EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2016/17
International roundtable seminar. “How to communicate Jewish cultural heritage: the development of Jewish cultural route in Lithuania”
Faculty of History, Vilnius University, 25 – 26 October 2016
Main Organiser: Mrs Jurgita Verbickienė
1. Event rationale
A primary goal of the International roundtable seminar, “How to communicate Jewish cultural heritage: the development of Jewish cultural route in Lithuania,” is to kick-start Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Route with a discussion by academic experts on the best ways to proceed. The results of the seminar will thus provide direct inputs into developing the first steps of the Lithuanian Jewish Cultural Route.
Cultural routes are an important educational, heritage, tourism structure that enables different areas and fields to be connected into a single theme. One of the themes that is encountered widely in Europe is Jewish history, culture and heritage. Therefore, there is a significant history of Jewish cultural routes, perhaps best exemplified by the European Route of Jewish Heritage (http://culture-routes.net/routes/the-european-route-of-jewish-heritage), which is also supported by the European Commission and incorporated in the programme “The Council of Europe Cultural Routes: 2004”. This Route includes many different countries which can be seen in the following website: http://www.jewisheritage.org/web/european-routes. However, their input, experience, and levels of implementation differ greatly: some countries have well established networks, sites, information channels and routes certified by experts, whilst some, such as Lithuania, are only beginning to join the movement.
Therefore, the rationale for this event is based on the needs of Lithuanian partners, who will benefit from the best practices, insights and comments of international experts for the development of Jewish cultural route in Lithuania. The cultural route is a long-standing idea, which is currently being developed rapidly in Lithuania: in late 2015, a judicial body has finally been formed which will implement the main activities of the cultural route. There is therefore a great need for a wide-ranging discussion on how cultural route should look, which aspects of Litvak history and culture should be most actualised by it, and how to use cultural route to improve and enhance educational processes and tourism. The goal of this seminar/workshop is also to discuss cultural routes in a more global, pan-European context, and how they fit the need for a better understanding of Jewish history and culture in Europe. There are some significant relevant examples in Europe, such as the Sephardic cultural route in Iberia, the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and POLIN museum, to name but a few. These examples all presuppose that the cultural routes idea is alive, and the Lithuanian instance could certainly learn from them, and perhaps even offer something new that could be adapted in other areas as well.
The event will attract scientists, historians and heritage specialists, who are able to discuss, consult, and propose ideas that are needed to establish well-functioning, rich in content and places, Jewish heritage routes, which will benefit both the local society and foreign visitors. It is known that Litvak history, culture and heritage are very rich. However, not all of it is fully understood, welcomed, actualized and presented. The experience and knowledge of foreign scholars and local actors will help to form quality proposals for how to deal with Litvak heritage in Lithuania, influence necessary stakeholders, and in general to foster a better understanding of this local community which was important not only for the Lithuanian society, but also global Jewry, European history and culture.
The event is also intertwined with the European Days of Jewish Culture, which will be implemented across Europe on 4 September 2016. It will be a part of a series of events here in Lithuania.
2. Summary of Sessions
The two-day seminar was held in Lithuania on 25 and 26 October, 2016.
The first day of the international seminar was dedicated to visiting three different sites of Jewish heritage, and discussions in situ on their actualization, preservation and inclusion in the Jewish heritage road. Places were selected to showcase a variety of Jewish heritage in Lithuania in order to obtain as complete a picture as possible. Places visited on the first day included:
a) Žiežmariai, which has a unique wooden synagogue, which is currently in the process of restoration. Žiežmariai also has a well preserved urban landscape consisting of a small shtetl, although there are no Jews living there at present. In Žiežmariai we were accompanied by the local municipality mayor, the leader of the municipality investment section. The whole group attended a brief presentation on the factual situation of the preservation process, and municipality plans for using the synagogue in the future. There were on the spot direct consultations on the best ways to preserve the synagogue, the challenges adapting it to certain usage in the current landscape, and its core advantages in the Jewish cultural route in Lithuania.
b) Kaunas, where the whole group firstly visited the 9th Fort museum and its exhibition. We were guided by the museum guide, who explained the development of the museum, and its future ideas and prospects. There was an on-site discussion on how the Holocaust can and should be included in the Jewish heritage trail. After a short lunch break, we visited the Vilijampolė district (also commonly known as Slobodka) in Kaunas. A member of the organizers team gave a brief tour and explained why this district of Kaunas is a special place in the Jewish heritage map and mindset. One of the places visited in Kaunas was famous, the Vilijampole jeshiva building, which today is unused.
c) Kėdainiai. Lastly, and already very much into the night, the team of experts visited the once lively Jewish town of Kėdainiai which now has two fully restored and renovated synagogues in the old town, with one of the buildings used for the local museum. The museum director showcased the museum exhibition and gave a brief tour of the Jewish history and heritage sites in Kėdainiai.
The day was concluded with dinner, where discussions on the visited Jewish heritage sites, their authenticity, and possible touristic usage continued.
The main purpose of the second day was to receive talks on a couple of specific issues from foreign experts, hear the initial vision on the Lithuanian Jewish cultural route, and consider some insights and comments on what should be the priority, what is feasible and what is not, and what are the prospects of the cultural route.
