A Yiddish tour of the Vilna ghetto
I have just watched a fascinating little documentary about Fania Brantovskaya, now in her 90s, who conducts walking tours of old Jewish Vilnius (Vilna) in Yiddish.
Listening to her speak I was vividly reminded of my own grandmother, Pearl, and the recordings my father made of her talking about her life back in Russia. Fania’s intonation, the cadence of her language, mirror almost exactly my grandmother’s speech.
Fania was born in 1922. She had just started university in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Vilna. She tells how two Lithuanian policemen knocked on her door at 6am on 6 September and told her family they had to move into the ghetto, giving them just half an hour to pack.
Fania lived with her parents and sister in a crowded apartment shared with four other families. She points out their three windows, on the middle floor of a large three-storey building. Fania guides us past the hospital, school, theatre and library that continued to function within the ghetto walls. Indeed, the Vilna ghetto was known as the Jerusalem of the ghettos for its intellectual and cultural richness. But death was never far away, with regular deportations from the ghetto to Ponary, now Paneriai, a suburb of Vilnius, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered.
Fania’s father changed her birth date to make her appear four years younger than she actually was, enabling her to avoid the call up to work in the Nazis’ forced labour camps. Instead she joined the United Partisan Organisation that was formed in the ghetto in January 1942 by the poet Abba Kovner, among others, as a means of Jewish self-defence and to sabotage German industrial and military activity.
The partisans smuggled arms, food and medicine, and found ever more ingenious ways of doing so. Chimney sweeps carried guns in false-bottomed cases, while wounded men and women hid supplies in their bandages. Fania worked as a messenger, using the slogan “Lisa is calling,” in honour of a partisan who had died early during the resistance.
After more than two years in the ghetto’s stifling narrow streets, in September 1943 Fania managed to escape to join other partisans living in the forest a two-day march away. She couldn’t have known at the time, but her escape was to precede the liquidation of the ghetto by just a few hours. Fania never saw her family again. They were divided up and taken to different concentration camps across the area, where they perished.
From September 1943 until the end of the war, Fania lived in the forest, where she and her fellow partisans continued their struggle against the Nazis and their local collaborators. They lived in tents and underground shelters dug from the earth, with walls of wooden planks and foliage pulled over for cover, sleeping on pieces of wood covered with spruce branches. They had very little to eat, surviving mostly on grain flour donated by local people and hot water. Some locals would willingly give them food, she says, but others would not. Nevertheless, after two years in the ghetto, Fania says, the forest made her feel like a human being again.
Today Fania works as a librarian at the Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, where she created a collection of Yiddish books. She leads walking tours of the city of her youth, keeping alive the language and memory of her family and the tens of thousands of other Vilna Jews murdered at Ponary and elsewhere.
Fania is one of just two or three thousand Jews living in Vilnius today, a city that had been a major Jewish population centre for over four hundred years. Around 70,000 Jews were resident there by 1941, close to half the city’s population. Through much of its history, Vilna was a hub of Jewish culture and learning. The definitive edition of the Talmud was printed on the Vilna presses, the famous Talmudist Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman—known as the Vilna Gaon—was one of the most authoritative Jewish scholars since the Middle Ages. And YIVO, an organisation dedicated to the study of Yiddish life and language, was founded in Vilna.
After the war, Vilnius became part of the USSR, as capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. I visited in 1989, shortly before Lithuania finally gained lasting independence. Even in Soviet times, the city had a lively and attractive air, but it has changed a lot since then--the historic centre has been restored and a buzzing arts and entertainment culture has taken root. It must be time for a return visit, before Fania and her walking tours are no more.
The documentary, by Edita Mildazyte, can be viewed here:
The tiny settlement of Anatevka is a pretty interesting place. Located just outside the Ukrainian capital Kiev (Kyiv), it is a rare example of a modern-day shtetl, built for Jewish refugees fleeing the war in Eastern Ukraine. It’s also an attempt to revive the Jewish communities and way of life that existed in these parts before they were torn apart by pogroms and, later World War II.
If the settlement’s name sounds familiar, that’s because Anatevka was also the fictional home of the iconic Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s most famous character – Tevye the Dairyman in Fiddler on the Roof. Bizarrely Anatevka has become interesting for another reason too: it is playing an unlikely role in the impeachment story of President Donald Trump.
Anatevka was founded in 2015 by Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev, a large burly man with a bushy beard, and an ardent Trump supporter. In its early days, the nascent village was built almost entirely of wood, as so many Eastern European shtetls were, with a three-storey wooden synagogue including two mikvahs (ritual baths), a residential block with 20 apartments and a shared kitchen. A brick-built school, apartments, a clinic and an orphanage soon followed.
The facilities are built largely by local residents – builders, carpenters and tradespeople who were forced out of their homes by gunfire, rockets and bombing in cities like Donetsk, Lugansk and Mariupol – who earn a small salary for their work. Those without building skills take on other roles like preparing food, working in the school or looking after the synagogue.
Rabbi Azman used his own money and funds raised from private donors to create not just a refugee centre but a living, breathing community based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance – a spiritual as well as physical revival of the shtetl. The village continues to rely on donations, mostly from the US. “I’m in debt to my eyeballs, but I’m not afraid because this is God’s mission. Besides, each day that Anatevka is running is another day that my community lives in dignity. Builds a future. You can’t put a price tag on that,” Azman told The Times of Israel in 2016.
Around 30 families now live in Anatevka, and some 200 pupils attend school there, the majority from Azman’s old community in Kiev. A high fence surrounds the village and entrance is through a brown, metal gate with military guards.
Not everyone here is a practising Jew, indeed several are not Jewish at all but have a Jewish wife or husband. The majority of Jews who fled Eastern Ukraine are secular. “We don’t force anyone to become a practising Jew,” Azman says. But there are rules people must obey if they want to live in Anatevka. In public, all residents must respect the Sabbath and dress modestly, although behind closed doors they are permitted to do as they like.
So how did this tiny Jewish community become embroiled in a political scandal half way across the world? Bizarrely, Anatevka’s honorary mayor is none other than embattled Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani. The settlement found itself at the centre of an aborted effort to get the former mayor of New York to come to Ukraine in May for a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky, then the president-elect, whom he planned to push for investigations that would help President Donald Trump politically.
Giuliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman are board members of the American Friends of Anatevka, a charity raising funds for the village. They allegedly introduced Giuliani to several Ukrainian officials as part of a pressure campaign to convince Ukraine to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden. Parnas and Fruman stand accused of funnelling money, much of it allegedly of foreign origin, into Republican campaigns in the US. Both pleaded not guilty on 23 October to four counts of campaign finance violations in a federal court in New York City and are now awaiting trial.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.