So one thing that we’re trying to do is to imagine, had the catastrophes of the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation not taken place, what kind of art would the Litvaks be creating in Lithuania today. And this is probably the kind they’d be doing,” he explains.

Richard himself does not have any Jewish ancestry, but became interested in the Litvak history after discovering 111 photographs that were smuggled from the Kaunas Ghetto in 1944. Richard’s NGO, the International Centre for Litvak Photography, has scanned the photos and shared them online so they are preserved for posterity.

“The photographs show people on holiday, having parties with their friends, dressed up in costumes, ordinary life,” he explains. “You wouldn’t know they are Jewish if not for Jewish writing on some of them.”

“Litvak history is Lithuanian history,” he adds.

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