In 2004, when Ellen Cassedy set out to learn Yiddish by traveling back to Lithuania, she discovered a world beyond the lost language of her deceased relatives.
Because of its sizeable Jewish population prior to World War II, the vanished Jewish community of Vilnius, Lithuania, was once known as the “Jerusalem of the North.” Indeed, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum reports that before the war the Jewish population of Lithuania was 160,000. With 90% murdered, it was one of the highest victim rates in Europe. Yet, unlike other Western European countries, the incorporation of the Baltics into the Soviet Union brought about further upheaval.
Uncovering this history with an intimate, investigative approach, Cassedy explores how the people of this country, Jews and non-Jews, are confronting their past and moving onward. Interviewing locals, uncovering forgotten archives and encountering a strange old man who wants to “speak to a Jew” before he dies, Cassedy weaves together a historical quilt that provides important context. She comes across those who still harbor resentment for the Jews, along with many who helped rescue them.
At numerous points in reading her personal account, one needs to take a breath due to the inherent sadness. One of the most poignant is 79-year-old Steponas, who provides a personal tour of where the killing occurred. Unable for much of it to look her in the eyes, when he finally does, he says, “I have shivers walking through these places.” Most readers will get them, too.