FSU Seminar

Vilnius, Lithuania and
Minsk, Belarus

The Hornstein-BGI FSU Seminar is an immersive, transformative learning opportunity for students in their second year of study.

It is carried out in partnership with the Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry and made possible in part with support from the Genesis Philanthropy Group. 

Hornstein students with Dovid Katz, FSU Seminar 2016

Walking with Past and Present:
 A Conversation
 with Dovid Katz

By Sara Miller

!ברוכים הבאים צו ווילנע

B’ruchim haba’im tzu Vilna -
Welcome to Vilnius!

One might be tempted to describe Vilnius as one of the epicenters of Yiddish revival today. Walking through what used to be the city’s Jewish ghetto, every block seems to have a commemorative plaque, statue, or memorial—and most are written in only two languages: Lithuanian and Yiddish.

 Time and again, I wondered to myself as I sounded out the words carved into stone: All this Yiddish, but where are all the Yiddish speakers? It felt to me like the eerie remains of a bygone era. We had met Jews, but we hadn’t encountered any Yiddish-speakers.

Then we met Dovid Katz.

Stepping into his living room, we found ourselves surrounded by shelves upon shelves of old books, mostly leather-bound Yiddish ones. We sat down and he began to tell us the story of Jews in Eastern Europe, beginning about 1,000 years ago. Over the next three hours, he regaled us with stories from the Crusades, to Paganism, to the first Yiddish-language religious works in the 16th century, to the Litvak-Hasidic schism, to the secular-intellectual modern period. He talked about YIVO, the various governments (from 7-10) between World War I and today, to the Holocaust, to the theory gaining popularity today of “double genocide.”

In fact, today, the theory of “double genocide,” that the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazis is somehow historically equivalent in experience to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania post-World War II, is gaining traction in anti-Russian politics. In speaking his mind about the place of the Holocaust in Lithuanian history and collective memory, Dovid has become a “dissident.” Though he grinned at the thought of this label, he explained to us the process by which he transformed from professor to activist, by “being a truth-teller for the Holocaust.”

It doesn’t seem to be an easy road he’s chosen for the life’s work of a Yiddish academician, but his passion for tolerance and truth came through in every word he spoke to us. Not that he’s forsaken his Yiddish revivalist role entirely: he described to us the various dialects of the language as it grew and how it spread throughout and beyond what was once the Pale of Settlement, gave us a map of Litvish Yiddish (with Vilna marked as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”), and described to us his late-night decision to translate the Book of Esther into an obscure Yiddish dialect in time for Purim this year.

In my estimation, Dovid truly embodied the struggle between past and present in Lithuania today. The Jewish community there lives in a world fraught with complicated politics, changing realities, and echoes of a bygone era.

If Lithuanian Jews are living in the space between past and present, what is their future? Dovid believes there will always be Jews living in Vilnius, and I hope he is correct. A city with such a rich and heavy history needs living guardians and storytellers, with the vibrancy and nuance that a modern, revived Jewish community can bring.

Title: גיין מיט פּאַסט און פּרעסענט: אַ שמועס מיט דוד קאַץ

Geyen mit past un present: a shmues mit Dovid Katz