In Lithuania, Jewish Education Resurges

By Shreema R. Sanghvi
Cold Spring Harbor High School
New York

Simon Gurevichius is 15 years old and is a resident of Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuania. He and I started writing to each other while I was working on the Holocaust/Genocide Project and doing e-mail. Since we first started writing, I learned a lot about Simon and his interest in keeping Jewish education alive in Lithuania. Simon attends a school called Mykolo Birziskos and is the only Jewish pupil out of approximately 1,400 students at his school. I asked him what he knew about the Holocaust, and Simon shared with me his feelings about the first time he learned of the Holocaust, "The first time, when I heard about the Holocaust I felt something that I can't explain with words. I was shocked, hurt, confused, and a little bit angry together. After so many years I'm more hurt and shocked, because now I understand that not only did my grandfather's family die, but 6,000,000 Jewish people died too. Now I am asking myself, How could it be? Why were so many Jews killed -- only because they were Jewish?"

[ Ilan Members ]
Ilan Members in Lithuania

This was a question we all are learning about. When Simon explained the Holocaust and its results to his friends at school, they, too, were shocked. They said, "How could Lithuanian kill his friend, Jew?" Nobody had an answer. This caused Simon to create some programs and lesson plans about the Holocaust for his classmates. They have already visited The Jewish State Museum in Vilnius, and Simon hopes that they will be able to learn more. He thinks that his friends will be interested to know about the Holocaust, and he will also include some of the largest historical events that have been affected by genocides.

Simon is a member of Ilan, a group striving to make the Jewish identity stronger in Lithuania. In Hebrew, Ilan means "tree." The tree becomes stronger and stronger, symbolizing the community as new members join. Ilan became a reality about six years ago. Since the Lithuanians were under Soviet control, it was really hard to start a group like Ilan which was illegal. One of the people who made it all possible was Sofija Zibucience. For the past six years, Zibucience has been the director, and since 1989, children have gathered together. Their first priority was to make Jewish identity stronger, and in 1989, the first winter camp was formed with a group of students from Worcester, Massachussets, USA.

This was only the beginning of Ilan, for in 1990, the club had over 50 members. In the summer, Ilan members would go to other countries for special programs and camps. In 1992, they visited Latvia and in 1993, travelled to Estonia. In autumn of 1993, the club became a member of BBYO (B'nai B'rith Youth Organization). In 1994, Simon went to Sweden and in 1995 to Israel for ILSI, the International Leadership Study in Israel. Simon expressed that, "The last camp changed me the most. I learned a lot of new things about Jewish leadership, history and Zionism."

Simon joined Ilan when he was nine and is now one of the young leaders. The group is divided by age: 4-8 years, 9-13 years, 14-18 years. The youngest group participates in art and history programs. The other two groups are learning about history, traditions, and Jewish songs and dances.

"After so many years, I'm more hurt and shocked, because now I understand that not only did my grandfather's family die, but 6,000,000 Jewish people died, too."

Ilan is trying to coordinate Jewish holidays; help the the elderly Jewish people in their community; hold discussions; organize winter and summer camps, and make the Jewish youth in Lithuania stronger. From the end of February to the beginning of March, Simon's lesson plan included a discussion on anti-Semitism, preparation for Purim (a Jewish holiday), and a general discussion. Simon was excited and wrote, "We hope our discussion makes our identity stronger."

In the future, Simon hopes to have a discussion about the Holocaust and the Jewish people. He said that he wants to talk about problems that the Jewish people have had in the past and their present problems: "the most important thing is the cleaning of Jewish memorials all around Lithuania and helping the elderly and invalids of World War II."

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