Vilna: Home of My ‘Post-Memory’

This post was written by Dr. Shay Pilnik, the Director of

Emil and Jenny A. Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at

Yeshiva University in New York, NY.

Mariane Hirsch, a comparative literature and memory studies scholar and daughter of Holocaust survivors, coined a loaded and multidimensional term ‘post-memory’. Post-memory perhaps best signifies my relationship with the subject matter of this blog post: the city of Vilna, birthplace of my father Israel and my mother Rachel z”l. According to Hirsch, post-memory “describes the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before.” Put differently, it refers to the way some children of Holocaust survivors get so attached to the experiences of their ancestors that they come to feel, think, and believe that these were their own experiences. Another child of a survivor, Howard Reich, who authored a book transcribing his conversations with Eli Wiesel, articulated it beautifully and powerfully to his cousin Nancy Kennedy Barnett when he said, “the most important event in my life took place a couple of years before I was born.” Nancy, a 2G survivor herself, concurred.

As a Sabra, an Israeli-born Jew, I grew up surrounded by folks from “the Old Country,” by Eastern European Jews, among whom were many Holocaust survivors. To be the grandson of Holocaust survivors in Herzliya in the 1980s and 1990s was not something so unique. But having parents born in the same city was something quite rare. In my case, I had a mother who was born on one bank of the River Neris, the waterway which streams through Vilna’s center, and a father who was born on the other one. The impression this left on my other siblings was somewhat minimal, but for me, this was a great revelation and a source of family pride. From my early childhood, Vilna became a special, magical place, located in both the northern reaches of Eastern Europe and in Neverland at the same time.

This almost-mystical sense of connection gets even more complicated (and interesting), when I think about my family origins. My parents left Vilna, the city that had changed its name from the Polish Wilno to the postwar Lithuanian Vilnius, at the ages of nine and ten when they both made Aliya with my two sets of grandparents in 1957. Vilna was a placename often mentioned at home, and not always in a good context. It was the place where my grandparents rebuilt their lives after the war, returning alongside so many of their peers to homes that were demolished, damaged, or occupied by someone else (often a former neighbor) who saw their absence as an opportunity. Yet my grandparents started their families here amidst the rubble, in the echoing vacancies left by the Holocaust.

Having lost most of their family, a dwindling population of 16,000 – 17,000 Jews settled (or were un-settled) in Vilna after the war. What remained at that point was a shadow of the great Jewish community that had emerged there over the centuries. From the Vilna Gaon and the Talmudic academies that elicited its nickname ‘The Jerusalem of Lithuania’, to the secular Yiddish culture that made the city synonymous with Jewish creativity in the early 20th century, Vilna had been a shining crown in the glories of Ashkenazi life.

By the time my 2G parents came into the world, so little of that cultural glamor has been left in place. The Nazis had done their best to steal the crown, strip it for parts, and melt the gold for their own malevolent profits. And when they were defeated, Vilna fell under vigilant eyes of the Soviets who ensured that Jews no longer enjoyed the freedom to practice their religion or foster their distinct national culture in Hebrew and Yiddish, two modern languages that owed so much in their modern development to the often materially poor yet culturally rich Jews of Vilna and the surrounding towns.

The story of my parents’ upbringing in this version of Vilna was very different. My mother grew up in a more Sovietized, Russian speaking home to parents of a higher class (a peculiar term given the communist claim to have abolished all classes); my father grew up in the humbler parts of town, populated by Jewish refugees living form hand to mouth. Still, their residence in the city came to the same abrupt end. When the first opportunity to do so arose, all four of my grandparents chose to leave the city and immigrate to Israel.

My family history, or, to be more accurate, the way I relate to it, is something that Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations can understand: we are always on the move. Some centrifugal forces propel us to spread all over the world, while opposing, centripetal forces, still pull us together. We always search for new opportunities and destinations, and our lives bring us to places like Milwaukee, Melbourne or Baghdad; yet even when we seem to be totally adrift some miraculous forces still hold us together.

And here I come to perhaps the most curious and fundamental way that I connect to Vilna. While my parents were born there, my grandparents, who rebuilt their lives in that city after the Holocaust, were actually not. Nonetheless, I am tied to the city of Vilna through my not-so-common but also not-extremely-rare last name, as the great-grandson of Leib Pilnik, who was born in Vilna in the late 19th century and moved a few decades later to the Polish town of Holszany (today’s Golshany in Belarus). For what I came to both learn and appreciate as an adult is that no matter where I meet a Pilnik—whether in Israel, Estonia or North Carolina—they would always tell me about a grandpa or great-grandpa, of whom they normally know next to nothing, except that they were born Vilna.

Vilna Jewish QuarterThere is something to that centripetal force that has recently reacquainted me with this city where my parents were born. It does not feel coincidental that one of the first partnerships I led as the director of Yeshiva University’s Emil A. and Jenny Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies was between my institution and Vilnius University. This historic, magnificent place of learning, located in the city’s old town, is not far from the little alley where my mother grew up. Today I get to enjoy meeting colleagues who live in this very neighborhood, ethnic Lithuanians who wish to do their part in undoing the work of the Nazis by remembering, researching and celebrating the city’s Jewish heritage. And we work together, creating opportunities for students from both side of the Atlantic, Jews and non-Jews alike, to study the great Lithuanian Jewish civilization that was so magnificently rendered in this town. A civilization whose memory has been present in my heart since before I was born.

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