Firstly, we received two presentations from foreign experts:
Dr Samuel D. Gruber, Managing Director of Gruber Heritage Global, gave his insights on the preferences of American citizens, including Jews, towards Jewish cultural heritage in Eastern Europe. The presentation included an analysis of what American (but not only Jewish) tourists want/need, what they should expect, what they are looking for, what is interesting for them, and what is not, and what kind of infrastructure they should expect, as well as other matters.
Marcus Richard Roberts, Director of the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail, gave a presentation on the experience of creating Holocaust trails in sight of England, and its challenges and opportunities. The presentation focused on the difficulties and positive experiences of such a project, how these can benefit the Lithuanian situation, and the main differences that should be addressed.
Those presentations were followed by two additional presentations from the local experts:
Martynas Užpelkis, heritage specialist from the Lithuanian Jewish community, gave his presentation on the status of the Jewish Heritage. He emphasized recently completed projects and highlighted the most important upcoming ones. After the presentation there was a significant discussion on various issues, including the financing models, and preservation and actualization of a couple of different sites, internal and external communication, and so forth.
Associate Professor Jurgita Verbickienė, scholar at Vilnius University, and the director of the Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews, presented the initial strategy of the Jewish cultural route in Lithuania, its possible main topics, thematic roads, main issues, problems and possibilities. This was the main presentation of the event, which was followed by a round-table discussion where all the participants gave their insights and comments on the proposed plan, its validity, possible implementation, the main problems that may occur, and possible solutions to them. All the notes from the discussion were carefully recorded and will contribute to the fully prepared strategy for the Jewish cultural heritage route in Lithuania. Some of the contributions and reflections from the discussion are given in the following section.
3. Summary of issues highlighted during the discussions
The discussions that followed the presentations highlighted the following main issues relating to the development of Jewish cultural route in Lithuania:
- The development of this cultural route should be approached rationally, and separated into different phases and stages. The first stages should involve unique and interesting Jewish cultural sites located near main cities which are easily reached by tourists. Only in the later stages of development should sites from across the rest of the country be added. Cities like Vilnius or Kaunas are important, because they attract more of the foreign tourists who visit Lithuania from different countries.
- There is a need to find a balance between local and foreign tourism. Presenting Jewish heritage to local communities as a part of their own culture and history could help to spread information and knowledge about Jewish culture and heritage in Lithuania.
- Unique material and physical heritage sites such as the wooden synagogues should be a priority in the development of the Jewish cultural route in Lithuania. Narrative stories may be helpful, but only as a secondary option. Also, Jewish cultural route in Lithuania could include more heritage sites related to Jewish religious heritage.
- There is a need for better communication between different Jewish culture and heritage related organizations and communities.
- There is a need to incorporate currently existing local projects relating to Jewish history into the Jewish cultural route.
- Education in schools could involve students in various activities relating to Jewish cultural route. Students could record short clips about Jewish culture and heritage, summarizing the key information, and posting them onto the internet.
Participants in the discussion events included:
Mrs Assumpció Hosta Rebés, General Manager of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ)
Mrs Claude Bloch, Honorary President of the European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage (AEPJ)
Mr Vladimir Levin, Deputy Director of the Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Mr Michael Mail, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage
Mr Marcus Richard Roberts, Director of the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail
Mr Samuel D. Gruber, Managing Director of Gruber Heritage Global
Mrs Jurgita Verbickienė, Vilnius University, director of Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews
Mr Martynas Užpelkis, Chief Heritage specialist in the Lithuanian Jewish community
Mrs Rūta Anulytė, Vilnius University
Mr Aivaras Poška, Vilnius University
Mr Darius Sakalauskas, Vilnius University, project manager of Centre for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews
Additionally, the second event included several members of the Lithuanian association that was created to establish local Jewish cultural route, as they were also participants in the presentations and discussion sessions.
4. Summary of the most significant and productive threads, and the tasks ahead
The round-table discussion, “How to communicate Jewish cultural heritage: the development of Jewish cultural route in Lithuania,” enabled the Lithuanian and foreign stakeholders to evaluate existing practices and deliver proposals on how to develop the Jewish cultural route in Lithuania. The expertise of foreign and local participants resulted in a wide range of comments, tips and reflections, which are already being used in the development of the actual strategy of the Jewish cultural route.
The round-table seminar approach allowed us to identify not only major danger points, but also significant possibilities, critical points and advantages of our cultural heritage, its preservation and actualization. Experts also suggested the most important initial steps in building this cultural route, such as focusing on only one theme in the beginning, and building all additional themes as side projects in the future, forming a permanent scientific advisory board, holding regular meetings with all regular stakeholders, and analysing the Slovakian example as the main reference point. The next tasks after this seminar will be to follow the aforementioned suggestions.
5. Planned outcomes
The following outcomes are planned for the near future:
- A fully finished strategy for the Jewish Cultural Route in Lithuania which incorporates the advice, suggestions and points raised by experts
- In principle establishment of the general theme Jewish cultural route in Lithuania in a specially designated website
- Publication of a touristic booklet
- Repeated international discussions based on the scientific advisory board of the Jewish cultural route in Lithuania
Project manager: Mrs Jurgita Verbickienė
Report prepared by: Darius Sakalauskas (tel. +370 651 90994, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)