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Around the Jewish World in Lithuanian Town, Woman’s Dream Helps Students Know Jewish Culture

June 21, 2002
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It’s 2:10 p.m. and the school bell has sounded, leaving most students free to congregate in their usual cliques before heading toward the city center, where they will gossip over a few beers.

Few students want to stick around Saules High School at this hour. But don’t tell that to 15 non-Jewish Lithuanian girls who spend two afternoons a week in a bare, Communist-era classroom learning about a Jewish culture that is all but dead in this tiny Baltic nation.

Jewish life in Plunge, a small town in northwestern Lithuania, came crashing down in 1941 when 2,300 Jews were brutally slaughtered by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Today only one Jew remains in town.

He is Jacob Bunka, the featured guest at today’s gathering of the Circle of Jewish Culture. The students greet him by swaying to their favorite tune.

“Tum ba-la-la, tum ba-la-la, tum ba-la lai-ka!” they sing.

Bunka, 79, knows the words well, but his lips are sealed and his face is a blank stare. Teacher-turned-conductor Danute Serapiniene urges him to sing along.

“I have no words,” Bunka says, out of respect for the more than 225,000 Lithuanian Jews killed in the Holocaust.

Here in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism is still a plague, the existence of a non-Jewish club studying Jewish culture is a rare and refreshing dose of tolerance, especially for a rural area.

It began in 1995 when then-President Algirdas Brazauskas was harshly criticized in Lithuania for visiting Israel’s Parliament and apologizing for his nation’s collaboration in the Holocaust.

Serapiniene, 55, a Lithuanian-language teacher for the past 32 years, was embarrassed but not surprised by the backlash. She always had been bothered by Lithuania’s provincial mentality, she says.

“I never before heard of anyone from this nation being concerned about Jewish culture and history,” says Serapiniene, who remembers playing with Jewish childhood friends. “Somebody had to do it before it was too late. I felt inside of me that I had to do it myself.

“Our students and society cannot forget that for 600 years these people lived, worked, created and died with us,” she says. “I feel the blame for what happened.”

In many Western nations, after-school clubs supplement classroom education. In Lithuania, where high school graduates receive only a few lectures on the Holocaust and state textbooks dedicate less than one chapter to the topic, Serapiniene’s club serves a larger purpose.

“Our teachers are not prepared to teach it,” the energetic woman says. “They do not know what the Holocaust is. When these kids came to me in the ninth grade, they didn’t know the Holocaust.”

The students are primarily driven by curiosity about a seemingly exotic culture.

“It’s important to know that these people don’t die, and they must be in our hearts,” Rita Griguolaite, 16, says of the Jews.

“We wanted to know why they were so discriminated against,” Kotryna Miknakyte, 14, says. “We learned it’s because they were better, compared with most of the people. They were the most talented.”

For Ineta Crocuite, 15, whose grandfather had one Jewish parent, joining the club was more personal.

“It’s very important to know about his relationship with Judaism,” she says. “Before the club I didn’t know so much, but now I know about their life interests, jobs, traditions. Many people say Jews are bad. They even say they catch children and kill them. And I learned it was not true.”

Despite her resolute drive, Serapiniene concedes her students are unlikely to grasp the depths of Judaism. Her mission, instead, is to counter myths deeply ingrained in Lithuania.

Last month, when two children went missing in a small town, the media suspected Jews kidnapped them — despite the fact that the local Jews had been wiped out long ago.

“They really hear some of these tales, but they change their minds when they hear the truth. They believe what I say,” the teacher says with a proud smile. “The only way to soften our guilt is to talk about what our ancestors did, and to never forget what happened.”

After the Brazauskas fiasco, Serapiniene drew up a two-year program for high school students covering the basics of Judaism — holidays, traditions and folklore — and Jewish history in Plunge and Israel.

Her proposal took first place in a national education competition. She was awarded $300, about a month’s wages in Lithuania.

Many folks in Plunge wondered why the club was necessary, but the school principal saw its purpose and approved it.

Eight girls enrolled at first. By 2000 the group had swelled to 26, including three boys, although membership dipped to 15 this year.

That first year, just four years after the fall of Communism, Serapiniene had a tough time finding teaching resources in Lithuanian.

Bunka handed over most of his personal Jewish library, which was in Russian. Serapiniene taught herself the information and then relayed it to the students in Lithuanian.

Today, more Holocaust literature is slowly being churned out in Lithuania.

In 1997 Serapiniene won $625 in another national contest. She used some of the money to send her students to meet the Jewish community in the nearby city of Klaipeda and to visit a site in the capital, Vilnius, where large numbers of Jews had been killed during World War II.

Serapiniene also used the funds to invite the Jewish day school in Vilnius for a joint concert. For most students in the club, it was their first encounter with Jews.

Back in Plunge, club members have read Anne Frank and Franz Kafka. They sing “Hava Nagila” and watch films about Israel.

Each spring they are excused from class for a day to help maintain a memorial to a local mass murder that Bunka erected in the late 1980s.

They discuss news from Israel and often are embarrassed by the way Jewish issues are handled in Lithuania, such as the recent uproar by far-right politicians when Lithuania took some steps to restitute pre-war Jewish property.

Serapiniene gets paid $5 a week for her impassioned work, which barely covers the coffee and sugar she serves students. Last year she had to decline an invitation to an international Holocaust conference at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem because she couldn’t cover travel expenses.

Still, she dreams of having a separate “Jewish room” at the school — with its own television, VCR, CD player and Jewish decorations — where she could move the Jewish books currently in her home. Given Lithuania’s underfunded educational system, however, she’s not getting her hopes up.

“I get tired at times. Lithuania won’t become tolerant very quickly,” she says. “But this is my duty as an intellectual.”

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