Often we think of Jewish built heritage in terms of synagogue buildings, mikvaot, Jewish cemeteries, and other sites with religious association. Or Holocaust memorial sites, former ghettos and Jewish quarters, Jewish schools, rabbis’ houses, and the like.
Clean-up operations for such places most frequently take place in the overgrown cemeteries that are scattered far and wide around central and eastern Europe.
In Vilnius, the Jewish community web site reports on a recent clean-up operation in another long-neglected site of Jewish heritage — the building that housed the Jewish library that functioned in the World War II Jewish Ghetto. The building also housed other Ghetto institutions. And, too, it was the center for resistance activities, with hidden areas for secret meetings, firearms practice and more. The head of the library was the activists Herman Kruk, who built it into an institution that loaned out some 100,000 books. He detailed his activities in a diary that was published in English translation in 2002.
Located on what was then Strashun and now Žemaitijos street in Vilna Old Town, the library, called the Mefítsey Haskóle (or Mefitsey Haskolo in Ashkenazic Hebrew), existed prior to the establishment of the ghetto near the historic Jewish quarter, from about 1921. […] The library building … escaped destruction, despite being located on the one street in the ghetto where the armed factions actually fired on invading Estonian SS troops during liquidation.
From 1944 to 1948 the library was the Jewish Museum in Vilna. Later the space was used as a branch of the Vilnius Musical Conservatory, until about 1999.
Since then, the building has mostly been abandoned, full of “debris, garbage and old broken furniture left behind from the Vilnius Musical Conservatory .”
On August 11, the Jewish community reports, a group of young men and women spent three hours on the afternoon clearing up the site, hauling broken furniture and other “detritus” to the trash and cleaning out dust and cobwebs.
It quoted the organizer of the initiative, historian Milda Jakulytė-Vasil of the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum and author of “The Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas,” as saying that the longterm aim “is to set up a Holocaust museum there. So far it’s only a dream, though. Until we are able to accomplish such great things, we want this building to come back to life as a space for events and exhibits.”
(It should be noted that in 2011 the American Wyman Brent established a Jewish Public Library in Vienna, located at Gedimino Prospektas 24).