Last month I was in Warsaw. I was on my way home to LA after two weeks traveling with a group of university students through places that Yiddish-speaking Jews once called Lita, Lithuania. Jews from this area are called Litvaks, Lithuanians, they have distinctive dialects of Yiddish, and a reputation as intellectuals, given that Lita was the home of the greatest yeshivas, houses of study, in Jewish Europe.
Today, cities and towns that once belonged to the same Russian province are now separated not only by national borders, but by the border of the EU, which feels like it has re-concentrated all of the displaced energy of the open borders within the Schengen zone. All of the stress of border crossing that has disappeared between, say, Poland and Germany, feels manifested on Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. In order to travel through the places that were part of the largest state in Europe in the sixteenth century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, we now travel between Belarus, Poland and Lithuania, moving between time zones, currencies, alphabets, languages, and the legacy of the Soviet Union and her satellite states.
Exploring creativity in the places where writers and artists lived for centuries. Credit: Yiddishkayt
I am an instructor in The Helix Project, a program that offers students – Jewish and non-Jewish – an opportunity to learn about the rich intricacies, complexities, and variety of Jewish life in Europe in its 1000 year history, focusing on Yiddish culture, literature and daily life in the great blossoming of that culture beginning towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Necessarily we confront the Holocaust, as we face the reality of towns that were once 60-90 percent Jewish and are now 90-100 percent Polish, or Lithuanian, or Belarusian. But we try to contextualize the Holocaust by giving equal attention to the long history preceding it and the history that continues to be written.