It has been six years since a group of children of founders of Temple Beth Israel in Danielson CT rediscovered the synagogue of their childhood and committed themselves to its preservation. I read the news last week about the discovery of the remains of the great synagogue of Vilna, one of the largest, oldest and most beautiful synagogues in the world. It was surrounded by several schools, a mikvah (ritual bath) and the famous Strashun Library. It had been at the center of Jewish life in Vilna.
My mother, Bluma, lived in Vilna from age 12 until the German invasion and occupation when she was 17. She spoke with pride about visiting the Great Synagogue but especially the Strashun Library and reading room. She boasted that while many of her friends were out socializing and doing things that teenagers generally do, she would go to the great reading room, and find books and newspapers and read them. She sat in awe of the great scholars and writers who were regulars in the reading room. Mind you, she barely had a fourth grade education, but she loved reading and had an insatiable curiosity.
I remembered that my dear friend, Ray Gawendo, also lived in Vilna before the war. I immediately emailed the news article and photographs to Ray’s son, Evert who is vice president of the Preservation Society. I asked him to ask Ray if she was ever at the Synagogue and library in Vilna. Evert happened to be visiting Ray at that very moment and emailed me back within a few minutes that Ray did indeed attend the Synagogue, spent time at the Strashun Library and recognized the photographs that accompanied the news article. So Ray and Bluma who didn’t know each other at the time, crossed paths in this beautiful building. Little did they know that their paths would cross again, first under horrific circumstances and later under redemptive circumstances.
In September 1941 Ray and my mother were both forced into the Vilna Ghetto. When it was first created, there were nearly 50,000 Jews jammed into its walled enclosure. They worked as slave laborers in the Ghetto. When the Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, Bluma and Ray were among the few thousand inmates of the Ghetto who survived. After the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated each was sent to different forced labor camps. They emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust, starving, barely alive, alone. Ray found herself at the Landsberg am lech displaced persons camp. Bluma found herself at Fohrenwald camp some twenty seven miles away. Both were near Munich, Germany.
My mother described the reading room of the Strashun Library as a welcome escape from the crowed flat that she shared with two aunts, her mother and two sisters. It was also a respite from the heat and noise of summer in the city. She was in awe of the learning, solemnity and beauty of the place and all that it represented – piety, learning, spirituality, a connection with the long reach of Jewish history going back centuries to when Jews first reached the Pale of Settlement having left the Holy Land and ventured into the Diaspora. While her education in matters of Jewish scholarship was very thin, her love of the spirit and values of Jewish tradition filled her with love and passion and she took great comfort in the images and smells of the great library.
Filled with rabbinical and other works, it was often described as the largest library of Jewish learning in the world and became an important landmark in Vilna. The library was opened to the public in 1892 and in 1901 it was transferred to a house on the shul hoif – the courtyard of the Great Synagogue. Over the years, many volumes were added from estates, authors and rabbis of Vilna.
By the time that Ray and Bluma sat and read in the great reading room, there were over 35,000 volumes lining the shelves. The librarian, Lunsky, who supervised the reading room, was one of the most popular figures in Vilna. The library served journalists, rabbis, students and authors. It was a great meeting place for the great scholars, thinkers and writers of that time. Various scientific circles convened in the building.
It is interesting to note that the founder of the Strashun library was an advocate of the Haskalah movement – the “enlightenment” movement that developed in Europe in the eighteenth century. This movement encouraged European Jews to engage in secular as well as religious study and encouraged “coming out of the ghetto” not just physically but also mentally and spiritually in order to assimilate among Gentile nations. This movement led to greater participation in the cultural practices of the surrounding Gentile population.
Reading about the Great Synagogue of Vilna reminded me of the rich culture and vibrant life that Ray and my mother enjoyed before Germany occupied Poland and destroyed nearly all of Jewish life. Bluma and Ray were teenagers growing up, studying, and coming of age in one of the most cultured cities in the world. Vilna, often called the Jerusalem of Lithuania, was alive with spirituality, scholarship, arts, theater, music, newspapers and political movements.
The “enlightenment” ended with the onslaught of the German army and the beginning of the Holocaust. The Great Synagogue and Library were looted and destroyed in 1941. Part of the library was hidden under a Catholic church in Vilna. Not only were the buildings and books, destroyed but also that culture, that life, all that learning, the history, the solemnity, the beauty, together with two thirds of the Jews of Europe. Not only did they lose their lives, they lost centuries of civilization and culture in a short span of a few years. All destroyed.
Although Ray and Bluma did not know each other growing up in Vilna, they may have shared a table in the reading room. They may have shared a bench in the Great Synagogue. They also may have passed one another waiting in ration lines in the Ghetto or shared a railcar when they were transported out of the Ghetto in September 1943 to their respective forced labor camps.
Ray’s and Bluma’s paths crossed again shortly after they arrived in America. They separately made the acquaintance of Benjamin Miller, the New England agent for the Jewish Agricultural Society. Miller helped Ray’s family and later my family to settle on chicken farms three miles apart in the Killingly Connecticut area. Finally, Ray and Bluma were introduced and soon they sat together in another synagogue, only this time; it was a synagogue that they helped to build. Once again they came to listen to ancient melodies, to learn, and attempt to reconnect with their history and faith. Once again they came to escape, only this time they were seeking relief from the sweat, dust and backbreaking routine of raising tens of thousands of chickens and sorting and packing eggs. At Temple Beth Israel they found peace and quiet and spiritual, cultural and social fulfillment. And when they heard the familiar melodies of the ancient prayers, their thoughts often drifted to the beautiful vaulted ceilings and soaring arches of another great synagogue in a different place and what seemed like a lifetime ago.
Imagine, that after surviving the Vilna Ghetto, and the atrocities of the forced labor camps, and the neglect and indifference of Europe’s Gentile community, Ray and Bluma found themselves in a small, New England town that of necessity, required engagement with the Christian community. Only this time, they were welcomed and supported by their American Christian neighbors.
There was a time when Temple Beth Israel was almost lost. Not by reason of war or hatred, but by indifference. It took the bold vision of Joel Rosenberg, the Preservation Society’s first president and a commitment to preserving the past to save TBI. And while archeologists and historians unearth the great synagogue and library in Vilna, we, Bluma and Ray’s children and the children of the other brave and courageous founders of this beautiful Temple have dedicated ourselves to preserving this Temple and filling it with the stories of its builders. Confident in our Jewish identity, and supported by our Christian friends, we are free to celebrate our ancient traditions and to contemplate how our paths and those of our Christian friends converge.
This year at the High Holidays, we look forward to welcoming the New Year when we will be joined by clergy from four local churches. And we will tackle together the challenges of T’Shuva – turning – self examination – that are central themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We will sit in our Temple and listen again to the ancient melodies. Who knows? Our thoughts might drift to the soaring, vaulted ceilings of the great Synagogue in Vilna and the hushed and rarefied atmosphere of the famous Strashun library that in another time and another world inspired and comforted Ray Gawendo and Bluma Berman.
Norm Berman is president of the Temple Beth Israel Preservation Society. His mother, Bluma, died at age 86 in 2009.
Evert Gawendo is vice president of the Society. His mother, Ray is 101 years old. She is looking forward to joining us at the Temple for High Holiday services.